(Part 1) (Part 2) and (Part 3) of this series have documented the vital theological importance of the doctrine of creation ex nihilo (“creation out of nothing”). Now it is time to consider its impact on science. Three specific examples will be considered here.
A linear view of time.
In ancient times, such as when Abraham walked the Earth, the prevailing view was that everything moved in cycles and eventually returned to the beginning—just like a wheel. (The Hindu belief in reincarnation reflects this idea.) Within a cyclic view of time, there can be no meaningful progress, since everything just turns back to the start. By contrast, the ancient Jews held to a belief in creation (a singular beginning) and a future time when God would judge the Earth (an ending). This naturally gives rise to a linear view of time where all events can be understood as being on a single thread linking these two great bookends of history.
While this linear view of time may seem trivial and obvious today, it was essential for the development of meaningful science because a linear view of time allows for progress and discovery, whereas the cyclic view does not. So the idea of creation, with the resulting linear view of time and its role in the development of modern science, is a precious gift from the Jews to the world (see Thomas Cahill).
Impetus theory and heliocentrism.
Creation ex nihilo also had an impact on our notion of motion and inertia. The ancient philosopher Aristotle (4th century BC) had taught that matter was eternal (opposite of creation ex nihilo) and so motion must likewise be eternal (i.e., intrinsic). For Aristotle, a thrown object moves because the air closing in behind it pushes it forward. A corollary to Aristotle’s understanding of motion is geocentrism, i.e., that the Earth is at rest while the Sun and planets rotate around us. In other words, if the Earth was moving then we should feel it moving beneath our feet, and since we don’t observe that, the Earth must be at rest at the center of the universe.
Aristotle’s view of motion dominated Western thinking for 1,700 years and directly hindered the development of heliocentrism. It was Jean Buridan (14th century), and his successor Nicholas of Oresme (14th century), who developed a new understanding of motion that directly challenged Aristotle’s view (see Stanley L. Jaki and Michel Bumbulis). Buridan believed that everything had a beginning (i.e., creation ex nihilo), hence motion must likewise have a beginning.
Just as it is God who imputed motion to the universe, it is the thrower who imputes motion to the thrown object (not the air). If someone wants to throw something farther, then they simply need to throw it harder. This simple idea became known as “impetus theory.” For a rotating Earth, impetus theory argues that objects on Earth receive the same motion as the Earth and so move in sync with the Earth’s rotation, which is why we don’t fly off the planet’s surface. Copernicus, Galileo, and Kepler (16th century) looked to Buridan (rather than Aristotle) for their understanding of motion, which helped eliminate the biggest objection to a heliocentric model of the solar system. Remarkably, impetus theory also anticipated Newton’s first law of motion (17th century).
The “big bang.”
The most dramatic vindication of creation ex nihilo comes from modern astronomy. During the earliest days of the church, the prevailing position in the Greco-Roman world was that matter was eternal and uncreated. After Emperor Constantine (4th century) legalized Christianity, it quickly became the primary religion of the Roman Empire and creation ex nihilo likewise displaced a belief in eternal matter. With the rise of Christianity, the notion of a beginning became the dominant view in the Western world throughout the Middle Ages and the Reformation. This remained the case until the time of Immanuel Kant (18th century).
Kant proposed a model by which our galaxy and our solar system would form from a collapsing cloud of matter under strictly mechanistic processes. This “primal nebula” theory was rapidly and widely adopted by the astronomical community. Kant’s idea was extended to suggest that the universe was infinite in extent and filled with an infinite number of “island universes.” Building on the success of his work, Kant went on to argue (philosophically) that the universe could not have a beginning and was eternal. This meant an overthrow of creation ex nihilo and a return to the eternal matter of the Greeks. Kant’s infinite static universe model would govern astronomical thinking down to the beginning of the 20th century; for this he is known as the father of modern cosmology (see Hugh Ross).
Kant’s model and his philosophical writings played a key role in moving science from a theistic to a nontheistic framework. He vanquished creation ex nihilo and relegated God to having a minor role (at best) in the universe. There were some evidences against Kant’s model, but scientists remained confident that they could resolve these.
Near the beginning of the 20th century, however, Einstein introduced his general theory of relativity. It was revealed, both theoretically and experimentally, that the universe must be expanding. This meant that as we look farther and farther back in time, the universe must get smaller and smaller until you reach a singular point (or singularity) and can’t go back any farther. From this singularity the entire universe burst forth in an explosive event popularly known as the “big bang.” All matter would have formed out of the event, meaning matter would have an ultimate beginning in the finite past (i.e., creation ex nihilo).
Many attempts were made to avoid this beginning or push it back into the infinite past because of the obvious theological implications (see Jastrow). The singularity theorems of Roger Penrose, Stephen Hawking, and George Ellis (1960s) put an end to such speculations and demonstrated that time and space (not just matter) had an ultimate beginning.
This scientific vindication of the biblical doctrine of creation ex nihilo is an absolutely stunning conclusion. To put this in perspective, Genesis and its account of creation is more than 3,000 years old and yet it speaks truthfully to us today. Ancient Jews and the early church strongly declared creation ex nihilo, even when it was derided as absurd by the ancient Greeks. No other religious doctrine or philosophical belief has been as thoroughly reviled and yet fully vindicated by modern science.
The information presented here is based on research that is currently unpublished. Inquiries regarding it should be directed to the author (KansasCity@reasons.org).