Book Review: ‘The Case for Miracles’ by Lee Strobel, part 5a

In part one of my review of Lee Strobel’s The Case for Miracles I covered chapters 1-3, a section featuring Strobel’s interview of the skeptic Michael Shermer. In part two I covered chapters 4-6 featuring his interview with Craig Keener. In part three I covered chapter 7 which featured an interview Strobel had with Candy Gunther Brown of Indiana University. In part four I covered chapter 8 featuring his interview with missionary Tom Doyle. Strobel’s fifth interview is with Michael Strauss and covers chapters 9-10. I will cover chapter 9 today.

To view all posts in this review series, please go to its index.

INTERVIEW #5a – MICHAEL STRAUSS 

In his book Just Six Numbers physicist Martin Rees details how if six cosmic parameters were different than what their values are that the universe (and life) as we know it would cease to exist. Reese wrote that the “six numbers constitute a ‘recipe’ for a universe. Moreover, the outcome is sensitive to their values: if any one of them were to be ‘untuned’, there would be no stars and no life.”This is staggering and astonishing. I had first read this book as an evangelical Christian working as a youth director for a small Presbyterian church. So when I read what Rees said next, I was a bit disheartened: “Is this tuning just a brute fact, a coincidence? Or is it that providence of a benign Creator? I take the view that it is neither.”2 In the margin, next to that final sentence, I wrote the word “tragic.”

Rees’ proposal was that the universe was one of a vast number of universes that exist, each with different values for the six numbers so important to life as we know it. Some universes may be like ours while others would be empty of life entirely. It is like playing Russian Roulette but instead of a bullet in one of the chambers you have a cosmic parameter set with a value that prohibits the universe in which we live. One squeeze and it could all be over.

Creation Ex Nihilo

For Christians, the universe is not part of a multiversebut is instead a world intentionally created by the God of the Hebrew and Christian scriptures. From the very first verse of the Bible it is clear that the universe was God’s doing. As Strobel writes,

[C]reating an actual universe from nothing, while fine-tuning it to provide a flourishing habitat for human beings, is a primary job description of God – at least, if the very first verse in the Bible is true: “In the beginning God created the heavens and the earth.” (Strobel, 163-164)

And so chapters 9-10 of The Case for Miracles feature an interview Strobel had with physicist Michael Strauss. Chapter 9 deals with the subject of creation ex nihilo and chapter 10 deals with the topic of fine-tuning.

One of the most important discoveries of the twentieth century is that the universe expanding. This meant that we could extrapolate back in time to a moment when all the material of the universe was condensed into a single point. As Carl Sagan so eloquently stated it,

All the matter and energy now in the universe was concentrated at extremely high density – a kind of cosmic egg, reminiscent of the creation myths of many cultures – perhaps into a mathematical point with no dimensions at all. It was not that all the matter and energy were squeezed into a minor corner of the present universe; rather, the entire universe, matter and energy and the space they fill, occupied a very small volume. There was not much room for events to happen in.4 

But the universe as we know it is no longer a “cosmic egg.” It is a humongous place with a diameter of over ninety billion light-years. So how did the universe go from an infinitesimally small egg to a monstrous cosmos? The answer is: the Big Bang.

Kalam

The Big Bang theory is one of the best attested scientific models in cosmology if not all of science. So it is no surprise that many Christians have latched onto the theory as evidence for God’s existence. One argument employed by Christian philosophers and apologists is known as the “Kalam Cosmological Argument.” Its most ardent defender and popularizer today is Christian philosopher William Lane Craig.5 The argument is simple enough:

  • Premise 1: Whatever begins to exist has a cause for its existence.
  • Premise 2: The universe began to exist.
  • Conclusion: Therefore, the universe has a cause for its existence.

In his interview with Strauss, Strobel asks the physicist what he thinks of the Kalam cosmological argument. Strauss replies,

It’s extremely strong….Think about it: Is there anything that comes into existence without a cause behind it? Some scientists say there may be uncaused quantum events, but I think there are good reasons to be skeptical about that. And we know from the evidence that the universe did come into existence. If those two premises of the argument are true, then the conclusion inexorably follows: the universe has a cause. (Strobel, 172)

It is not my intention to dissect Kalam here. Both premises 1 and 2 above have been contested by philosophers and scientists.6 But I do want to ask the question as to whether the text of Genesis supports Kalam. The answer is a resounding “No!”

“In the beginning…”

Most of us are familiar with the rendering of Genesis 1:1 in the King James Version: “In the beginning God created the heaven and the earth.” Other translations generally follow suit with minor modifications.7 And then there are still others with very different readings. Here are three:

  • NRSV – “In the beginning when God created the heavens and the earth….”
  • JPS – “When God began to create heaven and earth….”
  • Robert Alter – “When God began to create heaven and earth….”8

What is going on? Why do the KJV and many modern translations read one way and the NRSV, JPS, and Robert Alter’s translation read another?

It boils down to whether Genesis 1:1 is a dependent or independent clause. The KJV and others see it as an independent main clause that is either a summary of the six days of creation9 or as the first of God’s creative acts.10 The NRSV, JPS, and Alter translations see Genesis 1:1 as a dependent temporal clause that modifies the main clause that comes in Genesis 1:3 with the words “God said, ‘Let there be light…’.” A note in the HarperCollins Study Bible reads,

The grammar of this temporal clause was clarified by the medieval Jewish commentator Rashi, who noted that the Hebrew word for “beginning” (reshit) requires a dependent relation – it is the beginning of” something – and can be followed by a verb. The traditional rendering, “In the beginning, God created,” dates to the Hellenistic period (as in the Septuagint), when these details of Hebrew grammar had been forgotten.11 

So then does 1:2 fit in with the context? It would have to be a kind of disjunctive clause, offering the reader background for what transpires in verse 3. Elohim takes the “formless void” of the earth and begins to bring structure and order to it. But it is clear that in so doing he is using material already in existence. Consider Robert Alter’s translation of Genesis 1:1-3a.

When God began to create heaven and earth, and the earth then was welter and waste and darkness over the deep and God’s breath hovering over the waters, God said, “Let there be light.”12

Alter’s understanding of the passage brings to light what is going on in the text: God using material already present and bringing order to it. This is in many ways what the creation story of Genesis 1 is all about. And it fits with other ANE literature wherein the gods form the cosmos with material already present.13 

So the idea of creation ex nihilo upon which Kalam rests is absent from Genesis. That isn’t to say it is absent from the whole of the Bible. But it does mean that we cannot look to Genesis for support of the principle.14 

Next Time

In part 5 of my review of The Case for Miracles I will look at chapter 10 and Strauss’ views on fine-tuning.

NOTES

1 Martin Rees, Just Six Numbers: The Deep Forces That Shape the Universe (Basic Books, 2000), 4.

2 Reese, 4.

3 As some have argued, even if there were multiple universes then it would still demand an explanation. Apologists Norman L. Geisler and Frank Turek write,

[E]ven if other universes could exist, they would need fine-tuning to get started just as our universe did…. So positing multiple universes doesn’t eliminate the need for a Designer – it multiplies the need for a Designer!

See Geisler and Turek, I Don’t Have Enough Faith to Be an Atheist (Crossway, 2004), 107.

4 Carl Sagan, Cosmos (Ballantine Books, 1980), 200.

5 See William Lane Craig, Reasonable Faith: Christian Truth and Apologetics, third edition (Crossway, 2008), 111-156.

6 See Sean Carroll, The Big Picture: On the Origins of Life, Meaning, and the Universe Itself (Dutton, 2016), 199-201; Michael Martin, Atheism: A Philosophical Justification (Temple University Press, 1990), 101-106.

7 Most of the modern translations change the KJV “heaven” to “heavens,” reflecting that the Hebrew word shamayim is plural. And some (i.e. ESV) add a comma in between the prepositional phrase “In the beginning” and the clause “God created the heavens and the earth.”

8 Robert Alter, The Five Books of Moses: A Translation with Commentary (W.W. Norton & Company, 2004), 17.

9 See Bruce Waltke with Cathi J. Fredricks, Genesis: A Commentary (Zondervan, 2001), 58.

10 See John Sailhamer, The Pentateuch as Narrative: A Biblical-Theological Commentary (Zondervan, 1992), 82, n.2.

11 Ronald Hendel, “Genesis,” in Harold W. Attridge, general editor, The HarperCollins Study Bible (HarperOne, 2006), 5.

12 Alter, 17.

13 For example, see Epic of Creation as well as Theogony of Dunnu. Stephanie Dalley offers a word of warning:

[W]e cannot speak of ‘the Mesopotamian view of creation’ as a single, specific tradition, and this in turn shows the futility of claiming a direct connection between genesis as described in the Old Testament and any one Mesopotamian account of creation. (Dalley, Myths from Mesopotamia: Creation, the Flood, Gilgamesh, and Others [OUP, 1989], 278.)

14 Biblical scholar John Walton writes about creation ex nihilo, 

Some believe that Genesis 1 must be interpreted in material terms lest we forfeit the important doctrine of creation ex nihilo. This is not true. The first observation to be made is that other passages in the Bible affirm God as Creator of the material world and either imply or affirm that creation happened ex nihilo. Secondly, the initial formulation of the theology of ex nihilo creation did not have to do with the material world. Rather, it served as the way to argue against Platonic assertions about the eternal existence of the soul. The opposite position, that eventually won consensus in the church, was that the soul is created “out of nothing” when each person comes into existence. It was only much later that the term was applied to the material cosmos. Consequently we can conclude that even though church doctrine in recent centuries has focused on the importance of material creation ex nihilo, it would not be appropriate to drive that doctrine back into the world of the Old Testament. That was not a big issue in the ancient world. Consequently, we need to recognize that there is no question that God is the one who created the material cosmos, and at some point at the beginning of that process he did it out of nothing. Other biblical passages confirm this, as do I—it is essential theology. So we don’t need to try to make this important theological point (God’s non-contingency) with Genesis 1, if this is not an issue it intended to address. After all, just because we have an origins text in Genesis 1 doesn’t mean that it has to offer a comprehensive account of everything that God did at every level. We need to inquire as to what aspects of origins Genesis 1 intends to address.

See John Walton, “Material or Function in Genesis 1? John Walton Responds (Part 1),” Biologos.com. Accessed 18 October 2018.

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