Yes – Fred Heeren
No–Bernard J Leikind
In the last round, each debater presented his best evidence for his answer to the question, “Is there now scientific evidence for God?” The debaters also each wrote a rebuttal to the other’s article. This round allows each to present a response to the other’s last rebuttal.
Science writer Fred Heeren is in a position to know the arguments for his position from his seven-year search for evidence both for and against God’s existence, a quest that involved picking the brains of today’s great discoverers in science: Nobel prize-winning astronomers, NASA team leaders, and today’s leading theoretical physicists. He wrote the book Show Me God and founded the Day Star Network to provide the best information possible to aid others who wish to make this quest.
As a physicist and columnist for Skeptic magazine, Dr. Bernard Leikind is in a position to know the arguments for his position. He received training in plasma physics and fusion energy at Cornell University and the University of Maryland, and his work has involved laser, accelerator, and nuclear energy projects. He has become known for his investigations into the paranormal–and for his debunking of them–while guesting on such popular venues as The Tonight Show.
The difference between a healthy skeptic and a pseudo-skeptic, I’ve long held, is that a healthy skeptic will critically examine the evidence on all sides of a question, while the pseudo-skeptic will only be critical about the side he doesn’t like. Having found evidence or scholarship that supports his foregone conclusions, the pseudo-skeptic is satisfied that he has done the skeptic’s job. He can justify his refusal to consider any contrary evidence placed plainly before him by claiming to be “skeptical” about it.
Religious folks certainly have pseudo-skeptics among them, often people who are motivated more by tradition than by truth. Religious folks come in all types. Atheists, however, subscribe to a specialized dogmatism that practically guarantees the practice of pseudo-skepticism. They have taken an extreme position that, from the beginning, shows an unhealthy lack of curiosity, to say the least, about the possibilities concerning a Creator. To allow oneself to see the world only from the atheist’s viewpoint – which is what many scientists mistakenly believe they must do – means that one has already given up one of science’s most important precepts: that we let the evidence lead us wherever it will.
My friend Bernard Leikind has assured us that “the universe is without cause and without purpose,” and tells us that we should “face these facts with courage.” Obviously, Bernard has not demonstrated that the universe is without cause or purpose as a “fact.” He himself admits that his ideas about how our universe got here (one of his main arguments against God’s existence) are actually based upon “wonderful speculations.” But when he jumps from such speculations to the word “fact,” we should be forewarned; his viewpoint may be more of a foregone conclusion for him than a result of examining all sides of the question.
My own quest for the truth about God’s existence led me to explore this century’s discoveries in cosmology, and to go right to the discoverers themselves for the best evidence that might bear on the question of God’s existence, pro and con. My quest for the truth about whether God has ever revealed himself to humans also led me to compare ancient claims of divine revelation, to see whether any of them line up with the apparent realities modern times have revealed about our universe’s origin.
Anyone who examines these ancient creation accounts with an open mind, I’m now convinced, will find that one is strikingly different from all the rest. Moreover, these distinct differences, as we will see, are the very points that line up surprisingly well with modern discoveries that were unknown to the ancients.
When an atheist is presented with such disturbing evidence, what can we expect him to do? Could he accept even the possibility that the Creator has indeed revealed Himself to us through the written word? Not if he is to remain an atheist. To accept that even as a possibility, he would have to become an agnostic. Bernard has told me, however, that he is a true atheist, not an agnostic. And the only thing a resolute atheist can do with such evidence is to refuse to acknowledge it, which is the choice that Bernard has made.
The uniqueness of ancient Hebrew revelation
Rather than consider the clear distinctions between Hebrew and other claimed sources of ancient revelation (if only to consider the Hebrews an amazing anomaly), Bernard denies that differences exist. When he looks at Genesis, he sees only “scientific and logical howlers.” Ancient Hebrew belief about creation, he claims to know, was formed by the common Mesopotamian belief that surrounded the Hebrews; thus it’s no different from theirs.
Bernard has laid groundwork to help us understand the common materialistic expectations – and by doing so he has prepared us for the truly astounding, contrary evidence that Hebrew revelation provides.
The common picture of the cosmos shared by the Egyptians, the Canaanites, the Babylonians, the Sumerians before them – and by all civilizations that could have influenced the ancient Hebrews – portrayed a watery chaos that preceded everything else.
The gods were born from this watery chaos. Thus these deities were as physical as the universe from which they sprang. Graven images were worshipped as representations of their physical forms. There was a pantheon of gods, as many as required to explain each important physical phenomenon: the sun god, the moon god, the planet and star gods, the sea god, the earth god, the sky god, etc.
But look at the plain differences between ancient Hebrew revelation and the beliefs from the surrounding ancient world:
Surrounding Ancient Beliefs
Ancient Hebrew Revelation
|The universe created the gods||God created the universe|
|There are many gods||There is one God|
|The gods are visible as sun, moon, stars, etc.||God has no visible form|
|The gods can be represented by physical man||No image should be made of God|
|The gods are sexual beings||God has no physical “shape” or form|
|The gods are part of the universe||God is holy (meaning “set apart”)|
|The gods do evil as well as good||God is righteous|
|The names of the gods connote dependence on the physical||God’s name, “I AM,” connotes self-existence|
|The gods are limited in power||God is “Almighty”|
|The world was formed through violent conflicts between older and younger generations of gods||God created in orderly stages, seeing that each was “good,” until all was prepared for humans and pronounced “very good”|
|Sun, moon, and stars are gods||Sun, moon, and stars give light and help us mark times and seasons|
|Sea monsters, left over from primeval struggles still lurk in deep||Large sea creatures are simply categorized|
|Life is rekindled each spring by copulation between the gods||God delegates to creatures the ability to generate seed to reproduce after their own kind|
One would have to be unreasonably stubborn not to admit these differences. Because of the clarity of the evidence in this case, the uniqueness of ancient Hebrew revelation may rightly be called a “fact.”
After looking into ancient history for himself, astrophysicist Fred Hoyle concluded that “the general concept of gods located fairly and squarely within the Universe was common in ancient times throughout the Near East. The Hebrew departure from this position was evidently very great.”
The correctness of ancient Hebrew revelation
De-mystifying nature. “Okay,” you say, “so the ancient Hebrews were different. But were they right?” Glancing at the list above, we see many physical facts that, while obvious to us today, were not so obvious in the ancient world, beginning with the fact that the physical elements are not gods. Somehow, the ancient Hebrews got this right – uniquely. They recognized the usefulness of the sun, moon, and stars without assigning them divinity or personality.
|*Bernard says I misstate the opinion of scientists on the matter of beginnings during the time from Aristotle to Einstein. I can only repeat that scientists not influenced by the Bible (from the Greek natural philosophers of Aristotle’s time to the modern scientists who have resisted the Bible’s influence) have held to the eternal universe view. It was only after Hubble’s discoveries forced modern scientists to forsake their notions of an eternal universe that their views caught up to what the Bible had taught all along. Of course, all along, natural philosophers who were influenced by the Bible believed in a beginning.
*Bernard’s example of a “logical howler” takes day 4 as an out-of-sequence creation of the “sun,” though the verse actually never uses the word “sun,” but “lights.” Scholars who take the Genesis 1 sequence seriously see the creation of the sun earlier, certainly by day 1, when “light” is also mentioned. Some (like astronomer Hugh Ross) even see a correlation with science’s expectations of an early atmosphere that became first translucent (day 1), and finally transparent to light (day 4). In fact, theories of planet formation demand that a debris cloud surrounded our early planet. The early volcanic outgassing would have also blocked the full light from the sun, moon and stars from the earth’s surface, so that these celestial objects would have become visible from earth’s surface at a particular stage (day 4). Others believe that the writer allowed his literary framework (the forming and filling with light in days 1 and 4) to take precedence over the sequence of the events, in which case the sequence isn’t important anyway.
The universe had a beginning. What about the Bible and modern cosmology? Even Bernard concedes that they both “contain a beginning” – unlike the Mesopotamian idea of an eternal watery substance.*
Order. Both the Bible and modern cosmology speak of orderly stages of our world’s creation, not of gods that cut one another in two to set up the sky and the earth or of humans being formed from the spilled blood during these struggles (as in Mesopotamian creation myths).
Preparations for life. Very unlike the myths, Genesis 1 uses a carefully laid-out literary framework that stresses the orderliness of creation: three days of forming followed by three days of filling, with each day of forming preparing the way for a corresponding day of filling. Day 1 prepares for day 4 (both are concerned with light),* day 2 prepares for day 5 (the water for the sea creatures, and the atmosphere for the winged creatures), and day 3 prepares for day 6 (the dry ground and vegetation for land animals and man).
|Days of forming||Days of filling|
|Characteristic verbs: “separated,” “gathered”||Characteristic verbs: “teem,” “be fruitful,” “increase,” “fill”|
|1. “Let there be light” (v.3)||4. “Let there be lights” (v. 4)|
|2. “Let there be an expanse ….
water under the expanse” (vv. 6-7)
|5. “Let the water teem with living creatures, and let birds fly above the earth” (v. 20)|
|3a. “Let dry ground appear” (v. 9)||6a. “Let the land produce living creatures…. Let us make man” (vv. 24, 26)|
|3b. “Let the land produce vegetation (v. 11)||6b. “I give you every seed-bearing plant … for food” (v. 29)|
Agreeing with the ancient Hebrews, modern cosmology re-introduces us to the “anthropic principle,” the view that somehow, all these stages in our universe’s creation have preceded us as the necessary “preparations” for life – and for human consciousness. To begin with, there are the fine-tunings of nature’s laws and constants, many selected within narrow parameters against astronomical odds – for our benefit. As Genesis says after each stage, “it was good.”
Experience has taught us that science can profitably indulge in one bias: the inclination to look for order and rationality in nature. What’s more, scientists have found that they can actually predict the values of certain constants–within narrow parameters–based on life’s need of them, as Fred Hoyle did when he accurately predicted the resonance of the carbon atom.
The big bang itself is a “finely orchestrated event,” according to Berkeley’s George Smoot. The big bang is misnamed, if by that term we mean a chaotic explosion. Astronomer Eric Carlson describes it as “an incredibly, highly ordered event, just the opposite of a chaotic event.” Had the expansion rate at the beginning been faster or slower – by a mere 1 part in 10 60 – life would not have been possible.
Even Earth history now teaches us that our planet went through tremendous preparations for the advent of life and human consciousness. The introduction of plant life was timed to reduce carbon dioxide (and hence, to lower the temperature) at just the time our sun was raising its temperature, keeping surface temperatures on Earth within the narrow window required for life. The formation of continents (“dry land”) in a world of water began as a result of regular tectonic cycles that regulate crustal growth, a process that is unique in our solar system.
Both the Bible and geology testify to a progressive creation. Both tell us that the Earth was once “formless and empty,” and that this condition was followed by a primitive universal ocean, which in turn was followed by the appearance of dry land (or as Eric Lerner puts it, “a gradual retreat of shallow seas from all the continents”). Both agree that darkness covered the Earth in its earliest history (required by the early debris cloud near the end of planet formation). Both agree that animal life first inhabited the sea. Both agree that plant life preceded land animals, and that birds preceded mammals. Both testify that mammals, and finally humans, were the last to appear. It is difficult notto be impressed by the general correlation in the sequence of events, especially when any other ancient creation account is compared with modern science.
I’m not claiming that Genesis is meant to be read like a science book. I’m just claiming that the Genesis creation account is unique in the ancient world, and that it uniquely corresponds to the apparent realities of our world affirmed by science in modern times.
The necessary explanation for ultimate origins
And I’ll go further. This “book of Moses” (as the first five books of the Bible were originally known before they were separated) uniquely gives us the necessary explanation for our universe. If logic and cosmology now unite to point to the notion of a First Cause, then we ask, what kind of entity might this be?
Who Caused God? Bernard rightly brings up the question about why I should believe that the First Cause of all things should not also require a cause. Could a First Cause answer the ultimate question of cosmic origins? Who or what caused God? So long as we’re talking about the kind of God that unbiblical religions promote, I must concede the point to the atheist. He’s right. A limited god couldn’t be a Final Cause any better than a limited universe. In trying to trace back the cause-effect chain, we end up with an infinite regress of limited gods, or universes, each created by the one before, and there’s never a Final Cause – in which case nothing could exist.
But if by the word “God” we mean the particular kind of God revealed to us uniquely in ancient Hebrew writings, who called Himself I AM, who has being in Himself, who is not limited to the universe, then we’ve found an entity that meets the requirement for the ultimate cause. And now that science has taught us that our universe is contingent, this is what we must find if we’re ever going to truly answer the question: What caused the universe?
I AM. Only ancient Hebrew revelation describes a God who is not contingent; He is not dependent upon the universe, since He preceded it. Moreover, this Hebrew Yahweh(which we translate in English as LORD, coming from a root meaning “to be”) announces Himself to us from ancient times as the “I AM,” the God whose first characteristic is revealed simply as His “being” rather than his identification with some physical part of the universe, as in the case of all the mythic gods. He announces Himself to Moses as the God who simply is.
Set apart. This is the God proclaimed by the Bible while the rest of humankind was worshipping a host of sun gods, star gods, animal-headed gods, and fertility gods and goddesses. Everything we learn about this God in “the book of Moses” helps to form a consistent picture of a God who is non-physical, transcending the universe. He reveals Himself as “holy,” which means, not just “pure” or “perfect” in a general sense, but has as its first meaning, “set apart.”
Unlimited. He is called the “Almighty,” telling us of His limitlessness. This is what Spinoza deduced that the First Cause must be, because if the First Cause is limited by anything, then it is contingent upon something else–and we’d still have nothing.
Outside of time. Preceding and transcending the universe, He apparently doesn’t even move through time in the same way we do, and so Moses prays: “A thousand years in your sight are like a day that has just gone by, or like a watch in the night.”
Other contemporary religions did not view time as such a relative thing. In fact most of them had gods who were restricted to place as well as time, tribal deities who could help their people in the hills, but not on the plains, etc., according to their limited jurisdictions. As archaeologist John Romer pointed out in his PBS television series and book, Testament , the God of the Hebrews has the unique ability to move through both space and time, transcending them, leading His people over vast distances from one country to another and over many generations of time.
No physical image. Within this context, we understand more clearly why this one God makes such a fuss about not allowing His people to make physical idols or images of Him. Moses himself relates this to the fact that the true God has no physical form: “You saw no form of any kind the day the LORD spoke to you at Horeb out of the fire. Therefore watch yourselves very carefully, so that you do not become corrupt and make for yourselves an idol, an image of any shape …” (Deut. 4:15-16).
In short, if we search all through history and all through the world’s religions for an entity that fits what logic and modern science lead us to believe about the First Cause, our eyes inevitably come to rest here. The fact that this revelation of a fitting First Cause comes to us from the ancient world makes the fit all the more amazing, given the uniqueness of this transcendent concept in that ancient world.
Waters flowing above?
|*Bernard has found a practitioner of higher criticism who champions this view, Richard Elliot Friedman. Professor Friedman is a proponent of the Documentary Hypothesis, a view developed in the 1870s by Julius Wellhausen without the benefit of archaeological knowledge that has since removed Wellhausen’s fundamental reasons for proposing it. Wellhausen believed that Moses could not have written the Pentateuch, since, in the 19th century, there was scant evidence for any writing before the first millennium B.C. The strong monotheism of the document also didn’t fit into Wellhausen’s theory of religious evolution for that period (based on the surrounding religions he knew). Thus he hypothesized the existence of at least four different authors (known as J, E, D and P) who wrote in a later period. Today, however, archaeology has revealed that Hebrews were constructing altars in accordance with the law of Moses (and sacrificing only “clean animals,” judging from the bones found) in the 13th century B.C. The clear division of Genesis into 10 sections (each with the heading “This is the account of,” demonstrates that the document had a definite plan, a unity difficult to reconcile with a patchwork theory. Moreover, we now know that writing was used extensively during the time of Moses and long before him (over a thousand years before him, in the case of the Ebla tablets). Richard Friedman himself has been instrumental in proving linguistically that the Pentateuch must come from a much earlier period than the critics had assumed.|
I must address one more matter that Bernard considers a scientific problem for the Hebrew creation account: the idea that the description of waters above and below an expanse sounds a lot like Near Eastern myths, since it uses some of the same terms common at the time.* Actually, this gives me another opportunity to point out the vast difference between the Bible and other ancient beliefs.
According to the Egyptians, for example, the falcon-headed god Re (the sun) sailed by daily in his houseboat across the heavenly ocean, from horizon to horizon. This heavenly ocean was itself a goddess (a star-studded one named Nut), who was forever standing on her tippy-toes and arching over the Earth (the god Geb). Thus the sun sailed over a liquid sky, disappeared in the west each night to travel across the ocean beneath the earth, and reappeared each morning in the east to sail up the liquid sky once more. In Babylonian myths, a liquid ocean was also pictured above (the god Apsu) and below (the god Tiamat).
Obviously, the Bible makes no such statements about gods or boats sailing over waters that actually flow in liquid form above. When the Hebrews spoke of the waters above, they were speaking of the clouds. In describing creation, Proverbs 8 shows that, when the Hebrews considered the creation of waters above and waters below, they were thinking of clouds and ocean, respectively. Proverbs 8:28 speaks about “when he established the clouds above and fixed securely the fountains of the deep.” In a similar way, Psalm 104, which is known as a Hebrew commentary on the Genesis creation account, associates heaven’s waters and the clouds with one another (in vv. 2-3).
Moreover, the Hebrew Scriptures speak accurately, though poetically, of the water cycle. Water is never spoken of as flowing above the earth in liquid form, as if a ship could sail on it, but rather the water is drawn up into the clouds, it is distilled as rain, and it is loaded up into the clouds again:
“He loads the clouds with water . . . .” (Job 37:11a)
“He draws up the drops of water, which distill as rain to the streams; the clouds pour down their moisture and abundant showers fall on mankind.” (Job 36:27-28)
“To the place the streams come from, there they return again.” (Ecclesiastes 1:7b)
It is clear that, though the Hebrew Scriptures use the terms familiar to ancient Near Eastern culture, they use these terms in ways that also happen to be physically accurate; and this cannot be said of the creation myths taught by any of their neighbors.
I could take up the rest of this website talking about the distinctiveness of Hebrew revelation, if I’m not careful (the upcoming Volumes 3 and 4 in my Wonders book series are devoted to them). Instead I’ll briefly respond to Bernard’s other arguments before I close.
Did early believers assume creation in 6 literal, 24-hour days?
Bernard says that before the discoveries of the 18th and early 19th century geologists, no one ever thought that the days of creation were anything other than literal days. This statement reflects the typical materialist’s exposure to only one side of these issues. Famous Bible readers whose writings show they believed that the creation days were not necessarily solar days include Philo and Josephus, 1st-century Jewish writers; Irenaeus, second century apologist and martyr; Origen, third century apologist; Basil and Augustine, 4th-century bishops; and Thomas Aquinas, 13th-century theologian. Obviously, these early opinions cannot be said to have been formed in order to comply with the discoveries of modern science.
The word we translate as “day” in English from the Hebrew yom) doesn’t necessarily mean a literal day in Hebrew, but simply a period of time, as it is used in nearby Genesis 2:4, when all six “days” of creation are called a yom . In 65 cases, the King James Version translates the word as “time.” My own view is that the author of Genesis 1 may very well have had a 24-hour day in mind, but he used it as a fitting picture to describe each stage of creation (and may or may not have been aware himself of the actual time involved). The word often has a figurative meaning, as when the prophets speak of “the day of the Lord” or “in that day.”
However, Bernard accuses Christian apologists of changing their interpretations to suit their wishes. When scientists have their preconceptions proven wrong, he says, they change their minds, not their results. Science historians know better. Famed paleoanthropologist David Pilbeam admits that “theory … almost always dominates ‘data.’… Ideas that are totally unrelated to actual fossils have dominated theory building, which in turn strongly influences the way fossils are interpreted.” Such practices do not exactly inspire confidence in the ability of scientists to do their thinking on a higher plane than the rest of our species.
But compare Bible believers with unbelieving scientists on the matter at hand – cosmic beginnings. Bible believers stood rock solid through the centuries, both before and after scientists came to agree with them. As Nobelist Arno Penzias told me (the co-discoverer of the evidence that changed the scientific consensus about a beginning for our universe):
“If science for a while goes into disagreement, we don’t lose our faith. If we go back to Maimonides’ Guide to the Perplexed – it’s a traditional, Jewish text – it says, ‘Do not trust the words of any man [speaking of Aristotle, who taught an eternal universe], for it is the foundation of our faith that God created the universe from nothing, that time did not exist before.’ So what Maimonides said was that just because science is inconsistent at the present time with the tenets of our faith, don’t believe it…. Our ancestors had enough faith to believe even when science happened to be against them.”
Lotteries–the true analogy
One matter atheists and Bible believers agree on is that our universe has been finely tuned, against astronomical odds, in a way that permits conscious beings to exist. But Bernard says that he thinks I “mistake the fact that someone must win the lottery for the fact that some particular person was intended to win the lottery.” However, a lottery analogy doesn’t work unless you have many chances created by many universes (each with its own different set of laws), analogous to the many chances when many different people play the lottery. Otherwise, the true analogy would be if just one person played the lottery, just one time, and he must blindly choose the correct ticket from millions of numbers. If you saw this actually happen, you’d immediately suspect that someone had arranged this.
“Every bridge hand,” says Bernard, “is a random event.” Perhaps so, but what would you think if you sat down to play bridge and the dealer kept dealing one player all the aces in the deck, game after game, for hundreds of games? Would you say, “Well, there’s nothing here that’s not in conformance to natural laws”? Or would you strongly suspect something more than nature was at work for that player’s benefit? The analogy actually understates the point, since the odds against a universe naturally fine tuning itself to allow for life (not just our form of life, but any sort) are actually billions and billions of times higher than being dealt aces all day long.
Bernard says that a pencil balanced on its tip will eventually fall in one direction – so we shouldn’t be surprised that our universe came down to this. But wouldn’t we be surprised if we came upon a pencil that happened to be so perfectly balanced that it stayed upon its point? One astronomer estimates that the chance that our universe should have begun with a life-permitting expansion rate (1 in 10 60 ) is even less likely than the chance of a truck carrying a million pencils hitting a bump and all one million pencils landing on their sharp end so that they’re perfectly balanced upright.
If you want to commit yourself to believing in many universes, then I’d say you’ve crossed the line from reason to faith – though Bernard says that no scientist would ask someone to accept a theory on faith. Be that as it may be, we have no evidence for other universes. The only universe we can observe is a contingent one, requiring not just more universes, but a Final Cause.
Cosmologist Paul Davies says:
In my own mind I have no doubts at all that the arguments for a necessary world are far shakier than the arguments for a necessary being, so my personal inclination is to opt for the latter…. My conclusion is that the many-universes theory can at best explain only a limited range of features, and then only if one appends some metaphysical assumptions that seem no less extravagant than design.
Guide to the true God
I agree with Bernard’s statement about the Bible being “a spiritual guide.” This is the central purpose of the Bible – to point us to the true God, not to teach us science. Science can’t prove anything about God; we can’t observe God, but we can certainly observe a universe that can yield evidence of either being His handiwork or a self-contained, accidental system that has no need of outside agency.
Scientists can observe the microwave background and galaxies whose redshifts increase with distance and conclude the universe had a creation event, that it is not an eternal, self-contained system. They can observe and measure particle masses, expansion rates, and physical constants, finding them within parameters narrow enough to speak of the apparent “purpose” or “intention” behind nature.
Science inevitably raises questions that lead us far beyond science. Even while believing that the extended reach of science today results in less need for an “intervening” god, Bernard acknowledges an increased “need for a spiritual guide.” Here atheists and Bible believers agree. Atheists must feel that if there is no God to provide this spiritual guidance, there ought to be.
When Bernard says that no scientist would ask someone to accept a matter of fact or theory on faith, if he means that matters of faith are outside the domain of science, I heartily agree. As long as we’re claiming to be speaking of science, faith cannot assist us. But no one lives in the world of science alone. As humans, we must face questions about our own morality and mortality – and science is relatively useless.
Science also raises questions about our ultimate origin – and our ultimate destiny – though science is powerless to answer them. However, it is in the raising of these questions that science compels us, as humans, to look for another realm where we can deal with them. This, of course, is the realm of faith – particularly faith in God, according to our inner expectations as well as objectively tested claims of revelation. In this realm, reason and logic still apply. To me, it is unreasonable for a human being, faced even with the possibility of a God and the certainty of his own mortality, not to deal with these questions simply because they cannot be answered directly by science.
by Bernard J Leikind
In our first debate in this series , Fred Heeren made much of his opinion that the ancient Hebrews were unique among contemporaneous cultures in their belief that God created the Universe from nothing. Unfortunately he is wrong on two counts: The Genesis account is not a creation out of nothing, and there are many other cultures, both ancient and modern, that believe in creation out of nothing.
I am not a biblical scholar, and the biblical texts that have come down to us were written down over a period of a thousand years and then copied by hand countless times. Scholars argue about the meanings of these ancient words, written without vowels, or spaces between words, filled with copying and translating errors, and, generally speaking, obscure in their meaning. But one thing that they seem to agree about is that the ancient writers copied Babylonian accounts when they wrote the two creation stories in Genesis and neither of these accounts envisioned creation out of nothing.
Here is the opening line from the first creation account, from the Jerusalem Bible:
In the beginning God created the heavens and the earth. Now the earth was a formless void, there was darkness over the deep, and God’s spirit hovered over the water.
We must realize that these words are not a direct, literal translation of the ancient Hebrew words, and now we enter into the minefield of figuring out what the words, that most of us only know through translation, mean in the original. I cannot speak authoritatively myself, so I will only cite the views of mainstream scholars.
The scholarly notes in the Jerusalem Bible say, “The first thing that God created was light. The earth before that moment was tohu and bohu, ‘trackless waste and emptiness.’” (The notes continue: “The text makes use of the primitive science of its day. It would be a mistake to seek points of agreement between this schematic presentation and the data of modern science.”)
The Encyclopedia Britannica article on Biblical Literature: (15th edition, Macropedia Vol. 2, page 899) says:
The Bible begins with the creation of the universe. It tells the story with images borrowed from Babylonian mythology, transformed to express its own distinctive view of God and man. Out of primary chaos, darkness, void, depths, and waters (my italics) God creates the heaven and the earth and all that dwell therein–a coherent order of things–by his will and word alone. He says “Let there be…” and there is. Actually, there are two creation accounts: the first (1-2:4), ascribed to P, simply gives a terse day-by-day account including the culminating creation of man, in the divine “image and likeness,” followed by the primordial sabbath on the seventh day. The other (2:4-25), ascribed to J, starts with an arid wasteland and the creation of man (Adam), described specifically as being formed by God out of dust and made into a living thing by God blowing the breath of life into him.
Professor Richard Elliot Friedman, a scholar of the Hebrew Bible, says in his book, The Hidden Face of God:
It [Genesis] pictures an initial state of watery chaos, in which the deity creates a habitable bubble, in which humans and animals can live, by making a firm substance (the “firmament,” Hebrew râ î’qa) which holds back the waters above. That is, the biblical picture of the cosmos, like the ancient Mesopotamian picture, reflected the understanding that the sky is blue because there is water up there. Thus in the biblical flood story, which comes a few chapters later, the waters pour in from above and below as the deity opens “the windows of the heavens” and “the fountains of the deep (p 233).
Now Fred tells me that when he says that he finds parallels between the cosmology of the ancient Hebrews and the Big Bang theory he doesn’t have in mind these ancient Hebrews, the ones who wrote the most famous creation account in Western literature, but some other ancient Hebrews. He cites various later writers, some Biblical and others from later ancient times. The Bible’s many authors had more important matters about which to concern themselves than internal consistency, and it is, I suppose, a tired joke that one can find statements on both sides of every question in the Bible. Nor do I suppose that when Michaelangelo chose the Genesis account of creation to illustrate the Sistine Chapel walls that he offended the theologians who assembled there because Genesis contradicts the Christian doctrine of Creation ex nihilo. Fred, perhaps you should tell me which parts of the Bible are reliable and which ones are just made-up stories.
I realize that it may show the limitations of my intellect to say that either the universe came from nothing, or it did not. The ancient authors, who were writing to illustrate spiritual truths and not scientific ones, had a fifty-fifty chance of getting it right. Evidently in the Biblical text, they hedged their bets by advocating one view in one place and the opposite view in another.
Contrary to what Fred believes, many cultures, both ancient and modern, have creation myths in which the universe comes from nothing. Here is a beautiful hymn from the Upanishads, an ancient document from India.
Then [In the beginning] even nothingness was not, nor existence.
There was no air then, nor the heavens beyond it.
What covered it? Where was it? In whose keeping?
Was there then cosmic water, in depths unfathomed?
Then there were neither death nor immortality,
nor was there then the torch of night and day.
The One breathed windlessly and self-sustaining.
There was that One then, and there was no other.
At first there was only darkness wrapped in darkness.
All this was only unillumined water.
That One which came to be, enclosed in nothing,
arose at last, born of the power of heat.
In the beginning desire descended on it–
that was the primal seed, born of the mind,
The sages who have searched their hearts with wisdom
know that which is, is kin to that which is not.
And they have stretched their cord across the void,
and know what was above, and what below.
Seminal powers made fertile mighty forces.
Below was strength, and over it was impulse.
But, after all, who knows, and who can say
whence it all came, and how creation happened?
The gods themselves are later than creation,
so who knows truly whence it has arisen?
Whence all creation had its origin,
he, whether he fashioned it or whether he did not,
he, who surveys it all from highest heaven,’
he knows–or maybe even he does not know.
The author of this poem lived at about the same time as the authors of Genesis. If Fred would prefer a poem that comes from the time of the other ancient Hebrews, the ones who Fred cites as believing in creation ex nihilo, I offer this one.
This (universe) existed in the shape of Darkness, unperceived, destitute of distinctive marks, unattainable by reasoning, unknowable, wholly immersed, as it were, in deep sleep.
Then the divine Self-existent indiscernible, (but) making (all) this, the great elements and the rest, discernible, appeared with irresistible (creative) power, dispelling the darkness.
He who can be perceived by the internal organ (alone), who is subtile [sic], indiscernible, and eternal, who contains all created beings and is inconceivable, shone forth of his own (will).
He desiring to produce beings of many kinds from his own body, first with a thought created the waters, and placed [his] seed in them.
I found these poems in a book by Professor Mircea Eliade, a famous scholar of world religions. According to Professor Eliade this last poem comes from “the Manusmriti, known in the West as The Laws of Manu. [It] is the most important work regarding dharma, i.e., the principles, laws, and rules governing both the cosmos and human society.”
I did not have to look hard to find these examples, so I am sure that there are many more from many cultures. Fred cites modern day physicists saying that the modern Big Bang theory provides unique support for the Christian doctrine of creation ex nihilo. Just as Fred does, these scientists believe that the Christian doctrine is unique, and that science now supports this doctrine. I say that if it does, then it also supports these other doctrines as well: ancient East Indian, ancient American Indian, African, Polynesian, and, in short, the doctrines of many other cultures. My view on this entire issue is that myths are myths and not science.
Fred faces a great risk when he asserts that current scientific thinking confirms the Christian doctrine of creation ex nihilo. The new geologists from two centuries ago who discovered that the earth was very old began their work believing that the Genesis account was correct. They only changed their views when the empirical evidence forced them to change. At that time, scientists knew of no evidence of the universe’s beginning. They would have said that it was very old, but that they didn’t know how old. In this century we have much more information than those original geologists. The evidence tells us that the Universe had a beginning. Fred is gratified that current thinking supports, he thinks, creation ex nihilo. What will he do if over the next decades the evidence forces scientists to change their minds on this question? I don’t think that this is likely to happen, but scientific knowledge is provisional because it arises from our empirical knowledge about the world. It is always subject to change if new facts come to our attention. Will Fred abandon his Christian religion if scientists change their minds?
Fred knows perfectly well that religion is a spiritual matter. Its beliefs come from the human heart. They reflect our need for comfort, security, and meaning in an uncertain and often cruel world. Although the great religious texts of all religions often purport to give accounts of the creation of the Universe or the history of humanity, they are best read as spiritual documents. Their authors lacked the empirical method for finding objective truth about the material world. If we hang the truth of these spiritual doctrines upon the supposed objective truth of any part of these books we face the possibility that mere scientific discovery will discredit the eternal and spiritual truths upon which we base our civilizations.
Author: Fred Heeren & Bernard J Leikind