Cosmology and Theology

Paul Arveson

(A talk [without slides!] given at Wrestler's class, National Presbyterian Church, 2003)

Introduction

The word cosmology derives from the Greek word kosmos, which is usually translated "world" in ancient literature such as the Bible. The word theology derives from theos, God. Today, cosmology refers to the study of the physical universe as a whole, that is, its composition, structure, and history.

Forget 1492. Now is the real age of discovery, in which we are privileged to live. Because within the past few decades, space science has been able to explore things out to the very edge of the universe, and we are the first generation to witness these major discoveries about the nature of our universe. I want to focus on some of those discoveries:

1. Hubble expansion - The first and most important discovery is that space is expanding. Not the space between nearby objects, which are held together by gravity, but the deep space between the galaxies, where gravity is weak, the space itself is expanding. This was first observed by Edwin Hubble in the 1930's.

The world according to Hubble
is a giant expanding bubble;
far-away things have fled
with a shift to the red,
as if we were the cause of the trouble.

2. In 1965, two communications engineers (aka 'nerds') were testing a radio antenna, and they discovered a source of background noise that they couldn't get rid of. They found pigeons nesting in the antenna, so they cleaned them out. Another scientist told them that they might be seeing the background radiation that was predicted if the universe had a beginning. So they concluded that they were either seeing pigeon droppings or the creation of the universe. The latter turned out to be the case, and they won the Nobel prize in physics.

3. The visible matter in the universe is composed of about 70% hydrogen, 27% helium, and 3% all the rest of the elements. These values were predicted to have formed if there were an explosive beginning of matter in the universe.

All three of these findings point to a sudden "Big Bang" beginning for our universe. Using the expansion rate and more recent data, we can infer that this beginning took place around 13.7 billion years ago. Also, they predict that the early universe was very different from what we see now.

The maps on the handout provide illustrations of the appearance of our universe at various distances: the earth, nearby stars, the Milky Way (our galaxy), the nearby galaxies within 500 million light-years, and a map of the light from the cosmic background radiation, at a distance of about 13.4 billion light-years (which started about 280,000 years after the beginning).

(A light-year is the distance light travels through space in a year, or about 6 trillion miles. Our nearest neighbor star is 4.3 light-years away; it would take a spacecraft traveling at its typical speed of 50,000 miles per hour over 60,000 years to get there.)

Fireworks in the Early Universe

1. Black holes - Looking far out into space is equivalent to looking back in time. Out there we are discovering some fantastically powerful sources of radiation. Take, for instance, black holes. A black hole is an object that is so dense that light cannot escape from it. A rocket can escape from the earth if it goes faster than 7 miles per second. But the speed of light is over 186,000 miles per second, so an object that big would be a black hole. They are black because they don't reflect or emit light. However, if they are close to other stars, they will suck them in, and heat up the matter rapidly, which we can see. So we have indirect evidence for black holes. In fact, most galaxies probably have black holes at their centers, where lots of stars are packed closely together. At the center of our own galaxy, there is a black hole with a mass of perhaps a billion stars, gradually growing by swallowing up more stars and emitting brilliant beams of plasma. It's safely 26,000 light-years away, but we have also discovered wandering black holes; they could be anywhere. (For more details see http://science.nasa.gov/headlines/y2002/21feb_mwbh.htm and http://hubblesite.org/newscenter/archive/2001/29/ ).

2. Quasars - These are probably super-massive black holes in distant, colliding galaxies that are consuming prodigious numbers of stars and emitting beams of plasma, which are like the final screams of stars before they are drawn beyond the event horizon and disappear down the hole. Details: http://hubblesite.org/newscenter/archive/1996/35/text .

3. Gamma ray bursts - Scattered randomly around the universe, titanic explosions or bursts are happening, each one lasting only a few seconds, but in that time emitting more energy than that radiated by all the stars in the rest of the universe. Fortunately they are several billion light-years away. See http://hubblesite.org/newscenter/archive/1998/17/text .

Composition of the Universe

Fortunately we live in a relatively quiet part of the universe, orbiting a star that has been stable within 1% for the past 5 billion years. It has not always been this way, though. We know that because the heavy elements of the earth could not have been formed in the Big Bang -- there was not enough time. These elements -- like carbon, calcium etc. -- were cooked in the stars over billions of years, as they operated like the thermonuclear explosion of an H-bomb to fuse heavier elements together. Eventually they blew apart in supernova explosions to scatter dust and gas around the galaxy. So we are made of stardust.

It's kind of amusing to see an expiration date on a bottle of water. The hydrogen in the water was formed in the Big Bang, about 14 billion years ago; the oxygen was formed somewhat later in a star, but still at least 4.5 billion years ago.

Our bodies are made of water and dust -- just like the Bible says. Note that there is no Ťlan vital - any special substance in living things. And when DNA was discovered, we found no "spirit gene". We are made of the same wonderful stuff as everything else in the universe.

Progress of Cosmological Theory

The general outlines can now be constructed for a history of the universe extending from a tiny fraction of a second after the Big Bang to the present. A brief outline of this history is given on the second handout. The gaps in our understanding are closing. We are facing an increasingly seamless theory of the universe.

A "theory" in modern science means a comprehensive, mathematical, interconnected set of quantitative predictions of a vast range of phenomena, backed up by millions of independent measurements by thousands of researchers all over the world -- of many different religions -- most of whom are trying to make a name for themselves by finding some fault with it. In cosmology, the main theories are the General theory of Relativity, which deals with gravity and space-time, and the Standard Model, which deals with particles and their force fields. Scientists are trying to figure out how to stitch these two theories together.

Theology

Cosmology provokes several frequently asked questions:

How should we answer questions like this?

These are questions in the area of "apologetics", or the defense of the faith. There are two common approaches to Christian apologetics:

1. Rational or classical apologetics, which started with Thomas Aquinas in the Middle Ages. He attempts to convince unbelievers to believe in God based on evidences and rational arguments. In recent years this has developed into natural theology and the Intelligent Design movement.

2. Presuppositional apologetics , which starts from a position of faith in Christ, and simply offers honest answers to honest questions about it. Pascal exemplified this attitude after his conversion.  In recent years I have gravitated toward this attitude.

I believe the starting point for Christian theology is not the "God of the philosophers" or the "God of the Gaps" but the God of Jesus Christ. Christ showed us the true character of God, which is in many ways the opposite of common sense views of God. If we really want to understand theology from Godís point of view, we have to study the revelation in Scripture which is centered on Christ.

The Incarnation and the Cross are central to an understanding of the relationship of God to the world, of theology to cosmology.

Creation out of nothing or next to nothing: Common sense says that you canít create something out of nothing. But God does this all the time: not only in the sense of creating the universe, but also in making new life forms, and new individuals, and making people into new creatures in Christ. Ezekielís vision of the valley of dry bones was cited by Dr. Harry Winsheimer in his Easter sermon as an example of this.

Kenosis: (Phillipians 2:6-8): "Who, being in very nature God, did not consider equality with God something to be grasped, but made himself nothing, taking the very nature of a servant, being made in human likeness. And being found in appearance as a man, he humbled himself and became obedient to death, even death on a cross."

In the Incarnation, the eternal second Person of the Trinity took on human form, beginning as a one-celled micro-organism with DNA and other molecules. He grew up, lived for 33 years, and was executed on a Roman cross.

We repeat this story every week in the Creed, which may prevent us from noticing the way this violates common sense. It is so absurd, itís a miracle that there are any Christians at all.

In the early Middle Ages, in the debates leading up to the Nicene Creed, the Church fathers concluded that "What has not been assumed has not been redeemed.Ē Heb. 2:17: "he had to be made like his brothers in every way, in order that he might become a merciful and faithful high priest in service to God, and that he might make atonement for the sins of the people."

In his suffering and death on the cross, Christ identified himself with the losers in the struggle for survival. We may wonder why there is so much suffering and death in the world, including that of animals. But our genes are similar to those of other animals, and Christ assumed that DNA. So in his incarnation, Christ connected with all of life. In his resurrection, Christ transformed death into hope; he took the sting out of death. This is how he redeemed the world.

The quiet God: The God of Scripture speaks with the still, small voice. He is a God who hides himself (Isa. 45:15). When asked for a sign, Jesus refused to show one (Mt. 10:39), because it is only by faith that we gain our sight. Believing is seeing.

Seamless creation, without gaps: Youíve seen the slogan, "God donít make no junk". There need not be any special interventions in order to intelligently design particular things; the whole earth God initially created is fully capable of doing what God commanded: bringing forth life by itself. There need not be any gaps requiring special creation or design or miracles to patch up.

Space and time are creatures: Common sense asks, what was God doing before he created the world? This question was first asked by Augustine in the 5th century. He thought a lot about time, and came to this conclusion: that time is also a creature. God transcends time. We, immersed and confined in space-time, cannot conceive what this means, and therefore how creation happened is a mystery to us.

Size doesnít matter: "When I consider your heavens, the works of your fingers, the moon and the stars, which you have set in place, What is man that you are mindful of him?"

Psalm 8 indicates the smallness of mankind on this speck of dust called the earth, drifting among the 100 billion stars of our galaxy, one of billions of others. How could we matter to God?

Since Christ is Lord of space and time, the immensities of the universe do not have to terrify us. Christ lived among us as a human being, he is familiar with our situation; he remembers that we are dust. In fact, huge distances are our only protection against some of the violent events happening in the universe.

Presently the life of mankind is threatened not so much by terrorism, or by huge weapons of mass destruction, but by tiny virus particles so small that they canít be seen in a 1000 power microscope. Small things can be very important.

God knows and cares for everything in creation, regardless of its size. The smallness of things does not hide them from his awareness and kindness. And everything is important to God.

I think the bridge between cosmology and theology is a one-way bridge: I believe that the attempt to find God through science is not going to work, for many reasons.

This is a Calvinist conclusion. We approach God, and apprehend God, only by the grace of God, and only with the guidance of his revealed Word. And that Word points to Jesus Christ as the center of revelation and the focal point of faith.

Psa. 111:2 - "Great are the works of the Lord, studied by all who have pleasure in them." (This is the inscription above the portal at Cambridge University.) Science is a human pursuit studied by those who have pleasure in it, and as a way to worship God. Christianity is consistent with the findings of science, and we should try to give reasonable answers to misconceptions and objections. But it is inappropriate to build a system of apologetics based on human reason.

Even ifs:
Even if it turns out that science is able to fully account for the history of the universe in a seamless theory, including evolution, that will not rule out the God of Jesus Christ. It only rules out certain idols which didnít deserve to exist anyway.

Even if there were no Big Bang (e.g. Fred Hoyle's steady state or Paul Steinhardt's cyclic universe), we could still ask the question, why does anything exist at all? As Augustine realized, Creation is not an event in time, but a theological mystery that transcends time, because time too is created.

Mysteries at the End of the Universe

Common sense is a poor guide to understanding what happened in cosmology. The early history of the universe is so strange that there is no way we can relate it to our experience, and even our physics breaks down near the beginning. However, the evidence is very strong that such a beginning really happened. The quantum behavior of particles is so strange that the greatest physicists, such as Richard Feynman, called it absurd, and yet the theory they developed, called the Standard Model, accurately predicts the outcome of all known experiments.

We have to trust the theory; it is our only guide to understanding. Not common sense views of the world.

Common sense is a poor guide to understanding theology. Although God is truly the creator of the whole cosmos, he is not like a human artist or designer who signs his work and leaves his fingerprints all over the evidence. According to Scripture God hides himself in order that we can only know him through faith. We cannot find him through scientific study of the universe.

Although God is truly sovereign, the God of Jesus Christ is not like a worldly king who builds palaces and armies. He also came to earth and lived among us as a true human, even a servant, and suffered and died, even on a cross. This makes no sense. We cannot conceive it. We have to trust the Word, not common sense views of what God is like.

My general attitude is one of quiet astonishment at the revelations of God. The wisdom of God is higher than human wisdom and common sense, and ultimately leads to a deeper understanding of cosmology and biology that is consistent with the findings of modern science, including its seamlessness.

Col. 1:15-17: "All things were created by him and for him, and in him all things hold together."

I Cor. 1:18: "The message of the cross is foolishness to those who are perishing, but to us who are being saved it is the power of God. For it is written, ĎI will destroy the wisdom of the wise, the intelligence of the intellectuals I will frustrate.í (Isa. 29:14). Where is the wise man? Where is the scholar? Where is the philosopher of this age? Has not God made foolish the wisdom of the world? For since in the wisdom of God the world through its wisdom did not know him, God was pleased through the foolishness of what was preached to save those who believe. Jews demand miraculous signs and Greeks look for wisdom, but we preach Christ crucified: a stumbling block to Jews and foolishness to gentiles, but to those whom God has called, both Jews and Greeks, Christ the power of God and the Wisdom of God."

In both cosmology and theology, we must believe that which we cannot conceive. What we can conceive we cannot believe.


Acknowledgements:

My theological thinking has been greatly influenced by books and lectures by three contemporary scholars:

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