I remember a remarkable conversation I once had with another Elder when I was a missionary. He and I had been talking about the relationship between God and science, which was a notoriously hot topic in my mission. Darwin is a dirty word in West Texas, and words like “radiometric dating” and “natural selection” aren’t necessarily swear words, but shouldn’t be used in polite or mixed company. In the course of our conversation, I mentioned in passing the Big Bang. He was quite taken aback. “You don’t actually believe in the Big Bang, do you?” he asked.
I told him that I did. With some effort, I tried to explain redshift and galaxies and the Second Law of Thermodynamics as best as I could, but he didn’t buy any of it. To him, the Big Bang was some smart-ass scientist’s attempt at replacing God with some natural mechanism.
The Big Bang didn’t create the Universe. God did.
* * * *
My friend said to me “I think the weather’s trippy.” And I said “No man, it’s not the weather that’s trippy. Perhaps it is the way that we perceive it that is indeed trippy.” Then I thought, “man, I should have just said ‘yeah’.” – Mitch Hedberg
In my life, I have been afflicted with great anxiety concerning the welfare of my soul. Anyone who is sensitive to issues and questions of the soul can probably empathize with me. When I look around me at my existence, I’m struck at how patently absurd it seems to be. Sometimes I get completely immersed in my thoughts, and my wife, seeing my furrowed brow and look of deep concern, asks me what I’m thinking. The majority of time, I am thinking something along the lines of
how strange it is that I exist. How strange it is that there is only one thing in the Universe with the property of “I” and it happened to be this body on this planet at this time in this Universe. If I take my senses at face value, “I” seemed to come into existence in 1984 and I assume it will seem to go out of existence sometime in the future. I might ask, “How did ‘I’ come to exist?” and another might reply, “When your mother and father conceived you, at some point when your brain was developed enough, your consciousness came into being.” To which I would reply, “But mothers and fathers conceive all the time, and yet the only collection of atoms out of which the property ‘I’ has emerged is the one I currently perceive.”
That’s when I say to my wife, “Oh nothing.”
In one particularly trying time in my life, due to a compounding of external stresses too personal and numerous to relate here, my anxiety crossed the border from the existential kind to the clinical kind, and I realized I needed to see a doctor about it. I was prescribed medication and relaxation techniques, and most of the worried, tearful, and sleepless nights disappeared. However, the underlying cause persisted. I believe in God, I have great faith in the Book of Mormon, of course, but what if I’m wrong? What if my perception can’t be trusted? What if everything I’ve been taught is a lie?
It was at this time that I discovered a man who helped me regain the faith I had in God, and I owe a debt to him that I can’t really repay. I imagine it would be to his slight chagrin. His name is William Lane Craig, Christian apologist.
Anyone familiar with Craig would notice the classical literary irony in the situation. Craig’s triumphant Kalam Cosmological Argument for God’s existence rests on the idea of creation ex nihilo, which Mormon cosmology roundly rejects. Yet it was the simple premises of Craig’s argument that gave me a glimmer of hope when I couldn’t find anything else to grasp onto. It reads thus:
1. Everything that begins to exist has a cause.
2. The Universe began to exist.
3. Therefore, the Universe has a cause.
I am very thankful that my mother didn’t recoup the costs of her college textbooks by selling them, because as a child I was fascinated by her college astronomy textbook. I still have that textbook, and it sits meekly next to my own relatively massive college astronomy textbooks. It was written before I was born (out of respect for my mother I won’t explicitly say when), and it went over three competing theories regarding the birth and eventual fate of the Universe. Even then, you could see that the Big Bang model was starting to edge out the now wildly unfashionable Steady State model.
The most popular cosmological model is the Big Bang model. It says that 10 to 20 billion years ago, the universe violently exploded into being in an event called the Big Bang.
Before the Big Bang, all of the matter and radiation of our present universe were packed together in the primeval fireball – an extremely hot dense state from which the universe rapidly expanded. The Big Bang was the start of time and space.
In the future, the original hydrogen will finally be used up in stars. Then the stars and galaxies will all stop shining. The universe which began with a fiery Big Bang will fade into darkness with a cold “whimper” if it continues to expand indefinitely.
I still remember the awe and reverence I had for such an event, if true. What an explosion! In my little child mind, I could almost envision space beginning to exist, but the idea of time beginning to exist seemed completely beyond my capacity for understanding. It still is. My mother’s astronomy textbook continued by explaining the other two theories. First, that the Universe oscillates. That is, eventually, gravity will overcome all the galaxies and stars in the Universe, and will eventually pull everything back to a singularity, and the process repeats itself. Lastly, it presented the Steady State model. Pay careful attention to the last paragraph.
The Steady State model says that the universe does not evolve or change in time. There was no beginning in the past and there will be no end in the future. Past, present, future – the universe is the same forever.
Most astronomers dislike the Steady State model because it contradicts basic observations. It says that new hydrogen is continuously created without explaining where the new hydrogen comes from. Such creation violates a basic law of physics – the law of conservation of energy – which states that the total energy in an isolated system always remains the same. Energy cannot be created or destroyed, although transformations may occur within the system.
Those astronomers who favor the Steady State model like it because of its philosophical appeal. It defines a universe that always existed in the past and will always exist in the future.
That’s quite remarkable, isn’t it? Some astronomers – acolytes of the scientific method and disciples of pure reason – favored an outdated model that contradicts basic observations because of its philosophical appeal? Since when is science so blindly dogmatic? Insert canned laughter here.
The fact remains. Many astronomers, philosophers, and scientists rejected the idea of the Big Bang out of hand based on philosophical and theological grounds. They saw it as an attempt to inject a creation event into cosmology. The matter wasn’t helped by the fact that Georges Lemaître, the astronomer who first proposed that the Universe was expanding and therefore was once all in the exact same point, was a Catholic priest. Fred Hoyle, who coined the term “Big Bang” pejoratively on a radio program in 1949, believed that the idea that the Universe was created directly implies the existence of a Creator. He found the Steady State model much less troubling, and kept believing it long after it went out of vogue, like wearing a powder-blue leisure suit to Times Square New Year’s Eve Party, 1999.
Indeed, the idea of an Absolute Beginning certainly raises one question in the minds of everyone who hears about it. What caused the Big Bang? What happened before the Big Bang really isn’t explained by the theory, nor can it be. Time began at the Big Bang, thus it’s meaningless to speculate what preceded it. Stephen Hawking responds to the question of what preceded the Big Bang by rhetorically asking, “What is north of the North Pole?” Unsatisfying, isn’t it? In fact, there are many scientific theories that attempt to explain what happened before the Big Bang, but due to entropy and the 2nd Law of Thermodynamics, an Absolute Beginning seems inescapable. According to P. C. W. Davies, the Universe must have begun to exist at a finite time ago and is in the process of winding down.
The evidence for the Big Bang seems insurmountable nowadays. I’m probably a member of the first generation who has been taught in class that the Big Bang is an almost certainty. If the Big Bang didn’t really happen, then not only are we wrong about some things in science, a massive overhaul of everything we’ve done in the last 300 years would be required. As time goes on this seems less and less likely, and the longer we go without finding good evidence against an Absolute Beginning, the stronger I feel that the case for a Prime Mover gets.
This is why my conversation with my Elder friend who didn’t accept the Big Bang was so curious to me. First, how could he reject the Big Bang in the face of so much scientific evidence? In fairness, I suppose I’m familiar with Christians rejecting scientific evidence that appears threatening. We need look no further than our friend Charles Darwin for that. Yet that leads me to my second objection. Why reject scientific evidence that seems to be in our favor? Whose side are you on anyway?
I’ve thought about this quite a bit since then and I’ve got a couple possible explanations.
1. Many Christians automatically reject the Big Bang based merely on the fact that it’s a scientific explanation of the Universe’s creation. Science is the opponent of faith and must therefore be treated with suspicion and doubt immediately.
2. My Mormon Elder friend rejected it because he feels that it implies creation ex nihilo (out of nothing), which is rejected by Mormon cosmology.
Is belief in the Big Bang incompatible with LDS cosmology? Indeed, William Lane Craig has brilliantly attacked the Mormon conception of God for this reason in the recent Christian apologetic work The New Mormon Challenge, prompting Blake Ostler to brilliantly respond by defending the Mormon conception of God. Joseph Smith taught that the elements were eternal, that the Universe was not created ex nihilo, and that our spirits or intelligences are co-eternal with God. There was no beginning – time is an eternal round. One could possibly argue that matter may exist eternally, and its temporality is a property that was given to it by God at the moment of Creation, thus explaining “time’s arrow” and increasing entropy in the Universe, but I’m not a scientist. I’m not a philosopher. I’m not the smartest guy in the world, nor am I the most clever. I’m not the first person to struggle with these thoughts, and I certainly won’t be the last (especially if my kids inherit my existential genes). So if I were to claim that I can work out which of these two viewpoints is right, I would be lying. I’m not sure I have that capability.
But for some reason I find great comfort in the idea of the Big Bang. I still consider it with childlike awe, and firmly believe that God put that awe into me for a reason. Whenever there is a waver in my faith, God points His glowing finger towards that singularity. Science tells us that a finite amount of time ago, the Universe came into being, and it came into being with an amazing complexity. The more I study the way the Universe works, the more I stand in wonder at its grandeur and beauty. Non-locality, quantum mechanics, higher dimensions, biology, star formation. It’s a gorgeous place we live in, the Universe. Whether the Big Bang was a creation ex nihilo or a creation out of pre-existing materials, I am still led to believe that the Universe as we know it began to exist a finite time ago, with all its life-sustaining complexity. And it is this Beginning that I worship.
Think about it. If God doesn’t exist, then the Big Bang is indistinguishable from God. It is the event that caused all things that I know, love, experience, feel, and see. My personality, my religion, my country, my planet, and my galaxy were encoded in the Big Bang event, because it was that event that started a chain of events that led to those things. Change enough of the variables in that event, and not only would I not have existed, but a life-permitting Universe would never have emerged. I owe my existence to that event.
1. Moche, Dinah L. Astronomy: A Self-Teaching Guide. 3rd Edition. New York: John Wiley and Sons. 1987.
2. Quentin Smith, A Big Bang Cosmological Argument For God’s Nonexistence. Faith and Philosophy. April 1992 (Volume 9, No. 2, pp. 217–237)
3. P.C.W. Davies, The Physics of Time Asymmetry (London: Surrey University Press, 1974), p. 104.