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The Latin phrase ex nihilo means "out of nothing". It often appears in conjunction with the concept of creation, as in creatio ex nihilo, meaning "creation out of nothing" — chiefly in philosophical or theological contexts, but also occurs in other fields.

In theology, the common phrase creatio ex nihilo ("creation out of nothing"), contrasts with creatio ex materia (creation out of some pre-existent, eternal matter) and with creatio ex deo (creation out of the being of God).

The phrase 'ex nihilo' also appears in the classical philosophical formulation ex nihilo nihil fit, which means "Out of nothing comes nothing".

Ex nihilo when used outside of religious or metaphysical contexts, also refers to something coming from nothing. For example, in a conversation, one might raise a topic "ex nihilo" if it bears no relation to the previous topic of discussion. The term has specific meanings in military and computer-science contexts.

In mathematics, ex nihilo can refer to an answer to a question provided with no working, thus appearing to have developed "out of nothing".


History of the the idea of creatio ex nihilo

Ancient Near Eastern mythologies, and classical creation myths in Greek mythology and in the Hebrew Bible envisioned the creation of the world as resulting from the actions of a god or gods upon already-existing primeval matter, known as chaos, often personified in the form of a fight between a culture-hero deity and a chaos monster in the form of a dragon (the chaoskampf motif).

The Greek philosophers came to question this (on a priori grounds), discussing the idea that a primum movens must have created the world out of nothing.

An early conflation of these tenets of Greek philosophy with the narratives in the Hebrew Bible came from Philo of Alexandria (d. AD 50), writing in the context of Hellenistic Judaism. Philo equated the Hebrew creator-deity Yahweh with the primum movens in Plato in an attempt to prove that the Jews had held monotheistic views even before the Greeks.[citation needed] A verse of 2 Maccabees (a book written in Koine Greek in the same sphere of Hellenised Judaism of Alexandria, but predating Philo by about a century) expresses a similar idea:

"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)

The Church Fathers from the 2nd century seized upon this idea[1] and developed it into the idea of creation ex nihilo by the Christian God. Church Fathers opposed notions appearing in pre-Christian creation myths and in Gnosticism - notions of creation by a demiurge out of a primordial state of matter (known in religious studies as chaos after the Greek term used by Hesiod in his Theogony).[2] Jewish thinkers took up the idea,[3] which became important to Judaism, to ongoing strands in the Christian tradition, and - later - to Islam.

Theological usage


Approaches favoring ex nihilo creation

Biblical citations

Some verses from the Christian Bible cited in support of ex nihilo creation by God include:

  • "All things were made by him; and without him was not any thing made that was made."
    John 1:3
  • "... even God, who quickeneth the dead, and calleth those things which be not as though they were."
    Romans 4:17
  • "And base things of the world, and things which are despised, hath God chosen, yea, and things which are not, to bring to nought things that are"
    1 Corinthians 1:28
  • "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."
    Hebrews 11:3
  • "My son, have pity on me; I carried you nine months in the womb and suckled you three years.... I implore you, my child, observe heaven and earth, consider all that is in them, and acknowledge that God made them out of what did not exist, and that mankind comes into being in the same way. Do not fear this executioner, but prove yourself worthy of your brothers, and make death welcome, so that in the day of mercy I may receive you back in your brothers' company."
    2 Maccabees 7:27-29 Jerusalem Bible

Logical approaches

Not all ex nihilo thought specifies a divine creator.

A major argument for creatio ex nihilo, the First cause argument, states in summary:

  1. everything that begins to exist has a cause
  2. the universe began to exist
  3. therefore, the universe must have a cause

Another argument for ex nihilo creation comes from Claude Nowell's Summum philosophy that states before anything existed, nothing existed, and if nothing existed, then it must have been possible for nothing to be. If it is possible for nothing to be (the argument goes), then it must be possible for everything to be.[4]

Other support for creatio ex nihilo belief comes from the idea that something cannot arise from nothing; that would involve a contradiction (compare ex nihilo nihil fit). Therefore something must always have existed. But (this account continues) it is scientifically impossible for matter to always have existed. Moreover, matter is contingent: it is not logically impossible for it not to exist, and nothing else depends on it.

Ancient Greek speculation

Some scholars have argued that Plethon viewed Plato as positing ex nihilo creation in his Timaeus. Eric Voegelin detects in Hesiod's chaos a creatio ex nihilo.[5]

Islamic views

Several Qur'anic verses explicitly state that God created man, the heavens and the earth, out of nothing. The following quotations come from Muhammad Asad's translation, The Message of the Quran:

  • 2:117: "The Originator is He of the heavens and the earth: and when He wills a thing to be, He but says unto it, 'Be' - and it is."
  • 19:67: "But does man not bear in mind that We have created him aforetime out of nothing?"
  • 21:30: "ARE, THEN, they who are bent on denying the truth not aware that the heavens and the earth were [once] one single entity, which We then parted asunder? – and [that] We made out of water every living thing? Will they not, then, [begin to] believe?"
  • 21:56: "He answered: 'Nay, but your [true] Sustainer is the Sustainer of the heavens and the earth - He who has brought them into being: and I am one of those who bear witness to this [truth]!'"
  • 35:1: "ALL PRAISE is due to God, Originator of the heavens and the earth, who causes the angels to be (His) message-bearers, endowed with wings, two, or three, or four. He adds to His creation whatever He wills: for, verily, God has the power to will anything."
  • 51:47: "It is We who have built the universe with (Our creative) power; and, verily, it is We who are steadily expanding it."

Arguments against ex nihilo creation

Opposition within the Christian theological tradition

Believers within the Judaeo-Christian tradition can cite Genesis 1:1 as evidence for Divine creation out of nothing. The quotation, in (for example) the King James Version English-language translation, reads: "In the beginning God created the heaven and the earth."[6] However, this translation fails to capture the inherent ambiguity in the Hebrew, which might translate with equal validity as "In the beginning God created...", and as "When God began to create...the earth was a formless void",[7] implying that God worked with pre-existing materials.

A widely accepted 20th-century translation of the Hebrew text by the Jewish Publication Society offers:

When God began to create heaven and earth, and the earth then was welter and waste and darkness over the deep and God's breath hovering over the water, God said, "Let there be light." And there was light. And God saw the light, that it was good, and God divided the light from the darkness...

interpretable as the use of pre-existing materials, opposed to creatio ex nihilo.

Gen:1:8-9 also says:

Let the waters under the heavens be gathered together so that dry land will appear

again showing pre-existing materials (the deep exists, prior to God beginning to create heaven and earth, and also land exists (as opposed to earth.)[8][9][10]

Thomas Jay Oord (born 1965), a Christian philosopher and theologian, argues that Christians should abandon the doctrine of creation ex nihilo. Oord points to the work of biblical scholars, such as Jon D. Levenson, who point out that the doctrine of creatio ex nihilo does not appear in Genesis. Oord speculates that God created our particular universe billions of years ago from primordial chaos. This chaos did not predate God, however, for God would have created the chaotic elements as well.[11] Oord suggests that God can create all things without creating from absolute nothingness.[12]

Oord offers nine objections to creatio ex nihilo:

  1. Theoretical problem: One cannot conceive absolute nothingness.
  2. Biblical problem: Scripture – in Genesis, 2 Peter, and elsewhere – suggests creation from something (water, deep, chaos, etc.), not creation from absolutely nothing.
  3. Historical problem: The Gnostics Basilides and Valentinus first proposed creatio ex nihilo on the basis of assuming the inherently evil nature of creation, and in the belief that God does not act in history.[citation needed] Early Christian theologians adopted the idea to affirm the kind of absolute divine power that many Christians now reject.[citation needed]
  4. Empirical problem: We have no evidence that our universe originally came into being from absolutely nothing.
  5. Creation-at-an-instant problem: We have no evidence in the history of the universe after the big bang that entities can emerge instantaneously from absolute nothingness. As the earliest philosophers noted, out of nothing comes nothing (ex nihilo, nihil fit).
  6. Solitary power problem: Creatio ex nihilo assumes that a powerful God once acted alone. But power, as a social concept, only becomes meaningful in relation to others.
  7. Errant revelation problem: The God with the capacity to create something from absolutely nothing would apparently have the power to guarantee an unambiguous and inerrant message of salvation (for example: inerrant Bible). An unambiguously clear and inerrant divine revelation does not exist.
  8. Evil problem: If God once had the power to create from absolutely nothing, God essentially retains that power. But a God of love with this capacity appears culpable for failing to prevent genuine evil.
  9. Empire Problem: The kind of divine power implied in creatio ex nihilo supports a theology of empire, based upon unilateral force and control of others.

A few early Jewish and Christian theologians and philosophers, including Philo, Justin, Athenagoras, Hermogenes, Clement of Alexandria, and, later, Johannes Scotus Eriugena made statements that seem to indicate that they did not hold to the concept of the creation-out-of-nothing. Philo, for instance, postulated pre-existent matter[13] alongside God.

Process theologians argue that humans have always related a God to some “world” or another.[citation needed]

Some also claim that rejecting creatio ex nihilo provides the opportunity to affirm that God has everlastingly created and related with some realm of non-divine actualities or another (compare continuous creation). According to this alternative God-world theory, no non-divine thing exists without the creative activity of God, and nothing can terminate God's necessary existence.

Joseph Smith, founder of the Latter Day Saint movement, dismissed creation ex nihilo, and introduced revelation that specifically countered this concept.[14][15] The Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints teaches that matter is both eternal and infinite and that it can be neither created nor destroyed.[16] Latter-day Saint apologists have commented on Colossians 1:16 that the "Greek text does not teach ex nihilo, but creation out of pre-existing raw materials, since the verb ktidzo 'carried an architectural in to build or establish a city....Thus, the verb presupposes the presence of already existing material.'"[17]

While the idea of God everlastingly relating with creatures may seem strange, even its opponents in Christian history – like Thomas Aquinas – admitted it as a logical possibility.[citation needed]

Cosmological arguments

Physicists Paul Steinhardt (Princeton University) and Neil Turok (Cambridge University) offer an alternative to ex nihilo creation. Their proposal stems from the ancient idea that space and time have always existed in some form. Using developments in string theory, Steinhardt and Turok suggest the Big Bang of our universe as a bridge to a pre-existing universe, and speculate that creation undergoes an eternal succession of universes, with possibly trillions of years of evolution in each. Gravity and the transition from Big Crunch to Big Bang characterize an everlasting succession of universes. However, this view does not take into account[citation needed] the problems of infinite regression.

Scientific issues

Creation ex nihilo appears to violate the principle of the law of conservation of mass-energy.

In the early part of the twentieth century, Albert Einstein (1879–1955) demonstrated that matter and energy represent two forms of the same "thing". He showed that - at least in the universe as it currently exists - matter can change into energy and that energy can change into matter, as expressed in his equation E=mc squared (1905). See conservation of mass and conservation of energy.

Computer science

Some computing environments use the tag ex nihilo to describe various techniques for creating data structures or objects. In prototype-based programming languages, a programmer sets up an object "ex nihilo" if it does not use another object as its prototype.[18]

Military organization

A unit raised ex nihilo forms without the use of significant components from other units. Thus, when a military authority sets up a unit composed entirely of personnel transferred as individuals from other units, one can speak of raising ex nihilo. Alternatives to this method, (also known as "cutting a unit from whole cloth") include expanding a skeleton (cadre) unit, assembling a large unit from components taken from other units, and the splitting of an existing unit into two or more skeleton units for subsequent filling out with additional personnel. German-speakers call this last-named method "calving" (das Kalben). French-speakers refer to it as "doubling" (dédoublement), but only, as the name suggests, when forming two new units on the framework of one old one.

See also


  1. ^ May, Gerhard (2004). Creatio ex nihilo [Creation from nothing]. Continuum International. p. xii. ISBN 9780567083562. Retrieved 2009-11-23. "If we look into the early Christian sources, it becomes apparent that the thesis of creatio ex nihilo in its full and proper sense, as an ontological statement, only appeared when it was intended, in opposition to the idea of world-formation from unoriginate matter, to give expression to the omnipotence, freedom and uniqueness of God." 
  2. ^ May, Gerhard (1978) (in German). Schöpfung aus dem Nichts. Die Entstehung der Lehre von der creatio ex nihilo [Creation from Nothingness: the origin of the doctrine of creatio ex nihilo]. AKG 48. Berlin/New York: de Gruyter. p. 151f. ISBN 3110072041. 
  3. ^ Siegfried, Francis (1908). "Creation". The Catholic Encyclopedia, volume 4. New York: Robert Appleton Company. Retrieved 2008-09-30. "Probably the idea of creation never entered the human mind apart from Revelation. Though some of the pagan philosophers attained to a relatively high conception of God as the supreme ruler of the world, they seem never to have drawn the next logical inference of His being the absolute cause of all finite existence. [...] The descendants of Sem and Abraham, of Isaac and Jacob, preserved the idea of creation clear and pure; and from the opening verse of Genesis to the closing book of the Old Testament the doctrine of creation runs unmistakably outlined and absolutely undefiled by any extraneous element. "In the beginning God created the heavens and the earth." In this, the first, sentence of the Bible we see the fountain-head of the stream which is carried over to the new order by the declaration of the mother of the Machabees: "Son, look upon heaven and earth, and all that is in them: and consider that God made them out of nothing" (2 Maccabees 7:28). One has only to compare the Mosaic account of the creative work with that recently discovered on the clay tablets unearthed from the ruins of Babylon to discern the immense difference between the unadulterated revealed tradition and the puerile story of the cosmogony corrupted by polytheistic myths. Between the Hebrew and the Chaldean account there is just sufficient similarity to warrant the supposition that both are versions of some antecedent record or tradition; but no one can avoid the conviction that the Biblical account represents the pure, even if incomplete, truth, while the Babylonian story is both legendary and fragmentary (Smith, "Chaldean Account of Genesis", New York, 1875)." 
  4. ^ Ra, Summum Bonum Amen (2004) [1975]. "Chapter 2". SUMMUM: Sealed Except to the Open Mind. Salt Lake City: Summum. Retrieved 2006-12-15. 
  5. ^ Moorton, Richard F (2001). "Hesiod as Precursor to the Presocratic Philosophers: A Voeglinian View". Retrieved 2008-12-04. "First, says Hesiod, there came to be Chaos, and then Earth, Tartarus (which Voegelin curiously neglects in his account), and Eros. For Voegelin this is a creatio ex nihilo, which points the finger of questioning towards the yet undifferentiated beyond. If he is right, the Greek philosophers who followed were unanimous in retreating from this seeming violation of the principle of sufficient reason to the principle that ex nihilio nihil fit.[sic]" 
  6. ^
  7. ^ Coogan, Michael (2001) [1973]. "Genesis". The New Oxford Annotated Bible (3 ed.). Oxford University Press. p. 11 HB. ISBN 9780195284782. Retrieved 2009-11-23. 
  8. ^ Alter, Robert (2004). Robert Alter. ed. The five books of Moses: a translation with commentary. Norton. pp. 1064. ISBN 9780393019551. 
  9. ^ Alter, Robert (1997) [1996]. Genesis: translation and commentary (reprint ed.). W.W. Norton. pp. 324. ISBN 9780393316704. Retrieved 2009-08-12. 
  10. ^ Fox, Everett (1995). The five books of Moses : Genesis, Exodus, Leviticus, Numbers, Deuteronomy ; a new translation with introductions, commentary, and notes. New York: Schocken. ISBN 0805240616. 
  11. ^
  12. ^ Keller, Catherine (2003) Face of the deep: a theology of becoming Routledge p. 240 ISBN 9780415256490 Retrieved 2009-10-04 "Thomas Jay Oord has advocated an 'open theology' that 'embraces the hypothesis that God did not create the world out of absolutely nothing, i.e., ex nihilo. [...]' Matching Theology and Piety: An Evangelical Process Theology of Love', PhD dissertation (Claremont Graduate University, 1999), p. 284." 
  13. ^ Wolfson, Harry Austryn (1976). The philosophy of the Kalam. Structure and growth of philosophic systems from Plato to Spinoza. 4. Harvard University Press. pp. 779. ISBN 9780674665804. Retrieved 2010-02-25. "It can be further shown that Philo and some of the Church Fathers who have adopted the Platonic theory of creation out of a pre-existent matter made that matter to have been created out of nothing [...]" 
  14. ^ Doctrine and Covenants 93:29; Doctrine and Covenants 131:7-8; Abraham 3:24
  15. ^ Creatio ex nihilo - FAIRMormon
  16. ^ "Gospel Topics: Creation". Gospel Library. The Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints. Retrieved 2009-01-08. "Creation Under the direction of Heavenly Father, Jesus Christ created the heavens and the earth (see Mosiah 3:8; Moses 2:1). From scripture revealed through the Prophet Joseph Smith, we know that in the work of the Creation, the Lord organized elements that had already existed (see Abraham 3:24). He did not create the world "out of nothing," as some people believe." 
  17. ^ Creation in Colossians 1:16 - FAIRMormon
  18. ^

Suggested reading

  • Thomas Jay Oord, Science of Love: The Wisdom of Well-Being (Philadelphia: Templeton Foundation Press, 2005), especially chapter 2.
  • Jon D. Levenson, Creation and the Persistence of Evil: The Jewish Drama of Divine Omnipotence (Princeton, N.J.: Princeton University Press, 1994; New York: Harper & Row, 1987).
  • Sjoerd L. Bonting, Chaos Theology: A Revised Creation Theology [Ottawa: Novalis, 2002].
  • Huchingson, James Edward (2001). Pandemonium tremendum : chaos and mystery in the life of God. Cleveland, Ohio: Pilgrim Press. ISBN 0829814191. 
  • David Ray Griffin, "Creation out of Chaos and The Problem of Evil" in Davis, Stephen T., ed (2001) [1981]. Encountering Evil: Live Options in Theodicy (new ed.). Louisville, Ky: Westminister John Knox Press. ISBN 066422251X. 
  • Keller, Catherine (2003). Face of the deep: a theology of becoming. Routledge. ISBN 9780415256490. Retrieved 2009-10-04. 
  • Lodahl, Michael E. (2001). "Creation out of Nothing? Or is Next to Nothing Enough?". in Stone, Bryan P.; Oord, Thomas Jay. Thy nature and thy name is love: Wesleyan and process theologies in dialogue. Nashville: Kingswood. ISBN 0687052203. 
  • Theissen, Gerd; translated by John Bowden (2007) [1987]. The shadow of the Galilean: the quest of the historical Jesus in narrative form. Minneapolis, MN: Fortress Press. ISBN 9780800639006. 


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