Resurrection as the Personal Realization of Creation Ex Nihilo

The understanding of the world against which Christianity is pitted is one which begins with the world as we know it, as its starting point. This “world as we know it” sort of understanding might explicitly postulate the world as absolute (an infinite uncreated universe or a universe unfolding from a preexistent material) or it might, in its misconstrued Christian form, implicitly give final weight to the present cultural moment. An example of the latter, giving rise to the presumed order of the logic of Christianity, begins with creation (as “naturally” conceived as in the philosophical arguments). It is assumed that we have access to creation and that we build upon this understanding sequentially till we add in the order of salvation. Like the traditional prolegomena, it is presumed a basic knowledge of God and the world are given together and the story of salvation can be added on to this foundation. The influence of this distorted beginning shows itself, almost as bluntly as Greek philosophical understandings, in its treatment of the doctrine of resurrection. Of course, bodily resurrection made no sense in any of the Greek philosophical understandings, but it is shunted to one side even among Christians focused on creation ex nihilo. For example, creationists’ reaction to evolutionary biology, focused as they are on proving a First Cause sort of creator, seem to miss a key point of the resurrection: biology is not the primary human problem. Creation ex nihilo, then, if it is not paired with resurrection, misses the existential import it bears in the Bible and early Christian preaching.

There is some debate as to how explicit or fully realized the doctrine of creation ex nihilo is in the Old and New Testament, but what is clear is that Christian apologists of the 2nd century A.D., in defending the doctrine of the resurrection, fleshed out the doctrine of creation ex nihilo in its fullness.[1] Resurrection would require of Platonists, such as those encountered by apologists like Tatian (120-180 A.D.), a complete reconception of their world. It would demand a rethinking not only of God, but of humans, and of the material world (which was its own sort of absolute). The scoffing reaction of the Areopagites to Paul’s proclamation of the resurrection (Acts 17.32) indicates the overwhelming change the Gospel called for.

It was not just a matter of accepting resurrection, which would have been seen more as a damnable condition than salvific, but it was a matter of changing up the dominant world view in such a way as to make resurrection seem either plausible or desirable. Within a Greek frame, flesh involved a necessary corruption which could only be escaped by shedding the body and becoming an immaterial soul (not so unlike the continued understanding of a Greek influenced Christianity). Later, Celsus (as recorded by Origen) will mock the despicable lengths to which Christians are willing to go so as to make it seem any human soul would want to occupy a body that had rotted and which will continue to rot. “God in no way is able to do shameful things, neither does he wish things contrary to nature.” As Celsus will explain, God is reasonable and being reasonable he would not preserve the body, which Heraclitus tells us, “is more to be cast off than refuse.” The material and the corporeal are subject to chaos and corruption, and are subject to unreason, thus the reasonable soul must be rid of them.  “God is not willing or able irrationally to make everlasting the flesh which is full of things which are not beautiful. He himself is the reason of all things.” [2]

Seen from the stand-point of resurrection, it is obvious that death and corruption were the primary factor in the Greek conception of both God and the world. God cannot overrule the primary law of death and corruption which mark the material universe, and are separated out from his order of reason. God, equated as he was with reason, was eternally opposed to the discord and disorder of matter and this opposition constitutes an eternal dualism.

To be on the side of God would mean being part of the Greek polis, the counter-ordering of the city of man, built upon the implicit absolute of death. Controlling death, warding it off through religion, disciplining its chaotic inclinations through law, religion, sacrifice and the counter violence of the city, constitute(ed) the imposition of reason in this chaotic world. Much like the doctrines of penal substitution and divine satisfaction in Christianity gone bad, the price of not controlling the violence through violence, is to succumb to it.  But of course, these doctrines have arisen like pagan sacrificial cults on the presupposition that God must negotiate with and attempt to defeat the corrupting power of death, which controls the universe and which opposes him. This is a misreading of the universe, a misunderstanding of God, and a perversion of the Judeo-Christian hope.

The Jewish Scriptures are founded upon God’s creative control over the universe, and though there may not be a full development of creation ex nihilo, there is an explicit counter to divinizing any element in the world or to making any element of the world, divine or material, its source. Genesis seems to counter the violent Babylonian creation myth (or its equivalents), the Enuma Elish, in which the body or blood of the god, Tiamat, slain by Marduk, is the raw material of the created order. As a story of origin, Genesis purposely subordinates the chaos. Though it mentions the “confusion and emptiness,” it is subject to God and his organizing rule. The gods of the Enuma Elish were born from Tiamat and Apsu, the salt and fresh waters (Enuma Elish 1.1-12), but it is God who separates and organizes the chaotic waters of Genesis. The mythological sea and its chaotic waters always threatened, but in Jewish understanding the threat is eliminated. The waters are subject to God’s ordering and are a part of his creative artifice in Genesis. As Job explicitly has God inquire:

“Or who enclosed the sea with doors When it went out from the womb, bursting forth; When I made a cloud its garment, And thick darkness its swaddling bands, And I placed boundaries on it And set a bolt and doors, And I said, ‘As far as this point you shall come, but no farther; And here your proud waves shall stop’?

(Job 38:8-11).

 It was also a common belief that the heavens are of a different, divine order, than the sublunar world. This notion is also completely thwarted.  The Hebrew texts picture God as the originator of heaven and earth: “Thus says God, Yahweh, Who created the heavens and stretched them out, who hammered out the earth and its produce. Who gave breath to the people upon the earth, and spirit to those who walk on it” (Isaiah 42.5). The oneness of God, as opposed to a duality between God and the gods or the principles of the world, means there is a uniform order between heaven and earth.

“For thus says the Lord, who created the heavens (he is God!), who formed the earth and made it (he established it; he did not create it a chaos, he formed it to be inhabited!): “I am the Lord, and there is no other. I did not speak in secret, in a land of darkness; I did not say to the offspring of Jacob, ‘Seek me in chaos.’ I the Lord speak the truth, I declare what is right.”

(Is. 45:18-19, RVSCR)

As James Alison describes it, there are no secret deals, no dark blood-letting, no prior chaos with which God has to deal.[3] Any social or religious order founded upon seeking God in chaos, is directly refuted by this God who speaks directly and clearly into the world. His personified wisdom precedes all of the elements of the world and there is nothing dark or threatening but all of creation is an ode of joy at the display of his wisdom: “The Lord created me at the beginning of His way, Before His works of old. From eternity I was established” (Proverbs 8.22-23). Reason or wisdom does not stand opposed to the created order nor does it illicit escape from this order, rather it is on display throughout creation. This wisdom from eternity is linked with all of creation; the springs, the hills, the fields, the heavens, the skies, and the clear depiction of a boundary put upon sea.  Throughout the Proverb, culminating with human creation, wisdom is described as the master workman (v. 30). So, what is prior to creation is God and the personified wisdom of God.

Here there is no dualism between the created order and reason, or between heaven and earth, or between the realm of God and the realm of the world. In fact, the world is consistently depicted as a fit dwelling place for God:

“This is what the Lord says: ‘Heaven is My throne and the earth is the footstool for My feet. Where then is a house you could build for Me? And where is a place that I may rest? For My hand made all these things, So all these things came into being,’ declares the Lord.”

(Is. 66:1-2)

Only God can prepare his dwelling place and he has done so by calling the world into being.

While this and many other verses seem to teach creation ex nihilo, it might be denied that they do so, as this doctrine is not a developed or universal understanding among Jews or even among early Christians. (For example several of both faiths view Plato’s creation account in the Timaeus, which depicts the world as created from a preexistent chaos, as borrowed from Moses.) Creation ex nihilo is implied and perhaps it is present in certain texts, but it will not become a definitively developed doctrine apart from belief in resurrection.

The development of the doctrine is clearly tied to the advent of belief in the resurrection, even as it developed among Jews during the Maccabean revolt. A mother encourages her son to submit to submit to martyrdom by looking to the origin of creation, and she ties this to the assurance of resurrection:

“I beg you, my child, to look at the heaven and the earth and see everything that is in them, and recognize that God did not make them out of things that existed.  And in the same way the human race came into being. Do not fear this butcher, but prove worthy of your brothers. Accept death, so that in God’s mercy I may get you back again along with your brothers.”.

(2 Maccabees 7:28-29)

As Alison describes it, two things come together here, as for the first time we encounter the concept of creation ex nihilo and with it a conception of resurrection. With creation there came into being the human race, and so one can challenge the present social order, even upon pain of death, knowing that the social order is itself contingent. God is alive and exuberant and has nothing to do with death or the social order, such that it is a light matter to die rather than become subject to social purposes. What is coming into view is the implication of the work of Christ.

This is as close to an explicit teaching of creation ex nihilo as is to be found among the Jews, and yet it is also tied to an implied resurrection. The question is why this should be the case?

Certainly, the Hebrew Bible serves as an antidote to violent creation myths and it even provides explanation as to how these myths arose. The early chapters of Genesis supply ample material, which Paul calls upon in Romans 1, to describe the turn from worshipping God to deifying parts of creation. The notion of creation ex nihilo, or its near equivalent, is typically called upon in refuting idolatrous religion, and yet this is not enough, as Paul will point out. Though the people Paul is describing had ample knowledge of God and his relationship to creation, this knowledge is inadequate as a point of resistance to death dealing practices. “For they exchanged the truth of God for falsehood, and worshiped and served the creature rather than the Creator, who is blessed” (1:25). The specific cause which Paul points out,“they became futile in their reasonings” and in “claiming to be wise, they became fools” (Ro. 1:21-22). Their problem is not that they have insufficient information about the First Cause. As Paul will work it out in the course of his explanation in Romans, their acceptance of false views of creation are tied to their orientation to death. As he says at the end of this first chapter, knowing that these things deserved and were tied up with death was no deterrent. They approved of wicked deeds, and knowing they were tied to death was perhaps, an impetus to do them anyway (1:32).

The specific triangulation which he comes to in chapter 4, with the depiction of the faith of Abraham, is that Abraham came to near simultaneous conclusions concerning death, creation, and his being the father of a new sort of nation: “(as it is written: ‘I have made you a father of many nations’) in the presence of Him whom he believed, that is, God, who gives life to the dead and calls into being things that do not exist (Ro. 4:17). The capacity to believe God can call into being that which does not exist is a direct correlate to believing he gives life to the dead. These two beliefs are at the center of a new identity, based on resurrection faith. This faith, which recognizes the gratuitous nature of God in creation and in regard to rescue from death, is very much tied to Abraham’s relationship to the law. The law has no hold on him; it does not pertain to his benefits and holds out only wrath (4:15), yet faith renders it irrelevant.

All of this though, comes to Abraham as part of his own existential journey into a reorientation to death.  His faith became a realization as “he contemplated his own body, now as good as dead since he was about a hundred years old” (4:19). Likewise, it was the recognition that Sarah’s womb was dead, combined with his faith that God could bring life from out of death, that brought him to “being fully assured that what God had promised, He was able to perform” (19-22).

What Abraham, as the prototype of Christian faith comes to, is the understanding that his is not primarily a biological or material problem. Death reigns only for those who, in their sinful orientation, imagine they must negotiate life on the basis of death. Death is put in its place by faith in God, and the faith which is no longer oriented by the sinful orientation, is enabled to put the material order and the corporeal body in their proper place (along with the law).

Even in the sequence of the writing of Genesis, it is the realization of Abraham that precedes the writing of the early chapters of Genesis, so that proper access to creation is enabled by the disabling of death and the idolatrous reification of death, by which Abraham is surrounded. The access to creation is always enabled in the same way. In this sense, creation ex nihilo and resurrection are not simply book-ends at the beginning and end of time, but pertain to this present moment. Where matter, death, biology, and time might be experienced as barriers which block out ultimate reality, faith recognizes that the world, the body, the material order of the cosmos, are the conduits for presently participating in the life of God. Creation understood in light of salvation turns out to be an unfolding of God’s eternality to his human offspring.

 The danger, even with a misconceived creation ex nihilo, would be to imagine that there is a sequence from nothing to something, as if nothing is an actually existing stage in the order of things or a stage which accompanied God prior to creation. The sequence upon which we depend is not marked, as William Lane Craig, has pictured it, as God shifting from his eternal intention (in which nothing accompanies God) to his causal power. The existential encounter with God in the reality of death, empties out the tomb and empties out this reified conception of nothing. The recognition of the power of resurrection in the midst of death opens up recognition of God’s abiding presence in and through creation.  


[1] This is the claim and explanation of James Noel Hubler in his dissertation Creatio ex Nihilo: Matter, Creation, and the Body in Classical and Christian Philosophy Through Aquinas which can be accessed at https://repository.upenn.edu/cgi/viewcontent.cgi?article=2119&context=edissertations

[2] In Origen, Contra Celsum, 5.14

[3] See chapter 4 of James Alison’s, On Being Liked, Herder & Herder (April 1, 2004

The Unraveling and Remaking of American Religion

According to the democratic party convention, America is engaged in an existential battle for the soul of the nation and a moral crusade for a return to basic decency. Eric Trump responded that the democrats are crazy and will return the country to socialism, higher taxes, and unfair trade agreements. The covid-19 crisis has only sharpened this political divide, offering focus on economic survival with Donald Trump or biological and cultural survival with a future democratic party, focused on science and common decency. In one party, the death of a few is called for by the economic welfare of the many. There are always those (according to Rusty Reno, see my piece here) who will inevitably be culled by disease, and we must offer up the susceptible for the survival of the many. The fact that black people are dying at nearly three times the rate of white Americans is the price many (white?) people would allow for. The counter accusation is, democrats would reduce us to socialism and would subvert the key doctrine of American individualism. It as is if two religions or two alternative world views were vying for the soul of the nation, and maybe they are.

The brokenness reflected in this political moment reflects a personal journey for Faith and I. As the country was beginning to split more sharply four years ago, we were fired, on the same day fifteen minutes apart, from a Christian college. This college and its personnel would fall on the hard right of this political/cultural moment, but at the point we began working there this chasm was still bridgeable. Our dismissal opened a gap with former colleagues and those we once counted as friends, not of our making, which has remained firmly in place. In the intervening years, I have seen the same divide open up with several of my students (maybe my fault) and have witnessed it with acquaintances, who have lost jobs and relationships with family, not just because of politics but due to the religion which attaches to the politics. This period of division in our country reflects an expanding chasm opening up within the Christian faith (both Roman Catholic and Protestant). There are two interpretive frames, one in which economics outweigh the focus on social inequities and human welfare, and I am not referring to political parties but to two theological understandings.   

In the conservative wing of theology (and I use conservative here to refer to a failure to engage the liberal nature of the gospel), Christianity is primarily concerned with correcting a failed economy of a divine order. In this familiar story, God created everything good and human sin spoiled this goodness. The focus, though, is not upon what went wrong in the world but how sin offends the justice of God. Given his prerogative of justice, in his offended honor God could have simply wiped out the human race, but since he is also merciful, God decided to work out a solution within himself. The two-fold problem is how to meet the obligation of his offended justice, as God could not simply forgive as this would violate his justice (the controlling factor in the economy), and how to receive this payment from the quarter (within humanity) in which the offence arose (the debtor must pay the debt). Thus, the incarnation and the cross, in which humanity in Christ offers up the required infinite payment, which was an amount they could not have engineered, but which God arranges through the death of his divine Son. Those who choose or are chosen to be covered by his infinite payment meet the requirements of God’s justice and are enabled to go to heaven and miss hell. An infinite payment is made to meet the infinite debt of God’s offended honor and justice. Thus, the books are balanced in the divine economic order.

This tight focus on payment and exchange, which its inventor, Anselm, thought of and illustrated in monetary terms, becomes literally concerned with money and savings with the Protestant Reformation.  Now that all are priests, their vocations are also a calling (whether shop keeper or banker), in which the accumulation of wealth is a sign of God’s blessing. Now one does not depend upon priests or the church to assign blessing, as grace comes through hard work and shows itself in accumulated wealth. That is, an economic order of salvation translated into a primary focus on economics in which the literal accrual of wealth reflects a grace that can been cashed in and credited to one’s account. Capitalism, in this very brief synopsis of its rise as outlined by Max Weber, is already interwoven with a religious belief in which economics is primary, so it should be no surprise that this form of the religion would become narrowly focused on a leader concerned with boosting the economy. The limited dimensionality of this religion, I believe, accounts for the narrow focus of its present political attachment.

The problem with this theory is that, as a theory, it allows for abstraction or a distancing from the lived-reality of what happened to Jesus and what happens to all people. It abstracts from the human circumstance and puts primacy on the heavenly economy shadowed forth in the earthly market. The fact that people crucified Christ and that it is human and not divine wrath which killed him, are rendered inconsequential. One keeps score in this system, not by correcting social injustices like crucifying or killing unjustly, but by meeting the requirements of the law which reflect God’s own character. Fighting injustice (helping the poor, ceasing to steal, cessation of war and murder) though one might choose to do such things, are not primary. In spite of the biblical depiction of the law with its death dealing letter being set aside, in this understanding the economy of salvation is according to the demands of the law. And besides, don’t the poor already bear the signs of missing God’s blessing? Aren’t they deserving of their lot in life by dent of their not doing the hard work which would show forth God’s favor? As a youth minister explained to my daughter, the poor show they are not blessed as they are poor (which seems to have bypassed one of the beatitudes).

This economy of exchange, of debt and payment, is attached to a peculiar and singular ethic: the Protestant work ethic. Virtue pays cash dividends, according to Benjamin Franklin, and the wise investment of time shows itself monetarily in a value system in which “time is money” (Franklin’s phrase). This translates directly into virtue is money and money a virtue. If every calling is a sacred calling, then every occupation deserves holy or whole or complete devotion. Piety is work and eventually one is left with work and money in place of or in conjunction with religion and blessing. This rise of a capitalistic religion seems to explain its culminating attachment to the vacuity of virtue that is Donald Trump.

In that this is the American story and religion, this may be the part we are most familiar with, but let me propose a more orthodox reading of scripture, which is not a theory so much as a direct engagement with the first order problem we face as humans. The root problem behind poverty, social injustice, war, and racism, pertains to the zero-sum economy enacted by the fact that people die. Time is money and both are valuable commodities only where there are limited amounts of each, and so too the ensuing problems of poverty, greed, racism, and injustice. The gospel is not about working within this limited economy of death, but in opening up to life in the fullness of God, creation, and other people, through the defeat of death. Rather than setting us to work to prove we are saved in an economy of death, the gospel call is to act as if death is not a final reality, which opens up an order in which we can address the real-world problems associated with the fact that people die.

James Alison pictures this contrast as that between theory (a disengagement with reality) and liturgy (a direct engagement with reality or something we can immediately grasp).[1] In his description liturgy is something “that happens to you” and it does not depend upon an intervening theory. We need not speculate about the movement or mind of God in theory, as reality is engaged. A way of approaching the difference is in contrasting pictures of sacrifice. In the artificial economy of sacrifice (shared with pagan sacrificial systems), what gets sacrificed (the enemy, slaves, or women, in paganism) saves the one who sacrifices. God’s justice, and in a sense God himself, is preserved or saved from the divide between his wrath and love, in penal substitution. Sacrifice can also depict a personal event in which it is not the other but the self that is sacrificed. Sacrifice to the economy preserves the self and the economy. Where the economy itself is sacrificed the theory of sacrifice is replaced with the reality of self-sacrifice (taking up the cross).[2] This frees up from the work of economic sacrifice so that the implements of the economy of death (i.e. swords) are utilized in a different order of reality as farm implements, the growing of food, and the welfare of people (Isaiah 2:4).

The Jewish Temple sacrifice is often read as if it serves the economy of death, with the priests and people sacrificing animals to save themselves. According to Alison, this needs to be reversed and read in light of the sacrifice of Christ. The imagery of the Temple sacrifice, like the event of the cross, is not that something is sacrificed to God but that God is sacrificing himself. The goat, which was the Lord, is taken into the Holy of Holies and sacrificed by the high priest. The high priest puts on a phylactery when he emerges (on his forehead or wrapped around his arm) which identifies him as YHWH, the unpronounceable name of God.  In this reversal, the atonement is not about bringing the priest and people before God, but it brings God into the world. It is the Lord which the priest represents, who emerges to set the people free from the result of their sin. From out of the place before or beyond creation (represented by the Holy of Holies) the priest would emerge as God himself emerging through the veil of the material world (he would don a robe made of the same material as the veil) so as to cross the divine human divide created by humans. Then he would sprinkle the rest of the Temple, representing the cosmos itself. The life of God (“life is in the blood”) is unleashed onto creation so that the healing of redemption is not an inward and upward heavenly departure of humans but the earthly, outward movement of the arrival of God. God is acting to save his people from sin and death and they are freed up to participate in his redemptive, seventh day, activity.[3]

Of course, it is Christ who is the true high priest who fulfills God’s emergence from out of the origins of creation, before time, into the world. This is the portrayal of Hebrews and the Gospel of John, in which Christ is the true mediator, the true Temple and the true sacrifice. John pictures Jesus as sacrificed on a Thursday, during the sacrifice of the Passover lambs (without a bone being broken) but, as Alison points out, wearing the seamless robe of a priest. Here is the true sacrifice and the true high priest, who upon his death repeats the finale to the days of creation from Genesis, “It is finished.” The beginnings of creation are complete, and this culminates John’s opening chapters, with Christ portrayed as both creator and as re-inaugurating creation in the opening of his ministry. Now the eternal seventh day of rest is made an open reality for all. This is made clear as the tomb is pictured like the arc of the covenant or like the holy of holies with its mercy seat, where Mary Magdalene “saw two angels in white sitting where the body of Jesus had been lying, one at the head and one at the feet” (John 20:12). The Holy of Holies has been opened up to the world.

The implication is that we have to do, not with an economy of death set in heaven and reflected on earth, but with creation and its completion in salvation. The contrast with the economy which devolves into the Protestant work ethic is passage out of the legal six-day economy of work. In the imagery of the writer of Hebrews human toil is transformed into the leisure of the seventh day of rest. The contrast between the two religions of the day, is a continued working to escape death in an economy of substitutionary sacrifice and the presumption that self-sacrifice is afforded by God as the zero-sum economy is defeated. The former demands work and consumption, presuming that the wrath of God and divine justice are primary, while the latter abandons this zero-sum game in its recognition that it is human wrath and injustice that are defeated in the death of Christ. God does not require satisfaction or substitution but only people do. It is this human wrath and violence projected onto God, which imagines human sacrifice assuages God’s anger. God does not benefit from the death of Christ; we are the beneficiaries and this is the realization taken up in an alternative form of life.

I believe, in this political/cultural moment, we are indeed faced with a religious choice. The religion of the day, joined to a politic preserving this world’s economy, has divided itself off from Christian orthodoxy. This division and the chasm that has opened up in our culture and which reflects the splintering of the Christian faith, is not entirely negative. The emptiness of heterodoxy is being revealed throughout our nation, though, at the steep price of hundreds of thousands of lives. There is a clear division, however, being made between a false and true gospel. Forging Ploughshares and many other individuals and organizations are teaching the gospel of peace, without hindrance or admixture. Religious division is resulting in the emergence of a certain clarity for many. Orthodoxy is showing itself in its creation care and is revealed in its embrace of a politic aimed at human well-being in which the physical is not set apart from the spiritual. It is revealing itself in a faith that regards social justice as synonymous with the establishment of the true church, as this is the politics of Jesus. God himself has entered creation to redeem it, and as we engage this redemptive creation care we recognize salvation engages and defeats death and the death dealing nature of the human economy; it does not divinize or project this economy onto God or seek to sacrifice to preserve it, but it moves beyond it to the real-world relief and salvation of suffering humanity.   


[1] http://jamesalison.com/some-thoughts-on-the-atonement/?fbclid=IwAR088AjIDc3R1-96QWybIPTFknpWV2bZfAV5-YEJPZUZU67xqOrC1xkTqfI

[2] Murder, as René Girard has taught us, stands behind all sacrificial systems and Jesus reveals the intention of the Pharisees and priests and of all religions of sacrifice. “You are from your father the devil . . . a murderer from the beginning . . .  When he lies, he speaks according to his own nature, for he is a liar and the father of lies” (8:44-5).

[3] Alison, Ibid.