Creation: something from nothing or ordering chaos

Creation: something from nothing or ordering chaos June 20, 2013

I’ve been working my way through Greg Boyd’s God At War. One of the things he proposes is that Genesis 1 should be interpreted as God’s ordering of chaos rather than His creation of the world out of nothing (ex nihilo). Boyd’s contention is that the “void, formless” world of Genesis 1 is the world after a cosmic battle perhaps also alluded to by the extra-Biblical myth of Lucifer’s fall out of heaven. Whether or not we want to go that far with him, it’s worth pondering the implications of the two conceptions of creation: ex nihilo vs. ordering chaos.

In writing Genesis 1, the Hebrews borrowed from and consciously modified Canaanite and Babylonian stories of primordial conflict at the beginning of the universe. Much of the description of dividing the land and sea, day and night, waters above and waters below, etc, is the same, but Genesis 1 replaces the gods in the other stories. One example is the sea goddess Tiamat from Akkadian mythology whose body is cut up to form the land after she is killed. Her presence is replaced by T’hom, the word for “the deep” that’s derived from the goddess’ name. Boyd speculates that Genesis 1 doesn’t “correct earlier creation-conflict accounts” but “supplements them” (105). In fact, he thinks that the “formless void” that God shapes in Genesis 1:2 was the ruin of a world ravaged by divine war rather than an empty canvas.

Part of what draws Boyd to this way of understanding Genesis 1 is that other Biblical passages attest to a primordial conflict, such as Psalm 74:12-17 which refers to God’s defeat of Leviathan the sea monster (vv 13-14) in the context of describing His creation of the sea (v 15) and the heavens (v 16). God’s speech in Job certainly talks about creation as a subduing of wild elements. The sea has to be subdued (38:8-11); the stars are enchained (vv 31-33); the lightning must be taught to obey (v 35). There are other references in the psalms and the prophets to God’s victory over chaotic sea monsters who seem a lot like the ancient Canaanite deities Tiamat and Rahab. And then of course there’s the extra-Biblical myth of Lucifer’s initial rebellion against God and subsequent eviction from heaven (Yeah it’s actually not in the Bible).

Whether or not we want to speculate with Boyd about Genesis 1 having a post-battlefield setting, it’s worth asking whether it describes giving order to chaos or starting something entirely from scratch. Like most aspects of Christian doctrine, the ex nihilo creation doctrine arises out of an argument, in this case with 2nd century Gnostics who had an elaborate cosmology in which physical matter was shaped by a demiurge named Ialdabaoth (awesome name, right?) who was an imposter god that needed to be overthrown by the real God. So it was important to say there isn’t an elaborate Gnostic mess behind the physical world, because God did it all from scratch.

Another thought-system that ex nihilo creation responds to is Manicheism, which was Augustine’s faith before he converted to Christianity. In Manicheism, the universe is an eternally dualistic order in which good and evil are equally essential and never-ending. Ex nihilo is part of Augustine’s pushback against Manicheism because it makes God responsible for the beginning of all things, good and evil. It fits with the concept of God as the “unmoved mover” in Platonic thought (basically everything moves in reaction to something else that moved it, but something had to start the chain of motion and that “unmoved mover” is God). But has Augustine’s pushback gone too far?

The problem is that Genesis 1:2 doesn’t have God starting with nothing. Some Christians try to get around this by making Genesis 1:1 day zero of God’s creation, but it seems pretty clear from the structure that the statement “In the beginning, God created the heavens and the Earth” is supposed to function as a summary of the entire story, not its first action. Whenever God creates anything in the story, there’s a specific formula that He follows: 1) He says something, 2) He names what has been made, 3) He calls it good, and 4) a day passes. When a Hebrew story has a formula, it follows the formula throughout the story.

So we don’t get to take that easy out. Four things exist in the story before God has started creating, whether they get translated into English or not. The first is tohu which means “wilderness” or “wasteland.” The second is bohu which means “emptiness” or “undistinguishiable ruin.” Those two words are brought together in English translations to say the Earth was a “formless void,” which isn’t quite accurate since we’re dealing with two different nouns.

The third thing that exists is t’hom, or “the deep.” This word is usually used with regard to the sea. It specifically refers to the opaqueness and mysteriousness of the sea, which was used as a symbol of incomprehensible evil in Hebrew writing. The fourth thing is mayim, “the waters.” Mayim and t’hom are in a parallelism since they occur in the same phrase back-to-back (“face of the…”), which might mean that they are two words for the same thing but also might mean that the waters where “God’s Spirit hovers” are being contrasted with the deep which is “covered by darkness.”

Obviously it would be a narrative challenge to talk about what the beginning of the universe would look like. You would have to use words figuratively and imperfectly to describe it. So I don’t want to make too much out of the tohu and bohu. But let’s talk about the classic question of God’s relationship to evil as the universe’s Creator which is the preoccupation driving Greg Boyd’s thought.

I see three possible options for understanding evil’s relationship to God’s creation: 1) evil has always existed and God’s creation is the fight to subdue it; 2) God created everything that later became evil, but the things that became evil chose to be that way independent of God; 3) God created everything good and evil and He uses evil things as objects of His wrath to accomplish His purpose.

I guess I would fall in the option 2 camp. Ultimately for me it’s a mixture of pragmatism and fidelity to the Biblical witness. I think it’s most useful to understand what God is doing in the world as a continual battle against would-be saboteurs who have always been defeated by God but not effortlessly. I also don’t think it’s true to the Bible’s witness to imagine God sitting in eternity watching a pre-programmed drama unfold. God exerts Himself throughout the Biblical stories about Him even if this violates one of the Hellenistic theological principles that we’ve allowed to define God more than the Bible itself.

I don’t think it’s helpful to think that God decided before time that the Holocaust would be a good learning experience for humanity in general despite its profound evil and suffering. It seems more true to the Biblical model for talking about God’s relationship to the world to say that God responded to the Holocaust by firing up His wrath in the hearts of those who fought Hitler and those who have served the world differently because of what happened.

I guess I imagine God kind of like Aragorn in the Lord of the Rings, the rightful king who is moving incognito through the world reclaiming His throne. God’s power and sovereignty are not necessarily self-evident looking around the world; to say that they were would be to claim that God approves of what’s going on or is too weak to do something about it. I don’t think God is weak at all. I just think that He chooses to relate to His creation in a cruciform way that draws the right people to Himself not through fireworks and lightning but through sacrificial love.

"Great article. Thanks for sharing your thoughts. They very much echo my own journey. Your ..."

Eight Fragmented Thoughts On #ResurrectionGate
"I'd give my strong "yes" to #6, and an "I'm not so sure" to #7. ..."

Eight Fragmented Thoughts On #ResurrectionGate
"Methodism, like all other religious bodies/groups, needs euthanasia. It's suffering from dementia and the incidences ..."

Methodism Needs A No Fault Divorce
"Well said. This is not meant as criticism of those trying to keep the family ..."

Methodism Needs A No Fault Divorce

Browse Our Archives

Follow Us!

TRENDING AT PATHEOS Progressive Christian
What Are Your Thoughts?leave a comment
  • Craig Beard

    Perhaps a small matter. You state, “Those two words [“tohu” and “bohu”] are brought together in English translations to say the Earth was a ‘formless void,’ which isn’t quite accurate since we’re dealing with two different nouns.” I seem to recall hearing that Hebrew can work like what you say isn’t accurate — something like (and I’m making this up off the cuff) “God’s righteousness and anger” having the sense of “God’s righteous anger,” where one of the nouns functions as an adjective.

    • Morgan Guyton

      Ah maybe so! Yeah this isn’t one of my better pieces. I ran out of steam while I was writing it. Part of it is I can’t decide where I stand on the stuff Boyd writes about.

      • Craig Beard

        I understand about ‘deciding where I stand” in regard to this issue. Especially since I’ve been listening to and reading John Walton’s work on it. John can’t be dismissed as ‘some knee-jerk liberal’ and, in my mind, must be taken seriously. If you haven’t read his Lost World of Genesis One or other related material, I recommend listening to the seminar he presented at Evangelical Community Church in Bloomington ( It’s the fullest (free) presentation of his work on Genesis 1-3, and includes Q&A (with pushback). [Not the best recording, but still worth the time.]

        • Morgan Guyton

          Thanks Craig

  • Allis Calm

    I’ve been reading your blog for a few months now, and though you say this isn’t one of your better pieces, in my opinion, any post that makes me *think* (and yours always do) is good.

    Thank you for the time and effort you put into your blog. Keep searching; keep writing.

    • Morgan Guyton

      Thanks for the encouragement.

  • Morgan, if you think this piece isn’t one of your best, perhaps it’s because you’re trying to rationalize Greg Boyd’s false dichotomy of ex nihilo v. ordering chaos. In reality, there’s a third and far more complete and satisfying option common to Celtic Christianity: God created using God’s own essence, which is love. Hence all of creation is an expression of God’s love in which the divine still exists even though it may be obscured by that which we call evil.

    We humans always want to order chaos ourselves by placing our conceptions of God in neat little boxes as Boyd does. However, this isn’t how God works, as testified through millennia by mystics, sages and saints. And while your analogy to Aragorn in LOTR is charming, it’s simply another box, because God’s Holy Spirit works in us and through us in ways too mysterious for our understanding.

    Let me quote from J. Philip Newell’s “The Book of Creation,” an introduction to Celtic spirituality: “Although the Celtic tradition emphasizes that the image of God in us is everlasting and cannot be erased, it is not thereby naive to the deeply destructive implications of sin. … So extreme is the departure from our true selves that we forget more and more of the image in which we have been made … Forgetful of who we are, we live out of ignorance instead of wisdom, fear instead of love, and fantasy instead of reality. The more we forget that the image of God is within us, the less we delve into those depths for the gifts of God.” (p88).

    So while I recognize that you’re trying to review and explicate Boyd’s book, I encourage you to test what he says against other sources. Clearly, he narrows the question to serve his own thesis, but that doesn’t necessarily make his thesis the only or the best explanation. Blessings!

    • Morgan Guyton

      Thanks for sharing this. Celtic Christianity sounds truer to where I am. What are some good texts from it?


    The way I read Genesis 1 is that God created the earth and everything in it in 6 literal days. You said Genesis 1:2 doesn’t have God starting with nothing. Have you considered the “waw factor?” (terrible pun, I know). Every verse in Genesis 1 starts with “waw” the Hebrew conjunction meaning “and”.

    So Genesis 1:1 “in the beginning God created the heavens and the earth,
    AND the earth was without form and void.
    AND God said Let there be light. and there was light
    AND God saw the light… etc, etc, etc

    The presence of the waw joins the later verses with the original statement — so it would be grammatically accurate to apply the original subject … so for example, it would be grammatically accurate to say, “In the beginning God said let there be light”

    In essence, Genesis 1 is one long run-on sentence. Jesus himself corroborates this interpretation:

    Mat 19:4 And he answered and said unto them, Have ye not read, that he which made [them] at the beginning made them male and female,

    Gen 1:1 In the beginning God created the heaven and the earth.
    27 So God created man in his [own] image, in the image of God created he him; male and female created he them.

    So “in the beginning God” is part of every verse in chapter 1 because of the waw conjunctions that begin every verse.

    What seems clear to me is that God created beings capable of bearing the responsibility for their own actions, being accountable to God. In other words, while God created man, man (in concert with the Devil) created evil and sin.

    The scripture makes clear God is not responsible for evil.

    Jam 1:13 Let no one say when he is tempted, “I am being tempted by God”; for God cannot be tempted by evil, and He Himself does not tempt anyone.
    14 But each one is tempted when he is carried away and enticed by his own lust.
    15 Then when lust has conceived, it gives birth to sin; and when sin is accomplished, it brings forth death.

    Jhn 8:44 “You are of your father the devil, and you want to do the desires of your father. He was a murderer from the beginning, and does not stand in the truth because there is no truth in him. Whenever he speaks a lie, he speaks from his own nature, for he is a liar and the father of lies.

    Rom 5:12 Therefore, just as through one man sin entered into the world, and death through sin, and so death spread to all men, because all sinned—

    There is an author of sin and evil in this world, but it is not God. I see “evil” in the same way I see “cold”. Like “cold” is not really a thing, it is the absence of a thing (the absence of heat), evil is the absence of God (since only God is good). A proper understanding of scripture sees humanity as the responsible party for subjecting a perfect ex nihilo creation that God declared “very good” to sin and corruption and thereby inviting death (separation from God) as judgement for the first time in the history of the world.

    • Morgan Guyton

      Boyd would argue that the Augustinian explanation of evil as a privation or absence is inadequate to explaining the evil,that exists. I’m not sure if I agree.

  • Muff Potter

    I find myself in agreement with Cynthia and Newell’s take. About a decade ago I jettisoned the doctrine of original sin and its reformed corollary of total depravity. It could no longer hold up to the contradictions (for me anyway) of real life and the human spirit.

    • Morgan Guyton

      How do you understand things differently now? Just curious.

      • Muff Potter

        Kind of you to ask. The older I get, the shorter my responses get save for one, and I hope it’s not seen as just another parroted quote. I remember an old prof. of mine way back in the Jurassic age who made it quite clear that he despised parroting & God help you if you did. But what can I say? It’s by John Adams (lapsed Calvinist ~ circa 1812) and it best describes my sentiment:

        I am weary of contemplating nations from the lowest and most beastly degradations of human life, to the highest refinements of civilization: I am weary of philosophers, theologians, politicians, and historians. They are immense masses of absurdities, vices, and lies. Montesquieu had sense enough to say in jest, that all our knowledge might be comprehended in twelve pages in duodecimo: and I believe him in earnest. I could express my faith in shorter terms. He who loves the Workman and his Work, and who does what he can to preserve and improve it, shall be accepted of him.

  • I once did a really amateur read-through and Greek study of Genesis 1. One of the things I noticed was that the Greek words (and this was Strong’s) seemed to refer more to chaos rather than void, but that God simply spoke a word and it became ordered. Like I said, amateur study, but it did seem to lean more towards chaos than ex nihilo.