Hugh Ross, the President and Founder of Reasons to Believe, was asked via Twitter “what specific observations could be made that would disprove the ‘creator’ claim?” His response was: “If observations proved beyond any doubt that the universe has no beginning of any kind, that would be catastrophic to Christianity. If observations proved we humans are fundamentally different from the rest of Earth’s life, that would be catastrophic.”
I confess I found his response false – indeed, demonstrably so – and, frankly, dangerous.
First: his claim is false. Suppose it was proven that the universe is past-eternal. How would this be catastrophic for Christianity? My twitter response to Ross was “I can hear the Thomists laughing their heads off.” What do Thomists have to do with it? Well, for centuries Thomists have made their case for the existence of God with arguments that do not presuppose that the universe had a beginning. Take Edward Feser as a modern example. His recent book “Five Proofs of the Existence of God” pretty much does exactly what is says on the tin. The reader will notice that each of these five arguments are utterly unaffected by whether or not the universe began to exist. Moreover, on the back of such arguments Feser defends certain attributes of God, such as: necessity, simplicity, eternity, immutability, omnipotence, omniscience, and others.
There are many other arguments for the existence of God: arguments from consciousness, design arguments, and moral arguments, for example. Very few of these arguments rely on a past-finite universe. In fact, the only argument that I can think of that would suffer utter catastrophe is the kalam cosmological argument, the second premise of which states “the universe began to exist.” It seems then that the case for God’s existence would emerge relatively unscathed.
The atoning death and resurrection of Christ are probably the next most crucial doctrines. How might a past-eternal universe affect them? Not even remotely, I think. There is nothing about the eternity of the universe that means Christ could not be incarnated at a certain place and a certain time in human history to live and die for the salvation of the world and rise again from the dead. Whatever one makes of the case for the resurrection of Christ made by scholars such as Richard Swinburne, NT Wright, William Lane Craig, or Gary Habermas, it seems difficult how it would be adversely affected by the past-eternity of the universe.
So, where is this catastrophe? The obvious doctrinal candidate is the doctrine of creation. Genesis 1:1 says “in the beginning God created the heavens and the earth.” Moreover, the Apostle’s Creed (which is one of the best statements of “mere Christianity”) contains the line “I believe in God, the Father almighty, creator of heaven and earth.” Is a past-eternal universe catastrophic for these claims? Not at all. The doctrine of “creatio ex nihilo” would certainly go, but that’s about all, and that’s hardly a core Christian doctrine. There is no need to read Genesis 1:1 as a cosmological statement (and given the mythical nature of what follows, very unwise to do so). In fact, many Christians already resist doing so. Moreover, should the universe be past-eternal, that needn’t deny God the role of creator. As Feser’s arguments show, its existence is still radically dependent on God’s sustaining power to hold it in being. God remains the “creator of heaven and earth” in a very real sense: He upholds the universe, and is responsible for the existence of the entire creaturely realm. At worst, then, an unessential doctrine held by some Christians will require revision.
So, Ross is wrong, and demonstrably so, given that there already exist schools of Christian thought which have made their peace with the possibility that the universe is past-eternal. But Ross’s view is also dangerous. The best way to see this is by reference to evolution. Fierce battles concerning the truth or falsity of this theory have been fought since the 19th century, with many churchmen proclaiming the theory incompatible with biblical Christianity. Some fundamentalists – like Ken Ham – are still at it to this day. But here’s the problem: it isn’t, and not only have most Christian academics happily embraced evolution, some have even based theistic arguments on the back of its insights! Unfortunately, as the evidence for evolution added up over time, and as Western culture and society made their peace with it, the words of the churchmen still rang loudly in many people’s ears: “evolution is incompatible with Christianity.” The result was predictable: Christianity came to be viewed by many as contrary to known truths, and therefore not a serious option for thinking people. What a shame that was. Thank you, Mr Ham, and others of your ilk!
Ross risks a similar unnecessary outcome here. Whilst I agree with Ross that – quite probably – the universe is finite, that judgment is only provisional. It might easily be the case that the consensus will shift. Should that happen Ross might very well have caused an unnecessary rejection of Christian faith by those bumbling along in his wake, hanging the acceptability of their faith on whether or not the universe is past-eternal.
Given that there are well-established schools of Christian thought that are utterly unfazed by the possible past-eternity of the universe, Ross’s comments seem particularly reckless, or we might say: catastrophic.
Stephen J. Graham