Genesis and the Big Bang

Sky and Telescope, July, 1979, pp. 66-67.

Denis Dutton

God and the Astronomers, by Robert Jastrow. W.W. Norton, New York, 1978. 136 pages, $7.95.

THOUGH HE CLAIMS on the first page of this curious little book to be an agnostic in religious matters, Robert Jastrow nevertheless believes that some current developments in astronomy have “religious implications.” Along with many other astronomers, Jastrow thinks that the discovery of cosmic background radiation practically assures the truth of the Big Bang theory of the universe, but he also goes on to claim that this fact in turn “leads to a biblical view of the origin of the world.”

God and the Astronomers offers a short and very elementary survey of twentieth-century discoveries in cosmology, to which the author has added some startling and remarkably unsupported observations about the bearing those discoveries have on religion. “The details differ,” he writes, “but the essential elements in the astronomical and biblical accounts of Genesis are the same: the chain of events leading to man commenced suddenly and sharply at a definite moment in time, in a flash of light and energy.” The details differ indeed: the author of Genesis speaks of the earth in the beginning as “being without form, and void; and darkness was upon the face of the deep.” He tells us that “the Spirit of God moved upon the face of the waters” before God said at last, “Let there be light.” These are profoundly enigmatic words. To suppose that they must amount to a description of the Big Bang is a speculation which goes far beyond the reasonable limits of evidence.

If, of course, the essential elements Jastrow sees as shared by Genesis and Big Bang theory are merely that both talk about some sort of cosmic beginning, then his thesis is hardly notable, though he might have pointed out that the creation myths of virtually all religions share that element too. If the Big Bang cosmology supports the Bible of the Jews and the Christians (except for those “differing details”), then it just as well stands as evidence for the creation stories of the Nepalese, the Babylonians, the Greeks, the Chinese, or the Hopi. The terms “beginning” and “creation,” applied to the context of cosmology, are notoriously tricky, and Professor Jastrow’s ambiguous use of them is indicative of a carelessness that prevails throughout his whole enterprise. The act of divine creation described in Genesis is a creation by God ex nihilo. The God of traditional theology did not rearrange or remake a previously existing world, he created one from nothing. Throughout most of God and the Astronomers, Jastrow talks about the Big Bang as though it constitutes this sort of unique and miraculous beginning.

But as things turn out, this is apparently not what he means, since toward the end of his book he speculates that the Big Bang may have been one of a series of cosmic explosions that alternate with cosmic collapses. We cannot have it both ways: if the Big Hang thus represents a moment in the history of an oscillating universe, it must not be the moment of absolute creation spoken of in Genesis. When Jastrow entertains the idea that out universe might be followed by “a second Creation,” and then after a collapse by “still another Creation,” he is no longer using the word “Creation” in the theological sense at all. For the theologian, the question remains: what accounts for this vast assemblage of energy and matter in a seemingly endless succession of collapses and explosions? Who or what created all of this?

Though God and the Astronomers leaves something to be desired as a commentary on the relation of theology to natural science, many readers will doubtless enjoy it as a popular history of cosmological speculation in this century. The simple text is very short (less than a third as long as the combined articles and features in an average issue of this magazine), and there are many pictures. Readers unfamiliar with the concept of an expanding universe and with the astronomers who brought us to an understanding of it will doubtless find the book an instructive one. As an historical work, however, Jastrow’s book cannot match such recent efforts as Man Discovers the Galaxies, by Richard Berendzen, Richard Hart, and Daniel Seeley, or The Red Limit: The Search for the Edge of the Universe, by Timothy Ferris.

Discussions that purport to show how scientific findings can support religious beliefs often misuse scientific procedures. Jastrow’s book is no exception. It is a principle of scientific method that, if a piece of evidence legitimately counts in favor of a hypothesis, then showing that evidence to be incorrect or nonexistent must, all other things being equal, tend to weaken the hypothesis. Hence, if Big Bang cosmology really provides some particular support for the Bible, it must follow that an alternative cosmology, such as the Steady State, would, if proven true, count against the Bible.

But is this actually the case? Of course not. If decisive evidence were uncovered tomorrow that refuted the Big Bang theory and verified the Steady State model, the probability of Genesis representing an historically true account would be completely unaffected. Genesis is perfectly compatible with a Steady State universe; theology would still contend that a Steady State universe requires a divine creator. Like all such religious accounts, Genesis attempts to deal with the ultimate mystery of existence. No astronomical discoveries or theories of physical cosmology could ever hope to solve this mystery.