Cosmology: Back to the Beginning

Cosmology: Back to the Beginning

by Dr. Ken Boa

Cosmology: Back to the Beginning

Several revolutions in science have affected Christianity in different ways. The Copernican revolution required a refinement of the Christian world view and the Darwinian revolution put the Christian faith on the defensive. But most recently, the Einsteinian revolution has restored credibility to the Christian, biblical premise of a Creator. While biologists reveled in the Darwinian hope of a naturalistic account of all life, the physicists and astronomers discovered surprising proof of a supernatural origin of the universe. At the same time, these evidences of creation challenged some traditional interpretations of the book of Genesis.

God and the Astronomers

In 1917 Albert Einstein published his theory of general relativity. The Dutch astronomer Willem de Sitter concluded from Einstein’s equations that the universe was expanding. Other scientists, notably Edwin Hubble and Arthur Eddington, followed up on de Sitter’s calculations and correlated them with observations that showed that several galaxies were moving away from us at high speeds. Hubble verified through the use of his 100-inch telescope what de Sitter had predicted based on Einstein’s general relativity equations: that “the farther away a galaxy is, the faster it moves” — implying that the universe was expanding from a central point of origin like an inflating balloon or like an explosion. The implication of these findings was immediately obvious: the universe had a beginning. In 1965 astronomers Arno Penzias and Robert Wilson discovered the background radiation that scientists had predicted would be left behind by the initial explosion of the universe. Their discovery led to the almost complete triumph in modern cosmology of the so-called Big Bang theory.

The discovery that the universe had a beginning was not met with pleasure. Many scientists rebelled against the notion because it implied a Beginner. In fact, “Einstein was the first to complain.” He refused to believe that the universe was expanding until he looked for himself through Hubble’s telescope. Eddington admitted, “the notion of a beginning is repugnant to me.” Yet the evidence was there. Jastrow puts his finger on the problem: Many scientists have a “religious” commitment to the assumption that everything has a natural, scientifically accessible and quantifiable explanation. Then they ran into something which in principle cannot be explained scientifically: that first instant of creation, when the universe began as a singularity, a point inaccessible to investigation.

For the scientist who has lived by his faith in the power of reason, the story ends like a bad dream. He has scaled the mountains of ignorance; he is about to conquer the highest peak; as he pulls himself over the final rock, he is greeted by a band of theologians who have been sitting there for centuries.

Stephen Hawking: Nothing for a Creator to Do?

The cosmological evidence for a beginning of the universe continued to be resisted throughout the remainder of the twentieth century, though increasingly the strategy was to reinterpret that beginning to avoid a personal God. Perhaps the most brilliant scientist who has sought an alternative to a straightforward beginning of the universe is Stephen Hawking. His bestselling book A Brief History of Time repeatedly illustrates Jastrow’s contention that modern scientists are often committed religiously to a comprehensively naturalistic explanation of all things. Hawking states the premise explicitly: “The eventual goal of science is to provide a single theory that explains the whole universe.”

Ironically, Hawking himself contributed to the proof that the universe had a beginning. He and Roger Penrose had applied their study of black hole singularities to the question of the origin of the universe, and in 1970 they issued a paper “which at last proved that there must have been a big bang singularity provided only that general relativity is correct and the universe contains as much matter as we observe.” The paper met with resistance, and Hawking himself admits the reason: “Many people do not like the idea that time had a beginning, probably because it smacks of divine intervention.”

Hawking himself does not like the idea, and eventually came up with an alternative. He postulated that the universe may be finite in size and age yet without boundaries (based on an application of quantum theory, too complicated to explain here!). Hawking uses the illustration of the earth: its surface is finite in size, yet it has no boundaries — no edge or starting point, no singularity where one would “fall off” the earth. He suggests that the cosmos is similarly finite but has no boundaries, either of space (like an “edge”) or of time (i.e., like a beginning). This does not completely eliminate the idea of God, but it does, as Carl Sagan puts it in his introduction to the book, leave “nothing for a Creator to do.” Hawking himself explains the appeal of his proposal as eliminating the idea of a boundary of space-time “at which one would have to appeal to God or some new law to set the boundary conditions for space-time.”

There are several difficulties with Hawking’s proposal, not the least of which is that at present that is all it is; as Hawking himself admits, “it cannot be deduced from some other principle,” and so far it does not seem to be testable. Second, it has been pointed out that Hawking has merely traded a singularity of relativity theory for a singularity of quantum theory. In Hawking’s proposal the singularity of a temporal beginning is still a reality from within our own “real time” perspective. But even Hawking ends up crediting the ultimate origin of the universe — the why of things, if not the how — to “the mind of God.”

For Those Who Can’t Believe in God

Many other proposals to avoid altogether the idea of a personal Creator God have been put forth. Probably the most popular approach is to view the origin and evolution of the universe as a manifestation of an all-encompassing force or energy or mystical Spirit. New Age interpretations of quantum physics, such as Fritjof Capra’s The Tao of Physics or Gary Zukov’s The Dancing Wu Li Masters, have sought to integrate Western science with Eastern mysticism. Because some interpretations of quantum physics understand reality at the subatomic level to be indeterminate, New Age physicists have argued that at the quantum level all things are naturally possible — even the spontaneous origination of the physical universe. These New Age cosmologies rest on dubious understandings of quantum physics and sidestep the real problem: how does the reality governed by physical laws, quantum or otherwise, exist at all?

The fervent belief that religion must be prevented from contaminating science is, as we said, a kind of religious belief itself. One historical factor that has encouraged this belief is that in the past those in the Christian West too easily attributed various features of the natural world to direct supernatural agency, only to have some scientist come along and demonstrate a regular natural phenomenon to be at work. But to swing the pendulum to the other extreme and disallow the activity of God as a possible explanation for anything, regardless of the evidence, is also unwarranted.

Both of these extremes — uncritical supernaturalism and uncritical naturalism — should therefore be avoided. The attribution of unexplained phenomena to supernatural intervention by God has often been criticized as a “God of the gaps” approach. But just as irrational is the assumption that God never intervenes in his creation and that everything, even the very existence of the universe, must be explainable in natural terms — what has been called a “Nature of the gaps” approach. Similarly, Hugh Ross has criticized the appeal by cosmologists to the chance fluctuations posited by quantum theory to explain the origin of the universe as a kind of “Chance of the gaps” methodology.

We need to keep in mind the distinction between operation science, which studies the ongoing processes and events in the natural world, and origin science, which studies the origins of the natural world and of life. To appeal to a supernatural intervention by God to explain the operations of the natural world is to make the “God of the gaps” mistake. On the other hand, to refuse to allow the action of God as an explanation for the origins of the natural world is to commit the “Nature of the gaps” or “Chance of the gaps” error.

Astronomy and the Theologians

The evidence from cosmology that is convincing an increasing number of sometimes unwilling astronomers that a Creator brought the universe into existence has also received mixed responses from the community of Christian theologians and scholars. While many Christians have hailed the cosmological revolution as vindicating the biblical world view and providing exciting opportunities for a renewed defense of the Christian faith, other Christians have rejected the new cosmology because they regard it as conflicting with the biblical account of origins in Genesis.

One issue here dominates the debate among evangelical Christians about cosmology and creation: the age of the earth (and of the universe). The traditional interpretation of Genesis 1 understands the six “days” in that passage to refer to six literal, 24-hour, consecutive days, during which the entire universe, the earth, all living things, and finally the human race, were created. On this view the inference is usually drawn that the universe (or at least the earth) is no more than roughly 6,000 to 10,000 years old. That, of course, contradicts the ages of the earth and the universe accepted in modern cosmology. The older age of the earth is criticized by young-earth creationists as not only in conflict with a literal reading of the six days of Genesis 1, but also as opening the door to naturalistic evolution.

There are serious arguments both for and against the young-earth interpretation of Genesis 1, and reputable evangelical theologians and exegetical scholars can be found on both sides of the debate. Ultimately the major issue separating old-earth creationists from young-earth creationists is the question of the relationship between science and theology. It is important to put the question that way, because to pit science against the Bible is to misconstrue the problem. The Bible is regarded by Christians as the unerring or infallible written revelation from God; theology is the very human, fallible enterprise of interpreting and applying the teachings of the Bible. Similarly, the physical universe was created by God and therefore reflects his truth; science, though, is the all too human, fallible enterprise of interpreting nature. Thus, since both Scripture and nature come from God, they may be regarded as fully reliable and consistent with one another, while our interpretations of either or both Scripture and nature may be inconsistent or in error.

Three possibilities lay before us. (1) The mainstream scientists’ interpretation of the physical data may be right and the traditional interpretation of the Bible wrong. (2) The mainstream scientists’ interpretation of the physical data may be wrong and the traditional interpretation of the Bible right. (3) The positions staked out by mainstream scientists and biblical interpreters may both be mixtures of truth and error. It is possible, even likely, that in many of the ongoing science-theology debates, including biology and cosmology, scientists and theologians have much to learn from each other.

The age of the universe and other questions on which there is no consensus even among evangelical Christian scholars and scientists will probably continue to be debated for some time to come. The challenge facing thinking Christians is to pursue the truth in such debates, even at the risk of giving up traditional ideas or of falling out of favor with the current intellectual establishment. If Christianity is to be a viable world and life view in the third millennium, it is vitally important that the Christian community come to terms with the scientific revolutions of today, even if that process is not completed until tomorrow. To integrate the legitimate findings of science into the Christian world view, we need to make a major commitment of resources toward the exploration of these questions.

For further reading, we recommend the following resource: Faith Has Its Reasons by Dr. Ken Boa and Robert Bowman

For further discussion, join Dr. Boa’s weekly live interactive webinar, Think on These Things

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