In Hebrews 11, the author of the epistle of Hebrews gives us what we might call a faith “hall of fame” that records how many of the old covenant saints serve as examples to us regarding what authentic faith looks like and produces. This is all done, of course, with a view to encouraging us to imitate the faith of these old covenant saints, to persevere in believing in what we do not yet fully see—Christ Himself—so that we do not fall away (see 10:19–39). The author, for the most part, goes through his list of examples chronologically and canonically, starting at the very beginning with the creation of the universe (11:3).
This first example of faith is different from the others in Hebrews 11. It refers to a present act of faith in a past event rather than looking to past acts of faith from old covenant believers in what was present or future to them. Yet, given that faith has to do with things unseen, this first example of faith is fitting. Belief in the creation of the universe serves as one of the premier cases of faith, for no one except God was present when He made the universe. Since faith involves affirming the reality of what one has not seen, we show true faith indeed when we believe that “the universe was created by the word of God” (v. 3).
Importantly, believing in the unseen act of creation does not mean we have no visible evidence at all that this act took place. If that were so, Paul could not tell us in Romans 1:20 that the created order gives us knowledge of the Creator and His attributes and, consequently, His work of creation. Nevertheless, since none of us were present when the Lord made the world and since this act of initial creation cannot be replicated in a laboratory, belief that God created the universe is an act of faith.
Moreover, belief that God made the universe does not mean believing that He took preexistent matter not created by Him and shaped it into the heavens and earth. It means believing that “what is seen was not made out of things that are visible” (v. 3). Here we have part of the basis for the Christian doctrine of creation ex nihilo, or creation “out of nothing.” In the beginning, before time began, there was only God. Our triune Creator—Father, Son, and Holy Spirit—existed, and nothing else. This continued until God spoke other things into existence by the word of His power, the same word that sustains all creation (Heb. 1:1–4).