# God, the expanding universe, and dark energy

1.  Could you convert the rate of expansion of the universe in everyday terms?  As an automotive engineer, I am very comfortable with units of ft or miles per second squared

2.  How much energy from God is infused into the universe every second in order to maintain the space energy density.

When I initially set out to answer J’s questions, I was just going to write a line or two giving the numerical answer for each one. But what fun is that? Instead, I decided to take you all down the rabbit hole with me, and get into the details of each of these questions. But if you just want to skip ahead to the answers, they’re highlighted at the end of each discussion.

Here we go…

1. First, a bit of context. In 1929, American astronomer Edwin Hubble presented evidence that galaxies are rushing away from one another, and that the speed with which they are rushing away is proportional to their redshift. This is interpreted to mean that the further away galaxies are, the faster they appear to be moving away, and this was the first physical evidence that our universe was not static and eternal, but dynamic and finite in time. The average rate at which galaxies are moving away from each other — called the Hubble constant — is a reasonable measure of the expansion rate of the universe, so we’ll use that to answer J’s question. The Hubble constant is about 70 km/s per megaparsec of space.

Now, I could just throw that number at you and convert the units to something more relatable and be done with it, but why do that when we have an opportunity to go into some nifty astronomical stuff? For instance, did you know astronomers don’t use light-years in their work? Light-years are used more for relating astronomical stuff to the general public. Instead, astronomers use parsecs, where one parsec equals 3.26 light-years. It may seem arbitrary, but there’s a sensible reason astronomers use this seemingly weird unit for distance. The answer lies in the definition of the word ‘parsec,’ which comes from ‘parallax’ and ‘arcsecond.’ Parallax is the apparent shifting of something in the foreground with respect to a very distant background. You can observe parallax by holding out your thumb and then observing it shift relative to stuff further away as you close one eye and then the other. This happens because your eyes are separated by a short distance. If you were able to adjust the distance between your eyes, you would notice more parallax the further apart you moved your eyes.

Based on the same principle, we observe parallax of nearby stars relative to much further stars as the Earth orbits around the Sun. When the Earth is on one side of the Sun, we can observe a nearby star relative to a particular background of stars. Six months later, when the Earth is on the other side of the Sun, we observe the same star relative to a different background of stars. This is rather useful in terms of measuring distances, because the further away something is, the less parallax you observe. And that leads to the definition of parsec: a parsec is the distance at which you would observe exactly 1 arcsecond of parallax as the Earth goes around the Sun.

And now I’ve introduced another term that needs to be explained. An arcsecond is a unit of angular size. When we look at objects and assess how large they are, we aren’t actually measuring linear sizes, but rather how big of an angle they subtend. The Moon in the sky, for instance, subtends a half a degree of ‘arc.’ That’s its size as far as our eyes and brains can measure it. If we have some idea of how far away it is, then our brains can translate that to a linear size. (Angular size + knowledge of distance + a bit of cogitation = “Wow, half a degree of arc and that thing is 240,000 miles away? It must be big!”) So then, what’s an arcsecond? Well, one degree of arc is divided up into 60 arcminutes, and each arcminute is divided up into 60 arcseconds. So, an arcsecond is 1/3600th of a degree, which seems awfully small until you realize that the smallest angle we can measure in astronomy is about one thousandth of that.

Let’s return to J’s question. We know the Hubble constant is about 70 km/s per megaparsec of space. Mega means million, so for every million parsecs of distance away from the Milky Way, space is observed to be expanding at a rate of 70 km/s. In more relatable terms, that translates to about 157,000 mph per 3.26 million light-years of space. More distant galaxies are seen to move faster simply because of their distance. I have my students do a little experiment to help visualize this. Take a thick rubber band, cut it and lay it out flat, and then draw some dots on it: one dot in the middle to represent the Milky Way, and then dots on the other side at various distances to represent other galaxies. As you stretch out the rubber band, the “rate” at which the other dots move from the MW dot depends on how far away they are, and the more distant ones do indeed expand faster than the closer ones.

A better way to get an idea of how fast the universe is expanding is to think of scale instead of proper distances. The scale is a rough guide to the distances between galaxies, which grows as the universe expands, but we don’t attach any units to it. Instead, we think about how long it takes the scale to double or triple or increase by a factor of 100 or whatever. Billions of years ago, when the universe was small in scale, it was doubling in scale very rapidly, but as the scale got much larger, it took longer and longer to double. The last time the universe doubled in scale, it took about 7 billion years. The next doubling will take much longer. Incidentally, this is the basis for reconciling a literal interpretation of Genesis 1 with a very old universe, as shown here. This is complicated a bit by the observation that the universe is accelerating in its expansion, and this leads to J’s next question.

Summary: The universe is expanding at a rate of about 157,000 mph per 3.26 million light-years of space.

2. Astrophysicists have proposed the existence of some mysterious, unseen form of energy in the universe to account for the speeding up of its expansion. They call this energy “dark energy,” and it has the peculiar property that its space density stays constant. Density is the amount of something per volume, so this means the amount of dark energy per volume of space never changes, even though the amount of space in the universe is increasing every moment. Think about how weird that is. That means the extra dark energy needed to keep the dark energy per volume constant as the universe expands has to come from somewhere. But where? I recently lectured about this to a group of Christians who were keen on science, and explained that this is consistent with scripture in which we are told that God sustains the universe (Heb 1:3, Col 1:17). When J heard this, he wanted to know how much energy per second God is injecting into the universe to maintain the constant dark energy density. So, let’s try to figure it out.

Even though dark energy is the dominant “stuff” of the universe, it’s extremely rarefied. It makes up 68% of the total of everything that’s in the universe, and yet its energy density is a paltry 10-9 joules for every cubic meter of space. The reason dark energy dominates the universe in spite of its low energy density is that space is HUGE — there’s an astronomical amount of cubic meters in space, so that paltry energy adds up to something big over large distances.

It turns out, we can’t answer J’s question directly, since we don’t know the total size of the universe. The universe could be finitely huge or infinitely huge; we simply don’t know. But we can estimate the amount of extra energy needed per second per megaparsec of space and use that to estimate how much extra energy is needed for the amount of the universe we can observe.

Remember that the Hubble constant, 70 km/s per megaparsec, tells us the rate of expansion. So, let’s first imagine a cubic chunk of space that’s a million parsecs on each side. Converting to more convenient units, this cosmic cube is 3.09 x 1022 meters on each side. This chunk of space is expanding at a rate of 70 km/s, which is 70,000 meters every second; this means every second, the chunk of space is gaining (3.09 x 1022 m + 70,000 m)3 – (3.09 x 1022 m)3, or 2 x 1050 cubic meters, in volume. If the space density of dark energy is 10-9 joules for every cubic meter, then each cubic megaparsec chunk of space is gaining an extra 2 x 1041 joules per second.

Let’s put that in relatable terms. One joule per second is known as a watt, a common household unit of power that you probably recognize from lightbulbs. So, let’s think of the extra energy injected into space every second in terms of watts. The Palo Verde nuclear power plant in Arizona has three reactors with a total power output of about 4,000 megawatts. If we take 2 x 1041 watts and divide by that, we get 5 x 1031 nuclear power plants-worth of power for each of these million-parsec chunks of space. That’s a 5 with 31 zeroes after it. Sounds impressive, doesn’t it? Well, consider that the size of the observable universe is much larger than this hypothetical chunk of space, about 30 gigaparsecs in any direction, which means that that the total amount of energy per second added to the observable universe is equivalent to 1045 nuclear power plants. To complicate things a bit, this is the momentary increase in energy per second of the observable universe, since the universe is expanding every moment. And, oddly, this is kind of wimpy when you consider that the theoretical prediction for the space density of dark energy is about 30 orders of magnitude higher than what’s been measured, a mismatch that so far no one knows how to resolve.

Summary: The amount of energy that’s currently added to the observable universe per second to maintain a constant space density of dark energy is the equivalent output of 5 x 1045 nuclear power plants. That’s a billion-trillion-trillion-trillion nuclear plants.

I know I skipped over some stuff that probably has you scratching your head, like the idea that some mysterious form of unseen energy is pouring into our universe every second from who-knows-where and that God has something to do with it. This dark side of the universe, which includes another substance called dark matter, is a fascinating topic that, believe it or not, relates to Christian scripture. If this interests you, stay tuned. I’m in the process of writing a booklet on the topic, and plan to host an online seminar through my publisher sometime in the next year.

# The uniqueness of Genesis — short version

The following is a handy distillation of yesterday’s post, which refuted the claim that Genesis is just borrowed mythology from earlier traditions. I know some of you don’t have the time to read through articles like that in all their glorious wordage, so this is for you. It’s also intended for those of you who did read the article and need help remembering the key points.

The Claim

• Atheists claim that Genesis is not unique, but merely borrowed pagan mythology.
• This is based on the opinions of theological liberals who find parallels between the Genesis creation story and pagan creation myths like the Babylonian Enuma Elish.
• The Enuma Elish was discovered in the 19th century as part of an archeological dig in the ancient city of Nineveh, where it was found recorded on clay tablets.
• This written account of the Enuma Elish predates the earliest written account of Genesis*.
• Together, the timing and the parallels lead some theologically liberal scholars to conclude that Genesis is not unique, but a plagiarism of pagan myth.

The Parallels

• Themes of darkness and chaos preceding order
• Appearance of light before the Sun, the Moon, and the stars
• Development of the world progressing in stages that culminates in the appearance of humankind
• God/gods resting once the work is complete.

The Differences

Genesis claims:

• The universe was created from absolute nothing
• Only God existed prior to the creation of the universe
• There is only one God
• God is greater than and transcends the universe
• Humans are deliberate creations made in the image of their Creator.

Babylonian claims:

• The universe is eternal; the world was made from pre-existing matter
• Personified natural forces (gods) existed prior to the making of the world
• There are many gods
• The gods inhabit the universe; the main god (Marduk) is located in the city of Babylon
• Humans are incidental creations, made from the blood of the slain monster Kingu.

Genesis narrative style:

• God-centered
• Not interested in human personalities
• Generally flat in tone
• Austere in prose
• Thirty-one verses in length.

Babylonian narrative style:

• Decidedly not God-centered
• Focused on the passions of the warring gods
• Animated in tone
• Extravagant in prose
• Nine hundred lines in length.

The Conclusion

There are parallels between Genesis and pagan creation myths such as the Babylonian Enuma Elish, but the differences are far greater. The key difference, which cannot be overstated, is the Genesis claim that God is the sovereign creator of the universe, from which all other things are made. No pagan myth makes this claim. Furthermore, the Genesis claim of a universe created from nothing is alone among all creation stories as being consistent with modern science. Genesis is therefore unique.

# Genesis is unique, not borrowed mythology

In a previous post, I countered some claims of an atheist critic who tried to dismiss my testimony. Two of these claims — criticisms of Schroeder’s model and the uniqueness of Genesis — I wanted to address separately, since they are important. In this post, I counter the claim that Genesis is borrowed from earlier mythology. The following includes excerpts from a book I’m currently writing on how Christians can defend themselves against atheist attacks.

How many times have you heard the claim that Genesis is just borrowed from different ancient mythologies and isn’t the unique record of God’s creation of the universe you were taught as a Christian? I’ve heard it so many times I’ve lost count. To me, it’s such a silly claim that I didn’t see any need to counter it. However, the sad fact is, I know people who say they began to lose their faith after hearing this from their professors. It turns out to be not only a fable, but a dangerous one. As I said in my previous post, it needs to die a horrible death.

Here is what my critic claims:

The book of Genesis was composed by unknown authors.  It’s a mash-up of numerous sources from a number of different traditions.

This is a typical way to ridicule belief that the Bible is the word of God. Atheists claim the Bible starts off with a myth the authors of Genesis were too incompetent to come up with on their own, so the ancient Hebrews had to borrow much of it from the myths of earlier civilizations. In other words, Genesis is not a unique and true expression of God’s work, it is an act of common plagiarism.

The claim of plagiarism dates back to the 19th century archeological discovery of clay tablets in the ancient Mesopotamian city of Nineveh. Some of these tablets detailed the Babylonian creation story, now referred to as the Enuma Elish. When scholars studied this story, they discovered it had some similarities to Genesis, including the theme of darkness and chaos preceding order, the appearance of light before the Sun, Moon, and stars are made, and a progression of the development of the world that culminates in the appearance of humankind and God/gods resting.

The composition of the Enuma Elish dates back to around the 13th century B.C., predating the earliest written account of Genesis. Taken at face value, the timing and the similarities give the impression that Genesis borrows from the Babylonian myth. However, this ignores significant differences between the creation accounts as well as historical and cultural context. The similarities arise from what biblical scholar Peter Enns calls “a common, ancient, way of speaking about the cosmos.” He reminds us that, though Genesis is scripture, it’s still “an ancient story that reflects ancient ways of thinking” that would have been shared amongst all Mesopotamian people of that time.

As interesting as the similarities are, the differences between Genesis and the Enuma Elish are far more striking and informative. I’ll go over those in detail below.

It is important to refute this athiest fable, because Christians will encounter it over and over, particularly young Christians who go to university. Barbara Sproul is a good example of what young people face when they enter the academic world. She’s a professor of religion at Hunter College of the City University of New York, and she wrote a book about creation myths from around the world. In her book, Primal Myths, she describes the similarities between the Genesis account of creation and earlier myths this way:

The parallels between the first creation account in Genesis and the Mesopotamian epic are not confined to their naming process. Not only are there marked similarities in specific details but also the order of creation events is the same, leading many to presume a dependence of the Old Testament account of that of the Enuma Elish or similar Babylonian documents.

Atheists also vigorously promote the argument that the Genesis account of creation is completely at odds with modern science, which I have refuted here and here.

Christians can defeat such assaults on their belief, because, as Enns points out, the evidence shows that Genesis 1 is unique among the thousands of creation stories that have been told through the ages.

Sproul describes the Genesis 1 account as:

• God-centered
• with little interest in human personalities
• having a general flatness of tone
• and austerity of prose.

She is correct in these observations. Genesis is completely different from all other creation stories in its style of writing.

Genesis is also completely different from every other creation account in its content. Compare this passage from Genesis 1 with the passage from the Enuma Elish that follows.

In the beginning God created the heavens and the earth. (2) The earth was without form and void, and darkness was upon the face of the deep; and the Spirit of God was moving over the face of the waters. (3) And God said, “Let there be light”; and there was light. (4) And God saw that the light was good; and God separated the light from the darkness. (5) God called the light Day, and the darkness he called Night. And there was evening and there was morning, one day.

The truth of Professor Sproul’s assessment of the way Genesis 1 was written is obvious at once. The above passage and the rest of Genesis 1 are God-centered, matter-of-fact in tone, austere in the words that are used, and completely devoid of any description of personalities. If you read Sproul’s account of the creation myths of the world it is equally obvious that the biblical account of creation is not written in the same way that pagan creation myths were. Pagan myths are written in a completely different way, which should be obvious to you as soon as you read the passage below.

You can easily understand how weak the atheist claim of a plagiarized Genesis is by comparing the style and content of the Genesis 1 account of creation with the following passage from the Babylonian Enuma Elish that Sproul wants you to believe is so similar to the biblical account.

Discord broke out among the gods although they were brothers, warring and jarring in the belly of Tiamat, heaven shook, it reeled with the surge of the dance; Apsu could not silence the clamor, their behavior was bad, overbearing and proud.

But still Tiamat lay inert till Apsu, the father of gods, bellowed for that servant who clouds his judgment, his Mummu.

“Dear counsellor, come with me to Tiamat.”

They have gone, and in front of Tiamat they sit down and talk together about the young gods, their first-born children; Apsu said,

“Their manners revolt me, day and night without remission we suffer. My will is to destroy them, all of their kind, we shall have peace at last and we will sleep again.”

When Tiamat heard, she was stung, she writhed in lonely desolation, her heart worked in secret passion, Tiamat said,

“Why must we destroy the children that we made? If their ways are troublesome, let us wait a little while”

Then Mummu advised Apsu, and he spoke in malice.

“Father, destroy them in full rebellion, you will have quiet in the daytime and at night you will sleep.”

When Apsu heard the die was cast against his children, his face flamed with the pleasure of evil…

It is immediately obvious that the Babylonian account is the furthest thing from God-centered. The main character is Apsu who is described as the ‘father of gods.’ There is obviously more than one god. In later passages it turns out that the other major character in the story, Tiamat, is the personification of natural forces in whose ‘belly’ much turmoil is taking place.

The Enuma Elish is certainly not flat in tone with all of the ‘warring,’ ‘jarring,’ anger, malice, and individuals flaming ‘with the pleasure of evil.’ Nor is the Babylonian account in any way austere in prose when it uses words like clamor, bellowed, writhed, and secret passion.

The Babylonian passage, unlike the Genesis 1 account of creation, is all about the personalities involved in a titanic heavenly struggle. In this short passage, we are introduced to three important characters and given enough information to begin to understand their complex personalities and motivations. We are also told that there will be many more personalities involved in the Babylonian creation myth as it unfolds.

By Sproul’s own observations about Genesis 1, there are few significant similarities in the way the biblical account of creation and the Babylonian myth are presented. If you take the time to read the rest of Sproul’s book, it is evident that every other creation myth provided in Primal Myths sounds similar to the Enuma Elish and nothing like the true account of creation provided by Genesis 1. Just the brief, straight-forward, unemotional, and rational way the Genesis account was written makes it different from every other account of creation.

The differences between the divine Genesis account of creation and the thousands of other pagan myths about creation are even greater in regard to the events described and the order given for natural events. Once again the evidence provided in Primal Myths is conclusive. Contrary to Sproul’s assertion, there are no meaningful similarities between the details of the Genesis and Babylonian accounts of creation.

Here are a few of the more important differences found in Sproul’s book:

1. Genesis tells us that God is prior to everything else. The Enuma Elish says that personified natural forces and the ‘father of the gods’ existed before the Mesopotamian/Babylonian gods.
1. The Bible tells us that our universe came about as an orderly act of creation by a rational Deity. The Enuma Elish says that humankind and the world in which they exist came about as the result of a chaotic war between ill-behaved and overbearing gods, personified natural forces, and monsters made to destroy the gods.
1. Genesis maintains that there is only one God. The Enuma Elish numbers the gods in the hundreds.
1. Genesis locates God outside of and superior to the universe. The Enuma Elish locates the main god, Marduk, in the city of Babylon.
1. Genesis says that humankind was made in the spiritual image of God and for a divine purpose. The Enuma Elish says that human beings were made unintentionally from the blood of the slain monster Kingu.

Considering these vast differences and the historical/cultural context, no reasonable and fair-minded reader could conclude that the similarities between Genesis 1 and the Enuma Elish, or any of the other creations myths described in Sproul’s book, mean that Genesis 1 is a mash-up of other traditions. On top of this, archeological studies are increasingly supporting the Pentateuch as factual, historical record, contradicting the notion that it is borrowed mythology. The argument that the biblical account of creation is a plagiarized myth is dishonest, based on ignorance, and unsupported by the evidence.

Sproul and her fellow atheists simply find only what they desperately want to believe. This false conclusion is then passed on to other atheists who don’t bother to investigate the claim for themselves, but simply repeat it. Worse, this groundless anti-Christian prejudice is passed on by academics like Sproul to unsuspecting and defenseless students in the guise of serious scholarly work. Christians must be able to confidently counter this atheist lie with the truth that Genesis 1 is a reliable account of the creation of the universe and life on Earth.

At this point, I want to offer you the perspective of a friend of mine, who is an Orthodox Jewish rabbi and also a believer in Jesus as the Messiah. I asked him to comment on this article, originally intending to work his perspective into the main flow of what I’d written, but I think it’s best to let his words stand on their own.

The idea that the Genesis account is unique is critical and there is also something very fundamental and important to highlight as well, something which I think exposes a fundamental flaw in all of the other so called “accounts” of creation.

Creation ex nihilo is critical.  Creation through G-d’s Word is critical.  The Hebrew word b’reishit, translated ‘in the beginning’, proclaims that nothing existed prior to G-d’s act of creation.  The heavens and the earth were created only through G-d’s WORD … no other worldview, none, ever makes that claim.  Only through the Word of G-d.  This is mind blowing.  The Scripture teaches that the world came into existence from nonexistence.  Again, no other world view has taught or teaches this. If the claim is original and unique it wasn’t plagiarized. The Biblical claim is astoundingly so.  It is far more likely, that these Babylonian and other myths borrowed from the Torah’s account, not the other way around.

The cornerstone of all pagan belief up until this very day is the belief in the eternity of the physical world which we inhabit.  This Babylonian myth is clearly no exception and posits such a belief, which is false.  This belief is a metaphysical falsehood.  It is a gross misrepresentation of the origin of the universe, and worse yet this belief undermines and denies all morality.  This belief, the cornerstone of paganism, also negates freedom in both G-d and man.

The false belief is based upon the assumption that matter antedated creation.  If that were true, then the Creator of the universe would have only been able to fashion from the material already available and given to Him, and not a world that was absolutely good, as the Genesis account testifies and the other so-called myths do not; He would only have been able to fashion the best possible world within the limitations of the material provided Him.  Again, the Biblical account is unique and original in this regard and paganism’s account is never based on these claims, no matter which myth is cited.

Again, if the pagan world view were true, then G-d would not be the master over the material of the world, and man would not be master over his own body.  Freedom would disappear and the entire world, including its G-d and the men who live in it would be animated, constrained, and propelled by a blind, immutable fate.  This pagan conception as evidenced in the Babylonian myth and others like it, is dispelled by the Torah with its very first words: b’reishit barah Elohim!  In the beginning G-d created ….!  Absolutely everything that follows hinges on these words.  Everything – the matter and form of all that exists – was created by the free Almighty Creator.  And He still rules freely over all matter.  Paganism never made such a claim nor could they even have invented such a claim.  Such a claim is understood from the revelation given to us by G-d, Who of course is the Creator and originator of the claim.  He rules over every existing thing, over the laws by which those forces operate, as well as the resulting forms.  And men hate being ruled, so they developed their own myths and pagan beliefs to circumvent these uncomfortable truths (cf. Romans 1).  His will set the laws by which forms are fashioned.

Therefore, the world that was created is not the best possible one that can be fashioned with the given material – but according to a careful and thoughtful reading of the Genesis account, is the only good world.  Paganism makes no such claim.  Not even close.  So, it follows that this world corresponds with the wise plan of the Creator and He most certainly could have created a different world, has such a world corresponded with His will.  Remember, everything was created according to His Word … G-d spoke, G-d said, Let there be .. and there was.

The world was created wholly by G-d’s Word,and this cannot be emphasized enough.  Our sages relate that b’reishit is the very foundation of our awareness of G-d, world, and man.  When man forfeited this awareness, it had to be reestablished.  According to our sages, this was the purpose of the revealed miracles: to demonstrate G-d’s free and unbounded mastery over the world with all its elements, forces and laws.

Barah, created.  This Hebrew word denotes aspiration to emerge, emergence from potentiality into actuality, or release from bondage.  Barah also denotes bringing to light, actualizing and bringing something out into external reality.  Even in Aramaic (the language of Babylon) it means “outside”, “that which is outside”.  Barah then means to carry out and actualize  thought, which is hidden in the inner recesses of the mind.  Barah denotes creation, preceded only by thought and will, which clearly couldn’t be further from a pagan conception of things as evidenced in the so-called myths.  This is precisely the concept of creation.  Accordingly, beresheit, in the beginning, is applied only to G-d’s creation.  In other words, before the world existed, this world had existed only as a thought in the mind of the Creator.  It is the act of creation, therefore, that actualized this thought and brought it out into reality, thereby giving it an external, concrete existence.  The entire world, as a whole and in all of its parts, therefore, is nothing more than the materialized thought of G-d.  Again, this conception is unique to Biblical account recorded in Genesis.  The pagan accounts brook no such conception.  Not even close. Imitation indeed.  They look like blind handicapped children crawling around in the nursery by comparison.  This same idea that we have just elaborated in relation to barah is also presented in the root hayah, the Jewish term for being (cf. verse 2).

(Interestingly, this meaning of barah, to become external, concrete, tangible – is related to another meaning of barah: being healthy and stout.  And from this meaning is derived the term for the first meal of the day in the morning after a fast.  It is the meal which refreshes the person physically and makes him feel strong again.)

Let’s briefly consider paganism, of which the Babylonian and other myths represent.  Paganism fragments the whole world into many groups and spheres.  At the head of each sphere stands a ruler who has concentrated into his respected hands special powers.  This pagan conception, this pagan idea, this pagan notion is a direct consequence of the basic error we have been alluding to.  If matter had existed before creation, then the god who shaped this matter was bound and limited to it.  Consequently, the concept of god is lowered,and god is transformed into a natural power who is unfree in the act of creating.  Such a god is unable to create true contrasts and fundamentally different phenomena; accordingly it must have been established  by many gods (as the creations myths of the Babylonians and others often posit) – as many gods as there are groups of opposing phenomena.

Not so the Biblical account.  The Bible, in point of fact, denies the existence of these numerous gods, and ascribes the power that is attributed to them to the one and only G-d.  He alone is called Elohim.  The Bible then unites all the attributes of power that were separated by paganism.  The unification of these attributes in the one G-d raises the one G-d of Israel above any notion and limitations of a mere natural power.  For, our sages are clear, only the free and omnipotent will of a single being can create a world of contrasts; and only He can unite these contrasts into one great purpose.  Elohim refers to a single individual Who unites in Himself all the power and authority that give one control over a person or object.  Consequently, the person or object is under the exclusive authority of this individual in every respect.  Which helps explain why men are so keen to deny this authority and the Biblical account of creation.

# A response to a critic

A friend recently sent me a critique of my testimony by someone named James of “Reasonably Faithless.” After I read James’ response to my testimony about how I made the journey from hostile atheism to a belief in Jesus, I was at first inclined to ignore it. Christians should generally resist the temptation to allow themselves to be sucked into the black hole of atheist discourse by feeling the need to respond directly to every attack on Christian belief. However, I think readers of this blog can benefit from what follows.

As I read James’ critique of my testimony, I marveled at how much misrepresentation, hypocrisy, nit-picking, taking things out of context, incoherent philosophy, and false science he packed into a few paragraphs. If you’re ever faced with such a response, you may feel the temptation to respond to each and every point, but I’m here to tell you that’s a waste of time. Instead, focus your efforts on helping other Christians withstand such assaults on reasonable belief.

To that end, there are two criticisms of my testimony, one logical and the other scientific, that can serve as useful exercises in how to refute atheist nonsense masquerading as legitimate criticism, logical thinking, and genuine science.

First, the logical argument James raises in his concern about the pain of human existence:

She also reveals some extremely offensive views about suffering:  essentially, people are “made to suffer for the bad things [they’ve] done”, and there is always “a reason for suffering”.  This seems especially insensitive to the people who have lived a life of terrible suffering merely because of the place and/or time of their birth, and who never experience a silver lining of any kind.

The basic atheist argument about the human condition is that all the pain people experience in this world is proof that there cannot be a God, because a loving God would not allow people to experience so much suffering. In the secular humanist protests against the unfairness of pain you can hear the voices of children furious at their parents for imposing consequences for bad behavior. C. S. Lewis answers this as well as anyone can in The Problem of Pain. James demonstrates his foolishness when he says that it is “extremely offensive” to point out the obvious truth Lewis demonstrated in his book about human suffering, which is that most of the pain people experience in life is the result of the bad choices they freely make.

James, however, makes one claim that deserves serious consideration — some people experience terrible suffering simply because of the place or time of their birth. There is some truth to this; a significant amount of pain that some people experience cannot be easily explained as the consequence of their actions. But, even when atheists manage to raise a valid point like this, they immediate veer off into incoherence.

As dedicated secular humanists, atheists are essentially children in their understanding of human existence. Most of them don’t so much disbelieve in God, but resent or feel anger towards God for being ‘mean.’ Those of you who are parents will recognize in the atheist mindset the child-like determination to avoid all discomfort and unpleasant consequences. The reason for this is that atheists need to believe in the possibility of ‘paradise’ on earth. As a result, they also need to believe that no one should ever have to feel bad and there should never be negative consequences for anything people do.

As long as we exist in this world, people will never fully understand their place in the grand scheme of things. But if you give some thought to James’s claim of my insensitivity about the mystery of human pain and suffering, you realize his logic is not only backwards, but leads to a conclusion that is fundamentally quite vile. It reminds me of something Richard Dawkins wrote in The God Delusion. He quotes the famous geneticist, James Watson, who said in response to a question about the purpose of life:

“Well, I don’t think we’re for anything. We’re just products of evolution. You can say, ‘Gee, your life must be pretty bleak if you don’t think there’s a purpose.’ But I’m anticipating having a good lunch.”

To which Dawkins adds, “We did have a good lunch, too.”

When I read that I thought, “What a couple of jerks.” What kind of people can look at life as meaningless and bleak and then distract and comfort themselves with food? A ‘good’ meal or any other kind of material pleasure is small comfort to those who live a life of terrible suffering merely because of the place or time of their birth, and who never experience a silver lining of any kind. Atheists take away all hope for those who suffer. So, who is being insensitive?

Every time I hear nonsense like this, I wonder whether humanists ever bother to work through to the logical conclusions of their beliefs. If they did, they would realize it is vastly more insensitive to tell people who suffer terribly through no apparent fault of their own that there is no reason for it. It is cruel to tell people that this one life of misery is all they get until they are annihilated by a cold and indifferent universe.

Then there is the scientific criticism of my testimony:

After reading Gerald Schroeder’s book, The Science of God, Sarah became convinced that the book of “Genesis is literally true”.  (The word “literally” is used in a pretty non-literal sense here, since Schroeder’s theory is that the first “day” of creation was 8 billion years long, the second day was 4 billion years long, etc – the thesis of Schroeder’s book is really that Genesis can be squared with our modern scientific understanding of the universe, apart from a few teeny little details like evolution.)

If I was the type of person inclined to dictatorship (which I am not), the first thing I would do is make it a state crime to comment knowingly on a book you have not actually read. I mean, I’m assuming he hasn’t read Schroeder’s book, because he’s made two very basic blunders about Schroeder’s model that could’ve been rectified by reading the chapters on the age of the universe and evolution. It’s possible James has actually read the book, in which case he is either deliberately misrepresenting Schroeder’s argument or has failed to comprehend it.

In any case, I used “literal” in a very literal sense in my testimony. Schroeder makes a compelling case for reconciling actual 24-hour Genesis days with a billions year-old universe. It works because, as every good physicist knows, you have to specify from whose frame of reference those 24 hours elapse. You can read Schroeder’s book to see how this works or go through my slide show presentation for an explanation.

James goes on to demonstrate that he is unaware of the science behind Schroeder’s explanation:

So, does Schroeder’s book constitute a good reason to think that “Genesis is literally true”? Most definitely not.  Here are several scholarly reviews of the book…

Whereupon he cites a few critical “scholarly” reviews of Schroeder’s book, including one by historian, Richard Carrier, a man who is best described as the court jester of the New Atheist movement and an utter embarrassment to intellectuals everywhere.

When I first read Schroeder’s book, I spent a lot of time verifying its claims. Contrary to James’ assumption, that meant investigating criticisms of Schroeder’s model — the very ones James cites — which I found to be not only wrong, but surprisingly inept. For ostensibly smart people (most of them, anyway), these critics failed to understand the basics of Schroeder’s argument. I was especially taken aback that someone with credentials like those of the late mathematician, Mark Perakh, could fail to understand the straightforward physical argument laid out by Schroeder. I will write a separate post about this, because it deserves serious attention.

But James’s criticism of my testimony gets worse from there:

… Sarah came to believe (for whatever reason) in the truth of Genesis, and then deduced that the gospels were true.  Think again about her words: “I knew the Bible was reliable because of Genesis.

This is a lie. He conveniently omits the statement in my testimony just before this one — “I knew of the historical evidence for [the Gospels’] truth” — which clearly implies I investigated the truth of the Gospels independent of Genesis.

However, Christians do have reason to believe in the general reliability of the Bible based on Genesis. It was chosen as the first book of the Bible for a reason. Among other things, it immediately establishes the reliability of the Bible in general because Genesis 1 performs a miracle right in front of our eyes – it gives a scientifically accurate account of the creation of the universe and life on earth over 2500 years ago when no person could have possibly known how the universe formed and life came to be. At the very least, this miracle of information that anticipated so many modern scientific discoveries should lead one to consider the truth of the other parts of the Bible.

James concludes with a common bit of atheist dogma about the Bible:

The book of Genesis was composed by unknown authors.  It’s a mash-up of numerous sources from a number of different traditions.

Having once been an atheist, myself, and now observing them from a Christian vantage point for a number of years, I’ve noticed patterns in their behavior. James presents us with a perfect example. What happens is this: one atheist will come up with an idea — say, that Genesis is just a mash-up of numerous sources from a number of different traditions — and then others pick it up, repeat it (often verbatim), and the idea gets passed around and around, and meanwhile nobody bothers to investigate whether the claim is actually true. They just repeat it mindlessly and accept its truth blindly, because they are emotionally invested in it being true.

If any of them bothered to check, they would discover that the idea that Genesis is just a mish-mash of other faith traditions is provably false. One of my colleagues, who is deeply informed on the topic, refers to this claim as “traditional [theologically] liberal blather” dating back to the 1800s and based on little more than pure imagination. All you have to do is compare Genesis with one of these alleged sources, the Babylonian Enuma Elish, to see that they could hardly differ more. This is another topic I will address in more depth in a separate post, because it’s an intensely stupid notion that needs to die a horrible death. [Update: Uniqueness of Genesis is discussed here.]

To my Christian readers, here is what you should take away from all this. Do not waste time trying to convince atheists of the foolishness of their arguments. They make these arguments for highly emotional reasons and will not part with them on account of either reason or science. Atheist emotions are in turn rooted in a deep desire for self-indulgence, which is in eternal conflict with God’s intention that we overcome earthly desires. Instead, spend time becoming totally familiar with atheist assaults on Christian beliefs and faith so that you can help shield yourselves and others, especially children, from the deceit and temptations of atheism.

# Is God’s word difficult to understand? Part II

A reader sent in a question about the difficulty of understanding God’s word. In Part I, Surak clarified and explained how easy it is for the average Christian to acquire the scientific understanding needed to defend scripture. In Part II, Sarah discusses the inherent difficulty (or not) of understanding God’s word.

TF writes:

I had a question, but wanted to let you know first that I stumbled upon your website when I read Sarah Salviander’s testimony and watched the well-done slideshow that accompanied it.  I then read the website’s FAQ, several articles, and lots of comments over several weeks.

After reading more than I thought I would, I have a question that keeps nagging at me:  Is truth hard to understand or easy?  I’m not a scientist by any stretch of the imagination (I’m a pastor) but I’ve always loved science, especially when I can connect the dots between my faith and God’s creation.  For most of my life, I’ve held a pretty simplistic view of our world as a result of reading God’s Word, but after substantial reading on your website I feel like my head is going to explode :)  I don’t know if I agree with all of it, but most of it is fascinating and really well-thought out/researched.  My problem is that it is so hard for a person like me to understand (and I think I’m on the average part of the intelligence scale so the majority of the population would be in the same boat as I am).

So would God make the truth about his creation so complicated that only someone well versed in relativity, Hebrew translations, genetics, and 5 or 6 other fields of study could understand it?  Or would God make the truth about his creation simple enough for all to understand?

I’m not saying God is simple or easy to understand or that he wouldn’t want to give us lots of things for even the most intelligent people to discover and ponder over a lifetime, but wouldn’t God make truths as foundational as “where we come from” and “how this world was created” accessible to everyone rather than just a tiny percentage of super intelligent people?

If the truth of creation is as complicated as what it is on your website, I’m afraid I have no chance of ever explaining it to anyone.  If that is the case, then it seems like God made the truth of creation hard to understand and left most people hopelessly in the dark.  Or have we complicated things and there is a truth that is easier for all to access?

When Jesus (who was the embodiment of all God’s truth/love/mercy/etc.) came he was accessible to all, not just the most intelligent, wise, pious, powerful, etc.  He made God’s truth intelligible to even the poor, uneducated of his day, so I tend to think that God would make an important truth like creation accessible to someone as average as me as well.

So what do you think – is the truth (about creation) hard to understand or easy to understand?  And why?

My response to TF and everyone else who shares his concern is this. How much effort a person has to make to understand the scientific truth about God’s creation depends on two things. First, if someone wants to understand just for himself, the truth is really simple: the opening statement of the Bible and modern scientific agree that our universe had a beginning and was created from nothing. That magnificent truth gained from scripture and confirmed by science is enough understanding to make sense out of the world and our place in it. Everything else is just details.

However, if you aspire to help others find the scientific truth about God and his works, you will have to make a greater effort, because there are many questions about the universe that confuse and trouble other people. As soon as you try to help these people, you will encounter the second problem that makes understanding more difficult. Those who accept the responsibility to scientifically minister to others will encounter individuals and groups who deliberately make understanding more difficult for everyone.

I once spent a frustrating two hours watching a debate between Hugh Ross and Kent Hovind, and much of the discussion centered around this very question. Hugh Ross is a Christian astrophysicist who believes, as I do, that the universe and the Earth are billions of years old. Kent Hovind is a Young-Earth Creationist who claims the Bible says the Earth is just a few thousand years old. The debate centered on the age of the Earth, and how we know what it is.

Hovind stubbornly rejected nearly everything Ross offered as evidence. As a scientist, I can tell you that the evidence Ross offered was scientifically sound and compelling. In fact, Ross’s work is on the cutting edge of scientific efforts to understand the place of humankind in the universe God created. But, Hovind rejected the evidence out of hand and showed no respect for modern science.

One point Hovind repeatedly insisted on during the debate was that people in possession of what he called “special knowledge: about scripture and the world are gurus who are promoting cults, not Christian faith. Hovind implied Ross is a “guru” promoting a “cult” form of Christianity simply because Ross relies heavily on scientific understanding and careful translations of ancient Hebrew to interpret Genesis the way he does.

It is troubling that Hovind regards the study of God’s creation and the study of God’s word in the Old Testament as somehow wrong. His attitude is reminiscent of the Medieval age when science was first getting started, and dogmatic people accused the new scientists of sorcery and witchcraft for their efforts to understand physics, chemistry, and biology. Hovind’s resistance to science has a very primitive feel to it.

Hovind must know that a “guru” is someone who claims to have special knowledge that only they can achieve through some higher spiritual power. The special knowledge of a guru can only be passed down in mystic ways from one guru to the next. The claims of a scholar or scientist are in sharp contrast to those of a guru. The deep knowledge of a scholar is something that is attainable by anyone who has the inclination and time to pursue it — no special spiritual powers are required. Scientific knowledge is something that can be accumulated and passed on from one scholar to another in a rational, testable, non-mystical manner.

I don’t believe TF is making the same point Hovind did, that the knowledge needed to interpret Genesis the way I do is “special.” Hovind is intellectually dishonest, and he was not debating in good faith. He demonstrated no openness to being persuaded by any amount of evidence. On the contrary, he used any means he could to undermine and dismiss the evidence. Science has served humankind so well because it has one ironclad rule — go where the evidence takes you. Hovind is not willing.

I know that TF is asking an honest and important question: is the truth of the Bible accessible to everyone? After all, not everyone has the deep, scholarly knowledge required to discover Schroeder’s interpretation of Genesis or to fully understand it. Does this mean the truth of creation is complex and hard to understand? The answer is both yes and no. I’ll start with the no and then explain the yes.

The truth of creation is not difficult to understand

The essential and fundamental truth of creation is not difficult to understand. God makes the essentials — the things you really need to know to be saved — understandable by everyone. These essentials are:

1. God is the sovereign Creator of all things.
2. Jesus Christ is Lord and Savior, and through Him we have eternal life.

There is, of course, much more that can be said about the meaning and purpose of the Christian faith, but if a person understood only these two essentials and really believed them, that’s all he would need to be saved.

In terms of the first essential, all a person has to do is read the first few words of the Bible to understand that God is the sovereign Creator of all things: “In the beginning, God created the heavens and the earth.” That’s it. But it’s such a simple and self-evident concept that a person doesn’t even strictly need a Bible to come to this conclusion.

In my testimony, I explained how, despite virtually no contact with the Christian faith, I arrived at the conclusion that God created everything all on my own, just by looking at the physical world around me. Everything we see in the physical world is testimony to God’s sovereignty. (This is straight out of Psalm 19 and Romans 1:20.)

And, if a person reads a little bit about astronomy and physics, he will find that even the simplest understanding of big bang cosmology is sufficient to support the idea of God as the sovereign Creator. The big bang tells us there was a beginning to the universe, therefore it was created. The Creator logically must exist beyond the universe, must necessarily be beyond the limits of space and time, and is therefore a non-corporeal and timeless entity — is that not a basic description of God? A person doesn’t need a degree in physics or fluency in Hebrew to understand the profoundest truth about God and His creation.

As for the second essential, all we have to do is read the Gospels to understand it. As TF pointed out, Jesus made the truth intelligible to everyone. At the most fundamental level, these two essentials are what a Christian needs to know, and both are completely understandable by anyone.

The truth of creation is difficult to understand

So, if the essentials are all we need to be saved, why bother to search for hidden meanings or deeper truths in scripture, especially if they’re so difficult? The answer is that we make the effort in order to fulfill our Christian mission of growing closer to God. God wants us to make a constant effort to know him, so he challenges us. Knowing God should be a lifelong pursuit. Most of us know from experience that the more valuable a thing, the more difficult it is to attain.

God made his truth very simple when it comes to understanding our relationship to him and how we are to be saved. But, God also made us curious for a reason. People should be most curious about their maker. It is important that we always have questions about him as we are seeking him. People need to feel restless about their understanding of God to avoid becoming complacent. We should never become so arrogant that we feel we’ve reached some ultimate level of understanding. Our lack of understanding reminds us to be humble before our Creator.

Christian author, Frank Viola, listed several “shocking” beliefs of St. Augustine, and this one is relevant here: “If you are going to teach Scripture, you must have a knowledge of the natural world, mathematics, music, science, history, the liberal arts, and a mastery of dialectics (the science of disputing).” This doesn’t mean you have to be an expert in all of these things (which is impossible anyway), but it does mean you are obligated to have a broad knowledge that encompasses these things.

The study of the Bible and the world is more difficult for those who aspire to teach others. Ministering to others is a great calling and a heavy responsibility that requires one’s best efforts. Fortunately, it doesn’t require a lifetime of university-level study, but it does require some basic proficiency.

There was a time when I wanted to become proficient in ancient Hebrew so that I could really delve into Genesis, but I soon realized I have neither the time nor the inclination. Instead, I rely on the work of Hebrew scholars to determine the nuanced meaning of certain Hebrew passages. This doesn’t mean I’m off the hook — this still requires familiarizing myself with the basics of Hebrew and the methods scholars use to determine meaning from ancient texts. Even though I will never become anywhere near as proficient as someone like Gleason Archer, I’ve learned enough to evaluate the credibility of what the scholars are saying.

Some people balk at the idea of relying on experts, but the way I see it is this. God gave us Biblical scholars and scientists, just as God gave us engineers, physicians, craftsmen, musicians, storytellers, and every other type of person we need to have a functioning civilization. These are people who have the desire and God-given talent for doing specific things very well so that we don’t each have to try to master everything ourselves.

God made us into social beings for this reason. We are admonished to love one another, and part of loving is trusting each other and working together. So, I accept the honest efforts of other scientists and scholars and do my best to build on it. I know that people are fallible in their understanding of scripture and the world, but in general scientists help each other to correct mistakes and make steady progress in the search for God’s truth.

So my message to TF and all of those who doubt their ability to understand God and his works through science is this. You have willingly taken on the role of a teacher. God loves you for your honest question and your genuine desire to know. Your lack of confidence in the face of such a great challenge is understandable, but you cannot fail as long as you keep trying. Every step on the path to understanding God and his works is a triumph. It is a testimony to your commitment that you will never know enough to satisfy your desire to know God. It is enough that you will be able to help others who share your holy desire.

It is the glory of God to conceal things, but the glory of kings is to search things out. — Proverbs 25:2.

# Fire Back: Where the Readers Respond

In which we discuss the scientific method in terms of the gospels and one beginning.

PS writes:

Thanks for taking time to answer my questions. I find the Biblical notion of the Gospel very intriguing, as well as current notions within the field of cosmology.

1. When doing science, we employ the scientific method to arrive at a particular degree of certainty for a given problem. How does belief in Jesus differ? Are we to use the same scientific method when assessing the veracity of the Gospel? Or is there another method, rigorously defined and assessed, that we can employ?

2. To what degree of certainty does the average professional cosmologist think space/time had a single beginning? I think I’ve noted that cosmologist who actually study this notion are not very dogmatic.

3. What percentage of actual cosmologists hold to a high degree of certainty (95%?) that space/time had a single beginning?

4. What degree of certainty do you have that the Gospel is true? Is it possible for you to change your mind in the future?

Sorry if these are tough questions, but I’ve been very curious about these notions for a long time.

The eminent cosmologist and professor of philosophy, Michael Heller, points out in his book, Ultimate Explanations of the Universe, that the scientific method has proved so powerful a tool for investigating the physical world that there is a tendency to misapply it by extending its use to anything a person might wish to study. However, the scientific method is not only not applicable to everything we could ever want to investigate, it’s not even applicable to the majority of things we could ever want to investigate.

1. The scientific method is not applicable to the gospels. We couldn’t use science to test them any more than we could use science to test the historical claims about George Washington or Alexander the Great. Instead, we apply the legal-historical method to determine if the claims about Jesus in the gospels are true. My friend, J. Warner Wallace, who is a homicide detective and skilled apologist, explains this approach in his book, Cold Case Christianity.

2. Presumably PS is referring to a cyclical model in which the universe bangs, expands, contracts, and crunches, over and over, possibly for eternity, but the question isn’t answerable as written. We can assign a certainty to something like the measured age of the universe, but not to something that is beyond our ability to measure. Theoretical cosmologists have attempted to come up with models that take the current physical evidence and fit it into a cyclical timeline, and these do have some testable aspects. In terms of the physical evidence, however, there is no support for multiple beginnings, and the models just don’t work. It looks like we’re stuck with one beginning.

3. I have no idea. But, as the link above shows, the best and the brightest in theoretical cosmology have not been able to make cyclical models work. In terms of the models and evidence, the cyclical universe is currently a dead end. That doesn’t mean some cosmologists won’t hold to it for personal or philosophical reasons.

4. I can’t quantify it, but I’m as certain about the claims of the gospels as I am of the claims about other major historical events that are widely accepted, which is to say very certain. Enough to bet my life on it. It’s always possible for me to change my mind about something, given sufficient evidence.

Image: Sermon on the Mount by Carl Bloch

# Fire Back: Where the Readers Respond

In which we discuss the timeline of Genesis events and why so many Christians believe in a young universe.

When you say that for God the Gen. 1 events unfold over six literal days, does this mean six twenty-four hour periods? If the earth is 4.5 billion years old (which I accept because I don’t think the Bible tells us so we should instead look to those with expertise in the field) how long should we envisage humans as occupying the planet? Were there epochs of other animal life prior to humans? Do you believe God used the evolutionary process or created humans like we now see them? Finally, why do so many Christians believe and argue so adamantly that the universe is 6,000 years old?

Gerald Schroeder, in his book The Science of God, elegantly makes the case for a 14 billion year-old universe that is developed over the course of six literal 24-hour periods. Genesis 1 does not explicitly state that the six days of Genesis are literal 24-hour periods, but it can be inferred from other passages in scripture that make reference to Genesis 1. Schroeder admits that this assumption is the one part of his argument that is subjective, but since the great Genesis commentator, Nahmanides, inferred it that way, this is what Schroeder chooses.

Biology is not my area of expertise, but I’m reasonably confident of the following. Homo sapiens has been around for about 200,000 years. Bacteria first appeared on Earth almost immediately (in geological terms) after the appearance of liquid water, a few billion years ago; animal life exploded well before humans appeared, about 500 million years ago in what’s aptly called the Cambrian explosion.

There is little doubt in my mind that what eventually became human lifeforms — I’ll refer to them as hominids — arose through some natural, but God-designed, process. Darwinian evolution has effectively been ruled out as the process, and nobody really knows what the actual process of the development of life is, but there are some interesting hints from a field of biology called “evo devo.” Anyway, the great biblical commentators, Maimonides and Nahmanides, had no problem accepting the idea that hominids predated Adam. These hominids were physically identical to Adam in terms of physiology, but lacked the neshama, the human soul. Schroeder talks about the process whereby God took a preexisting hominid and breathed the neshama into it to create Adam. In my mind, this is the most reasonable inference from scripture, and resolves some major problems with the young earth creationist view.

As for why so many Christians insist on a young universe, I am still trying to figure that out. Some of my Christian colleagues say it is because young earth creationism is primarily what’s taught in seminary, and it gets passed down to church members. I don’t know how much truth there is in that. I sense that a lot of it is pushback against atheist misuse of science, which is really unfortunate and completely unnecessary.

# The physics of miracles: thermodynamics

Miracles are part of Christian tradition that are often ridiculed by atheists. The claim is that God or one of God’s agents does the impossible, and impossible things never happen, because they defy the laws of nature, so why do you believe in something as nonsensical as miracles?

But is that really what all miracles are — defying the laws of nature and doing the impossible?

Before we get into the physics, let’s first go to scripture to see how miracles are defined. (Generally speaking, in any argument with atheists over something in scripture, the first thing you should do is carefully study the relevant passages to see what the actual claim is. Atheists almost always get it wrong.)

There are two Hebrew words translated as ‘miracle’ in the Old Testament. They are

• oth: this word refers to a sign. The purpose of this sort of miracle is to draw people’s attention to God. (e.g. Exodus 12:13)
• mopheth: this word refers to a wonder and is often used together with oth (signs and wonders). The purpose of this sort of miracle is to display God’s power. (e.g. Exodus 7:3)

The Greek counterparts in the New Testament are

• semeion: this word refers to a sign, and is used to describe acts that are evidence of divine authority, usually something that goes against the usual course of nature (e.g. John 2:11)
• teras: this word refers to a wonder, and is used to describe something that causes a person to marvel (e.g. Acts 2:22)

There are two additional words used for miracle in the New Testament:

• dunamis: this word refers to an act that is supernatural in origin (e.g. Mark 6:2)
• ergon: this word means “work,” as in the works of Jesus (e.g. Matthew 11:2) (interestingly, ergon is the Greek word from which the unit of energy, erg, is derived)

Is it possible to square some miracles with the laws of nature without detracting from their wondrousness? I believe the answer is yes, based on two branches of physics: thermodynamics and quantum mechanics. In this first part, I’ll discuss miracles from the perspective of thermodynamics, the branch of physics that deals with heat, energy, and work.

What follows is more properly described as statistical mechanics, or statistical thermodynamics, but you don’t need to get hung up terms. This field of study deals with predictions about the behavior of systems with enormous numbers of particles. These numbers are so huge that no one could be absolutely certain about any predictions, but this is where statistics come to the rescue. You can make statistical predictions about systems of particles, and, as you’ll see, the more particles you’re dealing with, the more accurate the predictions become. And, interestingly, this is precisely what permits miracles that do not violate the laws of nature.

The laws of nature permit a lot more than most people realize. In our everyday lives, we don’t usually define common sense expectations in terms of probabilities, but that’s often precisely what common sense is. In thermodynamics, that which constitutes our everyday expectation in any given situation is what’s referred to as the most probable state of a system.

To see what I mean, let’s consider a room with air in it, and imagine that we divide the room into two equal parts. We’ll also imagine this room and the air molecules comprise a closed system: the room has been effectively sealed off with its doors and windows closed for several hours, with no energy or air added to or removed from it. This means the room has had time for the air particles to jostle around and distribute themselves randomly. What we expect when we walk into the room is that the air molecules will be relatively evenly distributed throughout the room with approximately the same number of molecules on either side. What we don’t expect is that all of the air molecules will be on one side of the room with a vacuum on the other side. Most of you probably couldn’t explain why you’d be astonished to find all of the air on just one side of the room — you intuitively sense that this would be extremely odd — but there is a sound reason for this expectation that is rooted in probability.

Let’s construct what scientists call a toy model, which is a very simplified example of a situation you wish to study, in order to understand the fundamentals. Our toy model consists of a room divided in half with only two air molecules in it, an oxygen molecule and a nitrogen molecule. Here are the possible arrangements of these molecules:

Each possible arrangement is called a “state” of the room. We see that there are four possible states for the room. There are two states in which the air molecules are distributed evenly in the room, and two in which both of the air molecules are on one side of the room. The probability of finding a room in a state in which both molecules are on one side of the room is 2 out of 4, or 50%.

Easy enough. But things start to change quickly the more particles we add. Let’s see what happens when we double the number of molecules to four — one nitrogen, one oxygen, one argon, and one carbon dioxide.

As you can see, there are a total of 16 possible states for the room. Again, there are only two states in which the air molecules are on one side of the room, but now there are many more total possible states than before. The probability of all four molecules spontaneously arranging themselves on one side of the room is 2 out of 16, or 12.5%. This is a lot less probable than in the previous example, but not so low that you would be astonished to find all of the air molecules on one side of the room.

Based on this toy model, we can write the mathematical expression for the total number of possible arrangements of air molecules in a two-sided room as

total # of states = (2 sides of the room)# of molecules

or

2N

That’s 2 raised to the power of the number of molecules. For the two-molecule example, that’s 22 = 4, and for the four-molecule example, that’s 24 = 16.

Let’s consider a room with N = 100 air molecules in it, and calculate the probability of finding all of the molecules on one side of the room:

total # of permutations = 2100 = 1030

Even with a paltry 100 air molecules in the room, the probability of finding them all on one side of the room is a minuscule 2 out of 1030 possible permutations. Let’s put this in perspective. If the air molecules randomly redistributed themselves every second, you’d have to wait a trillion lifetimes of the universe before you’d have a reasonable expectation of finding all 100 air molecules on one side of the room.

Let’s now consider a typical room, which has N = 1027 air molecules in it. That number is a 1 with 27 zeroes after it

1,000,000,000,000,000,000,000,000,000

or a billion billion billion.

The total number of possible arrangements of the air molecules in a room divided into two equal parts is

2N = 21027

or 2 raised to the power of a billion billion billion. It’s an absurdly large number.

There are still only two possible ways for all of the air molecules to be on one side of the room or the other, so the probability of finding a room in a state in which all of the air molecules are, by random chance, on one side of the room or the other is 2 out of 21027. To say that this is an extremely improbable state is beyond understatement.

In fact, by any reasonable definition, we can say that it’s effectively impossible for the air molecules in a room to spontaneously arrange themselves to be on just one side of the room. But notice that it’s not strictly impossible. The probability of finding the air molecules on one side of the room by chance is extremely, extremely low, so low that we would never expect it to happen in the normal course of nature, but the probability is not precisely zero.

This toy model neglects other important physical effects, but it suffices to demonstrate the point that a lot of physical systems are largely governed by probabilities. Personally, I think this is how God has built leeway into the system of the universe to do the seemingly impossible in the natural world without violating the laws of nature. It is God, or an agent of God, doing what is effectively impossible, i.e. impossible for us, but not strictly impossible, and certainly not impossible for God.

Let’s consider a biblical example — the parting of the Red Sea. In Exodus 14, Moses is described as stretching out his hand at God’s command and parting the Red Sea so that the millions of people of Israel could cross it and escape from the pursuing Egyptians. This is referenced later in Deuteronomy 26:8 as one of the “signs and wonders” (oth and mopheth) God used to display his power and free Israel from Egypt. The probability of finding the waters of the Red Sea spontaneously parting on their own would be as exceptionally low as in our example of the air molecules in the room spontaneously arranging themselves on just one side. It’s so low that we would never expect it to happen in the usual course of nature, but, as we saw in the example of air molecules, it’s not strictly impossible.

Do not misunderstand me. I am not: a) claiming that all physical miracles have a foundation in probability — the miracle (semeion) of Jesus turning water into wine would involve a different physical mechanism than that illustrated by statistical thermodynamics; b) claiming that all miracles are physical in character; or c) attempting to explain miracles in a way that detracts from their miraculousness. That physical miracles could fit into the natural framework of the universe makes them no less wondrous than if they defied the laws of nature. Think of it this way. It’s not strictly impossible for you to win the Mega Millions lottery four times in a row — the probability is approximately 1 out of 1025, about 100,000 times more probable than finding 100 air molecules on one side of a room. However, the odds are so overwhelmingly against it that it no one would believe it happened without someone intervening in the system to force this outcome. Isn’t that what we’re talking about with miracles?

According to the laws of physics, a miracle like parting the Red Sea does not violate the laws of nature, it just requires a far greater power over the forces of nature than we humans could ever have.

In the next part, I’ll look at miracles from the perspective of the weird and wondrous world of quantum mechanics.

Since posting, I’ve lightly edited this article for clarification of two points: 1) not all physical miracles are probabilistic in nature; and 2) not all miracles are physical in character. Some miracles described in the Bible, such as the creation of the universe, the creation of the nefesh (animal soul) and the neshama (human soul), and Jesus’ resurrection and ascension, are entirely supernatural in character.

Parting of the Red Sea image credit: The Swordbearer.

# Jewish authority on scripture

I grew up atheist in a secular country, so my experience with Christianity was very limited until I moved to the U.S. As I explained in my testimony, I came to my belief in God and acceptance of Jesus Christ mostly through my work in astrophysics, and particularly through the work of an Israeli physicist named Gerald Schroeder.

Schroeder is an Orthodox Jew who has been living in Israel since the 1970s, and he describes himself as an applied theologian. I have found his commentary on Genesis and modern science to be extremely insightful and inspired. Not everyone agrees with Schroeder’s interpretation of Genesis and its compatibility with modern science, but nevertheless, it is honest work based on deep scholarship, an obvious love for God, and respect for both scripture and science. It was through Schroeder’s work that I came to believe in the God of the Bible, and eventually to accept Jesus Christ.

Most Christians I have encountered through public speaking events and this website are intrigued by Schroeder’s work and willing to explore it, but I recently had a reader try to warn me against trusting Schroeder for the reason that he is an “unbelieving Jew.” According to this person, Schroeder, as a Jew, has failed to recognize his Messiah, so his authority on scripture is called into question. It never occurred to me, as someone who came to Christianity by way of Jewish wisdom, that I should mistrust an Old Testament authority, because he has not accepted Jesus. When I began my ministry several years ago, I had been told by some Christian friends to expect a bit of this, but I was still taken aback by it.

I contacted “Rabbi B,” a friend who is a Messianic Jew and a rabbi, and asked him whether a person’s failure to recognize Jesus as the Messiah is a sufficient reason to reject his authority on scripture. Below is his response.

The idea that Jews who do not embrace embrace Jesus as the Messiah can’t be trusted to elucidate the Scriptures is a specious argument. Paul indicates in Corinthians, I believe, that when the unbelieving Jews read the Scriptures, there is a veil over their eyes which prevents them from recognizing the Messiah.

But this does not preclude their understanding of the Scriptures generally or that they have not been given a certain amount of understanding concerning other matters.

Jesus also stated that though the Jews diligently search the Scriptures, they fail to recognize the Messiah. Again, this does not mean they have no insights to offer, it simply means they do not recognize or have failed to identify who the Messiah is. In fact, we have a very old tradition that the patriarchs all experienced blindness. Abraham was blind to who the son of promise would be — he experienced a spiritual blindness. Isaac experienced a physical blindness when he was fooled by Jacob, as his eyes were dim. Jacob’s blindness was due to the environment, as it was darkness which prevented him from seeing Leah, when he thought he was marrying Rachel.

Here is the interesting part. The rabbis look at the blindness of the three Patriarchs and conclude that it portends the blindness of Israel when the Messiah comes, that they will not recognize Him when He comes. Which, as we know, has been very much the case.

Paul, alludes to this idea in Romans, I believe, when he speaks of a ‘blindness in part’ that has come upon Israel, particularly regarding the identity of the Messiah. Again, it’s a blindness IN PART … not complete and utter blindness. It is important to remember too, the Jews were entrusted with the very oracles of G-d, i.e. the Scriptures, again, according to Romans.

Rabbi B offers more insightful commentary at his blog, and may be contacted at rebbaruch10 -at- gmail -dot- com (replace the ‘at’ and ‘dot’ with the appropriate symbols).