The 20th century will see the rise of two completely different paradigms for understanding the age of the earth: the big bang hypothesis and young-earth creationism. Actually, the time can be pinpointed even more closely. Both paradigms will ascend during the 1960’s.
In 1916 Albert Einstein presented a paper in which he applied his general theory of relativity to the universe as a whole. The results implied that the universe had a beginning—a conclusion that Einstein himself resisted. In the 1930’s, astronomer Edwin Hubble demonstrated that the universe appeared to be expanding. He noticed that the light from all neighboring galaxies is red-shifted, which indicates that those galaxies are rapidly moving away from us. The galaxies appear to be like dots on an expanding balloon. As the balloon fills with air, the surface becomes larger and the dots move farther and farther away from one another. Hubble concluded that something similar appears to be happening to all the galaxies. Evidence was building that the cosmos is not eternal.
In 1965 Arno Penzias and Robert Wilson discovered that the universe is bathed in faint, background radiation. This radiation indicated that there was a universal fiery explosion that was calculated to have occurred 13.7 billion years ago. For most astronomers and astrophysicists, Penzias and Wilson’s discovery provided the crucial evidence which confirmed the big bang hypothesis. From the 1960’s on, the big bang theory has been the reigning paradigm within the scientific community.
In his book, God and the Astronomers, Robert Jastrow recounts how most physicists and astronomers initially were hostile to the big bang theory. In fact, the expression “big bang” was a term of derision coined by astronomer Fred Hoyle, who remained a lifelong proponent of eternalism. Astronomer Arthur Eddington declared in 1931, “[T]he notion of a beginning is repugnant to me.” Chemist Walter Nernst argued that adherence to eternalism was necessary when he wrote, “To deny the infinite duration of time would be to betray the very foundation of science.” Jastrow points out that such opposition was motivated by philosophical presuppositions rather than scientific evidence. He ends his book on the subject with the now well-known observation:
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.
Many who accept the big bang theory have not given up on eternalism. A number of cosmologists now suggest that our universe is part of a multiverse (i.e., reality is made up of an infinite number of universes, of which our universe is just one). We will look at the rise of young-earth creationism in the next post. (Adapted from 40 Questions about Creation and Evolution.)
Cross-posted at www.theologyforthechurch.com