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Did God use "stuff" in creation? How should I read Heb. 11:3? My response


David,

In one of your classes I thought I understand you to say that God created the heavens and the earth by putting order to chaos.  The Webster dictionary defines chaos as "a confused mass or mixture", which to me means there was something of substance.  Therefore, God put order to something that was already in existence.

However, this morning I read:
Hebrews 11:3 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.

This scripture  states God did not create the universe out of what was visible (matter/chaos) .

Fully understanding that our human brains do not comprehend nor understand many of the capabilities of God and won't until we meet Him, how do you reconcile this?

Friend


Hi,

Great question!

My own view is that ancient people in general, which would include the Hebrews, considered the act of creating quite differently than we do. John Walton does an excellent job of articulating these distinctions in his work. Because of our heavy emphasis on the scientific method, most Western people think something comes into existence when it acquires physical properties. This is different from what ancient Mediterranean people thought. They would disagree with us. They were chiefly concerned with who was in control and what function each created thing had. An ancient person conceived of the universe as a kingdom, not as a machine working on natural laws. Ancient Mesopotamians thought something came into existence when a god gave it a name, or gave it a function. Ancient Egyptians thought something came into existence when a god differentiated it from other things. Ancient Hebrews agreed with both their neighbors: something came into existence when God gave it a name or function and when it was differentiated from other things.

To think like an ancient person, ask these questions of the creation stories in Genesis: “Who’s in charge?” and “What is the function of what God created?” (Not, “What are the physical properties of the universe or what laws govern it?”)

So, yes, ancient Jews apparently believed there was a primordial “stuff” at the beginning of creation: an unshaped, undifferentiated mass of water and darkness (“Now the earth was without shape and empty, and darkness was over the surface of the watery deep, but the Spirit of God was moving over the surface of the water.” Gen. 1:2 NET).

But what about Hebrews 11?

Great question.

Now faith is being sure of what we hope for, being convinced of what we do not see. For by it the people of old received God's commendation. By faith we understand that the worlds were set in order at God's command, so that the visible has its origin in the invisible. (Heb. 11:1-3 NET)

So what are Christians supposed to be “convinced of” receiving that they cannot see in the present? Hebrews 12:28 states that faithful Christians will receive an “unshakeable kingdom.” It’s real. It’s apparently already there, waiting on Christians (11:16). It’s just that we can’t see it. It’s invisible to us because we’re not dead, nor have we received a resurrected body (cf. 11:35).

And there are other invisible things. God is invisible (11:27; and this is also in Rom. 1:20; 1:15). He’s real; we just can’t see Him. Moreover, there are things that God created which humans cannot see. Paul has this view in Colossians 1:16: “…for all things in heaven and on earth were created by him– all things, whether visible or invisible, whether thrones or dominions, whether principalities or powers– all things were created through him and for him.” (NET)

A document written some time around the era of the New Testament (most think by a Jewish author) speaks of creation this way (notice the similarities):

“O Lord, God of the ages, that didst give to all the breath of life,
That didst bring into the light the things unseen,
That hast made all things and made visible what was invisible, …”

Joseph & Aseneth 12.2 (trans. by David Cook) in The Apocryphal Old Testament (Oxford: Oxford University Press, 1984).

Here, creation is seen as God bringing things into appearance, like moving an object from shadow to light so that others can see it.

So what?

This demonstrates that (at least certain) Jews in the NT era believed that (a) God was invisible, (b) that our Christian inheritance in the new world is invisible, and (c) that God has created other things/stuff that are invisible. All these things are real. They exist. We just can’t see them in the present.

Thus, while it’s possible that Heb. 11:3 might mean that God created our world “from nothing” (ex nihilo), I don’t think that’s what he had in mind. I think the author of Hebrews had in mind a primordial, invisible, stuff that God used to form our own world.

But was that primordial stuff always there? We don’t know. There is no reason to think that this primordial stuff is eternal or not created by God. It’s just that ancient thinkers didn’t seem to care about that question. Creation for them, once again, wasn’t about material origins, but about God bringing order from chaos: void, empty, undifferentiated stuff (as in Genesis).

So, I think the author of Hebrews was trying to encourage his fellow Jewish Christians: “Look! You need to stay faithful; have endurance. A reward is coming. It’s real. It’s there. You can’t see it yet, but so what? Look all around you! Everything you see in creation came from what was invisible. Just because you don’t see something right now doesn’t mean it’s not real. So it is with our inheritance. Stay strong. You’ll see it soon enough.”

That’s what I think.

In Christ,
David

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