How did the universe come into being? The last century has revealed a stark contrast between what secular scientists expected to find regarding the big “origins” questions and what scientific research actually uncovered. In part 1 of this series, I’ll discuss how this contrast played out concerning the origin of the universe. In future installments I’ll consider, in turn, the origins of the solar system, Earth, and the human species.
Origin of the Universe
Greek philosopher Aristotle (384–322 BC) speculated that the cosmos was eternal. In the eighteenth century, secular Enlightenment thinkers picked up Aristotle’s line of thought, often arguing that the physical universe was eternal in age and possibly infinite in extent. The universe was viewed as a brute reality without beginning and, therefore, without the need for a cause. Skeptic Bertrand Russell insisted, in his famous BBC debate on the existence of God with Catholic philosopher Frederick Copleston, that the universe is “just there.”
In the first half of the twentieth century, the view of cosmology known as the steady-state theory was popular among secular scientists. This view reflected the belief that the universe contained a continual energy source that allowed the cosmos to remain in a constant state of existence. Philosophically speaking, an eternal universe would seem more consistent with an atheistic, naturalistic view of reality. For if the universe is eternal, then it needs no causal explanation, thus no need to postulate God as a necessary causal agent. (Though, ironically, atheists often fail to appreciate that if God exists as an eternal and necessary being then he, too, would need no causal explanation.)
Big Bang Cosmology
Over the last twenty-five years, however, big bang cosmology has undergone extensive testing and has emerged as the prevailing scientific model for the origin of the universe. According to this well-established theory, the universe (including all matter, energy, time, and space) emerged about 14 billion years ago from a singular beginning. Thus, scientists conclude that the universe is not eternal. The basic big bang cosmological model has now replaced the steady-state theory as the prevailing origin of the universe. And while the big bang continues to be refined as a theory, most leading astrophysicists argue that it is here to stay. Multiverse theories may challenge the idea of our universe having had a singular beginning, but the multiverse remains speculative and lacks direct scientific confirmation.
A universe with a singular beginning from nothing was the last thing secular scientists thought would be discovered. The problem for the atheistic naturalist is how much big bang cosmology resembles the biblical doctrine of creation ex nihilo (God created the universe from or out of nothing [no preexisting materials]: Genesis 1:1; Proverbs 3:19; Romans 4:17; Titus 1:2; Hebrews 11:3).
Herein lies the contrast between expectation and scientific advance. Secular scientists thought they would discover an eternal, self-sufficient universe, but what they actually discovered is a universe that had a singular beginning. And now they have a contingent reality—the cosmos—in need of a necessary causal explanation. While many scientists were no doubt surprised by this discovery, Christian theologians expected it. Thus, the cutting-edge scientific discovery concerning the universe’s origin (a singular beginning of all things) seems to comport best with theism.
Reflections: Your Turn
How does big bang cosmology affect the secular claim that science backs atheism?