How Catholics Should View the Big Bang Theory
A number of ministries trying to spread the Christian message in the 21st century – such as Answers in Genesis (associated with the Creation Museum in Kentucky) and Movieguide – are greatly concerned with analyzing different worldviews. Whereas Movieguide examines worldviews in screen entertainment, AiG discusses various slants and biases in the realm of science. Why is this important? Because worldviews define how we see the things around us, how we perceive reality.
Someone from a vantage point of secularism or scientism, for instance, would claim there was nothing before the supposed Big Bang. There are several layers of meaning to explore here. For one, this mode of thought presumes the Big Bang was a factual phenomenon that occurred in our common past – like Michelangelo's sculpting of David or the assassination of President Lincoln. Another point of interest is that, if the Big Bang happened, the belief that nothing pre-existed this event is in one sense false, and in another true.
This article suggests a Catholic outlook on the Big Bang theory. It will also touch on what other (non-Catholic) Christians think of it and what position many have taken. Admittedly, a Catholic worldview differs from the belief systems of many denominations of our Christian brethren. (Take the issue of contraceptives as an example in morality. Biblical interpretation differs as well; it is not mandatory that Catholics believe the world was created in seven 24-hour days.) It's understandable then that, in some scientific theories, the Catholic Church makes allowances for their incorporation into our comprehension of Sacred Scripture.
Ken Ham's Beef with Big Bang
If you peruse Answers in Genesis (their website or their YouTube channel) long enough, you will find an anti-Big-Bang tone. Ken Ham, AiG's founder, is thoroughly against this proposition. In a recent AiG video, one of Ham's colleagues stated, “...we shouldn't be trying to mix it [the Big Bang model] with our Christianity.” The AiG crew sees the Big Bang theory as being at odds with the biblical narrative of creation. Ham believes the two are incompatible.
One of the first takeaways from the roundtable discussion in the video is that newly-released photos from the James Webb Space Telescope have stumped Big Bang proponents. They cite an article in which those same photos apparently defy established theories about galaxy formation. The AiG folks take this claim as a mini-victory proving the hollowness of the theory.
Another shortcoming that believers will often find with the theory is that it fails to adequately explain the generation of time and matter. Ken Ham also says the Big Bang concept came out of atheism, or naturalism.
Furthermore, like the theory of evolution, there's a real argument for a bias among the scientific community in favor of taking the theory as definitively settled – that it, in fact, was unquestionably the starting point from which the whole universe unraveled and expanded. Let's respond to these critiques.
Big Bang Bias
The last complaint is undoubtedly valid. Taking the Big Bang for granted is a popular position in modern astronomy and its adjacent fields of research. The Scientific American published an intriguing article in February by Sarah Scoles called “Life as We Don't Know It.” The long-form piece explored new and out-of-the-box methods proposed for detecting extraterrestrial life-forms. At one point, Scoles writes:
In the beginning, there was the big bang. Hydrogen, the simplest element, formed. Then came helium. Much later there were organic molecules – conglomerations of carbon atoms with other elements attached.
Scoles continued in like fashion. But it is striking that all this was presumed so matter-of-factly, when really we don't know if there even was a Big Bang. This is a mark of pretty blatant bias.
The Christian Origins of Big Bang Theory
We have confirmed the scientific community has a pro-Big Bang bias. What's next? Ham's claim that the theory was born to fulfill some atheistic agenda. I'm afraid that is patently false. While the theory has undergone its own evolution replete with various iterations over the years, its origins are as the brainchild of a believer – a Catholic priest, actually. Fr. Georges Lemaître, who received his Ph.D. in physics from MIT, formally proposed the Big Bang model in a 1931 paper. His proposal, building on the ideas of Edwin Hubble and Albert Einstein, held that the universe is expanding and that it originated from a “primeval atom” which blew up, resulting in the generation of space and time.
In his own day, Lemaître gained much attention both from fellow scientists and from the Church. Pope Pius XII lauded his hypothesis, thinking it wholly reconcilable with our understanding of creation. In the Pope's eyes, it gave scientific credence to “that primordial Fiat Lux,” or “Let there be light,” recorded in Genesis. When it came to the possible intermingling of the Faith with his theory, the priest posited:
...such a theory remains entirely outside any metaphysical or religious question...It is consonant with Isaiah speaking of the hidden God, hidden even in the beginning of the universe.
Fr. Lemaître limited his idea to the realm of scientific theory. It did not inhibit creationism nor disprove it. It was not a religious statement but a scientific one. It neither proved nor disproved God's creation ex nihilo just as the Big Bang theory itself has neither been proved nor disproved. Although, the Belgian priest always knew it had the potential to be scrapped by the science community if later discoveries brought discrepancies to light.
Let There Be Light!
We read in the Holy Bible:
And God said, “Let there be light”; and there was light. And God saw that the light was good; and God separated the light from the darkness (Gen. 1:3-4).
The explosion of the so-called “primordial atom,” resulting in an expanding fireball, is an image that fits quite well within the biblical framework. On the surface, they appear compatible. Additionally, just as Lemaître's theory is not a religious but a scientific statement, the Bible is not a scientific text but a religious one. The Bible is not merely about observable phenomena but about the spiritual realities underpinning our salvation. As such, the Bible's language should not be viewed through the same lens as a peer-reviewed research paper. Its goal is not to describe the exact unfolding of the universe but the unfolding of the salvific story from Adam to Jesus Christ. Who's to say that the “light” God ordains in the beginning did not manifest itself as the Big Bang? In the end, only God knows.
If we look deeper into the modern perception of the Big Bang, the theory stimulates our mind to consider the grandeur of God as utterly different from His creatures. Space: A Visual Encyclopedia (DK Publishing, 2010) mentions that there was no “before” the Big Bang since neither time nor matter had yet come into existence. “Neither could start until the other one began,” the Encyclopedia states.
This consideration may have more to do with philosophy than physics. As Christians, this understanding of the cosmos makes sense. There was no thing before the Big Bang; as far as time is concerned, there wasn't even a “before” before that moment. How do we square this away? Matter did not exist prior to the supposed Big Bang, but God (pre-Incarnation) is purely spiritual in nature – not material. Likewsie, God is Creator. In the beginning, He is distinct and separate from creation. Time exists only as part of God's creation, and thus God exists outside of time. We could say there would be no thing before the Big Bang, but there wasn't no One. There was God! Before and after the work of creation, God continues to transcend His creatures who are subject to the parameters of time.
Thomas Aquinas, saint and Doctor of the Church, talks about the origins of the universe in his Quaestiones Disputatae de Potentia. Like modern scientists, he concluded that time did not exist before the universe and, hence, that the existence of time and matter are mutually dependent on one another. Aquinas writes:
...just as there isn't real space outside the universe, but one we imagine when we say God could make something at such-and-such a distance from the universe, so there wasn't real time before the universe began, but one we imagine when we talk of a last moment of non-being.
Moreover, Aquinas asserts in the same treatise that we “must firmly maintain that the world has not always existed.” The world – the universe even – is not eternal. By Lemaître's time, scientists had observed a great deal of change in the natural world; they began to consider the possibility that this universe of ours did not exist forever but began in a definite moment. The priest's theory met this criterion. Likewise, the Bible clearly states that there was a beginning to the things we see around us. Understanding the Big Bang this way seems to fit well not only with traditional Catholic philosophy but with Sacred Scripture as well.
Faith + Reason: The Knights of Columbus, Einstein, and John Paul II
In the April edition of Columbia, the official magazine of the Knights of Columbus, a host of articles revolved around the theme of the Big Bang, images from the James Webb Space Telescope (JWST), and astronomy in general. Even in this Catholic magazine, the voices of popular (educated) opinion shine through. In an interview with the lead systems engineer of the JWST, Michael Menzel (a Catholic and K of C member), the engineer says nonchalantly, “The Big Bang happened about 13.8 billion years ago.” Menzel too accepts the scientific narrative for hard fact. The statement could be true for all we know, but it's still just a theory.
Menzel goes on to describe the new discoveries made by the JWST's snapshots. “These very early galaxies that we've never seen so far have been much, much bigger than anybody had anticipated,” he tells Columbia. “And rather than being made of mostly hydrogen and helium, they have a lot of carbon, oxygen, nitrogen – heavier elements that we didn't expect to see.” The JWST's findings were unexpected. Yet, Menzel, unlike Ken Ham, sees no contradiction between these surprising developments and the Big Bang model of creation.
Later in the interview, Menzel even notes the similarities shared between faith and the sciences. “Both religion and science are looking for the truth,” he said. “It's the methods that are different...I see no conflict between the two at all.”
This idea – that faith and reason work in tandem and that science and religion are not really at odds – has been upheld by secular scientists and churchmen alike. Albert Einstein, the modern-day icon of outstanding genius, had this to say on the matter:
Now, even though the realms of religion and science in themselves are clearly marked off from each other, nevertheless there exist between the two strong reciprocal relationships and dependencies. Though religion may be that which determines the goal, it has, nevertheless, learned from science, in the broadest sense, what means will contribute to the attainment of the goals it has set up. But science can only be created by those who are thoroughly imbued with the aspiration toward truth and understanding. The source of feeling, however, springs from the sphere of religion. To this there also belongs the faith in the possibility that the regulations valid for the world of existence are rational, that is, comprehensible to reason. I cannot conceive of a genuine scientist without that profound faith. The situation may be expressed by an image: science without religion is lame, religion without science is blind.
We may take the above statement with a grain of salt. Einstein was ahead of his time in more ways than one. He was a scientist who did not believe in a personal God and even thought religiosity hindered human progress. This sort of scientific humanism is similar to that we see in later figures in the field of astronomy such as Carl Sagan, Stephen Hawking, and Neil deGrasse Tyson (all of whom adopted various flavors of agnosticism or atheism). All these men showcase brilliant minds using the intelligence given to them. But all intelligence and better yet, all wisdom, has God as its origin as Scripture tells us: “For the LORD gives wisdom; from his mouth come knowledge and understanding” (Proverbs 2:6).
Once again, when the orthodoxy of our faith is stated simply, we see that religious belief and science have the same origin and, as some have it, the same goal: Truth. In much the same vein as Einstein, Lemaître, and Menzel, Pope St. John Paul II believed science and faith were not just compatible but complimentary. In the late 1980s, writing a letter to the director of the Vatican Observatory, the saint said:
Science can purify religion from error and superstition; religion can purify science from idolatry and false absolutes. Each can draw the other into a wider world, a world in which both can flourish.
Following in the same train of thought as this well-loved saint, a devoted priest-scientist who proposed the theory itself, and from the theological tradition of the Chruch, I think it is safe to say that science broadens our view of and deepens our appreciation for not just creation but also the Creator. Carl Sagan said we are made up of “star stuff,” the cosmic dust left over from the creation and subsequent destruction of numerous stars and heavenly bodies. Couldn't that really be the case? God created the cosmos – maybe with a bang, and there was light. God formed the earth (maybe through cosmic collisions) and then formed man from the dust of that same earth. Maybe we are, indeed, made of star stuff.
Whatever our chemical-physical origins and those of our universe, let's understand our place in it the way the Psalmist suggests: “The heavens are telling the glory of God; and the firmament proclaims his handiwork” (Ps. 19:1). And, what is more: “When I look at thy heavens, the work of thy fingers, the moon and the stars which thou hast established; what is man that thou art mindful of him, and the son of man that thou dost care for him?” (Ps. 8:3-4).
Aquinas, T. (2008). Selected philosophical writings (Timothy McDermott, Ed.). Oxford University Press.
Einstein, A. (1954). Ideas and opinions (Carl Seelig, Ed.). Wings Books.
Horobin, W., Ed. (2010). Space: a visual encyclopedia. DK Publishing.
Note: All Scripture passages are quoted from the RSV Bible Catholic Edition.