How did the universe begin? The scientific evidence points to what may seem a surprising answer.
The universe is expanding
Spiral galaxy NGC 4414
In 1929 astronomer Edwin Hubble (for whom the Hubble space telescope is named) initiated a revolution in astrophysics when he verified that the universe is expanding. His observations, now called Hubble’s Law, demonstrate that every astronomical object in the universe is moving away from every other object. It’s the same effect you would see if you tossed a stone into a pond of still water, then observed the wavelets as they rippled outward. Each specific point on a wave is moving away from every other point on the wave as it expands further and further from its origin.
The universe had a beginning
The importance of Hubble’s Law is that it indicates that all the objects in the physical universe started their outward expansion from a single point, just as waves rippling outward reflect the point at which that stone you threw entered the water. In other words, Hubble’s observations of an expanding physical universe show conclusively that the universe had a beginning. Known as the Big Bang, this explosive commencement of the cosmos at a specific point in space and time is now widely accepted as scientific fact.
Will the universe eventually collapse back on itself?
There are two possible future destinies for our universe. One scenario, called “The Big Crunch,” will occur if there is enough mass in the universe to allow the force of gravity to eventually cause the expansion to reverse itself. All the matter and energy of the universe would then fall back in on itself, and the cycle of expansion followed by a collapse, and then a new Big Bang, might be repeated forever. Calculations indicate that if the universe is spherical in shape, it does contain enough matter to cause this re-collapse to eventually take place.
The other possibility is nicknamed “The Big Freeze,” and would occur if the shape of the universe is either hyperbolic or flat. If it has either of those shapes, the universe cannot contain enough matter for gravity to cause it to re-collapse, and it will therefore never stop expanding.
WMAP satellite gathering data about the Big Bang
The latest observations, particularly those from NASA’s Wilkinson Microwave Anisotropy Probe (WMAP), show that the universe is flat. This further supports previous research that indicates the universe will continue to expand forever.
The beginning of the universe was a one-time, never to be repeated event
So the scientific evidence shows that the universe has not always existed, but had a definite beginning. Moreover, that beginning has happened exactly once, and can never be repeated. Here is how a scientific paper published in the Scientific American of March, 1976 describes that event:
The universe began from a state of infinite density. Space and time were created in that event and so was all the matter in the universe.
The fact that the universe began from a state of infinite density is extremely significant. The formula for calculating density is
ρ = m / V
where ρ is density, m is mass, and V is volume.
For the value of the density, ρ, to be infinite requires that the volume, V, be zero. (Note that it’s not that the volume was very, very small, even infinitesimal; it had to be exactly zero). Thus, at the moment it came into existence, the universe had finite mass but zero volume, the ultimate black hole.
General Relativity suggests that such an entity, called a singularity, has such unimaginably massive gravity that no matter or light can ever escape. Thus, nothing inside the singularity can either escape itself, or cause anything else to be ejected.
In other words, the ultimate singularity, the universe, could not cause itself to generate that massive expulsion of matter and energy called the Big Bang. So, how did it happen?
The universe couldn’t make itself
The fact that the universe could not cause itself to transition from a singularity to an ever expanding ball of matter and energy requires that there be something externalto the universe that was able to act upon it to cause that change to occur. Centuries ago Thomas Aquinas called that external factor the “uncaused cause” of creation. He was referring, of course, to God.
So, based on the scientific evidence, how do we answer the question of how the universe began? A pretty good summation of the facts science has revealed was recorded in the first verse of the book of Genesis long ago:
“In the beginning God created the heavens and the earth.”
Galaxy: NGC 4414 imaged by the Hubble Space Telescope, from NASA via Wikimedia (public domain)
WMAP: Artist depiction from NASA via Wikimedia (public domain)
Ron Franklin is a pastor, writer, radio broadcaster and producer, computer programmer, and musician. Now the founding pastor of Covenant Community Church in Harrisburg, PA, he was an engineer and manager for high-tech companies such as IBM and EDS. He is a graduate of the University of Tennessee and Denver Theological Seminary.