Harmony of Bible and Science Presented in a Series of Articles
02 In The Beginning
Bible and Science – In the Beginning
In the beginning God created the heaven and the earth (Gen. 1:1).
Let us begin at the beginning.
It seems like a sensible place to start, but it is not immediately obvious that there had to be a beginning to the universe. Both from a Biblical, and from a scientific, standpoint the very simple and definitive statement, which constitutes the very first words of our Judeo-Christian Bible, present a tremendous challenge.
Created, not eternal
It would have been much simpler indeed, and a lot less aggravation would have been caused, if the Bible had started with the statement: “The heavens and earth are eternal, they have always existed.” After all, the Bible states that God is eternal, and is from everlasting to everlasting, which I guess amounts pretty much to the same thing.[i] In this case a lot of problems would automatically have been solved. It makes good sense that an everlasting God and an eternal universe would go hand in hand.
The Bible doesn’t state things this way, however, and leaves us pondering the question: What happened before the “beginning”? This becomes even more troubling if, as a literalist, you believe the entire universe was created only six thousand years ago.[ii] This view greatly limits the creative sphere in which the Lord God has performed his workmanship.
The scientist is not let off the hook either, for an eternal universe would also have solved a whole host of scientific problems. According to the model pictured by classical physics, an eternal, everlasting static universe would have been just fine, but these ideas were overturned by the astronomer Hubble in 1929, and still later unambiguously verified by observations made in the mid-1960’s on the universal microwave background.[iii]
The fact that the Bible declares explicitly that there was a beginning to our present order of things is undoubtedly both shocking and marvelous. The opening words of Genesis challenge us from the very beginning to have faith in the Word of God even if things are not so obvious as we would prefer. To put these concepts in perspective, first let us examine what a physical “beginning” to the universe implies to the scientist.
Newton and a static universe
To understand why classical physics suggested an eternal, static universe we first must make a brief detour into the Newtonian concept of gravity. Everyone has some familiarity with gravity on an everyday scale, namely, that what goes up must come down! In the 17th century, the young Isaac Newton was supposedly sitting under a tree when an apple fell and hit him on the noggin, which induced him to conceive of the key physical idea of gravitational attraction. It is interesting to note that it was also a piece of fruit (tradition ironically says an “apple”) noted in Genesis that plays a key role in introducing sin into the world. Whether this is coincidental or not is impossible to tell, but I have always been struck that these two most important concepts, one in physics and the other in theology, have such analogous stories of their origins.
As for gravity, Newton, working no doubt on observations from Galileo that he had read about, postulated a mathematical form for expressing this attraction between objects. All masses in the universe are mutually attracted to all other masses. This has profound implications and leads, for example, to the notion that in the absence of any other force, the moon would come tumbling down into the earth and we would all long ago have been pulverized into moon dust! What prevents this from happening is the orbital centripetal force created by the motion of the moon as it revolves around the earth. The position of the moon in space at any given time is a delicate balance between the centrifugal force of its orbital motion, which seeks to hurl it out into space, and the attraction to the earth due to gravitational pull which stabilizes its position.
The big crunch
We can visualize a simple picture of how the classical Newtonian model of gravity puts limits on how one conceives the nature of the universe. Let us start out by considering two masses, say two basketball-sized rocks. Their mutual attraction would eventually bring them together. As we add more and more rocks in the same proximity, in the absence of any other external force, they too must agglomerate into one mass. If we now apply this universal gravitational attraction to the cosmos as a whole we can see that if the universe has boundaries, instead of being infinite, there can be, by definition, no mass outside the boundary to compensate for the mutual attraction within the boundary region and eventually all the mass in the universe would collapse into a giant “ball,” sometimes called the big crunch!
The only way out of the “big crunch” was for the universe to be infinite, which, of course, implied static, eternal and unending. In an infinite universe whatever forces that gravity would exert to pull masses (in this case, galaxies) together would always be countered by other masses in all other directions which would stabilize the action and prevent a “big crunch.”
Contrast of Bible and pagan views
The view that the universe was eternal, indeed that all matter is eternal, was very much the pagan concept of the universe. This picture of the universe was believed by the Greeks, Romans and the Babylonians, among many others. Even so, in the world today there are those who believe in the eternity of all matter and the cyclic rebirth of the individual in many different manifestations over eons of time (basically reincarnation of matter as well as spirit). This was the prevailing view in the ancient pagan world. Nevertheless, the Bible takes a totally contrary viewpoint by stipulating a unique creation at a specific time in the past.
From the very beginning, the idea of an eternal, static, infinite universe was realized to cause an entirely unsatisfactory contradiction. This conflict was also realized by Newton, the very creator of the classical physical notion of universal gravitational attraction. This problem has to do with thermodynamics, a science not yet invented at the time of Newton, but one which his genius anticipated by simple physical intuition. Let us examine this contradiction further.
Newton and others recognized a problem
Imagine that you have just set on a table a hot bowl of soup. Every child has someone chide him to hurry up and come in from playing, wash up and eat before their supper got cold! Indeed, if the soup stands on the table long enough without being eaten, it will reach the same temperature as the room. This is called the equilibrium temperature with its surroundings.
Now how does this observation relate to the universe? Newton realized, as we can, that there are some extremely hot bodies out in the universe and some very cold ones, too. The stars, for example are fiery cauldrons of atomic energy and were intuitively recognized as sources of intense heat even by ancient man. We also know that the earth and indeed the other planets are relatively cooler than the sun and stars. The difference in the heat energy of the hot stars and the cool planets is enormous. Newton realized that if the universe was eternal that heat differential was clearly impossible. Just as the hot soup and the cool room eventually must reach the same temperature (the room heats slightly because of the presence of the soup), even so the stars and planets must eventually come to the same thermal equilibrium. Naturally, if the universe was eternal and had existed forever, then there can be no difference in heat energy between the stars and planets.
Newton appreciated this fact, while at the same time his gravitation model predicted the exact opposite conclusion. Clearly, an extraordinary dilemma presented itself which puzzled scientists for several centuries.
In fact, the gravitational view prevailed in most quarters over the thermal equilibrium prediction, perhaps because scientists were so enamored with the classical Greek ideas that they ignored the contradiction. It is also possible that many scientists didn’t like to postulate a “beginning” because then one might have to find an energizing principle that caused that beginning and that was getting too uncomfortably close to believing in a divine creation!
At the turn of the twentieth century, the notion of a static, eternal, infinite universe was so ingrained in scientific thinking that it led to one of the greatest blunders by one of the smartest men that ever lived.[iv]
An expanding universe
Only a few years after Einstein published his general theory of relativity, it was obvious to another physicist that his equations predicted an ever expanding universe which clearly implied a beginning from an initial starting point. Einstein decided that would never do and added to his equations the so-called “cosmological constant” which corresponds to a negative energy that prevented such an expansion and did away with the “initial condition” or “beginning” problem.[v]
As sometimes happens in science, just when everyone thought a definitive problem had been conclusively solved along came new experimental evidence that completely upset the apple cart.
In 1929, Edwin Hubble, using the 100 inch Mount Wilson Observatory in Southern California, published results on the measurement of red-shifts for a number of galaxies as a function of their distance from earth. By measuring the red-shift, he was able to compute the velocity of galaxies and because the shift in the color of the light was toward red and not blue he knew that the galaxies were all receding from earth. The way this works is through a principle called the “doppler shift.”
It can be explained readily in our common human experience by using sound waves instead of light waves as an example. Let us imagine that we are standing on a train platform and, as the train is coming toward us, the engine operator blows the horn. The sound waves coming toward us would be compressed and we hear a higher frequency, i.e. higher pitched sound on the platform, than the train engineer experiences. Likewise, if we stay in the same place on the platform as the train whizzes by and goes completely past us, if the whistle is blown again the wavelength of the sound is now stretched and hence of lower frequency. The same is, of course, true if we stand on a curb and listen to the sound of a siren, as it comes toward us then moves away past us. In the inbound position, the sound is compressed to higher frequencies and in the direction moving away from us the opposite is true.
The situation is the same for light waves. If a light source is coming toward us, it will be shifted to higher frequencies, i.e. a blue shift, but if moving away it is shifted toward the red. All such shifts, of course, are referred to a stationary observer. Therefore, to an observer on earth, the fact that Hubble measured nothing but red-shifts in the incoming light for all the galaxies he was able to photograph had profound implications. More astonishing was his finding, after using various methods of determining the distance of these galaxies from earth, that the further away they were from us the faster they were receding. It was as if the universe had a giant distaste for planet earth! It didn’t take long for scientists to figure out a model for what must be happening.
The balloon model
Suppose one takes a balloon and glues numerous buttons over its surface; let each button represent a galactic cluster of stars. Now slowly blow up the balloon. Next shrink yourself small enough to sit on one of the buttons (please do this in your imagination only)! If we were sitting on one of the buttons and looked out at all the other buttons, we would see that, as the balloon got bigger and bigger, every button that we could observe, in every direction, would appear to be moving away from us. In fact, an observer on any other button would experience the same sensation. Observers on any particular button would think that every button in the balloon universe was moving away from their particular button island.
The inescapable conclusion of the observations of Hubble was that the universe was not static, but was expanding. Furthermore, more recent and more exacting detailed measurements confirm quite remarkably these early observations that Hubble made on a telescopic instrument that seems very primitive today. Since it is well-known that matter cannot move faster than the velocity of light, it was possible to put an upper limit on the red-shift and get both an idea of the distance limits of the universe and also estimate how long it took for the universe to get to its present size. We will have more to say on this in a later article on the “Big Bang,” but for now it will suffice to say that the results found by Hubble had, in fact, been predicted earlier by the general theory of relativity in its initial version without the cosmological constant correction that Einstein made to force a static universe. That is why Einstein called this his biggest blunder; it remains to be seen whether or not some future result on “dark matter and energy” may yet prove that the cosmological constant has some sort of physical reality.
The point that is overwhelmingly accepted by scientists today is that all the theories and observations of twentieth century cosmological physics indicate beyond the shadow of a doubt that the universe had a “beginning.”
The pagan idea of the eternal nature of matter was the next thing to fall, for it will turn out that matter is not fundamental at all, but rather the universe was created out of “nothing.” But that is another story reserved for a future article.
By John C. Bilello, Ann Arbor, Michigan
[i] 1 Timothy 1:17 Now to the King eternal, immortal, invisible, the only God, be honor and glory for ever and ever. Amen. (NIV) and also Isaiah 40:28 Do you not know? Have you not heard? The LORD is the everlasting God, the Creator of the ends of the earth. He will not grow tired or weary, and his
understanding no one can fathom. (NIV)
There are many other parallel references to prove this same point.
[ii] Bishop Ussher, in the 19th Century, using chronology taken from the stated life spans in the Genesis genealogy concluded that the universe was created in 4004 B.C. More on this later.
[iii] In 1929, Edwin Hubble, an astronomer working at the Mount Wilson Observatory in Southern California, discovered that all the galaxies in the universe appeared to be moving away from the earth and the further away they were from us the faster their speed of recession. The conclusion was that the universe could not be static but was undergoing dynamic expansion. (See e.g. G. E. Christianson, Edward Hubble: Mariner of the Nebulae, (1995) )
In 1965, two physicists at Bell Laboratories in New Jersey studying antenna noise discovered that the entire universe appeared to be bathed in a radiation afterglow of a singular event of vast energy taking place in the far distant past. This event has come to be known in popular terms as the “Big Bang”. We will have more to say about this in a later chapter. See: A. Penzias and G. Wilson, A Measurement of Excess Antenna Temperature at 4080Mc/s, ApJ, 142, 419, (1965).
[iv] The idea of a “greatest blunder” is taken from Albert Einstein’s own words.
[v] Ironically, recent interest in the cosmological constant has been revived as a means for perhaps dealing with the problems of “dark” matter and energy which apparently fills the universe.