It could be argued that the subject of cosmology is of less importance today in the dialogue of science and Christian faith. After all, biological evolution remains the focal point of much controversy over intelligent design and six-day creationism, while newly emerging areas of neuroscience and artificial intelligence are asking theological questions about what it means to be human coupled with potentially difficult areas of public science policy.
These are important issues, but we need to be careful of going too far and neglecting a subject that continues to capture the public imagination. The exploration of the structure, origin, and future of the universe remains one of the big questions for both science and theology. Stephen Hawking’s The Grand Design and Lawrence Krauss’s A Universe from Nothing still top bestseller charts while making theological claims that God is not needed at the very first moment of the universe.1 In fact, following the publication of The Grand Design, the Times newspaper led with headline “Hawking: God Did Not Create the Universe.”2 Dawkins and his fellow new atheists pick up on such popular science to add weight to their critique of arguments for the existence of God.3 Meanwhile, news conferences at CERN, the European Organization for Nuclear Research, have been beamed worldwide, announcing that the Large Hadron Collider has found evidence for the existence of the Higgs boson. This continues to be labelled by the media as the “god particle,” and questions are asked about its theological significance. In contrast, one of the biggest scientific discoveries of the first decade of the twenty-first century has attracted little theological discussion, although its implications may be the most profound. Work on the long-term future of the universe was recognized recently in the award of the Nobel Prize for Physics.4 It raises the importance of God’s purposes for the physical universe and the meaning of new creation.
The tendency for Christian apologists and theologians to neglect questions of cosmology for other areas of science, or from the perspective that such modernist questions are a thing of the past in a postmodern world, can therefore miss both challenges and opportunities for Christian faith. What then are the key issues for Christian theological thinking and mission concerning the origin and ultimate fate of the physical universe?
LARGE HADRON COLLIDER
According to CERN, the European Organization for Nuclear Research, physicists and engineers are probing the fundamental structure of the universe using complex scientific instruments such as the Large Hadron Collider, the world’s largest and most powerful particle accelerator.
The God of Humble Dialogue
Many media stories are driven by exciting new advances in theory and in experiment, but often coupled with theological naïveté. Many of the attacks on the notion of creation made by Hawking and Dawkins are no more than fresh versions of very old critiques of the cosmological and design arguments. Here the task of Christian theology is to agree with the flaws of the cosmological and design arguments and to show that they are not a part of the basis of belief in the God of the Bible. The “god particle” is a misnomer, with its discovery providing no new theological challenges. Here again theology needs to be a voice of calm.
Yet there are some areas where new discoveries do raise significant new questions. Hawking in his most recent work provocatively claims that “philosophy is dead. Philosophy has not kept up with modern developments in science, particularly physics.”5 This reflects a widespread feeling among scientists that there has been a lack of specific understanding or engagement with theories such as inflation, string theory, or M-theory. Instead, theologians and philosophers continue to assert generalizations about creation. Hawking’s comments can also be echoed by those working not on the beginning but the end of the universe. In the twentieth century, which has been characterized by many as a century dominated by theologies of hope, it is remarkable how little direct engagement there has been with the long-term fate of the physical universe. Dan Hardy wrote, “It is partly due to the widespread avoidance of direct engagement with creation and eschatology by theologians . . . that scientists and those of a speculative turn of mind have turned to such wider issues.”6 One of those scientists is the physicist Frank Tipler, who wants to “rescue eschatology from the hands of theologians who with a few exceptions . . . are quite ignorant of it.”7
To overcome such prejudice and indeed ignorance, dialogue must begin with considerable humility on both sides. It is easy for Christians to point out the laziness of philosophical thinking on the part of Dawkins and Krauss. However, we need to do considerable work also. Cosmology is a rapidly changing subject area with significant dependence on the language of mathematics. This means that it is difficult for theologians to understand and engage. Perhaps a deeper reason is that within Western theology the physical universe is not seen to be important. Greek dualism downplays God’s commitment to the physical; salvation is seen as individual deliverance from the material world; and hope is focused on the existence of the soul in heaven.
In contrast, the Judeo-Christian view expressed in the Bible sees the physical creation as good; the incarnation and resurrection of Jesus asserts God’s commitment not just to human beings but to the physicality of the universe; and Christian hope is for a new heaven and a new earth, a new creation. Being clear about such biblical themes will help us to engage more seriously in the dialogue.8
From Conflict to Connectedness: A Local Congregation Encourages the Science-Faith Dialogue
Imagine hearing a church member and research scientist remark, “I often feel more accepted by my non-Christian colleagues in the lab than I do by my fellow church members.” An isolated comment? Not quite.
Funded by the Templeton-sponsored Scientists in Congregations program, our two-year initiative is eliciting several similar comments. Escalating culture wars and the recent election season have expanded the perceived divide between science and Christianity. Too often church members feel they must choose either biblical faith or scientific materialism. We are challenging that perception.
The Scientists in Congregations vision “calls for a sustained, creative collaboration between practitioners in the fields of science (scientists or science educators) and theology/faith practice (pastors) who are already engaged with one another through shared participation in the life of a congregation.” Our large, evangelical, mainline church in Boulder, Colorado, is well suited for this collaboration. For nearly 140 years we have been neighbors of the University of Colorado, Boulder, where many of our church members are employed in teaching or administration. Many congregants also serve in federal research laboratories or privately owned technology firms. Science fills the air of our rarefied Rocky Mountain region, one of the best-educated portions of the United States. Our grant seeks to build bridges of listening, learning, and constructive engagement within our church membership and beyond it into our northern Front Range community. Read more »
The God of Messy Science
One of the difficulties in engaging in dialogue is that the scientific picture changes quickly and sometimes dramatically. For example, even up to the mid-1990s, cosmologists would have described two possibilities for the future of the universe. One would be that the total mass of the universe would reverse the expansion of the big bang, gravity taking over in a contraction leading to a big crunch. The second would be that the universe would expand forever but would slow down in its expansion rate.
In 1998, astronomers began to look at distant supernovae explosions of stars to decide between these two possibilities. Their results showed something that was completely unexpected. The universe is accelerating in its rate of expansion due to some unknown type of force, the so-called dark energy.9 There had been no theoretical prediction of this, apart from Einstein’s original inclusion of his cosmological constant in his solution of the equations of general relativity for the universe. It led to near panic among theorists, and to a range of possible explanations. The interpretation of an accelerating universe propelled by dark energy has been confirmed by more recent results from the Wilkinson Microwave Anisotropy Probe (WMAP).10 This is a reminder of how provisional the conclusions of cosmology can be and how much weight should be put on them in theological discourse.
Cosmology is very much a detective story, looking for clues or pieces of evidence that then allow the construction of the best model of what happened in the past and what will happen in the future. It is the weighing of evidence that is crucial in giving a sense of how robust the model is, and this “art” is quite difficult for the person without research experience in science. Christian theology must stand against the naive realism of some scientists and the media who present scientific models as the absolute truth on the way the world is. At the same time, it is not good enough for Christian apologists to try to win points in a debate by pointing out that as models change “they are only a theory.” The reality of cosmology is that it is a messy business, a subtle interplay of theory and observation, human judgment and provisional models that are subject to change as new data are gathered. Models take time to be constructed, tested, and questioned by the scientific community, and there will always remain surprises.
In such difficulties, a few theological voices may say that it is not worth the effort for theology to take science seriously. Yet here lies the importance of recognizing that science is a gift from God, a gift that gives us a critical realist view of the universe. The belief in order in the universe as described by mathematics began in Greek culture, but was strengthened by the Christian belief that the Creator is a faithful God. This led to the belief in universal laws of science. These laws enabled scientists to probe back in time and into the future. Observation, again encouraged strongly by the Christian worldview, thus took a leading role in determining how good were the suggested models.
One of the remarkable things about cosmology is that the surprises that the universe gives us often lead us to seeing that at the heart of everything are the laws of physics, far more beautiful, elegant, and simple than we ever expected.
The God Who Has No Need of Gaps
Through the messy process of science, one of the great achievements of cosmology has been the big bang model of the origin of the universe. It describes the expansion of the universe from a time when it was only 10-43 seconds old. At that stage, 13.8 billion years ago, the universe was an incredibly dense mass, so small that it could pass through the eye of a needle.
In the book of Job, the Lord says, “Where were you when I laid the foundations of the world?”—and one could ask the same question of cosmologists! Yet this detective story of gathering the evidence and building the best model has worked very well. Three pieces of evidence were crucial. First, early in the twentieth century V. M. Slipher and Edwin Hubble observed that the light from other galaxies displayed a phenomenon called redshift. This occurs when light is emitted by an object that is moving away from us. Hubble then measured the distances to these galaxies and found that the farther away they were, the faster they were moving away from us. He interpreted this to mean the space between the galaxies was expanding. And if it is expanding, it must have expanded from somewhere. Second, in 1965 Arno Penzias and Robert Wilson were attempting another experiment altogether when they detected an “echo” of the big bang, the microwave background radiation. Third, in the 1980s we were able to measure the amount of helium in the universe, which is a good test of theoretical models of the big bang, and it was in good agreement with predictions.
Yet not all of the questions concerning the big bang can be answered. Observations by the Wilkinson Microwave Anisotropy Probe have confirmed our overall picture of the big bang, but have also reminded us how much we still need to learn. A large proportion of the universe is in the form of dark energy (over 70%) and at the moment we have little idea as to what it is. Another 23% of the universe is in the form of dark matter; we know it is there but we are not sure what it is. The fact that we know only a tiny fraction of what the universe is made of is somewhat embarrassing for cosmologists. Yet the power of science is that we know what we do not know, and we are able to design experiments at the Large Hadron Collider that might at least tell us what dark matter is.
Some questions are much more difficult. The standard model of the hot big bang describes the origin of the universe as an expansion from a singularity, that is, a point of infinite density. But that singularity raises immediate problems. First, general relativity, which describes the expansion of the universe so well, suggests that time is not completely independent of space, and that gravity is then explained as a consequence of this space-time being curved by the distribution of mass-energy in it. Thus the distribution of mass determines the geometry of space and the rate of flow of time. However, at a singularity there is infinite density and infinite curvature of space-time. General relativity is unable to cope with this infinity and predicts its own downfall; that is, the theory breaks down at the singularity. Second, general relativity as a theory is inconsistent with quantum theory. General relativity, which is extremely successful in describing the large-scale structure of the universe, needs to specify mass and its position in order then to describe the geometry and rate of flow of time. At a singularity, where the gravitational field is so strong and the whole universe is so small that it is on the atomic scale of quantum theory, it is believed that quantum effects should be important. Quantum theory, however, says that one can never know both the mass and position without an intrinsic uncertainty. One cannot have both general relativity and quantum theory to describe a situation.
The singularity problem therefore is that general relativity is unable to give a description of the singularity; in other words, general relativity cannot explain the initial conditions of the expansion of the universe. Present scientific theories are thus unable to predict what will come out of the singularity. They can describe the subsequent expansion but are unable to reach back beyond an age of 10-43 seconds to zero. This “limit” of scientific theory, unable to reach back to the very beginning, was frustrating to physicists but attractive to some theologians. Is God needed to “fix” the initial conditions of the universe? If science is unable to describe the initial moments, is this “the gap” where God comes in to set the universe off?
However, many scientists resist this trajectory. Hawking attempts to use the laws of physics to explain not just the evolution of the universe but also its initial conditions. In order to do this one must bring quantum theory and general relativity together into a quantum theory of gravity. Such a theory, he suggests, can explain how the blue touch paper of the big bang lights itself. The core of Hawking’s theory, in John Barrow’s phrase, is that “once upon a time there was no time.”11 According to Hawking, the universe has a beginning but it does not need a cause, since in this theory the notion of time melts away. Hawking’s universe emerges from a fluctuation in a quantum field. No cause as such is necessary.
Hawking believes that the best theory for explaining the universe’s initial conditions is M-theory, which is, in fact, a whole family of different theories where each theory applies to phenomena within a certain range. It suggests eleven dimensions of space-time. However, for Hawking it also suggests that our universe is one in 10500 universes that arise naturally from physical law. For him, “their creation does not require the intervention of some supernatural being or god.”12
It must be stressed that Hawking’s thinking on this is not fully accepted by the rest of the scientific community. There are other proposals on how to deal with the problem of the laws breaking down, and it remains difficult to know whether quantum theory can be applied to the whole universe.
If Hawking’s attempt to explain scientifically the first moment of the universe’s history is indeed successful, then this rightly demolishes a “god of the gaps.” But the God of Christian theology is not a God who fills in any gaps of current scientific ignorance, nor one who interacts with the very first moment of the universe’s history and then retires a safe distance. Hawking’s use of M-theory may eventually work, but the Christian theologian, while applauding enthusiastically, will also raise the question of where M-theory itself comes from. God is the one who creates and sustains the laws of physics, which science assumes but does not explain.
Such a god-of-the-gaps argument has sometimes been used in apologetic arguments in attempts to prove the existence of God. The argument that the big bang needs God to start it off is called the “cosmological argument” in temporal form and has been used in different contexts for centuries. However, it has a number of weaknesses. Augustine pointed out many years ago that the universe was created with time, not in time. Therefore to ask the question what came before the universe is an attempt to use the concept of time before time itself came into existence. In addition, the first-cause argument derives from a notion that the universe is a thing or event. It is easy to say that everything has a cause, but is the universe a thing or event?
More importantly, as scientists explain more and more of the universe, there is a temptation to look for unexplained gaps in the knowledge of the natural world in order to find space for God. But this “god of the gaps” is always in danger of becoming irrelevant as science fills in more of its own story. In contrast, the Bible understands that the whole universe is the result of God’s working. God is at much at work at the first 10-43 second as at any other time. A scientific description of that moment in time does not invalidate it as being the activity of God any more than one does for any other event. And this leads us to another key point.
Quantum theory, also known as quantum mechanics or quantum physics, is a branch of physics concerned with physical phenomena on the atomic and subatomic levels. It evolved during the twentieth century out of a study of fundamental properties of matter, and departs from classical mechanics at the quantum realm of atomic and subatomic length scales, providing a mathematical description of dual particle-like and wave-like behavior within interactions of energy and matter.
A God of Theism, Not Deism
Too often Christians have viewed the Creator God in deistic terms, not theistic terms. Deists believed in a God who set the universe in motion and then went for a cup of coffee, having nothing more to do with it. Perhaps this was motivated by first-cause arguments for the existence of God, and perhaps it was due to viewing the Christian theology of creation as built simply on the first chapters of the book of Genesis.
However, the biblical material is much broader and richer. Genesis needs to be set alongside other passages, such as Proverbs 8:22–36 and Job 38:1–42:17—which stress the wisdom of God in creation—passages that celebrate the glory and majesty of God (Psalms 8, 19, 148; Isaiah 40:9–31), and passages that look forward to new creation (Isaiah 65:17–25; Romans 8:18–27; 2 Peter 3:3–13; Revelation 21:1–8).13 In this latter regard, of course, central to the New Testament is the role of Christ in creation (John 1:1–18; Colossians 1:15–20; Hebrews 1:1–14), regarded as the word or wisdom of God through whom all was spoken and in whom all are destined to find their authentic voice. In all of these passages, it is clear that creation is not the subject of pure intellectual speculation, but is used to convey a message about God and God’s relationship with the world. Here cosmology is rarely of interest for its own sake. While the interest of the modern world may be on how the theology of creation relates to scientific cosmology, the biblical writers were concerned with something very different, namely, with the meaning of things in God’s providential plan.
Take, for example, the depiction of Christ at the heart of creation in Colossians 1:15–20. Here we find applied to Jesus everything that could be said of the figure of “wisdom” in creation (Proverbs 8:22). The implication is that at the heart of creation is not simply a divine attribute but a divine personality. Christ is proclaimed here as “the firstborn over all creation” (v. 15), signifying his supreme rank or that he is prior in importance. Nor is Christ simply a part of the created order, “for by him all things were created” (v. 16). Creation, in this view, is the activity of God the Father in the Son: not only do all things have their origin in Christ, but “in him all things hold together” (v. 17). The verb is in the perfect tense, indicating that “everything” has held together in him and continues to do so, that through him the world is sustained and prevented from falling into chaos. The source of the universe’s unity, order, and consistency is to be found, Colossians is suggesting, in the continuing work of God in Christ.
Far, then, from cosmology standing in conflict with Christian faith, it is properly affirmed by Christian theology, given that the whole of the created order is thought of as owing its origin, purpose, and continued existence to Christ. Indeed, in this way of thinking, the exploration or use of the order in the universe is only possible because of Christ.
This is a further insight into God’s relationship with the universe. The biblical images are not of a deistic god who breaks a bottle against the hull of the universe and then waves it off into the distance saying, “Good-bye, see you on judgement day.” “In him all things hold together” gives much more a picture of God as the one who keeps the universe afloat and together. God is the basis of the natural order, the basis of the physical laws. In John Polkinghorne’s phrase, God is the guarantee of the physical equations by which the universe develops. This is much more the God of Christian theism rather than deism. Don Page, a long-time collaborator of Hawking, sums it up with these words: “God creates and sustains the entire universe rather than just the beginning. Whether or not the universe has a beginning has no relevance to the question of its creation, just as whether an artist’s line has a beginning and an end, or instead forms a circle with no end, has no relevance to the question of its being drawn.”14
The God of Word and Works
In this critique of the “god of the gaps” and deism, Hawking and others may be pushing Christians back to their biblical roots. God is not proven through philosophical arguments. God is known through his self-revelation in becoming a human being in Jesus Christ. Karl Barth put it bluntly: “I believe in Jesus Christ, God’s Son our Lord, in order to perceive and to understand that God the Almighty, the Father, is Creator of heaven and earth. If I did not believe the former, I could not perceive and understand the latter.”15 This conviction underpinned Barth’s hostility to any idea of natural theology, which starts outside of revelation and is not a result of grace. For many other theologians, Barth pushes his argument too far at this point in denying that humans have the ability to see something of the Creator in creation itself and in appearing not to value the physical creation as anything other than as a backdrop to God’s activities. Indeed, from the beginning of the scientific revolution, Christian thinkers such as Francis Bacon saw God revealing himself in both the book of his Word and in the book of his works. This knowledge of God through the universe was never enough for salvation, but it did expand our perspective of the nature of God.
It is interesting that in the last four decades of cosmology, a number of scientists have been led to a range of philosophical and theological questions. While science has been extremely successful, the universe it has revealed seems to pose questions that go beyond science. This is particularly fascinating when these questions are asked by cosmologists such as Paul Davies, who would not share any Christian commitment.
What have these scientists responded to? First, there is the question of the purpose of the universe. Leibniz asked many years ago why there is something rather than nothing. This is not to resurrect the first-cause argument; rather, it is to recognize that the purpose and meaning of the universe lie beyond science. The Christian will argue they find a natural answer in a personal God.
Second is the question of the origin of the scientific laws. If the universe emerges as a quantum fluctuation, we need to ask where quantum theory itself comes from. Where does the pattern of the world come from and how is it maintained? This is not a “god of the gaps” argument, as science itself assumes these laws in order to work. Once again the Christian will argue the Creator God is the natural answer.
Third, there is the question of the intelligibility of the universe. Why does the mathematics of our minds resonate with the mathematics of the universe expressed in the laws of physics? A number of physicists find the beauty, simplicity, universality, and intelligibility of the laws of physics themselves to be pointers to this universe having a “deeper story” to its existence.
Fourth is the question of anthropic balances. Drawing attention to balances in the circumstances and laws of the universe that make it just right for the emergence of intelligent life, Paul Davies characterizes this as The Goldilocks Enigma.16 This can be illustrated in the extraordinary fine tuning of numbers fundamental to the universe—such as the ratio of the electric force to the gravitational force, how firmly atomic nuclei bind together, the ratio of energy needed to disperse an object compared to its total rest mass energy, and the number of spatial dimensions in the universe. If any of these numbers were only slightly different from what they are, we would not be here. While this cannot become a proof of the existence of a Creator, some of these balances are so extraordinary that for many people they point to some kind of purpose in the universe.
Fifth, there is the question of awe. Whether in response to the dramatic photographs of the universe taken by the Hubble Space Telescope or in those moments when the scientist sees that underneath the complexity of the universe are a few elegant laws, this sense of awe for many resonates with the words of the psalmist: “The heavens declare the glory of God” (Psalm 19:1).
None of these insights into the way the world is can be promoted to proofs of the existence of a Creator God. For example, anthropic balances have an alternative explanation to the design of God. This explanation is that the anthropic principle selects this universe out of many. We see this fine-tuning because we are here. In other universes where these numbers were different, there would be no one to see them. While there are many theories of many universes, there is considerable debate as to whether other-universe speculation is metaphysics or physics. Can we know that they are there by the passing of information from one universe to another, or do we accept their existence on the basis of the prediction of theories that solve other problems to do with our early universe? Such speculation about the existence of other universes cautions us against resurrecting the proof-of-design argument. As long as we lack physical evidence for other universes, it remains metaphysical speculation, and an alternative explanation to that of a Creator God.
Anthropic balances and other insights do not prove the existence of a Creator, but they do provoke questions and for some are pointers to the existence of a Creator. These questions and pointers find answers and are integrated into a consistent picture from the perspective of a Creator who is revealed in the life, death, and resurrection of Jesus Christ.
The “big bang” is the dominant scientific theory explaining the origins of the universe. According to it, the universe came into existence 13.8 billion years ago and continues to expand.
A God of Beginnings and New Beginnings
Earlier, we noted the contemporary importance of work on the long-term future of the universe and some of the theological questions it raises. These have often been neglected due to a focus on origins in the dialogue of theology and cosmology. Yet the work of Saul Perlmutter, Adam Riess, and Brian Schmidt, recognized in the award of the 2011 Nobel Prize in Physics, asks the Christian how God’s purposes can be seen in the light of an accelerating universe leading to heat death.
Today, cosmology looks ahead with pessimism rather than optimism. It points to a future of futility for the physical and with it the end of the survival of intelligent life within the universe. An accelerated heat death is a bleak end. When the universe is 1012 years old, stars cease to form, as there is no hydrogen left. At this stage all massive stars have now turned into neutron stars and black holes. At 1014 years, small stars become white dwarfs. The universe becomes a cold and uninteresting place composed of dead stars and black holes.
As might be expected, science has attempted to provide some optimism and indeed salvation for human life. Freeman Dyson and Frank Tipler are struck by the ability of humans in manipulating the environment of the Earth and wonder if this could be extrapolated forward. Dyson suggested that biological life would adapt first through genetic engineering to redesign organisms that could cope in such a universe. Consciousness would be transferred to new kinds of hardware that would be able to cope with the ultra-low temperatures of a heat death universe, including, for example, a complex dust cloud. In this way “life and intelligence are potentially immortal.”17 Tipler sees consciousness transferred to computers that expand across space. He argues that it is possible on such a model that a point will be reached when an infinite or maximum amount of information will have been processed and “life” has expanded everywhere in the universe.18 However, neither Dyson’s nor Tipler’s models can cope with an accelerating universe. Science cannot change the prediction that the future of the universe itself is futility.
Paul Davies suggests that an “almost empty universe growing steadily more cold and dark for all eternity is profoundly depressing.”19 Some theologians will say that this is so far in the future that it is irrelevant, while others have concentrated their thinking on the future of the Earth, the individual believer, or the church.
What biblical themes might be important for thinking about the future of the physical universe that might give hope? First we note the importance of the theme of new creation within a range of biblical genres. Revelation presents a vision of “a new heaven and a new earth” (21:1). This is not about some other-worldly existence that has no connection with the physical universe. It is about God doing something with the totality of existence. At the same time it is about something new, not about keeping this creation alive for as long as possible—which is the hope of such “eschatological scientists” as Dyson and Tipler.
Second, new creation is a possibility because of a Creator God. The new creation is continually linked to God’s original creative work, and hope for the future is built on an understanding of God as Creator (Isaiah 65:17–25). Whatever the circumstances, creation is not limited to its own inherent possibilities because the God of creation is still at work. A God who is not free to work in the universe must watch the slow heat death of creation. Richard Bauckham rightly attacks models of providence that make God dependent on the universe: “A God who is not the transcendent origin of all things but a way of speaking of the immanent creative possibilities of the universe itself cannot be the ground of ultimate hope for the future of creation. Where faith in God the Creator wanes, so inevitably does hope for the resurrection, let alone the new creation of all things.”20
The scientific predictions of the end of the universe are a reminder that models of providence have to take seriously the universe over its entire history, rather than just the present state of the universe. Models that stress immanence too much at the expense of transcendence face a bleak future in the end of the universe. At the extreme limit of this, models where God is a superior intelligence totally contained in the universe, as have been developed by some scientists in a revamped natural theology, become gods who eventually will die.21 Likewise, models that stress God’s nonintervention in the universe are presented with an interesting question in terms of the end of the universe. For example, Maurice Wiles’s model sees God simply sustaining the creative process of the universe, limiting himself not to act in the world in any particular way.22 This raises the question of why God is sustaining a process that will end in futility.
Third, creation and new creation are mutually interdependent and find their focus of connection in Jesus Christ (Colossians 1:15–20). This is a reminder of something that should be obvious but in practice is often forgotten. Creation needs to be seen in the light of new creation, and new creation needs to be seen in the light of creation. A great deal of work in the dialogue of science and religion has concentrated on the doctrine of creation with little reference to the end of the story. The suffering, frustration, and decay of this world show that this creation is necessary and also points forward to a new creation (Romans 8:18–30).
Fourth, new creation is a transformation of the present creation rather than a total annihilation and beginning again. Bauckham is correct in seeing such passages as 2 Peter 3:10–13 in the context of Jewish apocalyptic. In contrast to the dissolving and renewing fire of the Stoics, and to the Zoroastrian view of purification, here the emphasis is on judgment. Bauckham concludes that such passages “emphasize the radical discontinuity between the old and the new, but it is nevertheless clear that they intend to describe a renewal not an abolition of creation.”23
Fifth, God is at work toward new creation both in the process and in the particular event. The second coming of Christ reminds us that biblical eschatology has a focus on Jesus Christ, and the images used are further suggestive of an eschatological event, an event that is both in space and time and yet transcends space and time (1 Thessalonians 4:13–5:11). This is a reminder of the importance of the particular action of God within God’s more general activity of sustaining and transforming. Thus the redemption of this creation is pictured in terms of a long process, working through contemporary structures, as well as a specific event of judgment.
Sixth, the resurrection of Jesus is the model by which the continuity and discontinuity between creation and new creation are held together. If, as Paul argues, the resurrection is the first fruits of God’s transformative work, then there should be both continuity and discontinuity in the relationship of creation and new creation just as there was in the relationship of Jesus before the cross and Jesus risen. The empty tomb is a sign that God’s purposes for the material world are that it should be transformed and not discarded. If resurrection affirms creation, then it also points forward to new creation.
Continuity and discontinuity in the transformation of the physical universe may be located in the nature of matter, space, and time. To take time as an example, the resurrected Jesus does not seem limited by space and time. In new creation the continuity may be that time is real but the discontinuity is that time no longer limits us in the way that it does in this creation. It could be argued that the resurrection body is characterized by decay’s reversal, that is, a purposeful flourishing. In this creation, time is associated with decay and growth, but in new creation might time be simply about growth? We are therefore suggesting that our experience of time in the physical universe is a small and limited part of an ontologically real time that we might call eternity.
Seventh, the Spirit’s work both in the church and the world is transformative. Wolfhart Pannenberg’s conviction is that the work of the Spirit needs to be seen as dynamic and as giving priority to the whole over parts. He wants to see the Spirit as giving cohesiveness to the universe. Indeed, the work of the Spirit could be seen as giving cohesiveness to the work of new creation. Perhaps the Spirit is the ground and the redeemer of the relationality inherent in the universe. Can we therefore see signs of the Spirit restoring damage and progressing God’s work on to completion? This may be an area that has received a lot of attention in terms of the Spirit’s work in the life of the believer, but how do we see it in the cosmic context? In Paul’s discussion in Romans 8, the Spirit works in the tension between creation and new creation, sharing in the “groaning” of this creation and yet pointing forward to the hope of that which is to come. Yet the Spirit’s work is more than that. If the damage of sin is the breaking of relationships between Creator, creatures, and creation, then is the Spirit’s work of restoring those relationships in part a sign of the final reconciliation of a new heaven and a new earth? Restored relationships now in terms of individual forgiveness, community reconciliation, the care of animals, and responsibility for the environment then become signs of God’s purposes for the whole of creation.
These seven points set out a structure for dialogue. They do not set out to map the biblical account exactly onto the scientific account, or to see them as completely independent. The Christian will come to the scientific description of the future of the physical universe with much to learn but also much to offer.
The distinguished cosmologist Martin Rees comments, “What happens in far-future aeons may seem blazingly irrelevant to the practicalities of our lives. But I don’t think the cosmic context is entirely irrelevant to the way we perceive our Earth and the fate of humans.”24 This is a challenge to all theologians, not least those who take openness seriously.
A Christian theology of creation maintains that this creation really is good, while also looking forward in the purposes of God to a new creation. This hope of a new creation is not of God completely starting again, or the hope for some kind of disembodied immaterial state, but the hope for the transfiguring fulfillment of this present creation into all that it was called into being to be. Given this combination of identity and transformation, the present created order is not to be written off as evil or unimportant, but is, rather, to be cared for, respected, enjoyed, and delighted in.
1. S. W. Hawking and L. Mlodinow, The Grand Design (London: Bantam, 2010); L. M. Krauss, A Universe from Nothing: Why There Is Something Rather Than Nothing (London: Simon & Schuster, 2012).
2. The Times, September 2, 2010.
3. R. Dawkins, The God Delusion (London: Bantam, 2006).
4. Jason Palmer, “Nobel Physics Prize Honours Accelerating Universe,” BBC News, Science & Environment, 4 October 2011, http://www.bbc .co.uk/news/science-environment-15165371.
5. Hawking and Mlodinow, Grand Design, 5.
6. D. Hardy, “Creation and Eschatology,” in The Doctrine of Creation (ed. C. Gunton; Edinburgh: T. & T. Clark, 1997), 112.
7. F. J. Tipler, The Physics of Immortality (London: Weidenfeld & Nicolson, 1994), xiii.
8. See, e.g., J. C. Polkinghorne, Theology in the Context of Science (London: SPCK, 2008).
9. A. Riess et al., “Observational Evidence from Supernovae for an Accelerating Universe and a Cosmological Constant,” Astronomy Journal 116 (1998): 1009; S. Perlmutter et al., “Measurements of Omega and Lambda from 42 High-Redshift Supernovae,” Astrophysical Journal 517 (1999): 565; A. G. Riess et al., “The Farthest Known Supernova: Support for an Accelerating Universe and a Glimpse of the Epoch of Deceleration,” Astrophysical Journal 560 (2001): 49–71; S. Perlmutter, “Supernovae, Dark Energy, and the Accelerating Universe,” Physics Today 56, no. 4 (2003): 53–60.
10. S. Boughn and R. Crittenden, “A Correlation between the Cosmic Microwave Background and Large-scale Structure in the Universe,” Nature 427 (2004): 45.
11. J. D. Barrow, The Observer, 7 May 1993.
12. Hawking and Mlodinow, Grand Design, 8
13. D. Wilkinson, Creation (The Bible Speaks Today: Bible Themes; Leicester: Inter-Varsity Press, 2002).
14. D. Page, “Hawking’s Timely Story,” Nature 333 (1998): 742–43.
15. K. Barth, Church Dogmatics (vol. 3; Edinburgh: T. & T. Clark, 1958), 29.
16. Paul Davies, The Goldilocks Enigma: Why Is the Universe Just Right for Life? (London: Allen Lane, 2006).
17. F. Dyson, Infinite in All Directions (New York: Harper & Row, 1988).
18. Tipler, Physics of Immortality.
19. P. Davies, “Eternity: Who Needs It?” in The Far Future Universe: Eschatology from a Cosmic Perspective (ed. G. F. R. Ellis; Radnor, PA: Templeton Foundation, 2002), 48.
20. R. J. Bauckham, The Theology of the Book of Revelation (Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 1993), 51.
21. S. J. Dick, “Cosmotheology: Theological Implications of the New Universe,” in Many Worlds: The New Universe, Extraterrestrial Life, and the Theological Implications (ed. S. J. Dick; Radnor, PA: Templeton Foundation, 2000), 191–208.
22. M. Wiles, God’s Action in the World (London: SCM, 1986).
23. R. J. Bauckham, Jude, 2 Peter (WBC 50; Waco, TX: Word, 1983), 326.
24. M. Rees, Our Final Hour (New York: Basic, 2003), 4.
This article was published in Theology, News & Notes, Spring 2013, “Thinking Science and Christian Faith Together.”