Teaching many Catholic students over the last decade, I’ve been struck by how often my students have said: “I don’t believe in the Big Bang. I believe in God.” ¶ They had absorbed the lessons of both TV science shows and too many religion classes that keep God and his creation in separate compartments. ¶ The reboot of the “Cosmos” television show has replaced the pomposity of Carl Sagan with the affability of Neil deGrasse Tyson. But it still consists of the stunning video backdrop of God’s grand universe described by a smug materialist scientist who shrugs his shoulders at causes and purposes. In the name of science he misdirects our attention to the shrunken reality dealt with in the approved experiments of the official science bureaus. ¶ But about 14 billion years ago there was a great event. In a few seconds, amid an inconceivable release of energy at the highest temperature in the history of nature, all the protons, neutrons and electrons that make up the physical universe appeared from a point density which had contained them all.
The physical world of matter has existed ever since. It did not exist before. Shall we call that event the beginning of reality? How can we? The idea would violate a fundamental principle of causality in logic and philosophy.
The Christian understanding is simpler. Before there was matter, there was a spiritual reality that is the cause of the material. There was God, who has no beginning and is apart from all created reality as the one Uncaused Cause. He is eternal — outside of time.
When we go back 14 billion years to witness in our minds this creation of matter we reflect on the spiritual and the material, the created and the creator. Our capacity to conceptualize this pivotal event in the narrative of time, space and matter is testimony that we are physical beings with a spiritual soul. Whatever it is that dolphins are whistling about, we can be sure they are not assigning a specific date to the creation of matter.
The product of the Big Bang is a universe that obeys a set of laws in which most of matter is accelerating and dissipating into the cold vacuum of space. But on a particular planet revolving around a particular star there exist particular conditions to sustain the life breathed into matter by the spirit of God. It is on this elected planet that God set aside a garden and called forth another spiritual being incarnated in matter. That’s us. Our purpose is to do the will of the father by acting as the human species bound in love with each other as the body of Christ. We are charged with winning back the rest of Earth from an evil angel who was cast out of the heavens and has not yet been fully separated into the cold isolation of hell that awaits him as well as the angels and humans who joined his rebellion.
It is only in the last 100 years that the clarity of the creation of matter has been dated by scientific observations and deductions. Agnostic physicists and materialist scientists scoffed at the notion of matter appearing in a single instant of time. The theory was first proposed by a Catholic priest/scientist in Belgium (Georges Lemaître in 1927) who was less offended by the logic of the proposal.
An atheist physicist (some physicists are atheists; some are Muslim, Hindu, Confucian or Christian) coined the term “big bang” as an insult to the priest and others who he felt were biased by the biblical account of a sudden created beginning of the universe. For a century (and still today) science textbooks pontificated as a “law of conservation” that “matter can be neither created nor destroyed.” Some ideologies are spectacularly resistant to larger truths.
There is also a small but devout group of Christians who resist the Big Bang, not because of its suddenness but because they find in the Bible an exact counting of time that leaves only 6,000 years for all of physical creation. All Christians are bound by the truth of the word of God, but most Christians disagree with this particular interpretation. Needless to say, when an atheist physicist looks for a debating partner, he would rather face off with a young-Earth creationist than with someone who agrees on dates but desires a more sufficient cause for a universe made with just the right forces and properties of matter to make stars in which chemical elements like carbon are synthesized with properties just right to constitute cell membranes, ATP and DNA.
Christians must love both the atheist who cannot perceive the spiritual world and our Christian brother who privately misinterprets the Bible. But let us not turn over parentage of the Big Bang to the materialists from Hubble to Einstein to Hoyle who treated this theory as an ugly duckling in its infancy.
The Big Bang is another word for the creation of matter which now has an address on the timeline. It is a powerful explanatory model that manifests the power of an invisible God and his providential purposes. It was our baby in 1927, and it adds one more data point to the Christian narrative today.
David Pence is a radiation oncologist in Alexandria, Minn., and a science teacher.