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The Bible and the Big Bang

I've written a lot about science here, and a lot about theology, and occasionally about the intersection of the two. Astrophysicist Hugh Ross also writes about this intersection, but with a different take.

At his Reasons to Believe website, Ross makes the claim that the Bible teaches four core concepts of Big Bang cosmology:

  • an ex nihilo [out of nothing] beginning for the universe
  • expansion of the universe from its ex nihilo beginning
  • constant laws of physics
  • a law of decay that pervades the entirety of the universe

Where does Ross get these ideas? He says they come straight from the Bible, and he points to numerous Bible passages that he claims support his case.

For creation ex nihilo, Ross claims,

The Hebrew verb translated "created" in Isaiah 42:5 is bara’ which has as its primary definition "bringing into existence something new, something that did not exist before." The proclamation that God created (bara’) the entirety of the heavens is stated seven times in the Old Testament. (Genesis 1:1; 2:3; 2:4; Psalm 148:5; Isaiah 40:26; 42:5; 45:18).

While that may be true, it is also true of the English word "create". But to create something new does not mean necessarily to bring it forth from nothing. For example, when Mozart created a symphony or when Rembrandt created a painting, they brought something new into the world. But they didn't do it without a preexisting medium in which their works were created.

And although we do see the idea in some Bible passages that God brought everything into being by just speaking the word, we also see the idea in Genesis 1:2 that before the universe was created there was a formless, watery void. It's a little hard to reconcile that with the singularity of the Big Bang.

For point two, the expansion of the universe, Ross points to references to the universe being "stretched out":

Five different Bible authors pen such a statement in eleven different verses: Job 9:8; Psalm 104:2; Isaiah 40:22; 42:5; 44:24; 45:12; 48:13; 51:13; Jeremiah 10:12; 51:15; and Zechariah 12:1.

Ross makes a big deal about the two verbs used to describe this stretching.

That the Bible really does claim that the stretching out of the heavens is both “finished” and “ongoing” is made all the more evident in Isaiah 40:22. There we find two different verbs used in two different forms. In the first of the final two parallel poetic lines, “stretches out” is the verb natah in the Qal active participle form. In the second (final) line the verb “spreads them out” (NASB, NIV, NKJV) is mathah (used only this one time in the Old Testament) in the waw consecutive plus Qal imperfect form, so that literally we might translate it “and he has spread them out . . .”

All of this talk about verb forms sounds impressive; however, of more than 50 professional translators who have translated this passage into English, virtually none of them have agreed with Ross's analysis. Most translate both verbs in the present tense, while a few use the past tense for both. And if we're going to get as technical as Ross needs to be, the Hebrew word translated "circle" in the same verse refers to a flat disc, not a spherical object. This verse actually fits a flat earth model just as well as it fits Big Bang cosmology.

Ross also sees in the phrase "laid the foundations of the earth" (Isaiah 51:13 and Zechariah 12:1) the notion of persistent physical laws:

This is consistent with the geophysical discovery that certain long-lived radiometric elements were placed into the earth’s crust a little more than four billion years ago in just the right quantities so as to guarantee the continual building of continents.

And finally, in a passage expressing the hope that "the creation itself will be set free from its bondage to decay" (Romans 8:21) Ross sees a reference to the law of entropy.

Ross claims he gets pushback from "people who deny the existence of God" who

insist that I am using my twenty-first century knowledge of astronomy to read into the Bible what the Bible has never taught. They contend that I am imposing literal interpretations upon Bible passages that are clearly intended to be figurative. I consistently observe, however, that these assertions are made by people who have neither read my article nor the Bible passages I cite. My article explains why these passages must be understood as literal declarations and not mere figures of speech.

But he is quite mistaken in this observation. For just one example, I believe in God, have read both Ross's article and the Bible, and agree with the skeptics. And I'm not alone. Many theologians contend that these passages are not intended to teach us about properties of the physical universe. If they were so intended, we wouldn't have to cherry-pick verses to match modern scientific thought.

Because if we really tried to get our science from the Bible, we'd run into lots of blind alleys and wrong turns. A number of Bible passages tell us about the "firmament", a solid dome that was believed to cover the earth. This firmament is "hard as a molten mirror" according to Job 37:18, and solid enough for God to walk on, according to Job 22:14. The earth itself is immovable, according to 1 Chronicles 16:30, and was created before the sun according to Genesis 1.

If you want to make the case that the Bible's passages that sound like modern science were intended to teach us modern science, you've got to also concede that the Bible's passages that contradict modern science were also intended to teach us science, and got it wrong.

But a much better approach is to acknowledge the Bible was never intended to teach us science at all.

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