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How God Created: Creatio ex nihilo or ex materia?

By Eric Johnson

Note: The following was originally printed in the November/December 2020 edition of Mormonism Researched. To request a free subscription, please visit here.

According to LDS teaching, finite matter has infinitely existed. In Latin creatio ex materia means “creation out of preexisting material.” The idea says that the “Creator does not mean Originator, but Builder. God is an Architect of the material universe, not the Source of all things” (Norman Geisler, ed., Baker Encyclopedia of Christian Apologetics, p. 172). Thus, God is not considered sovereign over all things because He is limited by natural law.

The LDS scripture Book of Abraham, found in the Pearl of Great Price and published in 1842, lays out the LDS teaching. With Elohim (God the Father) speaking on behalf of the other gods, Abraham 3:24 says: “We will go down, for there is space there, and we will take of these materials, and we will make an earth whereon these [others] may dwell.”

The next chapter talks about how the “Gods organized and formed the heavens and the earth.” Monotheists such as Christians, Muslims, and Jews  consistently teach that there was a beginning of the universe created by God, whom they call the “First Cause.” This idea of creation from out of nothing is known as creatio ex nihilo. Christian pastor John MacArthur writes, “God spoke the universe into existence (Ps. 33:6, 9). He did not use preexisting materials (Rom. 4:17). Nor is matter eternal. Creation was ex nihilo—the material and spiritual creation came into being from nothing” (Biblical Doctrine, 403).

The difference between creatio ex materia and creatio ex nihilo is just another major difference between Mormonism and monotheism. An official LDS Church manual from 2000 explains, “Joseph Smith likened the creative activity to the building of a ship (see Teachings of the Prophet Joseph Smith, 350-51). Just as a shipbuilder needs materials to create the ship, the Creator made the heavens and the earth out of existing materials” (The Pearl of Great Price Student Manual Religion 327, 40).

Second President Brigham Young took his lead from Smith and added, “To assert that the Lord made this earth out of nothing is preposterous and impossible. God never made something out of nothing” (Journal of Discourses 14:116).

As the Encyclopedia of Mormonism puts it, “since Mormons believe that the elements are eternal, it follows that they deny the ex nihilo creation” (1:400). Discussing the idea that everyone has existed as “intelligences” from an infinite past, that same encyclopedia also explained how “Latter-day Saints reject the troublesome premise of creation ex nihilo (out of nothing), affirming rather that there are actualities that are coeternal with God” (2:478).

Did you catch how it is considered “impossible” for God to create out of nothing and how there are “actualities” (matter and people) “coeternal” with God? Does this radical concept describe the true God?

Why Creatio Ex Nihilo Matters

A Latter-day Saint may wonder why this doctrine matters. It is because  that God is nothing more than the last God of an almost endless series of gods if the LDS position is accepted. Faithful Latter-day Saints hope to continue Elohim’s legacy by becoming exalted as gods in their own right in the celestial kingdom. Monotheists disagree, claiming that He is the only God in existence. Let’s consider three reasons why ex nihilo creation is the reasonable conclusion.

  1. The Bible clearly teaches that nothing existed before God

Genesis 1:1 says, “In the beginning God created the heavens and the earth.” Where was God before He created the world? The Bible assumes that He eternally existed as God while remaining separate from finite elements, including time, space, and matter.

In essence, God came out of eternity to create everything that finitely exists. German Protestant scholar Claus Westermann said that Genesis 1:1 does not refer to “the beginning of something, but simply The Beginning. Everything began with God” (Genesis: A Practical Commentary, 7).

Theologian Wayne Grudem explains that “before God began to create the universe, nothing else existed except God himself. This is the implication of Genesis 1:1. The phrase ‘the heavens and the earth’ includes the entire universe” (Systematic Theology, p. 263).

In chapter 3 (“Craftsman or Creator?) of the Christian book The New Mormon Challenge, philosophers Paul Copan and William Lane Craig write, “In fact, the very structure of Genesis 1:1 argues for creation out of nothing. Grammatically and contextually, a very good case can be made for seeing Genesis 1:1 as referring to absolute creation” (112).

Time did not exist before God, who is the “first and the last” (Ex. 44:6). Hebrews 11:3 says, “Through faith we understand that the worlds were framed by the word of God, so that things which are seen were not made of things which do appear.” This idea is supported by a number of other biblical passages (i.e., Ps. 33:6, 9; 148:5; Isa. 45:18; Acts 4:24; 14:15; 17:24-25; Rom. 4:17; Rev 4:11; 10:16).

  1. Everything that exists depends fully on God.

Creatio ex nihilo means that God, as a necessary Being, is needed to keep all things together. In classic LDS doctrine, however, God has always existed but not always as “God.” Rather, He lived as a human in another world before he qualified to become the God of this universe.

Since there would have been a time when God did not exist as “God,” He would not have been responsible for holding everything together before this universe. If Jesus is God’s first-born (literal) son, He too was not responsible to keep all things together before He was created by Elohim.

The Bible does not allow for such a scenario. Concerning Jesus, Revelation 1:8 calls Jesus the Alpha and the Omega, the beginning and the end. John 1:1 claims Jesus existed as God in the beginning, with verse 3 stating that “all things were made by him; and without him was not any thing made that was made.” This means “not even one thing” has been created by anyone else! In John 17:5, Jesus spoke of His glory before the world was created.

According to Colossians 1:15, Jesus is “the image of the invisible God, the firstborn of every creature.” The word for “firstborn” in the Greek does not mean “first created” but rather “preeminent” one. This is clarified by the apostle Paul in verses 16 and 17: “For by him were all things created, that are in heaven, and that are in earth, visible and invisible, whether they be thrones, or dominions, or principalities, or powers: all things were created by him, and for him:  And he is before all things, and by him all things consist.”

After saying that Jesus was “appointed heir of all thing, by whom also he made the worlds,” Hebrews teaches that Jesus upholds “all things by the word of his power” (1:3). The author was talking about all things in all universes, not just this universe. It makes no sense that all things (literally, every “single” thing) were held together by Jesus in the Mormon cosmology since He did not exist as a god before God the Father had a chance to graduate to godhood.

  1. An eternal past makes no philosophical sense.

In a very powerful part of the book The New Mormon Challenge, Copan and Craig explain how it is impossible to have an actual infinite. They present the following syllogism:

1) An actual infinite cannot exist.

2) An infinite temporal regress of events is an actual infinite.

3) Therefore, an infinite temporal regress of events cannot exist.

An infinite number is theoretical, not real. Thus, when pi is stated to be 3.14159265…, the three dots signify infinity. It would be impossible to get to the final number of pi because it moves into an infinite future. We normally shorten pi to 3.14, but in actually, the number will keep going and never stop, no matter how many digits a high schooler may memorize for math class!

To understand an infinite “past,” suppose a person goes into a library featuring an infinite number of library books and begins walking along the shelves, holding her hand out while touching the books as she goes. When will she arrive at the last shelf of books? If this unique library is really filled with an infinite number of books, then the answer has to be never.

Yes, the concept gets philosophically deep. (The authors use a wonderful illustration called Hilbert’s Hotel to help make this confusing point more understandable.) Eternal matter in a finite world makes no rational sense.

If, as Mormonism teaches, Elohim had a God, and His God had a God, and so on, going back into an infinite past, the “first God” will never be reached. (For more on this concept, read chapter 3 in The New Mormon Challenge.)

Of course, this concept of God existing before this universe is a mystery and cannot be comprehended by finite minds. Still, an uncreated and without beginning God is much easier to envision than an infinite universe.


The LDS model of creation contradicts both the Old and New Testaments. To believe that God merely pieced the universe together using preexisting materials not only goes against both the Old and New Testaments, but it contradicts logical reasoning as well. The God of Christianity is so much grander than anything Mormonism can offer. Because believers are commanded to worship God in “spirit and in truth” (John 4:24), this concept really does matter.

For more on this topic, visit Crash Course Mormonism: Creation.



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