Forty-eight years ago, Arno Penzias and Robert W. Wilson of Bell Labs were trying to figure out the source of background noise that interfered with their radio communications. What they discovered was nothing less than the origin of the universe.
The interference was caused by a uniform background signal with a wavelength of 7.35 centimeters. Attempts to account for or eliminate the interference, including cleaning up bird droppings left on the horn antenna by pigeons, proved unsuccessful. After Penzias and Wilson published their findings, Robert Dicke of Princeton realized what the signal was: radiation left over from the Big Bang. (To be more precise, the radiation dated to approximately 300,000 years after the Big Bang when the universe had cooled enough to allow electrons to fuse with hydrogen and helium nuclei.)
Since then, “most astrophysicists have accepted the notion that the universe began [in] . . . an unimaginably powerful event in which all the matter and energy in the cosmos expanded outward from a tiny speck within a fraction of a second.” The passing resemblance to the idea of creation ex nihilo, combined with the assumption that this event was unique, prompted people to see the Big Bang Theory as a quasi-vindication of Christian ideas about creation.
(Interestingly, Georges Lemaître, the Belgian priest who proposed the idea of an expanding universe of which the Big Bang theory is a correlate, rejected the idea that his theories, and Penzias and Wilson’s confirmation of them, could be used in such a manner.)
But cosmology, never mind life, isn’t that simple. In the nearly five decades since Penzias and Wilson’s discoveries, the idea that the Big Bang represented a kind of creation ex nihilo or that it was a one-off event has repeatedly come under challenge.
In 2002, Paul J. Steinhardt of Princeton and Neil Turok of Cambridge published their own take on the Big Bang and the origins of the universe. They proposed a cyclical model wherein “the universe undergoes an endless sequence of cosmic epochs that begin with a ‘bang’ and end in a ‘crunch.’”
Building on string theory, they postulated that ours is only the latest in series of “bangs and expansions.” Matter and the visible universe are the product of the interplay between a membrane containing this visible universe and one containing a dark matter universe. Eventually the old universes expand themselves out of existence and a new expansion cycle begins.
Just as the Big Bang reminded some people of the biblical doctrine of creation ex nihilo, this cyclical account of the origin of the universe is reminiscent of the Hindu ideas about the universe and its origins. Hinduism even speaks in terms of the current universe being billions of years old.
When I first wrote about this, I joked about Hindu apologists citing findings from cosmology as “proof” of their belief system. As it turns out, they actually do. They point to parallels between the Big Bang and Anda, the “universal egg” from which the cosmos sprang. They even claim that “Om,” the sacred sound, is related to the background radiation discovered by Penzias and Wilson.
So, within my lifetime, we have gone from the Big Bang as an unproven hypothesis, to a possible “confirmation” of creation ex nihilo to a possible inducement to add a bindi to your eyeliner and mascara before leaving home in the morning.
It’s all a reminder of how provisional scientific knowledge often is. Hypotheses that were considered as good as proven, e.g., “classic” Big Bang, are often overturned, or least cast into doubt, within a few decades. It isn’t only cosmology: For most of the twentieth century, we “knew” that modern humans first came to the Americas sometime around 13,000 years ago after a passage opened up between the Laurentide and Cordilleran ice sheets that allowed them to walk from Alaska to the lower 48, eventually leaving spear points in New Mexico.
Then we didn’t. Discoveries at Monte Verde, Chile, blew the date to smithereens and other discoveries have cast doubt on the route—or most likely routes—they took in their journeys. Today we take continental drift for granted—between 1912, when Alfred Wegener first proposed it, and the 1960s, when technology including, eventually, GPS, was able to measure the phenomenon, it was regarded as the stuff of crackpots.
These examples, and many more, show why citing any scientific fact more provisional than “water expands at four degrees Celsius” as evidence for the Christian faith is a dicey proposition. One day cosmology “proves” a Christian worldview; soon afterwards, it makes putting a shrine to an elephant god—please don't offer him a peanut!—at the Kwik-E-Mart a reasonable act.
If, say, the journal Nature were to announce a discovery that validated Intelligent Design in something like the way that Arthur Eddington’s observations during the May 29, 1919 solar eclipse validated Einstein’s theory of General Relativity, where would that leave us? At best, at about 600 B.C., when Parmenides wrote, “The multiplicity of existing things, their changing forms and motion, are but an appearance of a single eternal reality” or “being.” This more closely resembles, superficially at least, the Buddhist idea of the Atman than it does the Christian idea of the God who is both pantokrator, creator of all things, and the loving “Abba.”
The journey to that idea would last another 600 years. It was initially expressed “in many and varied ways through the prophets.” Then, in an act whose particularity and outrageousness ought to offend people if we are telling the story correctly, it was expressed in the Son, “whom [God] has appointed heir of all things, through whom also [God] made the worlds.”
For the Christian, everything worth knowing begins with this: God raised Jesus from the dead.
I know it does for me. Unlike some people I know and a lot more that I have come across on the Internet, I don’t think that disbelief is foolish or unreasonable. I have no trouble understanding and, more to the point, imagining why a person might not believe as I do. Truth be told, I could even imagine myself sharing that disbelief on some occasions. I have experienced those moments when, to quote C. S. Lewis, I “[look] round upon a universe in which every trace of Him seems to have vanished, and [ask] why [I have] been forsaken.”
Yet, however imperfectly, I still obey. Why? Because the one thing I am most certain of is that God raised Jesus from the dead. The rest I am rarely all-that-certain about, but this one thing I know to be true. This is why I can say, “I believe in one God, the Father Almighty, maker of heaven and earth, of all things visible and invisible.” It’s where the answer to the question, “How now shall we live?” lies.
This may seem obvious, but the dirty little secret of much of what goes under the name “Christian worldview” is that it is remarkably Jesus-free. Genesis 1-3 are far more likely to be referred to than Matthew 27, Luke 24, John 20 or Mark 16. (The Sermon on the Mount is treated as if it were part of the Apocrypha.) If there was such a thing as a BreakPoint concordance, the question is not whether Jesus is the most oft-cited or referenced historical authority but, instead whether He ranked in the top ten or even the top twenty. Really, the broadcast brings me to mind what an old friend of mine called the “birth and resurrection society,” the folks who only went to church at Christmas and Easter.
I can say this because I have been complicit in this well-intentioned but ultimately misguided state of affairs. I say “well-intentioned” because we have been trying to make the case for Christian truth to a culture that is unprepared and often unwilling to give explicitly Christian ideas a fair hearing, what the late Richard John Neuhaus called the “naked public square.” But, in our efforts to carve out a space in the public square, the pendulum has swung too far: We have tried to make the case for Christianity without actually talking about Jesus, which, of course, means that we have been making the case for something that isn’t quite Christianity.
I’m not saying that we should only or even primarily speak about what N. T. Wright called “Jesus and the Victory of God.” Nor am I saying that we shouldn’t be prepared and willing to critique scientific hubris and point out that much of what of what is called “scientific fact” resembles what Aquinas would have called “probable” or “sophistic” arguments (rationes probabiles vel sophisticae).
I’m saying that our message should make it clear that Christian faith is made from something infinitely more powerful and more mysterious than dark matter: the indestructible life of the One through whom everything was made.
Image courtesy of HowStuffWorks.
Roberto Rivera is senior writer for BreakPoint.