Friday, June 3, 2011

"Creatio Ex Nihilo" or "Creatio Ex Materia"? Rob Bell, the Creation of the Universe, and the Orthodox Label

“Before, it’s chaotic and empty and dark. But then God speaks into that dark disorder radiant, pulsating life with all of its wonder and diversity and creativity. Order out of chaos. Life and light out of darkness and emptiness” (Rob Bell, Love Wins: A Book About Heaven, Hell, and the Fate of Every Person Who Ever Lived. New York: HarperOne, 2011, page 146).

For those of you who may not desire to read all of Rob Bell’s book (or those who want a small sample of Bell’s book to read), I highly suggest reading his chapter titled “There are Rocks Everywhere.” As I wrote in a recent post, Rob Bell desires to argue that Jesus is saving, but that Jesus will save the world through the leaders of other world religions. However, to argue such a view is to argue a contradiction (see my post titled “Two (or More) Roads to Salvation? Inclusivism’s Inherent Contradiction”). In the same chapter however, Bell goes into discussion of the creation of the universe. Here, once again, there are some troubling statements Bell makes that should give believers pause.

The first phrase to notice in the above quote is that “before, it’s [the earth] chaotic and empty and dark.” He then refers to the beginning situation of the world as “dark disorder” and says that God brought “order out of chaos.” What exactly does the word “chaos” mean in such a context?

The results are troubling. According to the New Oxford Dictionary, the word “chaos” refers to “the formless matter supposed to have existed before the creation of the universe.” This definition makes the idea of divine creation troubling: if there is “formless matter” that exists before the universe, then did God really create out of nothing, “ex nihilo”?

I actually believe God did create “ex nihilo.” But notice that this is not what Rob Bell is arguing. When he writes that “God brought order out of chaos,” he is asserting that the only thing God did in creation was “order the madness,” that is, “organize pre-existing material.” But is this in sync with or against the Scriptures? Christians cherish the idea that the Old and New Testament Scriptures are the source of divine inspiration; therefore, to determine whether or not such a view fits with Scripture, let’s approach the opening lines of Genesis.

In the second verse of Genesis 1, we are told “the earth was without form, and void; and darkness was on the face of the deep.” The phrase as found in the Septuagint (LXX) reads “hei de gei ein aoratos kai akataskeuastos.” The word “aoratos” means “invisible,” meaning that it could not be seen (T. Muraoka, A Greek-English Lexicon of the Septuagint. Louvain, Paris, Walpole MA: Peeters, 2009, page 62). The Greek theologian Spiros Zodhiates notes that the word “aoratos” is a compound word made of two Greek words, a (“without”) and horao (“to see”) [Spiros Zodhiates, The Complete Word Study Dictionary: New Testament. Iowa Falls: World Bible Publishers, 1992, page 200]. The NKJV translation of the word means “without form.” If we take Zodhiates’s definition of the word “aoratos,” we can see that the earth was “without sight”---that is, that no one could see it. It was “invisible.”

Why provide this definition and word study? To demonstrate that if something is without form, it has no shape. The definition of “chaos” could certainly fit this definition. Chaos never has to take shape to be chaos. Gas, which has no shape, could create chaos. However, there is another word in Genesis 1:2 that should make one think twice about affirming initial chaos in the creation of the world...that is, the word “void.” The Greek word for “void” is “akataskeuastos,” which can also be translated as “without container.” When one thinks of a container, one thinks of a liquid in the container, such as orange juice for example. However, if something has “no shape” and needs “no container,” then there is also nothing within the container itself. Therefore, a proper translation would be the word “void” as the NKJV translates it; that is, “nothing within.”

Now, looking at how the earth is described in Genesis 1:2, can we say that the earth contained “formless matter” that pre-existed before the creation of the earth? No. Now, what Genesis 1:2 doesn’t tell us is that the foundation of the earth was laid. What it tells us is that God created light, separated it from darkness, created water and dry land (and separated the two), etc. These are all things “on the earth”; but where is the very foundation of the earth itself? Here is where the Lord’s words to Job play such an essential role:

“Where were you when I laid the foundations of the earth? Tell Me, if you have understanding. Who determined its measurements? Surely you know! Or who stretched the line upon it? To what were its foundations fastened? Or who laid its cornerstone, when the morning stars sang together, and all the sons of God shouted for joy?” (Job 38:4-7, NKJV)

The reference to the Lord “laying” the earth’s foundation is also found in Psalm 102:25, Isaiah 48:13, Zechariah 12:1, Hebrews 1:10, as well as Psalm 82:5, Psalm 104:5, Proverbs 8:29, Isaiah 51:13,16, and Jeremiah 31:37. All of these verses show that there is a foundation to the earth and the Lord is the one who laid the foundation. This “laying the earth’s foundation” is the form given to the earth.

Although Genesis does not speak of it, other verses in Scripture (both OT and NT) do. One famous passage Calvinists love to use to argue for their view of election concerns Ephesians 1:4, “the foundation of the world.” As you can see, another phrase for “foundation of the earth” is “foundation of the world.” This phrase is referenced some few times in Scripture as well.

From Scripture, then, is there anything we can see that argues for “formless matter that pre-existed the creation of the world”? No, not at all. The view advocated by Rob Bell comes from Greek mythology, which posits “Chaos” as the first being created in the world. For more information on pre-Christian creation myths, see Victor Christensen’s blog post, titled “Creation Ex Nihilo in Genesis” (

If Rob Bell argues that the earth was created out of chaos, pre-existing material, then Bell is arguing against “creatio ex nihilo” (Latin for “creation out of nothing”). His stance, then, is a rejection of verbal plenary inspiration (that every word of Scripture is inspired), not to mention the doctrine of inerrancy (Scripture is without error). And yet, he claims to be “orthodox.” How can he legitimately wear this label?


Kevin Jackson said...

It's possible that God created matter at one point in time, and created the earth at a later point time. That seems likely in fact, and would allow one to affirm creation ex nihlio and also to affirm that the earth was created out of pre-existing matter.

It's also possible that there was an organised world that existed before Adam, which was destroyed, perhaps in the battle with Satan. It's speculative, but not inconsistent with scripture.

Deidre Richardson said...

I think that anything could be possible. It's true that none of us were there in the beginning when God formed the earth and put everything in it in its place; at the same time, however, I think that Rob Bell should have voiced the clear reading of Scripture without assuming his belief to be true. He does the same thing in regards to many other topics. One has to ask himself or herself, "Why does Rob Bell make these assumptions?"

What I think he misses in his assessment of many topics in "Love Wins" is that there are many out there who are not familiar with many basic Christian doctrines; and I think that when he discusses positions on any topic, he often passes by them quickly without detailed discussion. It's almost as if he's saying "Here's what I think is right," without saying, "Let's think through all the positions on this topic" and elaborating for his readers.

There are lots and lots of possibilities; and even in seminary, I deal with professors who often get caught up in the possibilities. But I don't think it's wise to create doctrines (such as "Creation Ex Materia") out of claims that are completely speculative. By saying this, I am not saying that there are not doctrines out there that are inferences from claims we see in Scripture. I am simply saying that nowhere in Scripture are we given an inference to suggest that God created pre-existent material and then decided to create the earth at a later time. Rob Bell doesn't seem to believe in "Creatio Ex Nihilo"; if he did, he would've at least entertained the discussion in his book.

While, as you say, one could "in speculation" hold to both, Rob Bell clearly doesn't. And I think his discussion of "Creatio ex Materia" indicates that he is a theistic evolutionist. I think it would be much easier to just come out and say that instead of attempting to "disguise" and hide that from his readers.