For most of our history, scientists have primarily believed that is eternal and unchanging. Aristotle in the fourth century BC asserted that the world is without beginning or end. But this view was not without direct opponents who believed the universe had a beginning.
Aristotle’s works were largely lost for about seven centuries, beginning to resurface in the thirteenth century. The eternity view then largely dominated science until the early nineteenth century.
So predominant was this view that it led Albert Einstein to make what he regarded as the biggest blunder in his career. Soon after he had developed his general theory of relativity (circa 1915), Alexander Friedmann, a Russian mathematician, solved his equations for the whole universe (an early version of the Big Bang theory), showing that those equations meant the universe was expanding.
If this was the case, it must have been expanding from somewhere, some beginning—therefore, it couldn’t be eternal. Einstein then modified his equations to make them show that the universe is static and eternal.
In 1929, Edwin Hubble, an astronomer at the California Institute of Technology, discovered the universe is indeed expanding. Einstein then dropped the modifications and went back to the original equations.
But by adhering to the eternal view in the interim, he had missed predicting one of the biggest discoveries in cosmology: the universe’s expansion. From that point on, science has held that our universe had a beginning, and scientists have focused on the Big Bang theory.
The Bible at its outset says, “In the beginning, God created…” It has always said the universe had a beginning. Let’s look at what science has learned about how the universe started, then at what the Bible says happened and how.
Creation As Building Blocks
We came to understand the building blocks of the universe by repeatedly taking things apart until we got to the smallest indivisible parts: the elementary particles, such as electrons. To do this, we built particle accelerators to make particles collide at close to the speed of light, then analyzed what resulted.
Smashing particles doesn’t just reveal new ones—it also gives physicists clues about how the particles interact, and it provides insights into the fundamental forces and laws of nature. In the case of the proton, we found out that it’s made of three quarks, which we believe are elementary particles. More recently, at CERN (the European Organization for Nuclear Research), the Large Hadron Collider was used to find the Higgs boson, an elementary particle that up to then had been only theorized.
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Why two quarks, one electron, etc.? And why do they have properties, such as mass and charge, with the particular values that they do? The short answer is we have no idea; it’s simply what we’ve learned by breaking matter apart.
When we look at the night sky, we’re not just admiring the twinkling stars and glowing planets , we’re actually looking back in time. It takes light a finite amount of time to travel to our eyes, although usually we don’t notice this. Light travels at about 300,000 kilometers per second, so when we look at the sun, we’re receiving light that left it about eight minutes earlier. If the sun suddenly went out, we wouldn’t know for eight minutes.
When we look at other stars or galaxies, we see light that left perhaps five years ago, a hundred years ago, or a billion years ago. Every object in the night sky we are seeing as it was some time in the past, a different time for each object, depending on how far it is from us. So, as we look at the universe, it’s as though we’re seeing snapshots of different parts at different times: Earth as it looks right now, the sun as it looked eight minutes ago, the center of the Milky Way galaxy as it looked 26,000 years ago, and so on. Today, with the Hubble Space Telescope, we can see light that left thirteen billion years ago—not at the beginning of the universe, but close.
Scientists who study the universe adopt both of these approaches: they take things apart to discover the fundamental particles and forces of nature, and they look at the stars and galaxies to piece together what the universe looked like at various times in its history. Combining the results of these methods, they reach an understanding of how the universe came to be and what it is today, and they encapsulate this knowledge in a mathematical form: the Big Bang theory.
Creation and the Big Bang Theory
However, when extrapolating back in time with the Big Bang theory , we can get to almost the beginning but not the beginning. As physicist and author Brian Greene explains in his bestselling book: “the Big Bang theory delineates cosmic evolution from a split second after whatever happened to bring the universe into existence, but it says nothing at all about time zero itself”; instead, “we’re left rudderless in our quest to understand the beginning of time.”
In short, science has a tremendous understanding of how the universe developed a split second after the beginning. But it doesn’t know how the universe started—how time came to be, how space came to be—nor why the forces of nature are the way they are or why we have certain elementary particles with the properties they have. Various approaches have been proposed, such as there being a multiverse, but none of these have gained scientific consensus or at this point are testable.
There is, however, an understanding that the universe came out of “ nothing.” But in this understanding, “nothing” most of the time actually still means something—typically, at least gravity and space. Often, this “nothing” is referred to as the quantum vacuum, which is the very early state of the universe in the first fraction of a second, when the universe was so hot and dense that physical particles could not exist. However, according to present-day understanding of the “vacuum state” or the quantum vacuum, it was and is by no means a simple empty space.
Quantum mechanics holds that a vacuum state contains fleeting electromagnetic waves and particles that pop into and out of existence. In the quantum vacuum at the beginning of the universe, time, space, the laws of physics, and particles all existed. However, the particles did not endure as physical entities because at such a high temperature, as soon as they appeared, they turned back into energy—they were “virtual” particles.
Due to the apparent absence of physical particles, it seemed like there was nothing, but in reality, everything needed to build the universe existed. As the universe expanded and cooled, the particles came into being and remained; eventually, the stars and galaxies formed.
Under close examination, the Bible actually tells us how the universe came to be. In its first line, it says the universe came to be out of nothing physical. The word used in Hebrew is bara, meaning ex nihilo creation. In the Bible, nothing physical means nothing—no time, no space, no forces of nature, no elementary particles. According to Genesis, in the beginning, God created from nothing physical.
The nothing often referred to in science is alluded to in Genesis 1:2: “Now the earth was astonishingly empty [ tohu va vohu ], and darkness was on the face of the deep.” This tohu va vohu is defined very similarly to the quantum vacuum, as a state where the early substance of the universe existed but had not gained potency or tangible form (like science’s virtual particles) and was in a chaotic state.
But how did the universe develop according to Genesis, and why does the scientific method enable us to understand everything but the beginning?
Does Genesis Explains Creation?
When we read Genesis, we have to realize two things. One is that the whole first chapter of Genesis, which describes the creation of the world, is narrated not by God in his essential name, YHVH, but by God in his name Elokim, which means “Master of all the forces.” We know this because the root word is el, meaning power. The second part of the name, hem/him, indicates “them,” here meaning all the other powers. So Elokim means “the Power over all the powers.”
In other words, not only is God the Creator , as Genesis makes clear, but He is also the master over all of the forces of nature in the universe. So, Genesis is telling us that God chose to accomplish the whole of creation by acting within nature. In the biblical account, He created nature at the very beginning, and He could have created the universe in a way that would seem miraculous to us, but instead, He stayed within natural laws.
The second point we need to grasp is that most of the creation acts in Genesis are what we would call making, meaning taking something and making it into something else. From hydrogen and helium, for example, the sun was made; in the same very general way, we would take wood and nails and make a chair. This means that the majority of the acts in Genesis involve taking something, making something else, and doing this within the laws of nature.
This is precisely what science is all about: observing how something changes and explaining the change with a natural law. So, for all of those acts, science will have a completely natural explanation. Why? Because God chose to hide within nature and make all of these acts transpire naturally.
There are only three exceptions, when God worked through nature but started not from something that existed but from nothing. These are indicated by the word bara. One of these events, as we’ve seen, relates to the beginning of the cosmos, the other two to the appearance of life.
The cosmological something-from-nothing event occurred at the very beginning: in the beginning, God created out of nothing. And this event cannot be understood by the scientific method because by definition it does not deal with anything physical.
In short, science and the Bible agree that the universe came to be via natural means: forces of nature acting on particles over time, forming all the structures we see, including our sun and planet. However, the Bible asserts that the first instant—when time, space, forces, and particles appeared—is not explainable by the scientific method. It was an ex-nihilo act. So far, science has no explanation for this beginning same as the creation story from the Bible of which on why the forces and particles are the way they are.