In the Book of Revelations is a passage in which the author has Jesus refer to himself as “the Alpha and Omega, the beginning and the end.” Alpha and Omega are the first and last letters of the Greek alphabet. Greek was the language of culture in the eastern Roman Empire at that time, and Revelations was itself written in Greek, so “Alpha and Omega” was a good way to say start and finish, rather as English speakers might say “A to Z,” but with a bit more class and a different emphasis. Whoever “John,” the author of Revelations, may have been (almost certainly not one of the Apostle Johns, as he was much too highly educated and mystical), symbolism of this kind is found throughout his little tract. Beginning and end here are not just a frame for everything in between. When John has Jesus/God say that he is the Alpha and Omega, he is not simply saying that he is everything. Beginning and end themselves have meaning, and are important emblems of the universe as a whole. Today, with the aid of scientific speculation, we can say a bit more about the beginning and the end of the universe, fleshing out the myth with more significant imagery.
More than just the beginning and end of things, the beginning and end of the cosmos are also the start and stop of time. There are no moments in time before the Big Bang. As such, there can be no cause of the Big Bang (since a cause must pre-exist the effect, and nothing pre-existed the Big Bang, not even empty space). After the Heat Death, no events can occur, and so time — which exists only in terms of the sequencing of events — ceases to be. No time before. No time after. Not even really an end, since the end of something implies everything else going on, by which we measure, observe, and give meaning to the termination of what has ended. The end of everything is not like that. It is not something to mourn, except from before it happens, for there will be no one to mourn. It is a book-end on existence, as is the Big Bang.
Another important thing to recognize about the Alpha and Omega is that each of them brings all of reality to a single point. Between the two, a multitude of processes occur and the cosmos wears many-faced diversity. At the beginning there is Nothing/Zero. Then, for a theoretical instant that cannot be measured, there is One, and immediately thereafter, One becomes Many, and it goes on being Many until, an incredibly long amount of time later, all energy potential is exhausted and the universe winds down once more to Zero. In all the ages between, mystics and sages observe the oneness underlying the diversity of the cosmos. Only at the Alpha and the Omega, the beginning and the end, is that unity manifest. Since “God” is one of the mythic concepts and metaphors by which we dimly attempt to comprehend the unity of the cosmos, Alpha and Omega is not bad as a title for God. (John, as noted above, incorporates a lot of this stuff into his writing.)
With that general framework in mind, let’s explore now in some more detail the Alpha and the Omega, insofar as science can reveal them to us. (We must understand that this knowledge is far from complete. It consists mostly of mathematical models rather than direct observation. I’m not going to try to be scientifically rigorous here in any case; that’s rather beside the point of what’s being done. This is mythos, informed by, but not following the rules of, logos.)
The Beginning of all things is a burst of light.
(Before going on, I want to emphasize that what follows is a convergence of science and mystical imagery, not an identification of the two and certainly not implying the capacity of either to substitute for the other. The science of the Big Bang is derived, like all scientific theories, from observation. It accounts for such observed phenomena as the existence of cosmic background radiation, the red-shifting of galactic clusters indicating an expanding universe, and the widespread existence of light elements such as hydrogen. The convergence of science and mysticism, not just in cosmology but also in quantum physics, occurs because science is at last able to consider the type of deep phenomena that touch upon mystical experience. It should probably have been expected.)
According to current mathematical models, the Big Bang occurred approximately 14 billion years ago. In its initial stages the universe was too hot and dense to allow for the existence of matter in any form such as we know it; however, we know from the theory of relativity that energy and matter are interconvertible. As the new cosmos expanded and cooled, the processes within it gave birth to simple subatomic particles and eventually to the first atoms, which were almost certainly hydrogen atoms (consisting of a single proton and a single electron).
Among the first things that emerged from the Big Bang was natural law — the fundamental laws of physics. Like time itself, physical law could not have pre-existed energy potential (nor will it exist after energy potential has been exhausted). Physical law is a mathematical description of how energy is transferred in a set of circumstances. It has no meaning where there is no energy to transfer. One question is whether the laws of physics had to be exactly what they are observed to be (and will be so observed in the future; it is of course an error to suppose we understand all of them at present). Perhaps they could have emerged differently, with (say) a slightly different value to Planck’s Constant, to the gravitational constant, to the speed of light, or to any of the other constants observed. We have no way to observe the emergence of other universes to see this process in operation and verify it directly, but we also have no mathematical justification for saying that everything had to be the way it is.
If, as seems likely, the laws of nature could have emerged differently, the Alpha exerted what must be called free will in bringing the cosmos into being.
Although we have only recently been able to explore the Alpha by conventional, scientific means (through mathematical calculations based on observations), we have always been able to turn our minds there, because like the background radiation observed throughout the universe with no observable source, and like natural law itself, the Big Bang is encoded in the atoms of our bodies, the centers of our minds, and the point-core of the soul. We see it in vision as the Light from which all things come. It is God, the Creator of Heaven and Earth. Hence the existence of the concept in religious imagery and myth long before it emerged in science. (This does not indicate, as some might suggest fatuously, that science took the concept itself from religion, myth, or mysticism. It was developed in science quite independently, by its own methods.)
This is, one might say, the positive pole of the divine magnet. It is the source of being, of creation, of life. It is natural for people to revere the source of their existence. But the cosmos has another pole at the opposite end of time, equally sacred, and equally inevitable.
The heat death of the universe waits an immensely long time in the future, estimated to be at least on the order of 10 to the 100th power years. That’s much longer from now than the time between the Big Bang and the present, so the Alpha, in addition to being a more natural summoner of human attention, is also temporally closer than the Omega.
The processes by which stars collapse and die, matter dives into black holes and disappears, and the black holes themselves decay and explode, are lead-ups to the Omega, but so is everything. This follows from the second law of thermodynamics, energy always moving from a state of higher to one of lower concentration; the differential between these states being referred to as “energy potential” and the reason why anything can happen at all. There are many examples of this in nature, but one of the better ones is temperature. Plop a red-hot bar of iron into a bucket of cold water. The difference in temperature between the iron and the water is the energy potential of this system. As heat moves from the iron (where it is highly concentrated) into the water (where it isn’t), many things happen. The temperature of the water rises, that of the iron falls. The water moves in currents induced by the temperature change. It may even boil, changing its physical state and releasing bubbles of gas. Eventually, however, the iron and all parts of the water reach the same temperature and all of these things cease to happen.
Energy potential emerging from the Alpha is remarkably high, but eventually it must all be exhausted. When that time comes, no light will shine (all will be dark), no breath can be drawn (all will be lifeless), no events can take place (time itself comes to an end). As it was in the beginning, so it is in the end: stillness and silence, no observer, no observed, no existence.
The Omega is not as commonly revered as the Alpha. It is in fact more commonly shunned. Some religious conceptions, notably Zoroastrianism, have recognized it but called it evil, seeing it as in conflict with the Alpha (which it is not), and predicting the Alpha’s ultimate victory (which is quite impossible). Entropy is inexorable and will, in the end, triumph. All will become dark and silent. All will end.
Let’s take the concept of energy potential one step further. Reality as we know it is a product of the interaction of those two poles of existence, the Alpha and Omega. The important thing for us is the alphabet — everything lying between the first and the last. The road, not the destination; the dance, not its ending; neither birth nor death, but life, which includes both.
“I am the Alpha and Omega, the first and the last.” And of course, all in between. There’s a lesson in that, for those who have an ear and can hear.