“In the beginning,” the Bible says in the book of Genesis, “God created the heavens and the earth:’ The Bible is unique among the documents of ancient history in positing an absolute beginning. In Buddhism, we learn from the Dalai Lama that “there are multiple world systems … in constant state of coming into being and passing away.”12 The Bible also asserts clearly that time is finite. By contrast, Hinduism and Buddhism posit endless cycles of time stretching into the indefinite past. The Greeks and Romans, like other cultures of antiquity, believed in the eternity of history. As Leon Kass notes in his study of Genesis, the biblical writers didn’t need to venture into this territory. They could have started with the Garden of Eden and left out the account of creation. Instead the biblical narrative brazenly insists that the universe came into existence at a particular instant in time as an act of voluntary creation by an already existing supernatural being.

It is important here to clear up a common misunderstanding. Many secular writers seem to think that the orthodox Christian position is that the universe and the earth were literally made in six calendar days. But the Bible uses a Hebrew term that could mean a day or a season or an era. We also read in 2 Peter 3:8 that “with the Lord a day is like a thousand years, and a thousand years are like a day.” From earliest Christian times, the leading church authorities from Irenaeus to Origen to Augustine gave a figurative interpretation to the “days” in the book of Genesis. Most traditional Christians have no problem with a creation account that extends over millions, even billions, of years.Remarkably, Jews and Christians have always believed not only that God made the universe, but also that He made it out of nothing “in the beginning was the Word.” With this the Bible implies that the universe was literally spoken into existence. For nearly two thousand years this made no rational sense. We experience time and space in such a way that we cannot imagine them having a beginning or an end. Nature suggests no beginning or end in itself. In the creation myths of most other religions, gods typically fashion the world out of some preexisting stuff. Logic would seem to be on the side of the ancient Greeks: ex nihilo, nihil. But now modern science tells us that the Bible is right. The universe was indeed formed out of nothing. And how was it formed? We do not know and may never know, because the creator used processes that are not now operating anywhere in the natural universe.

Even more strange is that Jews and Christians have long held that God made space and time along with the universe. We have seen how the church father Augustine, when confronted with the question of why God sat around for such a long time before deciding to create the universe, answered that the question was meaningless. There was no time before the creation, Augustine wrote, because the creation of the universe involved the creation of time itself. Modern physics has confirmed Augustine and the ancient understanding of the Jews and Christians.

The Big Bang resolves one of the apparent contradictions in the book of Genesis. For more than two centuries, critics of the Bible have pointed out that in the beginning—on the first day—God created light. Then on the fourth day God separated the night from the day. The problem is pointed out by philosopher Leo Strauss: “Light is presented as preceding the sun.” Christians have long struggled to explain this anomaly but without much success. The writer of Genesis seemed to have made an obvious mistake.