Christian TraditionsRoman CatholicTheology & Spirituality

The Big Bang and Christianity

It is a fallacy of the modern mind to divide science and religion. It is not only atheists who do this; the average American Christian compartmentalizes theology and science. Holding to a literal interpretation of the Book of Genesis, many Christians reject scientific theories of evolution and the creation of the universe. While the upcoming Round Table on this blog will discuss creationism and evolution, I wish to address in today’s post the relationship between Christian theology and scientific theories on the origin of the universe, particularly the theory commonly referred to as the Big Bang theory.

The Big Bang theory, after all, has quite a lot to do with Christianity: the man who first articulated the theory that the universe began from a single atom and has been expanding ever since then was also a man who had consecrated his life to Christ. Monseigneur Georges Lemaitre was not only the cosmologist who proposed what was later called the Big Bang theory; he was also a Catholic priest and a professor at the Catholic University of Leuven in Belgium.

(As a note, Lemaitre called his theory the “Cosmic Egg” theory; the term “Big Bang” was a pejorative nickname from the theory first articulated by opponent Fred Hoyle).

In 1923, Lemaitre was ordained a priest; that same year, he began his study of cosmology, stellar astronomy, and numerical analysis at the University of Cambridge under the astrophysicist Sir Arthur Eddington. After completing his work at Cambridge, Lemaitre worked to receive his doctoral degree in physics from the renowned Massachusetts Institute of Technology.

In 1927, upon returning to Belgium, Lemaitre published a study in a Belgian scientific journal. He theorized, based on equations of general relativity, that the universe is expanding. At this point, Lemaitre had not reached his conclusion of the universe emerging out of a single atom; rather, he posited that the expanding universe was compatible with Einstein’s model of the finite-size static universe.[1]

Einstein and others initially disregarded Lemaitre’s theory, until the work of one Edwin Hubble showed that distant galaxies are slowing receding from our galaxy. Hubble’s findings supported the work of Lemaitre. In 1931, Lemaitre further developed his theory to include that the universe emerged from a “Primeval Atom,” the initial point from which the universe is expanding. Lemaitre believed that at the moment of creation, this “Cosmic Egg” exploded and released the energy and matter of the universe. Einstein endorsed Lemaitre’s theory, and thus it became the dominant scientific theory on the origins of the universe for the 20th and 21st centuries.[2]

Even though he spent over thirty years serving on the Pontifical Academy of Sciences, where Pope Pius XII celebrated his scientific theories and accomplishments, Lemaitre did not develop the Cosmic Egg theory and the theory of the expanding universe to prove a certain theological stance on creation. While he did not believe that science had to contradict religion or vice versa, he made his theories based on physical observations and mathematical equations rather than religious arguments.

Although Lemaitre did not wish to mix his scientific advancements too much with his devout Catholic faith, his theories support the belief that God created the universe much more than many modern Christians give them credit for.

Lemaitre believed that the universe was created in a single moment, from a single atom. The Christian faith upholds that God created the universe out of nothing. There is nothing in Lemaitre’s theory that claims that God did not create the universe or that the single atom, the “primeval atom,” was not created by God. Genesis 1 tells of God commanding there to be light, and there was light; could not this light have been all of the universe, bursting with light and energy as God commanded it into being? Could not God’s command have made that primeval atom and then exploded it into our ever-expanding universe?

Lemaitre also believed that the universe is expanding and has been expanding since the beginning of time. God has created a universe that sustains itself and operates in precise and perfect physical harmony. If God could create a sun that never ceases to shine and an earth that never ceases to produce life, there is no reason to assume that God could not or did not create a universe that would never cease to grow.

The Catechism of the Catholic Church states, “The question about the origins of the world and of man has been the object of many scientific studies which have splendidly enriched our knowledge of the age and dimensions of the cosmos, the development of life-forms and the appearance of man.”[3] The Church does not reject Lemaitre’s and other scientific theories, but rather embraces them as they point to the greatness, hiddenness, and miraculousness of our Creator. The more we know about ourselves, our world, and our universe from science, the more we can stand in awe at God’s goodness and power. The Catechism concludes, “These discoveries invite us to even greater admiration for the greatness of the Creator, prompting us to give him thanks for all his works and for the understanding and wisdom he gives to scholars and researchers.”[4]

Saint Anselm of Canterbury spoke of theology as “faith seeking understanding.” While science and theology are indeed different spheres in terms of methodology and goals, faith can also seek an understanding of God through science, as science points us beyond ourselves to the greater things of the universe, which in turn point us to their Creator.

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Laura Norris

Laura Norris

Laura Norris is a Catholic, freelance writer, running coach, and outdoor enthusiast. She holds a master's degree in Theological Studies and now works as a running blogger and coach as, in the words of St. Ignatius Loyola, "a woman for others" in helping others live a healthy life and achieve their goals. She and her husband live on the Eastside of Seattle and spend their time running their own businesses and hiking in the mountains.

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