A Minor Divergence: Is Genesis 1 Creatio Ex Nihilo?


Does Genesis 1 explicitly (or implicitly) convey the idea of creatio ex nihilo? Paul Copan and William Lane Craig, holding the traditional understanding, believe it does. This article examined carefully the case presented in their co-authored work Creation out of Nothing: A Biblical, Philosophical, And Scientific Exploration (2004). My aim is to test, by fairly balancing the considerations of the core arguments in their apologia, and judge whether that which is contended is true.

Creation out of Nothing is a book filled with nothing but beneficial information. Copan and Craig’s defense for creatio ex nihilo is not only persuasive but also sound when it comes to the areas of philosophy and science (2004:147-266). Their biblical defenses from all passages but Genesis 1 are both strong and cogent (ibid. 71-91). It is only in Genesis 1 where our ways part, like summer and winter. This difference ought not overshadow the large, if not almost all, parts of what I am in total agreement with Copan and Craig.

The Holy Writ explicitly conveys creatio ex nihilo (John 1:3 and Romans 4:17 cf. 2 Maccabees 7:28 and 2 Enoch 24:2). The issue thus is not whether creatio ex nihilo is true. It is true. The issue is whether Genesis 1 also teaches this doctrine. Copan and Craig believe it does (ibid. 70). I do not. My aim is not to persuade you to reject the belief that Genesis 1 conveys creatio ex nihilo per se but to offer an apologia to why I do not believe that it does. In this first part, I will examine Copan and Craig’s understanding of the Hebrew term be-reʾshit (“in the beginning”). The second part will examine their understanding of bārāʾ(“create”). In both cases I found their positions wanting.

Beginning In The Beginning: Point In Time Or Initial Period of Time?

Be-reʾshit elohim bārāʾ the heavens and the earth”(Genesis 1:1 AT). Copan and Craig presented an accurate case both from the Holy Writ and authorities to show why Genesis 1:1 is rightly rendered as: “In the beginning God created the heavens and the earth” (ibid. 36-49). Nahum H. Sarna’s case that Genesis 1:1 ought to be understood as: “When God begun to create”, which does not take Genesis 1:1 as independent sentence and has support from Genesis 2:4 and 5:1 and a similarities from Mesopotamian cosmogony Enuma (“when”) Elish (Sarna 1989: 5) is unconvincing. Here Copan and Craig stand tall.

Where Copan and Craig fall is on their understanding of the words be-reʾshit (“in the beginning”) and bārāʾ (“create”). Their absolute reading of be-reʾshit led them to conclude that “[in the beginning] presents us with a definite or absolute beginning of the universe” (ibid. 38 emp. original). They contended: “We can forcefully say that it just has not been shown that bĕrēʾšîth (“in [the] beginning”) cannot have an absolute sense.”(ibid. 39 emp. original) Be-reʾshit, thus, according to Copan and Craig refer to an “absolute beginning” (ibid. 40).

Copan and Craig would have been correct if the term be-reʾshit referred to the point in time. The problem is it does not. It refers to the initial period of time. They missed this in the very examples, namely Isaiah 46:9-10 and Proverb 8:23, they used. John H. Sailhamer soundly argued the quintessence of be-reʾshit is of period of history rather than a point in history. Sailhamer wrote:

In the Bible the term always refers to an extended, yet indeterminate duration of time not a specific moment. It is a block of time which precedes an extended series of time periods. It is a “time before time.” The term does not refer to a point in time but to a period or duration of time which falls before a series of events. (Sailhamer 1996: 38 emp. org.)

This understanding finds its support in the way the term is used to show the early/former stage of Job’s life (Job 42:12) and also to show the beginning of kings’ reign or kingdoms (Gen. 10:10 “beginning of Nimrod’s kingdom”; Jer. 26:1, 27:1, 28:1, 49:34). John H. Walton concurs with Sailhamer. He wrote:

Most interpreters have generally thought that Genesis 1 contains an account of material origins because that was the only sort of origins that our material culture was interested in beginning. In Hebrew usage this adverb typically introduces a period of time rather than a point in time. We can most easily see this in Job 8:7, which speaks of the early part of Job’s life, and Jeremiah 28:1, which refers to the beginning period of Zedekiah’s reign (Walton 2009: 43 cf: 2011: 132)

Copan and Craig’s examples provide support of this understanding. In Isaiah 46:10 God declared not an absolute “end of time”, but events that are going to happen in the future period of time. It is from ancient times, a period of time before the event unfolds in future period of time, God reveals them to show that He alone is God. Proverbs 8:23 also refer to the period of time, “the ages ago”(v.23a) before the initial period of earthly time.

If it is true that be-reʾshit does not refer to a specific point in time but an initial period of time then Copan and Craig are incorrect in holding that “it just has not been shown that bĕrēʾšîth (“in [the] beginning”) cannot have an absolute sense.”(ibid. 39 emp. original) Genesis 1:1 can be shown to refer to the initial period of God’s creation and not to the point in time in God’s creation. This undercuts Copan and Craig argument that in the beginning convey creatio ex nihilo.

Next: Beginning In The Beginning: Does bārā’ Convey Material or Functional Creation

Sailhamer, J. H. (1996) Genesis Unbound: A Provocative New Look at the Creation Account. Sisters, OR: Multnomah.

Sarna, N. M. (1989). Genesis. Philadelphia: Jewish Publication Society.

Copan, P., & Craig, W. L. (2004). Creation out of Nothing: A Biblical, Philosophical, and Scientific Exploration. Grand Rapids, MI; England: Baker Academic; Apollos.

Walton, J. H. (2009) The Lost World of Genesis One. InterVarsity Press

_____________ (2011) Genesis 1 as Ancient Cosmology. Winona Lake, IND Eisenbrauns Inc

6 thoughts on “A Minor Divergence: Is Genesis 1 Creatio Ex Nihilo?

    • Thanks Crystal. It is very good topic. I fear that we have read much of our modern worldviews into the text and found ourselves defending problems which where not suppose to be there in the first place. E.g. If Genesis 1 is not creation ex nihilo then young earth and old creationism are false.

  1. The Bible is a balance of love and power; grace and justice! The more we know the more we know we don’t know! The fact that we as individual believers approach the Bible differently is not an aspect of unbelief or rebellion but an act of sincere devotion and an attempt to understand so as to incorporate God’s truth into our lives.

    Whether we say that God created the heavens and the earth in the beginning or that he began creating the heavens and the earth in the beginning is not a major distinction of meaning. Either way, the entire physical creation had a beginning. If we include the heavens and the earth as having been created when God began or in the beginning, the end meaning is the same. Before this happened, the physical universe we live in did not exist. After it was created it did exist. In either case, the universe was not made out of pre-existing stuff. Hebrews 11:3 supports this interpretation, when it says that we know that “what is seen was not made out of what is visible.”

    The claim that God created Heaven and Earth matches with science. The accepted scientific explanation for the start of the universe matches the “creation/seven days of creation” narrative in Genesis.


    Science, Common Sense, and Genesis 1:1

  2. I am not confident that Creatio Ex Nihilo is properly grasped. John Tapsell put it simply. As the Eastern Orthodox think of there being a difference between “nothing” and “no thing” I wonder similarly about creation. Could it not be that both science and we Christians are mistakenly using “nothing” as proof and disproof of God.

    • I’m not a Christian, but– typically– the conventional theology of “creatio ex nihilo” is to say that (A) God created everything which was not God (ie, the cosmos), and (B) God did not create the cosmos from his own substance. In Aristotelian terms, this would mean that the cosmos has an efficient cause but no material cause.

      For my part, I’ll disagree with the article’s assertion that John 1:3, Hebrews 11:3, and Romans 4:17 “explicitly” affirm the doctrine of creatio ex nihilo. None of these verse makes explicit mention of creating anything without material cause. Hebrews 11:3, in fact, explicitly states the precise opposite, claiming that everything we see was made from material which is unseen– unseen material is not non-existent. Romans 4:17 says that God can call non-existent things into existence– it does not say that God did this with all things, nor that these formerly non-existent things were brought into existence without a material cause. John 1:3 would seem the strongest support for creatio ex nihilo, but only if you presuppose that creation through Jesus did not utilize the substance of God or Jesus as the material cause– that is, it supports creatio ex nihilo only if you already affirm creatio ex nihilo.

      Beyond that, I’m happy to agree with this article that Genesis 1 does not support creatio ex nihilo. I completely agree on the meaning of “bere’shit,” and I look forward to reading the upcoming article on “bara.”

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