As in most other religious traditions, the Christian Bible gives an account of creation (actually several). The first verse of the first chapter of the first book of The Bible gives the genesis story. Different Christians have widely varying views of the purpose and meaning of the creation story. Some feel it was written only to give an order to the universe and a sense of the power and importance of God but not to actually impart much information, if any, about how the world actually began. Others believe that it is a figurative account of creation that corresponds to the actual events but does not recount them literally. Then there are those Christians who believe that the creation story in the Bible is literally true.
Among Christians who view the creation story as a literal account, there is some disagreement about what the “literal meaning” is, because Genesis is an ancient Hebrew text, so there are linguistic and contextual ambiguities in interpreting it; however, many feel that it contradicts modern scientific theories of the origin of species or even the origin of the universe. There are even those who believe the Earth was actually created in seven days (meaning seven twenty-four hour periods). Leaving aside for the moment the (important and complex) issues of how you make such a “literal” interpretation of the text, I'd like to explore a different question: Let's suppose for a minute that our current scientific understanding of the beginning of the universe is correct. Clearly, God, being almighty, could have chosen to create the universe that way if He saw fit. If that was how God created the universe, then how would the book of Genesis read? If it were a literal account of creation, as some Christians believe, then it might read something like the following:
In the beginning God created three dimensions of space and one of time as a four dimensional pseudo-riemannian manifold with signature (3,1). And the manifold had a scalar curvature approaching infinity asymptotically as time approaches the beginning. The mass-energy it contained was without form, and the inflaton moved upon the face of the spacetime. And God began to divide the fundamental forces. First He separated that which controls the geometry of spacetime and named it gravity. Next He separated the strong force from the rest, which He named the electroweak force. Then God saw that the quantum vacuum of the inflaton was false, so lo he smote it with a second order phase transition, and that did drive exponential inflation of spacetime from the negative energy density of the quantum field. And the universe became vast. And He said, “Let there be quarks in the midst of the quark-gluon plasma,” and he divided the quarks from the antiquarks. And He saw that matter was good, so He caused then CP violation to make more matter than antimatter, so that all might not be annihilated. And God said, “Let there be light,” and there was light, for quark-antiquark annihilation created photons. And so ended the grand unification epoch.
10-12 seconds after the beginning, in the electroweak epoch, God said, “Let electromagnetism be separate from the weak nuclear force and the photons be distinguishable from the weak bosons,” and it was so. And God said, “Let the quarks gather together as brothers and be bound by the gluon, that there might be baryons. ” The baryons condensed and God named them protons and neutrons according to their charge, and almost all the antimatter was annihilated. And one second after the beginning God began nucleosynthesis, bringing together the protons and neutrons to form nuclei. And God said, “Let the hydrogen and deuterium nuclei undergo fusion and bring forth helium, and those bring forth lithium and beryllium according to the laws of the nuclear forces,” and it was so. And God saw that it was good. After 3 minutes, He made it too cool for fusion and waited and the universe cooled and expanded for the next 300,000 years. And then God said, “Let there be recombination, let the electrons be bound to the nuclei,” and He separated the electromagnetic waves from the atoms and so brought forth the cosmic microwave background radiation.
And God said, “Let there be structure in the universe. Let there be fluctuations in matter density that collapse due to gravitational instability.” And God created great nebulae and every celestial object, which brought forth in space protostars. In these protostars He caused fusion to be rekindled, and they became stars as the gas heated and ionized to become plasma, so that the stars gave light throughout the universe: and God saw that it was good. And God said, “Let the first stars expend their nuclear fuel and lose hydrostatic equilibrium, so that they might become supernovae.” And the stars went supernova, creating elements with nuclei heavier than iron, and they were spread throughout the cosmos. And from what was left of the nebulae of the stars God made protoplanets, and the asteroids, and everything that flieth through space or orbiteth a star. And the protoplanets cooled, and one became the Earth.
Now that probably seems pretty silly the way I've written it. Granted, I don't expect to be as eloquent as The Almighty, but there's also the issue that there's all that jargon that would clearly be meaningless in ancient times. In order for it to have any meaning, this account would have to come with appendices that explained all the concepts, from simple arithmetic to differential geometry to quantum field theory. That would have to cover a pretty good portion of human knowledge in order to be complete, and this appendix by itself would begin to rival the library of Alexandria. So, the question I have to ask myself is would God have written us such a book? It seems rather ridiculous doesn't it? Now, you might object that God is omnipotent and could have simply imbued the ancient Hebrews with understanding. That's true, but would he? God could have given us a great many things He chose not to, why would he give us that gift? Is that the purpose of the creation story, to give us all the empirical facts about creation, and if not then what is the purpose? Well, maybe we won't get too far trying to determine the motives of an omniscient, omnipotent being, but you can intelligently ask if you were in His position, how would you try to impart this to a bunch of ancient Hebrews or would you do it at all?
The nearest everyday situation I can come up with that is similar to this dilemma is if I were asked “Where did everything come from?” by a young child. With the best of intentions, I would probably tell him a very very simplified account, which would necessarily be inaccurate due to simplification. I would try to get the basic point across, but it would not be the whole story. It seems reasonable to me that God would do the same, since it doesn't seem like the Bible is about giving us all the empirical facts to high precision. It doesn't tell you the boiling point of water or how to make antibiotics, so why would it give us all the specifics of creation? Furthermore, it seems somewhat unreasonable to think that God could not have made all of creation in any way that is more complicated than what ancient people could understand. What's more, God, in His omnipotence, could easily have made the universe in a manner much further from our understanding than anything human science could ever devise. So, even if all the rest that the Bible recounts is literally true, it seems quite strange to me to think that the creation stories are anything more than a figurative account of what may well be a completely inscrutable process to humans and certainly to the people who received the book of Genesis.
- As opposed to interpreting it in the context of the way English was used during the period of the translation.
I used the Big Bang Timeline at wikipedia to double check the order of events in the big bang.
I chose to address Christianity here mostly due to familiarity. It would seem that much of the discussion may carry over to other religions equally well.