The National Catholic Review
Jul 22 2015 - 12:29pm | Joan E. Denton
Scientific observations from our Biblical ancestors

“When I consider your heavens, the work of your fingers, the moon and the stars, what is man that you are mindful of him, or the Son of Man that you care for him?” (Psalm 8:3-4)

Our Hebrew ancestors wrote the Bible informed by their observations of creation. Because their reflections on God were written within that context, they possessed a wisdom about the material world that can be amazingly accurate. Through three examples from the sciences of chemistry, astronomy and physics, we can see that even though they lacked sophisticated modern technology, our Biblical ancestors were keenly astute in their perceptions and descriptions of creation. Such renewed respect for the authors of the Bible can inform and strengthen our faith in God as Creator.

Genesis and the Big Bang

“In the beginning … darkness was upon the face of the deep … there was light … and God separated the light from the darkness” (Gen 1:1-5).

These first words of the Bible set the stage for all of the succeeding manifestations of God in creation. They beautifully describe the primacy, action and purposefulness of one God, the central theme of Jewish faith and a recurring theme throughout the Bible.

These verses, minus the reference to God, are also and beautiful and economic description of modern scientific theory about the origin of the university and its early stages of existence. Metaphorically labeled the “Big Bang,” this theory postulates that all of the matter in the universe was initially present as an inconceivable dense source of energy within an infinitesimally small space, the size of an electron. At t=0 (13.7 billion years ago) this source of energy exploded, marking the beginning of space and time. Following t=0, an unimaginable period of expansion occurred, called “inflation,” during which matter came to dominate antimatter, dark matter was created and protons and neutrons were formed. About two seconds after t=0 atomic nuclei were formed. The physical conditions of the universe were so chaotic during this early period that light, as defined by different wavelengths of energy, could not emerge out of the darkness. It wasn’t until the universe was about 400 million years old that light was emitted and separated from the darkness and the universe developed the stars, planets and galaxies that we see today.

Origin of The Human Person

“Then the Lord God formed man from the dust of the ground…” (Gen 2:7)

This verse describes God’s creation of man from physical material, an observation very close to the discoveries of chemistry and physics.

We now know that all matter is composed of an infinite combination of over 100 different elements. These elements range in weight from the lightest, hydrogen, to the heaviest naturally occurring element, uranium. All of the elements in the universe are created by a process called nucleosynthesis. The atoms of the lightest elements in the universe, i.e. hydrogen, helium and lithium, were created within the first few minutes of the Big Bang via a process called “Big Bang nucleosynthesis.” All of the other naturally occurring elements have been created through “stellar nucleosynthesis,” that is during the life span of stars. During explosions of gigantic stars called supernova, these elements are released into space in the form of clouds of gas and dust. These clouds contain the elements that form new stars, planets, and eventually, even life.

Thus, what begins within the interior of giant stars becomes the building blocks of the world and life as we know it. This process was beautifully described by the astrophysicist Laurence Krauss: “Every atom in your body came from a star that exploded. And, the atoms in your left hand probably came from a different star than your right hand … You are all stardust” (A Universe from Nothing).

The Fine-Tuned Universe

“For he chose us in him before the creation of the world to be holy and blameless in his sight” (Eph 1:4).

This sense of being “chosen” is a consistent theme throughout the Bible. From the beginning verses of the Old Testament through the books of the New Testament, individuals, tribes and peoples are portrayed as chosen by God. The concept of “chosenness” comes to its fullest expression in the Letter to the Ephesians, where St. Paul writes of our “chosenness” even before time began.

This concept of being chosen before the beginning of time is beautifully illustrated by scientific discoveries made during the last century. As Frederick Dyson, a well-known and respected scientist, said, “As we look out into the universe and identify the many accidents of physics and astronomy that have worked together to our benefit, it almost seems that the Universe must in some sense have known that we were coming” (The Anthropic Cosmological Principle, John D. Burrown and Frank J. Tipler).

What Frederick Dyson described is what modern scientists have called the “fine-tuned universe principle,” the “anthropic principle” or the “cosmological principle.” This principle holds that after the Big Bang the entire universe developed along an extremely narrow range of physical constants within mathematical equations. These mathematical constants were required for the universe and life as we know it to emerge. If these constants were not exact as they are, life would not exist.

In comparing some aspects of the Bible with modern science we can explore both the wonders of science and the wonders of our faith. It adds another dimension to our understanding of the Bible and the people who wrote it. These selected verses demonstrate that although our Hebrew ancestors lacked the technological tools that scientists use today, they lived in a time in which people observed and thought about creation within the context of their faith in one God. Their framing of the natural world is, in these selected examples, surprisingly perceptive. They demonstrate once again that the Bible, written between 2,000 and 3,500 years ago, is a rich source of evidence that God is intimately present in our past, present and future. 

Joan E. Denton recently obtained a Masters in Theological Studies from the Jesuit School of Theology of Santa Clara University at UC Berkeley. She spent approximately 30 years in scientific work for the State of California including 12 years as the Director of the Office of Environmental Health Hazard Assessment. 

Comments

Stephen McCluskey | 11/18/2015 - 1:44pm

As a historian of science, I get nervous when we try to read modern scientific thought into early writings—of any genre. The Genesis account of creation is not evidence that the writers understood the big bang, nor is their account of the creation of man from the dust of the earth close to the modern discoveries of the elements and nucleosynthesis.

Attribution of such insights to the biblical writers invites a serious misunderstanding of what they were trying to do, to say nothing of the danger of giving sacred status to the findings of secular science. Consider what happened after some scholastics took the geocentric teachings of Aristotle and Ptolemy as supported by biblical texts. This route of biblical science is dangerous; tread carefully.

Bruce Snowden | 8/28/2015 - 6:52am

“The Work Of Your Fingers,” a very succulent meal to feast on for this Believer and I am sure, others too! In line with what Catherine of Siena asserted that, “heaven begins on earth,” the above mentioned “succulent meal” must be part of the Heavenly Banquet, which we await! Thanks, Joan Denton.

I’d like to focus a little on another work of His Fingers, on that certain “flavor” already implied in the essay namely, the ability of material creation to heal itself. The Finger of Creator God has left its healing imprint on all creation, for example on leaves, flowers, roots, barks, berries, even soil. Once Jesus did a miracle healing a blind man by mixing soil with the Lord’s saliva, also a natural substance! Not surprising, for whatever God touches heals!

Medicine has gathered various substances from the earth, encapsulating some, in tablet form too, straining out its nectars from others which we take when ill. These elements touched by the healing Hand of God in the beginning, restore the sick to health, “packet miracles” I call them, medical prescriptions at the Pharmacy.

Wonderful of a Healing Deity to thoughtfully allow healing to happen naturally, as truly as it can happen miraculously! Lord, the work of Your Fingers work in any way you desire,

J Cosgrove | 8/11/2015 - 12:34pm

The Fine-Tuned Universe

Here is an illustration of just how fine tuned the universe is:

https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=UpIiIaC4kRA

The Earth is also fine tuned to an incredible degree too. Here are two references that show how our planet is rare or maybe the only one of its kind in the universe:

https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=QmIc42oRjm8

The second one is from Eric Metaxas' book, "Miracles: What They Are, Why They Happen, and How They Can Change Your Life." It discusses all sorts of miracles including the universe, life and the Earth.

http://www.colsoncenterstore.org/product.asp?sku=2191_9780525954422

Here is therefore a tremendously abbreviated list—just a taste, really. But we should keep in mind that each of these conditions is crucial. If any one of them is not met, life of any kind cannot exist. But since each of these many, many variables lines up perfectly—as they must—some physicists have come to use the expression "fine-tuned universe." This is because—whatever one's ideology on the subject might be—it has the overwhelming appearance of having been "fine-tuned" to support life. By whom is, of course, another story.

The first variable we may touch upon is simply the size of our planet. Most of us have watched or read enough science fiction that we cannot imagine the size of a planet should make much difference, but from a science nonfiction perspective, this is mistaken. That's because the size—or really, the mass—of a planet determines how much gravity it has, which determines much else. Though it may come as a surprise to us, if our planet were ever so slightly bigger or smaller, life here couldn't exist.

If Earth were slightly larger, it would of course have slightly more gravity, which has interesting implications. It's not just that a person who weighs 150 pounds would weigh more. It's that if Earth had just a little bit more gravity than it now has, methane and ammonia gas, which have molecular weights of sixteen and seventeen, respectively, would remain close to our surface. Since we cannot breathe methane or ammonia, which are toxic, we would die. More to the point, we would never have come into existence in the first place. If you're thinking we might have evolved to where we could breathe those gases, that's more science fiction than reality. Simply put, life cannot coexist with large amounts of methane and ammonia. But if Earth were just a bit larger, these deadly gases would not dissipate into the atmosphere but would stay right down here where we would have to inhale them.

On the other hand, if Earth were a tiny bit smaller and had a bit less gravity, water vapor, which has a molecular weight of eighteen, would not stay down here close to the planet's surface but would instead dissipate into the atmosphere. Obviously, without water we couldn't exist. As we've all heard, our bodies are 75 percent water. To think that the size of Earth must be almost exactly what it is or we wouldn't exist is sobering and, frankly, not so easy to believe. But it's a fact that we need a planet small enough to allow poisonous gases of molecular weights sixteen and seventeen to evaporate, and large enough so that water vapor, with its molecular weight of eighteen, will not evaporate.

Richard Murray | 7/23/2015 - 11:09pm

Thank you for this wonderful essay, Joan Denton! I've often thought of the first verses of the Bible as being a description of the Big Bang. All that light!
Additionally, I'm working on a project that shows how evolution can be found in the Bible. There are quite a few examples of this, to be found from Genesis to Revelation.

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