Tom Gilson

Creation Out of Nothing

From the series, Ten Turning Points That Make All the Difference

God’s work in this world is marked by at least ten crucial turning points, sovereign acts of God that make all the difference for you and for me.

  1. The creation of the universe
  2. The creation of man and woman in God’s image
  3. The Fall
  4. God’s calling of a people for himself
  5. God’s ongoing self-revelation
  6. The Incarnation of Jesus Christ
  7. The Crucifixion
  8. The Resurrection
  9. The coming of the Holy Spirit
  10. The promised return of Jesus Christ

This post begins a new series on these ten turning points.

The Creation
“In the beginning God created the heavens and the earth.” Don’t let the simplicity fool you, or the familiarity, either. This truth really does make all the difference. It is the introduction to an account of creation ex nihilo, out of nothing. God spoke and there was light. He spoke and the earth was formed, and life came to be, and finally human life.

There are at least four creation accounts in the Bible, five if you count Genesis 1 and 2 separately. Besides the Genesis accounts that come most readily to mind, there is also Job 38 through 41, Proverbs 8:22-31, and John 1:1-3, 10. Brief allusions to creation are sprinkled elsewhere all around the Scriptures. They all speak of God’s sovereign and joyful work in making a universe totally distinct from himself, yet totally dependent upon him.

There is considerable controversy even among Christians regarding how and when God did this. In a spirit of mere Christianity, I intend to focus on that which we can agree on; for there is plenty of that, enough to make all the difference. When compared to creation accounts in other traditions and worldviews, the biblical picture is different indeed.

I have written previously of how it differs from other ancient traditions, quoting from page 32 and following of Paul Copan and William Lane Craig, Creation out of Nothing: A Biblical, Philosophical, and Scientific Exploration:

Genesis is quite unlike the Mesopotamian cosmogonies [accounts of the origin of the cosmos], for instance, which are intertwined with theogonies—accounts of the origins of the gods. In them, we are not told so much about how the universe came about—the origin of the worlds is really accidental or secondary in ANE [Ancient Near East] accounts—but how the gods emerged. And in addition to the fact that these Mesopotamian cosmogonies are really concerned with the ancestors of the gods and how they got themselves organized, they do not even identify these gods as creators. So when it comes to the elements of the universe (the waters/deep, darkness), a deity either controls one or is one….

Further, Yahweh simply speaks, thereby creating; in other ANE cosmogonies, deities struggle to divide the waters. Also in Genesis 1, the astral bodies are not gods (as in ANE accounts) but are creations.

Gerhard von Rad makes the powerful point that Israel’s worldview, as reflected in Genesis, drew a sharp demarcating line between God and the world. The material world is purged of any quality of the divine or the demonic….

In Genesis, we read of something marvelously different than in [Ugaritic cosmogony], with its gods and hostile powers (darkness, the waters/the deep): “These cosmic monsters are no longer primordial forces opposed to the Israelite God at the beginning of creation. Instead, they are creatures like other creatures rendered in this story.” Genesis 1 depicts a “divine mastery” over these forces….

In contrast to ANE myths, there are no rivals to the Creator in Genesis [chapter] 1—let alone preexistent matter…. There is no cosmic dualism or struggle at all.

Other ANE religions saw their gods as limited, locked in struggle, constrained by forces outside their sovereign control. Plato’s vision of creation was similar, as was the gnostics’. Contrasted to these and the gods of all other religions, the God of the Bible is Lord of all. There is but one God, not a competing pantheon of deities. He spoke, and the universe came to be. “Wisdom,” personified in the Proverbs, says, “I was the craftsman at his side, I was filled with delight day after day, rejoicing always in his presence, rejoicing in his whole world” (Proverbs 8:30-31a). There is no trace of conflict here; quite the opposite, actually: “the morning stars sang together, and all the angels shouted for joy” (Job 38:7). It was good—very good (Genesis 1:4,10, 12, 18, 25, 31).

The universe God created was and is completely real. In this it differs from the worlds envisioned by other ancient and contemporary Eastern religions. Buddhism (some forms, at least) sees the physical world as maya, illusion. Hinduism and Buddhism both typically see physical reality as temporary and not good, ultimately for us to escape through Nirvana. Judaism and Christianity both, by contrast, see the physical world as enduring in some form, even to the point that (previewing a later entry in this series) believers’ resurrection lives will be lived in physical (glorified, but still physical) bodies.

God’s creation is imbued with meaning and goodness from the beginning. Compare this with modern materialists’ views of reality. Materialism (the philosophical sort) takes it that nothing exists but matter and energy, and their interactions according to law and chance. There’s nothing good there, and nothing bad, either. There’s nothing that even matters, at least not until sentient life shows up in the universe somewhere. As far as we know, that’s less than one one-hundredth of one percent of the history of the universe; and the space that sentient meaningfulness occupies is an astronomically smaller fraction of all that there is. In the grand scheme of things, what meaningfulness there might be (on materialism) is virtually none at all.

And who can tell us how meaningfulness actually showed up here among us humans on this earth? It’s inexplicable. If materialism is true, then our sense of meaning is probably just illusion, as Will Provine, professor at Cornell, tells us it must be. We’re part of a vast impersonal machine, locked in like gears. At least machines have a kind of derived meaningfulness: my car means transportation to me. As for us human machines, well, if that’s all we were, we could only give ourselves and each other meaning; which makes as much sense as our family’s Taurus giving itself and our Camry meaning—none, in other words.

The biblical view of creation is much more profoundly sensible than that. We know that we have meaning. We know that the physical world is real, not illusion. These things are immediately apparent. It takes concerted effort to contradict them on a cognitive level, and on an experiential level, who can even pretend to live as if all were meaningless illusion?

God’s creation is God’s creation. It is the first grand expression of his glory. It is his to delight in, and his to rule. It is our role to delight in it with him, and to live in joyful submission to his rule—and to participate joyfully in his creation. That will be my next topic in this series.

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6 thoughts on “Creation Out of Nothing

  1. Great post!

    There are at least four creation accounts in the Bible, five if you count Genesis 1 and 2 separately. Besides the Genesis accounts that come most readily to mind, there is also Job 38 through 41, Proverbs 8:22-31, and John 1:1-3, 10.

    Also, don’t forget Psalm 104!

  2. I think this is going to be a great set of posts.
    We will get to present core Christian beliefs, and in so doing, challenge the straw men and fallacies and misunderstandings that so characterize the atheists’ and skeptics’ views about what we hold as true.

  3. @Tom Gilson:

    One of the things that continuously strikes me in the depiction of God is His massive, sheer *otherness*: He is outside, above and beyond the whole created order: Isaiah 55:8-11. You have already mentioned the discourse of God to Job “out of the whirlwind”, Job 38-41 (*), but the examples could be multiplied. My favorite is when God “speaks” (I am at a loss to find the exact words to describe this encounter) with the prophet Elijah in 1 Kings 19:11,12. The wind tears up the mountain, but the Lord was not in the wind. An earthquake breaks up the mountain, but the Lord was not in the earthquake. A fire scorches the mountain, but the Lord was not in the fire. The sense of awe, of the majestic *presence* and at the same time the *otherness*, the uncanny strangeness, is overwhelming.

    One regularly hears from the usual suspects that God is jealous, envious, prone to anger, etc. but what are *His* motives, what are the specific *relationships* he establishes with human beings? When Moses stumbles upon the burning bush, the very first thing that God tells him is Exodus 3:5. I am continuously haunted by these very words, “Do not come near, take off your sandals for this is sacred ground”. There is an unbridgeable chasm between Moses and God; it is a difference of kind not of mere degree as it is with the pagan god(s). Genesis 18, on the road to Sodom, one of the most amazing scenes in all of the Bible: Abraham argues with God — Abraham, nothing in himself, who *knows* he is nothing in himself, and yet he will argue with He Who Is, and He Who Is Everything in Himself will allow Abraham to argue with Him — and what does Abraham invoke? Justice. I repeat, Justice. This would be completely unintelligible to a pagan in his specific relationship to god(s), which is one of propitiation, of placating the anger or harnessing the favor. Justice is not a value in the pagan olympus; or as Shakespeare has Gloucester saying:

    As flies to wanton boys are we to th’ gods,
    They kill us for their sport.

    (*) Job’s cry is more, much more than a cry for justice. He cries out for sense, he demands of God meaning, reason, ratio. And how does God answer? With an incessant barrage of unanswerable questions. The commentary on this passage is vast, both theological and literary, but I cannot resist the temptation and will insert here a quote from the literary critic George Steiner in his “Grammars of Creation”, pg. 38:

    I fully believe those who tell us that no translation or paraphrase, not that of Wyclif, of Tyndale, of the Jacobean virtuosos, not Dante’s imitations or Goethe’s, comes anywhere near to the enormousness of the original Hebrew in this text of texts. Such sustained magnitude and unparalleled linguistic inventiveness raise, at least for me, unsettling perplexities about the authorship. Can a man or woman in any dispensation rationally accessible to the rest of us, have ‘thought up’, have found the language for, Job 38-41, a language which empowers Job to see God through an act of hearing?

    From a purely literary point of view, as George Steiner (who has no theological axe to grind) says, the invention of God in the Bible is nothing short of miraculous. The great artists, who after all, are also the greatest of readers, have always known this and that is why the Bible has been the greatest cultural monument of western civilization and the most enduring artistic influence, whether in positively continuing it, whether, in the negative mode, in challenging it and even outright rejecting it.

  4. To me creation is Gods first example of his love. He created the earth and gave Adam the privilege to name everything and to live on it. He loved him more and made Eve. He loved them so much, that even in their sin and the eating of the apple, God sacrificed an animal to make coverings for them. Creation is always refreshing to read about!

    I’m a Christian blogger myself and plan on following you! If your interested, I blog on topics like yours at I hope to see you there!

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