Genesis 1:1 says, "In the beginning, God created the heaven and the earth. A similar assertion is repeated in the New Testament: "In the beginning was the Word, and the Word was with God, and the Word was God. The same was in the beginning with God. All things were made by Him, and without Him was not any thing made that was made (John 1:1-3).
However, outside of Abrahamic religions (namely, Christianity, Judaism, and Islam), very few people groups around the world believed that the universe had a beginning. Up until the 20th century, conventional science believed that the universe was infinite both in extent and in age.
There are philosophical consequences for believing that the universe has a beginning. They are summed up in the Kalam Cosmological argument:
- Whatever begins to exist has a cause
- The universe began to exist
- Therefore, the universe has a cause. This cause must possess several God-like qualities:
Thus, if the universe had a beginning, then such a beginning is a strong argument in favor of the existence of a supernatural entity that started it. However, if the universe did not have a beginning, no such entity needs to be invoked. These arguments are fleshed out more in the following video by reasonablefaith.com.
As previously mentioned, the notion of a universe that came into being is relatively unique to Abrahamic traditions. For example, in the Hindu Rigveda, written in India before the 12th Century BC, the universe progresses in cycles. A cosmic egg, called the Brahmanda contains the entire universe, and expands in and out of a single point, eternally cycling between expansion and total collapse.
Western notions of cosmology had their origins in Ancient Greek thinking. Democritus (460-370 BC) believed that the universe was composed of very small, indivisible, indestructible, and eternal building blocks known as "atoms." All of reality and all objects in the universe were merely different arrangements of these eternal atoms.
Shortly after Democritus, Aristotle built on top of Democritus' cosmology to assert that the universe was infinite in size, static throughout eternity (i.e., it did not change), and that the Earth was in the center. To Aristotle, science was closely tied into philosophy, and a somewhat mystical view of the universe. This "Aristotelian" view of the universe became so fundamental to scientific thought in Europe that any science that contradicted his fundamental claims was viewed as heresy.
It wasn't until Copernicus that science even considered moving away from any of Aristotle's views. Copernicus' contribution to science was his argument that the earth is not in the center of the universe, as Aristotle claimed, but that the Earth, and all the planets, rotated around the Sun. Copernicus' mathematical arguments moved questions about the universe out of the realm of philosophy, and into the realm of science. This was the beginning of what was known as the Copernican revolution, where science rapidly progressed beyond philosophical/mystical frameworks that had been established for centuries by Greek philosophers.
However, although scientists like Galileo, Kepler, and Newton all continued to provide more mathematical and scientific models for the heavenly bodies in the universe, none of their scientific theories ever claimed that the universe had a beginning. It wasn't until 1915 when Albert Einstein made several mathematical corrections to Newton's gravitational model that he discovered mathematics that required the universe to have a beginning. The very idea of a universe that had a beginning was so foreign to Albert Einstein, that he attempted to correct what he thought as a mistake with an extra "fudge factor" denoted by Λ.
In 1929, Edwin Hubble rocked the scientific community by demonstrating by astronomical observations that the universe was expanding. If the universe is expanding, it means that it had to have been smaller in the past, and if you go back far enough in the past, all of the matter and energy in the universe was in one spot—which coincides with the beginning of the universe. For decades, scientists wrestled with a new worldview that maintained that the universe had a beginning. Numerous scientific models were suggested in order to preserve the notion of an eternal universe whilst still explaining Hubble's observation. None of them stood up, and the model that became most popular, and still prevails today, is that the universe came into existence spontaneously in a "Big Bang" 13.8 trillion years ago. This model, which was actually formulated by a Christian, was congruent with what the Bible had claimed millennia before in verses like Genesis 1:1, John 1:1-3, Psalms 33:6, Psalm 33:9, and Hebrews 11:3.
And while science may explain what the universe was like in the few milliseconds after the Big Bang, it cannot describe what caused the universe. Because whatever caused the universe, could not have been within the universe, and whatever is not inside the universe, cannot be measured by something within the universe—science, by definition, can't explain where the universe came from.
A sound explanation may exist for the explosive birth of our Universe; but if it does, science cannot find out what the explanation is. The scientist’s pursuit of the past ends in the moment of creation... We would like to pursue that inquiry farther back in time, but the barrier to further progress seems insurmountable. It is not a matter of another year, another decade of work, another measurement, or another theory; at this moment it seems as though science will never be able to raise the curtain on the mystery of creation
—God and the Astronomers, 1992 pp. 106-107
The Fine Tuning of the Universe
With Hubble's discovery of an expanding universe, and the collateral consequence of a universal beginning, science also made several other advancements. Through 19th-century breakthroughs like Quantum Mechanics, scientists discovered a variety of fundamental physical constants in Physics that described how the universe behaved. These physical constants (like how strong gravity is, how "sticky" atomic nuclei are, how heavy electrons and protons are, etc...) seemed all to be finely tuned to create a universe that not only could exist more than a few seconds, but also create stars as energy sources, solar systems with planets that could support life a reasonable distance away from these stars, and chemistry that would allow molecules, etc... to form. In order to have a universe with all of these things, many physical parameters would need to be tuned to remarkable precision. If some of these parameters were out of balance, for example:
- either stars could not form, or the universe would collapse (Ω)
- Hydrogen could not form (ε0,G)
- Helium and other atoms could not fuse (ε)
- not enough stable carbon for life to exist (many parameters)
- 3+ dimensions are needed for life to exist, but orbits are unstable with more than three dimensions
This "fine tuning" is also explained in this video produced by reasonablefaith.com.
In conclusion, 20th century science has done much to corroborate the Bible's assertion that the universe was designed and brought into being by a timeless, spaceless, causeless, powerful God, who was intelligent enough to design a universe that could support our life. Science has yet to produce a compelling explanation for why the universe exists, or why it is finely tuned. In fact, science is not able to explain what caused creation, nor why the universe seems to be finely tuned as to support life. To understand creation, one must turn to religion/metaphysics.
To say it for all my colleagues and for the umpteenth million time: science simply cannot adjudicate the issue of God's possible superintendence of nature. We neither affirm nor deny it; we simply can't comment on it as scientists.
Stephen Jay Gould. "Impeaching a Self-Appointed Judge." 1992.
1The heavens declare the glory of God; and the firmament sheweth his handywork. 2Day unto day uttereth speech, and night unto night sheweth knowledge.