Perspectives in Science and Christianity



The Paradox of Mediated Creation Ex Nihilo


St. Mark Lutheran Church
Tallmadge, Ohio 44278

From: PSCF 39 (December 1987): 221-226

God's work in creation is both "out of nothing" and mediated. The present paper points out the importance of keeping those two aspects of creation together. We consider the significance of these two aspects of creation for God's creative activity in the present, the past, and the future, and conclude with reflection on the meaning of creation.


Two fundamental ideas about God's creative work stand in paradoxical tension. My intent here is not to resolve that paradox, because such paradox (which must not be confused with the result of thinking too shallowly to resolve contradiction) seems to be an intrinsic part of Christian theology. The goal here is rather to highlight the basic ideas of creation out of nothing and the mediated character of the divine work, and to point out that neither can be safely ignored. This should help to clarify the domains of responsibility of Christian theology and natural science.

Creation ex nihilo, creation out of nothing, means that God called the universe into being entirely by God's power and will, without the cooperation of anything (e.g., pre-existing matter or co-workers) other than God. Furthermore, the universe continues to be sustained entirely by God. Finite being exists entirely because God wishes for it to exist.1

The relevance of this aspect of the doctrine of creation thus does not end with creation "in the beginning." In Scripture, there is much more space devoted to God's care for the world and for human beings in history than to the beginning of the universe, though the latter is important biblically. Luther follows this trend in explaining the First Article of the Creed ("I believe in God the Father Almighty, Maker of heaven and earth"):

I believe that God has made me and all creatures; that He has given me my body and soul, eyes, ears, and all my limbs, my reason, and all my senses, and still preserves them; in addition thereto, clothing and shoes, meat and drink, house and homestead, wife and children, fields, cattle, and all my goods; that He provides me richly and daily with all that I need to support this body and life, protects me from all danger, and guards me and preserves me from all evil; and all this out of pure, fatherly, divine goodness and mercy, without any merit or worthiness in me.2

This is creation-creation out of nothing-for it is entirely from God's goodness, and not on account of any cooperation or desert on the part of creatures. But the divine works which Luther singles out are clearly not direct "creation out of nothing" in the naive sense that God provides food or clothing by making those things appear out of a vacuum. The creative work is mediated: food comes from the grocery and the farmer and photosynthesis, through a whole chain of physical and social structures. God's work is usually effected through one physical instrument or another.

This work is entirely that of God, who "justifies the ungodly," "gives life to the dead and calls into existence the things that do not exist" (Romans 4:5, 17). That is a basic biblical tenet. Another basic point of Christian theology, and one which is fundamental for a proper theological understanding of science, is that God created a universe which is "very good" (Genesis 1:31), and thus-among other things-rational (Isaiah 45:18). The universe is accessible to reason. It is possible to understand the rational sequences which lead to the divine works of creation without the necessity of assuming continual divine intervention. If God did not work in this way science would be impossible, and the universe could be understood only on the basis of direct revelation. The fact that science is able to give us a partial understanding of the world provides empirical support for the theological assertion of the rationality of the world.

Creation out of nothing, but creation that is mediated. That is the paradox which Christian doctrine sets before us. Let us now consider some examples of God's creative work in more detail in order to see both aspects of creation more clearly.

Healing and the Question of Miracles

Among other concerns of everyday life, the problem of health looms large. Christians look to God for healing, but debate over how God heals is sometimes heated. Many newspaper articles could be cited to describe cases in which parents have insisted that a seriously ill child can and should be healed entirely by faith and prayer, while doctors insist that the child's only hope for survival is medical treatment. Such cases often get into the courts, where the issue of religious freedom is raised.

It is helpful to cite here a passage from the old prayer Hand-Book of John Stark, a work of German pietism dating from 1728.' It includes "Exhortations, Prayers and Hymns for the Afflicted." The exhortation before "The Patient Prays on Taking Medicine" (pp. 297-298) is especially relevant to our present subject:

If a devout prayer is indispensable even in times of health, how can a patient neglect it, particularly when he takes medicine?

1. The patient must not despise the physician, nor his medicine, nor think that if he is destined to recover, God can restore him without medicine, and that if he is destined to die, the medicine will be of no avail. No, to think thus were to tempt God. God has not promised to help us without means; and what God has not promised, we cannot ask of him. Those who despise medicine and die, are guilty of their own murder.

2. Yet he must not set his trust upon the physician and his medicine, but upon God; as it is declared to be one of the sins of King Asa, that in his sickness he did not seek God, but the Physicians, and trusted them more than God. 2 Chronicles xvi. 12.

3. Between these two extremes, the patient must select the golden mean. With his lips and his heart he must pray, and take the medicine in firm reliance upon the helping hand of God; then he may know that there is a blessing upon it.

The Christian and the unbeliever may take the same medicine, but one sees the Creator at work in all the natural processes of medical care and the other doesn't. One has faith and the other doesn't, and that is what distinguishes between Christian and non-Christian in such a situation. The Christian need not look to God as an additional cause of healing alongside of, or instead of, doctors, nurses, medicine, radiation, et cetera, but sees God at work through those instruments. To despise the medical processes which have been made available in the world, and to think that faith must do without them, is really to despise the goodness of God's creation.

George L. Murphy is pastor of St. Mark Lutheran Church in Tallmadge, Ohio. He received a B.S. and Ph.D. in physics from Ohio University and Johns Hopkins respectively, and M.Div. from Wartburg Theological Seminary. He has taught physics and related subjects at Westminster College (PA), the University Of Western Australia, Luther College, Loras College and Wartburg Seminary. Publications include papers on relativity and cosmology, and articles on the science-theology interface. His book, The Trademark of God, an adult course on evolution, christology and creation, was published by Morehouse-Barlow in 1986.

But can't God heal miraculously? Certainly God can do that-even when all natural possibilities seem to be exhausted. We certainly should not give up on God simply because we see no natural way for healing to occur. (Nor, on the other hand, should we assume that a healing must have been miraculously unmediated simply because we do not at present know natural processes by which it might have been effected.) However, the question being addressed now is not about what God might do, but about what God does do. It is clear that the vast majority of healings, including those of committed Christians who trust in God for life, take place through natural processes.

It is possible to understand the rational sequences which lead to the divine works of creation without the necessity Of assuming continual divine intervention.

There is among some Christians an unfortunate tendency to overemphasize the miraculous, as if only direct interference with the laws of nature could show God at work. It is significant that, in the Gospel of John, Jesus' displays of power-such as the healing of the official's son (John 4:46-54) or the giving of sight to the blind (John 9:1-17)-are called "signs" (semeia). It is only faith that will see in any sign, whether miraculous or not, God to whom the sign points. The person who will not believe will not be persuaded (Luke 16:31).

In that connection, it is appropriate to comment here on an article in this journal which has aroused some controversy: Kessel on the Virgin Conception. His basic argument is that there are known biological processes which might have made possible the virginal conception of Jesus by natural means. Whether or not the processes addressed in that article could, in fact, have brought about the desired result need not be discussed here. The point is that such an explanation, if in fact scientifically credible, would be completely consistent with the mediated character of God's creative work. That is to be expected, since one of the things that the doctrine of the Virgin Conception does is to point to the one who was thus conceived as the incarnate Creator. One writer of the early church put it this way:

And, indeed, the altogether peculiar birth of the Lord was of a virgin alone. [This took place] not as if the lawful union [of man and wife] were abominable, but such a kind of birth was fitting to God. For it became the Creator not to make use of the ordinary method of generation, but of one that was singular and strange, as being the Creator.5

Creation in the Beginning

We often think of God's work of creating the universe in the beginning as something qualitatively different from what God has been doing since then. "Certainly," we may think, "God is still active today, I upholding the universe by his word of power' (Hebrews 1:3), providing food and clothing and causing babies to be born through natural processes. But sometime in the past, God did something different. Then God really created."

Certainly something happened "in the beginning" which was different from what is happening now. But the fact that God's present work is mediated suggests that we consider the possibility that God's original work of creation was also in some way mediated. That is the direction in which modern scientific cosmology would seem to be taking us. From studying the formation of atomic nuclei in "the first three minutes"6 it now seems possible to go back, not only to the first fractions of a second of the Big Bang to explain fundamental features of the present universe, but to go back to the very beginning to explain the origin of the mass-energy of the universe. Vilenkin, for example, discusses the quantum tunneling of the universe from "nothing," by which he means "a state with no classical space-time,7 to a state which evolves as an inflationary universe.8

The Christian need not look to God as an additional cause of healing alongside of, or instead of, doctors, nurses, medicine, radiation, etc., but sees God at work through those instruments.

(He elaborates on this concept of "nothing" as follows: " 'Nothing'is the realm of unrestrained quantum gravity; it is a rather bizarre state in which all our basic notions of space, time, energy, entropy, etc., lose their meaning."9 It is clear that this "nothing" cannot simply be identified with the theological nihil. The fact that in this state there is nothing corresponding to our classical concepts means that our classically conditioned minds are unable to grasp it, and not that nothing exists in the strict sense.)

A very much oversimplified model can illustrate one aspect of the possibility of creating the material universe out of nothing. In a hybrid Newtonian-relativistic theory we would write the total energy of a system of gravitationally interacting particles in terms of rest energy (mc'), kinetic energy (KE) and potential energy (PE) as:

E = Sum MC2 + Sum KE + Sum PE

where the first two sums range over all particles, and the third over all pairs of particles. Since the Newtonian gravitational potential energy of two particles is negative (being given by - GMm/R for particles with masses M and m separated by a distance R with G the gravitational constant), the total energy can be zero even with particles present. One could then visualize a state which began with no particles present (and thus with zero energy), and in which particles were subsequently created. There would not need to be any violation of energy conservation, since the negative potential energy could exactly cancel the rest mass and kinetic energy terms. This merely illustrates that the question "where does the energy come from?" in creation out of nothing can be managed. (Questions about other conserved quantities can also be addressed.") Any model which claims to be even partially realistic must be much more sophisticated. In particular, the process of particle creation can only be described quantum-mechanically, since it is a fundamentally discontinuous process. (See the appendix for further discussion of such processes.)

The fact that God's present work is mediated suggests that we consider the possibility that Gods original work of creation was also in some way mediated.

Thus, matter itself may have been created in a way mediated by natural processes, since knowable laws of physics would have been valid. In fact, it is the pattern of physical reality described by those created laws which makes possible the creation of matter.

We must reject the purely platonic idea that those patterns exist eternally as platonic forms, and that God creates the universe after that pattern. Such an idea would compromise the doctrine of creation ex nihilo, for the forms would then rank equally beside God.

The material world is not an inferior representation of eternal forms, but rather the fulfillment of mathematical pattern.

Rather, we should say that God created the pattern of nature, somehow "activating" the particular pattern which God wanted to exist as the physical world. (We are, of course, being forced to use metaphor here.) Our present laws of physics, especially relativity and quantum theory, give us approximations of the true pattern of the universe, that activated pattern which produces the matter of the world." The material world is not an inferior representation of eternal forms, but rather the fulfillment of created mathematical pattern. The term .1 embodied mathematics" can be used to describe this aspect of the world. 12 This suggests the term "inverted platonism" to describe the Judaeo-Christian understanding that the world which God has created is superior to "bare" mathematical pattern.

The ideas discussed here bring out with great clarity the paradox of which I have spoken. God is the sole creator, but the whole material world has been produced mediately.

Concern with creation in the beginning also involves questions surrounding the origin and development of life. Scripture is, if anything, more emphatic about the divine creation of life than of matter (e.g., Psalm 104:29-30). Life comes from God alone, and not from any pre-existing potential for life. Scripture also teaches that God's creation of life is mediated. That is the clear meaning of the first creation account of Genesis, in which God commands the earth and waters to bring forth fife (Genesis 1:11, 20, 24). That was the understanding of Christian theologians, such as Gregory of Nyssa, for around a thousand years.13 The material of which the universe was made, material created by God, was understood to have the potential to develop life when God wished it to.

Such an understanding is completely in accord with modern theories of the origin of life and biological evolution."14 According to these, the first living molecules gradually came together from non-living ones, and complex organisms developed from simpler ones. There are some serious scientific problems about the origin of life, problems which are still far from solution. 15 But the point here is that the development of life through natural processes is very much in accord with the Christian theological tradition.

The Fulfillment of Creation

God's intention for the future of creation is shalom, the peace which is more than mere absence of war (e.g., Isaiah 11:6-9). But how, in the tense and sin-filled situations of this world, can this peace be brought about? Belief in God's direct intervention might lead to a "passive pacifim" that rejects any human activity in the establishment of peace. Schall spoke very well to the idea of trusting it) God as an alternative to armaments:

This strikes me as rather like refusing to protect a baby who is being attacked because we are pacifists and abhor violence. So the baby dies and we are virtuous. The "trusting in God" alternative is really a denial of secondary causality.16

Scripture warns us not to trust in weapons (e.g., Psalm 33:13-20, Isaiah 31:1), just as we are not to place ultimate faith in doctors or elevate the evolutionary mechanism of natural selection to the status of a first principle. But God does work mediately also in matters of war and peace. That is part of the meaning of the traditional "just war" doctrine. Part of the task of Christians is the search for instruments more in line 
with God's peacemaking through the cross of Christ.

We are not to place ultimate faith in doctors or elevate the evolutionary mechanism of natural selection to the status of a first principle.

Tools like effective nonviolent resistance, aikido, or Burnham's proposal for the introduction of U.S. and Soviet observers into one another's strategic systems, need further exploration. 17 One of the significant instruments through which God chooses to work is the human imagination.

The Sense and Meta-Sense of the Universe

The fact that the activity of God within the universe is mediated through natural causes means that we can explain the universe at one level in terms of natural causes. Laplace, in his monumental work on celestial mechanics, made no appeal to divine activity. When he was challenged by Napoleon for not bringing in God, Laplace, who was a Christian, replied, "Sire, I have no need of that hypothesis. "" On the level of scientific explanation, he was correct. The universe can be explained (in a phrase popularized through Bonboef fer) etsi deus non daretur, "though God were not given."18 An atheist can make sense of the world,

However, without divine revelation one cannot make sense of the sense that is found in the world. This can be illustrated from a book to which I have already referred, Weinberg's The First Three Minutes. After presenting a lucid survey of the tremendous degree of understanding of the universe which science is able to give, Weinberg finally comes to ask what it all means.

If we begin from the cross and resurrection, we will be able to recognize this "trademark" of God, the sign of creatio ex nihilo which is the sign of the cross, throughout the universe.

And he is forced to answer that it doesn't mean anything: "The more the universe seems comprehensible, the more it also seems pointless. 20 Science by itself cannot avoid that conclusion, for it cannot, from within the realm of natural phenomena, make what we might call "meta-sense" of the sense which scientific methodology sees in the universe. That may, in fact, be a 21 fundamental limitation related to Godel's theorem.

The Christian claim is that the meta-meaning of the universe is to be found in God's revelation, which is at its fullest in the cross and resurrection of Jesus Christ. That cannot be deduced scientifically, and in that sense is something which must be added on to the scientific understanding of the world. That, however, does not mean that the universe is devoid of witness to this revelation. If we begin from the cross and resurrection, we will be able to recognize this "trademark" of God, the sign of creatio ex nihilo, which is the sign of the cross, throughout the universe.22 Proper "natural theology" is thus a part of specifically Christian theology.23 At its best, it is what I have called "chiasmic cosmology," in which Christ is seen "placed crosswise" in the universe.24 The multitude of death and resurrection types which are seen throughout the world of natural phenomena are then seen to be signs that the Crucified is the One through whom all things were made. On the other hand, the splendor of the galaxies flung across the universe, and the intricate biochemical bases of life, remind us that it is their Creator who is the Crucified. The cross and resurrection of Christ are the meta-sense of the world.

Appendix: The Creation and Annihilation of Particles

The particles of modern physics are not permanent entities, Phenomena like the emission and absorption of light (photons) or beta decay (in which a neutron changes into a proton, an electron, and an antineutrino) show that particles can appear and disappear. In quantum field theory, which is currently the most reliable tool for dealing with such phenomena, these processes are described by the use of mathematical objects called "creation and destruction operators." These occur naturally in the mathematical representations of fields, like the electromagnetic field or the Dirac electron field. Creation and destruction operators have the property of, respectively, increasing or decreasing by one the number of field quanta in the state upon which they operate.25


A creation operator in quantum field theory does not describe a process which a theologian would call creation ex nihilo. Particle interactions must conform to conservation laws for energy and momentum, charge, and other quantities, so that a real particle of energy E can be "created" only if the energy of the rest of the system decreases by E. Still, these processes of emission and absorption of particles (to use terminology somewhat more neutral than "creation and destruction of particles") have some theological interest. According to quantum theory, the structure of the physical world depends on the continual emission, exchange, and absorption of particles. That is to say, the structure of the created world is maintained through a dynamic process which seems like an ongoing death and rebirth. At the very least, this provides theologians with an interesting metaphor!


1Gilkey, Langdon. Maker of Heaven and Earth. Garden City, NY: Doubleday, 1959.

2Luther, Martin. "The Small Catechism," in Concordia Triglotta. St. Louis: Concordia, 1921, p. 54&

3Stark , John Frederick. Daily Hand-Book. Philadelphia: 1. Kohler, 1855.

4Kessel, Edward L. "A Proposed Biological Interpretation of the Virgin Birth," Journal of the American Scientific Affiliation 35(3):129 (1983).

5Pseudo-Ignatius. "The Epistle of Ignatius to Hero," in The Ante-Nicene Fathers, vol. 1. Grand Rapids, ME Eerdmans, 1979 (reprint), p. 114.

6Weinberg, Steven. The First Three Minutes. New York: Bantam, 1979.

7For a popular discussion of recent developments in cosmology see: Barrow, John D. and Joseph Silk. The Left Hand of Creation. New York: Basic, 1983.

8Viienkin, Alexander. Physical Review D27 :2848 (1983).

p. 2851.

10Asimov, Isaac. Science, Numbers, and I. New York: Ace, 1968. (pp. 3-42 give a discussion on a non-technical level.)

11Murphy, George L. "A Positive Approach to Creation," Journal Of the American Scientific Affiliation 32(4):230 (1980).

12Olson, Richard. Scottish Philosophy and British Physics 1750-1880. Princeton, NJ: Princeton Univ., 1975, especially pp. 299-312. Neidhardt, W. Jim. "Relationship Analogies in Theology and Natural Science," presented at the 1986 annual meeting of the American Scientific Affiliation, 9 August 1986, at Houghton, NY.

13Messenger, Ernest C. Evolution and Theology. New York: Macmillan, 1932.

14Murphy, George L "A Theological Argument for Evolution," Journal of the American Scientific Affilliation 38(l):19 (1996).

15Crick, Francis. Life Itself. New York, Simon and Schuster, 1981. Thaxton, Charles B., Walter L Bradle and Roger L Ohm The Mystery of Lifes Origin. New York: Philosophical Library, 198t

16Schall, James V. National Review U-757 (1982).

17Reid, Howard and Michael Croucher. The Fighting Arts. New York: Simon and Schuster, 19M especially pp- 194-195. Burnham, James. National Review 21:531 ON). Murpby, George L "Toward a Theology of Technological War,- to be published in Dialog

18Coulson, C. A, Science and Christian Belief London: Fontana, 1958, pp. 41, 103,

19Bonhoeffer, Dietrick Letters and Papers from Prison. London: Fontana, 1959, pp. 12OL- 12 1. Torrance, Thomas F. Reality and Scientific Theology. Edinburgh; Scottish AcKlemic Press, 1985, p. 61, n. 1.

20Weinberg, op, cit., p. 144.

21Murphy, George L "A Positive Approach to Creation,- Journal of the American Scientific Affiliation 32(4):230 (1980).

22Murphy, George L The Trademark of God, Wilton, CT: Morehouse-Barlow, 1986.

23Torrance, Thomas F. op. cit.

24Murphy, George L -Chiasmic Cosmology,"J ournal of the American Scientific Affthation 38(2~424 (1986).

25See e.g.: Schiff, Leonard L Quantum Mechanics, 2 nd. ed, New York: McGraw-Hill, 1955, chapters XID and XIV or Mandl, F. Introduction to Quantum Field Theory. New York: Interscience, 1959.