Monday, February 18, 2013

Too Ridiculous To Be True

An explosion simply cannot create
the order and beauty we see today.
Let’s be reasonable: blowing up
junkyard does not result in
Boeing 747. Neither does dropping
a bomb on a paint factory result
in a Rembrandt. The big bang is
clearly a ridiculous idea.

So goes a common criticism of modern scientific theories in cosmology, which we hear from time to time, also in our circles. [An example can be found here.]

All Christians, at least those who confess the Apostles’ Creed, believe the world was formed at the Lord’s command as is clearly revealed in Scripture. For me as a physicist it is clear that the multiple converging lines of evidence are extremely strong in their support of the overall picture of modern science which claims that the world came into being about 14 billion years ago.

And so what do we say?

The big bang is, of course, ridiculous. Indeed it was ridiculed by atheistic scientists when they were confronted with the first scientific evidence of a beginning of time presented by observations of an expanding universe. This was quite disturbing for unbelievers, since it seemed to confirm the Bible and imply a creator.

But there are other ridiculous ideas as well:
  • Planets are kept in their orbits by an invisible force.
  • The Sun is a massive nuclear furnace.
  • All the carbon atoms in our bodies were formed in the cores of stars.
  • Babies grow in their mother’s womb from a single-celled egg fertilized by a single tiny sperm.
  • Solid objects consist almost entirely of purely empty space.
  • Earth spins about an axis while revolving around the Sun.
  • The square root of two is inexpressible as a ratio of integers.
These ideas, and many more, were ridiculed by the members of the scientific community and/or the public who first heard of them, including well-meaning Christians (and believers of other faiths), and some of these ideas are still held as ridiculous by some.

Scientists indeed work with exotic ideas, but the scientific community is usually ultimately forced to bow to the clear evidences presented by a world “fearfully and wonderfully made” by an all-powerful, all-wise Creator. In the case of the big bang and subsequent astrophysical processes, Christians are even able to discern special signposts to God’s providential guidance, such as the evident “fine tuning” of particles’ properties and of physical laws. We live in what is often called a “Goldilocks Universe”…just right! Indeed the Creator has prepared a special place for us as our loving heavenly Father.

As Christians, we affirm that the creation did not come into being on its own, but by the will of the Triune Creator. Psalm 33:6 expresses this wonderfully: “By the word of the LORD were the heavens made, their starry host by the breath of his mouth.” Romans 1:20 indicates that all humans deep down do really know there is a divine being: “For since the creation of the world God’s invisible qualities—his eternal power and divine nature—have been clearly seen, being understood from what has been made.” God reveals himself to us more fully through the Scriptures and especially through Jesus Christ: “The Word became flesh and made his dwelling among us” (John 1:14). Science cannot delve into these matters, as God is not subject to the methods of science. “By faith we understand that the universe was formed at God’s command” (Hebrews 11:3).

As a Christian with some research background in cosmology, I am able to stress to my students (and others) that science does not actually speak about the origin of the universe, but only its history (in addition to its current mechanisms). That is, science has its definite limits, one of which is in the whole area of origins. Science cannot address where the universe came from in the final analysis, despite what many public spokespersons of science claim. And so the Biblical truth of God as Origin of all is not and cannot be targeted by science per se. (You can read more about this in my blog posting about the false dichotomy of origin and operation science promulgated by young-earth creationists.)

And so what do we do with the ridiculous idea of the big bang? It is important to be aware that many ridiculous ideas do in fact turn out to be true. It is too simple to just say that these ideas ought to be ridiculed, and discarded and the Bible simply believed. And it is not simply a matter of accepting science over against God’s Word.

Yes, God’s Word is more than a human’s word. And to acknowledge God as creator is a faith statement. And science also involves faith, as well described by Vern Poythress in the chapter entitled “Why Scientists Must Believe in God” of his book Redeeming Science. But acknowledging God as creator is also a rational point of view, as are the scientific theories regarding the historical development of the universe. It has long been understood by many Christians, including Reformed believers, that the Bible never was intended to give detailed timing and mechanisms for the universe or its creation. Historically, Reformed believers have routinely allowed for alternative interpretations of Genesis 1 (e.g.) which do not settle the matter of the exact date of creation or the sequencing of creative events (or the physical composition of the atmosphere, or the overall structure of the cosmos, for that matter). And so accepting the truth of the Bible does not entail the rejection of scientific theories. Now, to be clear, it does entail rejection of all manner of philosophical and religious ideas that are often linked closely together with such theories by a small number of very vocal scientists (such as Carl Sagan and Richard Dawkins). But the burden that is often laid upon believers, and also upon those considering the claims of Christianity as we reach out to unbelieving neighbours, friends, and co-workers, especially those who are working in or are familiar with the sciences, is not a burden which I believe God wants to have placed upon us: a requirement to accept as settled and binding certain specific and so-called “traditional” interpretations of Scripture.

And so it is important to be careful that one does not make ridiculing scientific ideas (especially those scientific ideas which are widely acknowledged even by Reformed Christians in the sciences) part and parcel of acceptance of or evidence for the Christian faith. Furthermore, Christianity has its own ideas which are “ridiculous” (and ridiculed) as well, such as the Son of God becoming man, then dying and rising from the dead, God giving grace and faith to those who have rejected him, God being 100% sovereign and man being 100% responsible, Jesus turning water to wine. But these “ridiculous” ideas are also actually true. Praise God that he is not bound by our human reason!

1 comment:

Mike Vandergugten said...

Fantastic post Arnold! I have come to whole-heartedly agree with what you have so concisely posted here, as I've familiarized myself with some of the evidence faithfully presented by some Christians in the scientific community. Thank you for holding your ground in a humble manner. White I still have questions about the implications of the scientific evidence on our reading of the Bible, especially the biological ones, I am confident that God is our faithful Creator and Sustainer and Saviour.
Mike Vandergugten
Langley, BC