Editor’s note: This article is an excerpt from a chapter in the newly released book The Comprehensive Guide to Science and Faith: Exploring the Ultimate Questions About Life and the Cosmos.
The theological implications of the universe having a beginning were immediately recognized and resisted. For instance, physicist Arthur Eddington responded:
Philosophically the notion of a beginning of the present order is repugnant to me. I should like to find a genuine loophole. I simply do not believe the present order of things started off with a bang…it leaves me cold.1
In fact, the term big bang was coined by physicist Fred Hoyle to express his derision at the idea of a beginning. As a quirk of history, the term stuck. Hoyle acknowledged that his resistance was due to the theory’s religious implications.
For others, the evidence dramatically affected their entire view of reality. For instance, it led famed astronomer Allan Sandage to embrace belief in God. At a conference featuring dialogues between atheistic and theistic scientists, Sandage explained the big bang theory’s religious implications:
Here is evidence for what can only be described as a supernatural event. There is no way that this could have been predicted within the realm of physics as we know it…science, until recently, has concerned itself not with primary causes but, essentially, with secondary causes. What has happened in the last fifty years is a remarkable event within astronomy and astrophysics. By looking up at the sky, some astronomers have come to the belief that there is evidence for a “creation event.”2
Physicist Robert Jastrow described the ramifications of the evidence for a beginning in ever starker terms:
This is an exceedingly strange development, unexpected by all but the theologians. They have always accepted the word of the Bible: In the beginning God created heaven and earth…The development is unexpected because science has had such extraordinary success in tracing the chain of cause and effect backward in time. For the scientist who has lived by his faith in the power of reason, the story ends like a bad dream. He has scaled the mountains of ignorance; he is about to conquer the highest peak; as he pulls himself over the final rock, he is greeted by a band of theologians who have been sitting there for centuries.3
Early Attempts to Escape the Beginning
Unsurprisingly, many academics have attempted to overturn the conclusion of a beginning through the most creative of means. One of the first attempts was by Fred Hoyle, physicist Thomas Gold, and mathematician Hermann Bondi, who constructed a “steady-state” model for an eternal universe. They acknowledged that the galaxies were receding from each other, but they circumvented the need for a beginning by proposing that matter was constantly being created between the galaxies. The new matter eventually coalesces into galaxies so that the density and other features of the universe never change. The trio believed that this process could have been occurring indefinitely into the past. Ultimately, their model was rejected by the mid 1960s because it predicted that galaxies of all ages should be observed throughout the universe, but astronomers have only identified galaxies of middle age or older.
The next attempt to eliminate the beginning was the oscillating-universe model. This model postulates that the universe expands until it reaches a maximum size. Then it contracts due to gravity until it shrinks to a sufficiently small size that it, through some unknown mechanism, undergoes a cosmic bounce and then expands again. This cycle is said to repeat itself eternally. The oscillating model was eventually rejected due to the problem of entropy.
Specifically, the entropy (disorder) of the universe increases continuously. Consequently, each cycle would end up lasting a longer period of time. Looking backward in time, earlier cycles would last for shorter and shorter periods until the period would reduce to zero, which is physically impossible.
Eternal Inflation and String-Landscape Models
Another approach to avoiding a beginning is proposing that our universe is just one of an infinite multitude that are being continuously generated. Different theories propose distinct universe-generating mechanisms. For instance, physicists Alan Guth, Paul Steinhardt, and others envisioned a vacuum energy permeating space that drives a very rapid expansion. A miniscule volume of space could expand over a trillion trillion times in the tiniest fraction of a second. Different patches of space stop expanding due to a drop in the vacuum energy, and they then emerge as “bubble universes” that expand according to the traditional big bang model. Our universe is believed to be merely one of these bubble universes, and its beginning was the point where one particular patch of space stopped inflating. In principle, the inflation process could have continued indefinitely into the past, thus removing the need for a beginning.
Another mechanism is based on the application of string theory to the origin of our universe in what are termed string-landscape models. String theory attempts to unify all the forces and subatomic particles into a collection of strings vibrating with different frequencies. In one model, multidimensional “branes” are envisioned to inhabit a higher-dimensional space, and these branes occasionally collide, generating big bang events. This process might also have been occurring eternally into the past.
The hope that such universe-creating mechanisms could bypass a cosmic beginning came to a crashing end due to a theorem developed by physicists Arvind Borde, Alan Guth, and Alexander Vilenkin. The Borde-Guth-Vilenkin (BGV) theorem states that any universe that has been expanding, on average, throughout its history must have had an absolute beginning. This constraint applies to inflationary, string landscape, and any other plausible model that could possibly generate our universe. The theorem’s conclusiveness was best explained by Vilenkin:
With the proof now in place, cosmologists can no longer hide behind the possibility of a past-eternal universe. There is no escape; they have to face the problem of a cosmic beginning.4
A Universe from Nothing
Atheist cosmologists had one last trick to play from the field of quantum cosmology. This domain of physics attempts to apply quantum mechanics to general relativity (i.e., gravity) in the context of the early universe. In standard quantum mechanics, a mathematical expression known as the Schrödinger equation is derived, and it can be solved to generate an equation known as the wave function. The latter equation yields the probability that some particle or system of particles has a particular value or range of values for such properties as momentum or position.
In quantum cosmology, a more complex expression known as the Wheeler-Dewitt equation is derived, and it can be solved to generate a universal wave function. This function, in like manner, yields the probability for a universe appearing with particular gravitational and mass properties. Physicists such as Stephen Hawking and Laurence Krauss have asserted that the mathematics behind solving the wave function demonstrate how our universe did not necessarily have a beginning, and they argue that our universe could have appeared from “nothing.” Yet both of these claims are incorrect.
With regard to the first claim, Hawking solved the wave function using a mathematical trick where the time variable was replaced with imaginary time. The exact details are not crucial to understand. This substitution not only enabled him to solve the wave function, but it also eliminated the beginning of time in his analysis because the original time variable was replaced. In describing his work, Hawking declared that he had eliminated the need for God to explain the origin of the universe:
So long as the universe had a beginning, we would suppose it had a creator. But if the universe is really completely self-contained, having no boundary or edge, it would have neither beginning nor end; it would simply be. What place, then, for a creator?5
In reality, Hawking’s mathematical trick altered the equations in such a way as to disassociate the new time variable from anything real6 in the physical universe. More importantly, at the end of his calculation, he transformed back into real time, at which point the beginning of the universe reemerged. Hawking even admitted this point:
When one goes back to the real time in which we live, however, there will still appear to be singularities…In real time, the universe has a beginning and an end at singularities that form a boundary to space-time and at which the laws of science break down.7
His boast about eliminating the need for God is entirely duplicitous.
With regard to the second claim, Hawking stated:
Because there is a law such as gravity, the universe can and will create itself from nothing…Spontaneous creation is the reason there is something rather than nothing, why the universe exists, why we exist. It is not necessary to invoke God to light the blue touch paper and set the universe going.8
Krauss made a similar assertion based on the work of Alexander Vilenkin: “The laws themselves require our universe to come into existence, to develop and evolve.”9
In reality, neither Hawking’s nor Vilenkin’s research demonstrates that the universe could emerge out of nothing purely due the laws of physics. The underlying mathematics actually presuppose an already-existing universe. In other words, the “nothing” from which the models start is not a literal nothing but a universe that has already begun, albeit with zero spatial volume, after the big bang event. Both Hawking and Krauss are like a magician who is attempting to amaze the crowd by pulling a rabbit out of his hat, but observant viewers can see the rabbit’s tail sticking out of the hat’s bottom before the trick begins.
At a more philosophical level, the very claim that a physical law can do anything represents a serious error. Physical laws simply describe what occurs in an existing universe when existing masses and existing forces interact. Before a universe begins, the physical laws can be described by mathematical expressions, but the mathematics have no power to cause any event to take place. For instance, the law of gravity can be represented by the equation force equals mass times the gravitational acceleration: F=mg. This relationship describes how the gravitational attraction of a planet pulls an object toward itself, but the equation representing the interaction does not cause the planet, the object, or the gravitational pull to come into existence. The same holds true for the wave function and a universe it could potentially describe.
Mind Before Matter
The cause of the universe must have existed before the beginning of matter, energy, space, and time. Therefore, it must be immaterial, timeless, and immensely powerful.
- Jean-Pierre Luminet, “Lemaître’s Big Bang,” lecture given at Frontiers of Fundamental Physics 14, Aix Marseille University, Marseille, France (July 15-18, 2014), 10, https://arxiv.org/ftp/arxiv/papers/1503/1503.08304.pdf (accessed November 14, 2020).
- Quotes are from Stephen C. Meyer’s transcription of a private film of Sandage’s remarks at “Christianity Challenges the University: An International Conference of Theists and Atheists,” Dallas, Texas, February 7-10, 1985.
- Robert Jastrow, God and the Astronomers (New York: Norton, 1978), 116.
- Alexander Vilenkin, Many Worlds in One: The Search for Other Universes (New York: Hill and Wang, 2006), 176.
- Stephen Hawking, A Brief History of Time: From the Big Bang to Black Holes (London, UK: Bantam, 1988), 140-141.
- I am speaking mathematically because time is imaginary and not real, and I am speaking literally because the equations do not correspond to actual reality.
- Hawking, A Brief History of Time, 136.
- Stephen Hawking and Leonard Mlodinow, The Grand Design (New York: Bantam Books, 2010), 180.
- Lawrence M. Krauss, A Universe from Nothing: Why There Is Something Rather Than Nothing (New York: Atria Books, 2012), 169.