What Came Before? The Big Bang and Looking Behind the Veil

What existed before the universe was created?

That question is on my mind lately, no doubt thanks to two books I read this week. (Don’t be too impressed. They were short and I had 5 days at home due to snow.) The first was God and the Astronomers, by Robert Jastrow, and the second was The First Three Minutes, by Steven Weinberg. Both of them were written in the 1970s, and both introduce in their own way how modern astronomy and physics led to the idea that the universe had a beginning—what today is commonly known as the Big Bang Theory.

You probably already know the general idea behind the Big Bang Theory: observations of distant galaxies indicate that the universe is expanding, which means the universe was smaller in the past than it is today. This suggests that the universe had a beginning, when it was very small indeed, and that beginning is somewhere in the vicinity of 13.8 billion years ago.

I was aware of that general outline and some of the particulars, but these two books gave me a more detailed picture of the discoveries that led to the Big Bang Theory, and how earlier theories and observations converged to provide an account of the creation of the universe based on modern physics and astronomy. It has been fascinating to take a closer look at some of those details.

As I read, though, I kept coming back to that question: “So, what existed before the universe was created?” I kept coming back to it because, in Jastrow’s account, scientists didn’t seem to like that question very much and in Weinberg’s account, it is impossible to answer. One could peer back to within a fraction of a second of that moment of creation, but no further backward in time.

In The First Three Minutes, Weinberg presents an orderly account of the generation of all the fundamental things in the universe—light, electrons, neutrinos, protons, and neutrons—but begins the story when the universe is one hundredth of a second old. Weinberg, a Nobel prize-winning physicist, wrote confidently about the second 2 minutes and 59.99 seconds, but had much less certainty about what might have happened in the first 0.01 second. To be fair, this was a limitation of knowledge at the time, and physicists have learned more in the four decades since. Even so, that first fraction of time, now much shorter than a hundred of a second, remains mysterious and uncertain. To talk about it is to enter the realm of speculation rather than observation. There is still a closed curtain at the instant of creation.

Yet we can’t help wondering what was there before. Scientists will remind us that time itself began at the beginning, so it’s not appropriate to speak of anything “before” the beginning of time. But the question arises whether we like it or not. We time-bound creatures encounter the world in terms of before-and-after, cause-and-effect, and we long to peek behind that veil and understand what’s there in terms that are familiar to us. The question is about much more than curiosity. To ask about “before” is to ask about cause, to ask about meaning, to ask about purpose. What was there before the universe was created?

It is a question theologians and people of faith answered long ago. “In the beginning was the Word, and the Word was with God, and the Word was God.” God is the cause, from God comes the intelligibility and the purpose of it all. Before the universe was set in motion, there was the Mover. Before creation, the Creator. Before our universe existed, there was—there is—God.

Faith has an answer to a question that so far has eluded physicists. In God and the Astronomers, Jastrow suggests that this realization initially caused much of the scientific community to be skeptical of something like the Big Bang Theory. Indeed, as I read his book, I was surprised by how much resistance there evidently was to the idea that the universe had a beginning. Physicists like Albert Einstein and others much preferred the idea of a “steady state” universe, which had no beginning but had always existed and been more or less the same as it is today. The idea that the universe is changing dramatically, that it had a beginning, seemed too crude and not elegant at all. It raised all sorts of messy, unanswerable questions. What caused the bang? What happened before that? All of a sudden there was a veil behind which physics could not see, a moment of creation shrouded in mystery. One gathers from Jastrow’s account that this idea was altogether too religious for many of the scientists:

“For the scientist who has lived by his faith in the power of reason, the story ends like a bad dream. He has scaled the mountains of ignorance; he is about to conquer the highest peak; as he pulls himself over the final rock, he is greeted by a band of theologians who have been sitting there for centuries.” (Jastrow, God and the Astronomers, 116).

What existed before the universe was created? As Jastrow so eloquently puts it, once that question is posed we are in the realm of the theologians and philosophers. Christian theology is quite comfortable with a veil of mystery, after all. We worship a God who is somehow three and one. There was a curtain in the Tabernacle and Temple separating the Holy of Holies from the rest of the sanctuary. Mt. Sinai was cloaked in smoke and fire when God appeared to the Israelites, and we Methodists sing of the Godhead “veiled in flesh” in Charles Wesley’s beautiful hymn, “Hark, the Herald Angels Sing.”

I do not mean to imply that theology picks up where science leaves off, as if the Christian faith is only concerned with explaining what happens on the other side of the curtain. Quite the opposite, actually. We believe that the One behind the curtain has become incarnate. God spoke to the Israelites from the top of Mt. Sinai. The veil was torn when Jesus of Nazareth was crucified. We believe that the way to see behind the curtain is to live a life transformed by Christ, to die with Christ in the hope of being raised with him. We can never know God through our striving, whether intellectually or morally. But God has come to know  us, as one of us, apart from our striving. We can’t chase down the purpose and meaning of our world or our existence through relentless observation, but meaning and purpose has been given to us by the One who made us.

This means we don’t need to pull back the curtain or climb to the top of the mountain in order to see God. God is at the bottom and the top and everywhere in between. We can climb the mountain for the enjoyment of the climb. Theology doesn’t greet science at the top of the mountain smugly or triumphantly, but with a sincere invitation to turn around and find God along the way.

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