Verily at the first Chaos came to be… —Hesiod
The Boshongo, a Bantu tribe, say that in the beginning there was only darkness, water, and the god Bumba. One day, constrained by great stomach pains, Bumba vomited up the sun, and then the moon and stars, and then nine different animals, and finally man. So the universe began. Professor Stephen Hawking uses this African myth to open his printed and posted lecture, “The Origin of the Universe.” He calls it a “creation myth.” Hawking puts it forward to show how curious we are about the origin of things, a curiosity that began in antiquity and still endures today, a curiosity he feels.
But the story of Bumba is not a creation myth. It is an origin myth. The distinction is important.
The myths of the ancient world begin with matter and, perhaps, some sort of sentience incipient within that matter. In other words, the myths begin with a self-existing cosmos. The origin myths tell how that original cosmic stuff developed into the world we know. They say nothing about its original creation—they only trace its evolution. Consider these few examples:
In Greek mythology, there was Chaos. Then came Gaia (Mother Earth) and Eros (Love). Darkness and Night arose from Chaos and in loving union begat the heavenly Aether and Day. Gaia brought forth the starry Heavens, and together they gave birth to the Titans, the ancient gods. Their children, in turn, were the Olympians, and the war that arose between these two generations was terrible. But, in the end, Zeus brought order.
Norse mythology begins with a yawning gap in the center of reality. It was bounded by a realm of fire to the south and one of ice to the north. When sparks from the south met the ice from the north, sentience arose in the form of Ymir, a frost giant, and Audumla, a cow whose milk fed the giant. The cow licked the salty ice for nourishment and so sculpted from it the first of the gods, Buri. Buri’s grandchildren—Odin was their chief—slew the giant and used his remains to shape Heaven and Earth (Asgard and Midgard).
Egyptian mythology started with the primordial ocean, an infinite chaos of churning, bubbling waters. From it arose Atum, who willed himself into existence. He created a dry hill, and standing upon it, generated the other gods, including Heaven and Earth.
Sumerian mythology also began with the waters. Tiamat, the chaos monster, was the salt oceans, and Apsu, her husband, was the fresh water abyss that lay beneath the earth. From their union came the gods. When Tiamat turned on her children, the god Marduk slew her and divided her carcass to form the Earth and the Heavens.
These myths, and dozens more like them, share a common theology. They explain the world in terms of an evolutionary pantheism. In all of these myths, the cosmos is self-existent and whatever changes take place within it or from out of it have no cause but the cosmos itself. None of these myths recognizes a true Creator. And in that sense, they are all anti-theistic. Philosophically, they have more in common with the cosmogony of, say, Stephen Hawking, than they do with the creation account we find in Genesis. It might be wise to ask why.
Brief History and Grand Design
In 1988 Hawking published A Brief History of Time (Bantam). In it he described the shifting notions of time that Western philosophers and scientists have put forward and religiously defended, especially in the last century. Along the way, he briefly chronicled the evolution of his own thinking, which began with black holes and moved through the Big Bang to acceptance of a temporally finite universe that might (or might not) have been the work of God. But by the time Hawking wrote Brief History, he had come to believe in a different sort of universe, one that was finite and bounded, and yet without beginning or end—a universe that was self-existent and eternal. Oddly, he closed the last chapter of A Brief History with the fond hope that men might one day understand the universe and so come to know “the mind of God.” The mind of God?
This year Hawking has gone into print again. His newest book is The Grand Design (Bantam, 2010). His thinking has ripened: he no longer sees any need for God. The self-existent universe is now a part of a multi-verse, and simply accounts for itself. Hawking writes: “Because there is such a law as gravity, the Universe can and will create itself from nothing. Spontaneous creation is the reason there is something rather than nothing, why the universe exists, why we exist.” Note the word creation. What Hawking is describing is not creation, and surely he knows that.
In an article appearing in the Huffington Post (9/12/2010) commentator Deepak Chopra accurately points out that Hawking’s cosmology is akin to Eastern mysticism: “Indeed, in the ancient Vedic tradition, the universe is self-generated, just as Hawking theorizes, and there is no end to how many creations unfold from nothingness.” Chopra finds fault with Hawking for his failure to understand his own metaphysics. Hawking has failed to find God outside the universe when, in fact, God is the “the reality from which the universe creates itself.” Or more simply, “God” is the universe. Chopra believes that the human need for love, truth, and morality can find satisfaction in the universe itself; he chides Hawking for missing the obvious behind narrowly interpreted mathematical theorems.
But can pantheism really rescue materialism? What if sentience and morality—even love, are embedded in the very fabric of reality? If the Force is truly with us, isn’t that enough? Christianity says no.
The universe considered as spirit, or even as the sum of its material parts, may seem a transcendent reference point, but, in fact, it’s no reference point at all. In this worldview, the universe is no higher than we are. We are all part of it. So is everything else. Everything within reality is an equally valid aspect and expression of what is. Nothing is higher; nothing is lower. There is no evil; there is no good, not in any ultimate sense anyway. The universe treats all alike; it cannot discriminate. It favors neither wise man nor fool; murderer nor victim; corrupter nor corrupted. It cannot show love or hate. It cannot tell us what to do; it can’t tell us anything—not with words.
When we get past the verbal sleight of hand, we find that the universe is a pretty miserable god. It bears no comparison with the God of Christianity.
First, the Christian God is both transcendent and immanent. He is “a God afar off,” and yet “in Him we live, and move, and have our being” (Jer. 23:23; Acts 17:28). He is not merely theoretically omnipotent: He actually governs the universe in all its parts, moment by moment (Ps. 104). He gives life and breath to man, shapes his earthly fortunes, and holds him absolutely accountable for his actions (Acts 17:25-31). Yes Steven Hawking, there is a day of judgment.
Second, the Christian God is personal. He exists as three distinct Persons who are nonetheless undivided deity. They are one ontologically and one in perfect fellowship. In other words, the Christian God does not love in general; He does not love potentially; He does not love indiscriminately. The Father loves the Son, and the Son loves the Father, and each breathes to the other the personal, divine Spirit as their living bond of Love (John 17). Our creation lies in the overflowing, yet self-sufficient love They have for one another.
This is true theism. We have real personality, not inherent in the stuff of the universe, but in the Creator of the universe. We have true morality, not as a property of matter, but as a divine absolute that reflects the holiness of God and the eternal love that is the inner life of the Triune God. We have truth, not as a best approximation of the universe’s current mood, but as God’s revelation of Himself in the things He has made and the words He has spoken. We have truth that is absolute and knowable and personal. We have Jesus Christ.
For further reading: Henry Morris, The Long War Against God (Grand Rapids: Baker Book House, 1989)