Genesis Does Not Depict Creation from Nothing

by Luke Muehlhauser on September 13, 2010 in Bible,Video

Many people, including William Lane Craig, seem to think that Genesis depicts God creating the universe out of nothing. But it just doesn’t. Creation out of nothing – creatio ex nihilo – is explicitly denied by Genesis, and is in fact a belief that developed only centuries later.

See Ken Pulliam here and here, and especially John Walton (of Wheaton College) below:

(Hat tip to John Loftus.)

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{ 28 comments… read them below or add one }

Bryce September 13, 2010 at 2:33 pm

I believe that the Hebrew words for “In the beginning” are ambiguous, and so either ex nihilo creation can be properly read from it, or non-ex nihilo creation can be properly read from it.

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Shane McKee September 13, 2010 at 2:39 pm

The hilarious thing is that Genesis 1 is a bog standard re-formatted Ancient Near Eastern creation myth. It is rather poetic (at least in the King James), but certainly does not reflect an advanced theology.

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Reidish September 13, 2010 at 4:25 pm

Hi Shane,
You wrote:

The hilarious thing is that Genesis 1 is a bog standard re-formatted Ancient Near Eastern creation myth.

Do you have some sources for this?

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Bill Maher September 13, 2010 at 5:12 pm

The first time I heard this was from one of my professors who is a liberal jew before I had any formal Ancient Near East training. It shocked me because I was raised Catholic.

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Hermes September 13, 2010 at 5:20 pm

The presentation has a few unfortunate ‘I am one of you’ Christian style slants that detract from it. Those segues were not necessary even if his audience contained nothing but Christians, and made me wonder if he held back or slanted any other information in it. If he gave the same basic presentation at a strictly academic meeting, I’d like to hear it as he has some very good insights and information.

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Patrick September 13, 2010 at 5:21 pm

Reidish- I don’t know precisely what Shane is referring to, but in Enuma Elish, all is at first water until the god Marduk separates the waters into an ocean above (the sky) and an ocean beneath, and so crafts the world. This matches Genesis, which also depicts the primeval, unformed world as being one of a vast water, which is separated into a sky above and ocean below.

You can hear echoes of this from creationists who actually believe that the earth once had a “water canopy.” Its kind of cute, actually. They think they need to retain the Genesis style water canopy to explain where all the water came from in Noah’s flood, but they don’t feel any need to explain where all the water went afterward.

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Gimpness September 13, 2010 at 5:24 pm

Hey Reidish
I believe the Ancient Near Eastern creation myth that Shane is referring to is the Enuma Elis
http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/En%C3%BBma_Eli%C5%A1

Or perhaps one of the Babylonian creations myths
http://faculty.gvsu.edu/websterm/Adapa.htm

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Reidish September 13, 2010 at 5:30 pm

Ah yes, Enuma Elis, I’m familiar. Just wondering if he was referring to something else.

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Bram van Dijk September 13, 2010 at 7:27 pm

A Dutch Scholar of the Old Testament, Ellen van Wolde, came up with a new translation for Genesis 1. She argues that the Hebrew word usually translated with “created” actually means “separated”. So god did not create heaven and earth, but he separated heaven from earth. And so on…

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G'DIsraeli September 14, 2010 at 12:59 am

doesn’t the word ברא mean created out of nothing? That’s what they thought me in religio school.
Very interesting, thank you.

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Bram van Dijk September 14, 2010 at 2:49 am

I don’t know any Hebrew, so I can’t say anything more about it. But if you are interested, you can find the original paper here.

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Chris K September 14, 2010 at 7:36 am

When I was living in the Chicago area, a church small group that I was in took to reading Walton’s commentary on Genesis. When we finished reading the relevant sections, we invited him over for a question and answer session. He’s a genuinely nice guy, and I’ve got a group picture with him somewhere.

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Keith September 14, 2010 at 7:13 pm

I’m kind of confused by this guy. I listened to it all and what about the creation of the birds and animals, etc. Were these all functional creations or material?

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Keith September 14, 2010 at 7:16 pm

Okay fine they are “functionaries”. I jumped the gun with only 6 minutes left and then he talks about it. Still, what he is talking about is a far cry from the thoughts of a majority of Christians (that I come in contact with at least).

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Keith September 14, 2010 at 7:24 pm

Sheesh sometimes when I listen to these things it makes me wonder if I would still be a Christian if I heard them when I was still one. I’m doubt my faith would still have lasted, but it sure makes for interesting thoughts of different Christianity than the fundamentalist view. The one thing that really bugged me is that he was sympathetic to the young earth creationist view of defending the Bible because at least they are “defending the Bible”.

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Hermes September 14, 2010 at 7:53 pm

Keith, he’s explaining the cultural perspective of the authors of the OT. Where he misses the mark is that he explicitly backs off from calling it what it is; mythical, like many other mythic stories.

(Note that myth is not ‘just a myth’ but a system of cultural truths that are true in a particular way for a specific society. While he promotes the idea that the core truths are still applicable if understood properly, they are demonstratively not true in many important ways. For example, slavery.)

His defense of the YECs is him paying the bills; not biting the hand that feeds him. I don’t take it seriously.

Bottom line: Most Christians don’t know the meaning of their own religious traditions, but the literalists think they have the one true reading and are strident about it. That stridency is frequently not supported by the religious texts when taken as historic documents from mythic societies. What he covered is an attempt to pull them out of some of that nonsense.

As an example, many societies have creation stories. They often can identify the place or area where various events in creation have happened. It is OK to accept one creation story as being culturally valid while also accepting another creation story as also being culturally valid. This is a common sentiment in many religions. Yet, it is not common in many of the Abrahamic religions that lock down the ideas and demand that they be taken as unique even when they are usually derived from other stories, mythic or not, Abrahamic or not.

Now, he may indeed believe much of the nonsense to be actually true as written. From a wider view of shared cultural myths there are many parts of the Bible that Christians should take as mythic and dated insights not as current factual, moral, and/or historic truths.

The YECs won’t see that as a valid and thoughtful way to be Christians, and I think he knows it. So, he compliments them for their strident defense if not the content of what they defend.

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Keith September 15, 2010 at 4:17 am

You know, even after I listen to a talk like this and feel like he is saying something good and think maybe I would still believe if I heard stuff like this back then, in the back of my mind there is still something that doesn’t jive. When you wrote the response Hermes, those answers make so much more sense and there isn’t that thing in the back of my mind. Another thing Walton said that bothered me was his dismissal of things like black holes as uninteresting and unimportant at all. If it doesn’t fit in his model he just throws it out. Another time he talks about how of course God made matter as well. How and when if Genesis isn’t talking about it?

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Hermes September 15, 2010 at 7:10 am

Keith, thanks for the good comments. I especially like your insight that he dances over the claim that — of course — their god (his and the audience’s) is the creator while showing that Genesis doesn’t really address that creation at all. Where are they getting the claim from?

The best I can tell is that because the mytic story in Genesis says that their god did it, their god did it, even if they will forever be ignorant of the how or why. This actually fits the pattern of other myths quite well; that the truth is stated in the text symbolically leaving the mystery untouched.

Along those lines, his job is to focus the faithful; to encourage that ancient religion. To his audience, black holes and modern improvements are irrelevant curiosities compared to the power of their god’s side. [cue Darth Vader's march theme]

Yet, note what I mentioned about him not calling it what it is; myth. Chunks of Genesis come from other sources; Noah’s flood from the Epic of Gilgamesh, parts of the 3 copies of the ’10 Commandments’ from Egyptian burial documents. There are clues in the text itself that point towards a polytheist origin, and the text itself frequently emphasizes the tribal nature of El/Yahweh/… . He must know those things, and is not mentioning them to his audience because he’s not dumb. He’s attempting to reteach them their own religious texts, not get tossed under the bus for the ironic accusation of being a heretic by those who know even less about their own text.

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Edward T. Babinski September 15, 2010 at 2:42 pm

I cite Walton among other experts in my chapter, “The Cosmology of the Bible,” in THE CHRISTIAN DELUSION
http://amzn.com/1616141689 (You can read some of the chapter using amazon’s LOOK INSIDE feature.)

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Keith September 15, 2010 at 2:46 pm

I have a Christian friend who is getting a PhD from Baylor. Her specialty isn’t in Philosophy of Religion and she went through a period of time when she claims she was “agnostic”. I don’t know exactly what brought her back, but I feel that people who want to believe do. Of course the retort back is the people who don’t want to believe, don’t. Sometimes I don’t know what to do without the conversation reducing to this or merely a heaven/hell issue.

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Keith September 15, 2010 at 2:51 pm

Of course she has a much more liberal Christianity once she emerged from her agnosticism than she had before it.

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Hermes September 15, 2010 at 4:52 pm

[ Warning: rambling monologue follows... ]

I don’t know exactly what brought her back, but I feel that people who want to believe do.

True, and I don’t begrudge anyone their private beliefs even if I don’t agree with them for myself. Yet, I find that many Christians think that my not believing that their deity exists is somehow a challenge to them personally if not an insult. This is compounded when they attempt to turn a belief into a claim to knowledge, and then get me to agree that their private beliefs are equivalent to public knowledge.

While I personally like to have as many true — verifiable — beliefs as possible, beliefs aren’t knowledge. Beliefs, unlike knowledge, are spontaneous and can’t be withheld. Beliefs are impulsive and generally unfocused.

Examples;

* If I say I have a solid block of gold the size of a gallon of milk, it is reasonable to not believe me.

* If I say I have a gallon milk bottle that I’ve painted gold, it is reasonable to believe me.

* It is reasonable if I say I believe that you will soon think about a pink elephant with blue stripes.

Yet, in reality, it could be that I am rich and eccentric — hording many such blocks of gold, or that I have painted milk bottles silver (not gold), or that you are either blind from birth or just color blind and can’t imagine what blue looks like even if you can’t help but think of a striped pink elephant. You don’t have knowledge, but you do have beliefs in each instance with the gold and milk jug — just as I don’t have knowledge but do have beliefs about your ability to imagine things and your susceptibility to imagine what I describe in words.

Private belief in each case is impulsive and only becomes thoughtfully deliberative when knowledge is provided.

When someone wants other people to either believe as they do or accede to the conclusions drawn from their beliefs, then they are responsible for those beliefs.

It is true that both beliefs and knowledge are part of the same spectrum, in practice they aren’t the same even when colloquial usage is taken into account. If they were the same thing, we’d only have one word or use both interchangeably except to emphasize a particular affectation.

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Keith September 15, 2010 at 5:51 pm

I don’t begrudge private beliefs either. When I talk about things that I am learning or understand about the Bible, etc. it can get people like that going and they say I might be “offensive” even when I am not. She gives me some readings and stuff in philosophy and says she is not trying to convert me back. I say something about what I believe and she responds with information because she “doesn’t want someone to base their life on some bad philosophy”, not because she is trying to convert me back. Ok. I think it is interesting how philosophers seemingly argue any point they wish. Nevertheless I think that if I won the lottery I would go back to school and get a doctorate in Philosophy of Religion because it interests me greatly. I might go get a doctorate in Physics first though (I’m a high school physics and chemistry teacher). There is so much interesting knowledge available today and not enough time to learn it in!

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Hermes September 15, 2010 at 6:27 pm

I recommend anthropology over PoR, primarily cultural but also archeology. It allows for a broad understanding of human differences, and includes religion as a part of that understanding. Archeology deals with the facts of societies and when done right cuts through many of the cultural boasts and biases that tend to rank societies as superior or inferior. That rigor is not the case with PoR and is lacking in Dr. Walton’s presentation.

As a bridge between PoR and anthropology, if you don’t have the time, look at mythology. It is endlessly fascinating and I believe is the proper perspective in evaluating religious claims.

While I think that he is largely misunderstood and frequently misused by spiritualists as a means to assert their own ignorant arrogance, Joseph Campbell’s work is quite good. Where he rubs me wrong is when he goes beyond the facts and starts to insert himself into the role of shaman or practitioner of wisdom. Beware of anyone who quotes Campbell.

Anthropology documents (including myths and religious texts) range from historic documents through to analytical reviews of different slices of humanity. Let me know if you want a sample list, but you can just walk into any college or university library and dip into the stacks if you want to see the mind boggling scope of the knowledge that has been gathered.

The practice and study of anthropology sharpens your understanding of humanity as a whole, and allows you to more easily identify when you are on autopilot being an instrument of your social conditioning.

For example, Daniel Everett has a discussion on the Piraha tribe (in the Amazon). What makes his presentation relevant to what we discuss here is that he discusses (briefly) how the Piraha’s presence challenged his preconceptions and intentions. Conversely, I’ve studied the Yanamamo (also in the Amazon) who can be summarized as misogynistic ‘bubba beer drinkers’ where beer has been replaced by a green powdered hallucinogenic and there are no pickup trucks in sight. The extra details are more interesting, but the surface similarities are hard to ignore.

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Keith September 15, 2010 at 7:10 pm

Oh yes I have heard of the Piraha tribe before and that story fascinated me to no end. I guess the point I was making about the Philosophy of Religion bit was that then I would have a voice that would be respected in discussion more. Sometimes I feel that my views aren’t being taken as seriously or that there is some more complex argument waiting that will just take more and more time to deconstruct. I absolutely agree with you on the anthropology bit. It really is inclusive over a broad aspect of subjects. This past summer I did a workshop at Colgate University with philosophy. We discussed things like Rousseau’s “natural man”. In the light, based on anthropology, that there probably never existed such a man outside of a thought experiment really seemed to cheapen the discussion for me. Me with a science background I guess I would rather talk about things that have some empirical background to them. My Christian friend is one who things many of the old testament stories are myths (creation, flood, etc.). I am not sure how she uses them in her faith exactly because she hasn’t told me yet. It is kind of frustrating because every time I bring up problems with “free will” and other topics it is never the type she is talking about or is, in her view, too “simplistic” or “not biblical” (I love that last one: biblical to whom?). Maybe I’ll do some study in anthropology. The world has become way more interesting and strange once I lost my faith. I once was blind, but now I see.

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Hermes September 15, 2010 at 7:47 pm

FWIW, I’m one of those odd-balls. I considered myself a Christian up till I was about 20, though I did not consider any of the supernatural/magical aspects to be true when I was about 10. Talking snake? World-wide flood with a boat that had 2+ of all animals on it? Men walking on water? No, they were clearly stories not to be taken as history. Even the premise — an aware force that created and controls reality — was not part of what I believed. I was shocked to find that there were people who did take those stories and those claims seriously. That disconnect is what interested me in mythology (as literature) and anthropology (as research).

Recommendation: Don’t attempt to take the Biblical route when talking to your friend. It’s a no-win situation as every believer has a different take on it and you can be wrong so frequently. With friends, though, I tend to state my beliefs as matter of fact statements and then leave it at that. If they attempt to bring up Bible quotes, I state cleanly that I’m not a Christian. In your case, if you say that and your friend says that she knows you used to be a Christian, you could keep it as a simple acknowledgment and then state what you think now.

Additionally, keep in mind my own story. I was a Christian *and* an atheist for about 10 years. There are even Christian ministers that are technically atheists. While this is unusual, it does happen. You’ve probably heard of the “cultural Jews”; people who follow Jewish traditions but do not follow the religion. That’s not strange, so neither should it be strange to have “cultural Christians” or “cultural Muslims” … Buddhists, or Hindus, … .

Outside of friends what makes it difficult is when you have to deal with slippery believers who will change and distort anything in an effort to win you over.

Keep in mind that while you were a Christian believer, it’s not your religion now just as so many other religions aren’t yours. It’s an ancient text from many sources that nobody follows even the most adamant.

There’s no reason to struggle with them over the validity of Christianity and you don’t need to prove your lack of belief. Saying you disagree on any point needs no additional commentary, nor do you need to be insulted or defend any stereotype of what they consider a non-Christian or atheist to be.

You don’t even need embrace anything that is not credible to you, nor do you need to reject anything that is plausible to you. Specifically, if you consider that various religious texts are inspiring or helpful to you, you don’t need to abandon them or to embrace every aspect of that religious text. I like the Tao te Ching^ but I’m not a Taoist or a Buddhist. I like ancient Greek literature and mythology, as can be seen in my forum name, yet I’m not considering joining the ranks of followers of Zeus and the pantheon.

^ .Depending on the translation, some are horrible!

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Keith September 15, 2010 at 8:26 pm

Yeah I was a home-schooled literal Bible believing 6000 year-old-earth type Christian. I stayed that way right up into my career as a science teacher (scary), old testament magic stories and all. I only fully gave it up last year at the age of 28. It is difficult to remember how I thought as a Christian when I talk to those who still are Christians. It is also very difficult for me to understand Christians of the type who aren’t what I was. I told my wife once “I’m either fundamentalist or nothing”. Picking and choosing really is odd to me. I can see cultural religion as okay though. I mean, my wife loves Christmas (she lost her faith independently but shortly after mine. I didn’t tell her of my own disbelief. It was awful convenient she did though! lol.) But my friend is definitely not a cultural Christian: she practices it. Each Christian is unto themselves their own denomination in a sense. It sure looks like Christianity is on its way to change quite a bit in my lifetime. Again, it is such an interesting world.

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Hermes September 15, 2010 at 8:50 pm

Agreed on the change and that it is interesting. What the Bible needs is an addendum; one that doesn’t get wiped out the next time a version of literalism is brought up as the one true way to knowledge.

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