The Christian and Big Bang Cosmology

 

 

God has given us the ability to believe by faith in He who can create a universe in any way He wants to.

Sven Östring

For centuries, in the midst of historical waves of conflicting explanations of how our cosmos began, the Bible has resolutely proclaimed that God originally created the universe out of nothing. Thus, biblical cosmology holds that the universe is not past eternal and had a beginning. This cosmology was at odds with both the polytheistic Babylonian Enuma Elish creation myth and Aristotle’s assertion that the universe has existed, unchanging, from eternity past.

 

Scientific Support for the Beginning of the Universe

In 1824, however, French military engineer and physicist, Nicolas Léonard Sadi Carnot, was the first person to formulate the Second Law of Thermodynamics. The law states that processes taking place in an isolated system always tend toward a state of equilibrium. Since the universe is not in an ultimate state of equilibrium now, it could not have existed for an infinite amount of time. Thus, science could now offer its support for the biblical teaching that the universe had a beginning.

While working on a cosmological application of his General Theory of Relativity in 1917, Albert Einstein also found that his theory would not predict an eternal, static universe. Two scientists continued to develop the mathematical equations that describe the universe based on Einstein’s General Theory of Relativity. They were the Russian mathematician, Alexander Friedmann, and the Belgian astronomer and Jesuit priest, Georges Lemaître. In the 1920s they independently reached the conclusion that the universe is expanding. The theory predicted that all of space and time originated from a singularity and has expanded since to the immense universe that we know today. This expansion became known as the “Big Bang.” Science could give further support to the biblical position that the universe had a beginning.

William Lane Craig has noted, though, that the beginning of the universe is more impressively supported by the Second Law of Thermodynamics than the evidence for the expansion of the universe. Craig observed that, while uncertainty remains regarding the physical description of the universe prior to the Planck time, there is no such uncertainty with respect to the laws of thermodynamics.1 As Eddington remarked, “The second law of thermodynamics holds, I think, the supreme position among the laws of Nature. If someone points out to you that your pet theory of the universe is in dis-agreement with Maxwell’s equations—then so much the worse for Maxwell’s equations. If it is found to be con-tradicted by observation, well, these experimentalists do bungle things sometimes. But if your theory is found to be against the second law of thermodynamics I can give you no hope; there is nothing for it but collapse in deepest humiliation.”2

There are Christians who feel the need to integrate the Big Bang Theory into their theology because they believe that the weight of evidence requires them to do so and because they do not want to be perceived as anti‑science. This is understandable, but there is the real danger that this approach could lead to promoting a physical process that God did not actually use in creation and adopting a scientific theory that will ultimately become obsolete.

 

The Biblical Sketch of Cosmogony

In order to catch a glimpse of how God created the universe, it is important to carry out a study of passages in the Bible regarding its creation. For example, the Book of Hebrews acknowledges that it is “By faith we under-stand that the universe was created by the word of God, so that what is seen was not made out of things that are visible” (11:3),3 and the psalmist tells us that “by the word of the Lord the heavens were made, and by the breath of his mouth all their host. . . . For he spoke, and it came to be; he commanded, and it stood firm” (33:6, 9). Elsewhere in the Bible, God says, “‘I made the earth and created man on it; it was my hands that stretched out the heavens, and I commanded all their host’” (Isa. 45:12). This reveals that God was actively involved in the creation of the universe, namely by speaking it into existence. It also poetically indicates that there was possibly some form of physical expansion involved in creating “the heavens.” While this suggests some superficial parallels between this poetic reference to the expansion of “the heavens” and the expanding space‑time structure hypothesized by Big Bang cosmology, it is important not to rush into taking a misguided concordist approach that holds that the Bible taught Big Bang cosmology thousands of years before it was discovered by Friedmann and Lemaître in the 1920s.

 

Reasons for Not Committing to Big Bang Cosmology

Does the Big Bang Theory integrate directly with the biblical cosmogony? It is important to note that most Christian denominations who base their statements of faith solely on the Bible have neither formally nor informally endorsed the Big Bang Theory. But should individual Christians feel intellectually obligated to adopt and defend the Big Bang Theory? There are a number of reasons to conclude why they are not.

 Empirical underdetermination. First, the Big Bang Theory is not the only theory that can fit the empirical data. The Christian cosmologist George Ellis has explained, “‘People need to be aware that there is a range of models that could explain the observations. . . . What I want to bring into the open is the fact that we are using philosophical criteria in choosing our models. A lot of cosmology tries to hide that.’”4 Ellis is referring to the fact that scientific theories are underdetermined by evidence, which means that the empirical evidence supports more than one cosmological theory. Even the famous cos-mologist Stephen Hawking, who became an atheist by the end of his life, recognized this when he wrote, “One can imagine that God created the universe at literally any time in the past. On the other hand, if the universe is expanding, there may be physical reasons why there had to be a beginning. One could still imagine that God created the universe at the instant of the big bang, or even afterwards in just such a way as to make it look as though there had been a big bang.”5 This is not just some airy musings of high‑profile cosmologists. Underdetermination in cosmology has been rigorously demonstrated in the context of classical general relativity. Thus, the weight of evidence does not lead inescapably to the Big Bang

This means that cosmological evidence cannot be presented to settle the issue between the Big Bang and a more recent supernaturalistic cosmogony, since God is the maximally great causal Agent, with the attribute of omnipotence, who could have recently created the universe with all of the cosmological features that it actually exhibits. Thus, all the evidence attributed to deep time is already accounted for within this supernatural cosmogony and so pointing to this evidence makes no epistemological headway. The standard objection that is raised at this point is that this implies that God would appear to be acting deceptively by leaving us evidence that makes the universe appear much older than it actually is. Plantinga’s observation, addressing the objection regarding the consistency of divine action with regards to the occurrence of miracles, is also applicable in this situation as well: “Here the objection, obviously, is theological. It has nothing to do with science.”6 Science is not capable of determining whether God would or would not create the universe recently with all of the physical evidence that it does exhibit. God may have sufficient reason for creating the universe relatively recently, as His omnipotence certainly permits Him to do. As Plantinga rightly pointed out with regard to special divine action, “It’s not as if, if he has such a reason, we’d be the first to know.”7 It is therefore necessary to recognize that scientists have no privileged insight with regard to making judicial statements on this theological issue. The fault with this objection lies with our attempts to impose our scientific assumptions and models, or more specifically our human expectations, on how God would create things. When we acknowledge God’s omnipotence and our own epistemic limitations, and relinquish our expectations, the alleged deception disappears.

Scientific problems with the Big Bang. Second, the Big Bang Theory itself is not free of problems. It is based on an assumption called the Cosmological Principle, which holds that matter is distributed uniformly throughout the universe, when viewed on a large enough scale. This assumption, however, is completely arbitrary, as the theoretical physicist Richard Feynman notes: “The assumption that we have just mentioned implies a very strong uniformity in the universe. It is a completely arbitrary hypothesis, as far as I understand it—and of course not at all subject to any kind of observational checking, since we have been and will continue to be confined to a very small region about our galaxy, and the time development of the universe follows a ‘cosmological scale’ a billion times longer than our lifetime.”8 

The standard Big Bang Theory also has other prob-lems, and these have been summarized by Stephen Hawking’s Centre for Theoretical Cosmology at Cambridge University. Some of these problems include: (1) the horizon problem, (2) the flatness problem, (3) the magnetic monopole objection, (3) the rotation curves of spiral galaxies, and (5) distant supernovae being dimmer than expected.

It is fascinating to note that the horizon problem involves the issue that, within the standard Big Bang Theory, there is insufficient time for information and energy to travel between remote regions of the universe, because of the physical limitation imposed by the speed of light. This is the same fundamental problem as the starlight travel‑time problem for creationist cosmological models. It would appear that some Christians are unaware of how serious the horizon problem actually is, or the genuine attempts that have been proposed to solve the problem, because if they were, they would not raise the starlight travel-time problem as a potentially unresolvable physical objection to creationist cos-mological models. As John Hartnett has observed, “Some of the solutions proposed [for the horizon problem], such as a massively higher speed of light in the past, or rapid inflation, have been no less exotic than any put forward by creationists.”9 To address these observations, the standard model has posited inflation and the introduction of dark matter and dark energy. One truly begins to get the sense that the Big Bang Theory has been patched up in so many key ways that it needs to be traded in for a new model.

Scientists themselves see the need to explore other models of the universe. In 2004, 33 scientists wrote an open letter to the scientific community, which was published by New Scientist, urging the scientific community to support the exploration of alternative models to the Big Bang Theory.10 Then, in February 2015, Ahmed Farag Ali and Sauray Das proposed a new cosmological model that includes quantum correction terms. This model eliminates the Big Bang and solves the problem of dark matter and dark energy at the same time. Since published cosmologists feel no intellectual obligation to defend and maintain the Big Bang Theory indefinitely, there is no need for Christians to feel obligated to integrate the Big Bang Theory into their belief system.

Historical warning. History actually warns us not to adopt credulously and defend the dominant cosmology of our day. Contrary to popular belief and according to Galileo’s own account, the Galileo affair was not initially a dispute between Galileo and the church, but rather between Galileo and the academic Aristotelian professors of the day. Galileo challenged the Aristotelean‑Ptolemaic cosmology, and, as Hawking has noted, “This annoyed the Aristotelian professors, who united against him seeking to persuade the Catholic Church to ban Copernicanism.”11 John Lennox has also confirmed this historical corrective: “Furthermore, Galileo enjoyed a great deal of support from religious intellectuals—at least at the start. The astronomers of the powerful Jesuit educational institution, the Collegio Romano, initially endorsed his astronomical work and fêted him for it. However, he was vigorously opposed by secular philosophers, who were enraged at his criticism of Aristotle. This was bound to cause trouble. But, be it emphasized, not at first with the church. . . . Finally another lesson in a different direction, but one not often drawn, is that it was Galileo, who believed in the Bible, who was advancing a better scientific understanding of the universe, not only, as we have seen, against the obscurantism of some churchmen, but (and first of all) against the resistance (and obscurantism) of the secular philosophers of his time who, like the churchmen, were also convinced disciples of Aristotle.”12

Of course, the Catholic Church made serious mistakes, but the two key mistakes they made were: (1) cred-ulously adopting the dominant pagan Greek cosmological theory of their day, and then (2) repressively defending this theory by using their political power to silence Galileo. Ironically, the Catholic Church is in great danger of actually repeating the first mistake by once again adopting the dominant cosmological theory of our day, namely the Big Bang Theory. Christian academics would be wise to learn from the Galileo affair and not make the same mistake the Catholic Church did, by adopting or defending the dominant cosmological theory of our day.

Divergence between Big Bang eschatology and biblical eschatology. Finally, the reality is that we already reject key predictions of the Big Bang Theory, namely what it predicts about the future. Current observations suggest that the universe is expanding at a rate that will end in what is known as the “Big Freeze.” According to this theory, the universe will become increasingly cold, dark, dilute, and dead, and ultimately become one vast, cosmic graveyard. The entire human race will become extinct in the process. However, we can legitimately reject the Big Freeze because of the biblical prophecies that Jesus will come again in the near future and give eternal life to all those who believe in Him. As Craig has pointed out, “Theological eschatology therefore takes the findings of physical eschatology to be at best projections of the future course of events rather than actual descriptions. They tell us with approximate accuracy what would take place were no intelligent agents to intervene. Thus, the findings of physical eschatology are in no way in-compatible with Christian eschatology, since those findings involve implicit ceteris paribus conditions with respect to the actions of intelligent agents, including God.”13 In a similar way, physical cosmogonies can be taken to be at best projections of the past course of events rather than actual descriptions, as Stephen Hawking has acknowledged.

God will “‘create new heavens and a new earth, and the former things shall not be remembered’” (Isa. 65:17). Since we reject the future projections of the Big Freeze based on biblical revelation, we should similarly choose to uphold God’s revelation regarding the history of the universe rather than adopt historical projections based on problematic scientific theories.

 

Is Non‑commitment to the Big Bang Theory Warranted?

A question that could be raised at this point is this:  Why we would dissociate ourselves from the current dominant cosmology when it is possible that it is the actual description of the history of the universe? This is a legitimate question, and it would be unwise to remain cosmologically uncommitted simply to avoid the pos-sibility of being in error. There are some clear reasons, though, why we would choose not to adopt the dominant cosmology of our day, and the Galileo affair is illustrative.

First, Aristotle’s theory was based on the idealized presupposition that, since circular motion was considered perfect, all bodies in the universe must follow this motion. In a similar way, the Big Bang model is based on the idealized cosmological principle that the distribution of matter in the universe is homogeneous and that the universe is isotropic. Simplicity is one of the legitimate criteria that are used in science to evaluate competing theories, however, as the quote that is commonly attributed to Albert Einstein says: Everything should be made as simple as possible, but not simpler, a popular paraphrase of a statement that Einstein made in a lecture at Oxford University in 1933.  

Aristotle was oversimplifying astronomical motion and assuming that astronomical entities would follow circular motion. It is quite plausible, in the same way, that the cosmological principle is an oversimplification of the properties of our cosmos. Reality is often much more complex than we assume, and these idealized, simplifying presuppositions should alert us to the possibility that the Big Bang model may be an oversimplification as well.

Second, Aristotle’s theory included the concept that the universe was eternal and unchanging. This con-tradicted the biblical teaching that the universe was finite and began to exist when God created it. This should have alerted the theologians of Galileo’s day that the theory was inconsistent with what God had revealed about creation, and given strong reason not to attempt to defend a modified version of Aristotle’s theory. Similarly, the big-bang model predicts that the universe will continue to exist as it is currently operating for billions of years and that the human race will ultimately become extinct as the universe reaches its fate. However, this contradicts the biblical eschatology, and this should also alert us to the possibility that the Big Bang model is broadly inconsistent with biblical teaching also.

Finally, astronomical observations were challenging the Aristotelian‑Ptolemaic system, yet the Aristotelian professors continued to defend the standard cosmology of their era. In the same way, the horizon problem and rotation curves of spiral galaxies, to name two examples, are challenging the Big Bang model, yet the academic consensus continues to maintain and defend the model. Thus, this should alert Christians to withhold endorse-ment of the dominant cosmological model when such indicators are present.

 

Conclusion

We can certainly recognize the significant research capabilities of cosmologists in being able to skillfully handle the mathematics that they use to model the universe and to fit cosmological data to these models. We should not, however, credulously adopt the Big Bang Theory. Like the Catholics who defended Aristotle’s view of the universe, Christians who mold their theology around the Big Bang Theory are not only heading into unknown metaphysical waters without explicit biblical support, but are likely to be left behind as science moves on from the big bang. As Plantinga has wryly noted, “Science has not spoken with a single voice about the question whether the universe has a beginning: first the idea was that it did, but then the steady state triumphed, but then big bang cosmology achieved ascendency, but now there are straws in the wind suggesting a reversion to the thought that the universe is without a beginning. The sensible religious believer is not obliged to trim her sails to the current scientific breeze on this topic, revising her belief on the topic every time science changes its mind; if the most satisfactory (or theistic) theology endorses the idea that the universe did indeed have a beginning, the believer has a perfect right to accept that thought. Something similar goes for the Christian believer and special divine action.”14

 God has given us an incredible ability to explore and discover amazing things about the universe. He has also given us the ability to grow in our faith in Him, to believe by faith in a God who can create a universe in any way He wants to—a God who can establish the universe to operate according to physical laws, and then intervene within that physical system to perform miracles and possibly even adjust the physical laws as He sees necessary, according to His infinite wisdom; a God who is not limited by the theories conjectured and fabricated by finite human minds; a God who is not constricted by the current horizons of human studies; a God who is willing to enter into this physical world and become flesh, just to reveal to us His love and power; a God who is bigger than the “Big Bang” and wiser than the wisest human being; a God who gave us insights into our origins that have outlasted the Babylonians, Aristotle, Einstein, and Hawking as well. Let us learn the hard lessons of the past and base our theology and our understanding of our origins on His Word, not on the shifting sands of contemporary science.

 

Sven Östring, PhD, held a research fellow position at the University of Cambridge and is Director of Church Planting for the North New South Wales Conference in Australia.


NOTES AND REFERENCES

1. William Lane Craig, Reasonable Faith: Christian Truth and Apologetics (Wheaton, Ill.: Crossway Books, 2008), 150.

2. Arthur S. Eddington, The Nature of the Physical World, (London: Macmillan, 1929), 74.

3. Unless otherwise indicated, all Scriptural references in this article are quoted from The English Standard Version of the Bible.

4. W. W. Gibbs, “Profile: George F. R. Ellis: Thinking Globally, Acting Universally,” Scientific American 273:4 (October 1995): 55.

5. Stephen Hawking, A Brief History of Time: From the Big Bang to Black Holes (London: Bantam Books, 1988), 10.

6. Alvin Plantinga, Where the Conflict Really Lies: Science, Religion and Naturalism (Oxford: Oxford University Press, 2011), 105.

7. Ibid., 102.

8. Brian Hatfield, ed., Lectures on Gravitation (Boca Raton, Fla.: Westview Press, 1995), 166.

9. John Hartnett, Starlight, Time and the New Physics (Atlanta: Creation Book Publishers, 2007), 21.

10. See https://cosmology.info/open-letter.

11. Hawking, A Brief History of Time, 189.

12. John Lennox, God’s Undertaker: Has Science Buried God? (Oxford: Lion Books, 2009), 24, 26.

13. William Lane Craig, “The End of the World”: https://www. reasonablefaith.org/writings/popular‑writings/science‑theology/the‑end‑ of‑the‑world/.

14. Plantinga, Where the Conflict Really Lies, 121.