July 18, 2019

Formless and Empty: Genesis Meets Science Part 3

I’ve written before about how science and Genesis 1:1 tell the same story of the beginning of the universe. Regarding the very first moment of time, the Biblical account of creation and the big bang model of the universe share many striking similarities. But what comes next? Do the stories continue to agree, or do they part ways?

The answer may surprise you.

For this article, let’s focus our efforts on the following verse:

And the earth was without form, and void; and darkness was upon the face of the deep. And the Spirit of God moved upon the face of the waters.
~Genesis 1:2 (KJV)

When we read this passage, most Christians are probably going to visualize something like a world completely covered by oceans, partly because “the deep” is a common term that we use in order to avoid repeating boring words like ocean or sea or water (because one can never have too many words which describe the same thing), and partly because we know that subsequent verses mention the waters being separated by dry land.

But that mental image is wrong on many levels.

First of all, consider that the Bible says the Earth was without form, and void. If our minds conjure up images of pretty much anything other than empty darkness, we’re deviating from what the text says. Without form indicates a lack of any defined shape or features. Add to that the word void. This implies not only a lack of recognizable features, but a lack of matter. Void literally means empty.

Now let’s shift our focus for a moment toward what our best scientific minds have to say about the early universe. They essentially agree with what the Bible says: the universe was a formless cloud of subatomic particles for a long, long time. Following the big bang, the universe was far too hot and far too dense for atoms to form. There was just too much energy and pressure in the system. The entire cosmos was stuffed full of freely-roaming quarks, protons, neutrons, and electrons. The math which scientists use to figure out this kind of thing indicates that it took nearly 400K years for the universe to spread out and cool down enough for electrons to start getting trapped in orbit around protons, forming the very first atoms. Another 1.6 million years would pass before the first stars were born, and sometime around 10 billion years after the big bang, our little planet finally started to take shape.

(Obviously, the time scales seem to differ significantly. I’ve written previously about interpreting Biblical time, and there will be more discussion of that in the future. But for now, let’s set aside the concept of time and focus on finding common ground.)

We can see that science and the Bible agree on the formless aspect of the early universe, but what about the word void or empty?

In a scientific sense, total emptiness is extremely hard to find. In the depths of outer space, there is still - on average - one hydrogen atom per cubic centimeter of “empty” space. Even the emptiest portions of “empty space” are calculated to have one atom per ten cubic centimeters, so the amount of truly empty “empty space” in the universe today is far less than you might imagine, and it would have been even more rare in the early universe.

But from a more practical perspective: if I drink all of the water from a glass, most of us would simply say that the glass is now empty. Technically, the glass is still full, only not with water. It’s full of atmospheric gases.

For most of us, our everyday definition of the word empty typically refers to the absence of solid or liquid matter in a given container or area. We tend to overlook the presence of gases in our practical usage of the word empty, so the Biblical statement that the Earth was void (or empty) makes perfect sense in a universe full of almost nothing but hydrogen gas.

That’s great! But what about darkness? If the entire universe was so hot that even hydrogen atoms had a hard time sticking together, wouldn’t it have been glowing?

Well… It’s complicated.

While it is true that the early universe was very hot, astronomers have been unable to detect any light from the big bang itself. This is partly due to the dense young universe being opaque rather than transparent as space mostly is today. I don’t want to get into too much detail about light right now, because it will be featured prominently when we get to the whole “Let there be light” thing, but we do need to address the darkness mentioned in verse 2.

About that: our eyes see only a very limited section of the electromagnetic spectrum. If you ever find yourself in a completely dark room, you might take comfort in the fact that your body is actually glowing and emitting light! The only problem? That light is in the infrared portion of the spectrum, and it’s below the frequency threshold which our eyes can pick up on. There are also many frequencies of light, such as ultraviolet (or UV) light, which are too high for our eyes to register.

So in much the same way that we overlook atmospheric air when we say a glass is empty, we also typically disregard frequencies of light which are outside of the visible spectrum when we talk about darkness. Any light which was emitted by the big bang or during the time of the extremely hot young universe would have been well above the range of human eyesight.

It was only after the universe cooled and the first stars formed that visible light as we know it came to be. Astronomers actually refer to the time before the formation of the first stars as the cosmic dark ages. The YouTube channel PBS Spacetime has a video which talks about this time period at length.

Science and the Bible do indeed agree that the early universe was dark. That’s all well and good, but what about all this face of the deep/face of the waters business? There couldn’t have been any water in the early universe!

That is correct, but water in the Bible is often used to represent several different things. The sea, in particular, typically represents chaos. You’re probably familiar with the story of Jesus walking on water (Matthew 14, Mark 6, John 6). Peter was actually so inspired by seeing this that he, too, walked on the surface of the water for a few moments, until he took his eyes off of Jesus. The point of that story, from the all-important spiritual perspective, is that Jesus walks above the chaos of life on Earth, and we can as well, as long as we keep Him in our sight. You might also remember another story about Jesus calming a storm and the waves of the sea with just a few words (Matthew 8, Mark 4, Luke 8). In both stories, the water of the sea represents chaos, and Jesus is the one who brings order.

You can probably tell where I’m going with this. The face of the deep and the face of the waters in Genesis 1:2 can be seen as symbolic references to the chaotic and inhospitable conditions of the early universe. God would later bring order to the primordial chaos and create all the wonders of the universe which we see today. Once again, science and the Bible seem to be telling the same story.

Which brings us to the final point: the Spirit of God is said to have moved upon the waters. From a traditional view of scripture, one could simply say that this phrase indicates that God was there, manipulating matter and energy into the universe which we see today. But there may well be more to it than that.

There is one very, VERY surprising idea that I stumbled upon as I was putting this video together. If you have studied the Bible for any length of time, you’ve probably discovered that the word spirit is sometimes used almost interchangeably with the words breath, air, or wind. As it turns out, a few Bible translations approach Genesis 1:2 from that direction…

…the earth was a formless void and darkness covered the face of the deep, while a wind from God swept over the face of the waters.
~Genesis 1:2 (NRSV)

Now this is absolutely fascinating, because one of the central ideas of the big bang theory has to do with the expansion of the universe. In fact, there is one problematic period of time where the universe seems to have expanded much more quickly than scientists can account for, and it just happens to be one of the earliest events of the big bang model. Scientists refer to this phenomenon as inflation (just like blowing up a balloon…), and it’s still one of the big scientific mysteries surrounding the beginning of the universe. It also falls neatly into the timeframe we are talking about in this video.

A strong wind would certainly disperse, or spread out, a cloud of gas, but scientists still don’t have an answer for what exactly is causing the expansion of the universe. Here’s a hint: it’s not the wind (not even the solar wind)! Now, I personally always thought of the big bang as an explosion, as the name implies, but that’s not exactly accurate.

An explosion is caused by a sudden difference in pressure being released, lasting a relatively short amount of time. It also causes material to be moved through space very quickly.

But the big bang didn’t move anything through space: it created space, or rather, spacetime, and spacetime then began to expand, dragging all of the matter and energy along with it. It’s a really weird concept. We know that the distance between galaxies is growing, but it’s not simply because the galaxies are flying away from each other through space. Spacetime itself is actually growing and simultaneously sort of pushing and pulling the galaxies farther apart. Even weirder is that the expansion is accelerating. At some point in the distant future, the distance between galaxies may actually increase at a rate which exceeds the speed of light.

I know that sounds like crazy talk, but it’s going to make for a very interesting future discussion about the end of the universe. But for now… back to the beginning.

The part that has scientists really stumped is that they have yet to identify the driving force behind the expansion of spacetime. If you pay attention to science news at all, you’ve probably heard the term “dark energy.” That’s what scientists are currently calling the mysterious force that makes spacetime expand, but they don’t really know what dark energy actually is. Hence, the word: dark.

When I stumbled on the NRSV translation of Genesis 1:2, my jaw nearly hit the floor. This “wind from God” certainly seems to have something in common with what scientists call dark energy. At the very least, it’s easy to recognize that both ideas would tend to affect the universe they each describe in very similar ways, spreading out matter and energy across ever-increasing distances.

I firmly believe that science and the Bible have a lot more in common than most people on either side care to admit, and I hope that my analysis of Genesis 1:2 will help to promote a little mutual understanding between Christians and non-Christians.

Thanks for reading!

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