Creatio ex nihilo

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Tree of Life by Eli Content at the Joods Historisch Museum. The Tree of Life, or Etz haChayim (עץ החיים) in Hebrew, is a mystical symbol used in the Kabbalah of esoteric Judaism to describe the path to HaShem and the manner in which he created the world ex nihilo (out of nothing).

Creatio ex nihilo (Latin for "creation out of nothing") is the doctrine that matter is not eternal but had to be created by some divine creative act.[1] It is a theistic answer to the question of how the universe came to exist. It is in contrast to creation ex materia, sometimes framed in terms of the dictum Ex nihilo nihil fit or "nothing comes from nothing", meaning all things were formed ex materia (that is, from pre-existing things).

Creatio ex materia[edit]

Creatio ex materia refers to the idea that matter has always existed and that the modern cosmos is a reformation of pre-existing, primordial matter; it sometimes articulated by the philosophical dictum that nothing can come from nothing.[2]

In ancient near eastern cosmology, the universe is formed ex materia from eternal formless matter,[3] namely the dark and still primordial ocean of chaos.[4] In Sumerian myth this cosmic ocean is personified as the goddess Nammu "who gave birth to heaven and earth" and had existed forever;[5] in the Babylonian creation epic Enuma Elish, pre-existent chaos is made up of fresh-water Apsu and salt-water Tiamat, and from Tiamat the god Marduk created Heaven and Earth;[6] in Egyptian creation myths a pre-existent watery chaos personified as the god Nun and associated with darkness, gave birth to the primeval hill (or in some versions a primeval lotus flower, or in others a celestial cow);[7] and in Greek traditions the ultimate origin of the universe, depending on the source, is sometimes Oceanus (a river that circles the Earth), Night, or water.[8]

Similarly, the Genesis creation narrative opens with the Hebrew phrase bereshit bara elohim et hashamayim ve'et ha'aretz, which can be interpreted in at least three ways:

  1. As a statement that the cosmos had an absolute beginning (In the beginning, God created the heavens and earth).
  2. As a statement describing the condition of the world when God began creating (When in the beginning God created the heavens and the earth, the earth was untamed and shapeless).
  3. As background information (When in the beginning God created the heavens and the earth, the earth being untamed and shapeless, God said, Let there be light!).[9]

Though option 1 has been the historic and predominant view,[10] it has been recently suggested that (since the Middle Ages) it cannot be the preferred translation based on strictly linguistic and exegetical grounds. [11] Whereas our modern societies see the origin of matter as a question of crucial importance, this may not have been the case for ancient cultures. Some scholars assert that when the author(s) of Genesis wrote the creation account, they were more concerned with God bringing the cosmos into operation by assigning roles and functions.[12]

Creatio ex nihilo in religion[edit]

Creatio ex nihilo, is the doctrine that all matter was created out of nothing by God in an initial or a beginning moment where the cosmos came into existence.[13][14] It has been suggested that ex nihilo creation can also be found in creation stories from ancient Egypt (the Memphite Theology),[15] the Rig Veda (X:129, also known as Nasadiya Sukta),[16] and many animistic cultures in Africa, Asia, Oceania, and North America.[17] The third-century founder of Neoplatonism, Plotinus, argued that the cosmos was distinct from God but was instead an emanation from God. This idea was rejected by Christian thinkers of the time on the basis of the creatio ex nihilo concept, and was also later rejected by Arabic and Hebrew philosophers.[18]

Ancient Near East[edit]

Although ancient near eastern cosmology is widely seen as invoking a process of creatio ex materia,[19][20] occasional suggestions have been made that the concept of creatio ex nihilo can be found at least in some texts, including the Egyptian Memphite Theology and the Genesis creation narrative.[15] Hilber has rejected these interpretations, viewing both as consistent with creatio ex materia, but instead suggests some passages in the Book of Isaiah, the Book of Proverbs, and the Psalms might indicate a notion of creatio ex nihilo.[21] The cosmogonical doxologies of the Book of Amos also present a view of creation ex-nihilo.[22]


One view is that the earliest statement articulating the concept of creatio ex nihilo is attributed to a Jewish text from ~100 BC, 2 Maccabees:[23][24] "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 the same way" (2 Macc. 7:28).[25] Others, however, have argued against interpreting Maccabees in this way.[26][27] Other historians have disputed the presence of the doctrine of creatio ex nihilo among pre-Christian Jewish authors, on the basis of the sparsity of possible relevant texts in Jewish later to the concept, the large number of Jewish texts from this period which unambiguously posit creatio ex materia, and the general disinterest in creatio ex nihilo prior to medieval rabbinic writers.[28]

In the first century, Philo of Alexandria, a Hellenized Jew, lays out the basic idea of ex nihilo creation, though he is not always consistent, he rejects the Greek idea of the eternal universe and he maintains that God has created time itself.[29] In other places it has been argued that he postulates pre-existent matter alongside God.[30] But other major scholars such as Harry Austryn Wolfson see that interpretation of Philo's ideas differently and argue that the so-called pre-existent matter was created.[31]

Saadia Gaon introduced ex nihilo creation into the readings of the Jewish bible in the 10th century CE in his work Book of Beliefs and Opinions where he imagines a God far more awesome and omnipotent than that of the rabbis, the traditional Jewish teachers who had so far dominated Judaism, whose God created the world from pre-existing matter.[32] Today Jews, like Christians, tend to believe in creation ex nihilo, although some Jewish scholars maintain that Genesis 1:1 allows for the pre-existence of matter to which God gives form.[33]

Hasidism and Kabbalah[edit]

Jewish philosophers of the 9th and 10th century adopted the concept of "yesh me-Ayin", contradicting Greek philosophers and Aristotelian view that the world was created out of primordial matter and/or was eternal.[34]


Mainstream Christians believe that originally there was nothing except for a single, infinite and eternal God and that God alone brought all matter, energy, time, and space into existence out of nothing.[35] That belief developed in the second century of the Christian era.[36]

The doctrine of creation ex nihilo was also widely adopted in Christian circles from an early period. It received its first explicit articulation by Theophilus of Antioch in a work of his known as To Autolycus in a chapter titled Absurd Opinions of the Philosophers Concerning God.):: "As, therefore, in all these respects God is more powerful than man, so also in this; that out of things that are not He creates and has created things that are" (2.4).[37][38] Creation ex nihilo had become a fundamental tenet of Christian theology by the 3rd century.[39][40]

In modern times some Christian theologians argue that although the Bible does not explicitly mention creation ex nihilo, it gains validity from having been held by so many for so long; and others find support in modern cosmological theories surrounding the Big Bang.[41] Some examine alternatives to creatio ex nihilo, such as the idea that God created from his own self or from Christ, but this seems to imply that the world is more or less identical with God; or that God created from pre-existent matter, which at least has biblical support, but this implies that the world does not depend on God for its existence.[41] The notion of creatio ex nihilo also underlies modern arguments for the existence of God among Christian and other theistic philosophers, especially as articulated in the cosmological argument[42] and its more particular manifestation in the Kalam cosmological argument.[43]


Members of The Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints do not believe, as do traditional Christians, that God created the universe ex nihilo (from nothing).[44] Rather, to The Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints, the act of creation is to organize or reorganize pre-existing matter or intelligence.[45]


Most scholars of Islam share with Christianity and Judaism the concept that God is a First Cause and absolute Creator; He did not create the world from pre-existing matter.[46][47] However, some scholars, adhering to a strict literal interpretation of the Quran such as Ibn Taimiyya whose sources became the fundament of Wahhabism and contemporary teachings, hold that God fashioned the world out of primordial matter, based on Quranic verses.[48]


The Chandogya Upanishad 6.2.1 says before the world was manifested, there was only existence, one unparalleled (sat eva ekam eva advitīyam). Swami Lokeshwarananda commented on this passage by saying "something out of nothing is an absurd idea".[49]


Stoicism, founded by Zeno of Citium around 300 BC, includes the belief that creation out of nothing is impossible and that Zeus created the world out of his own being.[50]

In modern science[edit]

The Big Bang theory, in contrast to theology, is a scientific theory; it offers no explanation of cosmic existence but only a description of the first few moments of that existence.[51][52]

See also[edit]



  1. ^ Bunnin & Yu 2008, p. 149,"The doctrine of creation ex nihlo maintains that matter is not eternal and that no matter existed prior to the divine creative act at the initial moment of the cosmic process."
  2. ^ Pruss 2007, p. 291.
  3. ^ Berlin 2011, p. 188-189.
  4. ^ Andrews 2000, p. 36,48.
  5. ^ Wasilewska 2000, p. 45,49,54.
  6. ^ Wasilewska 2000, p. 49-51,56.
  7. ^ Wasilewska 2000, p. 58-59.
  8. ^ Gregory 2008, p. 21.
  9. ^ Bandstra 1999, pp. 38–39.
  10. ^ "The Case for Creation from Nothing". Catholic Answers. September 3, 2020.
  11. ^ Blenkinsopp 2011, p. 30.
  12. ^ Walton 2006, p. 183.
  13. ^ Bunnin & Yu 2008, p. 149.
  14. ^ McFarland, Ian A. (2022). "Creation". St Andrews Encyclopaedia of Theology. Archived from the original on 2023-04-07. Retrieved 2023-04-07.
  15. ^ a b Chambers 2021, p. 24–26 for Memphite theology; entire volume for Genesis.
  16. ^ Lisman 2013, p. 218.
  17. ^ Leeming 2010, pp. 1–3, 153
  18. ^ Harry Austryn Wolfson, “The Meaning of Ex Nihilo in the Church Fathers, Arabic and Hebrew Philosophy, and St. Thomas” Archived 2023-08-15 at the Wayback Machine
  19. ^ Tamtik 2007, p. 65–66.
  20. ^ De Almeida 2021.
  21. ^ Hilber 2020, p. 178–181.
  22. ^ Ayali-Darshan 2024.
  23. ^ K. A. Mathews (1996). Genesis 1-11:26. B&H Publishing Group. pp. 141–. ISBN 978-0-8054-0101-1. Archived from the original on 2023-08-15. Retrieved 2020-10-27.
  24. ^ Paul Copan; William Lane Craig (June 2004). Creation Out of Nothing: A Biblical, Philosophical, and Scientific Exploration. Baker Academic. pp. 99–. ISBN 978-0-8010-2733-8. Archived from the original on 2023-08-15. Retrieved 2020-10-27.
  25. ^ Harrell 2011, p. 232.
  26. ^ Wolters 1994, p. 109-110.
  27. ^ Young 1991, p. 143–144.
  28. ^ Young 1991.
  29. ^ David B. Burrell; Carlo Cogliati; Janet M. Soskice; William R. Stoeger (2 September 2010). Creation and the God of Abraham. Cambridge University Press. pp. 33–. ISBN 978-1-139-49078-8. Archived from the original on 15 August 2023. Retrieved 27 October 2020.
  30. ^ May 2004, p. 10.
  31. ^ Institute for Christian Studies (1994). Hellenization Revisited: Shaping a Christian Response Within the Greco-Roman World. University Press of America. pp. 115–. ISBN 978-0-8191-9544-9. Archived from the original on 2023-08-15. Retrieved 2020-10-27.
  32. ^ Satlow 2006, p. 201-203.
  33. ^ Karesh & Hurvitz 2005, p. 103-104.
  34. ^ Joseph Dan (1987). Argumentum e Silentio. W. de Gruyter. pp. 359–362. ISBN 978-0-89925-314-5. Retrieved 11 February 2011.
  35. ^ Samples, K.R. (2012). 7 Truths That Changed the World (Reasons to Believe): Discovering Christianity's Most Dangerous Ideas. Baker Publishing Group. p. 80. ISBN 978-1-4412-3850-4.
  36. ^ Hubler, James N. (1995). Creatio ex Nihilo: Matter, Creation, and the Body in Classical and Christian Philosophy Through Aquinas (PDF) (PhD thesis). Scholarly Commons, University of Pennsylvania.
  37. ^ "To Autolycus, Book II".
  38. ^ Craig D. Allert (24 July 2018). Early Christian Readings of Genesis One: Patristic Exegesis and Literal Interpretation. InterVarsity Press. pp. 213–. ISBN 978-0-8308-8783-5. Archived from the original on 15 August 2023. Retrieved 27 October 2020.
  39. ^ May 2004, p. 179.
  40. ^ James L. Kugel; James L Kugel (30 June 2009). Traditions of the Bible: A Guide to the Bible As It Was at the Start of the Common Era. Harvard University Press. pp. 62–. ISBN 978-0-674-03976-6. Archived from the original on 15 August 2023. Retrieved 27 October 2020.
  41. ^ a b Oord 2014, p. 3-4.
  42. ^ Pecorino, Philip A. "The Cosmological Argument". Introduction To Philosophy. Queensborough Community College, CUNY. Archived from the original on 2022-01-23. Retrieved 2022-01-17.
  43. ^ Craig 2000, p. 105.
  44. ^ Bushman (2008, p. 71)
  45. ^ Grant, David (1992). "Matter". Encyclopedia of Mormonism.
  46. ^ Friemuth 2013, p. 128.
  47. ^ Husam Muhi Eldin al- Alousi The Problem of Creation in Islamic Thought, Qur'an, Hadith, Commentaries, and KalamNational Printing and Publishing, Bagdad, 1968 p. 29 and 96
  48. ^ Husam Muhi Eldin al- Alousi The Problem of Creation in Islamic Thought, Qur'an, Hadith, Commentaries, and KalamNational Printing and Publishing, Bagdad, 1968 p. 53
  49. ^ (2019-01-04). "Chandogya Upanishad, Verse 6.2.1 (English and Sanskrit)". Archived from the original on 2022-09-06. Retrieved 2022-09-06.
  50. ^ Mitchell, S.; Van Nuffelen, P. (2010). One God: Pagan Monotheism in the Roman Empire. Cambridge University Press. p. 72. ISBN 978-1-139-48814-3.
  51. ^ Van Till 1990, p. 114.
  52. ^ "Brief Answers to Cosmic Questions". Harvard–Smithsonian Center for Astrophysics for NASA's Education Support Network. Archived from the original on 2016-04-13. Retrieved 2021-09-10. It is a common misconception that the Big Bang was the origin of the universe. In reality, the Big Bang scenario is completely silent about how the universe came into existence in the first place. In fact, the closer we look to time "zero," the less certain we are about what actually happened, because our current description of physical laws do not yet apply to such extremes of nature. The Big Bang scenario simply assumes that space, time, and energy already existed. But it tells us nothing about where they came from - or why the universe was born hot and dense to begin with.


Further reading[edit]

  • Anderson, Gary A. & Markus Bockmuehl (eds.), Creation ex nihilo, University of Notre Dame Press, 2018.