Science in Christian Perspective


Hierarchical Cosmologies: A New Trend?
Biblical School of Theology Hatfield, Pennsylvania 19440

From: JASA 24 (March 1972): 4-8.

The major recent views on the nature of the physical universe are discussed as a background to consideration of a paper by G. de Vauconleurs, "The Case for a Hierarchical Cosmology," Biblical data is considered and a tentative "best model" is suggested.

Growth in Knowledge

Cosmology is the study of the physical universe on the large scale. It is concerned, not primarily with individual objects such as stars and planets, but with groupings of stars, such as galaxies and clusters of galaxies, and with the universe as a whole. There have been great changes in this field in the twentieth century. Einstein's General Theory of Relativity introduced the idea that space might be curved. Our expanding knowledge of nuclear physics and of the socalled elementary particles has allowed us to understand the structure of stars, has shed some light on the origin of cosmic rays, and has even suggested the existence of neutron stars.

In the realm of observation, the large reflecting telescopes we have today have been built since 1920. The radio telescope is a product of the radar tech no'ogy of World War II, and artificial satellites have only been available since 1957. Thus, whereas in 1900 only our own Milky Way Galaxy was known, now billions of galaxies are knov.'n to exist. Whereas then the greatest distances were measured in thousands of light-years (1 light-year---6 trillion miles), now we know of objects billions of light-years away. Then almost all information from outer space came to us in the form of visible light; now we use infrared and ultraviolet light, radio waves, X rays, cosmic rays and soon (perhaps) neutrinos and gravity waves.

Isotropic Cosmological Models

It should not be surprising that there has been a great variety of views on the basic structure of the universe during these years. From World War It to very recent times, however, two basic viess s have been competing: the Steady-State Cosmology of Hermann Bondi, Thomas Gold and Fred Hoyle, and the Evolutionary Cosmology (more popularly known as the 'Big Bang" Theory) of George Gamow.1

Both of these cosmological models include the concept of the expanding universe and both accept the Cosmological Principle. The expansion of the universe is the generally-accepted explanation for the fact that the light from distant galaxies is shifted toward lower frequencies. The simplest cause for such a shift would be motion away from us, just as the sound from an automobile horn or train whistle seems to have a lower pitch when the vehicle is receding. By this explanation, the more distant galaxies are departing at greater velocities, and the most distant known objects are moving away at almost 90% of the speed of light. The Cosmological Principle states that the universe looks the same (when a sufficient volume of space is viewed) from any location in the universe. For the sake of brevity, let us call those models isotropic which accept the Cosmological Principle (technically, they are homogeneous, having the same density throughout, and isotropic, having the same physical properties in every direction).

The basic difference between the two models concerns how the universe changes with time. The SteadyState Cosmology includes the so-called Perfect Cosmological Principle, which states that the universe looks the same at any time, as well as from any location. Since the galaxies are receding from one another, the distance between galaxies would tend to increase with time unless new galaxies are formed to fill up the spaces. Thus the Steady-State Cosmology postulates the existence of an unknown natural process by which matter is continually created throughout the universe. The universe is considered infinite in extent and age, though any observable (luminous) matter would have a finite age, and the average age of observed matter would be a few billion years. Since creation is viewed as a natural process, no Creator is deemed necessary, nor was there ever a time when the universe did not exist.

The "Big Bang" Cosmology, on the other hand, allows the universe to change with time by assuming that matter is not being created at present. As a result, the distance between galaxies is now increasing (because of expansion of the universe), and the galaxies were closer together in the past. In fact, if the speed of the galaxies has not changed, they all would have been together about 13 billion years ago.2 The explosion of the universe from this highly compressed state is called the "Big Bang." In this model, the universe may be finite or infinite in extent.

Many Christians have identified the "Big Bang" with Biblical creation, thus taking Gamnw's model to be a universe of finite age. Camow himself, however, felt that the universe (previous to the "Big Bang") had been contracting from eternity past and that the "Big Bang" was really a "Big Bounce." Other proponents have envisioned the universe as periodically expanding and contracting.3" Thus, even with the "Big Bang" Cosmology, the dominant view has been that of an eternal universe.

It should be apparent by now that cosmology involves metaphysical and theological questions. Hence Christians should not be surprised that non-Christians will present theories which conflict with Scripture.4 Nor should we be surprised that Christians also will differ in regard to the models they construct in attempting to treat both Biblical and astronomical data.5

Developments in cosmology since about 1960 have 

Cosmology involves metaphysical and theological questions.

been most interesting. If the Steady-State Theory in the form described above is correct, then the universe should look the same at all times in its history. Because light travels at the finite rate of 186,000 miles per second (six trillion miles per year), we are actually looking at light that left its source some time in the past when we observe a star. The more distant the star (or other astronomical object), the older is the light we observe. Light from some of the most distant quasars6 apparently left its sources billions of years ago. Thus the observation that quasars are more thickly distributed at great distances (lung ago) than nearby (recently) has been devastating to the SteadyState Cosmology (see Fig. 1).7


In addition the "Big Bang" model has given more accurate predictions for the number of galaxies at various distances than has the Steady-State view, and it has been able to explain more easily the observed radio-frequency radiation coming uniformly from all directions.8 Thus Sehatzman in 1968 could say:

It is probably fair to say that by now the steady-state theory, at least in its original form, has been abandoned by almost all authorities. It was an attractive and plausible idea, but it did not fit the facts, and, like many other attractive theories, it has had to he given up).9

In the "Big Bang" camp, it is interesting to note that the "Bounce" (necessary to avoid a specific origin) has been running into difficulty. Sebatzman points out that successive oscillations of the universe still may not avoid the entropy problem (that the universe is converting its available energy into unavailable forms like heat and so "running down") ,se in which ease a beginning must still be postulated. More recently Dieke has commented on the difficulty of getting the universe through even a single "Bounce":

Any cosmological model which makes the universe infinitely old seems to deny the Biblical teaching.

It has long been known that the cosmological equations cannot he integrated through the collapse of
the universe to show the existence of a "bounce" leading to the start of a new expansion. A mathematical singularity develops in the solution. It had been thought that this singularity was due to the over-idealized nature of the physical assumptions of isotropy and uniformity. It was hoped that the singularity would disappear if sufficient irregularity were introduced into the mathesnatical model. This has not occurred and the nsathematical singularity seems to he necessary under present theory. 11

If no "Bounce" has occurred, then the universe has a finite age, and again we see the necessity for a beginning.

Hierarchical Cosmological Models

Early in 1970, an article by Gerard de Vaucouleurs appeared in Science entitled "The Case for a Hierarchical Cosmology."12  This is an example of several articles which have appeared recently showing a new direction being taken by certain cosmologists. Briefly, a hierarchical model differs from the isotropic models discussed above in that the Cosmological Principle is denied. Rather than having a uniform density of matter throughout (on a large scale), a hierarchical universe would consist of a hierarchy of objects: galaxies, clusters of galaxies, clusters of clusters of galaxies (called super clusters), etc., without limit for an infinite universe, or up to the size of the universe for a finite one. Each higher-order cluster is bigger, consisting of a group of the next lower-order clusters, but it has a lower density of matter than its constituent clusters. Thus an infinite hierarchical universe has average density zero! The Cosmological Principle is denied because the universe looks different when viewed from inside a galaxy (for example) than it does when seen from outside a super cluster.

Such a cosmology was first suggested in 1908 by Carl V. L. Charlier13 to explain how the night sky could he dark in an infinite universe with an infinite ]lumber of stars, a question raised by Wilhelm Olhers in the early 19th century, 14 now known as Olbers' Paradox. Charlier's cosmology was never widely accepted. Relativity theory and the expansion of the universe have been thought sufficient to avoid Olbers' Paradox its an infinite universe, and Einstein's General Theory of Relativity has revived the idea of a finite universe, which also avoids the problem.

Now G. de Vaucouleurs suggests that some form of a hierarchical cosmology should he considered once again. Though not necessary to avoid Olbers' Paradox, there are three lines of evidence which suggest that a hierarchical cosmology is preferable to isotropic models. First, de Vaueouleurs says that man's estimate of the age of the world has increased over the past few centuries (see Fig. 2). Second, observations show that galaxies form clusters, and these clusters form bigger clusters, etc. There is no evidence that a largest order of clustering is reached in the observable universe. Third, observations show a continuing decrease in density with increase in size for clusters up to the largest clustering known (see Fig. 3)16 The second and third of these points are discussed by de Vaueouleurs in convincing detail.

Biblical Information Related to Cosmology

Before attempting to discuss de Vaueouleurs' article, let us see what the Bible says in regard to cosmology. Some Christians feel that the Bible teaches that the universe is quite young, on the order of ten thousand years old. Therefore modern cosmologists are thought to he fundamentally wrong.17 Others feel the Bible does not answer scientific questions ("how?"), but rather questions of purpose ("why?"),18 so apparently it would provide little in the way of cosmological guidelines. I take a third position, held by Buswell,19 Hodge,20 Montgomery21 and Stoner,22 among others, in which the Bible is understood to deal inerrantly with scientific questions, but which rejects that particular interpretation of Genesis 1-11 which claims the earth is young and the universe equally so. It is beyond the scope of this article to deal with these matters.

A thorough study of the relevant Biblical passages (e.g., Gen. 1:1, John 1:3, Heb. 11:3, Psalm 33, Psalm 104, Prov. 8) in the original languages is necessary to a proper treatment of Biblical cosmology, but this is not possible for me as vet. However, it seems clear that the Bible teaches that the universe had a beginning, that there was a time when only God existed, and that matter is not eternal. Thus any cosmological model which makes the universe infinitely old seems to deny the Biblical teaching.

Discussion of de Vaucouleurs' Article

The basic premise of de Vaucouleurs, that the physical structure of the universe is hierarchical rather than isotropic, may well be correct. However, he maintains that the density of astronomical objects decreases with distance from us. This seems to be denied by the distribution of quasars (Fig. 1), which apparently gives us information from the most distant parts of the universe.

G. de Vaueouleurs also mentions the new theory of Hoyle and Narlikar, an adaptation of the steadystate theory to a hierarchical cosmology.22 While this


view avoids sonic of the problems of the old steadystate theory, it still requires a naturalistic continuouscreation process for which there is no evidence and which violates known conservation laws. Hoyle himself has made it clear that this is assumed to avoid a universe of finite age:

Speaking personally now I have a strong emotional dislike for special setups in cosmology. I call see that the oscillating cosmology might have been "initially" set op to give the observed asymmetry of tinse, but any suggestion of "initial" tinkering being necessary to explain the most everyday features of our existence seems intensely distasteful to me . . . The idea I use in cosmological investigations is that all important aspects of the universe are contained within the laws, they are not impressed from outside the laws. This is one of the shortcuts I use. I personally spend no time investigating theories that require special initial conditions.24

Dc Vauconleurs' chart (Fig. 2) showing man's views on the age of the world seems misleading to me. If by "age of the world," the age of matter is meant, this is infinite in most ancient views, as Buswell points out.25 John Stuart Mill and others in the 19th century held similar views.26 If one means the length of time the world has been roughly in its present form, the Hindus thought this was 1,972,949,054 years.27 As some present-day Christian scholars think the earth and universe quite young, the graph should show a scattering of points, not a straight line, with some points at infinity during every period.

Any view that the matter of the universe is infinitely old must deal with the fact that there is still hydrogen in the universe. But hydrogen, in the presence of gravity, tends to form stars which convert the hydrogen into helium by a nuclear reaction. Thus the hydrogen as such is not infinitely old. This consideration led to the continuous creation assumed in the steady-state theory, by which the world-process, not the matter, is supposed to be infinitely old.

The view that the world-process is infinitely old (that of the steady-state theory, whether isotropic or hierarchical) seems to contradict the Biblical data. But it would also encounter difficulties in cosmological theory and observation. Any matter created in an already-existing galaxy would he trapped there. The galaxy would get more and more massive while still having nuclear fuel to burn to make it visible. So we should he able to see unbelievably enormous galaxies. This view also violates the entropy principle and several conservation laws while assuming the existence of an unknown natural process of creation. The hierarchical "steadystate" view also assumes that the expansion of the universe is local, but we observe that expansion holds for the known universe. Finally, the radio-frequency radiation coming to us from all directions is most easily explained as a remnant of the "Big Bang."

I suggest that a hierarchical model in which the universe is finite in age (and probably in size), expanding from the Biblical creation event, best fits the observations of present-day astronomy. The fact that quasars are more densely grouped at great distances is explained by the fact that we are seeing light that left them early in the history of the universe, when everything was closer together. The existence of a hierarchy is explained by the fact that gravitation is more effective (for a given density of material) for large masses, so that gravitational contraction starts first with the largest quantities of material (forming large clouds of hydrogen gas in the early universe) and then breaks these up into smaller quantities (see Fig. 4), which finally, after many fragmesitations, condense to stars.

I suggest that a hierarchical model in which the universe is finite in age (and probably in size), expanding from the Biblical creation event, best fits the observations of present-day astronomy.

I wish to thank Prof. R.J. Dunsweiler of Biblical School of Theology, and Messrs J. A. Castro, H. J. Eckelmann, and P.C. Phillips of the Center for Radiophysics and Space Research, Cornell University, for reading this paper and contributing valuable suggestions. Thanks also to the indicated authors and periodicals for permission to use their figures.


1 see James A. Coleman, Modern Theories of the Universe, New York: Signet, 1963, for a more thorough discussion of these cosmological models.
2Robert H. Drake, Gravitation and the Universe, Philadelphia: American Philosophical Society, 1970, p. 60.
3George Gamow, "The Evolutionary Universe," The Universe, New York: Scientific American, 1956, pp. 68-70.
4Some cosmologists have shown an open bias against super natural creation. See Fred Doyle, Galaxies, Nuclei and Quasars, New York: Harper and Row, 1965, and Stanley L. Jaki, The Paradox of Olbers' Paradox, New York: Herder and Herder, 1969.
5e.g., Compare John C. Whiteomb, Jr., The Origin of the Solar System, Philadelphia: Presbyterian and Reformed Publ. Co., 1964 and Peter W. Stoner, Science Speaks, Chicago: Moody Press, 1969, Ch. 1, in regard to the origin of the solar system.
6Quasar" is the short name for a quasistellar object; these objects were discovered by Maarten Schmidt in the early 1960s. Though they look like stars when observed through the largest telescopes, quasars show an enormous shift of their emitted radiation toward long wavelengths. They are thought to be the most distant known astronomical objects.
7Wolfgang Rindler, "Relativistic Cosmology," Physics Today, vol. 20, no. 11 (Nov., 1967), pp. 23 ff.
9E.L. Sehatznian, The Structure of the Universe, New York: McGraw-Hill, 1968, p. 233.
10Ibid., p. 245.
11Dicke, op. cit., p. 66.
12G. de Vaucouleurs, "The Case for a Hierarchical Cosmology," Science, vol 167, no. 3922 (Feb. 27, 1970), pp. 1203 ff.
13Jaki, op. cit., pp. 203-4.
14lbid., p. 136.
15de Vaueouleurs, op. cit., p. 1210.
16Ibid., p. 1212.
17Whitcomb, op. cit., p. 29.
18e.g., Jerry D. Albert, p. 104, and Wilbur L. Bullock, p. 106, Journal ASA, vol. 21 No. 4 (Dec. 1969).
19J. Oliver Boswell, Jr., A Systematic Theology of the Christian Religion, Grand Rapids: Zondervan, 1962.
20Charles Hodge, Systematic Theology, Grand Rapids: Eerd mans (reprint), 1952.
21John Warwick Montgomery, Journal ASA, Vol. 21, No. 4 (Dec., 1969), p. 121.
22Stoner, op. cit.
23de Vaneouleurs, op. cit., p. 1212.
24Hoyle, op cit., p. 96.
25Buswell, op. cit., p. 135.
26Augustus H. Strong, Systematic Theology, Valley Forge: Jodson Press, 1907, p. 378.
27Coleman, op. cit., p. 88.

* Dr. Newman was formerly Professor of Physics at Shelton College, Cape May, N.J.