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Big Bang Cosmology and Creation Theology

How best might we relate cosmology and theology? Many today urge that we take the beginning of the universe at "t=0" as direct support of the creation of the world as described in the Bible. This sort of position has surfaced to a varying degree by groups otherwise differing widely: evangelical and conservative Christians, religiously open scientists and educators, various denominational leaders and church spokespersons, main-line theologians, and so on.Pope Pius XII took this position in 1951. See also Robert Jastrow, God and the Astronomers (New York: W. W. Norton, 1978), and various publications by Hugh Ross in the organization, "Reasons to Believe."... It is similar to the "conflict" model in that it assumes there can be a direct link between a specific scientific theory, like cosmology or evolution, and a specific theological view, such as belief or unbelief in God the Creator.

Unlike the conflict model, the direct support model has some attractive features. Clearly there is something religiously evocative about the idea that the universe may have had a beginning according to science. If we start with faith in God as the Creator of the universe, we can greet the beginning of the universe with a profound sense of recognition: the universe, like, us, had a beginning, and it too may have an end.

My concern, however, is not with the way in which science can give language to piety but with the way in which scientific results might be taken as the basis for faith. This concern is fed from a number of sources. First of all the doctrine of creation should not be truncated to a single claim, namely that creation had a beginning. Instead creation ex nihilo includes the continuing existence of the universe and the laws of nature, as we have already seen. Hence it is fair to search for new meaning for theology in the context of science, but we should not reduce theology to a single scientific argument.

I am also concerned about theology being vulnerable to the changing fortunes of scientific theories. We must recognize that the meaning of "t=0" is highly contextualized by the assumptions and limitations of Big Bang theory. Many of these are changing as we learn more about the physical evolution of the universe and as we move beyond the theory of general relativity into quantum gravity. So, given that all scientific theories eventually get replaced, which features of the current theory should we take as telling us something of lasting truth about the universe, and which features will be abandoned by future theories? In particular, will the "t=0" feature of Big Bang models recur in successor cosmological theories, such as those of quantum gravity? But a more serious concern is for the proper basis for faith. I would be very cautious about making science the starting point (i.e., the foundation) for theology, as the history of deism underscores. Instead results from cosmology can count as a form of theological evidence, but only with a much more complex and carefully delineated understanding of what evidence means and how it helps articulate and apply, but not prove, a theory. Of course, some scholars, with these or other concerns, have taken more of a "two worlds" approach, seeing little substantive relation between cosmology and theology on the issue of t=0.For a very balanced treatment which reflects elements of interaction and of separation, see Ernan McMullin, "How should cosmology relate to theology?" in Peacocke, The Sciences and Theology in... As I have indicated above, I think this approach, though valuable in its refusal to opt for conflict, may keep these fields far more separated than is warranted - or helpful - today. Instead I would opt for the interaction model.

Applying the Interaction Model to the "t=0" Problem in Cosmology

Instead of the direct support approach, I suggest we try out the interaction model to the question of "t=0" in cosmology.See "Finite Creation without a Beginning," Quantum Cosmology and the Laws of Nature; "t=0: Is it Theologically Significant?" in Richardson and Wildman, Religion and Science; "Cosmology...The interaction model will depend on our finding an appropriate way to relate results between theology and science without tying them too closely together. This can be done in a number of ways. Here I will suggest we use the philosophical idea of contingency, namely that the universe need not exist as such, the laws of nature need not be what they are, and so on.

In cosmology a particularly lucid example of the contingency of the universe is its temporal finitude — the age of the universe— as depicted by the Big Bang model. We also interpret contingency as finitude theologically. In the doctrine of creation "out of nothing" (creatio ex nihilo) it is held that all created being is finite; only God is infinite. One form of creaturely finitude - though not the only form - is the finite age of the world. In this way we can relate the theological doctrine of creatio ex nihilo via the philosophical bridge of contingency as finitude to empirical claims about the universe having a finite age, marked with the limit condition "t=0" in standard Big Bang models. In this sense, the theological claim about divine creation as entailing the contingency of the world is apparently confirmed by the empirical evidence for the beginning of the universe in the Big Bang model. Hence, if we believe, for theological reasons, that God created the universe, then t=0 in Big Bang cosmology gives strong confirmation of that belief. If we were to use a legal metaphor for the evidence given to theology by cosmology, we could say that t=0 functions as a ‘character witness,’ but not as an ‘eyewitness’, to belief in divine creation.

We also want to explore the lessons for creation theology as science changes. Big Bang cosmology is currently being modified by the introduction of quantum physics, as we have already seen. Though highly speculative, the Hawking/Hartle model of the "quantum creation of the universe" is an example of the kind of challenge presented by quantum cosmology to the relation between theology and cosmology. If there is not "t=0" in the Hawking/Hartle model, does this ‘disprove’ the theological claim that the universe is created? Actually the interaction method produces a more nuanced result than this. Recall that, according the Hawking, the universe has a finite past but no past singularity at "t=0;" the universe is temporally past finite but unbounded. If we had too narrowly reduced the theological meaning of creation to the occurrence of "t=0" in standard cosmology we might well have a problem here! (Certainly not the problem Carl Sagan tries to raise in his Preface to Hawking's book - namely that there is nothing left for God to do. Deism like this is not even remotely presupposed by those theologians who do take t=0 as direct evidence for God. For them, as for all contemporary theology in one way or another, God acts everywhere in the universe, and not just at its beginning.) Yet if we kept the two worlds separate, we would have nothing to learn either.

But the interaction model provides a surprising new result: The move from the Big Bang to Hawking's model changes the empirical meaning of the philosophical category of finitude; it does not render it meaningless. With Hawking/Hartle the universe is still temporally finite (in the past) but it does not have an initial singularity. Hence the shift in models changes the form of consonance between theology and science from one of bounded temporal past finitude (found with the Big Bang model) to one of unbounded temporal past finitude (found in the Hawking proposal). Thus, as we theologize about creatio ex nihilo we should separate out the element of past temporal finitude from the additional issue of the boundedness of the past. What the Hawking proposal teaches us is that in principle one need not have a bounded finite past to have a finite past. This result stands whether or not Hawking's proposal lasts scientifically.

Hence we have learned something of great value theologically: creaturely finitude, a fundamental category of the ex nihilo tradition, need not entail boundedness. What we have learned from quantum cosmology is that we can claim that creation is temporally finite without necessarily claiming that creation had a beginning. Thus our theological claim can entail more than merely ontological finitude (the limitation that a "two worlds" approach would defend) since it also includes temporal finitude; yet it need not go so far as to identify temporal finitude with a cosmic beginning, let alone look to such a cosmic beginning as the foundation for faith in God. I believe this is a tremendously important point for a Christian doctrine of creation, a point won only by our willingness to interact with research science and let it challenge our earlier theological views.

What might the scientist find of value in the interaction with theology about t=0 and the creation of the universe? For one thing, support for the recognition that questions about the beginning of the universe are truly profound and transcend a narrow technical response, such as shifting from Big Bang to quantum gravity. Instead every response proffered, whether by Einstein, Hawking, or others, will involve not only mathematical formulae and empirical data but subtle philosophical ideas about space, time, matter and causality. When questions like t=0 arise in theories like Big Bang cosmology drive scientists to seek alternative theories like quantum cosmology, they may well address them but the underlying philosophical ideas, far from being eradicated, will reemerge in new and distinctive patterns and which will lead to further questions. The responses brought to the table by research scientists will reflect, either explicitly or implicitly, their own philosophical and theological views, and this is both healthy and inevitable in the process of research science. What may prove additionally useful in the process is the possibility that recognizing these ideas for what they are and discussing them openly might actually facilitate the process of scientific discovery.

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Big Bang Cosmology and Creation Theology

Physics and Cosmology: Topic Index
Physics and Cosmology in the 20th Century
Special Relativity
General Relativity
Quantum Physics
Thermodynamics, Chaos, and Complexity
Relating Science and Theology
The Theology of Creation
The Anthropic Principle and Creation Theology
The Theology of Providence
God’s Providence and Quantum Mechanics
Special Relativity, Time, and Eternity
Evil and the Problem of Suffering in Nature
Science and the Spiritual Quest


Dr. Robert J. Russell


See also:

Physics and Cosmology
The Relation of Science & Religion
Does God Act?
Was the Universe Designed?
Did the Universe Have a Beginning?
Steven Weinberg and John Polkinghorne Debate on Design
Sir Isaac Newton
Albert Einstein
Niels Bohr
Werner Heisenberg
Galaxies and Nebulae
Books on Physics and Theology