(Preached at Kobe Union Church on July 6, 2008)
As I begin my time with you here at Kobe Union Church as a kind of “pinch hitter” until your regular interim pastor arrives in the fall, I thought it would be good to begin our biblical thinking together at the very beginning. Genesis begins with the words, “In the beginning, God created the heavens and the earth.” And so this morning, I would like to begin my time with you right there, so that hopefully we can get off to a “Big Bang” as it were.
This concept of a beginning of the universe is critical to the biblical worldview on which everything we believe as Christians is based. So, what I would like to do this morning is give you an overview of what the Bible as a whole teaches concerning the Creation, how that relates to what the record of nature reveals, and also why this is important to the way we live our lives. Even if you are not a “science fanatic” like I am, I would imagine that you have at least heard of the so-called “Big Bang” origin of the universe and have some general impressions of what that means. Unfortunately, however, many people’s impressions concerning what this theory is all about are way off the mark. This is particularly so, it seems, among many conservative Christians, many of whom view it as an atheistic theory that goes right along with Darwinian evolution. I recall seeing a picture of a billboard some conservative church put up in the American “Bible Belt” that had the following words on it: “Big Bang? You’ve got to be kidding! — God.” To their way of thinking, this initial “explosion” scientists say took place some 13.7 billion years ago seems to be in utter conflict with the “clear” teachings of Scripture.
So, what is this really all about, and how does the scientific theory of the Big Bang line up with what the Bible actually teaches concerning the origin of the universe? As you can see from the example of the billboard, the people who put that up think that the Big Bang theory is atheistic and naturalistic. Part of the problem comes from the name that was given to this idea. “Big Bang” was originally a term coined by an atheist who didn’t like the theological implications of this theory that the universe actually had a beginning, and so he named it that in derision. It was a catchy phrase, however, which is why it took hold, but it is also very misleading, and so I think people often misunderstand what it actually proposes. People who assume that this theory was concocted by atheistic scientists who were trying to explain God away are totally misunderstanding it, for, in fact, it implies the very opposite of that. Namely, if the universe starts off with a “Big Bang,” then it has to have a “Big Banger” to get it going.
One basic misunderstanding that people have of this theory is that it was a gigantic, chaotic explosion, like that of an exploding supernova star, except on a vastly larger scale. Calling that beginning an “explosion” unfortunately gives it the impression of being something like a “primordial grenade” going off and exploding our universe into existence. If that were really an accurate description, then it begins to sound a lot like the proverbial explosion in a print shop producing the complete works of Shakespeare all nicely bound up in several volumes — an example often used to discredit Darwinian evolution. It simply goes against common sense to think of great order and complexity coming out of the utter chaos of a gigantic explosion.
A much more accurate way to express what this theory really says is that the entire reality of our physical universe was originally concentrated into an infinitesimally small volume. This includes not only all of the matter and energy that make up our universe, but also the very dimensions of space and time that everything exists in. In other words, it is not as though the expansion of the universe has been going on into already existing space. The universe is not expanding into something that already exists. Rather it is the “explosive” expansion of the very dimensions of space along a time line that first came into existence at the beginning of time approximately 13.7 billion years ago. What was “before” the “Big Bang?” Absolutely nothing that is part of our universe. Of course, something outside of our universe obviously had to exist, because “absolutely nothing” cannot be the cause of anything. This is actually the basis for one of the traditional “proofs of God,” called the “Kalam Cosmological Argument.” It consists of the following three points: “Anything that comes into existence must have a cause. The universe came into existence. Therefore, the universe had a cause.”
I am convinced that any open-minded seeker after truth would agree that this argument is valid reasoning and that therefore, it logically follows that God must exist. Those who do not like this idea thus have to try to show that at least one of the two premises of the argument is in error. The usual plan of attack is to claim that the universe has always been here and therefore didn’t “come into existence.” The scientific observations, however, all point strongly to the fact that there really was a definite beginning of space and time, and so now the favorite approach of those who wish to rationalize their denial of God is some sort of pre-existing something that mechanistically spawns one universe after another for infinity. In other words, according to this speculation, our universe is but one of an infinite number of different universes. There is, however, absolutely no way — even in theory — of ever being able to detect any such other universes if they do exist, and so such speculation is not actually even part of real science. There is no way to prove that such other universes do not exist, but neither can there be any direct evidence that they do exist.
Actually, I think God has set things up this way so that we cannot have absolute proof of his existence. As Psalms 19 says, “The heavens declare the glory of God; the skies proclaim the work of his hands.” The world around us provides us with powerful evidence for God, but it is still possible to explain such evidence away. If you think about it, if we had absolute proof that no one could deny, then there would be no “faith” required to believe in God. If we could see God directly sitting on his throne in the clouds or whatever, then no faith would be necessary. As it says in Heb. 11:6, “without faith it is impossible to please God, because anyone who comes to him must believe that he exists and that he rewards those who earnestly seek him.” God wants us to exercise faith, but it is not a blind faith we hold onto in spite of the evidence. It is a faith that is consistent with the evidence we can test directly from our observations of the world God has created. In fact, when you think about it, atheists aren’t showing a lack of faith. It actually takes a lot of faith to believe that there is no reason for our existence. I like what one author chose as the title of his book, “I don’t have enough faith to be an atheist.” There are, of course, difficult issues that need to be addressed, such as why God allows evil and suffering, but that is for a different sermon.
Let’s return to our topic today about what the Bible actually teaches concerning creation and why that is important. First of all, it is important to notice that creation is a major theme throughout the Bible. In fact, in addition to Genesis 1, there are 19 other chapter-length sections of Scripture that deal directly with this topic, and so an accurate understanding of biblical teaching must integrate all of these major passages, along with numerous other short passages, together into one coherent picture. The Bible, of course, is not a “science textbook,” and so it doesn’t use modern scientific terminology. Nevertheless, what I find truly amazing is how the description of reality the Bible paints is completely consistent with what the record of nature is revealing through modern science. Actually, this is what we should expect if the Bible truly is the “Word of God.” After all, if the natural world is the creation of the God of the Bible, and if the Bible is truly inspired by this same Creator God, then it follows that the two records should be in harmony. That doesn’t mean, however, that science and theology might not be in conflict, as both of these are human enterprises and therefore subject to error — especially when either is dominated by philosophical concerns, such as we see in the prior commitment to naturalism that presently dominates the study of the history of life on earth. Clearly, such “science” as we see in “Darwinian evolution” is in conflict with the clear teachings of Scripture, but it is my contention that this is not true science — namely following the evidence wherever it may lead — but is instead naturalistic philosophy masquerading as science.
When it comes to biology, things are so complicated that it is often difficult to “see the forest for the trees.” But this is not the case with cosmology, which is the study of how the universe came into being and how it has developed through time. Here, the picture is very clear and compelling that the universe came into being through the actions of a transcendent Being (outside the constraints of space and time) who designed things to work as they do for some specific purpose. The so-called “Big Bang” theory actually has numerous versions or models that scientists have proposed to test against their observations to see which ones match up and which ones need to be discarded. These vary in the details, but they all have a few points in common that can be summarized as follows: The universe came into being out of nothing a finite time ago as a near-infinitely hot and near-infinitely compact entity. From that singular beginning, the universe has been continuously expanding according to unchanging natural laws, and as a result has been continuously cooling off, on average getting colder and colder as time goes on.
So, how does that picture compare to what the Bible teaches? Surprisingly well, as it turns out. In fact, the Bible is the only ancient holy book (or any other kind of writing, for that matter) that taught these same basic points until they were discovered by modern science. Until less than 100 years ago, when Albert Einstein and Edwin Hubble discovered that the universe is not static and eternal as everyone had believed but was instead expanding from some sort of beginning, the Bible was the only writing that talked about this expansion from a beginning.
Of course, the Bible doesn’t use the term “expansion of the universe,” but in numerous places, it says that God is “stretching out the heavens.” For instance, in Isaiah 40:22, it says, “He sits enthroned above the circle of the earth, and its people are like grasshoppers. He stretches out the heavens like a canopy, and spreads them out like a tent to live in.” First, you’ll notice that the earth is described as a “circle” (which in the original Hebrew is a word that can also be translated “sphere”), and that is something that Isaiah could not possibly have known without it being revealed to him by the Creator. Additionally, Isaiah describes the Creator as “stretching out the heavens,” comparing that to the unfurling of a tent.
While that is poetic language that pre-scientific people would not have understood in a scientific sense, the description is still a very accurate one. It would take too long to develop this thought about why describing the universe as being like unfurling and stretching out a tent is accurate, but it is a very appropriate metaphor that Isaiah and the other biblical writers who use that same metaphor could not possibly have conjured up on their own. If they were merely composing such descriptions based on what their cultural understandings were at the time, there is no way they would have come up with such descriptions that are consistent with what modern science has discovered.
When you compare these descriptions in the Bible with what you see in every other ancient writing, the difference is obvious. All other such writings and oral traditions have a god or gods operating within time and creating the natural world out of pre-existing material. Only the Bible talks about a beginning of time and a creation out of nothing. Not only do we see this in the opening words of Genesis, “In the beginning…” but also in such verses as 2 Timothy 1:9, where Paul says, “This grace was given us in Christ Jesus before the beginning of time.” It is clear that the biblical writers understood that time had a beginning and that God was transcendent to (or outside of) time.
Another common feature of all “Big Bang” models is that this continuous expansion of the universe under constant laws of nature results in a universe that on average gets colder and colder as time progresses. Now, it is true that nowhere in the Bible is there a direct statement about the cooling off of the universe, but what it does clearly state is that the natural world operates according to unchanging natural laws. For instance, Jer. 33:25 refers to the “fixed laws of heaven and earth,” which, along with other verses, teaches that God created the universe to operate according to the fixed laws of physics that he set in place “in the beginning.” In Romans 8:20-21, Paul describes the entire creation as being “subjected to frustration” and under “bondage to decay,” which are apt descriptions of what scientists would call the “second law of thermodynamics,” the inviolable natural law that states that heat flows from hot to cold and that things run down if left to themselves. It’s why my office gets messy unless I put effort into keeping it clean and orderly. (Now, don’t ask my wife if I really do that! I’m sure she would tell you that my “get up and go” usually has “gotten up and gone” when it comes to keeping things orderly. But, actually, that is according to this “second law of thermodynamics” as well! Everything runs down hill!)
Anyway, the point I want to stress is that when we properly understand how the Bible describes the natural world, we can see that there is no conflict at all with the record of nature that modern science is endeavoring to understand. One point, however, that is often stressed by those who feel uncomfortable with this attempt to make consistent our understandings of the record of nature and the Bible is that by its very nature, science changes, and thus if we wed our theology to some particular theory of science, when that theory is overturned and a new theory becomes accepted, what then happens to our faith? And so I’d like to briefly address that concern as well.
In one sense, I can agree with that concern — namely that our theology shouldn’t be made dependent on scientific theories. But those who bring up this objection with respect to the Big Bang Creation Event are presupposing that it is just another speculative theory that is likely to be replaced by some other theory, just like we’ve seen so many times in the past in science. Now, it’s true that at least in theory another model for the origin of the universe with a different name might possibly be proposed and verified at some time in the future. Given how strong the evidence is in favor of the “Hot Big Bang” model, that seems extremely unlikely, but even if that were the case, I can confidently say that such a new theory would have the same basic point I mentioned earlier — namely, that the universe had a definite beginning and therefore had to be caused by some entity outside of the universe. The universe didn’t just create itself. If that were not so and further scientific exploration revealed that the universe didn’t actually have a beginning and therefore didn’t require a “Beginner,” then indeed our faith would be in crisis. In fact, I would put such a development on the same level as the verified discovery of the bones of a crucified man named Jesus of Nazareth, thus showing that he wasn’t really resurrected from the dead and is therefore not alive with us today. Just as Paul said, “If Christ has not been raised, your faith is futile and you are still in your sins.” If Paul were addressing creation and the origin of the universe, he could just as easily have said, “If the universe did not have a beginning, then there is no God, and your faith in him is just a pipedream. When you die, that’s the end, and there is nothing beyond the grave.”
Thank God we can have confidence that is not the case. When it comes to how the universe came into being, the basic Big Bang Creation model has passed every single test that has been conceived of with flying colors — in spite of the fact that many of the scientists doing the research really didn’t want it to be true, because they didn’t like the clear implications that there really must be a Creator. A few are still trying to find a way around it, but every new discovery has only added to the weight of evidence in favor of it.
I want to close with the point about why our ideas about origins are so very important to the way we live our lives. The basic worldview (or way of viewing reality) each of us has profoundly affects what we do with our lives, and that worldview is shaped in a very basic way by our beliefs concerning origins. When it comes to the “Life’s Big Questions” — namely, where I came from and why I’m here, the question of origins plays a major role. This morning, we’ve only briefly discussed the first of those origins, the origin of the universe. Equally important are the topics of the origin of life and the origin of humanity, and so perhaps we can take a look at those some other time. But when it comes to the origins of the universe, there are basically only two choices. Either the universe is self-existent or it was created by some entity outside of the universe. If the first is true, then it also follows that our existence is simply the accidental result of a materialistic process in which there was no purpose involved. If, however, the second of the two possibilities is the true one, then it is God who has created this universe for a purpose, which includes the purposes for which he has created you and me as individuals.
As the old cliché goes, it doesn’t take a “rocket scientist” to figure out that these two basic choices profoundly affect everything else we believe in and how we live our daily lives. If materialism is true, then there is no Creator God that we are accountable to and no purpose in our existence other than what we create for ourselves. When we die, then, it follows that there is no judgment and no existence beyond the grave for our spirits, as no such entity even exists in the first place. Ethics and morals are merely cultural constructs we are free to change to anything we prefer, and we could go on with many other similar outcomes that flow out of this basic commitment to a materialistic worldview.
On the other hand, if there really is a Creator, then it follows that he created us for a purpose, and so it behooves us to try to find out what that purpose is. The Bible purports to be a record of God’s communications to humanity concerning that purpose, and so in the long run, there is nothing that is more important than coming to understand that purpose and how to align our lives with it. So, I would encourage you to study God’s Word as well as God’s world in order to understand not only the “Big Picture” purposes God has in mind, but also how you as an individual fit into God’s overall purposes. I look forward to being with you the next 3 months as we study together various aspects of God’s dual revelation to us through these two “books,” as it were — the literal book of this Word and the figurative “book” of the natural world God has created. May God bless our efforts in seeking after his thoughts through these two records he has given to us.