Religion

03.23.14

Evangelicals Still Don’t Know What to Do With the Big Bang

When a major discovery confirmed the Big Bang this week, some evangelicals ignored it, while others claimed it’s already in the Bible. But the theory’s Catholic history suggests there’s a better way to look at it.

The “Big Bang” theory of the origin of the universe got a big boost this week when scientists reported the discovery of 14-billion-year-old echoes of the universe’s first moments—the first proof of an expanding universe, and the last piece of Einstein’s general theory of relativity.

Creationists and other conservative religious believers have a curiously ambivalent relationship with the Big Bang—unlike evolution, which is universally condemned. Young-earth creationists mock the Big Bang as a wild guess, an anti-biblical fantasy that only atheists determined to ignore evidence of God’s creation could have invented. In contrast, creationists who accept that the earth is old—by making the “days” of creation in Genesis into long epochs—actually claim that the Big Bang is in the Bible. Some of them are rejoicing in the recent discovery.

The leading evangelical anti-science organization is Answers in Genesis (AIG), headed by Ken Ham, the guy who recentlydebated Bill Nye. AIG’s dismissive response to the discovery is breathtaking in its hubris and lack of insight into how science works. They call for Christians to reject the discovery because the “announcement may be improperly understood and reported.” This all-purpose response would also allow one to deny that there is a missing Malaysian Airlines Boeing 777.

Secondly, Answers in Genesis complains that the predictions being confirmed in the discovery are “model-dependent.” They fail to note that every scientific prediction ever confirmed, from the discovery of Neptune, to DNA, to the Ambulecetus transitional fossil is “model-dependent.” The whole point of deriving predictions in science is to test models, hypotheses, theories. Finally, AIG suggests that “other mechanisms could mimic the signal,” implying that, although the startling prediction was derived from Einstein’s theory of general relativity and the inflationary model of the Big Bang, it could have come from “some other physical mechanism.” No alternative mechanism is suggested. 

These extremes aren’t the only ways for religious believers to respond to major scientific breakthroughs.

The AIG response declares instead that “Biblical creationists know from Scripture that the universe did not begin in a big bang … we know from Genesis 1 that God made the earth before He made the stars, but the big bang requires that many stars existed for billions of years before the earth did.”

Not all biblical literalists take such a hard-line stance. Like Ham, the popular Christian apologist Hugh Ross is a biblical literalist who rejects all forms of evolution: Ross believes that the “days” of creation in Genesis are vast epochs and thus the universe can be billions of years old. Ross heads the organization Reasons to Believe, which is often attacked by AIG and other young earth creationist groups for having a “liberal” view of the Bible. 

Ross, an astronomer by training, was delighted by the discovery of the gravitational waves and told the Christian Post that “The Bible was the first to predict big bang cosmology.” Ross, in fact, is convinced that many ideas in modern science—including the inflationary model for the Big Bang confirmed by the recent discovery—were actually predicted by the Bible. He argues—to the dismay of Hebrew scholars—that the word “bara,” translated “create” in Genesis 1:1, means “to bring into existence that which did not exist before.” Ross has ingeniously located much of modern physics in the Bible, including the laws of thermodynamics and the Big Bang.

The initial response from the Discovery Institute, the headquarters of the Intelligent Design (ID) movement, maligned the motivations of the cosmologists searching for the gravity wave, claiming they found more theologically friendly models of the Big Bang “disturbing,” and wanted to refute them. The recent discovery of the gravity waves—after years of searching—is being trumpeted by the scientific community because it “saves the jobs of a thousand people at two national labs who are having to justify their expensive failure. 

Despite his organization’s snarky cynicism, the Discovery Institute’s director, bestselling ID author Stephen Meyer, was in the this-new-discovery-proves-the-Bible camp. Meyer went on the John Ankerberg show to extol the theological virtues of the Big Bang. Using the same arguments as Hugh Ross, Meyer finds both the Big Bang and even the inflation model in the Bible: “We find repeated in the Old Testament, both in the prophets and the Psalms,” he told the Christian Post, “that God is stretching or has stretched out the heavens.” Meyer says this “stretching” means that “Space expanded very rapidly,” and the recent discovery provided “additional evidence supporting that inflation.”

Meyer and Ross are right that English translations of the Bible do speak of the heavens being “stretched out.” But to suggest that this is what has been confirmed by the recent discovery is simply not possible. A typical biblical passage supporting this claim is found in Isaiah 40:22 where we read that God “stretches out the heavens like a canopy, and spreads them out like a tent to live in.” Does this really sound like an event at the beginning of time when the universe experienced a momentary burst of expansion? And what do we make of the apocalyptic vision described in Revelation 6:14 that, at the end of time, “the sky rolled back like a scroll”?

The biblical authors—and most ancients—understood the sky over their heads to be a solid dome—an inverted bowl resting on a flat earth for the authors of Genesis, a crystalline sphere surrounding a round earth for Aristotle and most Christians until the scientific revolution. The Hebrew word used in Genesis for the sky is “raqia” which means “bowl” or “dome.” It does not mean “space-time continuum” and it is not something that could be “inflated.” It could, however, be “stretched out like a tent” or “rolled back like a scroll.”

These divergent responses are full of hubris in both directions, making extravagant claims for or against scientific discovery, embracing or rejecting science on the basis of existing religious commitments. But these extremes aren’t the only ways for religious believers to respond to major scientific breakthroughs. Not every scientific idea has to have a theological interpretation, although the tendency to fit new science into ancient religious frameworks is often irresistible. And the Big Bang is certainly no exception.

The Big Bang theory, in fact, was developed in the 1920s by a Catholic priest who was also an acclaimed physicist, the Monsignor Georges Lemaître. It was ridiculed and rejected by Lemaître’s atheist colleague, Fred Hoyle. Hoyle applied the derisive term “Big Bang” to Lemaître’s theory in a 1949 BBC interview—a nasty label that stuck.

Hoyle, who labored heroically to produce an alternative theory, didn’t like the theological implications of the universe beginning suddenly in a moment of “creation.” It sounded too much like the first verse in the Bible: “In the beginning, God created the heavens and the earth.” And, as Hoyle and others noted, Lemaître was a priest who might reasonably be suspected of trying to smuggle Catholic theology into science.

Hoyle’s concern was amply illustrated in 1951 when Pope Pius XII declared that, in discovering the Big Bang, science had indeed established the Christian doctrine of the “contingency of the universe” and identified the “epoch when the world came forth from the hands of the Creator.” “Creation took place,” the pope said. “Therefore, there is a creator. Therefore, God exists!”

Both Lemaître and the Vatican’s science advisor were horrified by the Pope’s confident assertion that physics had proven God. They warned him privately that he was shaky ground: the Big Bang was not a theory about the ultimate origin of the universe and should not be enlisted in support of the Christian belief in a Creator. The pope never mentioned it again.

Ironically, in this dispute, the atheist Hoyle was on the side of the pope in seeing a linkage between the Big Bang and God. It was Lemaître and the pope’s science advisors who saw clearly that scientific theories, no matter how well-established, should not be enlisted in support of theological notions. And, as the Catholic Church learned in the Galileo affair, scientific theories should not be opposed on theological or biblical grounds.

These lessons have been learned by Catholics, for the most part, as evidenced by the relative scarcity of prominent Catholic science-deniers. Unfortunately, we cannot say the same things for many evangelical Protestants, many of whom belong to truncated religious traditions that began after Galileo, or even after John F. Kennedy. They lack the accumulated wisdom that restrains the pope from inspecting every new scientific discovery and either rejecting it because it counters a particular interpretation of Genesis or enthusiastically endorsing it because it confirms this or that doctrine. And when the pope strays, his advisors quickly get him back on track. Catholic thinking on science is informed by the pontifical academy of science, an advisory group with no counterpart in Protestantism.

Ken Ham and his colleagues at Answers in Genesis, Hugh Ross and his colleagues at Reasons to Believe, and Stephen Meyer and his colleagues at the Discovery Institute are too quick to embrace, reject, or gloss with theological meaning the latest scientific discoveries. Rather than rushing to the Bible to see whether its ancient pages can accommodate the latest science, they would do well to heed this caution from Lemaître, as he spoke of the theory that he discovered

“We may speak of this event as of a beginning. I do not say a creation … Any preexistence of the universe has a metaphysical character. Physically, everything happens as if the theoretical zero was really a beginning. The question if it was really a beginning or rather a creation, something started from nothing, is a philosophical question which cannot be settled by physical or astronomical considerations.”