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What does it mean that God created the heavens and the earth (Genesis 1:1)?

God created the heavens and the earth

The first verse of the Bible is packed with meaning: “In the beginning, God created the heavens and the earth” (Genesis 1:1, ESV). We can learn many things from this verse: First, God is the ultimate being, who exists independently of time, space, and matter. For this reason, He cannot be identified with the universe. The universe is not God, and God is not the universe. God is God, and He transcends the created order. He is not limited by time because He is eternal (1 Timothy 1:17). And He is not limited by space or matter because He is omnipresent (Psalm 139:7–12).

Second, God is the source of everything that exists. In Genesis 1:1, the Hebrew word for “created” is bārā’, which is always used in contexts relating to God (cf. Exodus 34:10). When humans “create” something (poetry, music, and skyscrapers), we use preexisting materials. But when God created the heavens and the earth, He did not use preexisting materials because, prior to the act of creation, God alone existed.

Third, God created the universe ex nihilo, or “out of nothing.” The NRSV translates Genesis 1:1–2 as follows: “In the beginning when God created the heavens and the earth, the earth was a formless void.” This translation implies that matter existed prior to God’s special act of creation. The ESV translation, however, offers a better rendition of the opening verses: “In the beginning, God created the heavens and the earth. The earth was without form and void.” This may seem like useless hairsplitting, but it is crucial to emphasize that God created the universe ex nihilo.

Adherents of ancient pagan religions believed that their gods used pre-existing materials to mold and fashion the world. The Bible insists, however, that God brought everything into existence by the “word of His power” (Hebrews 1:3; cf. Genesis 1:1—2:3; John 1:1–4).

Fourth, the universe was not created in its final form. Genesis 1:2 states, “The earth was without form and void.” Initially, the universe was without form or shape, but God would soon mold it into something good and beautiful (cf. Psalm 19:1). Humans also make things that are beautiful (let us think of Beethoven’s Third Symphony or Leonardo da Vinci’s Mona Lisa). Thus, to be created in the image of God partially involves a creative element (Genesis 1:26–27).

How should we respond to the doctrine of creation? First, God should be worshiped as the creator and sustainer of the universe: “In him we live and move and have our being” (Acts 17:28; cf. Job 12:10). This means that everyone is dependent upon God and accountable to Him (Romans 3:19). We owe everything to God because, without Him, we would not exist. May we, therefore, dispel the lie that we are autonomous, independent, and self-sufficient.

Second, creation should not be viewed as inherently evil (as some pagan religions have taught). God is good, and creation reflects His goodness. Initially, evil did not exist. It was introduced into the universe by creatures who misused their freedom (Genesis 3:1–24). Nevertheless, God promised that our fallen world would be restored to perfection, and the children of God would one day dwell in the “new heavens and new earth” (Revelation 21:1).

A proper understanding of Genesis 1:1 ensures that we give God all the glory, praise, and honor for creating and sustaining the universe. The appropriate response is to “present [our] bodies as a living, sacrifice, holy and acceptable to God, which is [our] reasonable worship” (Romans 12:1; cf. 1 Corinthians 6:19–20). We were made by Him and for Him.

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Questions about Genesis

What does it mean that God created the heavens and the earth (Genesis 1:1)?
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This page last updated: July 24, 2023