God is not a magician


A recent pop news article claimed physicists have proved God didn’t create the universe. In response, I explained why you can’t trust the pop media to report on science accurately. In a follow-up post, I discussed why the universe isn’t “nothing,” as the article implied. In this, the third part, we’ll talk about what the Bible says about the creation of the universe and compare this with the current state of scientific thinking.

Let’s first summarize the problem as presented in the pop news article:

The supposed biblical claim: God created the universe from absolute nothing (creatio ex nihilo). Only God could create something from absolute nothing.

The atheist counterclaim: Physicists have discovered a way to create a universe from nothing using only the laws of physics. Therefore, God is irrelevant.

I’ve already explained why the atheist claim is bogus. But is creatio ex nihilo what the Bible says? It’s unclear, because there is nothing in scripture that explicitly says this. Those who believe creatio ex nihilo infer it from Genesis 1:1: In the beginning, God created the heavens and the earth. It’s not an unreasonable inference—the Hebrew word for “create” means to bring something into existence that did not exist before—and it is probably for this reason that the great biblical commentator Nahmanides believed the universe was brought forth by God “from total and absolute nothing.” From my reading of Nahmanides (and my non-expertise in theology), the total and absolute nothing refers to something corporeal. More on this in a moment.

When dealing with argumentative atheists who want to debate science and God, what matters most is not whether science lines up with their particular ideas about God, but whether science is consistent with what we know from scripture. You have to be persistent about this, because atheists almost always present their arguments against a God that resembles nothing like the God of the Bible:

Asked if the remarkable findings and the convincing if complex solution removed the need for a God figure to kick start the universe Dr Mir said: “If by God you mean a supernatural super man who breaks his own laws then yes he’s done for, you just don’t need him.”

I doubt this is the exact question posed to Dr. Mir; and I believe the atheist we’re dealing with is not the physicist, but the reporter and/or his editor. Nevertheless, my interpretation of Mir’s response is, now that we have a plausible physical model for how the universe could arise from nothing but physical laws, we do not need the sort of God who waves his arms and magically conjures up a universe from nothing. In other words, the theory knocks down a strawman God. But it also supports the biblical God who operates in a way that we can relate to on at least a rudimentary level.

Have you ever watched a skilled magician performing tricks? Most people find it enjoyable to watch someone perform something that seems impossible. But it’s only fun, because everyone except for really little kids understands that the tricks are just illusions and the magician isn’t really defying the laws of nature. If we genuinely believed he was defying the laws of nature, the magic show would be more horrifying than entertaining*.

And yet, for reasons I don’t quite understand, a lot of people—including believers—regard God as the ultimate magician who really is defying the laws of nature. Personally, I find this notion of God repellant, because it contradicts what the Bible tells us about his character—he is knowable through nature, he is consistent, and he is reliable. But we needn’t worry, because the biblical account of the creation of the universe doesn’t describe something magical, it describes something miraculous.

It is tempting to think of magical and miraculous as synonymous, but there’s an important distinction between the two. For the purpose of this argument, magical refers to something that lacks a knowable mechanism, something that defies the laws of nature or does the impossible. Contrary to popular misconception, miraculous means none of those things. Rather, a miracle is something that is accomplished through divinely supernatural means; in other words, something that is accomplished by God through means that exist beyond the universe. As Israeli physicist and theologian, Gerald Schroeder, points out, this is exactly what modern science implies for the creation of the universe.

Prof. Mir – who also works on the Large Hardron (sic) Collider at CERN in Switzerland – further explained that by “nothing” he only meant absence of energy, and not the absence of laws of physics.

Schroeder says this is what Genesis has been telling us all along. In his book, The Science of God, he provides what he considers to be the most faithful translation of Genesis 1:1, which is known as the Jerusalem translation: With wisdom as the first cause, God created the universe. In other words, Genesis implies the laws of physics predate the universe, just as physicists claim. It is the supernaturally existing laws of physics—wisdom, the first cause—God uses to create the universe.

Let’s summarize what we’ve discussed:

  • The Bible implies the universe was created from nothing except the laws of physics. Science agrees.
  • The Bible says the laws of physics predate the universe. Science agrees.
  • The Bible says God used the pre-existing laws of physics to create the universe. This is consistent with science.

Logically, we know the universe can’t create itself; it requires something above and beyond. This is what the Bible has been saying all along, and science is finally catching up.


* If you don’t believe me, watch a movie called The Prestige. Even though the ultimate trick in the movie isn’t strictly magic—in the sense that it breaks no laws of nature—the magician goes well beyond simple illusion, and it’s pretty disturbing.

Image credit: ESO.

Which god is the Creator?

Speaking of anklebiters, ‘francisco’ asked the following in the comments to an article about quantum mechanics and the creation of the universe:

is there physical evidence that the cause of the universe is a superior been?
and if that was the case, which one of the thousands of gods the human has created is the cause of the universe?

I suspect he is not entirely sincere in his desire to know the answer to the first question (anklebiters are tediously reliable with their tells). In any case, francisco, if you’re reading this, I suggest you look through the archives of this website [here and here, especially] and read Gerald Schroeder’s book, The Science of God, to acquaint yourself with the evidence for God’s existence.

The second question is meant to show how arbitrary it is to believe in any one particular god as the creator of the universe, so, ha ha, aren’t we Christians a bunch of rubes. But it’s really just a silly question that betrays an ignorance of the basics of world religions and unforgivably superficial thinking.

Let’s consider the panoply of gods in Greek mythology. Each god governs an aspect of nature, or an abstract idea, an occupation, and so on. Zeus rules the skies, Poseidon rules the seas, Aphrodite is the goddess of love and beauty, and so on. None of them is a supreme being or creator god, so we can rule them all out. Likewise for the Roman gods, the Viking gods, the Babylonian gods, and so on. That narrows things down considerably.

That’s not to say that these religious traditions do not include creation myths. In fact, it’s become something of a secular fad to point out the similarities of the earliest creation myths with details of Genesis in an attempt to discredit the latter. However, once you examine these creation myths you begin to see that they invariably skirt the issue of the creation of the universe and deal instead with the establishment of the divinity of earthly rulers or the creation of a new world, land, or empire. Such is the case with the Mesopotamian and Egyptian creation myths that predate the writings of Moses, as well as others like the Greek, Roman, and Viking myths.

What we’re left with is three religious traditions that hold to a definite, coherent account of the creation of the universe from nothing by a supreme being. Furthermore, they are the only religious traditions I’m aware of that recognize the linearity of time and a timeline for creation that corresponds to the scientific record. These are, in order of their historical establishment, Judaism, Christianity, and Islam. So, it really comes down to two supreme beings — God and Allah. There are ways to distinguish between the two as the most likely candidate for the creator of the universe, but I’ll save that for a later discussion.

Earth-like planet kills God dead!

The big news last week was that astronomers (incidentally, some of them colleagues of mine) discovered an Earth-like planet orbiting a Sun-like star. The exoplanet, dubbed Kepler-452b, was discovered by the Kepler space telescope and recently announced by its discoverers. It is 1,400 light-years away from Earth and appears in the constellation Cygnus.

It’s exciting news, and probably had more than a few nerds thinking we’re one step closer to the United Federation of Planets, but apparently the really big news is that the discovery of this planet was the death-knell for religious tradition.

In what I suppose is a serious commentary on the discovery Kepler-452b and not satire, Jeff Schweitzer, a scientist and former White House analyst, declares that Earth 2.0 is “bad news for God.” Why? Because Genesis doesn’t mention alien worlds. Of course, Genesis also doesn’t mention bananas, but to my knowledge no one has argued that the existence of bananas rocks religious tradition to its core.

Schweitzer’s first mistake was referring to Kepler-452b as “Earth 2.0.” This newly discovered exoplanet is believed to be Earth-like in terms of its size and proximity to its Sun-like star, and that’s sort of big news, because the majority of known exoplanets are Jupiter-sized or larger and very close to non-Sun-like stars. Kepler-452b is at just the right distance to its Sun-like star to permit liquid water on its surface (a necessary component for life). All this means is that we can’t rule out the existence of liquid water on its surface; it doesn’t mean there is water. And there are known differences between Kepler-452b and Earth: it’s estimated to be 60% larger than Earth (so it’s more like a “Super-Earth”), it’s about 1.5 billion years older than the Earth, it receives 10% more light from its sun than the Earth does from its Sun, its gravity could be anywhere from 80% to 300% of the Earth’s gravity, etc. We don’t know its composition. Is it rocky? Does it have a fluid core that would lead to a dynamo effect? Does it have an atmosphere? Plate tectonics? We currently don’t know the answers to these questions. We therefore have no idea exactly how Earth-like Kepler-452b is or whether it’s suitable for life. And it’s not the only known Earth-like exoplanet, nor is it even the most Earth-like. All good reasons why it’s absurd to call this particular exoplanet “Earth 2.0.”

Nevertheless, Schweitzer goes on to declare that we are coming “ever closer to the idea that life is common in the universe.” That’s quite a leap from the discovery of an exoplanet about which we know very little. But never mind. His point here is to preemptively declare that the discovery of life elsewhere in the universe would be a big problem for “the world’s major religions.” And by “the world’s major religions” he seems to mean Judaism and Christianity (and probably just the latter), since the Bible is the sole focus of his critique.

He begins his theological discussion thusly: “Let us be clear that the Bible is unambiguous about creation:”

Let’s look at what the Bible unambiguously claims about creation, according to Schweitzer:

1. “the earth is the center of the universe”

He doesn’t mention which verse says this. Probably because there is no verse, that I’m aware of, that says this. Ancient Greek philosophy held that the Earth is the center of the universe, and this view was eventually adopted by the Church, whose philosophy was heavily influenced by Aristotle.

2. “only humans were made in the image of god”

Of all the creatures mentioned in Genesis, yes, only humans were made in the image of God. This doesn’t preclude other creatures, not mentioned in Genesis, being made in the image of God. This doesn’t preclude other creatures, not mentioned in Genesis, not being made in the image of God.

3. “and all life was created in six days”

No, all life was created in four days. Plant life appeared on Day 3, animal life appeared on Day 5, and human life appeared on Day 6.

4. “All life in all the heavens. In six days.”

No, all life on Earth. In four days. (See here for why six creation days are fully compatible with a billions-year-old universe.)

Notice that he does not support any of these claims with the biblical verses that supposedly “unambiguously” say these things. Instead, later in his piece, he quotes the Pope during the trial of Galileo on what the Church believed the Bible claimed at the time.

This is why you should never rely on what an anti-theist says about the Bible. Schweitzer is completely wrong. Which means his conclusion is completely wrong, for he goes on to say:

“So when we discover that life exists or existed elsewhere in our solar system or on a planet orbiting another star in the Milky Way, or in a planetary system in another galaxy, we will see a huge effort to square that circle with amazing twists of logic and contorted justifications. But do not buy the inevitable historical edits: life on another planet is completely incompatible with religious tradition. Any other conclusion is nothing but ex-post facto rationalization to preserve the myth.”

Nonsense. What he’s attempting to do is use false assumptions and specious reasoning to justify his leaping out in front of this discovery before anyone’s had a chance to comment thoughtfully on it, and claim it as a victory for atheism. Dibs, everyone!

Is Schweitzer unaware that Christians have already commented on the topic of alien life in the context of Christian theology? C. S. Lewis not only wrote a well-known essay (“Religion and Rocketry“) on the topic, but wrote a science fiction trilogy exploring it in great depth (The Space Trilogy). (Incidentally, I wrote on this topic a few years ago.)

The rest of Schweitzer’s article is filled with theological analysis and reasoning of similar quality. For instance, he quotes Genesis 1:1 and then makes the following claim:

“Nothing in that mentions alien worlds, which of course the ancients knew nothing about. Man was told to rule over the fish on the earth, not on other planets. But god would have known of these alien worlds, so it is curious he did not instruct the authors to include the language.”

One might reasonably ask how man could possibly rule over the fish on other planets, and therefore why it would be of any concern to him that there might be fish on other planets. (I seriously wondered if Schweitzer was having us all on at this point, but since this was The Huffington Post and not The Onion, I had to assume he was sincere.) (Also, what is it with the childish refusal of some atheists to capitalize the ‘G’ in God? Lower-case ‘g’ god denotes a lesser god. God is the supreme being, the God, which is why ‘God’ is capitalized. Spelling it correctly doesn’t mean you agree God exists, it means you understand the concept of a proper noun. It just makes you look like an idiot to refuse to capitalize the name.)

He then goes on some weird tangent about some verses in Genesis that shows he doesn’t understand that Genesis refers to the entire universe for the first two days, and then specifically the Earth for the remaining days. It was all so contorted and confused that it made my head hurt. He amusingly concludes this word-salad passage with “Let us be perfectly clear…”

Schweitzer ends his piece with the statement that, “none of this will matter upon life’s discovery elsewhere. Religious leaders will simply declare that such life is fully compatible with, in fact predicted by, the Bible.” He’s right that this sort of poor understanding of the Bible and lousy reasoning are utterly inconsequential to any possible discovery of life elsewhere in the universe. As for whether the existence of life elsewhere is compatible with, even predicted by, the Bible, consider that the great biblical commentator, Nahmanides, inferred from Genesis that the universe was created with the potential for life built into it. Since he claimed this over 700 years ago, I’d say our side had dibs long before Schweitzer’s.

Mailbag: Why did God create dinosaurs?

JB writes:

Hi Dr. Salviander,

I’m a undergrad student in Dallas and I want to thank you for your dedication to the Lord in your work. It has helped me greatly and I’ve suggested your blog to my friends.

I had a simple question, just looking to get some insight:

Assuming the Anthropic Principle, why do you think God created dinosaurs and other species for mass extinction?

Thanks for your time–if you can!

I get wonderful questions from students, and this is no exception.

Dr. Hugh Ross runs an apologetics ministry called Reasons to Believe (also linked under “Helpful Resources”), and he talks a great deal about the fine-tuning argument. This argument says that the universe, and specifically the Earth, are very finely tuned for human life. In fact, so much so that all this fine-tuning overwhelmingly points to a Creator. Dr. Ross would say that, as with all cosmic events, mass extinctions play a part in preparing the Earth for the eventual appearance of humans. He discusses the dinosaur extinction in this article.

A corollary to this question might be, why did God carry out such an elaborate plan for the eventual appearance of humans—why not just create the universe and humans all at once and just bypass stuff like dinosaurs? The answer to that is in scripture, e.g. Psalm 8 and Romans 1:20. We learn about our Creator and his actions in this world by studying his creation. As physicist and theologian Dr. Gerald Schroeder points out, there is a Talmudic tradition that says the Torah (the first five books of Moses) was split in two on Mount Sinai; half was given to us in the book of scripture, the other half was sequestered in nature. In fact, the only name used for God in Genesis is ‘Elokiim,’ which means ‘God as made manifest in nature.’ Schroeder claims that we must study both scripture and nature in order to truly understand God’s word (see Schroeder’s book God According to God for more about this).

Mailbag: More on Schroeder’s biblical cosmology

Physicist, Gerald Schroeder, has written four books on the relation of biblical wisdom to modern science. In his book, The Science of God, he explains his biblical cosmology in detail. I’ve created an illustrated slideshow here (see also the “Six Days” tab at the top) that covers the basics of his model. The gist is that Schroeder is able to convincingly reconcile a literal interpretation of Genesis 1 –six 24-hour days of creation –with a universe that is billions of years old by invoking the phenomenon known as time dilation. That’s the slowing down of time in one reference frame as observed from another reference frame. It’s a scientifically sound model, but it’s also a bit difficult for the average scientific layperson to understand, because it involves one of the trickiest concepts in science — the nature of time. There are also other details that can be confusing to a reader not deeply versed in science, so I’m answering questions about the model sent in by readers. 

LH sends in another question from a forum discussion on Schroeder’s biblical cosmology:

At any point in time, the CMBR is not a single frequency, but a continuous spectrum of frequencies — to choose the “average” frequency, which doesn’t correspond to any single photon, to define a clock is questionable (unlike the frequency used to define a second, which is that of an actual photon). Also, the usual way of using light of a particular frequency to act as a clock is by defining the unit of time to be a fixed number of cycles or oscillations of the light wave (this is what is done in defining the second). Since the CMBR at early times has a higher frequency (shorter wavelength), it takes less time to go through a fixed number of cycles, so the unit of time (a “Day”) defined using the CMBR in the early universe is shorter in terms of years than it would be now, i.e. the Genesis days measured in Earth time should be getting progressively longer, not shorter (7 billion years, 3.5 billion years, 1.8 billion years, …).

It’s true the CBR has a blackbody spectrum with a distribution of frequencies, but, like every blackbody, it is characterized by a peak frequency (or wavelength, as shown below) that corresponds to its temperature. Every blackbody has one, and only one, peak frequency that corresponds to its temperature. This is why astronomers refer to just one color for the surface of a star. Stars can be approximated as blackbodies, they have a distribution of frequencies in the radiation from their surfaces, but they still have just one characteristic peak frequency that corresponds to surface temperature. And, in terms of redshift, anything that happens to one of those frequencies is going to happen in the exact same way to the other frequencies. I don’t see this as a valid criticism of Schroeder’s approach.

Blackbody spectra

Blackbody spectra for various temperatures

In terms of the length of a day, this person is mistakenly assuming that the number of cycles in a Genesis day is fixed — it’s not. The problem arises from not choosing the correct reference frames for comparison. We must compare one Genesis day with another from the point of view of our position on Earth today looking backward in time. I have an example that illustrates by analogy how we should be looking at it.

Let’s take the example of the flow of time for two different reference frames where gravitational redshift is creating a time dilation effect. The duration of a second is defined as ~9.2 billion cycles based on a particular transition of the cesium atom. This is as measured from a particular reference frame — the surface of the Earth. But let’s consider another reference frame, that of an observer in a spaceship orbiting some distance from the surface of the Earth. Let’s say the spaceship guy also has a cesium atom and is measuring the same transition, and that he is also able to measure the radiation coming from the cesium transition in the lab on the surface of the Earth. Now, in the time it takes the spaceship guy to count off 9.2 billion cycles for his spaceship cesium atom, he measures fewer than 9.2 billion cycles coming from the Earth’s cesium atom. In other words, in his one second of spaceship time is “faster” than one second of Earth time. The same number of cycles are both are experienced as one second by observers within their respective reference frames, but the cycles from Earth have been stretched by some factor corresponding to the effect of Earth’s gravity as measured by the guy in his spaceship reference frame.

Now, let’s extreme-ify this example by considering a planet — Planet X — for which the gravity is so extreme that, instead of the tiny time dilation effect observed due to Earth’s gravity, time near the surface of Planet X flows at half the rate as time for a spaceship orbiting Planet X. Let’s posit hypothetical observers on the surface of Planet X and in the spaceship, respectively. The guy on Planet X has a telescope he can use to peer into the spaceship and observe everything the spaceship guy is doing. He notices that the spaceship guy is doing everything twice as fast as he is on Planet X. He notices that a day passes on Planet X while two days pass for the guy on the spaceship. Note that the same number of cycles are not taking place on Planet X and on the spaceship during this little scenario; there is no requirement that this happen.

The difference in the flow of time in the previous two examples is due to gravitational redshifting, but we can take the same principle of time getting stretched out when viewed from different reference frames and apply it the expansion of the universe. In this case, however, instead of two reference frames that differ in location, we’ll consider two reference frames that differ in time.

Let’s consider time dilation as measured from the light curves of identical supernovae. A light curve is the brightness of a supernova as a function of time (usually measured in days). Type Ia supernovae have characteristic light curves that are always the same, because they all originate from the same type of star — this is what makes them excellent standards by which we measure cosmological effects. We can observe a nearby (roughly corresponding to the present time) Type 1a supernova and see that it takes about 20 days for the supernova to fade appreciably from peak brightness. If we observe another Type 1a supernova that’s at a distance corresponding to when the universe was about half its present age, the light curve makes it appear as though it takes 40 days for its brightness to fade by the same amount — twice as long for the exact same type of supernova. This is the time dilation effect due to the expansion of the universe. The light we receive now from an event that happened billions of years ago has been stretched to half the frequency — time appears to be flowing at half the rate now that it was when the light was emitted then. Again, there is no requirement that the number of cycles be made to equal each other in this comparison.


Light curves for nearby (blue) and distant (red) supernovae.

In the last example, we are comparing the flow of time at two different times in cosmic history from the point of view of the Earth, looking backward in time. There is no requirement that the number of cycles be the same for each day. Each successive day, when compared this way, is shorter than the previous day, because the flow of time has slowed down compared with the previous day. This forms the basis of Schroeder’s biblical cosmological model.

Previous: Mailbag: Time dilation in Schroeder’s biblical cosmology

Replay: “All the evidence we have says that the universe had a beginning”

Traffic’s up after the announcement of the publication of our Astronomy and Astrophysics curriculum, so we’re replaying some of our more important posts from the archives for our new readers. This article was originally posted on February 21, 2012

So says Tufts University physicist, Alexander Vilenkin, who made this statement at a meeting in January in honor of Stephen Hawking’s 70th birthday. (I’m a little late getting around to this, but it’s worth commenting on.)

To fully appreciate the magnitude of this statement, consider that the prevailing view of cosmology for more than two thousand years was that of an eternal universe. This view began to change in the 1920s, when astronomer Edwin Hubble discovered that the spectra of most galaxies are redshifted, and the further away a galaxy is from the Milky Way, the more its spectrum is redshifted. What this means in plain English is that almost all of the galaxies he observed are rushing away from each other, and those that were further away are rushing away faster. Incredibly, it appeared the universe was not only changing, but expanding. If you imagine running the expansion in reverse, so that galaxies rush toward one another as you go back in time, you end up with a point at which the expansion started — a beginning in time and space.

Belgian physicist and priest, Georges Lemaître, anticipated this discovery with what he called the “hypothesis of the primeval atom,” based on his solution to the Einstein field equations. The universe’s beginning was predicted to have been very energetic and violent, and was therefore dubbed as the “big bang.” Four decades later, physicists Arno Penzias and Robert Wilson discovered the predicted afterglow of this big bang, which eventually earned them Nobel prizes. By the late 1980s, sophisticated satellites were mapping the tiny fluctuations in the intensity of the big bang afterglow, which allowed physicists to calculate an age for the universe. By the end of the 20th century, there was near-consensus that the universe had a beginning that occurred some 11-17 billion years ago. (The cosmological model-based number is ~14 billion years.)

The big bang has had its detractors. It was astrophysicist Fred Hoyle, out of deep skepticism for the idea, who sarcastically applied the term “big bang” to this cosmological model. (Let it not be said that physicists are overly sensitive — the term stuck and has been used in all seriousness ever since.) Hoyle’s collaborator, astrophysicist Geoffrey Burbidge, famously ridiculed physicists who had hopped on the big bang bandwagon as “rushing off to join the First Church of Christ of the Big Bang.” There were two reasons scientists reacted this way. First, some scientists found the idea of a universe with a beginning uncomfortably close to the Genesis account of creation. Second, from the point of view of physics, mathematics, and philosophy, a universe with a beginning is far more messy to deal with than an eternal universe, which requires no explanation. Even still, the evidence for a beginning is now so overwhelming that most physicists have come to accept it, and the big bang has become the prevailing paradigm governing all of physics.

Nevertheless, some physicists had not given up on the idea of an eternal universe, but the focus changed to devising sophisticated models for an eternal universe that fit the observed data — in other words, an eternal universe that incorporated key features of the big bang model. Some of these features are explainable by invoking what’s called inflation, which refers to an early period of exceedingly rapid expansion. This idea was proposed by Alan Guth in the 1980s, and it can also be applied to an eternally inflating universe in which regions of the universe undergo localized inflation, creating “pocket universes.” This inflation continues forever, both in the past and into the future, and so in a sense it represents an eternal universe. Another idea was the cyclical universe, which posited that the universe is eternally expanding and contracting. In this way, the big bang that occurred 14 billion years ago would be just one of an infinite number of big bangs followed by ‘big crunches.’

All of the evidence indicates ours is a universe undergoing perpetual change. To replace Aristotle’s age-old idea of an eternal, unchanging universe, physicists came up with hypothetical eternal universes that were perpetually changing. This was an ingenius approach, but as Vilenkin announced last month, they just don’t work. Guth’s idea turns out to predict eternal inflation in the future, but not in the past. The cyclical model of the universe predicts that with each big bang, the universe becomes more and more chaotic. An eternity of big bangs and big crunches would lead to a universe of maximum disorder with no galaxies, stars, or planets — clearly at odds with what we observe.

As the journal New Scientist reports, physicists can’t avoid a creation event. Vilenkin’s admission exemplifies the reason physics is the king of all the sciences — physicists are generally willing to admit when their cherished ideas don’t work, and they eventually go where the data and logic lead them. Whether this particular realization will pave the way to serious discussion of God and consistency with the Genesis account of creation remains to be seen. Physicists can be a stubborn bunch. As Nobel laureate George P. Thomson observed, “Probably every physicist would believe in a creation if the Bible had not unfortunately said something about it many years ago and made it seem old-fashioned.” Still, some physicists are open to the idea. Gerald Schroeder, who is also an applied theologian, has written profoundly on the subject. His book, The Science of God, is an illuminating discussion of how the Bible and biblical commentary relate to the creation of the universe.

Mailbag: Time dilation in Schroeder’s biblical cosmology

LH asked for clarification on the biblical cosmology of Gerald Schroeder. There was some question of the nature of the redshift and how to relate that to cosmological time dilation. 

Physicist Gerald Schroeder has written four books on the relation of biblical wisdom to modern science. His book, The Science of God, explains his biblical cosmology in detail. I’ve created an illustrated slideshow here (see also the “Six Days” tab at the top) that covers the basics of his model. The gist is that Schroeder is able to convincingly reconcile a literal interpretation of Genesis 1 –six 24-hour days of creation –with a universe that is billions of years old by invoking the phenomenon known as time dilation. That’s the slowing down of time in one reference frame as observed from another reference frame. It’s a scientifically sound model, but it’s also a bit difficult for the average scientific layperson to understand, because it involves one of the trickiest concepts in science — the nature of time.

Even scientifically-literate people get tripped up by the effect of time dilation, because the effect can occur for different reasons. So, it’s no surprise that one of the most commonly misunderstood aspects of Schroeder’s biblical cosmology is the nature of the time dilation effect that gives us six 24-hour days in one frame of reference and 14 billion years in another. It is not due to gravitational effects or comparing two different physical reference frames within the universe. Rather it arises from the following:

  1. God’s reference frame existing beyond space and time, which regards the universe as a whole
  2. the expansion of the universe
  3. comparison of the flow of time between different moments in cosmological history

Schroeder assumes Genesis 1 is told from God’s perspective. God’s reference frame is not any one place within the universe, but from outside the universe, regarding the universe in its entirety. So, to find something to form the basis of the Genesis clock, Schroeder looked for something that takes into account the three points above. He chose the cosmic background radiation (CBR), because it permeates the entire universe, it has existed virtually since the beginning of the universe, and encoded in its properties are the history of the expansion of the universe.

The time dilation for Genesis 1 is based on the expansion of the universe. This is neither special relativity nor a gravitational effect; it is merely a consequence of the stretching of the CBR light waves as the universe expands. This is a well-established effect in cosmology, and one I have to take into account in my own research on distant quasars. For simplicity, if you think of the CBR light waves as a sine wave, then the frequency of the sine wave represents the beat of the Genesis clock. The higher the frequency, the faster the clock ticks off time. If you think of drawing this sine wave on a piece of stretchable fabric representing the fabric of the universe and then stretching this fabric, the length between the peaks on the sine wave gets longer, and hence the ticks of the clock get longer (i.e. slower). So, what’s happening is that as the universe ages and expands, the frequency of the CBR light decreases, and the ticks of the Genesis clock for each moment in time get slower compared with previous moments in time.

That’s how we can measure, from our earthly perspective looking backward in time, 14 billion years, while God measures, from his perspective regarding the universe as a whole looking forward in time, six 24-hour days.

Replay: Politics, science, and a false dichotomy

Traffic’s up after the announcement of the publication of our Astronomy and Astrophysics curriculum, so we’re replaying some of our more important posts from the archives for our new readers.

** Written by “Surak” **

There was a political confrontation last Thursday [August 2011] in New Hampshire between conservative politician, Rick Perry, and a liberal woman protestor. The dispute concerned Perry’s views about evolution and creationism, and it demonstrated why we need to be concerned about the future of science in America. Governor Perry spoke to the woman’s young son in front of the usual swarm of reporters eager for a headline. Perry gave them one by telling the boy that evolution was a theory with gaps in it. In an obvious attempt to contrive an unflattering media incident to hurt the Texas governor’s campaign, the mother could be heard urging the child to ask Perry why he didn’t believe in science. Perry ignored the mother and told the boy that in Texas both evolution and creationism are taught, “… because I figured you’re smart enough to figure out which one is right.” I am appalled by what the mother did and troubled by the implications of Perry’s response.

The mother undoubtedly thinks of herself as a defender of ‘science,’ by which I guess she means the usual vague understanding of the currently popular but failed mid-20th century version of evolution. Whatever her beliefs, it was an abuse of science to pull a cheap political trick like this. And, it was a disturbing corruption of her child’s innocence by putting words in his mouth he couldn’t possibly have understood. She obviously thought she was protecting him and other children from false ideas, but her actions amount to nothing more than a crude form of indoctrination based on the prevailing conviction that any questioning of ‘evolution’ is an intellectual sin.

I do not endorse Rick Perry or his political viewpoints. Having said that, I do agree with two important things he said. First, evolution theory, even in its best, most current form, does have serious gaps. For instance, it cannot explain how life began, the incredible explosion of animal life in the Cambrian, the fossil record that shows the sudden appearance of a multitude of new organ, limbs and species with no apparent transition stages, or the very recent appearance and mysterious nature of human consciousness. One cannot defend science by becoming indignant when someone else points out the obvious.

More importantly, I hope Governor Perry was sincere about trusting students to get it right. Science education in America should be based on that trust in (and challenge for) young minds. The foundation of modern science, as well as the basis of genius, is the ability to ask good questions, usually in the form of ‘how’, ‘why’ and ‘what if.’ Einstein’s thought experiments are a famous example. Scientific questioning, if it is to continue to lead to amazing and useful new answers, should never be shackled by politics, religion, or philosophy. Children must be taught and encouraged to ask their own questions no matter how strange, silly, or politically incorrect they might seem to parents and teachers.

Years ago, my high school science classes consisted mostly of rote memorization of facts and stale reenactments of old experiments. We were forced to think about other people’s questions (including a lot of mind-numbing ‘who’, ‘when’, and ‘where’) rather than our own questions. The whole process was as divorced from real life concerns, important philosophical questions, and religious beliefs as possible, and therefore totally irrelevant and boring. It wasn’t until years later that I discovered the wonders and power of real science.

I have a deep commitment to the scientific method. But, that commitment is tempered by an understanding that science is a tool that has limitations which must be acknowledged. Science cannot continue its positive role in society by becoming some kind of false idol, something created by humans but worshiped as infallible. Scientists and science teachers need to model a necessary and healthy humility that includes the need to state up front that science can only deal with our material world and can have nothing legitimate to say about anything that might lie outside our universe, such as God or heaven. Then maybe we’d get fewer annoying distractions at political events, and politicians could focus more on what they really need to do.

But humility is not happening. Science is being promoted by some as the complete, unerring, and only way to arrive at the truth. So, instead of being a good example for others, we witness more than a few scientists make the grave mistake of denigrating other people’s deepest beliefs and alienating them from science. Look up the latest silly musings of the great scientist Stephen Hawking to see a sad and disturbing example of this. If humility fails on a large enough scale, science can’t help but slide in the direction of political correctness and eventually petrify as dogma.

We won’t be able to avoid this fate if protecting science comes to mean putting young people like the woman’s son in an educational bubble to protect them from philosophy and religion under the guise of separation of church and state. Remember that science started as something called natural philosophy and was given its modern form by its devoutly Christian founders. You cannot separate these three things without damaging science. If our current generation of students is to become the next generation of effective scientists, they must be given the opportunity to understand how science relates to and differs from religion and philosophy objectively without the biases and fears that currently stifle our schools and rupture our communities.

So, Governor Perry is right about teaching creationism, because it is a powerful force in American history and culture that needs to be studied not just in social studies classes but also in science classes. Even young-Earth creationism, which I view as sadly non-scientific, should be squarely presented to high school students. Students need to understand what science is not in order to understand what it is. They will benefit from understanding young-Earth creationism, have fun debating it, and discover the truth for themselves if given the necessary tools, opportunity, and encouragement.

My challenge to the mother and all others on the left of the political spectrum is ‘what are you afraid of?’ If all the variations of creationism are so totally wrong, if the science you believe in is so strong, won’t it be obvious to the vast majority of students by the time they finish high school? Allow creationism, intelligent design, and the various forms of evolutionary theory to contend with one another in an honest competition of ideas, and then trust students to get it right. One can only object to this if his or her real goal is indoctrination.

This open approach to science education would include a spirited defense of Darwinism in the schools, because Darwin is a prime example of a great scientist asking important questions and coming up with an original and compelling answer. But evolutionary theory must be presented truthfully and fully, including not only its strengths, but also its many weaknesses. In the spirit of an open and effective science curriculum, would the liberal mother from New Hampshire be willing to have science teachers discuss the totally unexpected results of evolutionary development (Evo Devo)? Is this ‘defender of science’ even aware that the findings of biologists in this new field have turned evolutionary thought on its head in the last few years? (I refer the reader to Sean B. Carroll’s excellent book, Endless Forms Most Beautiful: The New Science of Evo Devo and the Making of the Animal Kingdom). Would she be willing to have students informed that the three great enduring mysteries of biology – the origins of life, the inexplicable explosion of animal life in the Cambrian, and the sudden development and mysterious nature of human consciousness – correspond to the three instance in Genesis that the word ‘creation’ is used to describe how things came about? (As an agnostic about religion, I’m not sure what this means, but it is really interesting.) Or, would she insist that young people be kept ignorant of all this in defense of some quasi-sacred belief she calls evolution?

To be fair, it is likely and terribly unfortunate that most people on the political right and the Christian side of the science/religion debate don’t trust young people either. As the religious and political conflict continues to intensify, which it seems to be doing, each side will probably do all it can to indoctrinate and control children. I fear that, as a result of this irresolvable conflict, science as the search for truth will eventually be fatally corrupted and seriously diminished as a force for good in people’s lives.

So, I want to say this to people on the left who declare their desire to protect science: you don’t protect science by sanitizing education and excluding other ways of thinking. You must look at yourselves in the mirror and realize that you are just as susceptible to political dogma and metaphysical prejudice as the people you oppose. Quit trying to use science to score political points and undercut Christian influence. In other words, if you have to fight, fight fair and leave science out of it.

To the people on the religious right who want to protect their faith: you can’t protect it by rejecting science or promoting false scientific views, because it will only make you look foolish and alienate your children in this age of science. Young-Earth creationism in particular is self-defeating because it leaves Christian youth vulnerable to the powerful (but false) scientific arguments of prominent atheists who are increasingly successful in turning young people away from faith. You believe, or at least many of you say you believe, that the Bible is true. You also understand that God gave us minds capable of comprehending his works. Won’t both paths, scripture and science, eventually lead to the same truth?

If you doubt this, consider the following quote from Gerald L. Schroeder’s bestselling book, The Science of God:

At the briefest instant following creation all the matter of the universe was concentrated in a very small place, no larger than a grain of mustard. The matter at this time was so thin, so intangible, that it did not have real substance. It did have, however, a potential to gain substance and form and to become tangible matter. From the initial concentration of this intangible substance in its minute location, the substance expanded, expanding the universe as it did so. As the expansion progressed, a change in the substance occurred. This initially thin noncorporeal substance took on the tangible aspects of matter as we know it. From this initial act of creation, from this ethereally thin pseudosubstance, everything that has existed, or will ever exist, was, is and will be formed.

As Dr. Schroeder points out (p. 56), “This … could be a quote from a modern physics textbook.” But in fact it comes from the 13th century biblical scholar, Nahmanides (1194-1270), who was able to anticipate modern science by 700 years using nothing more than a literal interpretation of the Bible. It’s true that the best scientists in the world were not capable of this level of understanding of our universe until after 1965, but science did finally catch up with scripture. Christians must have faith that scripture and science are two paths to the one and only truth, and God intended us to use both. (See Psalms 19:1 and Romans 1:20.)

This is why I am concerned about Governor Perry’s statement. His indirect response to the mother’s attack assumes that either science (in this case, evolution) or Christian scripture (in this case, creationism) is right, that they can’t both be right. Christians must not buy into the imagined conflict between science and faith — there is no inherent schism. I believe both the scientific view of our universe (effectively understood) and the Genesis account of creation (properly understood) are entirely compatible.

You don’t have to be a believer in scripture to accept the possibility there can be more than one path to the truth. It would be wonderful if we could all wish each other well on whichever path each of us chooses and help one another in the search for truth. If we can’t manage that level of good will, then we should at least accept, in the American spirit of freedom, that no one has a right to tell anyone else what to believe. I hope that all Americans will embrace science as the objective search for truth and keep it above the fray, that Christians will not see science as the enemy but will once again become fully involved in the scientific adventure, and that our brothers and sisters on the left will refrain, even if they must see religion as the enemy, from using science as a weapon. Otherwise we will all lose so much.

Replay: Heroes sometimes fail: Why Stephen Hawking is wrong

Traffic’s up after the announcement of the publication of our Astronomy and Astrophysics curriculum, so we’re replaying some of our more important posts from the archives for our new readers.

** Written by “Surak” **

As a human being who often struggles with relatively trivial difficulties in life, I have long felt admiration for Stephen Hawking’s courage and determination to continue working in spite of a highly-debilitating disease. As a physics enthusiast, I have the greatest respect for his accomplishments. But now, as a result of an article published in The Guardian two weeks ago [May 2011], I also feel embarrassment for, and disappointment in, Hawking. The article reported his views on religion and metaphysics — they were unoriginal, ill-informed, biased, insensitive, and even arrogant.

The article was entitled, “Stephen Hawking: ‘There is no heaven; it’s a fairy story’.” I don’t believe Hawking is capable of such an inane statement, so I attribute this bit of silliness to the reporter’s desire for an attention grabbing headline. It’s just another example of why no one can trust reporters. Unfortunately the rest of the silliness that follows is undoubtedly Hawking’s.

For example, Hawking believes the human brain is like a computer that will stop working when its components fail. This is an old and discredited view of the human mind. The brain is not like any known computer. For one thing, computers process serially, while the brain has the wonderful ability to process things in parallel. Hawking simply has the metaphor backwards, as any computer engineer struggling to make computers more like the human brain can tell you.

This simplistic view of humans can also be faulted for his apparent ignorance of the related problems of consciousness and mind/body dualism. Consciousness is one of the great unsolved mysteries of the universe, and there are no conscious computers except in movies. Since Hawking doesn’t say anything new about consciousness, his statements about the human condition are pretentious.

The dualist/monist debate about whether or not the mind and brain are the same thing has been raging for about 2,500 years. The best philosophers in the world have failed to resolve the question, something of which Hawking seems unaware, since he takes the monist side and simply dismisses the dualist view without argument. When it comes to philosophical arguments, scientists — even great scientists — need to understand that they have no special privileges.

Hawking was also reported to have said, “There is no heaven or afterlife for broken-down computers; that is a fairy story for people afraid of the dark.” From an uninspired and misleading analogy he leaps into metaphysics with an arrogant disregard for the limitations of science. Science is the study of our material universe, and as such it can have nothing to say about heaven or the afterlife. It is destructive of science for one its best to loudly proclaim scientifically unsupportable and irresponsible conclusions.

Hawking certainly has as much right as any other person to speculate on the great questions of human existence. But, honest inquiry and open communication do not appear to be his intent. Hawking does not acknowledge his lack of expertise in these matters nor does he invite the rest of us to discuss heaven or the after-life as his equals. Instead he engages in a condescending and mean-spirited condemnation of deeply-held religious beliefs. There is no empathy for those who fear the darkness of an existence devoid of genuine love, objective moral truths, and the hope of eternal purpose. His message seems to be ‘here is the way smart people think, and if you think differently, you’re a pathetic dimwit.’

Hawking is blind to the wrong he is doing science. He reportedly told Diane Sawyer that “there is a fundamental difference between religion, which is based on authority, and science, which is based on observation and reason. Science will win, because it works.” There are three parts to this statement, all of which are wrong:

  1. There are at least three relevant definitions of the word ‘authority.’ Hawking is using the word in the following sense:

    The power or right to control, judge, or prohibit the actions of others.This would be a generally accepted definition of religious authority. Hawking certainly has in mind the atheist myth that Christian leaders have over the centuries prohibited scientists in significant ways. The false allegation of Galileo’s persecution by the Catholic Church is a notable example1. The undeniable historic truth is that Christian faith and beliefs were the necessary foundation of modern science.Hawking should keep in mind two other important definitions of authority:An expert in a particular field.The ability to influence or control others.Hawking, as a renowned expert in physics, has significant influence over others — he is a scientific authority. When he uses this sort of authority to make pronouncements that go far beyond the scope of legitimate science, Hawking is the one abusing authority.
  2. I wholeheartedly agree with Hawking that science is largely based on observation and reason. So, what has Hawking observed to lead him to the conclusion there is no afterlife or heaven? Has he teleported to the far reaches of the universe? Has he managed to visit the other seven dimensions that string theory posits to exist? Has he somehow escaped the confines of our universe to see what is outside? Has he at least had a near-death experience? If his beliefs are not based on direct observation, then what exactly does Hawking’s reason tell him that has eluded so many other great thinkers before him?
  3. In what way does science work better than religion? Science gives knowledge of one kind, but it cannot give humankind a viable ethics to live by2or explain the meaning or purpose of life. The Bible does these important things for billions of people. Even for non-Christians, the dominant moral system in the world today has its roots in Christianity, which is the major reason the world has never been safer or more prosperous than it is now.Furthermore, the Bible is arguably superior to science as a source of truth about our universe. Is Hawking aware that the Bible states that the universe had a beginning3, that it was created out of nothing4, and that time in our universe is relative5? Scientists didn’t figure any of this out until the 20th century. Genesis 1 alone makes at least 26 scientifically testable statements about the creation of the universe and the origins of life. All 26 are consistent with current scientific understanding and in the correct order. The inconvenient truth for atheists is that the Bible somehow beat science to important truths by about 3,000 years.

    Science works in an important but very narrow sense — it assists humankind in understanding and controlling much of the natural world. But it also gives people tremendous destructive power. Without religion to give people direction in the choices they make about using that power, humankind could end up destroying itself.Finally, if you compare societies around the world in regard to which works best, science or religion, one fact of supreme importance will jump out at you. Generally speaking, non-religious peoples are not reproducing themselves while religious ones are. This single aspect of a society overrules all others; if a nation doesn’t reproduce itself, it is irrelevant how many other wonderful qualities it may have because they won’t be projected into the future. In the long run, atheist or secular humanist societies, no matter how scientific, don’t work because they lack the power to continue.

Hawking goes on to say that the concept of religion is in constant conflict with his life’s work — science, and understanding the most basic ways in which the universe works — and it’s almost impossible to reconcile the two. The first part of this statement is an old atheist lie: there is no inherent conflict between Christianity and science. Hawking either ignores or is ignorant of the historical fact that the Christian faith and beliefs made science possible in the first place. If you doubt this, take a look at when and where modern science developed and flourished, along with the religious beliefs of the great scientists who laid the foundations of science.

This is not to say that there hasn’t been conflict between science and religion, but it’s not the fault of Christianity. From at least the time of Darwin, secular humanists such as Thomas Huxley have misused science and misrepresented Christian beliefs in an effort to undermine the influence of Christian faith. The truth is that some scientists are in constant conflict with religion because of their atheist beliefs, and they betray science as a result.

The report reminds the public of Hawking’s position that it is “not necessary to invoke God … to get the universe going.” He has maintained this position since very early in his career, telling German news-magazine Der Speigel in 1988 that “what I have done is to show that it is possible for the way the universe began to be determined by the laws of science. In that case, it would not be necessary to appeal to God to decide how the universe began.”

He’s not saying that he knows the cause of the Big Bang. He is saying that he has constructed a mathematical model of a possible explanation. To say something is possible is meaningless and useless. It’s possible that somewhere in the universe, blue gooses lay gold coins with Hawking’s likeness on them. Like Hawking’s statement, it’s not scientific, because no one can prove it’s not true. The other weakness of his argument against the necessity of God is that it requires the laws of nature to be eternal. They would have had to ‘predate’ the universe in some manner that can never be scientifically proved, such as the emerging atheist myth of the multiverse.

Hawking continues, “This doesn’t prove that there is no God, only that God is not necessary.” Hawking is at least aware that science cannot be used to prove that God does not exist. Instead, he engages in the weasel argument that there is effectively no God since anything that is not necessary can be ignored or discarded. It’s like a child denying the necessity of parents. Child to parent: “I’m not saying you don’t exist, you just aren’t necessary. I can live without you, so just give me the keys to the house and the car along with your credit card, and go away and leave me alone.”

Scientists such as Hawking and Richard Dawkins start from a bias against God and then play in a child-like way with concepts to justify their prejudice. Just as a child cobbles together some rough approximation of an airplane out of Lego, Hawking imagines that he has constructed a viable worldview that doesn’t rest on the notion of God. But he has explained nothing and ignored almost everything of significance. He has his mathematical model of a godless universe; don’t bother him with the mysteries of what came before the Big Bang, the origins of life, the sudden Cambrian explosion of animal life, the nearly universal human need for spiritual beliefs, or the greatest mystery of all, the origin and meaning of human consciousness. He has his toy and wants to show it off.

Then Hawking says something that gives an important insight into the workings of the atheist mind. The report continues, “And it’s his work that keeps him going — even if there isn’t a heaven.” “I’m in no hurry to die. I have so much I want to do first.” This statement illustrates the most telling and annoying aspect of atheism: atheists seem incapable of taking any of their beliefs and reasoning to necessary and obvious conclusions. They dismiss God and the afterlife, argue that the material world is all that exists, assert that man is the measure of all things, and conclude that people can free themselves of religious restrictions and do whatever they want. If you ask them to continue with this train of thought, they usually make some kind of vague statement about a life in the service of humankind and the possibility of a kind of immortality in the sense that society will remember a person’s good deeds ‘forever.’

The problem, of course, is that it is delusional nonsense. What any good scientist should know is that our material universe is very likely heading toward what is called heat death, a state in which energy no longer exists in a form that can support life. But even before this occurs, the human species will have become extinct anyway. What is the point of doing anything in this life when you will be annihilated in the blink of a cosmic eye followed in short order by the rest of humankind? If atheists really believed this, they would either commit suicide or become Buddhist monks. But the vast majority of them continue to act as if human existence has some kind of meaning greater than that of their material state. If Hawking is right about God and the afterlife, every trace of humanity will be destroyed, all of Hawking’s work will be lost, and every effort he makes will be futile.

What he is really means when he says he is in no hurry to die is that he values his existence and he wants to keep on existing. He feels he has purpose, but he does not wonder where that purpose could possibly come from. He’s not thinking his own position to its logical end, which is that without God his existence is pathetically finite and ultimately meaningless. He says there is no God, but acts as if there is.

Interestingly, Hawking has also made headlines in recent years over his views about the existence of aliens, and what interactions between our races would be like. “If aliens ever visit us, I think the outcome would be much as when Christopher Columbus first landed in America, which didn’t turn out very well for the Native Americans,” he said.

Here we detect the pessimism that will always be a result of atheism (as well as a lack of imagination based on what little he thinks he knows about the past). Without God and the hope for the redemption of humankind, he has no reason for optimism, no belief that things will work out better in the future than in the past. Christians believe this because they believe that good is stronger than evil, that by following God’s direction people can always triumph over evil, and that good therefore must be the future of humankind. That’s why, for instance, evangelical Christians, not atheists, put an end to the worldwide slave trade; that’s why Christians, not atheists, marched into horrendous Civil War battles singing, “He died to make men holy, let us die to make men free,” and ended slavery in America.

In spite of all this, I still believe Stephen Hawking is a hero. He has persevered with a debilitating disease and done tremendous work in theoretical physics. But what do you do when a hero lets you down? There’s a line from the Gordon Lightfoot song, “If You Could Read My Mind,” that goes “The hero would be me. But heroes often fail …” That’s what I think about Stephen Hawking. When it comes to religion and metaphysics, he has failed, but he is still a hero in a way that does not diminish the meaning of the word.

I came to believe in God because of what I learned about the universe. I had the good fortune not to go to Oxford and be saturated with humanist bias against the “God hypothesis.” When I look at the structure of the universe and life on Earth, I see evidence of a great mind at work. I am sorry for Hawking that he can’t.


[1] Dinesh D’Souza provides a succinct reopening of “the Galileo Case” in Chapter 10 of What’s So Great About Christianity.

[2] Not that atheists haven’t tried. See Vox Day’s review of The Moral Landscape by Sam Harris.

[3] Genesis 1:1.

[4] Genesis 1:1. See Gerald Schroeder’s explanation of the significance of the word “create” in The Science of God (pp 143-144).

[5] Psalms 90:4.