The Discovery of the Beginning

Science Catches Up with Scripture

(Genesis 1:1)

 

Since the time of Aristotle in the 4th century BC, the universe has been regarded as infinite and eternal, having no beginning and therefore no Beginner. In one of the most dramatic intellectual developments in human history, twentieth century research in astrophysics and cosmology has discovered that the opening verse of the Bible is correct: the universe did in fact have a beginning. In this address, first in a series on ‘Beginnings’, preached at St Albans Presbyterian Church, Palmerston North, on 30 January 2000, Rob Yule tells the remarkable story of this development and outlines its implications.

 

The Bible begins with a majestic, Beethoven-like opening: ‘In the beginning, God created the heavens and the earth.’ This deceptively simple statement of the book of Genesis, unlike any other purported account of origins, says that the universe - everything that exists - had a beginning, and that God made it. The universe had a beginning, so its very nature points to the existence of a Creator.

Down the centuries there have been many attempts to deny this truth. Since the Greek philosopher Aristotle in the 4th century BC, people have put forward the view that the universe is eternal, in order to escape the implication that it had a beginning. If the universe had a beginning, it has a Beginner. And if it has a Beginner, then it is dependent, not self-sufficient; and that means we are accountable, not autonomous beings. The persistent attempt by thinkers, philosophers, and scientists down the ages to maintain the eternity of the universe comes from the desire to avoid attributing its origin to God - so that we do not need to acknowledge that God is the proprietor of the universe, or that we are dependent, accountable beings.

 

Science Discovers the Beginning

Throughout the 20th century scientific research about the origin of the universe has steadily accumulated evidence that our space-time universe did indeed have a beginning. This is one of the great stories of discovery in modern times. The following are the main episodes in this dramatic development:

1. Einstein’s General Theory of Relativity (1915) suggested that the universe is simultaneously expanding and decelerating, as though from a giant explosion. His original equations of General Relativity point to an expanding universe and imply that all matter, energy, space and time has expanded outwards from a single point of origin or ‘singularity’. Einstein’s equations were elegant and convincing, but so deeply ingrained was his dislike of the theistic implications of a beginning point that he did a very unscientific thing: he introduced a ‘fudge factor’ into his equations (the so-called ‘Cosmological Constant’) to get them to yield a static, non-expanding, model of the universe.

2. In 1929 the American astronomer Edwin Hubble, working on the powerful 100 inch Hooker Telescope at the Mt. Wilson Observatory in California (then the largest in the world) discovered a phenomenon known as ‘redshifts’. Certain stars and galaxies appeared redder or longer in wavelength than they should be, showing that they were moving away from the observer. The clear implication was that the universe is expanding. This was the first scientific evidence of creation or the ‘Big Bang’; that universe is not eternal, but is expanding outwards and must originally have come from a finite point and had beginning. From this came the famous ‘Hubble Constant’, enabling scientists to calculate the age of the universe from the velocity of its recession (Hubble’s calculation had a significant margin of error; current research has narrowed it to 15.3 +/- 1.6 billion years, but it is still being investigated and vigorously debated).

3. Only in 1931, after the publication of Hubble’s law of redshifts and observations of the universe’s expansion, did Einstein reluctantly accept the evidence for a beginning, acknowledging that by not trusting his original equations of relativity he had made the ‘biggest blunder’ of his career. It is astonishing to think that Einstein could have predicted this result, but fudged his sums and missed his moment of opportunity. Einstein visited Edwin Hubble at the Mount Wilson Observatory, to acknowledge his discovery. To the best of our knowledge Einstein never changed his beliefs, continuing to believe in an impersonal God identical with the laws of nature, but never accepting the existence of personal God beyond nature, a God who brought the universe into existence (see Hugh Ross, The Fingerprint of God, [Orange, California, Promise, 2nd. ed., 1991], pp. 58-59).

4. In 1965 two Bell Telephone Labs scientists, Arno Penzias and Robert Wilson, measuring radio emissions from our galaxy, found a background noise that they could not eliminate. They tried everything they could think of to remove it, even cleaning pigeon droppings from their giant radio antenna. It took them some time to realise that they had accidentally discovered the residual energy of the ‘Big Bang’, the universal background microwave radiation remaining from the original ‘explosion’ which marked beginning of universe. What they discovered confirmed the origin and expansion of universe first observed by Hubble in 1929. Their measurements indicated a very low temperature for this microwave radiation - only about 3º above absolute zero.

5. In November 1989, just as the Berlin Wall was coming down, NASA launched the Cosmic Background Explorer (COBE) satellite, a project sixteen years in planning. Between January 1990 and April 1992 teams of scientists used its radiometers to measure more precisely the characteristics of this universal microwave radiation, now known as Cosmic Microwave Background (CMB). The COBE measurements showed a uniform background radiation with a temperature of 2.276º K, with minute ripples or fluctuations - in the order of one part in 100,000 - indicating where galaxies would have first begun to form by gravitational attraction as the universe expanded.

 

Responses to the Beginning

Many astronomers and physicists, faced with this evidence, have become believers in God. One is Alan Sandage, Edwin Hubble’s successor, who for thirty years has been patiently refining the measurements for the expansion of the universe, who says, ‘God to me is a mystery but is the explanation for the miracle of existence, why there is something instead of nothing.’ According to science historian Frederic Burnham, the scientific community is prepared to consider the idea that God created the universe ‘a more respectable hypothesis today than at any time in the last hundred years.’ (See Hugh Ross, The Creator and the Cosmos [Colorado Springs, Colorado, NavPress, 1993], pp. 19-20, 116-17). The joke is that if you want to find an atheist these days to debate the existence of God, you have to go to the Social Sciences; you won’t find any in the Physics Department - they’ve all joined the First Church of the Big Bang!

So overwhelming now is the astronomical evidence for a beginning and for the existence of a transcendent Creator that even an agnostic astrophysicist like Robert Jastrow acknowledges that it clearly points to the truth of the opening statement of the Bible. ‘For the scientist who has lived by his faith in the power of reason,’ he writes in his book God and the Astronomers (New York, Norton, 1978, p. 116), ‘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.’

Not all scientists are this honest, or humble. Some, irritated by the evidence that there is a Creator, resort to irrational forms of denial. They react like the great English physicist Sir Arthur Eddington, who after the empirical evidence for the expansion of the universe was first published by Hubble in 1931, wrote in the prestigious science journal Nature (Vol. 127, 1931, p. 450): ‘Philosophically, the notion of a beginning of the present order of Nature is repugnant to me. . . . I should like to find a genuine loophole.’ Others say that in the first tiny milli-second of the Big Bang the physical laws of the universe are no longer operative so we cannot say what caused the universe. I find this implausible - rather like hoping that gravity will make an exception when I slip on a cliff, or that a knife blade won’t cut when it is my finger that is in the way. The universe is not arbitrary like that.

Beneath such reactions lurk non-rational or moral factors for denying God’s existence. Not many scientists and thinkers are honest enough to admit this. One who was was Aldous Huxley. In his book Ends and Means, Huxley candidly wrote: ‘I had motives for not wanting the world to have a meaning. . . . For myself, the philosophy of meaninglessness was essentially an instrument of liberation, sexual and political.’ In other words, he wanted sexual freedom and political influence, which believing in God would have interfered with. All too often people’s denial of God is not based on evidence or rational grounds, but is a camouflage for moral disobedience.

 

Implications of the Beginning

The discovery of the beginning is the greatest turning-point in intellectual life and the history of ideas for two and a half millennia. It has profound implications not just for science but for all of culture - for education, the media, arts, philosophy, religion and human self-understanding. As Jewish physicist Gerald Schroeder remarks, ‘This shift in scientific opinion, after millennia of opposition, represents the most significant change science can ever make toward biblical philosophy. Evolution, dinosaurs, cavemen are all trivial controversies when compared to the concept of a beginning.’ (The Science of God: The Convergence of Scientific and Biblical Wisdom [New York, Free Press, 1997], p. 22). For if it is true that the universe had a beginning, then world-views that presuppose an infinite or eternal universe, or deny the existence of a Creator, are demonstrably false.

At a single stroke, like St. George slaying the multi-headed dragon, modern science’s discovery that the universe had a beginning falsifies both ancient pantheism and modern atheism, the main rivals to the Judaeo-Christian worldview. If the universe is not infinite or eternal, monistic or pantheistic religions and philosophies which affirm that it is - including Hinduism and its New Age derivatives in the West - are shown to rest on a false premise. If the universe had a beginning, it is clearly implied that it has a transcendent Creator, which undercuts naturalism, dialectical materialism, secular humanism, existentialism, and other forms of atheism which deny the existence and activity of God and assert the autonomy and self-sufficiency of human beings. By testifying to a living, active and all-powerful God, the discovery of a beginning calls in question even those secularised forms of Christianity, from Ludwig Feuerbach to Lloyd Geering, which suggest that ‘God’ is nothing more than a human construct.

That secular science should provide such evidence for the biblical Creator is a surprising development, a plot-twist more unexpected than a detective thriller. We are witnessing a remarkable convergence of science and theology in our time. As Israeli solid-state physicist Nathan Aviezer says, ‘hundreds of years of intense scientific effort by some of the finest minds that ever lived has finally produced a picture of the universe that is in striking agreement with the simple words that appear in the opening passages of the book of Genesis.’ (In the Beginning - Biblical Creation and Science [Hoboken, New Jersey, Ktav, 1990], p. 17). The very nature of this rapprochement is biblical in its scope and irony, suggestive of the humour of God. Using even human wrath to praise him (Psalm 76:10), the Almighty is fetching glory from an unlikely source - from naturalistic science, the greatest project of human endeavour in modern times.

Secular science has come to this discovery through its own inner development. Focussing on the natural universe, repudiating supernatural revelation, often showing an anti-supernaturalist bias, and displaying at times an overconfidence in human ability, modern science has come to a point where it is arguably bearing better witness to the Creator than contemporary theology. At a time when many Christians have turned their backs on science, when most theologians have given up on natural theology, and when popular Christianity has emptied faith of reason and evidential support, it is surely a supreme irony, a truly master stroke, that God should pull creation from his left sleeve and use science to win himself applause.

 

© 2000, St Albans Presbyterian Church