Can Science see the End?

March 01, 2003

Can Science see the End?

To the minds of some educated people, the most bizarre and unsubstantiated aspect of Christian faith is the area known as eschatology. Eschatology refers to the study of the 'last things'--death, the end of the world, heaven and hell. More generally, it also refers to the study of the future and how we can predict or surmise what might lie in store for the universe. It has often been the field of loony speculation, strange apocalyptic predictions and stories about four-headed beasts, credit cards and the European Union.

Generally Christian claims about the future of the universe are deemed beyond verification or support. How could there ever be any evidence that there might come a day when God will "judge in righteousness and truth", as the Bible teaches? Scoffers claim that science tells us the universe will continue on as always (compare 2 Peter 3:3-7).

How is biblical eschatology to be interpreted in the light of what is known from physics about the history and possible future of the universe. In particular:

* the universe had a beginning

* time has a direction

* life on earth will not be sustainable forever

* the universe may end.

Let's consider the scientific thinking behind these claims, before looking at some possible approaches to the connection and the conflict between Christian eschatology and modern science.

Time has a direction

The empirical evidence that the history of the universe is heading in a particular direction comes from several sources, including the second law of thermodynamics and the Hubble expansion of the universe. Let’s explore these two areas further.

  1. The second law of thermodynamics

A cup of hot coffee left in a room always cools down and never gets hotter. Ice in a drink always melts. Water never goes up a waterfall. Unless you do something about it, your desk always gets messier not neater. If you add a drop of black ink into a glass of water, the drop always spreads out so the water comes to the same grey colour. All of these phenomena are described by the second law of thermodynamics, one of the most well-established laws of physics.[1] It has important implications for engineering, as it puts significant constraints on the efficiency of engines. More precisely, it allows us to define a physical quantity—entropy—which is related to the amount of order in a system. The second law states that the entropy of an isolated system can never decrease. As a result, time has a direction. It is always going one way.

As a consequence of the second law we can say something about the past and something about the future. In the past, the universe was in a state of much lower entropy, that is, it was more orderly. Sir Roger Penrose, Rouse Ball Professor of Mathematics at Oxford University, has described the extent of orderliness in the initial state of the universe. The total number of possible initial configurations was a number with 10123 zeroes attached. Yet of all these possible initial configurations, it was in only one.[2] How did it get that way? Science does not seem to have any answer to that question. In the future, the universe is headed towards an eventual state of very high entropy, a state in which everything will be at the same temperature. This is known as the “heat death” of the universe, and it attracted considerable attention in popular culture about one hundred years ago.

In summary, there is a direction to the history of the universe--to time itself--and it has an undeniable future of increasing entropy. How does this tendency to disorder relate to the “groaning of creation” described in Romans 8?

  1. The ever-expanding universe

In the 1920’s the American astronomer Edwin Hubble discovered that in whatever direction we look, distant galaxies are moving away from us. The further away they are, the faster they are moving away from us. This discovery has now been confirmed in great detail. It has an explanation in terms of Einstein’s General Theory of Relativity. This also tells us something about the past and about the future. With regard to the past, about 13 billion years ago space and time began and have been expanding ever since. With regard to the future, General Relativity predicts that either the universe will go on expanding forever, or in billions of year it will collapse back on itself (the 'Big Crunch' that follows the 'Big Bang'). The latest observations suggest that this will not happen: there is not enough mass in the universe for it to collapse back on itself, and so it will expand forever.[3]

If we assume that our current understanding of the laws of physics is adequate and that these laws themselves will not change for billions of years,[4]  then we can predict that the future universe will be significantly different to the universe today. However, well before the heat death or the Big Crunch, the sun will run out of nuclear fuel and life on earth will no longer be sustainable.

Are such scientific discussions relevant or helpful to theological discussions to eschatology? Do they offer anything to theology to aid its reflection? Conversely, can theology offer anything to aid scientists in their work? Or are the two fields in conflict, or unable to interact?

The future relationship of science and eschatology

In recent years, there has been an increasing interest in bringing scientists and theologians together to wrestle with these questions. A number of major institutions, such as University of Chicago, Oxford University, and Princeton Theological Seminary have established research centres, publishing projects or held forums to address the interaction (or otherwise) of science and theology. One major contributor to discussion and populariser of thinking on eschatology and science has been Reverend Dr John Polkinghorne[5], a former New College Lecturer. Others include Robert Russell, Russell Stannard, Hugh Ross, Freeman Dyson, and Frank Tipler.

Although too diverse to be lumped together, there are some threads of agreement among these scientists and theologians. There is agreement that the universe had a beginning but the future of the universe is limited. The different responses might be loosely categorised as follows.

  1. Atheist. The life expectancy of the universe and the reliability of the laws of physics are a death knell for theology, with its offer of eternity and threats of judgement.
  2. Speculative. The known laws of physics will break down at the `Big Crunch’ and so all sorts of wild scenarios are possible.[6]

iii. Deist. God is constrained to act within the known laws of nature and the Christian doctrine of eschatology must be interpreted in liqht of this. For example, a recent book[7] considers current and future biological means by which the theological notion of resurrection might be achieved.

  1. Concordist. What physics tells us about the universe confirms the Bible is true. The work of Hugh Ross is in this genre.

 However, others such as Polkinghorne find that the very dissonance between science and eschatology when it comes to the future of the universe provides strong reason to consider belief in the Christian God. Polkinghorne writes:

From its own unaided resources, natural science can do no more than present us with the contrast of a finely tuned and fruitful universe which is condemned to ultimate futility. If that paradox is to receive a resolution, it will be beyond the reach of science on its own. We shall have to explore whether theology can take us further by being both humble enough to learn what it can from science and also bold enough to hold firm to its own sources of insight and understanding.[8]

It is quite profound that science tells us that time has a direction and the universe has a history and a particular future. Science would seem to give a particular shape to the future.

  We are sceptical that much insight can be obtained about eschatology from science. It might provide limiting conditions for the physical universe, but it adds little to the discussion of the nature of God. Most such discussions seem to be working in an essentially deist or naturalistic framework which clashes with Scripture. The view of the divine that is given in the Bible is of a being unfettered by physical restraints—Jesus creates and sustains the universe (Colossians 1:15-20); the winds and waves obey him (Matthew 8:27); and one of God’s names (Yahweh) has a decidedly untamable meaning—“I will be whom I will be”. There is little that science can dictate to such a vision of the divine.

The challenge is for Christian scholars, scientists among them, to be confident that the answers to the theological questions raised by science are to be found in the Bible.[9]

Ross McKenzie is a Professorial Research Fellow in Physics at the University of Queensland.

CASE Director Greg Clarke’s Ph.D. examined eschatology in English Literature.

[1] For a popular introduction to thermodynamics see, Hans Christian von Baeyer, Warmth Disperses and Time Passes: A History of Heat, Modern Library, Harvard, 1999.

   [2] Roger Penrose, The Emperor's New Mind: Concerning Computers, Minds, and the Laws of Physics, Oxford University Press, Oxford, 1989, p. 344.

[3] Saul Perlmutter, ‘Supernovae, Dark Energy, and the Acclerating Universe’, Physics Today, April 2003, p. 53.

[4] This assumption is not as bold as it may seem. Astronomers at the University of New South Wales have found significant evidence that many of the laws of physics could have changed by only a minute amount in the past few billions of years. Such an idea is testable because the light we receive from distant galaxies and quasars left them billions of years ago. Thus, we are observing these places as they were then. See John Webb, ,Are the laws of nature changing with time?’, Physics World, April 2003, p. 33.

[5] See for example, John Polkinghorne and Michael Welker, The End of the World and the Ends of God: Science and Theology on Eschatology, Trinity Press International, Harrisburg, 2000.

[6] See for example, Frank Tipler, The physics of immortality: modern cosmology, God, and the resurrection of the dead, Anchor Books, New York, 1995.

[7] Ted Peters, Robert John Russell, Michael Welker, Resurrection: Theological and Scientific Assessments, Eerdmans, Grand Rapids, 2002.

[8] John Polkinghorne, The God of Hope and the End of the World, Yale University Press, New Haven, 2002, p. 27.

[9] For an example of recent work in this area, visit the CASE website. See Johan Ferreira, ‘Cosmological and Biblical Eschatologies: Consonance or Dissonance?’, (also forthcoming in the Evangelical Review of Theology).

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