Creatio ex Nihilo: Why We Believe*

Creatio ex Nihilo



In the beginning God created the heavens and the earth. The earth was formless and void, and darkness was over the surface of the deep, and the Spirit of God was moving over the surface of the waters.
—Genesis:1:1-2 (KJV)


It is hard for scientists who are atheists to accept evidence  that there was “nothing” before the universe began, that Creatio ex Nihilo, Creation from nothing, occurred. Why?  Because Creatio ex Nihilo implies the presence of a Creator and that negates atheism.

Indeed, it is hard to wrap your mind around the idea of “nothing.”   If you think of an empty black room, that has space, extension, so it isn’t nothing.  In fact, the concept of Creatio ex Nihilo is not plainly spelled out in the Old  and New Testaments, but only hinted at in a few places.  In this article I want to show how Creatio ex Nihilo became part of Church Doctrine, what we as Catholics believe.  I will also argue that various scientific hypotheses about the creation of the universe conflict with that belief.   When I say “hypotheses,” I mean conjectures—propositions that are not supported by empirical evidence.


What we as Catholics believe about Creation is spelled out by the Catholic Catechism (CC:279-324):

  • Belief in Creation is fundamental to faith;
  • God creates “out of nothing” (ex nihilo);
  • God creates an ordered and good world;
  • God transcends Creation and is present to it;
  • God upholds and sustains Creation.

We believe that God needs no pre-existent thing or any help in order to create, nor is creation any sort of necessary emanation from the divine substance.  God creates freely ‘out of nothing;’ If God had drawn the world from preexistent matter, what would be so extraordinary in that? A human artisan makes from a given material whatever he wants, while God shows his power by starting from nothing to make all he wants.
—Catholic Catechism 296


Whence “Creation out of Nothing”? Where did this originate? The Hebrew for “formless and void” in Gen 1:1 is “tohu-bohu” or “tohu va vo-hu).   A scholar in Hebrew (as distinguished from a Hebrew scholar–this guy was a retired Irish physician) told me that the real translation of “Tohu Bohu”  was topsy-turvy, a mess, confusion. That would be more in accord with notion held by many physicists that Creation arose from quantum fluctuations.

Chaos is not nothing, so again, where did “ex nihilo” come from?   One citation from the Old Testament can be used to justify this:

“I beseech thee, my son, look upon the heaven and the earth, and all that is therein, and consider that God made them of things that were not; and so was mankind made likewise.”
—2 Maccabees 7:28, (KJV)

And in the New Testament:

“By faith we understand that the universe was created by the word of God, so that what is seen was not made out of things that are visible”
—Hebrews 11:3 (KJV)

The first Christian writer to promote the doctrine of “Creatio ex nihilo” was Theophilus of Antioch in the late second century, who wrote:

but then they (the Platonists) maintain that matter as well as God is uncreated, and aver that it is coeval with God. But if God is uncreated and matter uncreated, God is no longer, according to the Platonists, the Creator of all things, nor, so far as their opinions hold, is the monarchy of God established. And further, as God, because He is uncreated, is also unalterable; so if matter, too, were uncreated, it also would be unalterable, and equal to God; for that which is created is mutable and alterable, but that which is uncreated is immutable and unalterable.And what great thing is it if God made the world out of existent materials? For even a human artist, when he gets material from some one, makes of it what he pleases [emphasis added]. But the power of God is manifested in this, that out of things that are not He makes whatever He pleases.
—Theophilus of Antioch, “Letter to Autolycus, Chapter IV”

It’s a long quote but well expressed (note the points taken up in The Catechism). Theophilus was contesting the view of Greek philosophers, Platonists, neo-Platonists, that the universe was eternal, that a demi-urge had created it from pre-existing stuff.   Theophilus’s  theologic cudgel was wielded against the Gnostics by later Christian theologians and fully developed by St. Augustine.


It was St. Augustine who developed arguments about time, that time could have begun with creation, which is a view remarkably in accord with much of modern cosmology.

…no time passed before the world, because no creature was made by whose course it might pass.
—St. Augustine, “City of God book 11, ch.4.”

As Keith Ward puts it,

For Augustine, God brought about time and space as well as all the things that  are in them.   Just as God did not create space at a certain place, but non-spatially caused all places to exist, so God did not create time at a certain moment, but non-temporally caused all time to exist.
—Keith Ward, “Quantum Cosmology and the Laws of Nature”.

Note that Ward’s interpretation above does not require a first moment of time, a “t=0”, although Augustine did accept from Revelation, that the Universe (which to him was much smaller than our conception) had a definite beginning.

St. Thomas Aquinas also contended against the Greek philosophers’ version of Creation. He agreed with Aristotle that creation required a First Cause, which Aristotle called the Prime Mover and which Aquinas called God. However, he believed that only Revelation, not reason, could assert that Creation began at an instant in time:

By faith alone do we hold, and by no demonstration can it be proved, that the world did not always exist … it cannot be demonstrated that man, or heaven, or a stone were not always. Likewise neither can it be demonstrated on the part of the efficient cause, which acts by will. For the will of God cannot be investigated by reason, except as regards those things which God must will of necessity; and what He wills about creatures is not among these, as was said above.
—St. Thomas Aquinas, Summa Theologica, Part I, Question 46.

Even though the world might be eternal, Aquinas maintained that God’s creative agency would be and is continually active, as a Creatio Continua, continuous creation.


I’ve discussed cosmological models for the universe in ESSAY 3, “Creatio ex Nihilo and Cosmology,,,: in the web-book,“Truth Cannot Contradict Truth.” The theological implications of the models are also discussed.  Here are some of the more plausible ones.  (I haven’t listed string theory models; I regard these as more in the realm of mathematical metaphysics, not even in principle susceptible to empirical verification or falsification.  As Peter Woit put it in his book about String Theory, as a scientific theory it’s “Not Even Wrong.”)  Let me emphasize again that there is no empirical  support for any of the propositions listed below.

  1. Quantum fluctuations in the vacuum (Tryon, 1979);
  2. The Hartle-Hawking “No Boundary” Universe (Hartle, Hawking,  1981);
  3. Chaotic Inflation  (Linde, 1986)
  4. The Participatory Universe (Wheeler, 1990)
  5. Conformal Cyclic Cosmology (Penrose, 2006)

The schemes 1-3 and 5 invoke a cause for the formation of this universe that is not God, but some abstract physical entity: 1—quantum fluctuations in a sea of annihilation and creation operators; 2—gravity; 3—”baby universes” formed from random, chaotic inflation; 5—A mathematical transformation (conformal) of coordinates that changes the “Big Crunch” of the prior universe into the “Big Bang” of a successive one.

Wheeler’s Participatory Universe does not explicitly deal with creation of the universe itself; Wheeler proposes as part of his “It from Bit” information theory + quantum mechanics scheme that we create objects, even galaxies observed from several billlion years ago, by observation.  The obvious question then is, who observed the universe to create it?   And the obvious answer is God.


*Τhis article is taken from “ESSAY 3: Creatio ex Nihilo and Cosmology…” in the web-book, “Truth Cannot Contradict Truth.”

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