Stephen Hawking, in his recent book, The Grand Design, breaks the news, bitter to some, that God was not needed to create the universe. Whether God was needed or necessary to facilitate the creation the universe is a question very different from was it God that created the universe. The latter relates to verifying a fact. The former relates to analyzing potentially different options for the act of creation. My take on Hawking is that he goes for the first: God was not needed to create a universe, at least according to the laws of nature as we understand them.
As a lecturer at an orthodox yeshiva, and thank God having both a Torah and science (MIT) background, I totally agree with Professor Hawking. To create a universe from absolute nothing God is not necessary. All that is needed are the laws of nature.
That God might have used the laws of nature to create the universe is fully consistent in relationship to the Biblical accounts of God's actions. The only name for God in the creation chapter, Genesis chapter one, is Elokiim, God as made manifest in nature. Maimonides in his monumental Guide for the Perplexed (1190; part 2, chapter 6)) wrote that God acts at times via the forces of nature. An example of God using nature to accomplish a goal is in the Exodus account. After our leaving Egypt, God led us to the banks of the Sea of Reeds (or the Red Sea depending upon translations; see the First book of Kings chapter 9 verse 26 for the location of the Sea of Reeds.). There trapped by the sea, God saves us from the pursuing Egyptian army by splitting the sea with a strong east wind that blew all night (Exodus 14:21). That detailed description of the wind was given to let us realize that it may have seemed as possibly natural. How natural? After the Israelites pass through the opened sea, the pursuing Egyptian soldiers follow right on in. After all it is just a lucky wind. (See D. Nof and N. Paldor; Are there oceanographic explanations for the Israelites' crossing of the Red Sea; published in the esteemed, peer-reviewed scientific journal The Bulletin of the American Meteorological Society, Vol. 73; no. 3; March 1992, for a peer-reviewed account of the possibility of the wind actually opening the sea.) If the wind had seemed super-natural, the army would have fled back home. So natural-seeming was the wind that the Bible had to tell us that it was God that made the wind blow at that time. So we see that the laws of nature instilled by God at the creation are a part of God's tools in this world, and as we will see also possibly for creating this world.
In 1973, Edward Tryon, professor of physics, published an article in the prestigious peer-reviewed journal, Nature, describing the possibility of how the creation of the universe might be the result of a vacuum fluctuation (Tryon; "Is the Universe a Vacuum Fluctuation?" Nature, 246(1973), pp. 396-397). For those persons interested in the details of the quantum mechanics that make this a possibility, Tryon's paper is the correct place to start. The physics is complex, but it is consistent with our understanding of the laws of nature.
Try to imagine nothing. Not an empty vacuum. Space is something and a vacuum is empty space. Humans can not envision "absolute nothing" but at least internalize that concept. The vacuum fluctuation occurs not in a conventional vacuum but in a "virtual vacuum." Now quantum theory holds that probability is the fundamental mathematical structure of the physical world, not absolutes, but "likelihoods," probabilities. Quantum theory holds that nothingness is also subject to this uncertainty, this probability. Ultimately what this means is that the "nothing" might become "something" popping into existence and then immediately disappearing. The smaller the something is, the greater the possibility, probability, that it can happen. The probability is never very large, but at the dimensions of a fraction of a fraction of a proton, statistics give it a fighting chance. And then rather than having this newly created mass / energy disappear, if this speck of space and energy undergoes a sudden massive expansion, what the Russian scientist Alex Starbolinski and the American scientist Alan Guth suggested and has been termed as inflation, the universe is on its way to becoming a home for life.
Such a vacuum fluctuation allows the creation of something from a potential nothing provided that the laws of nature are in existence prior to the existence of the universe. Nature is not in existence, but the laws of nature. Though Tryon's suggestion was largely neglected for several decades, it has become one of the main conjectures for the creation of our universe from absolute nothing. What this means is that there can have been a big bang creation without the help of God, provided the laws of nature pre-date the universe.
Our concept of time begins with the creation of the universe. Therefore if the laws of nature created the universe, these laws must have existed prior to time; that is the laws of nature would be outside of time. What we have then is totally non-physical laws, outside of time, creating a universe. Now that description might sound somewhat familiar. Very much like the biblical concept of God: not physical, outside of time, able to create a universe. The only differentiation would be whether the universe once created functioned in a fashion subject only to the laws of nature or if, as the universe developed, the events seem to have had some hints of a teleological direction. Moses claimed that we could glean from the development of the universe the clue as to whether it is the laws of nature or God, perhaps using the laws of nature, that created the universe.
Moses in Deuteronomy 32:7, urges us to "Remember the days of old, consider the years generation by generation." Within those two time frames lays the answer as to the Creator and Governor of our magnificent universe. "Remember the days of old," the 13th century kabalist Nahmanides tells us that in this phrase Moses was referring to the six days of creation. Whether six days or 14 billion years, the wonder of life is not in the amount of time it took to derive life from the energy of the big bang creation. The wonder is that the seemingly inert, lifeless energy of the big bang creation metamorphosed and became alive and sentient. But if that piece of nature is not impressive, then Moses tells us to "consider the years generation by generation," to look at history, the flow of generation to generation. We don't have to go back millennia. Events of the past 100 years are so bizarre as to make even an atheist wonder. The Bible claims that we Jews are neither better nor worse than other peoples. But the Bible guarantees that we will stand out as a marker in history. And that cannot be denied. Read any newspaper, even from places that have never seen a Jew, and you'll find Jews or Israel written about within the opening pages. When an experiment is conducted, a control or maker is needed for comparison. In the great pageant of life on earth, for better or for worse, we are the marker. We are the marker that there is in deed a God active in history affecting all nations.
Well, goes the conventional argument, if God is in charge, then why isn't the world perfect? Why tragedy to innocent persons, wealth to the evil persons? Certainly the Bible makes no claim that the world created by God would be perfect, that is perfect from our human view point of perfection. The revamping of the world via the Flood at the time of Noah is but one biblical example of an imperfect world (persons living to 900 years) needing a re-working (following the Flood life spans gradually drop to numbers we know today). Whether the Flood and its related events are literal or metaphor is irrelevant to the Biblical lesson that it teaches. A world created by God is not a perfect world and God "admits" its imperfection. Ishak Ibrahimzade, the innovative engineer from Istanbul, has said that the world is perfectly imperfect. How so? We are then obligated to work with God to perfect the creation. That is one meaning of our name, Israel.