Three Big-Picture Philosophical Perspectives on the Origin of the Cosmos

Three Big-Picture Philosophical Perspectives on the Origin of the Cosmos

Over 300 years ago German mathematician and philosopher Gottfried Wilhelm Leibniz (1646–1716) asked what may still be the ultimate metaphysical question: “Why is there something rather than nothing?”1

Leibniz’ profound interrogative leads to other important metaphysical inquiries such as “How is the existence of the cosmos best explained?” and “Which philosophical worldview system seems to best comport with modern scientific cosmology?”

Three basic philosophical positions concerning the origin of the cosmos compete to explain the reality of the universe. These three viewpoints are: (1) creation ex materia; (2) creation ex deo; and (3) creation ex nihilo.2

Philosophically, is one position to be favored over the others? And how does each match with modern
scientific cosmology?

Creation ex materia

This view asserts that matter (and its constituent parts) is eternal in some form. Thus the universe has always existed in some manner. Accordingly, to the extent that the universe was actually created (or better yet “formed”) it came “out of preexisting materials.” Those who affirm God’s existence and those who deny a divine reality have both adopted the creation ex materia position.

First, the ancient Greek and dualistic philosopher Plato (427–347 BC) proposed that a divine craftsman (the Demiurge) shaped an orderly cosmos into existence out of disorderly matter. This divine builder formed matter but did not originate it because matter is eternal. Thus, the divine craftsman simply gave shape to the eternal stuff of the universe. Interestingly enough, Plato, who some view as a proto-theist, saw value in the argument for God’s existence from design in the cosmos (the teleological argument).

Second, secular materialists, or naturalists, have held the creation ex materia position dating from ancient times to the present. Viewing the universe in materialistic and physicalistic terms was affirmed by, among others, the ancient Atomists, the contemporary Marxists, and other advocates of naturalism (the view that the physical cosmos is the exclusive reality).

Today’s advocates of creation ex materia believe that the material cosmos consists of a closed physical system that somehow self-sustains and self-generates. These thoroughgoing naturalists believe that matter is either eternal in some form or that it emerged from nothing without a cause (with the latter idea being hard to square with the idea of the cosmos as a brute reality). Even advocates of the multiverse theory would likely fit under the category of creation ex materia.

Contemporary secular advocates of this position affirm the following philosophical tenets.

1. Matter is eternal in some form.
2. No supernatural creator exists.
3. Human beings are purely physical entities and, thus, mortal.
4. Humans evolved by purely naturalistic means from lower animals; thus, humans are different only in degree (instead of kind) from the animals.

Creation ex deo

This metaphysical perspective reflects the worldview position of pantheistic monism (all reality is one and that single reality is God). Pantheistic monism takes two forms in attempting to explain the cosmos in relationship to the ultimate reality of God.

The first form of pantheistic monism is called absolute pantheism. It affirms that only mind or spirit exists; therefore, matter is an illusion (maya). Hindu philosopher Shankara (c. AD 788–821) proclaimed that ultimate reality is God and the physical cosmos is then an illusion. Consequently, one may think of the illusory cosmos coming forth from God as analogous to a dream coming forth from a mind.

The second stripe of this Eastern mystical philosophy is called nonabsolute pantheism. It can be thought of as having a more flexible, or elastic, approach to ultimate reality. While holding that all is one in God, this perspective accepts a form of multiplicity within the ultimate unity. Accordingly, this position views the cosmos as genuinely springing from the essence of God.

Pantheistic monism either asserts that the cosmos is an illusory entity or that it somehow emanates from the being of God. Either way, all is God and God is all. Advocates of this mystical viewpoint hold to the following philosophical tenets.

1. All reality is one and that single reality is God.

2. There is no absolute distinction between creator and creation; thus, creator and creation are one.

3. The cosmos is either an illusion from God or is an emanation of God’s being.

4. The true human “self” (atman) is God (Brahman).

Creation ex nihilo

Historical theologian Richard Muller defines the Latin term ex nihilo as a reference “to the divine creation of the world not of preexistent, and therefore eternal, materials, but out of nothing.”3 This biblical doctrine teaches that originally nothing existed but God (an infinite, eternal, and tri-personal Spirit). By means of his incalculable wisdom and infinite power, God alone brought the universe (all matter, energy, time, and space) into existence from nothing, not from any preexistent physical reality such as matter and its connected realities.

To elucidate further, nothing should not be understood as being an actual something. In other words, nothing is not itself an entity; it is literally no thing. Creation out of nothing means that God spoke or called all things (material and spiritual) into existence out of nonexistence.

The implication is that all of creation had a singular beginning and is completely dependent upon God for coming into being and for its continued existence.

Since God is an eternal and necessary being, he brought all things into existence through his wisdom and power alone. However, the God of historic Christianity cannot create either ex materia or ex deo. Here’s why:

First, the God of historic Christian theism cannot create ex materia because if matter were eternal then it would compete with God’s sovereign ontological status. In other words, God would have an eternal competitor.

Second, God cannot create ex deo for God is a simple being (without division or parts); he cannot take a part of himself and make the universe. The historic Christian perspective of creation ex nihilo views God as a necessary reality (a being that cannot not exist) whereas the creation is a contingent reality that could conceivably not exist.

Creation ex nihilo affirms the following philosophical tenets.

1. God (as an eternal and necessary tri-personal being) created all things out of nothing.

2. There is an ontological distinction between the Creator (necessary being) and the creation (contingent

3. The created order had a beginning and is completely dependent upon God for its continuing existence.

4. Humans were created in the image of God and therefore have inherent dignity and moral worth.

Creation ex nihilo and
Modern Scientific Cosmology

In the second half of the twentieth century, a new cosmological theory called the “big bang” theory gained acceptance. This new theory has undergone extensive testing and emerged among other cosmological views as the prevailing scientific model for the origin of the universe. According to the big bang theory, the universe (including all matter, energy, time, and space) came into being about 14 billion years ago. This amazing inception involved an actual singular beginning to all things. Furthermore, the big bang also postulates an expanding universe. The scientific conclusion, then, is that the universe is not eternal, nor is it static.

Thus, the standard big bang cosmological model has now replaced the steady-state (eternal universe) theory. And while the big bang is constantly being polished as a scientific theory, most leading astrophysicists argue that it is definitely here to stay. Any expected changes to the model will likely be mere refinements, not revolutionary changes. A universe with a singular beginning to all things from nothing also carries with it staggering religious implications. If the cosmos had an actual beginning, then inquiring about its cause seems appropriate, if not fundamentally necessary. Even secular scientists now talk casually about a “creation event” or “a moment of creation.” But big bang cosmology’s resemblance to the biblical doctrine of creation ex nihilo possesses a problem for the atheistic naturalist. Leibniz’ probative question seems to echo through an endless canyon: “Why is there something rather than nothing?”

Of the three big-picture philosophical perspectives on the origin of the cosmos, only the Bible’s doctrine of creation ex nihilo corresponds well with modern scientific cosmology. That correspondence gives us confidence in the veracity of the Christian worldview.

Biblical Support for Creation ex nihilo

Genesis 1:1 Romans 4:17
Psalm 33:6 Colossians 1:16
Proverbs 3:19 Hebrews 11:3
Jeremiah 32:17 Revelation 4:11

Three Competing Views on the Origin of the Cosmos

  Materialism’s ex materia (out of preexisting materials)

  Panteism’s ex deo (out of God)

  Theism’s ex nihilo (out of nothing)

  1. Gottfried Wilhelm Leibniz, The Principles of Nature and of Grace, Based on Reason, in Philosophic Classics: Bacon to Kant, ed. Walter Kaufmann (Englewood Cliffs, NJ: Prentice Hall, 1961), sec. 7, 256.
  2. For a discussion of these three views, see Norman L. Geisler, Baker Encyclopedia of Christian Apologetics (Grand Rapids: Baker, 1999), s.v. “creation, views of,” 172–77.
  3. Richard A. Muller, Dictionary of Latin and Greek Theological Terms: Drawn Principally from Protestant Scholastic Theology (Grand Rapids: Baker, 1985), s.v. “ex nihilo.”