Forming the Universe

‘Big Bang’ Cosmology and the Bible

(Genesis 1:2)

Genesis 1, which dates from a pre-scientific age, might be expected to parallel contemporary ancient Middle Eastern accounts of origins. In fact, it is strikingly different from alleged ancient parallels, but anticipates in a number of unexpected details the development of the universe as described by modern ‘Big Bang’ cosmology. This message, the second in a series on ‘Beginnings’, was preached by Rob Yule at St Albans Presbyterian Church, Palmerston North, on 6 February 2000.

 

When you study a document from ancient times, you would expect to find many parallels with other ancient literature from the same period; but you would also expect to find it very different from the ideas, technology and science of our own time. When we look at Genesis 1, we find exactly the opposite. It is strikingly different from the other ‘creation’ accounts from the ancient Near East. Yet it anticipates many of the most remarkable findings of modern science.

 

Ancient Contrasts

1. An Egyptian papyrus.

The Egyptian papyrus of Apophis was a document buried with nobles who had died to take with them into the after-world as a protection against the dragon Apophis. In it the ‘lord of all’, the sun god, boasts that he brought the ‘numerous forms’ into existence by his mouth. If you didn’t read further you might think this was like the statement in Genesis 1 that God created the universe by his word or command. But in fact it refers to the casting of magic spells: ‘I cast a spell in my heart; I created a new thing. I created all forms when I was alone . . . when no other had yet appeared who might have co-operated with me in creation.’ What this Egyptian deity does with his mouth when he brings forth his children Shu and Tefene is not speak but spit: ‘I spat out something as Shu; I spat out something as Tefene.’ Then the papyrus tells us, as the deity wept for his children, ‘people were formed from the tears which came from my eyes.’

This is a crudely primitive and materialistic account of origins, which characteristically has creatures emerging from body fluids.

2. A Babylonian epic

The Babylonian epic Enuma Elish, alleged to be an account of origins, also turns out on examination to have a polytheistic and magical background. The third and fourth tablets of this epic tell how, in the council of the gods, and after generous consumption of alcohol, Marduk is appointed warrior, creator and lord of heaven. But first he has to prove from his magical powers that he is qualified for this role. ‘They brought into the circle a garment and said to Marduk their firstborn: "Your decree, O lord, transcends that of the gods; command to destroy and to make, and it shall be done. Open your mouth and the garment will perish; command again and the garment will be unharmed." Then he commanded with his mouth, and the garment was destroyed. Again he commanded, and the garment was created anew. When his fathers, the gods, saw what proceeded from his mouth, they rejoiced and paid homage, "Marduk is king." ’

This, too, is so different from the biblical account of creation. There are many gods, not one supreme God, and the story describes witchcraft practices (similar to those encountered by Moses and Aaron among the magicians of Egypt, Exodus 7 & 8), rather than the origin of the universe.

People who claim that these ancient Near Eastern texts are parallels of the biblical creation account have probably never read or compared them.

 

Modern Parallels

The uniqueness of the Genesis account is even greater when we see how remarkably it anticipates the findings of modern science. The text of the first two verses of Genesis is very precise. Verse 1 declares that the space-time universe is not eternal but had a beginning, which twentieth century discoveries have so dramatically confirmed. Verse 2 speaks of God’s action in forming the early universe, bringing progressive order from matter that was originally formless and lacking order. Moreover, there is no reference to light, only to darkness. This is very significant. It is exactly what one would expect if the ‘Big Bang’ theory of the origin of the universe is the correct one.

1. ‘Big Bang’ Theory

The theory of the ‘Big Bang’, or the inflationary universe, goes like this (see the graphic in Time, 29 March, 1999, p. 73):

1. The entire space-time universe begins from a ‘singularity’, a microscopic point before which nothing existed. Then it undergoes an enormously fast ‘inflation’, expanding from smaller than an atom to the size of a grapefruit in a tiny fraction of a second.

2. Following this inflation, the universe is a seething, searing hot mass of electrons, quarks and particles, with a temperature of 1027 ºC.

3. Still within the first second of its existence, the rapid cooling of the universe permits quarks to clump into protons and neutrons.

4. By three minutes, the temperature of the exploding universe is still too hot to form atoms, the basic constituents of matter, and charged electrons and protons prevent light from shining. The universe is a scaldingly hot fog with a temperature of 108 ºC.

5. It is not till 300,000 years from the beginning that the expanding universe cools sufficiently for electrons to combine with protons and neutrons to form atoms, mostly of hydrogen and helium, the lightest elements in the universe. Only at this stage are photons released and light able to shine.

6. By the time the universe is 1 billion years old, its temperature has cooled to -200ºC, and it is no longer thermal energy but gravity that is the key factor at work in its formation. Gravity causes hydrogen and helium gas coalesce to form giant gas clouds that will gradually become galaxies, and smaller clumps of gas collapse under the influence of gravity to form the nuclear furnaces that comprise the first stars.

7. At the present age of the universe, some 13-15 billion years, the temperature has cooled to -270ºC, the currently observed temperature of Cosmic Microwave Background radiation, around 2.7ºC above absolute zero. The processes begin which are observed by modern astronomers currently: gravity causes galaxies to cluster together, the earliest stars die and spill heavy elements into space, and eventually these form into new stars and planets.

 

2. Biblical Cosmology

There are some remarkable parallels when we set this Big Bang model alongside the simple, brief statement of the origin and formation of the early universe as described in Genesis 1:1-2:

1. Genesis 1:1 says that God created the universe ‘in the beginning’. Before this beginning, the space-time universe did not exist. God brought it into existence, as a ‘singularity’, not from any pre-existing matter, but out of nothing (ex nihilo).

2. Genesis 1:2 says that the early universe was ‘a formless void’ (the words tohu wa-bohu mean ‘unformed and empty’). It is described as a ‘deep’ (tehom), suggesting something of immense density and pressure, like the depths of the oceans. The ‘face’ or surface of this deep was covered in ‘darkness’ - indicating that light was not yet present or shining. These descriptions, in pre-scientific language, exactly match the descriptions of the ‘Big Bang’ theory for the early universe at this stage of its formation. This is truly remarkable for a pre-scientific document, and raises questions as to the source of this information. Such are the parallels I personally believe that the opening chapter of the Bible must have been directly revealed by God.

We are seeing in our day a remarkable convergence of scientific and biblical wisdom. Astrophysics and biblical scholarship appear to be on the same team, though not all scientists or biblical scholars are yet aware of this. This convergence is helping us to answer two great puzzles:

 

Perplexing Puzzles

1. Why is the Universe so Big?

The first is a puzzle for Christians: if God wanted to make a habitat for human beings, why did he create such a vast universe and take such a long time doing it?

An all-powerful God could have dropped human beings already formed into a world that was ready-made from the instant of creation. This is the fast-food theory of creation. But it does not appear to have been God’s agenda. Both the Bible and modern science show that the Creator used a sequence of events, a development of the universe, with the ultimate intention of making a habitat for human beings. God is orderly. He chose to make the universe with orderly laws of physics and chemistry. God is truthful. He chose not to make a universe with false characteristics and a deceptive age, but with consistent properties and an age which can be calculated from the extrapolation of physical and chemical processes.

Hugh Ross, a Christian astrophysicist and apologist, explains: ‘For many decades astronomers and others have wondered why, given God exists, he would wait so many billions of years to make life. Why did he not do it right away? The answer is that, given the laws and constants of physics God chose to create, it takes about twelve billion years just to fuse enough heavy elements in the nuclear furnaces of several generations of giant stars to make life chemistry possible. Life could not happen any earlier in the universe than it did on Earth.’ (The Creator and the Cosmos, [Colorado Springs, Colorado, NavPress, 1993], p. 110).

The same point was made before the rise of modern science by church reformer Martin Luther in his Sermon on Genesis 1:2 (1527): ‘God has not created the world in a day but taken time for this purpose, as when he now creates a child. . . . Just as originally the infant, although it is not nothing in its mother’s womb, is not yet formed as a perfect child is to be; and just as smoke is not nothing, but has neither light nor radiance, so the earth was as yet unfashioned and had no dimensions either of length or breadth.’ That is a pretty good pre-scientific description of the origin and development of the universe.

2. How Did the Universe Expand?

The second puzzle is one for scientists: if the early universe was so dense, how did it ever expand? Modern physics tells of black holes - bodies that have such densely compressed matter and such overwhelming gravitational forces that they collapse in on themselves and not even light can escape from them. The density of matter in the universe in the first moments of its existence was like a giant black hole - the mother of all black-holes, so gigantic and with such enormous gravitational forces that no known physical force in the universe could have impelled it outwards. The early universe should have behaved like a gigantic collapsed star, and remained the blackest hole of all time. If it had, there would be no universe as we know it today. How it could have expanded has been a puzzle to physicists ever since Alan Guth of the Massachusetts Institute of Technology first analysed the forces of the universe’s expansion in 1979 - and coined the term ‘inflation’ to describe it (‘The Inflationary Universe’, Scientific American, 250 [May 1984], p. 116).

How could such an immensely dense universe have inflated? The second verse of the Bible tells us. Here, when the conditions in the universe were those of a super black-hole, when ‘darkness covered the face of the deep’, there was a force from beyond the universe: ‘the Spirit of God was hovering over the waters’ (Genesis 1:2b). What no physical force in the universe could account for, the power of God’s Spirit accomplished. Here is a one-time force mentioned only here in this account of the creation of the universe. The only other time this force is mentioned in the book of Genesis is the creation of man as a living being (Genesis 2:7): to explain the emergence of another unique and inexplicable development in the universe - the origin of free, intelligent, spiritual beings. God’s ‘breath’ or ‘Spirit’, the ruach elohim, is mentioned here as empowering the enormous inflation of the early universe, giving it just the right expansion rate to account for the properties of the universe as we now know it, so finely-tuned to support human life.

In describing the role of the Spirit of God in forming the universe, the Bible pictures the Spirit ‘hovering’ over it like a bird fluttering over its young in their nest (Deuteronomy 32:11) - a metaphor even more suggestive of care and provision than of raw power. It is God’s Spirit who guides the formation of the universe from its inception towards its goal. The Spirit brings expansion where there is constriction, liberty where there is captivity, freedom where there is bondage, form and beauty where the world is ‘without form and void’. The Spirit of God brings order out of disorder; makes a cosmos out of chaos.

What the Spirit does in the macrocosm - the universe at large - he can also accomplish in the microcosm - in our personal lives. The role of the Spirit is to lead us from our beginning to our goal, from chaos and confusion to order and peace.

 

© 2000, St Albans Presbyterian Church