Out of Nothing: Six Thoughts on Creation


These thoughts emerge from the belief that at the very heart of Christian faith is a call to imagine the creation—its beauty, its order, its tragedy, its history—in the light of our faith that the one through whom all things were created has come into our world to restore and lead the creation to its fulfillment. Thus, while Christian reflection on the theme of creation might seem to focus on the idea that God has created all things out of nothing (the doctrine of, in Latin, creatio ex nihilo), in fact to reflect seriously on what Christians should believe about creation involves us in seeing the doctrine of creation as a crossroads from which we are led in many theological directions at once.[1] And so I will begin here simply by noting some of those directions.

For Christians, to say that our cosmos was created ex nihilo has always been to speak not only about the mode of God’s action in creating (creating is distinct from any action in which pre-existing things are molded or changed), but also about the dependence of all things on the transcendent God. God is not a thing in the world, but that on which all things depend, that which enfolds all things (all time and space, all that is material and all of the immaterial creation—the angelic realm). But Christians believe in Father, Son, and Spirit, and to talk of God's creative activity and the reality of the creation itself must involve us in speaking of creation and the Trinitarian life.

But if all things depend upon the eternal communion in love of Father, Son, and Spirit, then all that exists in the cosmos is good, however mysterious that may seem. There is no space within Christian belief for a claim that some things within the creation were given existence by an evil power—a belief held by many of those thinkers in the first few centuries of the Christian period whom modern scholars have termed “Gnostics.” But, if all that exists is willed by God, then it follows that the doctrine of creation demands that we speak also of the nature and origin of evil within God’s good creation.

The doctrine of creation also speaks to us of history, and of the end of history (that is, of eschatology). This is so most simply because belief in Christ concerns God’s restorative and redemptive action, and thus reveals that the one who created all things now restores the creation towards an end in which Christ returns and all is united in God (1 Cor 15:28). As we say this we must also recognize that considering the Christian vision of the liturgical and sacramental life forms a fundamental part of a Christian vision of the creation. In the sacraments we see God not only using created realities as signs, but also revealing to us the true character and liturgical consummation of created reality. In what follows I draw out some of these dimensions in a little more detail.


Allow me to begin with perhaps the foundational of doctrinal themes here, the manner in which we should conceive of the Trinity creating and sustaining the creation. Without considering this question carefully we easily, if perhaps only half-consciously, imagine the creation as an object occupying space distinct from its human constructor, who looks on approvingly!

I will take the core of my answer from Augustine of Hippo, writing in the early fifth century. His argument comes in two stages. In his first tractate (or sermon) on John’s gospel he offers an analogy between God and a human artist in order to establish the manner in which the creation relates to its creator:

A carpenter makes a chest. First, he has a design of the chest in his mind; for, if he did not have the chest in his mind, how could he work to craft it? . . . Invisible in the carpenter’s mind, it will be visible once it is produced. Once made, will it no longer be in the artisan’s mind? It is both fashioned in fact, and still in the mind. . . . The chest he made is not living; but the chest in his mind is alive, because the soul of the craftsman, where all things are before they are in fact produced, is living.

So it is, my dearest brothers and sisters, that the Wisdom of God, through whom all things were made, contains all things in the mind before she fashions them; consequently, all the things that are made through such a design are not thereby life, but whatever has been made is alive in him.[2]

The first thing we see here is that Augustine’s doctrine of creation flows from his Trinitarian theology: the Father creates through his Word or Wisdom and in the Spirit (the latter not being mentioned in this specific text).[3] All things are planned from eternity in the divine Wisdom who orders all things (Wis 8:1), and are created and ordered in time and space for us. But all created things thus find their true life and existence in the Word; all things as created may reveal themselves as signs of the divine life, and as flowing from that divine eternally generative source. Indeed, all things are intended to speak each other of their Lord: “All the earth calls upon truth, and the heaven blesses her” (1 Ezra 4:36).

In this second tractate on John Augustine presses further, and corrects some aspects of this basic analogy as he reflects on the manner of divine presence and creative activity. He comments on John 1:10: “He was in the world, and the world was made through him, yet the world knew him not,” and particularly the phrase “he was in the world.” Christ, the Word incarnate, comes into the world that has forgotten who the Word is. For the one who comes is the one through whom God creates all things, who orders all things, and in whom all things find their true life. But how then must we imagine his creative presence?

(8) If [Christ] came here, where was he? He was in this world (Jn 1:10). He was here and he also came here; he was here in his divinity, he came here in the flesh, because though he was here in his divinity, he could not be seen . . . by the blind and by the wicked. . . . Look, he is here now, and he was here then, and he is always here; and he never departs, never moves anywhere else.

(10) He is not in the world as the sky is in the world, the sun, the moon, and stars are in the world, trees, cattle, people are in the world. That is not how he was in the world. But how was he? Like a master craftsman [artifex] in command of what he has made. He did not make it, you see, in the way an artisan [faber] makes things. The chest an artisan makes is outside him and in a different place from him when it is being fashioned; it is beside him, of course, but the one who is fashioning it is sitting in a different place, and is outside the thing he is fashioning. But God is present in the world he is fashioning, he does not stand aside from it and handle the matter he is working on, so to say, from the outside. He makes what he makes by the presence of his majesty [praesentia maiestatis facit quod facit]; by his presence he governs what he has made [praesentia sua gubernat quod fecit].[4]

Across the two tractates Augustine plays on the meaning of two Latin terms: faber and artifex; in the passage I quoted from his first tractate Augustine uses the Latin word faber for his carpenter or artisan, and this term almost always signifies someone who makes material things by hand: carpenters, smiths, potters. In the passage from his second tractate Augustine contrasts faber with artifex. The term artifex can signify carpenters or potters, but it also covers a far broader realm of expertise. The skilled teacher of the liberal arts is an artifex, and in Latin translations of Hebrews 11:10, Abraham in faith “looked forward to the city which has foundations, whose builder and maker (artifex) is God.” Augustine uses this rich term to speak to us of the unique manner of God's creative activity. God makes by being present to and enfolding what he creates, not as a human agent who must make in a space beside herself or himself.

The principle that God creates out of nothing teaches us most directly that nothing pre-exists God out of which our cosmos is formed. In itself this identifies “creating” as a unique act, distinct from all acts that seem to us like creating, in which we act upon or change that which already is. But the doctrine of creation teaches us much more about this unique act by distinguishing it further from the act of a human maker. God is not an object in the world and does not need to make space in which the creation might exist; rather the Father wills all things into existence through and in his Word and Spirit, creating and sustaining them by being present to them.


One feature of the creation that flows from its existence in the Word is that it is intelligible, ordered, and beautiful. To say that the creation is intelligible is to make three sorts of claims. The first is that the structure of creation and its temporal unfolding is not random, chaotic, or purely contingent. Whether or not we, as fallen creatures (see point five below) are able to see that structure, structure there is. Second, as a consequence, we find ourselves in a world which may be understood, within which we may slowly grow in understanding, to which our minds are accommodated because we are made in the image of that Word and Wisdom through whom all things exist.

The ease with which thinkers in modernity have embraced varieties of relativism which at the very least imply that the human mind’s appreciation of beauty or rational arguments do not enable us to grasp our cosmos in truth is something that should be of deep concern to Christians. It is not that Christians should avoid all recognition of the manner in which cultural context (differing over time and space) shapes our perception of reality and makes it remarkably difficult to perceive how and where this is so; it is that Christians will find themselves in deep difficulty if they do not recognize the ramifications of their commitment to the world’s intelligibility. God has spoken in such a way that we may speak clearly of the divine purposes, and God enables us to speak that message across cultural contexts and ages. Conscience may be educated such that human beings can grow in knowledge of the good. The human mind may be trained such that it grows in a wonder at the creation that truly grasps how things are. There is here a philosophical and theological labor (I return to this term in point four below) that is incumbent on Christian thinkers if we are to articulate to the world a true vision of who we are and where we are.

Third, to claim that the world is ordered and structured is also to claim that it may speak to us of God in a trustworthy manner. This is in part to speak about the possibility of analogy—the possibility that we may at the least speak towards the transcendent divine life by reflecting on goodness, truth, beauty, unity, and other features of the creation (even if, as I discuss below, that reflection needs much training by faith). It is also to claim that this is a world ordered toward the sacramental life, ordered so that things may not only reveal their Creator, but also be taken up into God’s sacramental economy and be vehicles of transformative grace. The world that is our home is one in which we fit, one which is ordered, and which is taken up by God’s action to serve as the vehicle of our redemption until it passes and the new Jerusalem descends and is illumined directly by the divine light (Rev. 21:22-27).


We should now take a step back and consider how we may understand the doctrine of creation out of nothing as a biblical doctrine. Apart from anything else doing so will make clear how much understanding the creation is not a matter of simply looking around us but a hard intellectual and spiritual labor. One of the most useful recent presentations of the doctrine’s history is to be found in an essay by Gary Anderson.[5] Anderson begins by noting that the texts frequently cited to “prove” that the Scriptures teach creation out of nothing—texts such as Genesis 1:1 and 2 Maccabees 7:28—are actually rather ambiguous when we are attentive. How then might one see the doctrine as “biblical”? Anderson turns to texts such as Isaiah 60 where, speaking in eschatological terms, we find clear assertions that all things come under God’s control. God is the one who will be our “everlasting light” and darkness will be no more. Texts such as this identify all things which, in earlier tradition, seem to contest God’s ultimate control of all as realities only permitted existence by the divine. The final canonical form of the Hebrew Scriptures pushes already toward a position encompassed by the later Christian doctrine. There is much more that we might draw from that very rich essay, but one thing we should immediately take from my few sentences of description is that to understand the importance of the doctrine that God creates out of nothing, we must be deeply attentive to the function that the doctrine plays in theology as a whole. In this context we can see how the doctrine emerges within the context of early Christian thought, but takes up and doubles down on a set of principles emergent through centuries of speculation in Hebrew texts about what it means for the Lord to be the One God.

Anderson also reflects on David Bentley Hart’s comment in The Doors of the Sea, that the doctrine of creatio ex nihilo is a “moral and spiritual labor.” “Spiritual” here I would like to take as including also “intellectual,” and to extend the comment not only to the particular task of grasping creatio ex nihilo, but far broader themes in the doctrine of creation. To wonder at the creation as structured and ordered by God, as finding its true life in God, and, at the same time, to speak well of the ineffable distinction between creator and creation, is a labor of heart and mind. This labor is drawn out of us providentially, by God’s giving us faith and then the grace to grow in understanding as the human mind slowly reaches beyond its fallen state and into the truth of things. I emphasize this point here because we have now seen the seriousness of the task involved in imagining the created order, and the centuries that passed as Jews and then Christians penetrated the depths of Scripture and revelation. The complexity of the task stems from what we as fallen beings have forgotten, and from our consequent tendency to conceive all things in the image of the created realities that we (only partially) see.


We human beings encounter evil and tragedy as mysteries, disturbing and horrific, and perhaps this is especially so for those of us committed to the belief that God created all out of nothing. But if we are to sustain and develop an account of creation’s existence in God, it is vital to understand why evil must be a mystery. All that God creates is good because God is goodness itself and all things in varying ways and degrees reflect the divine nature. Because of this we cannot conceive of evil things as a subset of those things which exist. If we did so, then we would either be denying that God created all things, or that God is eternally good. Either belief, if entered into fully, commits us to a terrifying vision of an existence in which we could envisage no certain triumph of God becoming “all in all,” or restoring all so that the new Jerusalem is illuminated simply by the presence of God. If we cannot envisage this then there is no certainty that goodness may be drawn from evil and tragedy.[6] And so, that which we recognize as evil is always an action or a set of actions, a life even, which lacks goodness, which fails to exist and live along paths harmonious with the created order and with God’s purposes. The tragic is most often that which either follows in the wake of evil actions which we may trace, or results from the mysterious fallenness of the “groaning” creation (Rom 8:22-23).

The origins of evil are presented within Christian thought in the form of narratives that skirt close to the borders of the mythical, not because Christians place their faith in the obviously illusory (Christianity is a faith that seeks to present its mysteries rationally), but as a sign that the origins of the lack that is evil always escape our comprehension. Thus we may narrate the story of the serpent deceiving Adam and Eve in the garden, or we may turn first to the fall of the angels and the rise of Lucifer as the background to humanity being tempted, but we should recognize that at the heart of each narrative lies an unanswerable question: why does Lucifer fall? Why do Adam and Eve succumb? The sorts of explanations that we sometimes find, beginning in early Christian writing—the first humans are childlike and so may be deceived, Lucifer becomes bored with contemplation of the divine—stab into the dark but can hardly be said to be intellectually or spiritually sufficient. It should be no surprise that, when such answers are offered, the wisest authors are carefully tentative and exploratory.

But recognizing that something central here escapes our intellects should not be taken as a sign that our faith is mistaken, rather that in our speculation (and in our apologetics) we must be careful to recognize where we find ourselves in the course of God’s economies and the slow reformation of the human mind. Supposed explanations in the form of “theodicies,” philosophical attempts to save the idea of an omnipotent and good deity from the charge that evil renders the ideas unsustainable, have been a persistent feature of modern religious thought, and certainly find their origins in a strain of Christian reflection in antiquity. These accounts usually focus on arguing that evil is an inevitable feature of existence if human beings are to achieve their full stature over time, or inevitable if we are to grow in the freedom that we have been gifted. Such arguments may well provide some solace, and they may help in the movement towards Christian belief. But they should not, for Christians, dissolve the sheer mystery of evil’s origins or our horror at the ravages of evil in the world, or the constancy of the tragic in our existence.

There is no humanity or useful display of Christian faith in telling those whose loved ones have died of famine or war that the gift of free will inevitably results in some who abuse that gift. While we do not comprehend the origins of evil, and while we cannot (indeed, should not) simply come to terms with its presence, we can identify God’s response to evil: Christ. The Christian response to evil consists in the confession of God’s economies, the careful judgment of the world which flows from that confession, and above all the practice of charity and care for people. Christ and the drawing of us into Christ, and the sending out of us into the world—that is God’s response to evil.

God’s act of creating is an eschatological action in two senses. In the first sense God’s creation is temporal, the creation heads towards an end and a consummation in which death will be at an end, and God will be all in all (1 Cor 15:28). In the second sense, the end of creation is in God, the purpose or goal of all that is created is praise of and life with God. With the coming of Christ the end of creation has arrived in both senses: Christ is the Word of God, the one in whom all things were created, and in the practice of charity that we learn from him, and see drawn out in his saints, we see God responding to the lack that is the horror of evil in his creation. At the same time, Christ's sending of his Spirit and joining us to him is the beginning of the end that will end evil’s disruption of the created order. The whole creation groans, but it does so knowing that the end has begun.


Let us turn finally to the knot of themes that links Christ as the center of creation, creation as an eschatological reality and the eucharist as the focal point at which we may come to understand the potential and end of the created order. I will reflect on these themes by turning to the late second-century theologian Irenaeus of Lyons. God, for Irenaeus, exhibits harmony and consistency; God is always what he is and is eternally undivided. God’s created order similarly exhibits an order in its structure, and a further harmony is to be seen in the unified series of God’s economies, God's salvific works within creation. The creation exists as a gift from God, and as a revealing of the divine nature. It is also a gift through which we may be drawn to God; it is a gift in which the fleshly and the spiritual are drawn to work together toward the eucharistic, liturgical end of praise towards which God draws the creation.

As we grasp that we have received the gift of existence we should come to recognize the rightness of our thanksgiving to the one creator. That which we have been given we naturally and rightly offer back. And, thus, in the eucharist Irenaeus sees these harmonies made visible and being restored: the flesh and the spirit are drawn together and united in and toward the Word. Irenaeus famously writes:

Our doctrine is in harmony with the eucharist, and the eucharist in turn confirms our doctrine. For we offer to God the things that are his own, while we proclaim harmoniously the communion of the flesh and the Spirit.[7]

Near the beginning of Book V of Against Heresies this picture is deepened when Irenaeus returns to the theme in a deeply Christological key. Once again, Irenaeus begins by condemning those who imagine that the Lord “came to what did not belong to him, as if he were greedy of others’ possessions” (he means those modern scholars often term Gnostics). The economy which we must recognize is not one in which God has need, or in which God takes what is not his; rather, “he kindly poured himself out that he might gather us into the Father’s bosom.” Indeed, the very character of God’s interaction with the creation depends upon our grasping the nature of flesh and the material.

Now, if this flesh is not saved, neither did the Lord redeem us with his blood, nor is the cup of the Eucharist a communion in his blood, nor is the bread we break a communion in his body.[8]

For Christ to save as the Scriptures suggest, flesh must be capable of being the means of our salvation, and only if this is so may the eucharistic elements be the God-given means of our communion with him. Irenaeus continues:

And since we are his members, we are also nourished by the creation; he himself furnishes us with the creation by making the sun rise and making it rain as he wills. He confessed that the cup which is from the creation is his blood, from which he gives growth to our blood; and he affirmed that the bread which is from the creation is his body, from which he gives growth to our bodies.[9]

Our home, the created order, is given us by God, and through that same creation intended to nourish us, we are more truly nourished by being raised to communion with and in Christ. If we understand that the Word has taken flesh, then we must also understand that the created order is taken into Christ as his body and blood and becomes key in our salvation.

Irenaeus now expands his argument into a complex set of mutually informing harmonies:

By way of illustration, a branch of the vine when placed in the ground, will produce fruit in due time . . . through God’s Spirit, who holds all things together—all things that through wisdom serve the use of men. Besides, when they receive the Word of God, they become the eucharist, which is Christ’s body and blood. Now, in like manner, our bodies, having been nourished by the eucharist and buried in the earth, and decomposed into earth, will rise in due time, when the Word of God bestows resurrection on them for the glory of God the Father, who truly surrounds this mortal body with immortality. . . . [All this] is because God’s power is made perfect in weakness, so that we might not have life as if from ourselves . . . but that by experience we might learn that we possess perpetual continuance because of his greatness, but not because of our nature.[10]

The creation produces fruit through God’s Spirit who holds all things together. The eucharist parallels this truth; God’s Word enters into created realities and transforms them into his living body and blood. And finally, this truth parallels the death and resurrection of our bodies, which are raised by the Word. In the case of each of these parallels, we should learn the true nature of created being, and something of the Creator. We are intended for eternal life, but that comes to us not from ourselves, but from divine gift. And yet this does not devalue the created order because God’s power is made perfect in weakness, is revealed in weakness. It is into flesh that God comes, and it is flesh to which God gives life and which he raises.

There are a variety of appropriate Christian responses to our existence in the created order, depending on personality, on circumstance, and on God’s providence. Some will calmly and in contemplation experience the creation above all as gift and as a sign of divine benevolence; others will find the Christian doctrine of creation a wager made in the face of the overwhelming force of evil experienced in a life or in the face of evil’s power; others—perhaps most of us—will find themselves moving between these movements over the course of life’s inevitable variations. But for everyone, imagining and living within the created order is an intellectual and spiritual labor essential to Christian existence. Moreover, all that may be usefully said today by Christians about our ecological crises, and about the crises in our vision of the human being—its nature, education, and life together—must be rooted in attention to the most basic principles of a Christian theology of creation.

Further Reading

Gary Anderson, “Creatio ex nihilo and the Bible,” in Gary Anderson and Markus Bockmuehl, eds., Creation ex nihilo: Origins, Development, Contemporary Challenges (Notre Dame,IN: Notre Dame University Press, 2017), 15–35 (and the other papers in this collection).

David Burrell, Freedom and Creation in Three Traditions (Notre Dame, IN: University of Notre Dame Press, 1963).

David Burrell, Carlo Cogliati, Janet Soskice, and William R. Stoeger, eds., Creation and the God of Abraham (Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 2010).

Simon Oliver, Creation: A Guide for the Perplexed (London: T & T Clark, 2017).

Joseph Ratzinger, 'In the Beginning…': A Catholic Understanding of the Story of Creation and the Fall (Grand Rapids MI: Eerdmans, 1995).

Brian Robinette, The Difference Nothing Makes: Creation, Christ and Contemplation (Notre Dame, IN: Notre Dame Press, 2023)

Janet Martin Soskice, "Creation and the Glory of Creatures," Modern Theology 29 (2013): 172-185.

John Webster, “Love is also a lover of life”: creatio ex nihilo and creaturely goodness,” Modern Theology 29 (2013): 156-171.

EDITORIAL NOTE: Sections of this paper were originally delivered as a Thomistic Institute lecture at Blackfriars Oxford. The author is grateful to those who invited me and to the community there for a very helpful discussion. He would also like to thank Stephen Holmes, Andrew Radde-Gallwitz, Simon Oliver, and Fr. Andrew Summerson for comments on an earlier draft.

[1]. And so we may note that it is odd that in the post-conciliar era, while reflection on some related questions—e.g. Catholic theology and evolution, Catholic theology and the environmental crisis, the character of humanity—have received intense scrutiny, the overall theology of creation has not been the subject of extensive treatment.

[2]. Augustine, Io. ev. tr. 1.17 (St Augustine, Homilies on the Gospel of John 1-40, trans. E. Hill [Hyde Park NY: New City Press, 2009], 53).

[3]. For a fuller discussion of the relationship between Augustine's Trinitarian theology and his view of creation see Scott A. Dunham, Augustine and Creation. An Ecological Analysis (New York: SUNY Press, 2008).

[4]. Augustine, Io. ev. tr. 2.8 & 10 (Homilies on the Gospel of John 1-40, 61 & 63).

[5]. Gary Anderson, “Creatio ex nihilo and the Bible,” in Gary Anderson and Markus Bockmuehl, eds., Creation ex nihilo: Origins, Development, Contemporary Challenges (Notre Dame IN: Notre Dame University Press, 2017), 15–35.

[6]. One might also say that this is precisely the vision of existence which has become dominant in the anxieties of modernity, but which is rarely embraced head-on—Nietzsche being one of the few to see the full horror of what must be embraced if the Gods are dead.

[7]. Irenaeus, Against Heresies 4.18.5 (trans. Saint Irenaeus of Lyons. Against the Heresies. Books 4 and 5, trans. Scott D. Moringiello & John J Dillon [Mahwah NJ: Paulist Press, 2024]).

[8]. Irenaeus, Against Heresies, 5.1.2.

[9]. Irenaeus, Against Heresies, 5.1.2.

[10]. Irenaeus, Against Heresies, 5.2.3.

Featured Image: Aurelio Luini, Animals Entering the Ark, 1556; Source: Wikimedia Commons, PD-Old-100. 


Lewis Ayres

Lewis Ayres is Professor of Catholic and Historical Theology at the University of Durham, UK and Professorial Visiting Fellow at the Australian Catholic University in Melbourne, Australia.

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