When Life Burst Out of Death

A theological imagining of how the Big Bang echoes Easter.
When Life Burst Out of Death
Image: Courtesy of Kelsey

Ironically, in defense of biblical faith, some Christians denounce the Big Bang—a theory originally rejected by many in the scientific community on the grounds that it smuggled a biblical view into science. Belgian Catholic priest and astronomer Georges Lemaître first proposed the theory in 1927 and called it the “cosmic egg” or the “primordial atom.” “Big bang” was a later phrase suggested by British astronomer Fred Hoyle, who opposed the theory.

The Vatican, for its part, was so thrilled by Lemaître’s theory and its progressive verification in the scientific community that Lemaître himself had to contact the Vatican to plead that it desist from making scientific proclamations, a domain beyond its magisterium. The Vatican complied, and the attitude of global Christendom toward the Big Bang has been largely ambivalent ever since.

So, if the notion that the universe exploded from a single point was first conceived by a Christian and considered by the Catholic Church to align beautifully with the message of the Bible (primarily with the doctrine of creatio ex nihilo, “creation out of nothing”), how might this scientific idea continue to contribute to theology?

Well, I believe the clue is right there in the name Lemaître gave to his theory: the cosmic egg. With which holiday in the Christian calendar are eggs associated? Easter, of course. And so here is the parallel: For the scientific community and for Christian believers, respectively, the Big Bang and the resurrection of Jesus postulate as the vanishing point of their worldviews a privileged, unrepeatable, radically timeless moment in which light burst forth out of darkness, heat burst out of cold, life burst out of death, and Yes burst out of No. The parallels are striking.

And with a little theological imagination, we can perhaps ask ourselves the big question of how these two vanishing points relate to each other. For Christians who affirm the divinity of Jesus, the resurrection will not be thought of as an instance of Big Bang power, as if Jesus somehow tapped into the cosmic energy that quivered pregnantly when the universe erupted. Rather, the emphasis flows the other way. The Big Bang is an instance of resurrection power. That is, the resurrection is not merely a fact among a universe of facts but is precisely The Fact on the threshold of all facts, the Reality from which all other reality derives and to which it points.

At Harvard University, where I am a religion student, there seems to be some skittishness about considering the meaning of the Big Bang on this level or on any level that transcends empirical data. During my first semester at Harvard, I took a course enticingly called “Galactic and Extra-Galactic Astronomy.” In the first month of the course, we learned about the Milky Way, “home sweet home,” and its 100 billion to 400 billion stars. (Pause and think about that for a minute.) But this was just the beginning, a cute little anteroom to a sprawling castle.

The second and third month of the course took us into the deep reaches of space—which, of course, is also the deep reaches of time, telescopes being time travel machines—until we finally arrived at the study of the Cosmic Microwave Background (CMB). Avoiding astronomical jargon, the CMB is the afterglow of the Big Bang, a highly charged “dust” uniformly present throughout space, all the way out to the furthest reaches of the observable universe. (A minority position held by some astronomers theorizes a “bouncing cosmology,” in which the universe has no ultimate beginning, but eternally expands and contracts from “Big Bang” to “Big Crunch” and back to “Big Bang,” forever. Whatever mathematical merits this theory may have, it only postpones the real philosophical question, which is: Why there is anything at all?)

At any rate, physicists are able to mathematically describe the CMB and the Big Bang from which it originated 13.8 billion years ago, all the way up to Planck time, which is a unit of time about a zillionth of a second long. The math all coheres (or so it seems to us) up until the time when the universe was approximately 0.0000000000000000000000000000001 seconds old.

And near the end of the semester, breathless after traversing the history of the universe, the professor rhetorically asked the class: “And what happened before Planck time?” We were all on the edge of our seats. This was the biggest question, the truly ultimate puzzle: Where does it all come from? Why is there something instead of nothing?

But the professor balked, quipping casually in reply to his own question: “Well, we can’t talk about theology here, so let’s move on.” Everyone exhaled in disbelief. Or at least I did and initially thought it was a joke at my expense, the token religion student in the class. But he was utterly serious. The holy grail of curiosity had been set against our lips and cynically withdrawn.

Of course, one can imagine very good reasons why a modern, secular university and especially a physics class cannot talk about theology. Additionally, his question plays on the semantic and scientific challenges of talking about what happened before the Big Bang—since time itself did not yet exist. But the problem of much modern thinking, however, is that it assumes the inability to talk about such things in that context means the subjects are themselves unimportant or even taboo. Such habits of thought endanger the very mission of the university.

The term universitas means “a whole” or “community,” and when this community is so hyper-specialized that it is discouraged from making sense of the whole—when departments asking empirical questions are siloed off from departments asking existential questions, and vice versa—the university becomes a parody of its own identity. And such missional drift has consequences beyond any ivy-clad university walls: the disintegration of knowledge in the very institutions devoted to it is only a symptom of a troubling trend toward fragmentation and incoherence throughout modern culture.

If there is one place, however, where holistic curiosity should be unleashed and free, it is the church. This has been much my own story, from the time I was a little boy all the way now through doctoral studies. It has been a process of much question asking and paradigm shifting, and thankfully I was never made to face the false alternative of spiritual or intellectual suicide. One particularly important moment for me was when the path of curiosity led to the Church of the Holy Sepulcher, the fourth-century church in Jerusalem likely built over the historic location of Jesus’ execution and grave.

When I was a little boy and was taught how to share my faith, the logic went something like this: “You see, we are sinners, and sin has the punishment of death. So for our actions, which are bad, we deserve to die. But God was kind and sent his own son to die in our place, taking our punishment of death.” It is a cross-centric, Good-Friday-centric story.

Now, I still affirm these things (with footnotes), but it is notable that at the site where these events took place, the Church of the Holy Sepulcher, Golgotha is somewhat of an architectural footnote, up a twisted staircase in a gilded loft, while the lines of the building crescendo dramatically on the tomb, the place of resurrection. “Sepulcher” means tomb, of course, and the Church of the Holy Sepulcher preaches in an elaborate exegesis of stone that what is most important here is not the cross but the empty tomb.

Lovely, but what does this have to do with the Big Bang? Quite a lot, actually. The grave of Jesus is located under a massive dome, encased in a box-shaped shrine called an edicule. Directly above the edicule is a large hole in the dome, intentionally left open (like the Pantheon in Rome) so that the interior is lit up during the day by a majestic column of light. The sound of bells and wingbeats of pigeons often reverberate through the huge space, while the smoke of candles and incense curl gently upward into the light. But what is most fascinating is the artwork covering the inside of the dome. It is fairly recent, actually. In 1997, the churches with jurisdiction in the Church of the Holy Sepulcher (the Catholics and a handful of Orthodox churches) decided to renovate the inside of the dome and hosted an international competition for the design. The winner was a commercial mall builder from Fresno, California. He created a piece called “Explosions of Light.” Radiating away from the open center in every direction are 12 banners of gold terminating in a field of stars.

The light, according to the Hebrew University professor who showed me through the church, represents the activity of God, while the stars represent humanity or the churches. And the theological message is quite clear: Whatever happened here on an early morning very long ago, it unleashed from the unlikeliest of sources—a stiff corpse—an explosion of otherworldly power that today is still expanding (like the universe itself) and sweeping up souls in a wake of light.

And in fact, by my own lights, this idea and the artwork expressing it resemble to no small degree the Big Bang itself. An “explosion of light” just above the tomb of Jesus represents to me a fusion of vanishing points at which the empirical and existential questions perennially inspiring and haunting our species converge, speaking a message that establishes, dignifies, and transcends human capacities of thought and language. From beyond the ultimate horizon of our imagination and intelligence a voice breaks through that simultaneously brackets and beautifies all we could ever think, feel, or know: I love you.

Ryan Gregg is a PhD candidate in religion at Harvard University specializing in Christian theology and the Hebrew Bible.

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When Life Burst Out of Death