Reader’s Digest used to have a feature called “It Pays To Enrich Your Word Power.” Readers could quiz themselves on the meanings of English words. In the old days, RD motivated readers with the notion that having an advanced vocabulary would benefit you socially and work-wise. True or not, for Reformed Christians it is beneficial to know some key terms, not only in English, but in Latin too. Through the years, some terms have become part of our theological vocabulary and sometimes authors and preachers will use them assuming everyone knows what they mean. And what if you don’t? That’s where this series comes to your rescue.
Today we’re looking at ex nihilo. It means “from nothing.” In theology, it’s used in relation to creation, so the full expression is creatio ex nihilo — “creation from nothing.” This speaks of God creating the entire universe by the power of his Word, without using any pre-existent matter.
We believe that God created ex nihilo on the basis of biblical teaching. Genesis 1:1 says, “In the beginning God created the heavens and the earth.” At the beginning, God created the universe. Hebrews 11:3 elaborates: “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.” The material universe came into existence by God’s Word, not by God working with material (visible things) that had been there before. Romans 4:17 speaks in a similar way. It speaks of the God in whom Abraham believed, “who gives life to the dead and calls into existence the things that do not exist.” Prior to God’s call through his Word, there was nothing — then with his call, things sprung into existence. Summarizing the Bible’s teaching, the Belgic Confession says, “We believe that the Father through the Word, that is, through his Son, has created out of nothing heaven and earth and all creatures…” (BC 12).
As a child, weird as it may sound, I used to ponder the idea of “nothing.” I found it curious that almost everything we call “nothing” is actually something. You might have an empty box and say there’s nothing in the box. But that’s not really true. There would be air, composed of various gasses, and probably a few microscopic dust particles. There’s still something. Even if you were to seal the box tightly, attach a vacuum pump, and suck out everything, there would still be something — there would be a vacuum. So is “nothing” real? Deep question, right? From a Christian perspective, the answer goes back to before creation. Before creation, there was truly nothing besides God, and certainly nothing material. The Triune God was all there was. Think about that. There wasn’t even time. Only God — Father, Son, and Holy Spirit. Because he wanted to, not because he had to, he decided to create the material universe by simply calling it into existence. Through his Son, God the Father just spoke and it all came to be. Something — in fact, everything — came from nothing. When you pause to think about it, creatio ex nihilo leaves you in awe of our God and his almighty power.