According to ancient Greek philosophers, matter was uncreated and therefore eternal. The biblical writers of the book of Genesis believed differently and held that the universe had not always existed and was, in fact, created by an all-powerful God at a finite point in the past. Later, another influential thinker, a Muslim philosopher and theologian from the twelfth century CE called Al-Ghazali engaged Greek philosophy and argued that the idea of a beginningless universe was absurd. It is clear that questions relating to the infinite past and the beginning of the universe have had a long history and continue to be entertained passionately.
There was a time when many scientists believed that the universe was eternal. This view was challenged in 1929 by astronomer Edwin Hubble who noticed that the universe was expanding, a fact later confirmed in 1965 by Arno Wilson and Robert Penzias. Wilson and Penzias are two astronomers credited with the discovery of the cosmic microwave background that had them awarded the Nobel Prize for Physics.
Many thinkers have proposed alternative hypotheses that avoid a finite beginning to the universe. These hypotheses have, however, been largely rejected and Big Bang cosmology has enjoyed broad consensus (1). This consensus did not come without resistance. In 1960 the science writer John Maddox thought that the Big Bang gave those who believed in the biblical doctrine of creation “ample justification” for their beliefs (2). Although similar sentiments were expressed by others, the Big Bang ultimately stuck as the model that best explained the scientific data.
The reasons for the acceptance of the Big Bang, scientific and otherwise, vary. Alan Guth and Alexander Vilenkin have demonstrated that the universe is in a state of cosmic expansion and must have had a beginning in the finite past (3). According to Vilenkin, we “can no longer hide behind a past-eternal universe. There is no escape, they have to face the problem of a cosmic beginning” (4). The second law of thermodynamics shows that at some point in the very distant future the universe will end up in a cold, dark state. But if the universe has existed eternally then it should now be in a cold, dark state. But it is not, and therefore must have had a finite beginning. As philosopher William Lane Craig asks,
“If, given sufficient time, the universe will suffer heat death, then why, if it has existed forever, as naturalists assume, is it not now in a state of heat death? If in a finite amount of time the universe will inevitably come to equilibrium, from which no significant further change is physically possible, then it should already be at an equilibrium by now, if it has existed for infinite time” (5).
Philosophers have pointed to the impossibility of having an infinite regress of past events (6).
The fact that all physical space, time, matter, and energy came into being at a finite point some billions of years ago has been of much interest to theists and philosophers of religion (7). It is also a main area in which dialogue between religion and science is taking place (8). Even non-religious philosophers such as Quentin Smith see the importance of this discussion,
“The idea that the Big Bang theory allows us to infer that the universe began to exist about 15 billion years ago has attracted the attention of many theists. This theory seemed to confirm or at least lend support to the theological doctrine of creation ex nihilo. Indeed, the suggestion of a divine creation seemed so compelling that the notion that “God created the Big Bang” has taken a hold on popular consciousness and become a staple in the theistic component of ‘educated common sense’. By contrast, the response of atheists and agnostics to this development has been comparatively lame” (9).
Big Bang cosmology that asserts a finite beginning to the universe has been a thorn for religious skeptics and atheists. The atheist Lewis Wolpert conceded that “there’s the whole problem of where the universe itself came from,” and then asks “How did that all happen? I haven’t got a clue” (10). Stephen Hawking suggested that “Many people do not like the idea that time has a beginning, probably because it smacks of divine intervention” (11).
Wolpert and Hawking and many others have realized the difficulty atheistic-naturalism has when needing to explain how we got everything from nothing. If the universe comes from nothing in the true sense of absolute nothingness (no time, space, matter), then what was it that caused it? On a naturalistic view, the universe came into being out of absolute nothingness and for no purpose or reason. It merely exists because it exists. But for the theist, the universe had a finite beginning because a Creator decided to create it. Mathematician John Lennox explains that “From the Christian point of view, the question is solved because there wasn’t nothing. There was God who’s non-physical. God is spirit, and he caused it all to be, and supports it in being. That makes perfect sense” (12).
But why suppose that “From nothing, nothing comes?” This was a question first posed philosophical by the Greek philosopher Parmenides. Affirming the proposition that from nothing, nothing comes seems stronger than saying things can pop into being uncaused out of nothing. As Craig notes, if things could just pop into existence out of nothing then why don’t we see thins all over the place? Craig states that,
“suppose something could come into being from nothing. If that were the case then it is inexplicable why just anything and everything doesn’t pop into being out of nothing. But no-one here tonight is worried that while you’re listening to this debate a horse may have popped into being uncaused out of nothing in your living room, and is there defiling the carpet right now as we speak” (13).
The eighteenth-century skeptic David Hume was also critical of the “so absurd a Proposition as that anything might arise without a cause” (14).
And if things could pop into existence out of nothing, why does this seem to be unique to the universe,
“Why is it only universes that can come into being from nothing? What makes nothingness so discriminatory? There can’t be anything about nothingness that favors universes, for nothingness doesn’t have any properties. Nor can anything constrain nothingness, for there isn’t anything to be constrained!” (15).
There seem to be three options on the table to account for the finite beginning to the universe in the Big Bang: a Creator, an eternal universe that gets around a beginning, or that the universe brought itself into existence without a cause. As noted, scientific logic and philosophical reasoning remove the eternal universe from the table of likely explanations (16). Further, as Craig noted, nothingness has no properties and so can have no causal power needed to create anything. This means we can’t explain the universe’s beginning by appealing to the universe creating itself. Craig maintains that to believe that this is possible is worse than believing in magic,
“To claim that something can come into being from nothing is worse than magic, when you think about it. When a magician pulls a rabbit out of a hat, at least you’ve got the magician – not to speak of the hat!” (17)
Theists like Craig maintain that God or a Creator is the best explanation for why there exists the universe rather than nothing. At the very least it seems an appealing option among the possible candidates of explanations and one that we can expect to continue to find its defenders.
1. Kragh, H. 1996. Cosmology and Controversy. p. 318-319.
2. Maddox, J. 1989. Nature. p. 425.
3. Vilenkin, A. cited in “Why physicists can’t avoid a creation event,” by Lisa Grossman (2012).
4. Vilenkin, A. 2006. Many Worlds in One: The Search For Other Universes. p. 176.
5. Craig, W. In The Oxford Handbook of Eschatology (2010). p. 603.
6. Craig, W. 1980. The Cosmological Argument from Plato to Leibniz. p. 285.
7. Harris, J. 2002. Analytic Philosophy of Religion. p. 128.
8. Harrison, P. 2010. The Cambridge Companion to Science and Religion. p. 9
9. Smith, Q. 1991. “Atheism, Theism, and Big Bang Cosmology,” in the Australasian Journal of Philosophy. p. 48-66.
10. Wolpert, L. 2007. The Hard Cell. p. 18.
11. Hawking, S. 1988. Brief History of Time. p. 46.
12. YouTube. 2014. QUANTUM PHYSICS IS NOTHING John Lennox 9-2014. [5:15-5:30]
13. YouTube. The Wit of Dr. Craig – Part 7 “A random horse from nowhere defiling your carpet.” Available.
14. David Hume to John Stewart, February 1754, in The Letters of David Hume.
15. Craig, W. 2015. On Guard for Students: A Thinker’s Guide to the Christian Faith. p. 52.
16. Siniscalchi, G. 2016. Retrieving Apologetics.
17. Craig, W. Excursus: Natural Theology: Existence of God. Available.