The Big Bang theory argues that the universe was in an extremely hot and dense state approximately 13 billion years ago and began expanding rapidly. The expansion and subsequent cooling produced matter as we know it.
The new discovery has implications for the debate between Christians who believe the universe is billions of years old and Christians who believe it is thousands of years old.
The Baptist Faith and Message of the Southern Baptist Convention does not specify whether the universe is thousands or billions of years old, stating only that God is the creator and the humans are "the special creation of God, made in His own image." Faculty members of the six Southern Baptist seminaries hold to both old and young earth creationism. There is widespread agreement, however, that Darwinian evolution is unscriptural.
"The recent purported detection of gravitational waves serves as further confirmation of Einstein's theory of general relativity and of the nature of the Big Bang itself," Bruce Gordon, associate professor of the history and philosophy of science at Houston Baptist University, told Baptist Press in an email interview.
"If corroborated by the scientific community, this is a hugely important discovery, and there will probably be some ... Nobel Prizes associated with it," said Gordon, who also is a senior fellow with the Discovery Institute, a Seattle-based think tank that plays a leading role in the Intelligent Design movement which argues that the universe is the product of intelligence rather than blind chance.
Scientists have argued for decades that the Big Bang produced gravitational waves which polarized electromagnetic radiation throughout the universe in a specific way. A telescope at the South Pole known as BICEP2 detected that type of polarization for the first time, researchers of the BICEP2 consortium announced March 17.
According to these scientists, the discovery also provides evidence for "inflationary cosmology" or "inflation" -- the idea that the universe expanded faster than the speed of light during the first trillionths of a second following the Big Bang. If the universe initially expanded merely at the speed of light -- the highest velocity at which any cause can have an effect in space-time -- it could not have reached its present size, according to Big Bang proponents.
Physicist Alan Guth proposed inflation in 1980 in an attempt to explain the universe's fine tuning and uniformity without reference to a supernatural creator. If all matter was crunched together before the Big Bang, Guth said, its initial proximity should result in some degree of uniformity as it expands, explaining the consistency of scientific laws without a creator.
But Gordon said cosmic inflation requires so much fine-tuning itself that the theory unwittingly increases the likelihood of the universe's creation by an intelligent designer.
"The energy of the inflationary field has to be shut off with tremendous precision in order for a universe like ours to exist, with inflationary models requiring a shut-off energy precision of at least one part in one hundred thousand trillion trillion trillion trillion and perhaps as much as one part on one hundred billion trillion googol," he said.
The notion of a "multiverse" is often coupled to the inflationary mechanism, Gordon said, "with the idea that, if inflation produces enough universes, such improbabilities don't matter. ... he BICEP2 results don't speak to the issue of a multiverse which, even if it existed by such means, would be the result of a finely tuned universe generator.
"In short, it's intelligent design no matter which way you turn, and theophobic scientific materialists, once they get past knee-jerk denials, will have to come to terms with this fact."
The detection of gravitational waves also factors into the debate between young and old earth creationists, Gordon said.
If those who believe the universe is only thousands of years old argue that God created it with the appearance of age, the new discovery poses no problem for them, he said. God could have created earth with light from distant stars already present even though it hadn't had time to travel from those stars, for example. But recent science, like the gravitational wave discovery, makes it difficult to argue that the universe is demonstrably young, according to Gordon, who believes God created the universe billions of years ago, but did not bring about life through Darwinian evolution.
Answers In Genesis (AiG), an organization that believes in a young universe, argues that the Bible does not allow for a Big Bang and that other mechanisms could have produced gravitational waves.
"This announcement undoubtedly will be welcomed as the long-sought proof of cosmic inflation so necessary to the big bang model," an AIG online commentary said. "Biblical creationists know from Scripture that the universe did not begin in a big bang billions of years ago. For instance, from God's Word we understand that the world is far younger than this. Furthermore, we know from Genesis 1 that God made the earth before He made the stars, but the big bang requires that many stars existed for billions of years before the earth did."
The predictions supposedly confirmed by the new discovery are "model-dependent," AIG noted. "If the model changes, then the predictions change. Inflation is just one of many free parameters that cosmologists have at their disposal within the big bang model, so they can alter these parameters at will to get the intended result.... Other mechanisms could mimic the signal being claimed today. So, even if the data are confirmed, there may be some other physical mechanism at play rather than cosmic inflation."
Bill Nettles, professor of physics at Union University in Jackson, Tenn., said that regardless of a believer's position on the age of the universe, the recent discovery of gravitational waves is evidence that humans were created in God's image.
"That we can develop models (from creative minds) and use incredible discipline to imagine what previous conditions must have existed to produce the phenomena which we now see and to extract and extrapolate the mathematics which predict yet unseen physical phenomena that 'fingerprint' the beginning moments of creation is something no sub-human species has even approached. We occupy a unique position in creation," Nettles said in an email interview with BP.
Revelations about the universe's complexity should reassure believers of God's providential care, Nettles said.
Psalms 19 and 136 use "the majesty of the physical creation" to "introduce the covenant-keeping Yahweh," he said. "It says that a God powerful enough to design, create and maintain this huge universe is powerful enough to preserve His covenant people."
David Roach is a writer in Shelbyville, Ky. Get Baptist Press headlines and breaking news on Twitter (@BaptistPress), Facebook (Facebook.com/BaptistPress) and in your email (baptistpress.com/SubscribeBP.asp).
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