We cannot see Him, hear Him, touch Him, or put Him in a test tube. How can we know anything about Him, or even be sure He exists? It is widely asserted, and accepted, that this is impossible, and therefore God’s existence and nature are unknowable. This agnostic position commits a major fallacy of omission, already briefly mentioned in ch. 5. Let me explain.
First consider another question: How do we know there is a wind? We cannot see it or hold it. But we can see its effects: things blow around, tree branches move back and forth, we hear noise. The only reasonable explanation is that the wind is blowing. If someone refuses to believe a wind exists, we consider him crazy! This is not exactly the same as God, but it is similar in some respects: We cannot see God, but we can see some things He has done. There are many things and events for which the only reasonable, simple explanation is that God caused them. We do not have a right to demand that God show Himself to us when, where, and how we ask Him to. Making such demands is an act of presumption that has already implicitly rejected the existence of a God Who is really sovereign. As for objective experiments, anything you can cram into the proverbial test tube is not God, so that is not a reasonable way to look for evidence of His existence either. This reveals the foolishness of the Soviet cosmonaut who looked out of his spacecraft and reported that he didn’t see God. In the vastness of this universe, any human space-flight thus far is totally insignificant, and anything we found that way would not be God. If the cosmonaut really wanted to see God, the way to do it would be to take off his space suit.
So, how can we know anything about God? If He really is God, He can choose when, where, and how to reveal Himself. This is the major and fatal omission committed by those who adopt the agnostic position: it is true that we cannot find God by our own ability and effort, but He can take the initiative in finding us and placing certain events and objects in our path. If He has done so and we refuse to see what He has done, we cannot complain that He did not do something else, nor sit obstinately with our eyes closed insisting that there could be no such things. Well, we can, but it doesn’t make sense.
Many people object to this, saying that any explanation that mentions God is not reasonable or simple, but is unscientific, irrational, religious, an escape from finding a natural cause, a step backward toward the Dark Ages, and a hindrance to scientific research. We have already discussed this objection (ch. 5, V); it is reductionism, “nothing but science.” When we say that some things indicate that God exists and has acted, this is a conclusion from research, and is always open to further research. It is not escaping anything. If some facts really are the result of God’s actions, is science forbidden to discover that truth? Isn’t science supposed to be an open-minded search for truth? How can anyone say before we even begin research that we must not conclude that some things are the result of God’s actions? Who seems to be trying to escape something? Who is limiting the progress of research?
This approach avoids the danger of finding only a “God of the gaps” who explains the gaps in our present ability to understand nature. This error was often committed in the past, to explain comets, lightning, disease, etc. The God of the gaps has far less work to do now than he used to, and is approaching retirement. But the God of the Bible is the God of what we do know, not just what we don’t. What we know points to something beyond nature and its laws. Some such things were already introduced in ch. 3, IV, D, and ch. 5, V, responding to materialists’ reductionist explanations of religion and human nature. Now we will find several more such things even within the physical, material realm where many modern people think God’s activity has been excluded by scientific knowledge.
Atheists capitalize on Christians’ past errors, and refer derisively to any mention of God’s work as a repetition of the “god of the gaps” fallacy. There are at least two fallacies in this association. First, it is not a fact that all the gaps in our understanding have been filled by science in the past. This book emphasizes some still-unfilled gaps. Thus atheists are invoking a seriously biased data sample in drawing their conclusion. This is like saying that because some rocks can be dissolved in water, therefore all rocks can be.
The second fallacy is the pretense that it is only religious believers who indulge in various strategies of filling gaps. The only way in which atheists are different is that they have a “no-god of the gaps” policy. They simply fill the present gaps with unknown “laws,” which we are assured will be discovered sooner or later by continuing research; these could be described as “laws of the gaps.” The fact is that there are gaps in our understanding, and there always will be. Some are eventually filled by scientific discoveries, while others are increasingly found to be unfillable in that way. Such gaps include ones discussed in ch. 2, IV, and the mysteries of human consciousness, ethical standards, and sense of purpose, as well as the ones discussed in this chapter, the origin of the universe, of living things, and of the Bible. It takes just as much faith to believe in yet-unknown laws to explain all these as it does to believe in a personal God.
Some Christians are so fearful of repeating the “God of the gaps” error that they insist we must not find any scientific evidence for God anywhere; this amounts to the separation of faith from fact, ch. 5, I, F, 1. They go so far as to assert that God must have created the universe so as to require no physical intervention forever after, and even claim that it is a lack of faith, or clarity of thought, to believe He would do so. This is treading on dangerous ground, putting our thoughts in God’s mouth, constraining Him to conform to our opinions. The question is what He has in fact chosen to do, and the Bible seems to clearly state that He has chosen to continue acting within His universe. So, while being careful not to imagine such action where it has not occurred, we also must not hamstring God by denying it where it does occur. There is no simple answer, but we must investigate each purported case with a skeptical but open mind.
Earlier chapters discussed the Bible’s outlook on science. This chapter uses the scientific outlook on the Bible. So our starting point is that facts about the universe, ourselves, and the Bible exist, and that we are rational, logical beings. We do not begin by assuming that God exists (though there is no other basis for assuming that facts exist and that we are rational!). We simply do not assume that God does not exist, nor even that He can be omitted in the explanation of our life and world. This is the only truly open-minded approach.
The facts that show us that the God of the Bible exists may be summarized in four main points as follows, and each point tells us something relevant to the question of the existence and nature of God.
The first three are factual, objective. They are in this order because they tell us progressively more about God. The fourth point is partly subjective, and some aspects were already discussed in the section on social sciences versus Christianity, which talked about psychological and sociological effects. We will have more to say.
One final comment before we begin discussion of these points: Since the emphasis here is on finding things that God has done, this is not a repetition of the classical purely logical “proofs” of the existence of God which occupied so much of the energies of pro- and anti-Christian thinkers for centuries. These were called ontological, cosmological, teleological, and so on. These had some validity, but also seemed to contain enough loopholes to be insufficient as “proofs.” A modern-day incarnation of this approach is Cornelius van Til’s presuppositional viewpoint, insisting that it is impossible to be a rational human without at least implicitly believing in the existence of God. I of course believe he is right, but I am not convinced such an argument is logically airtight, and many others both Christian and non-Christian share that lack of being convinced. This is related to the topic of ch 5, V, A, 3, about our inherent personhood, which I consider as something which is simply felt, and beyond logical proof. Be that as it may, I am intending here to stick to observed facts, or truths, though conclusions unavoidably must also draw in some assumptions and logic along the way (ch 5, III).
I The characteristics of the universe
There are at least four important facts about the universe that indicate it had a beginning, and that its beginning cannot be explained by the presently known laws of nature.
This is a very important conclusion. It gives our first valuable clue from science in our search for the correct religious faith. It means that materialism, the belief that matter and energy are all that exists and are either eternal or self-created (whatever that means), has no scientific basis and in fact contradicts what we can observe. This belies materialists’ claims to a scientific basis for their beliefs.
Agnostics also have a hard time coping with this fact. While they do not deny the existence of a realm beyond the physical universe, they deny that it has any interaction with the universe, and a beginning certainly is an interaction. Perhaps some agnostics grudgingly concede the possibility of an act of creation, and then no further supernatural intervention. This makes them equivalent to the position of deists.
For pantheists and animists, the question of ultimate origins is mostly ignored as unknowable and distant to the point of irrelevance. The existence of our environment, and ourselves, is simply given, and attention is centered on coping with life here and now. There are creation myths, but they are not regarded as serious historicalaccounts. Hinduism has a concept of a cyclic universe, but that seems ruled out by known physical laws.
Deists accept creation; no problem there.
Some Christians conclude that the discovery of a beginning of the universe confirms that the God of the Bible exists and was the cause of the beginning. It does not prove that much. It does mean that there is nothing unscientific about believing the Bible’s story of creation: “In the beginning God created the heavens and the earth.” Modern Christians need not be ashamed to admit that they believe it. In fact its consistency with recent scientific research can be viewed as a confirmation of faith in the Bible; it is the only religious tradition that seems closely parallel to what is now known. All others are unrelated or contradictory.
What are the four characteristics of the universe that indicate a beginning?
A Olbers’ Paradox: The sky is dark and coldWhy does the sky get dark at night? Only an idiot or a genius would ask this question; we normal people take it for granted. But it really is a profound question. From the time of Galileo and his telescope until the discoveries described in the next sections, the scientific community assumed that the universe is infinite and eternal. But given these assumptions, any line of sight should eventually intersect the surface of a star, just as any line of sight from a point in a large forest intersects a tree. Therefore the entire sky should be as bright as the surface of the sun. Obviously, and fortunately, it is not, and therefore one or both of the assumptions is wrong, and this is the so-called paradox. One proposed explanation was that the light from distant stars is blocked by interstellar dust, but energy must be conserved and can’t simply vanish, so that dust would eventually heat up to thesame temperature as the stars and re-emit an equal amount of light, so this explanation fails. The universe must be finite in space, or in time, or both.
This question is named after Heinrich Olbers, who stated it in 1826. But whoever thus named it had not done his homework, because the question had previously been raised by Thomas Digges in 1576, Johann Kepler in 1610, and Edmond Halley in 1721.
B The Second Law of ThermodynamicsThermodynamics was one of the great scientific breakthroughs of the 19th century (see ch. 1). The Second Law means disorder is increasing, or order and usable energy are decreasing. This can be restated in terms of statistics and probability: the state of a system is most likely to change toward a more random, more probable, condition. In any real system with a large number of particles, “most likely” is an overwhelming certainty.
This may sound very complex, but the principle is familiar to all of us. We are all experts on the Second Law; we just don’t know the Second Law when we see it. We straighten and clean our room today, but tomorrow it is less orderly and less clean. A more scientific example is that heat always flows from hot to cold, not cold to hot. A folded piece of paper will never again be flat, and clothing fresh out of the dyer needs to be ironed. Mixed liquids will never separate themselves back into different liquids, or into hot and cold parts. And so on. If someone tells you that his room just cleaned itself, the wind blew all the dust into the wastebasket and the clothes into the closet, you know that person needs to see a psychiatrist.
This has some very profound implications. The universe is a system which is not in a totally random state. It is very non-uniform in density, temperature, and composition. There is a large amount of energy available to do work, and the stars are busy using that energy to shine. Sunlight that streams into space will never again be regathered to heat the Sun. This means that the process of randomization has not yet reached completion, therefore either it has been continuing for only a finite time, or the universe is infinite in size and the part we see is an infinitesimal pocket where the process is not yet complete. This second option is a dubious play of degrees of infinity. Also, an infinite universe does not explain many other things we will mention later about living things and the Bible. If the universe has been here a finite time, then that is the same as saying it had a beginning, which was an ordering process or event, which was different from the processes which we now observe. We will not now discuss whether this beginning should be called “supernatural,” or “creation,” . For now, we will just say “a beginning.”
C The General Theory of RelativityThis set of equations was published by Einstein in 1915. It is a mind-stretching theory that deals with the nature of space and time itself, not merely of objects in space and time. One of its important implications is a non-zero acceleration of space itself, which means the universe cannot simply be stationary forever. Any change leads to the conclusion of a beginning. Einstein considered this impossible, because for generations the scientific world assumed that the universe is eternal and unchanging. So he assumed there should be another term in his equations, the “cosmological constant,” to cancel this acceleration. But that constant had no physical basis, only a philosophical basis in a materialistic world-view. Einstein later abandoned the constant, and called it “the greatest blunder” of his life, because of a discovery that was made in the 1920’s: the expansion of the universe, which is the topic of the following section.
An interesting side-note is that in recent years the cosmological constant has been resurrected, but not as a return to the concept of an eternal universe. It is a possible factor in the development of the universe since the beginning. In the motion of the distant, early objects seen by the largest telescopes, there are evidences of another force besides the four presently known, because the expansion of the universe seems to be accelerating, instead of decreasing as it would if gravitational attraction were the dominant force. This is still an active area of research and there is no firm conclusion yet. Whatever the conclusion, it is a confirmation not a denial of the concept of a beginning.
D The expansion of the universeEdwin Hubble and others discovered in the 1920’s that the light from distant galaxies shows a red shift. This does not mean that their apparent color becomes red, but that their entire spectral pattern is shifted toward the red, or longer wavelengths. He estimated their distance by making the reasonable assumption that smaller, fainter galaxies are more distant. The red shift seems to be proportional to the distance; it is larger for more distant galaxies. The only reasonable explanation thus far proposed for the red shift is that it is a result of the expansion of the universe and in fact of space itself. The distant galaxies have a recession speed, moving away from us, and the further they are the faster they are receding. Notice that this does not say that there is a unique center point anywhere. No matter where you are, everything distant from you will be receding.
This means that Einstein’s equations were (perhaps) right the first time. At least he was not wrong in allowing for an expanding universe. The universe is not stationary and eternal, but apparently had a beginning a long but not infinite time in the past. Given a distance and a speed, it is simple to estimate the time of travel. Estimates of the distances of galaxies still have some uncertainty, and the speed should decrease with time if gravitational attraction is the main factor affecting it. Or it may increase if the cosmological constant overcomes that attraction. To estimate this we need to know the average density of the universe, which is not at all well known. So the estimate of the time of expansion of the universe is uncertain, probably between 10 and 20 billion years.
This expansion is only important on the largest scale of the universe. It won’t make you taller. Within a cluster of galaxies there are local motions, so that a galaxy is approaching some of its near neighbors and receding from others. For instance, M31, the Andromeda Galaxy, is approaching us. It is the nearest large spiral galaxy, “only” a little over 2,000,000 light years away, virtually our next-door neighbor, a member of the Local Group of galaxies. Also, the expansion of the universe has no significant effect on the motion of stars within a galaxy, so half the stars we see in our Milky Way are moving toward us and the other half are moving away, mostly due to the rotation of the galaxy.
Scientists in Hubble’s time still did not accept the concept of a beginning of the universe, because science could not explain such a beginning. Such remote questions of origins were simply unknowable, and thus ignored. But by the 1940’s a few physicists saw that the developing field of high-energy particle physics could be applied to the possible conditions in an explosion that produced the present expanding universe. Around 1950 George Gamow and several others worked out the basic implications of such a theory.
Calculations from the known properties of high-energy particle interactions indicated that such an explosion would produce mostly H (hydrogen, the lightest element, with only one proton) with a little He (helium, the second element, with two protons and two neutrons) and a very small amount of a few more of the lightest elements. They also could explain that all the heavier elements were later produced in fusion reactions in the cores of stars, which finally explained the long-standing question of the origin of the stars’ tremendous energy output. These elements in the cores of stars were then mixed into interstellar gases when large stars exploded as supernovae, or ordinary stars lost their outer layers in their final stage as a red giant. Another conclusion of the theory is that the initial explosion would produce heat radiation, which would cool as the universe expands, and should now be everywhere, with a temperature of a few degrees above absolute zero, which places it in the microwave range.
This theory has come to be called the Big Bang. Fred Hoyle, a British astronomer, gave it this name in derision, but it was such an appropriate description, and no one could think of a better one, that it quickly became the standard terminology.
There are several important confirmations of the Big Bang theory. First, it correctly predicts the observed chemical composition of the universe, which is in fact (by mass) about 3/4 H (hydrogen), 1/4 He (helium) and about 1% all the heavier elements. However, this alone was not sufficient to win general acceptance for the theory. The predicted heat radiation could neither be confirmed nor disproved in 1950, because at that time there was no equipment that could observe it. So most scientists could still ignore the subject.
Hoyle and others who opposed the Big Bang in the 1950’s proposed a “steady-state” theory of continuous creation of H in an eternal universe. Such creation violated the known laws of conservation of matter and energy, but the estimated rate of creation is so low that measurements cannot prove it does not occur. It was a choice between one sudden big creation or a continuous slow one that could be considered normal, a new law of nature. The second choice became popular for a few years, but failed to account for the facts that became apparent as astronomical observations continued to progress. If the universe is steady, or unchanging, then we should see galaxies in various stages of development, both old and new. But research showed that all galaxies close enough to see clearly have similar ages, and there are no signs of new ones in process of formation. This confirmed the concept of a beginning, and began to shake confidence in the steady state theory.
Then in 1965 the “3K microwave cosmic background radiation” was observed by Penzias and Wilson of Bell Labs. The steady state theory then quickly fell out of favor, and almost all scientists accepted the Big Bangtheory. No alternative explanation of this radiation has gained general acceptance. Hoyle and a few others still advocate a modified form of their theory, and cite some observations in support of it, primarily the nature and distribution of some quasars. But that is getting beyond the scope of this book. In the early 1990s, COBE satellite measurements of this radiation provided further confirmation of the Big Bang theory. See ch. 1, VI.
Progress in astronomical instruments has enabled astronomers to see galaxies further and further away, which means we are seeing their condition longer and longer ago. The history of the universe is not merely a matter of theory and deduction from the observed present, as is true of history on the earth. The history of the universe is actually set before our eyes, but the early parts of it are very distant and difficult to observe. As we see it increasingly clearly, it is apparent that galaxies long ago were different than they are now. There were super-bright quasars, rapid bursts of star formation, and a large proportion of spiral galaxies. All this once again confirms that there is change with time, and a beginning.
It also finally solves Olbers’ paradox. The sky is dark for two reasons: the universe visible to us is limited in both space and time, because there has not been sufficient time for light to reach us from points beyond a certain distance. Also, the expansion weakens the light from the more distant parts that we can see.
The presently known laws of nature can be used to calculate from the present back to a moment (about 10-43 sec) after the beginning of the expansion. Before that time the density and energy is beyond the range of known laws. Either that was a beginning, or there are other laws we do not know yet. But even if there are other laws, that only pushes the question of the beginning back further, and we still must ask where that material and those laws came from. It is doubtful if our research can possibly find out what happened before that, but I won’t venture a“never”: prediction on this point. Science is simply silent about the exact moment of beginning, and “before the beginning” has no scientific meaning within the presently accepted theories of science. There are some interesting recent (2000) developments in “string theory” that claim to circumvent this limitation; stand by to see how this develops in years to come.
Hugh Ross’s books discuss several attempts to escape the conclusion that there was a beginning. Some scientists have speculated that the universe may be cyclic. They assume that the expansion will eventually slow to a stop, and the universe will then begin to contract, ending finally in a “Big Crunch.” They also assume that the universe could then “bounce” back, and thus continue expanding, contracting, and bouncing back again and again forever. But the second law of thermodynamics means that the bounces could not be the same each time, but could only happen a finite number of times. So, this only pushes the beginning further back, but still does not escape the fact that there must have been a beginning. Another problem is that there is no known scientific principle which could cause the bounce. Also, it means there is no scientific confirmation of the Hindu-Buddhist concept of an eternal, cyclic universe. Finally, as already mentioned, it seems that the expansion of the universe is accelerating not slowing down.
Some theorists have referred to a “cosmic egg” which “became unstable” and exploded. This too has no scientific basis, but is only another attempt to escape the concept of a beginning. It is merely a personal speculation of scientists trying to evade the implications of a beginning, and has no role in the Big Bang theory.
So we conclude that the universe began between 10 and 20 billion years ago, and that at present science cannot explain the cause of that beginning. This will always be the most that can be said on the basis of science: We haven’t yet found a natural cause. But the longer this continues to be true, the more credible is the conclusion that there is no natural cause, but that this is an example of an interaction with a larger realm of reality beyond the physical universe. Such interactions are represented by the arrow in the diagram at the end of ch. 2 and discussed in ch. 5.
For more details on the age of the universe, see ch. 7, II, C.
Another conclusion is that compared to the universe
we are extremely small and short-lived. Humans and human life seem insignificant
in this vast and ancient universe. Something inside of us needs to believe
that there is more value and purpose in life than just this little bit
of time and space.