In the Beginning God Created
Exploring the intersection of faith and science
By Ronny Nalin
Few concepts in the Bible are so consistently asserted throughout its pages as the claim that God is the Creator of the universe and life. From the very first verse (“In the beginning God created . . .” [Gen. 1:1] to the last chapter (“I am . . . the Beginning and the End” [Rev. 22:13]) Scripture repeatedly affirms that what brought all things into existence was the creative activity of God. Such unequivocal clarity conflicts with the naturalistic models of origins predominant in secular academic thought, which do not accept the idea of the Creator God or the possibility of His interaction with nature.
The Bible not only identifies God as the author of creation, but also depicts Him as actively and intentionally engaged in the process. This is clearly conveyed by the account of Creation in Genesis 1, where the verbs describing God’s role (created, said, saw, divided, called, made, set, blessed) are in the active form and associated with a direct object.
What Can We Know and What Can We Not Know?
If the Bible is explicit in indicating God’s agency in creation, what can be said about the mechanisms of creation? Does Scripture provide insights about the processes God used in His endeavor? The book of Job seems to make a case for a limited ability for humans to attain knowledge of how God unfolded His creative powers. In talking to Job, Elihu stresses how “God thunders marvelously with His voice; He does great things which we cannot comprehend” (Job 37:5). Later in the book God Himself presents Job with an extensive review of the wonders of creation (Job 38-41), finally leading to Job’s famous recognition: “I have uttered what I did not understand, things too wonderful for me, which I did not know” (Job 42:3). This inability to comprehend the creative power of God is a fundamental aspect of the human condition and is not because of a lack of willingness or application. This view is clearly expressed in the following statement by Ellen White: “Just how God accomplished the work of creation in six literal days He has never revealed to mortals. His creative works are just as incomprehensible as His existence.”1
God is Creator of all things, and has revealed in Scripture the authentic account of His creative activity. In six days the Lord made “the heavens and the earth” and all living things upon the earth, and rested on the seventh day of that first week. Thus He established the Sabbath as a perpetual memorial of His completed creative work. The first man and woman were made in the image of God as the crowning work of Creation, given dominion over the world, and charged with responsibility to care for it. When the world was finished it was “very good,” declaring the glory of God. (Gen. 1; 2; Ex. 20:8-11; Ps. 19:1-6; 33:6, 9; 104; Heb. 11:3.)
It is also true, however, that the Bible contains countless invitations to ponder aspects of the natural world as a way to become more acquainted with the character of God and His ideal for His creatures. David, for example, explains how his thoughts take form when considering “Your heavens, the work of Your fingers, the moon and the stars, which You have ordained” (Ps. 8:3). Therefore, even if the process of creation may be inaccessible to us, what results from it (the “creation”) invites investigation and appears intelligible. We can note this ambivalence even in the passage where God humbles Job through His challenging questions. God asking Job penetrating questions directs Job’s attention to observable aspects of the marvels of creation. This function of science, as a way to connect with God, is beautifully affirmed in another statement by Ellen White: “Under the direction of the Omniscient One shall we, in the study of His works, be enabled to think His thoughts after Him.”2
Balancing Two Extremes
Considering what the Bible says about probing the beginnings of our world, scientific investigation of origins should maintain a balance between two extremes. On the one side lies the risk of leaving God out of the picture. Scientific methods help us understand, often in minute details, the operations of some physical phenomena. Unfortunately, rather than eliciting wonder and gratitude to the Creator, this knowledge may lead to a false sense of domination and self-reliance. When we miss that knowing how something works does not mean we know how it was created, we get trapped by the temptation first heard in Eden: “You will be like God” (Gen. 3:5).
At the opposite end of the spectrum lies a vision of science as a dangerous taboo. Scientific research is suspicious. This attitude makes religion look like an attempt to control humanity by keeping it ignorant. Satan tried to portray God in a similar way when he asked Eve in Eden: “Has God indeed said, ‘You shall not eat of every tree of the garden’?” (Gen. 3:1). Through this insinuating question, the serpent suggested that God did not want humans to experience creation, when in fact God had planted those very trees so that humans could eat from their fruit.
When we engage in discussing some aspects of God’s creative acts, therefore, we need to avoid these two potential extremes. In this spirit the following reflections are offered as explorative suggestions from a limited human perspective.
Did God Create Me?
One of the first questions about the mode of divine creation is the issue of fiat creation. The Latin word fiat implies the appearance of fully functional systems in immediate response to God’s command. The Genesis account of creation is quite clear that God spoke things into existence. This concept is reinforced in several other biblical texts, such as Psalm 33:6: “By the word of the Lord the heavens were made, and all the host of them by the breath of His mouth.”
On the other hand, we also experience the formation of new things, which are not made instantaneously by the voice of God, such as the coming to the world of a new baby. This reality, however, is not in conflict with the original fiat creation. God is still the author of everything, by working through the laws He ordained to govern physical systems in time.
Created Entities: Static or Dynamic?
A second area of potential confusion is the idea that what God creates cannot change because it is perfect. Many things we see in the universe today are part of a dynamic system, full of processes, change, and, therefore, history. Is this the result of sin?
In His original plan, God did not intend for His creatures to remain static. This is implied by the injunctions “be fruitful and multiply, and fill the waters in the seas,” “multiply on the earth,” “be fruitful and multiply; fill the earth and subdue it” (Gen. 1:22, 28) directed at the fish, flying creatures, and humans, respectively. The verbs used suggest that God endowed His creation with the potential for growth and expansion. It is clear, therefore, that God envisioned this world as a dynamic system from the beginning. At the same time, the account of Genesis does indicate that some changes in nature were introduced by the entrance of sin (Gen. 3:14-19).
Regardless of the reasons for change, many things observed today, such as impact craters on the surface of the moon, seem to point to the occurrence of processes in the past. Accepting that things may have been subject to change after their creation helps us understand that not everything we see faithfully reflects the original condition of created entities.
Out of Nothing or From Preexisting Material?
Another important question about creation asks if God works from preexisting material or if He does not need any starting ingredients but can really make things ex nihilo (a Latin expression that means “out of nothing”).
The Bible clearly asserts that God has the capability to create ex nihilo and that indeed He did so. “All things were created through Him and for Him. And He is before all things” (Col. 1:16, 17; cf. Heb. 11:3). Nevertheless, the Genesis account does show God can also create things using preexisting materials, the prime example being the creation of man from “the dust of the ground” (Gen. 2:7).
Determinism and Free Will
A final question about God’s creative activity concerns the amount of control He exerts in governing the mechanics of the systems He created. Does God purposely determine the occurrence of every phenomenon, from the specific trajectory of a grain of sand transported by a river to the exact recombination of genetic material from the chromosomes of parental cells? This issue is very important, especially in discussions about free will and the manifestation of evil in nature.
The New Testament portrays Jesus as the Sustainer of the universe—after all, “in him all things hold together” (Col. 1:17, NIV). This means that there is no reality without God. However, sustaining is different from determining. God may provide a setting for things to exist, where multiple outcomes of a certain phenomenon have the opportunity to occur. From the perspective of humans, laws may regulate some of these outcomes, whereas others cannot be predicted beforehand. These two ways for things to happen are commonly referred to as “necessity” and “chance.” These impersonal words convey the impression of a mechanical world functioning without God. However, what we experience as “necessity” and “chance” could in fact be intentional ways in which God allows free will to become possible.
A Matter of Faith
In conclusion, scientific investigation may help elucidate some aspects of the processes God chooses to interact with nature. At the same time, although science may give us a deeper appreciation for the greatness of the Creator, understanding how God made the world remains a matter of faith. “By faith we understand that the universe was formed at God’s command, so that what is seen was not made out of what was visible” (Heb. 11:3, NIV). It was no different for Adam and Eve, who woke up in a marvelous world whose creation they had not witnessed. As they were, so are we privileged to explore that marvelous world and grow in appreciation for its wonderful Creator.
1 Ellen G. White, Spiritual Gifts (Battle Creek, Mich.: Seventh-day Adventist Pub. Assn., 1864), vol. 3, p. 93.
2 Ellen G. White, Education (Mountain View, Calif.: Pacific Press Pub. Assn., 1903), p. 134.
Ronny Nalin, Ph.D., is a research scientist at the Geoscience Research Institute of the General Conference of Seventh-day Adventists and lives with his wife, Elisa, and daughter, Gioia, in Mentone, California.