Big Kerfuffle about the Big Bang

The Big Bang Theory suggests that the universe had to have a beginning. So does the Bible.

 

Coptic Apologetics Discussion Group is up and running for the third year, and the first two monthly topics are scientific ones. January’s meeting was on the Big Bang Theory while February’s meeting will look more broadly at the sometimes rocky relationship between faith and science. But how rocky does that relationship need to be? Does it need to be as difficult as some would make it to be? If you are one of those people who believe that God created the world in six 24-hour days a few thousand years ago, I must warn you: you are not going to like what I have to say.

I have to confess that although I took an interest in Young Earth Creationism for some years, I have now come to pretty much reject it wholesale. It really comes down to how you read the Bible, and how willing you are to let reality be itself rather than trying to squash it into a pre-arranged box of your own making. Such an approach can lead to ridiculous situations, such as the one Cardinal Roberto Bellarmine dug for himself in the early seventeenth century. Consider his view of the preposterous new idea that the earth might orbit around the sun rather than the other way around.

 

… to affirm that the sun is really fixed in the centre of the heavens and that the earth revolves very swiftly around the sun is a dangerous thing, not only irritating the theologians and philosophers, but injuring our holy faith and making the sacred scripture false.

 

“Injuring our faith and making the sacred scripture false”? Really? The good cardinal’s words seem absurd to the modern Christian. Why in the world would he be so dogmatic? The fault lies, I think, in his mistaking his own way of interpreting scripture for the scripture itself. Even today, Young Earth Creationists fall into the same trap, insisting that if their very literal interpretation of the Bible is disproved by science, then the whole Bible becomes worthless and all of Christianity – all of it, mind you – collapses into a bottomless abyss of unreliability. Nice of them to include us in their prophetic doom.

But no, I object. My Christianity is in no such danger from the results of science. I take my lead from the marvellous wisdom of the ancient Fathers of the Christian Church. While there is a bewildering variety of opinions among them on matters we would today call “scientific”, there is a common thread of humility and dedication to getting at genuine Truth that runs through their thought. A few quotes serve to illustrate this admirable attitude.

 

It not infrequently happens that something about the earth, about the sky, about the other elements of this world, about the motion of rotation or even the magnitude and distances of the stars, about the definite eclipses of the sun and moon, about the passage of the years and seasons, about the nature of animals, of fruits, of stones and of other such things, may be known with the greatest certainty, by reasoning or by experience even by one who is not a Christian. It is too disgraceful and ruinous, however, and greatly to be avoided, that he should hear a Christian speaking so idiotically on these matters, and as if in accord with Christian writings, that he might say that he could scarcely keep from laughing when he saw how totally in error they are. – St Augustine.

 

Now we ourselves speak on these subjects with great fear and caution, discussing and investigating rather than laying down fixed and certain conclusions … we are dealing, as well as we can, with subjects that call for discussion rather than for definition. – Origen.

 

If we read the events in the divine scriptures about hidden things and things most removed from our eyes, it will be possible, saving always the faith which fills us, to formulate various opinions about these matters. Let us then not be too hasty in accepting any such opinion which, were the truth to be sought more carefully, might afterwards be found unsound, and lest we might be found in error by our attempting to establish what is but our own view to be that of the Scriptures, whereas we ought to wish that the view taken by the Scriptures should become our own. – St Augustine.

 

And finally, one of my favourite ancient Fathers, St Gregory of Nyssa.

 

As for the question of precisely how any single thing came into existence, we must banish it altogether from our discussion. Even in the case of things which are quite within the grasp of our understanding and of which we have sensible apprehension, it would be impossible for the speculative reason to grasp the ‘how’ of the production of the phenomenon, so much so that even inspired and saintly men have deemed such questions insoluble. For instance, the apostle says, “through faith we understand that the worlds were framed by the word of God, so that the things which are seen are not made of things which do appear” (Hebrews 11:13) … Let us, following the example of the apostle, leave the question of the ‘how’ in each created thing without meddling with it at all but merely observing incidentally that the movement of God’s will becomes at any moment that He pleases a fact, and the intention becomes at once realised in nature. – St Gregory of Nyssa.

 

If only St Gregory were around today! His words seem surprisingly appropriate to the modern debate with Young Earth Creationism. They are even more compelling when one considers that he was not speaking in reaction to modern scientific theories, but simply out of his usual habits in understanding the Bible and seeking for truth. He had every right to reject the “speculative reasoning” of the pagan philosophers of his day about the origins of the world, but would he have rejected the scientific method and its conclusions if he were alive today? My guess is that given his dedication to truth, he would not.

 

But we can advance even more reasons for rejecting Young Earth Creationism, using material that was not available to the ancient Fathers. Firstly, their literal interpretation is only one of many possible ways to interpret passages like the creation narrative in the first chapters of Genesis. That literal approach is rooted in the Protestant Reformation and heavily influenced by the Western mindset where everything has to be logical. But my own tradition, that of the Church of Alexandria, leaned heavily towards metaphorical, symbolic and allegorical interpretations of scripture, seeing the deeper spiritual, moral and theological meaning as being far more important than the literal events described.

Secondly, to read the creation narrative as if it were a scientific report is grossly improper. Science as we know it simply did not exist until the Renaissance at the earliest. It is certain that the ancient Hebrews as well as the ancient Christians would not have even understood what we mean by science. To try to interpret the creation narrative in a scientific way, to try to match up, say, the description of the separation of the waters above the firmament from those below the firmament to some specific meteorological atmospheric phenomenon is to impose twenty-first century knowledge on an ancient author and his readers for whom it would be utterly incomprehensible. That is not to say the creation narrative in Genesis is not true. Ask an Australian Aboriginal whether the Dreamtime stories are true and you will an emphatic ‘yes’ in response. But ask him if that means that he believes that giant snakes that turn into humans literally walked the earth, and could (if we found their fossils) take their place among the catalogue of species found in biology textbooks, and he would look at you as if you were crazy. “You are completely missing the point”, he would say, “that’s not the important truth about that story”.

To read the creation narrative in Genesis as science is just as wrong-headed as trying to understand Dreamtime stories as science. That is just not the point of the story. What is the point, then? Bishop Kallistos Ware puts it beautifully in his classic book, TheOrthodox Way:

 

What is meant by this phrase, ‘out of nothing’, ex nihilo? Why indeed did God create at all? … Rather than say that He created the universe out of nothing, we should say that He created it out of His own self, which is love. We should think, not of God the Manufacturer or God the Craftsman, but of God the Lover … As created beings we can never be just ourselves alone; God is the core of our being, or we cease to exist … God alone is noun; all created things are adjectives … When Genesis states “In the beginning, God created the heavens and the earth” (1:1), the word, “beginning” is not to be taken simply in a temporal sense, but as signifying that God is the constant cause and sustainer of all things.

 

And so say many of the ancient Fathers. They were hardly interested in whether the events of the creation narrative happened in just that way a simplistic, literal reading would imply. They were far, far more interested in what the narrative revealed about God and about His relation to the humanity He created.

Given the way Young Earth Creationists today demonise Big Bang scientists, you might be surprised to learn that the theory itself was the brainchild of a very devout Christian, a Catholic priest who was also a cosmologist; Msgr. Georges Lemâitre (interestingly, Nicolas Copernicus, the originator of the modern theory that the earth orbits the sun was also a Catholic priest). Further, the vast majority of Christians in the world today reject Young Earth Creationism. The respected Holy Cross Greek Orthodox Theological School put out this position statement in 1982:

 

“Among Orthodox Christians there are varying views on the creation of the world by God and the theories of evolution developed over the years since the time of Darwin. No official Orthodox pronouncement exists on these topics.”

 

Now that seems much more in keeping with the wise caution of the ancient Fathers, doesn’t it? Indeed, patristic scholar David Bentley Hart writes in Atheist Delusions:

 

Origen, Basil of Caesarea, Gregory of Nyssa, Augustine – all denied that, for instance, the creation story in Genesis was an actual historical record of how the world was made (Augustine did write what he called a “literal” interpretation of Genesis, but it was not literal in any sense a modern fundamentalist would recognize). And figures as distant from one another in time as Augustine and Aquinas cautioned against exposing scripture to ridicule by mistaking the Bible for a scientific treatise.

 

And our own late Pope Shenouda III summarised his opinion on the matter thus:

 

The day of creation is a period of time, not known how long, which could have been a second or thousands or millions of years…

Let the geologists say then whatever they want about the age of the earth; for the Bible did not mention any age for the earth that may contradict the views of the geologists.

To be sure, just because a majority of people think something is true doesn’t make it so, but I merely wish to point out how out of step with the vast majority of Christian thought is Young Earth Creationism’s attitude to science, and especially out of step with ancient Christianity and with modern Orthodox Christianity. There is absolutely no reason for the Orthodox Christian to buy into their doleful false dilemma that unless the world was created in six literal 24-hour days a few thousand years ago, Christianity falls. It goes against our heritage as well as our sense of truth.

That is not to say that scientific truth is absolute. A common mistake people make (including some scientists) is to act as if science tells us what reality is. It simply doesn’t. The best science can do is give us a theory that models reality. We can use that model to explain how things happen and to predict what will happen, but we must not confuse the description of a thing for the thing itself. No description can ever be complete nor can it ever perfectly contain all the truth about the reality it seeks to describe. Further, descriptions can be of varying degrees of accuracy, and when we find a new description that fits reality better than the old one, we quickly discard the old. How long will the Big Bang Theory survive before new knowledge forces its replacement by another theory? Who can tell? Who could have predicted that in just a few decades, Galileo and Copernicus would be vindicated and Cardinal Bellarmine relegated to a quirky footnote of history, a cautionary tale for would-be fanatics of every era?

The point is this: Christianity is not primarily about how the physical world works. Sure, this glorious cosmos bears witness to the wisdom of its Creator, but Christianity is first and foremost about the relationship between God and the world He created, especially human beings. It is about profound moral and spiritual Truth, not scientific theorems. Science and faith answer different questions about life. Science tells us the “how” while faith tells us the “why”. Embracing both is indispensible for a complete worldview. Whether the Big Bang Theory is correct or not hardly matters to the Christian. At present, it seems to be the best theory we have, but its status, or the age of the universe, or the nuts and bolts of how the universe came to be are just interesting; revelations of the wisdom and the creativity of the mind of God. Whatever answers we find to those questions about the physical world, it is still in the Bible that I will seek answers about the meaning of life. My Christianity remains unperturbed.

You can read some of my reasons for rejecting Young Earth Creationism and find the above and many other patristic quotes (with references) in the Coptic Apologetics background paper on the Big Bang Theory discussion.

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4 Replies to “Big Kerfuffle about the Big Bang”

  1. I think the Young Earth theory arises from the phrase ‘evening and morning’ in the creation account. Personally however, I think if you look closely, the ‘evening and morning’ do not really mean specific periods of 24 hours.

    In fact, I think if you look closely enough, the creation story supports scientific theory. The creation involved three different acts. God ‘created’ the earth, he then ‘ordered’ everything else to come into being (he ‘let there be’) and then he ‘formed’ man.

    On the ‘first day’, God ‘created’ the heavens and the earth. Creating is the act of making something out of nothing (unlike ‘forming’ or ‘inventing’ which use already pre-existing things). It is only the heavens and the earth which are ‘created’ and made out of nothing.
    The second verse goes on to say that the earth was void and without form. So whatever was created on the first day had no physical existence. Whatever was created was not the physical heaven or the physical earth, it was something void, something that had no form. My own reasoning tells me that this is the Law of Nature or the Law of Physics.

    So on the first day, God created the laws of the universe, these being void and without form.
    It then goes on to say that God ordered there to be light, and He separated the light from the darkness, calling one day and one night. It is noticed here that this occurs before the forming of the sun, so it cannot be night and day in the physical sense, but this is where God sets the laws of the universe into motion and thus forms time.

    So the natural laws of the universe were created on the first day, and set in motion. This is when time (light) began; this is the ‘beginning’ which the first verse refers to. What happened next is not important, it may have been the Big Bang, or whatever else, what is important is that God ordered the Light ‘to be’, he did not create it, it came about after the created laws were set into motion. And so goes the rest of creation, everything was ordered ‘to be’, everything was brought about from the pre-existing, pre-created laws of nature. On the second day, for example, God ordered the forming of the heavens, he did not create the heavens out of nothing, he set the laws in motion to make it happen. Then on the third day he ordered the waters to be gathered together so that dry land appears. Again, he did not create the dry land out of nothing, he set the natural created laws into motion and watched it happen. And so on and so forth with the rest of creation. Whether this took one day, or billions of years is up to interpretation. The geological record indicates the latter.

    What’s noticeable is that the story in Genesis more or less follows what science tells us anyway. First the earth was created in time and then the waters were gathered, the earth appears, the fish, the mammals and finally man. The interesting thing is that God watched on through all this and ‘saw that it was good’. So for billions of years God watched the earth form and the animals evolve, and delighted in it, it was like God’s own little diorama. However, for whatever reasoning God had, there came a turning point. After he created the laws of the universe and set everything else into motion while watching on and controlling (he is Pantocrator, after all), he decided after billions of years of delighting in what he had created and what became of it through his watchful eye, that he was going to make it more personal. It no longer was satisfying for God to watch on indefinitely his little diorama of earth that had no interest in him.

    So he decided to then ‘form’ man. He neither created man like he created the laws of the universe, neither did he ‘let it be’ like everything else, he personally formed man himself out of the pre-existing dust of the earth. So man was not created out of nothing like the laws of nature nor did he naturally come into being like time, the sun, the stars, the trees or the animals. He was personally fashioned, given reasoning, and given the ability to know and commune with God. Through the final act of creation, the ‘forming’ of man, God made the earth a more personal place for him. It was not enough for him to just ‘create’ the laws which had no form and set them into motion while watching on, even though he delighted in it all along the way. It was not until God finally ‘formed’ man that he saw it was ‘very’ good.

    So the creation, together with the Big Bang and Darwinian evolution go hand in hand, it needn’t be this or that. In fact, the Bible story supports the science. There is only one difference, that being the formation of man. Science stipulates that man was formed as part of evolution and natural selection. Genesis tells us that God after billions of years of watching on, decided to form man separate from the processes of natural selection.
    The other thing that Genesis indicates is the cause of the light, the cause of motion and time and the cause of the laws of the universe. Scientific theory fails in that respect. Science only explains after the cause.

    Young Earth Creationism therefore does not stand to reasoning, whether scientific or biblical. There were not six separate acts of creation on six consecutive days, there was one act of creation in which the laws of the universe were created out of nothing. Between the second and fifth ‘days’ these laws were in motion forming the different entities of earth and the universe, a process which from scientific evidence shows to have occurred over billions of years. Man, who appears on the six ‘day’ is a separate, final act of God who became unsatisfied with his impersonal creation and formation.

    So technically, God did not ‘create the heavens and earth and all that is therein’, more accurately, he created the natural processes (the non-physical, laws), then through these laws ‘ordered’ all that is therein (including physical heaven and earth), then he ‘formed’ man.

    These are my humble observations…

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  2. Dear Father
    I have been watching a few series of documentaries on the young earth series on CYC and found it to be very inspiring. The answers in genesis and creation ministries are geologists and scientists who examine the detail of the theories. AS I was watching this during the Japanese sunami it occured to me that landscapes actually can change fairly quickly. I always like to ask bigbang believers “If you can tell me of an explosion that creates something then maybe i will believe too”. They often have never asked the obvious question of themselves. I fear that the church needs to see that the big bang theory give people an excuse for atheism.
    Please review the content of the article. Christian scientists need to take more responsibility for the analysis of the theories.

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  3. Hi Marcus

    Thank you for your thoughts. As Christians we seek the truth in all things, since our God is the God of Truth. If you take some time to seriously look into this subject you will find that the Big Bang theory is not only the best scientific theory we have currently to explain the universe we see around us, but it actually AFFIRMS our faith in God. Historically, there were two competing theories in the first half of the twentieth century: the Big Bang Theory and the Steady State Theory. The latter said that the universe has no beginning – it has always existed, thus eliminating the need for God. The Big Bang Theory was actually devised by a Roman Catholic scientist and priest, Monsignor Georges Lemaitre. By insisting the universe has a beginning, it fits with the Christian conception of God as the Origin and Source of all things. IN the end, the question was decided not on religious principles but on scientific principles. As scientific theories go, the Big Bang Theory has more evidence in its favour than most.

    We need to learn from history. In the seventeenth century the Catholic Church opposed the new theory that the earth travels around the sun rather than the other way around because they misinterpreted certain Bible verses. the same kinds of arguments were made then as are made today about theories like the Big Bang – it will encourage the atheists, it will weaken our faith etc. And yet today, I don’t know of any Christian who finds their faith weakened by the knowledge that the Earth goes around the sun.

    The history of Young Earth Creationism is also interesting. For most of the era of Christianity this wasn’t really an issue since no one really had any way of knowing the true age of the universe scientifically. But once we started to develop reliable methods, and as they all concurred on a very old earth, who was it who stuck to a very literal interpretation of the creation account? It wasn’t the Catholics, who had learned their lesson in the seventeenth century and who have no problems at all with an old earth. It wasn’t the Orthodox, by and large, whose theologians very sensibly said that such questions are not theological, and that one could be equally faithful whether they believed in a young or old earth. It was the PROTESTANTS, and in fact, not the majority of Protestants, but a small and very hardline section of the Protestant Church based mostly in the USA. This is a group of Christians with whom we would disagree on a large number of very important theological issues, and yet, many in the Coptic Church have for some unknown reason decided they have got this subject right, and all the other Christians in the world, Orthodox, Catholic and Protestant have got it wrong, together with 99% of the scientific community. Hmmm.

    The age of the earth is a scientific question, not a theological question. I have no problem with CYC TV showing stuff from the very Protestant Answers in Genesis and Creation Science Ministries (although I disagree strongly with their theology and their insistence that if you disagree with them you are going to hell and destroying Christianity) but I wish CYC would introduce some balance and show some stuff from more sensible groups too.

    Fr Ant

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  4. Thank you much for this post abouna.

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