To what extent is t = 0 relevant to the doctrine of creation ex nihilo? Responses have ranged widely from direct relevance to complete irrelevance.
Direct relevance. For some scholars, the scientific discovery of an absolute beginning of all things (including time) provides empirical confirmation, perhaps even proof, of divine creation.
This was the position taken by Pope Pius XII in 1951 in an address to the Pontifical Academy of Sciences. In 1978 Robert Jastrow, then head of NASA’s Goddard Institute for Space Studies, spoke metaphorically about scientists who, after climbing the arduous mountain of cosmology, came to the summit only to find theologians there already. The idea that t = 0 provides strong, even convincing, support for belief in God is frequently advanced by conservative and evangelical Christians such as Hugh Ross. Early in the debate, Lutheran theologian Ted Peters advanced a more nuanced argument elucidating the theological importance of a beginning to the universe in terms of “consonance” between theology and Big Bang cosmology. A sophisticated argument for the temporal finitude of the universe based on t = 0, as well as on an argument that rejects the possibility that the universe is also actually infinite in size, has been developed by philosopher William Craig, partially through an explicit debate with atheist Quentin Smith. More recently, philosopher Phil Clayton has suggested that contemporary cosmology affords a clear case of divine activity.
t = 0 also has served indirectly to inspire the construction of an alternative, and quite successful, cosmology. In the 1940s, Fred Hoyle, an outspoken atheist, together with colleagues Hermann Bondi and Thomas Gold, constructed a cosmology that would have no temporal beginning or end.
Their “steady state cosmology” depicted the universe as eternally old and expanding exponentially forever. For two decades, the Big Bang and the steady state models seemed equally viable given the empirical evidence then available. By the mid- 1960s, however, the Big Bang model was vindicated, at least in most scientists’ minds, by the discovery of the microwave background radiation, the successful prediction of the cosmological abundances of hydrogen and helium, and other effects.
What is important here, however, is Hoyle’s motivation in developing the steady state cosmology. One reason, although probably only secondary, was his concern that Big Bang cosmology seemed, at least in the public mind, to support Christianity. Of course, the scientific community must test strictly any cosmological proposal—steady state or Big Bang—regardless of its possible ideological origins. As philosophers put it, the “context of discovery” should not influence the “context of justification.” Nevertheless, the story of Hoyle demonstrates that very fruitful ideas can come from “extra scientific” disciplines, such as philosophy and theology, and lead even if indirectly to scientific theories with testable consequences.
Complete irrelevance. Several of the most important scholars in the theology and science interaction see creatio ex nihilo as an entirely philosophical argument regarding contingency for which specific empirical evidence is irrelevant. This includes scientists such as Arthur Peacocke, John Polkinghorne, Bill Stoeger, and Ian Barbour (in his early writings) as well as Thomistic scholars such as Steven Baldner and William Carroll.
Indirect relevance. There are a variety of positions that one can take between the two extremes of direct relevancy and complete irrelevancy. Those who find various forms of indirect relevance include scientists such as Ian Barbour (in later work), George Ellis, Walter Hearne, and Howard Van Till; and philosophers and religious scholars such as Ernan McMullin, Nancey Murphy, Ted Peters (in later work), Mark Worthing, and Robert John Russell.
Russell’s way of articulating indirect relevance is to point out that t = 0 is relevant to the aspect of contingency within the idea of creation to various degrees depending on the sort of contingency considered. For example, three basic types of contingency can be distinguished: global contingency, local contingency, and nomological contingency. The first of these, global contingency, includes both the existence of the universe as such (global ontological contingency) and contingent theoretical or empirical aspects of the universe as a whole (global existential contingency). The particular sort of contingency associated with t = 0 would come under the latter—it is a form of past temporal finitude, which is a form of finitude and thus a species of global existential contingency— but not the former. Thus, the universe’s existence and its beginning relate to different strands of global contingency.
It is important to note, however, that the infinite size and infinite future of the two open models of the universe argue against contingency in the very same respect. In other words, if t = 0 is “consonant” with creation theology in respect of “global existential contingency” then these infinities are “dissonant” with creation and other theological doctrines, such as the eschatological views of Western religions, in exactly the same respect.