The theist’s answer to the question is that God existed before the universe and subsequently brought it into existence out of nothing (ex nihilo) in a single creation moment as described in Genesis. But the very conception of a creator existing before the universe and then creating it implies a time sequence. In both the Judeo-Christian tradition and the scientific worldview, time began when the universe came into existence, either through divine creation or the Big Bang. God, therefore, would have to exist outside of space and time, which means that as natural beings delimited by living in a finite universe, we cannot possibly know anything about such a supernatural entity. The theist’s answer is an untestable hypothesis.
I should begin first by noting that Shermer did a reasonable job of representing the Judeo-Christian view of God. That isn't to say that he hit the nail on the head, because it's going to become painfully obvious that there are some problems with his assessment of God and the conclusions which follow from it.
First, is Shermer correct when he says, "The theist's answer to the question is that God existed before the universe and subsequently brought it into existence out of nothing in a single creation moment as described in Genesis." ?
At first blush, you might say "Yes, that is right" but I am going to say "Well, not exactly". Remember that a theist is someone who believes in one or more gods who participate in the creation and involves itself/themselves in human history. But, not all theists are monotheists (one God) and not all monotheists are Jewish or Christian, thus not all theists recognize or agree with the statement that Shermer espouses.
There are other religions who reject the Bible as scripture, but worship either a single God (monotheism) or multiple gods (polytheism). There are also monotheists who believe that the universe is God (pantheism) thus they would certainly not agree with the statement that God created the world ex nihilo. What we see in Shermer's statement is not an attack against theism in general, but a disapproval of a particular brand of theism - namely Christianity. I understand why he feels the need to do that, but I feel that the approach misrepresents reality.
Now, be that as it may, it isn't unexpected and I will continue through the remainder of my assessment of his comments as though he where addressing only Christianity, because... well let's face it, he is. Not to mention that I have no reason to defend the truth claims of any other religious idea, because I don't hold those views.
So, the question remains, do Christians believe that "God existed before the universe and subsequently brought it into existence out of nothing in a single creation moment as described in Genesis."? I think it is safe to say that most do. I can only say most, because there are some who don't take the book of Genesis literally, thus I can't say that they believe that God actually did what is described. That is another ball of wax that needs to be melted and smoothed, and we will do that in a future article, but it remains that the first lines of Genesis say:
1 In the beginning, God created the heavens and the earth. 2 The earth was without form and void, and darkness was over the face of the deep. And the Spirit of God was hovering over the face of the waters.
Genesis 1:1-2 (ESV)
Does this tell us that God created the universe ex nihilo (out of nothing)? No, actually it doesn't say anything about whether it was "something" or "nothing". So, where does the idea of ex nihilo come from?
The idea comes from a complete understanding of the other 65 books of the Bible, including passages such as Psalms 33:6, Psalms 148:5, John 1:3, Colossians 1:16, and Hebrews 11:3. So, to say that even Christians believe God brought the universe into existence out of nothing "as described in Genesis", is not a completely accurate statement. It is only after reading the rest of the Bible that one could say such a thing.
Second, the universe itself may have been brought into existence in a single creation moment, but if you follow up Genesis 1:2 and read 1:3, you find that God continued creating. So, it is not as though God said "let there be a universe" and there was a functioning universe, complete with all the present day bells and whistles. Rather, it was a creative process, broken into six time periods. The argument about whether they are six, 24 hour days (young earth) or six long but finite epochs (old earth) is another topic that deserves its own article (or series), so we will discuss that in the future as well.
Again, not that Shermer is incorrect in his overall description of Christian doctrine, but he has over-simplified the case. Regardless, if we read the verses above, we find a fairly well rounded case:
By the word of the Lord the heavens were made,
and by the breath of his mouth all their host.
Psalms 33:6 (ESV)
4 Praise him, you highest heavens,
and you waters above the heavens!
5 Let them praise the name of the Lord!
For he commanded and they were created.
Psalms 148:4-5 (ESV)
1 In the beginning was the Word, and the Word was with God, and the Word was God. 2 He was in the beginning with God. 3 All things were made through him, and without him was not any thing made that was made.
John 1:1-3 (ESV)
15 He is the image of the invisible God, the firstborn of all creation. 16 For by him all things were created, in heaven and on earth, visible and invisible, whether thrones or dominions or rulers or authorities—all things were created through him and for him. 17 And he is before all things, and in him all things hold together.
Colossians 1:15-17 (ESV)
3 By faith we understand that the universe was created by the word of God, so that what is seen was not made out of things that are visible.
Hebrews 11:3 (ESV)
While you can't necessarily reach into the full "out of nothing" bag, just from those verses alone, Hebrews 11:3 gives the clearest indication saying that " what is seen was not made out of things that are visible." Things that are not visible, are not necessarily the philosophic idea of complete "nothingness" per say, but I get the feeling that most naturalists are really more interested in whether the physical was made from physical things, or whether the physical was made from non-physical things. If I take the Biblical passages at face value, I can conclude only that God made the universe by command, from non-visible things. How that played out, what it looked like from a physical stand point as the visible and physical came into existence from the invisible, is still firmly in the realm of scientific testing.
Next, Shermer tells us, "But the very conception of a creator existing before the universe and then creating it implies a time sequence. In both the Judeo-Christian tradition and the scientific worldview, time began when the universe came into existence, either through divine creation or the Big Bang." My question is, if we apply this argument to the other nine possible answers, what is the difference between a bulk universe, quantum foam, etc existing before the universe is created and God existing before the universe is created? As far as time is concerned, there really is no difference. All imply a time sequence, so Shermer hasn't really said anything novel or challenging. In fact, what he has done is laid the other options on the chopping block.
Furthermore, saying that something/anything, including God exists before the creation of time is meaningless. There is no before the beginning. The beginning is the first moment. We have no idea if there is a time sequence beyond the dimension of time in which we live. Thus, God did not exist "before", He just existed. You can't even really say that God existed and then created the universe, because "then" also denotes a time sequence for which there is no need. But, that does no good for our talking about it since we can't really have a conversation in that way.
So, even if God's having created the universe implies a sequence which requires some sort of time, what that time looks like is indeterminate without asking the question based on revealed knowledge. As we read in Genesis 1:1, "In the beginning God created..." "In the beginning" denotes the beginning of a temporal, universal time sequence. Before that, what time existed is either eternity or another dimension of time. The Bible goes on to tell us that God is not restricted by time, that he is eternal. In eternity, there is no sequence of time, it is the eternal now. So, the question becomes, if God created the universe, but is not Himself restricted by time, how could he enter into a temporal sequence of events? The answer is fairly simple, but rather complex at the same time. God, in the Bible, is depicted as being "before all things" in the sense that at the beginning of time, God was there creating it by His will. But, God is not in time himself, yet has willfully entered into inhabiting a heavenly realm. The heavenly realm, unlike eternity, is depicted as a place with temporal events, sequences and time. However, the heavenly realm is depicted as a spiritual realm, as opposed to a purely physical realm.
It seems according to the Biblical description, that God created the heavenly spiritual realm, prior to creating the physical realm. God, not being restrained by His creation, created a non-physical, but temporal realm, from which to create a physical and temporal universe. Does this sound an awful lot like the multiple dimensions and bulk or pre-Big Bang multi-universe that Shermer talks about? I say, it actually does. In trying to defeat the Christian worldview, Shermer and others, must in a way borrow from Biblical ideas.
That being the case, I have no reason to disregard the Genesis account simply because it says that God was involved. Conversely, although I have shown how weak many of the nine possible answers are, I have no reason to fully jettison them as possibilities, because none of them are incompatible with the Biblical text. The only thing which is incompatible is the assertion that the processes happened without God being involved. As I already noted, removing God from the equation is not a necessary component of the ideas proposed. It is however a personal preference for many who are proposing them. Is it possible that one or some combination of the proposed answers is correct, but that the naturalist is wrong in removing God? Certainly it is, and we will find that not only is that reasonable, but that it is ultimately necessary if we look deeply at the propositions.
This brings us to Shermer's final thoughts on the subject. He concludes by saying, "God, therefore, would have to exist outside of space and time, which means that as natural beings delimited by living in a finite universe, we cannot possibly know anything about such a supernatural entity. The theist’s answer is an untestable hypothesis." As I said, Shermer does do justice to the doctrine, although he has over-simplified it. So on the one-hand yes, God, as described by the Bible, does exist outside of space and time. But, more accurately I think it would be said as God transcends space and time. However, Shermer's assumption that we as "natural beings delimited by living in a finite universe" can not possibly know anything about God, is purely an assumption which has no grounding.
First, it is true that God, who has those attributes could not be found in a purely physical way. That is, I am not going to look through a telescope and see an infinite God floating in finite space - the Bible said it first. But, the fact that we can't find God on our own, does not mean that we can not find Him at all.
Shermer seems to have decided that the God of the Bible is described as one who doesn't want to be found, or has no other attributes beyond being a timeless, powerful entity. I find it odd that Shermer cites Genesis as the book inspiring the belief in God being the creator of the universe, but concludes we couldn't know anything about God. Genesis is part of a collection of books which claim to be God's revelation to mankind. If that is true, then the obvious conclusion is that we can know about God, because God can reveal Himself to us. That is to say, even if we set aside the Bible, if God is beyond time and space, yet created them both, why is it unreasonable to conclude that God could use the creation to make himself known?
More to the point, if God did indeed have the power to create the physical universe from the non-physical (or invisible), by divine command - what pray-tell would stop such a powerful God from interacting or even entering into that creation Himself? It seems a small task for God who would have already demonstrated He can accomplish the greater feat.
We don't have to go looking for God, because God has made himself known to us through the things which he made, but also enters into the creation himself to reveal himself. But, that doesn't mean we will recognize it for what it is, or even that God will reveal himself to everyone. God is the definition of a personal being, personal beings have volition, as we do. We can choose to disregard the conclusion we see in the creation in favor of another idea, and God is under no obligation to do anything to prove he is here. Just as I am under no obligation to hop a plane to your home at this moment to prove that I am not just a computer generated internet post. It should be apparent from what I am writing that I am a person, so if you reject that, there is no reason I should go about proving it.
So, when Shermer says that we can't possibly know about such an entity, it is only by assuming that God would not, or could not do, all of the things which the Bible says God can and will do. It disregards everything that is said about God, other than a few selective verses. Could we know about God on our own? No, I would agree with Shermer in that case; we can not know through natural means a supernatural entity who is beyond space and time. But, can we know anything about God, by God's own revelation of Himself? Absolutely, in fact, that is the only way anyone comes to the knowledge of God, and again, the Bible said it first.
Shermer's assumptions do not logically follow to the conclusion he makes. In fact, his assumptions disregard other logical conclusions as well as the evidence. The Bible claims to be God's revelation, so if we are going to test whether God did indeed create the universe, and test the Biblical claim, it stands to reason that we shouldn't disregard the Bible when deciding if God gives us evidence through the creation or reveals Himself to mankind. That isn't to say we have to start off with our minds already decided. What we should do is read and understand who God claims to be, then we can properly decide if God's attributes and revelation of the events are consistent with what we see in natural observation. That is the heart of the scientific endeavor, it's why science was birthed.
But, the necessary first step in testing if God created the universe, is to read the claimed revelation completely and put effort into trying to understand it. The Bible is similar in many ways to God's biography. By reading it and understanding who the God of the Bible is, we put ourselves into a position of being able to properly test it for truth and accuracy.
As I have shown, the doctrine of ex nihilo can not be supported simply from Genesis, without importing ideas from outside the book. I have listed a few, but there are more than 28 accounts that specifically address the creation events in the Bible. It is also true that many topics are spoken of in varying detail throughout the Bible - some said in passing while addressing another issue, some specifically addressing it as the central topic - so that only by reading it in total can one surmise the full scope of any given subject. Unfortunately, that is where many of us fail. We read the Bible, but we do not put the time in to actually understand what it means or piece the details together into a comprehensive model. Rather we listen to "experts" who we think have done the heavy lifting for us, when in fact, just as in trusting science, it is up to us to read through the material to understand the subject and test what the experts have told us. Yes, there is a time and place for appealing to authority and trusting scholarly input, but testing it is always important.
Have you been testing what I have said so far in this course? If not, I encourage you to do so (not that I am claiming to be an expert).
Similarly, just because Michael Shermer, Stephen Hawking, Albert Einstein or Victor Stenger say it is so, does not mean that it is so. As we have seen, many of the proposed answers to the initial question are incompatible with one another, in at least one area, some are untestable and others just don't add up to what they claim. So, too are many "ideas" of what the Bible says about the creation incompatible with what is true about what the Bible actually says.
Don't take anyone's word for it, test everything, use reason and evidence and hold to what is good and true.
In the next series, we will start by examining the doctrine and person-hood of God in order to give us a frame work from which to examine the truth claims and positive evidence given in what is clearly seen in the universe. Until then, may God continue to bless and guide you in your studies.
References and Notes:
 In addition to the already cited scripture, Astrophysicist and Christian apologist Dr. Hugh Ross of Reasons to Believe has compiled the following list (not comprehensive) of the creation accounts in scripture:
Genesis 1: Creation chronology: physical perspective
Genesis 2: Creation chronology: spiritual perspective
Genesis 3–5: Human sin and its damage
Genesis 6–9: God’s damage control
Genesis 10–11: Global dispersion of humanity
Job 9: Creator’s transcendent creation power
Job 34–38: Physical creation’s intricacy and complexity
Job 39–42: Soulish creation’s intricacy and complexity
Psalm 8: Creation’s appeal to humility
Psalm 19: Creation’s “speech”
Psalm 33: God’s control and sovereignty over nature
Psalm 65: Creator’s authority and optimal provision
Psalm 104: Elaboration of physical creation events
Psalm 139: Creation of individual humans
Psalms 147–148: Testimony of the Creator’s power, wisdom, and care in nature
Proverbs 8: Creator’s existence before creation
Ecclesiastes 1–3: Constancy of physical laws
Ecclesiastes 8–12: Limits to human control of nature
Isaiah 40–51: Origin and development of the universe
Romans 1–8: Purposes of the creation
1 Corinthians 15: Life after life
2 Corinthians 4: Creator’s glory in and beyond creation
Colossians 1: Creation’s extent
Hebrews 1: Cosmic creation’s temporality; role of angels in creation
Hebrews 4: Role of God’s rest in creation
2 Peter 3: Creation’s end
Revelation 20–22: The new creation