I. Before the BeginningOne astounding conclusion of CNS is that there was a definite beginning to the entire universe. The observable universe—all of space that scientists can view and measure—is 13.799 billion years old with an error of 21 million years, about 0.1%. This beginning is broadly called the Big Bang. At this beginning, the entire universe began as an intense point of light that has expanded and cooled since that time to the present.
The early seconds and minutes of the universe have two physical explanations at present: Einstein's General Relativity concerns science in the large; and Quantum mechanics concerns science in the small. Richard Feynman (one of my favorite role models in science) developed Quantum electrodynamics which explains how quantum particles interact. Both of these theories have an outstanding record of confirmation, but there is no theory at present that combines these two extremes of science in the large and science in the small. The widely accepted overall Standard Model description of the early universe uses insights from both of these theories.
What—if anything—existed before this beginning? Experimental science is unable to say what came before the beginning, because it is limited to the observable universe. In fact, our understanding of quantum theory appears to break down for times less than the Planck Time, 5.39 × 10−44s: an extremely short (but not zero!) time after the Big Bang. At present, experimental science can replicate the temperature of the universe at less than 10−12s after the Big Bang, so many of the events in the early universe can be confirmed by actual experiment.03a
How do you describe the sitz before the beginning???
A Multiverse? Some scientists speculate that our own universe is just part of a vast (if nothing can be "vast"!) multiverse in which countless universes spawned since eternity past.
There are basically two reasons to postulate a multiverse:
(1) Philosophy appears to demand that any effect must have a cause. Since many scientists reject the existence of God, the multiverse provides a natural "explanation" for what cause resulted in the observable universe. Another way to state this philosophical view is that anything with a finite existence implies something else with an infinite existence—a view that can be satisfied by having a God as prime mover, or by having eternal physical constructs and processes—a multiverse—that spawned the finite thing;03
(2) Our universe appears to be exquisitely fine-tuned to support the existence of intelligent life04. The multiverse "explains" this fact without a Creator (and of course without fine-tuning!), provided each universe involves an accidental, random selection of laws and constants. Our own universe accidentally has the particular selections in which all of the requirements for life just happen to exist: if it didn't then we would not be around to observe it! When one looks at the figures, this means that there must be vastly many more universes than there are atoms in our own universe—a truly staggering number. If I am struggling to describe the truly staggering number of universes, it's only because the concept itself is staggering—but necessary if one does not accept the concept of a Prime Mover.I suspect that scientists generally believe that there is some grand unified theory to explain it all, that would not require all of these futile universes. But we just don't know what it is. And if someone actually discovered one, then cosmology scientists would be out of jobs—except perhaps in the history department!
What does the Big Bang universe expand into? Creation Narrative descriptions.
By necessity, a creation narrative must say something about the situation before the beginning. Perhaps nothing exists outside of our universe, and after the Big Bang the universe expands into nothing? But frankly that sounds like nonsense: what is "nothing"? From the viewpoint of science, the closest that one can come is to say that before the Big Bang there was no matter, no radiation, no space or time.
There appear to be two early (roughly contemporaneous) religious descriptions of this indescribable state: The Genesis creation narrative, and the Hindu Rig Veda Hymn Nasadiya Sukta.03b
• Genesis 1:2 states:
St. Augustine of Hippo, about 400AD, understood "without form and void" as "formless and empty", meaning the earth did not yet exist. In his view, it had been created "formless" and later made concrete. Eventually, about 900 years later, St. Thomas Aquinas developed this into a theological view in Question 66 of his masterpiece Summa Theologica, Whether formlessness of created matter preceded in time its formation?
St. Augustine extended this concept of formless creation not just to the earth, but to all aspects of creation. I do not agree with this understanding. For me, "without form and void" simply means the earth did not yet exist, without extending the concept to mean "virtual" creation precedes all steps of creation. I do not agree that the intent to create is equivalent to actual creation.05
• The Nasadiya Sukta states that before the beginning:
The words used in these descriptions are figurative, by necessity (after all, there is nothing in the universe to match it!). The Nasadiya Sukta says this very nicely: "even nothingness was not, nor existence" and "darkness wrapped in darkness", "enclosed in nothing" (meaning there were no limits or bounds, no structure). The "Spirit of God" is "The One breathed windlessly and self-sustaining."06
The Genesis account says the same thing in a minimum of words. Personally, I appreciate the expanded description that this gives.
• One other Bible passage is also set before the beginning. Proverbs 8 is a poem about Wisdom that participated with God in the creation, before the earth existed:
Even the darkness before the beginning was different. Physics would say that the darkness of "nothingness" is absolute zero. This temperature is unattainable anywhere in the universe, because there is always the cosmic background radiation, about 2.7°K, left over from the Big Bang, or more precisely, left over from the onset of darkness when neutral atoms formed about 379,000 years after the Big Bang. See below.
[*fn]^n03 Before the demonstration that the universe is finite and had a definite beginning, many scientists assumed that our universe was infinite in space and time. So the multiverse concept applies that assumption one step earlier: the multiverse—infinite in space and time—spawned our finite universe and perhaps an infinity of other universes, each perhaps with a different selection of physical laws and constants. Of course, scientists are not entirely happy with this. It would be preferable to have a grand unified theory that would explain how such universes begin, how they chose laws and constants, etc. But, alas, such a (generally accepted) grand theory does not (yet) exist.
[*fn]^n03a See Introduction to Astronomy(pdf).
[*fn]^n03b The Rig Veda was an Early Sanskrit document composed 1400-900 BC (roughly contemporary with the Genesis composition). Hymn 129 "Nasadiya Sukta" concerns Creation. Translation by Ralph T. H. Griffith. Translated by A. L. Basham. It was a long oral tradition until finally put into writing (it is thought) around 900 BC. The name means "not the nonexistent" and its composition is possibly contemporary with Genesis (but I'm not ready to go to the stake over this!). Or, more probably, both the Genesis account and the Rig Veda accounts reflect an older oral tradition passed down from the distant past. Genesis and other Old Testament books sometimes cite sources for the information, which no longer are extant.
[*fn]^n04 A number of recent books have been written about this. See Geraint F. Lewis & Luke A. Barnes,A Fortunate Universe: Life in a Finely Tuned Cosmos(2017). This book is a comprehensive discussion of the topic, and also lists many other recent books.
On the physical events that occurred in connection with the Big Bang, see, for example, Steven Weinberg, The First Three Minutes: A Modern View Of The Origin Of The Universe (1988) and Jonathan Allday, Quarks Leptons and the Big Bang (1998).
[*fn]^n05 St. Augustine of Hippo (13 November 354—28 August 430), The Literal Interpretation of Genesis,ca. 415 AD. His view was that Genesis 1:1 "In the beginning God created the heavens and the earth" is the instantaneous creation of everything, including the earth and all the events of the Creation Days. He couldn't understand why God would create over time, since He is timeless.
My own view is that God created using natural processes when they would achieve the needed result, and created by fiat (instantaneously?) when natural processes were unable to achieve the desired result. The task of the scientist is to find out what can be done naturally, to explore the limits of natural development, but without making the assumption that everything we see must be a natural development (as a scientist who rejects a creator God must necessarily assume). Much of the activity described in the creation Days can be done naturally, and thus, was done naturally and the task therefore took as long as natural processes would require (for example, the development of the shields ("firmament") on Day Two, and the creation of dry land on Day Three).
In my view this Genesis 1:1 and Genesis 2:4 are the "bookends" of the creation narrative, which take place in the intervening verses. St. Augustine says, in Book I, §8, "Are we to understand that by the expression, heaven and earth all that God made is to be included and brought to mind first in a general way, and that then the manner of creation is to be worked out in detail, as for each object the words God said occur? For whatever God made, he made through His Word." My short answer is "yes". However he went on to give this verse a deeper meaning (which I do not agree with).
Augustine concluded that (because God is timeless) the creation of everything was instantaneous (omnia simul), but that they were created in potential, with the realization occurring in time. At one place [V.5.13] he said that God "Created potentially, for time would bring them into view in the ages to come." Henry Woods, Augustine and Evolution (1924) p. 14, remarks on omnia simul: "He conceived creation as proceeding from the Creator, a unit including all things whatsoever that are to exist to the end of time, and corresponding to the single creative mandate. ... [H]e places the analogue of all things, as yet without individual existence, existing in elementary matter as forms in potency, forms decreed to exist, therefore no figments of the mind... distinguishing objectively the things that are to be, from mere possibilities never to be actuated."; p. 16 "St. Augustine takes unformed matter in the scriptural sense for matter without definite external form." As noted earlier, St. Thomas Aquinas formalized his view in Question 66 of Summa Theologica. The answer of Aquinas states that "holy men differ in opinion." He then cites the views of various Church Fathers. This view also provides an understanding of "without form and void" in verse 2. Clearly he did not consider adherence to a particular view as essential to the Faith.
[*fn]^n06 The Bible uses the same root word for "spirit", "wind" and "breathing" (in both the Old and New Testaments). An illustration of this is found in John 3:8, "The wind bloweth where it listeth, and thou hearest the sound thereof, but canst not tell whence it cometh, and whither it goeth: so is every one that is born of the Spirit." In this verse the same Greek word pneuma is translated "wind" and "Spirit".
Where did these Creation Narrative descriptions originate? Of course nobody knows, but my guess is that both of these narratives came from a common oral or written tradition (see 01). The Bible frequently notes that other sources—now lost—were consulted in its composition.