|Creation Ex Nihilo and the Bible|
According to Mormonism, creation ex nihilo (out of nothing) is not to be found in the Bible and is untrue: God created the universe out of matter that pre-existed, and ex nihilo creation is a invention of the apostasized post-Apostolic church. Within Mormon documents, the clearest statement of this doctrine is not found in any of the Standard Works, but in a quasi-official statement made by Joseph Smith upon the occasion of the funeral of fellow Mormon King Follett:
Now I ask all who hear me why the learned men who are preaching salvation say that God created the heavens and the earth out of nothing. The reason is they are unlearned...God had materials to organize the world out of chaos, chaotic matter, which is element, and in which dwells all the glory. Element had an existence from the time He had. The pure principles of element are principles that can never be destroyed, they may be organized and reorganized but not destroyed.
Our questions for consideration are as follows:
What does the Bible teach concerning creation ex nihilo? Christians today hold firmly to the doctrine of ex nihilo creation, although admittedly, it is not explicitly taught in the Bible: there are only broad hints that are compatible with it.
In his book Know the Truth , Bruce Milne stands with this view: "While the actual phrase 'out of nothing' does not appear, the idea is clearly taught in the Bible (Gn. 1:1f; Ps. 33:6; Jn. 1:3; Rom. 4:17; 1 Cor. 1:28; Heb. 11:3)."
This view, and the view of Gerhard May, is our own: Creation ex nihilo "corresponds factually with the Old Testament proclamation about creation," even though it does not appear explicitly in its pages. [May.CEN,xi -- However, given the way that May's work is cited by popular LDS apologists, one might never know about this distinction he makes.]
On the other hand, the LDS position is more problematic, for it mrely assumes that, because there is no explicit outline of an ex nihilo creation, but a very explicit expression of creation using chaotic matter, that the idea that matter is eternal wins by default. But one will not find an explicit statement to that effect in the Bible any more than one will find an explicit statement that matter was created by God from nothing, and the sort of broad hints that we have in support of ex nihilo are decidedly not found for the idea of eternal matter.
Where did the doctrine of creation ex nihilo come from? The LDS of course attribute this idea to apostasy, although curiously, it is not the Hellenists in the church who are blamed this time around. We shall see that ex nihilo was, in fact, a notion that grew out of normative Judaism. (LDS writers will naturally observe that Judaism itself was apostate at the time indicated, but we will see in other essays that this supposition is problematic.)
What does the evidence indicate beyond what the Bible teaches? It is clear that creation ex nihilo is the only sensible alternative that passes the test of logic. Eternal matter is a logical impossibility.
Matter Eternal? Resolving the "Contradiction"
2 Peter 3:5 For this they willingly are ignorant of, that by the word of God the heavens were of old, and the earth standing out of the water and in the water...
This is one of several citations from the Bible and from contemporary Jewish sources which state that God "created" the world using primordial elements. No Christian would dispute these, but with such passages LDS apologists take an unwarranted leap in logic. Mormon apologists merely assume that this primordial matter was eternal and thus conclude that creation ex nihilo is false (which ignores that Peter has a specific reason, the parallel to the Flood, for starting with the primordial waters as a reference).
Griffith [Grif.1L, 72] quotes the LDS scholar Keith Norman as saying that the "water" referred to by Peter "apparently has an independent existence, however shadowy."
The "shadow" here is dissolved by the sunlight of direct scrutiny: There is no indication here that the "water" has an independent existence of its own.
Similarly, Bickmore [Bick.RAC, 103] writes of the "seemingly contradictory language" found in Jewish intertestamental literature and in the New Testament, some of which points towards creation from preexistent matter, some of which point towards ex nihilo creation. He concludes, in attempting to reconcile such passages, that, "To these ancient writers 'existence' meant organized existence, and 'non-existence' meant chaos." [ibid., 104]
But as we will see, many of the passages in question are ambiguous, and may equate non-existence with chaos; on the other hand, it is far from clear that the equation is not simply non-existence meaning just "non-existence."
The problem with finding the doctrine of ex nihilo unambiguously formulated is that the concept of "nothing" is very difficult to quantify. Just as some societies took a long time coming up with a symbol for zero, so it seems Jewish and Christian thinkers took some time trying to quantify ex nihilo.
Even in modern language, "made out of nothing" is often said as though "nothing" were a "thing" that things can be made out of. A person who is asked to think of nothing will not be able to actually do so: they will generally think of a blank background, which is actually something. Copan [Cop.CEN] cautions wisely against the error in thinking that this can lead to:
Nothingness has not co-existed from eternity with God. "Before" the creation, God was all that there was -- there was no empty space or a dark void or non-existence...
Ex nihilo, on the contrary, expresses the idea that God made the world by mere will of having it appear, without any use of pre-existent materials. Young is correct to say: "At the commonsense level, to speak of making something 'out of nothing' tends to turn nothing into something." [Youn.CE] This is why we are unable to say with certainty that the citations we will examine below, even though they speak of creation from "nothing," may in fact not be statements of ex nihilo. We are just not sure whether "nothing" really means "nothing at all." As Goldstein notes: "the Platonists called pre-existent matter 'the non-existent'." [Gold.CEN]
For this reason, some of the citations offered by Copan favoring creation ex nihilo are not as persuasive as they appear to be. For example, he cites 1QS 3:15 from the Dead Sea Scrolls as saying: "From the God of Knowledge comes all that is and shall be. Before ever they existed He established their whole design, and when, as ordained for them, they came into being, it is in accord with His glorious design that they accomplish their task without change."
This statement can be interpreted as teaching ex nihilo -- but, it may not teach it. When the writer says that things "come" from God, and when he speaks of them existing, does he mean that they "came" from nothing, that they are considered to "exist" only as final forms? We simply don't know.
The question of the origin of the doctrine of ex nihilo requires a study of Biblical as well as various non-Biblical Jewish texts. We will consider the texts in their presumed historical order.
Genesis 1:1-2 In the beginning God created the heaven and the earth. And the earth was without form, and void; and darkness was upon the face of the deep. And the Spirit of God moved upon the face of the waters.
This passage brews a storm of controversy over a single word that is rendered here as "created": the Hebrew word bara. Does it indicate ex nihilo creation? Griffith [Grif.1L, 72] quotes Norman as saying that although bara:
...is usually reserved in the Old Testament for God's activity in forming the world and all things in it, synonymous terms and phrases scattered throughout the Hebrew scriptures take the force out of any attempt to use this fact as evidence that ex nihilo creation is being described in Genesis 1...Luis Stadelmann insists that both bara and yasar carry the anthropomorphic sense of fashioning, while 'asah connotes a more general idea of production.
What is said here is true, but it is far from the complete story. It is true that bara is usually reserved for God's activity: Stadelmann [Stad.HCW, 5] describes it as "a technical term designating God's creative activity," noting that "the subject of (bara) is exclusively God himself." Stadelmann also adds:
By analyzing God's efficient causality as well as his active control manifested in the world-order as a whole and in each of its aspects and details we find that (bara) expresses, together with its basic meaning of creating, the idea either of novelty or of an extraordinary result. Moreover, since (bara) is the term par excellence for God's creative activity, it is only natural that it also implies the idea of his effortless production by means of his powerful word without any help of outside intervention.
The verb bara therefore has no explicit connotation of ex nihilo; and yet, that it is linked only with the creative power of God suggests that something more than use of preexistent matter is in view. (Indeed, the quote Griffith lifts from Norman appears to rather distort what Stadelmann actually says. It is only after noting these things that Stadelmann describes the meanings of yasar and 'asah, and he hardly "insists" upon anything -- he merely describes what the words mean, and despite the tone of Norman's report, in saying that "both bara and yasar carry the anthropomorphic sense of fashioning, while 'asah connotes a more general idea of production" Stadelmann in no way detracts from the uniqueness of bara.) What that may be is not specified, but creation ex nihilo is not excluded, much less is eternal matter implied.
Thus Matthews: "It is an unnecessary leap to conclude that the elements in v. 2 are autonomous, co-eternal with God and upon which he was in some way dependent for creation." [Matt.Gen, 141] Indeed, the fact that eternal matter is not indicated is in itself significant in the context of creation accounts, for as Sarna notes, "Precisely because of the indispensible importance of preexisting matter in the pagan cosmologies, the very absence of such mention here is highly significant." [Sarn.Gen, 5]
Thus we conclude with Von Rad: "It would be false to say...that the idea of creatio ex nihilo was not present here at all (v. 1 stands with good reason before v. 2!), but the actual concern of this entire report is to give prominence, form, and order to the creation out of chaos..." [VonR.Gen, 51] And Matthews adds: "The declaration of v. 1 without any intimation of competing preexisting matter is so distinctive from its ancient counterparts that we must infer that all things have their ultimate origin in God as Creator." [Matt.Gen, 129]
In a more recent treatment [Cop.CEN2, 38ff] Copan and Craig offer another argument for understanding Gen. 1:1 in support of ex nihilo, having to do with the specific grammar of Gen. 1:1. The question is whether 1:1 is to be read in a temporal sense, or an absolute sense. If the former, Gen. 1:1 permits (but does not prove) the possibility of pre-existent matter. If the latter, it in no way permits such a thing.
Here are their points on the matter:
Proverbs 8:24 When there were no depths, I was brought forth; when there were no fountains abounding with water.
Within this verse, Copan argues, there lies a significant clue that matter is not eternal, or at the very least, if it is, that it is not to be identified with the waters of Genesis 1:1-2. The word "depths" here is tehowm, the same word used of "waters" in Genesis. The indication of this passage would be that there was a time when the waters did not exist. [Cop.CEN]
However, other commentators note that the tehowm referred to here are the earth's oceans, in line with the references to earth's other geographical features (mountains and hills) in verses 24-25. It is therefore possible, but unlikely, that this passage indicates creation ex nihilo.
Copan and Craig [Cop.CEN2, 65ff] suggest that ex nihilo is implied otherwise in the OT by passages like Is. 44:6, which speak of YHWH as the "first and the last". Such phrases imply that YHWH is the "ultimate originator and only eternal being".
We now move outside of the Bible and into the time between the testaments. Here we find what some regard as the first true reference to creation ex nihilo:
2 Maccabees 7:28 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.
Even some LDS apologists understand creation ex nihilo to be described here, but other commentators disagree. Goldstein finds the terminology ambiguous. [Gold.2Mac, 307-8] Young follows the explanation of Gerhard May that this is "a paraenetic reference to God's power, implying no more than that the world came into existence when it was previously not there...God could conceivably bring into existence 'things' which do not exist before, without such language excluding a pre-existent 'stuff.' " Young also points to May's comparison to a passage in Xenophon's Memorabilia in which there is "a reference to parents bringing forth their children 'out of non-being.' "
Here we run into the very problem we have outlined above: an ancient writer who says "nothing" may not actually mean "nothing". He may mean, "not in a viable form" as Xenophon does. This citation is therefore not useful for defending the doctrine of creation ex nihilo, though Copan and Craig [Cop.CEN2, 96] note that scholars tend to think that it is a clear assertion of ex nihilo creation. They add  that given the stress on God's soverignty, any idea of pre-existent matter would compromise this message.
Copan and Craig add some more intertestamental and later Jewish cites as evidence [100ff]: Jubilees implies ex nihilo creation in that it says God "created" the waters -- the alleged primordial matter. The Jewish book Joseph and Asenath says God "created all" ; as they note, the "sweeping comprehensiveness is difficult to avoid".
Finally, for example, the Jewish historian Josephus clearly understands Gen. 1:1 in terms of an absolute creation.
Romans 4:17 (As it is written, I have made thee a father of many nations,) before him whom he believed, even God, who quickeneth the dead, and calleth those things which be not as though they were.
Romans 4:17 is one of the leading New Testament verses supposed to teach ex nihilo creation, and a few commentators consider it to be indirect evidence of the doctrine. Mormon apologists disagree and offer their own interpretations. Hopkins alleges that translators who work on this verse have wrongly "assumed that the passage is talking about the method of God's creation. But the literal wording of the Greek text does not address the issue of creation at all." Rather, he tells us [Hop.HGP. 293]:
The word-for-word translation is, "God, the (one) making live the dead, and calling the things not being as being."...To understand this expression, one must remember that Paul's letter was addressed to the Romans, a highly Hellenized society in his time. It must also be noted that the word "being" was a term of art in Greek philosophy. It had a specific meaning in Greek metaphysics. "Being" was the word the Platonists used to describe that portion of the metaphysical universe they considered the only true reality...Everything else was "not being" or "becoming." That which was "not being" comprised the sensory universe perecived by Men as reality, but believed by the Greek philosophers to be an illusion.
This passage...is actually giving the Lord's view of metaphysics. What the literal wording would say to a Hellenized audience is that God declares "the things not being," i.e., the sensory universe that the Greeks thought of as an illusion, as "being," i.e., the universe they believed to be reality. The Hellenized Romans of the time were being told that the God of Abraham, who raises the dead, declares that the sensory universe is reality.
Hopkins’ exegesis fails to account for some significant problems, the most serious of which is that the church at Rome was comprised in the main of Jewish converts and of Gentile converts to Judaism who then became Christians -- not "highly Hellenized" people.
Far more serious, however, is a contextual problem. Where is the place here for a statement on metaphysics? The context of this verse is the promise to Abraham to become "the father of many nations," a promise fulfilled at first through Isaac. The passage goes on to say:
And being not weak in faith, he considered not his own body now dead, when he was about an hundred years old, neither yet the deadness of Sarah's womb: He staggered not at the promise of God through unbelief; but was strong in faith, giving glory to God; And being fully persuaded that, what he had promised, he was able also to perform.
The "dead", then, who were "quickened", were Abraham and Sarah; the thing which was "called" which "was not as though it were" refers to the declaration that Abraham and Sarah will have heirs, despite their infirmities. Where is there room here for a metaphysical statement about the nature of reality in opposition to Hellenism?
Hopkins is improperly bringing into this verse the uncommon philosophical usage of a very common Greek word ("being"), where the word is being used by a non-philosopher (Paul), in the context of a non-philosophical discussion, and speaking to people who aren't thinking in the way that is supposed at all.
Romans 4:17 is not, indeed, a verse with the issue of creation at its core, but creation does stand in the shadow of it. The premise that God has the power to affect the material universe, to the point that He is able to declare what will or will not exist, suggests a broader context that by extension means that God has the power to create things ex nihilo. However, it does not directly state that the universe was created ex nihilo.
Colossians 1:16 For by him were all things created, that are in heaven, and that are in earth...
This is one of several cites in which God is said to be the Creator of "all things", and some have deduced that this naturally includes primordial matter. Griffith, however, reduces the force of such cites by noting that the Greek verb used, ktidzo, "carried an architectural connotation...as in 'to build' or 'establish' a city....Thus, the verb presupposes the presence of already existing material." [Grif.1L, 73]
Nevertheless, this family of verses (which includes Rom. 11:36, Eph. 3:9, Rev. 4:11) leads to an obvious question. If God "created" all things, then "all things" includes primoridal matter. Even granting the architectural connotations of ktidzo, what, then, did God use to build primordial matter? We may run down the scale and propose even smaller bits of primordial matter, and the pattern will repeat itself. It is at this point that we encounter the philosophical and logical problems of rejecting creation ex nihilo -- an issue we will delve into in the final section of this essay.
Hebrews 11:3 Through faith we understand that the worlds were framed by the word of God, so that things which are seen were not made of things which do appear.
This is the second most popular verse used to support the idea of ex nihilo in the New Testament. Once again, however, Hopkins (Who believes that this verse, like Romans 4:17, is a refutation of the Greek view of the universe; but once again, Hopkins must reconstruct the nature of the audience, and fit the passage into the assumption that a Greek metaphysical point is being refuted that has nothing to do with the context.) disagrees. He writes that this verse does not teach ex nihilo, but rather [Hop.HGP, 293-4]:
(This verse) could be seen as a confirmation of modern scientific views that visible matter is composed of particles too small to be seen by the naked eye.
One may ask whether the ancient readers of this passage would have gotten some sort of point about microscopic particles. Is this the kind of thing the writer of Hebrews would expect his readers to understand?
To be preferred here is the analysis of Lane, who shows that this verse is a polemic against notions prevailing in Platonism and in the Alexandrian Judaism that the author of Hebrews came out of, that the primordial material was a visible mass. This does not equate automatically with ex nihilo, for as Lane points out:
...(T)he clause is a negative assertion; it denies that the creative universe originated from primal material or anything observable. It does not make an unambiguous affirmation of creation out of nothing.
The doctrine is thus at best affirmed negatively [Cop.CRE2, 81], leaving a burden on those who claim that ex nihilo is indeed unbiblical. But now, as we leave the Bible once again to examine Jewish extra-biblical literature, we encounter a truly unambiguous reference that teaches this doctrine.
BR 1.9, Th-Alb:8 A philosopher said to R. Gamiliel: Your God was a great craftsman, but he found himself good materials which assisted him: Tohu wa-Bohu, and darkness, and wind, and water, and the primeval deep. Said R. Gamiliel to him: May the wind be blown out of that man! Each material is referred to as created. Tohu wa-Bohu: "I make peace and create evil"; darkness: "I form the light and create darkness"; water: "Praise him, ye heaven of heavens, and ye waters" -- why? -- "For he commanded, and they were created"; wind: "For, lo, He that formeth the mountains, and created the wind"; the primeval deep: "When there were no depths, I was brought forth".
Our final cite of interest is a complex and curious one. In this fifth-century passage, the second-century Jewish rabbi Gamiliel II is depicted answering a philosopher's charge that God was "assisted" by certain materials in creation, by citing in each case a place in the Old Testament where a given material is said to have been created by God. Could we have here a clear statement of ex nihilo creation? May believes that we do. [May.CEN, 23]
Winston on the other hand thinks that we do not, for several reasons. [Wins.Pre, 32]
First, he notes that other rabbis expressed a belief in creation out of primordial matter. However, this is hardly problematic, for as Goldstein notes, "(Gamiliel’s) views on points of law were not universally accepted either. Rabbis could differ on weight issues of theology." One might suggest that Gamiliel II was simply the first one recorded to think the matter through.
Second, Winston insists that the account must be interpreted in a different light: "What bothered the rabbis were the Gnostic heresies that insisted on multiple creative powers." These materials, thus, are to be understood as representative of those creative powers, and Gamiliel is objecting to a suggestion of polytheism, not to eternal matter.
But Winston's response is far from persuasive. It is not clear, first of all, that the philosopher in question is a Gnostic. As Goldstein observes, he "could have been a Jewish Greek, for his interpretation of Gen. 1:2 was also given by Philo, and even by the Christian, Justin." [Gold.CEN2] Beyond that, the very text bespeaks a "Gnostic reaction" explanation:
The philosopher compares God to a painter working with pigments...the pigments enter only as material use by the Painter. Nothing in the text suggests that the pigments have will and power. Winston stresses that the verb 'help' is ambiguous and can refer to active powers as well as inactive instruments. The ambiguity of the verb is unimportant because the nouns are unambiguous: we deal here with a Painter and with pigments. The passage can only be a protest against the doctrine of creation from pre-existent matter, not a protest against a theory that other active powers participated with God in creation.
We therefore argue, with Goldstein, that the response of Gamiliel II offers a clear and unambiguous affirmation of creation ex nihilo. (Goldstein adds that it is unlikely that a later view was assumed upon Gamiliel, given that (as Winston points out) other rabbis are not depicted as offering the same view, as would have happened had someone arbitrarily put the doctrine in Gamiliel’s mouth long after the fact.) The significance of this will be discussed in our next section.
It is interesting that Winston, after offering this reasoning, seems to acknowledge that this argument by Gamiliel II is a true statement of ex nihilo creation, yet he appears to try to lessen its importance by saying that it "came only under the impact of a polemic with someone who was a Gnostic. In the context of such a confrontation, it would only be natural for R. Gamiliel to counter with the notion that even the apparently primordial elements to which the Gnostic ascribed a dynamic cosmogonic function were created by God."
But this is exactly what we would expect to happen. It is only when the necessity to answer the question, "Where did the matter come from?" arises that the need to formulate a doctrine of creation ex nihilo becomes essential.
Curiously, in a work co-authored by two chief LDS apologists, the reader is referred to Goldstein's first article, with the notation that Goldstein considers the cite of Gamiliel to be "unequivocal" evidence of an ex nihilo doctrine. The reader then is told, "But see the reply by Winston," with no critical evaluation at all. Goldstein's strong response to Winston is not mentioned, although it had been available for quite some time. See Peterson and Ricks, Offenders for a Word, 96.
Creation from Nothing, From Nothing?
We have seen that creation ex nihilo emerged in the context of Judaism, and in response to a pressing question about creation. Now since the LDS assert that matter is eternal, they must argue in turn that creation ex nihilo came out of an apostasy; but since the Greeks also believed that matter is eternal, the LDS must admit that the doctrine did not come from the "usual" apostasy and find another source for it. Bickmore attempts an explanation thusly [Bick.RAC, 100]:
Perhaps in a misguided attempt to give more glory to God, Christian philosophers of the late second century discarded the early Christian and Jewish idea of creation from chaos in favor of the theory of creatio ex nihilo, as formulated by the Gnostic philosopher Basilides. According to Hatch, this theory penetrated the Christian community through Tatian in the second half of the second century...
The idea that matter is eternal is clearly stated in the works of Plato, and indeed, some early Christian writers went as far as suggesting that Plato borrowed the idea from Genesis. [Cop.CEN, 82-3 -- Copan lists Justin Martyr, Basil of Caesarea, Gregory of Nyssa, and the Jewish writer Philo as thinkers who interpreted the Bible in light of Plato in deciding that it taught that matter was eternal. Ironically, Justin and Philo are two of the most-often vilified names when the Latter-day Saints try to pin down who was responsible for the church's apostasy.]
Of course such confusion and inconstancy of thought is not altogether impossible. Nevertheless, LDS apologists like Bickmore must explain away this inconsistency in any attempted reconstruction of the social history of the Christian church, and it can only make such a reconstruction more difficult to formulate (and, in our view, less believable).
What, then, of the actual origin of the idea of creation ex nihilo? Some suggest, in agreement with Bickmore's analysis, that it was part of a response to the dualistic idea that matter was evil, inferior, or resistant to God's actions. Winston, for example, argues that "the concept of creation ex nihilo formed no part of Greek philosophical thought nor of Jewish Hellenistic or rabbinic thought" and first explicitly appears in second-century Christian literature "under the impetus of the Gnostic challenge" and on the grounds "that creation out of an eternal primordial element would compromise the sovereignty of God." [Win.Pre, 25 -- Other studies on this issue see Basilides' ideas as being parallel to, and independent of, the church's adoption of the doctrine. "...(N)o influence whatsoever on church theology can be discerned...(it is) parallel to, not a step towards, the church teaching of creatio ex nihilo." -- May.CEN, 180]
Goldstein, as we have seen, refutes the argument that creation ex nihilo was not found in rabbinic thought, and has raised the proposition that the doctrine arose out of a need to explain how resurrection bodies could be re-composed when their original decomposed matter had presumably been scattered to the winds. Gold.CEN, Gold.CEN2 -- . The evidence Goldstein adduced for this view, he later admitted, following a response by Winston, to have misinterpreted: See David Winston, "Creation Ex Nihilo Revisited: A Reply to Jonathan Goldstein," Journal of Jewish Studies 37 (1986): 88-91, and Goldstein, "Recantations."
Rather disturbingly, however, Bickmore summarizes the exchange between Goldstein and Winston in a way that can only be described as disingenuous. In reference to Goldstein as one who maintains that creation ex nihilo "originated within Judaism," Bickmore merely writes: "After a debate with David Winston, Goldstein admitted that his position was weak."
Goldstein admitted that his line of reasoning concerning an origin for the doctrine was weak; he did, however, resoundingly reaffirm his position that the doctrine is found in the Gamiliel passage, and as we have seen above, refuted Winston's contentions about that passage. One is certainly compelled to ask why Bickmore has summarized the interchange in a way that suggests that Goldstein offered a complete surrender.
Through each of these ideas, there runs a certain core which is undoubtedly true: Regardless of for what reason it came about, the doctrine of ex nihilo probably did emerge as a "defensive" measure. It was a response to some question that was asked, and if we want to know why it took so long to formulate, the answer is that the need to do so did not arise until the Judeo-Christian tradition confronted the questions that required it. "...Jewish thought was preoccupied with the God of the cosmos rather than with the cosmos itself, with the creatio rather than the ex nihilo." [Cop.CEN 84] It would take time before either Jews or Christians could finish the "what" and concern themselves with the "how."
But the real question is not who came up with idea, and whether it came from the mouth of a heretic, a rabbi, or a believer, but whether or not it is Scriptural, or compatible with Scripture, and actually true. We have seen that creation ex nihilo is neither scriptural nor unscriptural, so we must now turn the second question: Is it true?
Out of the Bible
Having concluded our examination of the Bible, and finding that there are only broad hints of, but no explicit reference to, ex nihilo creation; but also absolutely no indication, not even broad hints, that matter is eternal, what is left to be done to determine one way or another whether this doctrine is true? The issue involves many philosophical points which are beyond our general scope, but we will briefly consider the central philosophical proof for creation ex nihilo.
The classic theistic argument for creation ex nihilo is known popularly as the First Cause argument. Simply put, everything that happens requires a cause, leading back to the principle of a first, "uncaused" cause in the person of God. A key aspect of the First Cause argument is the premise that it is impossible to traverse an infinite distance. Since this is true, the universe must have had a beginning, for if the universe had in fact an infinite existence, today would never take place!
Popular Mormon apologist Richard Hopkins attempts to engage this issue logically, but ironically, in so doing, he falls into a "Hellenistic" trap. His answer to the problem of traversing an infinite is as follows [Hop.HGP, 401-3]:
Modern mathematics has shown that the finite and the infinite are not so far removed from each other as the ancient Greeks supposed...the number of points on a line of finite length, say two inches, is infinite regardless of the length of the line. That is because a point is infinitely small, at least in theory.
Hopkins goes on to apply this argument to time, thusly:
Any finite period of time, like any finite distance, can be divided into an infinite number of infinitesimal time segments (usually designated "dt" in calculus)..an infinite number of dt can have a distinct beginning and a definite end.
Hopkins applies this argument indirectly to the classical theistic argument for creation ex nihilo, approaching it from the issue of whether God exists inside or outside time and concluding that there is no problem with crossing an infinite distance.
However, Hopkins' argument is one that was discovered -- and refuted -- quite a long time ago, and ironically enough, his argument has as much of a Hellenistic "root" as the concepts of God and eternity that he so roundly criticizes. Hopkins' arguments are a re-formulation of the famous motion paradoxes of Zeno the Greek philosopher (c. 490-430 B.C.). Zeno presented the idea that motion was an illusion (and that the "real world" was illusory and false) by giving the example of a race which covers a certain amount of territory. The runner first covers half of the territory, then half of what remains, then half again of what remains, and so on, never reaching the end of the race because he is continually "splitting the difference" between the remaining distances.
This is called an antimony of infinite divisibility. But Zeno, and Hopkins, fall to the same error, which is the failure to distinguish between a potential infinite and an actual infinite. J. P. Moreland distinguishes between an actual and a potential infinite in a way that Hopkins does not [More.ScSy, 22]:
...(A) potential infinite is always finite. A potential infinite can increase forever and it will never become an actual infinite. Adding one more member to a finite set, no matter how often this is done, will simply result in a larger finite set.
Hopkins' examples of a line, and time, fail on the same point. He has not distinguished between these "infinites" and the actual infinite that would be involved in a universe in which matter was eternal. The idea of eternal matter therefore remains, in spite of Hopkins, a logical impossibility.
It appears that Hopkins is unclear on exactly what classical theists say that a universe with a beginning would imply: "If one were to identify a beginning in real space-time, the question would have to be asked, 'What happened before that?' or 'What's on the other side of that?' The answer would always be 'more time' or 'more space.' " [Hop.HGP, 185] This is simply not the classical theistic view. There is no "before" for there is no time; there is no "other side" for there is no space. For a discussion of this philosophical aspects of the issue, see William Lane Craig, "God, Time, and Eternity," Religious Studies 14 (1978): 497-503, and Thomas D. Senor, "Divine Temporality and Creation Ex Nihilo," Faith and Philsophy 10 (January 1993): 86-92.
Hopkins, however, is not alone in defending the LDS viewpoint. A Mormon analysis of this problem by Blake Ostler, made in response to Christian philosophers Francis Beckwith and Stephen Parrish, offers this reply [Ost.MCG]:
Now this argument consists of a mistaken view that all infinities must be equal and expresses a mere prejudice against an actual infinite-and nothing more. Once one grasps the intricacies of infinite set theory (which the authors have apparently failed to do) there is nothing contradictory in unequal infinities. This conclusion may be strange or even exciting, but not incoherent.
The fallacy is that, as the mathematician Cantor has elegantly shown, not all infinite sets must be equal. Cantor bids us to consider two infinite but unequal sets, the set of all ordinal numbers and the set of all even numbers. The coherence of infinite sets that are unequal can be demonstrated by pairing members of each set in a one-to-one correspondence. Even though both sets are infinite, the set of even numbers is only half as large as the set of ordinal numbers. (Beckwith and Parrish) acknowledge a coherent mathematical theory in which infinities are not equal, but they object that a mere coherent theory of infinite numbers does not mean that there could actually be an infinite collection in the real world (pp. 66-67). Yet their claim is precisely that the notion is logically "incoherent." How can they admit such coherence and yet claim that unequal infinities cannot occur in the actual world? If the notion is logically coherent, then there is a possible world in which it can obtain. The further question as to whether an infinite collection actually exists is not an issue of logic but of empirical evidence-and they offer no evidence that such infinities are impossible in the actual world.
What Beckwith and Parrish actually "acknowledge" is that "it is possible for mathematicians to talk coherently about infinite sets" [Beck.MCG, 66] -- just as it is possible to talk coherently about two and two making five; yet this is hardly something that is logically possible.
Beyond that, the attempt to demonstrate that infinite sets can be somehow "unequal" is little more than a shell game, literally. Consider these progressions that would appear in the theoretical sets of "all ordinal numbers" on one hand, and the set of "all even numbers" on the other:
[...1, 2, 3, 4, 5, 6...]
[...2, 4, 6, 8, 10, 12...]
Are there really part of two "unequal yet infinite" sets as Ostler supposes? Not at all. The second set merely substitutes different symbols to express the same concept. Ostler argues that these sets are now both infinite, yet unequal. But if a magician changed the members of the first set into oranges, and the members of the second set into apples, will the sets be infinite yet unequal?
Of course not. The second set merely uses symbols which represent quantities which are double that of the symbols in the first set; and yet the quantity of members of the two sets is still equal, as can be proven by enumerating the members of the sets:
[...1 (1 member), 2 (2 members), 3 (3), 4 (4), 5 (5), 6 (6)...]
[...2 (1 member), 4 (2 members), 6 (3), 8 (4), 10 (5), 12 (6)...]
Put it this way: The members of the second set are nothing more than the members of the first set wearing different outfits.
I'll add here that Ostler either misreports or misunderstands a number of Beckwith and Parrish’s points. For example, Beckwith and Parrish originally respond to an argument against an actual infinite that Ostler describes thusly:
Several different versions of the argument designed to show that an actual infinite is impossible are given by the authors. The first version is roughly that it is impossible to traverse an infinite number of days, for no matter how long one were traveling, one would still only have traveled a finite number of days. Since the universe began "an infinite number of days ago," it could never reach the present. Unless one can reach an "infinite number of days ago" the universe cannot be infinitely old .
However, this type of argument commits the (rather obvious) logical fallacy of composition. It assumes that the first day in an infinite set must have the same properties as the infinite set of days, that is, that some day is the "infinitieth day." There is no such thing as a day which occurred an "infinite number of days ago" simply because there is no such thing as the "infinitieth day." The same fallacy is committed when a person asserts that a large crowd of people must be a crowd of large people-and that also is clearly false. It is also like saying there cannot be an infinite number of integers unless one of them is the "infinitieth" integer-which is clearly wrongheaded. Thus one who believes that the universe is infinitely old does not assert that one of those days was the infinitieth day which occurred an infinite number of days ago. Rather, any given day occurred a finite time ago even though there is an infinite set consisting of days during which the world has existed. There simply is no first day, so the argument is invalid.
The first paragraph is a misleading description of the basic argument. Beckwith and Parrish do not argue that the universe began "an infinite number of days ago"; they argue that the Mormon position requires that the universe had no beginning, and that the infinite time prior to the present could never have been traversed so that the present is reached. Ostler is either misunderstanding or grossly misrepresenting the argument.
I can now add that Cantor has also been misused by Ostler. An argument like Ostler's "misconstrues the nature of both Cantor's system and modern set theory, for the argument does not in fact contrasict a single tenet of either....Cantor's system and set theory may be taken to be simply a universe of discourse, a mathematical system based on certain adopted axions and converntions." [Cop.CEN2, 201] It is not meant to argue for the actual existence of an actual infinite.
One may perhaps argue justly that there is nothing in the Bible that indicates a belief in creation ex nihilo, but one will assuredly not find the teaching that matter is eternal. Where the Bible is silent or ambiguous, there is no fault in applying universal principles and logic, and these principles -- which are not merely the province of Hellenism -- lead to the conclusion of ex nihilo creation.
Some sources are not listed here; they may be found listed in other articles in this series.