Abraham’s certainty

How could it be that the ancient Hebrews could know something that took science and the rest of mankind forty centuries to learn? Science keeps discovering more and more details about how the universe is exquisitely tuned. That comes as no surprise for those who hold Judeo-Christian beliefs. The idea of an orderly universe has existed at least since the time of Abraham, about 4,000 years ago. The concept of order is clear in the Bible and pervasive in both Jewish and Christian traditions. All of that began to be expressed in an organized fashion by the time of Augustine of Hippo around the 4th century A.D.

So I return to my initial question: how did the Hebrews figure things out so much quicker than the rest of us? I am not trying to prove the existence of God. Proving that God exists would require much more than just pointing at a curious historic anomaly. God proves His own existence by mysteriously revealing Himself to mankind. The experience of God is personal. Those who decide not to believe in God do so precisely because God has given them the freedom to make that choice.

The apparent absence of God in the universe is part of that freedom. If God were empirically obvious, it would be impossible to not believe in Him, just as it is impossible to deny the importance of breathing. I am free to cease breathing, but it is obvious that such freedom can only be conscientiously exercised for a limited time. Yet it is possible to not believe in God for an extended period of time because He does not intimidate us with His presence. His absence allows us to move around and experience the world freely.

Yet in the Judeo-Christian worldview, God is not absent. He makes Himself known mysteriously. Answering why He reveals Himself in that way is beyond the scope of this article. We can, however, go back to one of God’s early mysterious revelations and analyze the religion of Abraham, the common origin of Jewish and Christian beliefs.

We know precious little about Abraham’s personal religion. The Bible registry is brief and there is scant information outside of the story of Abraham related in those four or five chapters of Genesis. There we can see that Abraham’s religious beliefs were radically different from the beliefs of his contemporaries. It would take many volumes to analyze those beliefs in depth; therefore, I will only point out some basic differences.

Going against all of the religious beliefs of his time, Abraham’s religion was first and foremost monotheistic. God is One and He exists by His own will. In contrast, the other religions of the Fertile Crescent were all developments of a more primitive animism with myriads of gods, big and small. They resembled humans, laden with strengths and weaknesses.

The gods of that early age differed from their human subjects in one significant way: they were immortal. In every other aspect of their lives, they were practically identical to the rest of humanity. They were depicted as having strong emotions, marrying, having children, experiencing success and defeat, being seduced and betrayed, etc.

But the God of Abraham is different from the gods of the Chaldean-Sumerian pantheon. He is not limited to being merely immortal. His very nature is different; He is eternal, and He has no beginning and no end.

Another distinctive characteristic of the God of Abraham is His version of the history of creation. While the other gods—from every civilization around the world—created the world from some original material (a dragon, the sea, a woman, a tree, etc.), the God of Abraham began from the most absolute nothingness.

For Abraham, the story of creation began simply with “Beresith barah Elohim…” That is, “In the beginning God creates…” There was no material to build from, no dragons, no trees, nothing. When light was needed, God simply said, “Let there be light,” and light existed, amazingly, for the first time.

That is something truly unique. From the Word of God all things are created. Humans of all ages have always been familiar with symbols representing something (for example, the word “light.”) That has not changed from the dawn of time, but the idea that a word could exist previous to the object it represents and be the cause of such object was simply revolutionary for that time.

Four thousand years later we find that one word in the DNA code may represent the difference between two types of living beings. Theoretical physicists playing with concepts on the cutting edge of physics and mathematics tell us that some infinitesimally small things they call “strings” seem to be playing a similar role in the formation of matter. They say that with just a slight difference in shape and vibration, we get uranium instead of lead. The relationship between word and reality appears in today’s science like a faint echo of the account of Abraham’s story of creation by the Word of God.

In these early years of the 21st century, very few remember what established science affirmed about 100 years ago. Consulting history books we find that Babylonians, Persians, Greeks, Romans and those who succeeded them all believed that the universe had always been there. In their view, everything was organized in successive cycles the Greeks called anakuklosis , the inevitable cycles or eras dominating the life of mankind.

Abraham’s people experienced many changes throughout the centuries but they never abandoned the belief in creation from nothing in spite of the whole world believing otherwise.

Until the early 20th century, the belief in a stable and permanent universe was accepted as something self-evident. Even Albert Einstein, with all of his marvelous intuition, began his life believing in a stable universe; though in his later years some of those beliefs would change. The God of Abraham was going to be vindicated after having been ignored by science for forty centuries.

Edwin Hubble was born in 1889 in Marshfield, Missouri. By 1919 he was part of the staff of astronomers at the Observatory at Mount Palomar located in north San Diego County, California. His work confirmed what many had suspected for years: the Milky Way was not the whole universe. The light from the “interstellar gas” astronomers observed through their telescopes was not gas at all, but an entire collection of galaxies. The universe was giving mankind and science a lesson in humility. Earth was not the center of the universe, neither was the sun. Our galaxy wasn’t anything special; it was just an average galaxy among innumerable other galaxies spread across the heavens.

Using the discoveries of Christian Doppler, Hubble and his scientists were unknowingly getting closer to giving us yet another lesson in humility. They discovered that galaxies were moving away from each other. By 1929 it was proven to be consistent with Einstein’s theory of general relativity, showing that our universe was expanding, although even Einstein initially resisted the idea.

The discoveries of Hubble confirmed the calculations of the Belgian Georges Henri Joseph Édouard Lemaître, a Catholic priest and a spiritual descendant of the hardheaded Hebrews who believed in God’s creating the universe out of nothing. Father Lemaître has since then been considered the father of the Big Bang. In 1927, he published an article in the Annals of the Scientific Society of Brussels titled Un Univers homogène de masse constante et de rayon croissant rendant compte de la vitesse radiale des nébuleuses extragalactiques In his report, Lemaître presented the idea of the expanding universe. In time, he completed a mathematical study of the observations of Hubble and his team.

Meanwhile Einstein—related to Abraham through his natural Jewish ancestors—did not want to accept the idea of the expanding universe. He needed the universe to stay quiet until he could finish figuring out how it worked. He met Lemaître and told him, “Your calculations are correct but your physics are abominable.” Unfortunately for Einstein, Fr. Lemaître was right. A group of young European physicists and mathematicians had already begun to push the frontiers of general relativity into the wild territories of quantum physics.

Lemaître died in 1966 after American Nobel Prize winners, Penzias and Wilson, confirmed the existence of the cosmic background of microwave radiation that made it possible to calculate the age of the universe: 13.5 billion years.

Later other scientists proposed that all of the matter of the universe had been concentrated in one point smaller than the period at the end of this sentence. Astrophysicists believe that the point started expanding in a very deliberate and precise manner that allowed the establishment of a few dozen universal constants without which the universe, as we know it, would not have been possible. If any one of those constants were modified to the slightest degree, the whole universe would be completely different. For many scientists, those singularities suggest the existence of a will external and apart from both space and time, indeed from the whole universe.

Some scientists are beginning to argue for a metaphysical conclusion: the necessity of a Creator, unbound by the laws of our universe.

Let us go back once more to Abraham whose religion already described the beginning of the universe. Avram (later renamed Abraham by God) was an obscure chief of a clan of Chaldean shepherd-warriors that inhabited the Fertile Crescent near Ur about forty centuries ago. Those men and women knew back then that the universe began out of nothing. That idea was contrary to the general belief that everything was organized in eternal cycles that men had observed throughout history. But Abraham, a man of action living at the edge of Pre-History, knew very well that God was the Creator of everything, that God had no beginning and no end, and that somehow God was external and apart from all of creation.

That same God promised to Abraham that he was going to be the father of an innumerable seed. That must have sounded like a joke to old Abraham who was pushing 90 and married to Sarah who was almost as old as he was and apparently barren. But Abraham believed and today almost half of the population of our planet declare to be spiritual descendants of Abraham, the man God named “Father of Nations” forty centuries ago.

The rest of the world has finally caught up with Abraham and now we all agree that there was a beginning after all. Some of the most brilliant and intelligent men alive today are starting to consider the possibility that Abraham really spoke with God four thousand years ago on a hill in Chaldea.


Published 3 July 2010.

References

[1] The Idea of Decline in Western History, Arthur Herman. Simon & Schuster Inc., 1997.

[2] A Homogeneous Universe of Constant Mass and Growing Radius Resulting from the Radial Velocity of the Extragalactic Nebulae

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