Let There Be Light

This is the first Sunday of the season of creation, so it makes sense to start at the very beginning. The Bible begins with a creation account. It is the story of how the universe was made in seven days. Today we are going to be focusing on the first few days, when space and light were created. The opening words tell us that in the beginning there was heaven, Earth, and water. That means we are already in trouble. Anyone who has attended high school science class knows that in the beginning of the universe, the Earth did not yet exist. Science tells us that the universe is 13-odd billion years old, and the Earth formed 4.5 billion years ago. So, the Genesis account is starting too late, and leaving too much out.  

There are other problems, too. God’s first creation is light, which is called into being through God’s spoken words. That happens on day one. But it takes until day four for the sun, moon, and stars to be created. This means that somehow there was light before there was anything in the sky to create light. Christians and Jews alike have interpreted this mystically. They have argued that this light is the love of God which suffuses the universe and is not to be confused with the physical light which emanates from stars. That is an interesting interpretation but doesn’t help us much if we want to understand Genesis on its own terms, as an account of the origin of the physical universe.  

As the West became more aware of the natural world through science, the limitations of the Genesis account of creation became increasingly clear. In the 1600s, it was Galileo who used an early telescope to conclude that the sun did not revolve around the Earth, but it was the other way around. When he refused to stop talking about this, the Catholic church put him under house arrest for the last 9 years of his life. As astronomy matured in the centuries after, it became clear that the universe was vast, and included so many other suns and hundreds of millions of galaxies that the Genesis account could not be accurate.  

Most people today look to science to explain the origin of the universe, and it presents a very different account of how reality was born. That explanation rests on the theory of the Big Bang. It suggests that the universe began with an enormous explosion, which hurled matter and galaxies outward. The result is what we see in the sky today.  

Here’s an image from the new James Webb space telescope: it shows some of the 200 billion galaxies in the universe,[1], each containing hundreds of millions of stars.    

The universe is astonishingly large and populated, much bigger and more complex than the Genesis account describes. For most people, this proves that we can safely set aside the religious account as quaint and irrelevant.   In reality, though, the line between religion and science is much blurrier than that. The Big Bang theory got its start in the 1920s. Back then, everyone, including Einstein, assumed that the universe was eternal and stable. Einstein added a cosmological constant to his equations to make sure it stayed one size[2]. But that was an assumption, not a fact.   

A young Belgian Catholic priest by the name of Georges LeMaitre had a different interpretation. He was both a priest and a physicist, with a PHD from MIT. In 1927, He looked at Einstein’s equations and realized that Einstein had it wrong.

The way gravity worked in relativity theory suggested that the universe must be expanding, otherwise, it would collapse in on itself.[3] That would mean that everything in the night sky was moving away from everything else. This also meant that if you could go back in time, everything that exists must have originated in a single point. It must have all started with a Big Bang.[4]  

At the same time as this priest was imagining the Big Bang on paper, curious physical evidence was being discovered. Edwin Hubble was a young American astronomer in California using a new generation telescope. His work revealed the first evidence of galaxies outside the Milky Way. But the photographs he took seemed to suggest that the galaxies were receding from us. [5]In the 1930s, physicists realized that Lemaitre’s paper explained what Hubble’s telescope had seen. The universe is expanding, and it must have been born in an ancient explosion. Many were resistant to the idea. Some rejected it because it came from a priest, which made the idea seem too religious.[6] It wasn’t until the 1970s that the Big Bang was generally accepted. It is now the reigning theory of how the universe began. LeMaitre died in 1966[7], but the Vatican still has a keen interest in astronomy, and even has its own observatory.  

Today, the theory of the Big Bang is much better developed, and it contains many curious elements. It suggests that the fabric of reality, spacetime, simply winked into reality spontaneously one day. This doesn’t bother scientists because they have discovered that something from nothing is happening all the time. Particles and their anti-matter counterparts are constantly poofing into existence for a brief moment, then cancelling each other out to disappear again. All around us these particle pairs are poofing in and poofing out. Even in the darkness of empty space, matter is playing this game of peekaboo. It’s weird, but real. So, the idea of the universe simply appearing out of nothing way does not bother scientists.[8]  

When the big bang first occurs, it is incredibly hot. So hot that the particles which poof into existence can last but are unable to clump into matter. The universe begins as a hot soup of particles moving even faster than the speed of light. At this point, there are no atoms. Just a sea of particles,[9] which is strangely similar to how the Genesis account says that in the beginning there was just a formless sea.  

There is another detail which is very strange, and it involves light. Einstein taught us that matter is frozen light – e=mc2. So, when we break the bonds that hold matter together, energy is released as light. In suns, hydrogen atoms slam into each other, fusing into helium – those collisions create light. When you burn wood in a campfire, chemical bonds in the wood are being broken, which gives off light.[10]  Back at the beginning of the Big Bang, there were no stars yet, but there were a lot of particles smashing into each other at incredible speeds. Those collisions gave off light. It was light that spread in every direction of the expanding universe.  

As the universe expanded, the light’s frequency was stretched, so super bright light became dimmer and dimmer, lower frequency light. Today, after 13.8 billion years of the universe stretching, that light is only detected as microwave radiation, a lower frequency of light. It is everywhere, passing through us all, every second. When you turn on a radio and you hear static between stations, that’s the sound of it. Microwave telescopes can also take pictures of it. Here’s what it looks like:  

This is the light leftover from the birth of the universe, over 13 billion years ago.    

So, based on our current model of physics, before there were stars, before there were atoms, there a cosmic sea of churning particles which suddenly produced a flash of light. In the beginning, there was chaos, and then there was light, long before there were stars. Just like the Genesis account suggests.  

Although most scientists agree that the universe started with this Big Bang, there are details they still do not understand. Big details. One of them is that for the universe to exist as it does, there must have been an instant early on when the fabric of the universe suddenly expanded. From smaller than an atom to the size of a football.[11] This is called the inflationary period, but no one knows how or why it happened. That’s a mystery they are working on.  

Then there is a more even troubling problem. If the force of gravity had been a bit stronger, the equations suggest that all the matter would have collapsed in on itself, forming a black hole. Reality as we know it would never have developed.  

Had gravity been a bit weaker, then there wouldn’t have been enough force to bind atoms into stars, and stars to form galaxies. A weaker gravity would have let matter simply drift away with the expanding fabric of space. No stars, or galaxies, or us, that way, either.  

So why should our universe have just the right setting for gravity and other physical forces to allow worlds and stars to form? If the universe is purely a product of chance, then all the other settings for gravity and the other forces of nature should be equally possible. If only one setting leads to a stable reality, then the law of averages suggests that none of this should exist. But it does. We’re here to ask the question. This is called the Anthropic Principle.[12]  

There are two answers offered to this riddle. One is that since we are here, we must live in a universe that allows us to exist. That’s just logic. So, only universes with this setting of gravity gets life forms to ask the question. That means there probably are lots of other parallel universes that have different settings where matter never congeals into worlds where intelligent beings can ask this kind of question. So, one solution to the riddle of existence is to assume there are many other universes. That is logical, but there is no proof that they exist. Marvel movies don’t count as evidence.  

The other solution is to suggest that the existence of just the right settings is not an accident. There is some being or designer who set this up. From a scientific point of view, there is no proof for this idea, either, but it is logical.  

So, here at the beginning of the 21st century, when most people assume that science has superseded religion, we are faced with a conundrum. Scientists have adopted a theory of the universe conceived by a Catholic priest. This theory of the origin of the universe cannot explain why it happened. Science also cannot explain why the settings of the universe are exactly right for creating worlds and life, even when this defies chance. And there are other mysteries, such as why most of the universe appears to be composed of a kind of matter no one has discovered yet. This is sometimes called dark matter, but in fact, it is just invisible,[13] even to our telescopes, but the equations say it must be there.  

Faced by these mysteries should we return to the Genesis account and conclude that it was right all along? I don’t think so. It is fascinating that it gets some details of the first day of creation correct, with light existing before stars were born. I find it inspiring that we are all walking in the light of the first day, bathed in creation’s invisible light. But the Genesis account is clearly wrong in many other particulars. It suggests that plants were growing on Earth before the sun was created.  

What Genesis does get right is more intangible, not something that you can put in an equation. The Genesis account presents the creation of the universe as poetry. It sounds beautiful.      

3 Then 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, Night. And there was evening and there was morning, the first day.  

It is written as poetry to inspire us, to give us the reassurance that the universe has order and beauty, that it is worth inspiring wonder. To call a universe out of nothing is a wondrous act. And more than this, unlike the scientists’ equations, Genesis encourages us to see that the universe is worthy of our admiration and wonder. As each day ends, we are told that God said, it was good. Genesis takes a position on this mysterious universe: it is good. That is not something we can prove scientifically. The Big Bang has no moral dimension, nothing to make you feel good about. It just is. But in Genesis, we are told that the universe is beautiful and good, and so are we, the ones who have been given the ability to explore it.  

It is our ability to wonder, to sigh in appreciation when we see the Milky Way over head that makes science possible at all. If we thought the universe was simply out to get us, we wouldn’t bother to stay up all night peering into telescopes. Scientists explore the universe because they find beauty and wonder there. That’s the poetry of their profession. They find delight in the fact that equations reveal there is an underlying order to the universe.

We can debate whether that means there is a God or not. But what is clear is that our scriptures encourage us to dare to believe that the universe is good. That is not something that can be proven. It is a choice of how we will approach reality and our lives. 

So, let science and faith continue to walk together, trading notes, debating, disagreeing, coming together in surprising ways. We are called to walk in wonder, in a universe that started with light before a single sun was born.  



[1] Tonelli, p. 200. [2] Guido Tonelli, Genesis: the story of how everything began, p.21. [3] Tonelli, p, 22. [4] https://www.amnh.org/learn-teach/curriculum-collections/cosmic-horizons-book/georges-lemaitre-big-bang Also, Guido Tonelli, Genesis: the story of how everything began, p. 22ff [5] Tonelli, 24. [6] Tonelli, 27. [7] https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Georges_Lemaître [8] Tonelli, 40-1. [9] Tonelli, 100. [10] https://science.howstuffworks.com/environmental/earth/geophysics/fire1.htm [11] Tonelli, 51. [12]https://www.britannica.com/science/anthropic-principle/Forms-of-the-anthropic-principle;  https://www.theatlantic.com/science/archive/2022/09/multiverse-hypothesis-cosmic-life-rare/671371/?utm_source=newsletter&utm_medium=email&utm_campaign=atlantic-daily-newsletter&utm_content=20220908&utm_term=The%20Atlantic%20Daily   [13] Chanda Prescod-Weinstein, The Disordered Cosmos, 125.