This one is for my fellow theology nerds. You know who you are.
New Creation and the End of the Universe
“And I heard a loud voice from the throne saying, “Look! God’s dwelling place is now among the people, and he will dwell with them. They will be his people, and God himself will be with them and be their God. He will wipe every tear from their eyes. There will be no more death or mourning or crying or pain, for the old order of things has passed away. He who was seated on the throne said, ‘I am making everything new.’” Revelation 21: 1-5
“In 7-billion years our Milky Way collides with the Andromeda galaxy. Not to worry. Sun burns Earth to crisp well before then.” Astro-physicist Neil deGrasse Tyson, tweet March 21, 2012.
For over two thousand years Christians have anticipated the advent of God’s “new creation.” The Biblical images of a fully redeemed and restored creation include a resurrection of the dead, harmony and peace among the living creatures of the earth, and an end to violence, war, death and pain. These images are of creation purged of all effects of sin and restored to the beauty and harmony of Eden.
The scientific evidence of the destiny of the universe tells a much different story however. Recent scientific discoveries reveal that the expansion of the universe that began with the “Big Bang” is accelerating and that the universe is destined to become cold, spent and devoid of life. And long before the universe is depleted and dead, our own planet, solar system and galaxy will be destroyed.
How can the Biblical promise of new creation be understood in light of the scientific evidence of the apparent destiny of the universe? Is there any way to reconcile the competing claims? This paper will examine the Biblical descriptions of the renewed creation, as well as the scientific conclusions with respect to the fate of the universe. After considering several theological visions of the future of humanity and creation, some somewhat consonant with the science and some radically dissonant, it will suggest that while the scientific evidence seems to preclude realization of the Biblical vision of new creation in the physical universe as it now exists, perhaps it is too soon to conclude that will never be able to do so.
The Biblical Promise of New Creation
The grand narrative of the Bible begins with a description of a creation which was perfectly harmonious. God is said to have planted a garden and placed a man and woman in it, to tend and work it. In the account of Eden the first human couple enjoyed the garden, which was unspoiled by death or pain. God walked and talked with them and they lived in perfect peace and harmony with the rest of the animal kingdom. 1
Of course the Biblical story goes on to tell of humanity’s “fall,” as a result of which Adam and Eve were cast out of the garden and a curse came over the land. The harmony between humans and the rest of creation was breached. Later, following the Flood, humans ceased being vegetarian and the “dread of man” came over the animal kingdom. 2
The Biblical narrative unfolds with the calling of Abraham and the development of God’s covenant with Israel. Ultimately, as a consequence of unfaithfulness, disobedience and a fallen creation, Israel suffers defeat, exile and subjugation. But prophets foresaw a coming messiah who would usher in an age of peace, justice and harmony. They told of a time when weapons would be converted to farm tools, when wolves would eat with lambs and lions would eat straw, when there will be no more pain or death and when “every man will sit under his own vine and his own fig tree.”3
The long-awaited savior came in the person of Jesus, in whom God was incarnate. Jesus announced the arrival of the kingdom of God and modeled life in God’s kingdom. He challenged the religious establishment, which led to his execution by the Roman military. But to the joy of his dejected followers, Jesus rose from the dead, appeared to them, encouraged and taught them, then “ascended to heaven,” with a promise to return.4
The Bible tells that while his small band of followers awaited Jesus’ return they spread the good news throughout the Roman world. Paul, the greatest of the early Christian missionaries, wrote of creation “groaning as in the pains of childbirth” as it eagerly awaits the day that it “will be liberated from its bondage to decay and brought into the freedom and glory of the children of God.” He assured believers that the day would soon arrive when Jesus would return to judge the earth and the dead would rise.5
In the final book of the Bible, the narrative ends much as it began. In his vision on Patmos, John foresaw the coming of a new creation, alluding to the story of Eden. In the new creation, once again there would be no death, no pain and no separation of God. Once again God would dwell among humanity and once again the tree of life would stand in the community of humanity.6
Relying on these Biblical assurances, the promise of a new creation (the fully-realized Kingdom of God) has always been a central element of the Christian faith. The Nicene Creed concludes with the words “…we look for the resurrection of the dead, and the life of the world to come.” For over two thousand years Christians around the world have been reciting those words, and sharing that faith and that hope.
The Scientific Evidence of the Futility of the Universe
The scientific evidence of the future of the universe seems, however, to stand in stark contrast to the Christian vision. Even after cosmologists and astro-physicists had fairly conclusively developed the evidence of the Big Bang origin of the universe 13.7 billion years ago, the ultimate fate of the universe was unclear. Some hypothesized that the forces of gravity would eventually slow, halt and reverse the expansion of the universe, dragging all matter and energy back together in a “Big Crunch” from which another Big Bang might follow. Others argued that the expansion would continue, and the universe would end in a Big Freeze once all matter and energy were dissipated and exhausted. Neither scenario held any promise of an eternal universe hospitable to life, at least as we know it.7
In the past few years, however, the discovery of “dark energy” seems to have resolved the debate. The data now shows with a high degree of confidence that the expansion of the universe is actually accelerating, due to the influence of the mysterious and previously unknown dark energy.8 The evidence establishes that there will be no stabilization of the universe and no endless cycle of Bangs and Crunches. Rather, it seems that the universe is destined to die a cold death.
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, small stars become white dwarfs. The universe becomes a cold and uninteresting place composed of dead stars and black holes. According to some theories of particle physics, protons themselves should decay at 1031 years. All that would be left are some weakly interacting particles and a low-level energy background.9
The combination of circumstances which have enabled life to emerge in the universe, it seems, was merely a temporary phenomenon. Ultimately, the scientists have concluded, there is a futility to the universe. However distant the end may be, there is an end. As theoretical physicist Stephen Weinberg put it, “The more the universe seems comprehensible, the more it also seems pointless.”10
As if that isn’t a sufficiently bleak prognosis, in a mere 7.6 billion years or so, long before the entire universe expires; our sun will use up the last of its hydrogen fuel and will swell into a “red giant.” When it does the earth will be absorbed into it and incinerated. 11 Long before that, in only about a billion years, the enlarged sun will have cooked the earth into a lifeless, water-free rock.12 Whether humanity will be destroyed at that time may depend upon whether it manages to first avoid being destroyed the next time a comet or asteroid collides with earth, an event which can be expected to cause mass extinction and is likely to occur every 100 million years or so.13 If such a calamity is somehow avoided, then humanity must also find a way to escape destruction by disease, war and environmental degradation. According to science, therefore, the ultimate extinction of humanity is certain, even if the exact date and ultimate cause of it is not.
Theological Responses to the Scientific Conclusions
The interaction between science and theology on the subjects of biological evolution and the origin of the universe are well-known. Despite the loud objections of the anti-intellectual religious fundamentalists on the one hand and the arrogant insulting ridicule of the militant “new atheists” on the other, a respectful space for consonance between science and theology has been found in these areas, as theologians see God’s presence in “theistic evolution” and the Big Bang’s suggestion of creation ex nihilo. But what of the Christian doctrine of new creation? Can it be consonant with the scientific conclusion that the universe is destined to die?
Perhaps because it is such a difficult problem, surprisingly few theologians have wrestled with it. Very few, it seems, have seriously engaged the science. On one extreme are the American dispensationalist fundamentalists who have constructed an eschatology based upon selected Bible verses primarily from apocalyptic writings. For them the science is irrelevant and is trumped by their sometimes literalistic and sometimes strained interpretations of the Bible. They argue that Jesus will return momentarily to “rapture” all believers into heaven, following which there will be a period of violent “tribulation” and ultimately a fiery destruction of the earth. This theology has little support among theologians and likely none among scientists.14 Among those who share this view (who generally also deny the fact of biological evolution and insist that the universe was created over six twenty-four hour days about six thousand years ago), the scientific evidence of the ultimate end of the universe is of no consequence. There is no effort to engage the science and no effort to achieve consonance with it.
At the other extreme are scientist/theologians who see the promise of new creation in the continued evolution of technology and humanity. Frank Tipler, for example, sees fulfillment of the promise of immortality in cybernetics. He imagines increasingly complex self-replicating “immortal” computers, which would replace finite carbon-based life and proceed to spread into every corner of the universe, gathering information. The ultimate supercomputer, which he calls Omega, would even “resurrect” humans, by creating computer simulations of them.15 Freeman Dyson also imagines a post-human universe, populated by information-gathering supermachines. Dyson foresees the creation of genetically engineered organisms capable of surviving extreme conditions and a transfer of the information in human brains to computers which could survive the low temperatures.16 In these futuristic scenarios humanity either escapes catastrophe (by relocating to another solar system, for example) or adapts to it (by posthuman transformation, for example). Proponents of “transhumanism” predict that in the near future death will be purely voluntary and that “cybernetic immortality” will be attained by the end of the 21st century.17 The things which populate such an imagined future seem to be descendents of what Ray Kurzweil calls “The Singularity,” a state in which there is no distinction “between human and machine or between physical and virtual reality.”18 Obviously humanity as it now exists has no place in either of these futures.
Between these extremes others have sought to find a solution to the dilemma. David Wilkinson rejects both extremes. “The approach that sees God simply allowing the creation to progress to some kind of Utopia through evolution and human technology is denied by the future of the physical universe. The opposite approach which sees eschatology having no link at all to this universe, denies the value of the universe as creation.”19 He disagrees with those who argue that there is conflict between the scientific predictions and eschatological hope.20 He sees “finitude as an integral part of creation” and the end of the universe as a “pointer to new creation.” He suggests that an ultimate reconciliation of the Biblical promises may be found in quantum theories of gravity and higher dimensions of space-time.21 Although his conclusions are vague (perhaps necessarily so) they are more satisfying than those who overlay the science and theology with a radical discontinuity.
Although theoretical physicist and theologian John Polkinghorne accepts the validity of both the scientific conclusions and the theological promises, he concludes there is ultimately an irreconcilable dissonance between the two. Polkinghorne accepts the scientific conclusion that the universe is destined to die and that well before it does “humanity and all forms of carbon-based life will have vanished” from it.22 He does not anticipate that God will “ring down the cosmic curtain before science expects,” but rather expects the process to continue to unfold over billions of years.23 The hope of resurrection, he concludes, lies in God acting outside the laws of the physical universe, not within them.24 But the vagueness of his conclusions are disappointing, especially in light of the analysis that leads to them. Beyond arguing that God will redeem all of creation from decay25 and that new creation will have elements of continuity and discontinuity, he says little about the material reality of the age to come. The question of where to place “new creation” in a lifeless and dissipated universe is left unanswered.
Ted Peters argues that Genesis can be read eschatologically, that creation is ongoing, that new creation is Eden and that God’s rest (the Sabbath) will occur when creation is complete—an endpoint that he calls the Omega.26 Unlike Polkinghorne and Wilkinson, Peters is not convinced that the future of the universe has been scientifically established. “Based upon present observations, the future of our cosmos is barely understood or predicated,” he argues.27 Nevertheless he admits a dissonance between the scientific conclusions and eschatology. As for the promise of new creation, “This will have to be God’s work,” he concludes.28
David Russell finds hope in a new set of natural and physical laws. He notes that new laws of nature have appeared before, as life emerged in the previously lifeless universe. The resurrection of Jesus, he argues, is the first instantiation of a new law of nature and precursor of a general resurrection, which will be characteristic of new creation.29 He concludes that the new laws of nature which will and are emerging will enable new creation.
Arthur Peacocke avoids the discussion altogether, dismissing eschatology itself as a “pointless and unnecessary exercise.”30
Perhaps, as the fundamentalists, Polkinghorne, and Peters conclude, God will intervene and bring about new creation by supernaturally replacing the existing natural and physical laws. Perhaps, as Russell argues, God has already begun doing so. Perhaps the futurists are correct and what was revealed to the prophets in terms they could understand will in fact actualize in some sort of immortal post-human cybernetic information-gathering utopia. Perhaps Wilkinson is correct that the universe will indeed die but that eschatological hope may be found in some multi-dimensional reality not yet understood by humans. Or maybe, as Peacocke contends, the whole eschatological exercise is pointless.
Must New Creation Necessarily Exist Outside of the Existing Material Universe?
One might reasonably wonder, however, if it is necessary to choose between radical discontinuity with the physical and natural laws of the universe or a future that bears little resemblance to the new creation of Scripture. Perhaps the universe is more resilient than it now appears to be.
While we might take some comfort in the fact that the universe will survive another trillion years or so, which is about 999,999,800,000 years longer than humans have existed on earth, and might therefore (from a human perspective) be considered a practically eternal length of time, there is still a finite end to existence as we know it. The universe is expanding and the rate of expansion is accelerating. Because of that, it will ultimately dissipate and freeze.
So then, is Stephen Weinberg right? Is it all ultimately pointless and futile?
The scientific evidence undeniably reveals a universe destined to die. Objective observers, armed with the best technology available, can see no hope for life anywhere in the universe a trillion years from now.
But let us imagine an objective observer had been able to examine our universe eight billion years ago. What this observer would have seen was a universe composed entirely of hydrogen and helium. Nowhere in the entire universe were there conditions even remotely capable of life as we know it. And the observer would likely detect no reason whatsoever to suppose that circumstance would change in any material way. Such an observer could reasonably conclude that life in our universe was impossible. Yet it did change. Within the furnaces of the first generation of stars heavier elements formed, which were later scattered into the universe as those stars died in supernovae. And over the next few billion years, billions of extraordinarily seemingly unlikely events and mutations occurred, so that, at least on one humble planet, intelligent self-conscious life emerged.
Can we say that life in the universe is less certain a trillion years from now than it was eight billion years ago? Maybe we ought not be too quick to assume that our understanding of the universe is sufficient to enable definitive conclusions as to its fate. After all, a mere hundred years ago gifted students were discouraged from studying physics because it was believed there was nothing of any significance in physics that had not yet been discovered. Just as relativity theory and quantum mechanics rocked the scientific world in the 20th Century, might the next hundred, thousand or million years reveal, contrary to current expectations, that the universe is inherently and eternally hospitable to human life?
We have a universe that has always proceeded toward complexity and toward the conditions suitable for life, albeit very patiently and over extremely long periods of time. So we might reasonably conclude that the evidence of a universe proceeding toward dissipation and unsuitability for life is incomplete. Certainly as Christian theists we might reasonably suppose that the universe was created to make it eternally suitable for life, and we might reasonably be suspicious of any contrary absolute truth claim.31 Dark energy was unknown a mere 25 years ago. Are there other physical properties of the universe, as yet unknown, which might cause the rate of expansion to slow and eventually stop? Might the destiny of the universe be harmony and stability, rather than dissipation and death?
When asked what he would do if he knew the world was going to end tomorrow, Martin Luther is said to have responded that he would plant an apple tree today.32 Maybe this universe will die and God’s new creation will materialize outside it. But maybe this universe has more life left in it than we now realize. In any event, perhaps we should just proceed with planting more apple trees.
1 Genesis 2: 4-24. Note that a general familiarity with Scripture is being presumed, so the citations to Scripture are intended generally to be merely representative.
2 Genesis 3, 9: 2-3
3 For example, see Isaiah 65: 17-25 and Micah 4: 3-4
4 Acts 1:11
5 Romans 8: 18-22, 1 Thessalonians 4: 13-18
6 Revelation 21: 1-5, 22: 1-5
7 John Polkinghorne, The God of Hope and the End of the World (New Haven: Yale University Press, 2002), 9.
8 David Wilkinson, Christian Eschatology and the Physical Universe (London: T&T Clark, 2010), 13.
9 Wilkinson, 15-16.
10 William P. Brown, The Seven Pillars of Creation: The Bible, Science and the Ecology of Wonder (Oxford: Oxford University Press, 2010), 194.
11 Brown, 192.
12 Brown, 193.
13 Wilkinson, 8. A comet impact may be expected to occur every 250 million years, on average, and a major asteroid collision is likely every 100 million years, on average.
14 Wilkinson, 4. “The constituent theology…is based on an interpretive framework which combines the claim of biblical literalism with the writer’s special insights of prophetic interpretation, numerology, paranoia and a belief in the chosen nature of the USA to do God’s will. It picks up on the folk Christianity of American society and exploits people’s fascination with the future.”
15 Polkinghorne, 24.
16 Ian G. Barbour, Religion and Science (San Francisco: Harper Collins, 1990), 219.
17 Ted Peters, Anticipating Omega (Gottingen: Vandenhoeck & Ruprecht, 2006), 111-12.
18 Quoted in C. Ben Mitchell, et al., Biotechnology and the Human Good (Washington, D.C.: Georgetown University Press, 2007), 44.
19 Wilkinson, 36.
20 Wilkinson, 187
22 Polkinghorne, 141.
24 Peters, 37.
25 Polkinghorne, 148.
26 Peters, 25-27.
27 Peters, 17.
28 Peters, 18.
29 See Peters, 43.
30 Quoted in Wilkinson at 48.
31 As Wilkinson writes “Scientific predictions of the future of the universe are based on the assumption of the regularity of the laws of physics. Within their own realm such predictions are useful. However, it is not valid to build a philosophical or theological picture of the future simply on the scientific predictions.” Wilkinson, 48. Polkinghorne concurs: “Science knows only the matter of this world but it cannot forbid theology to believe that God is capable of bringing about something totally new.” Quoted in Peters at 39.
32 Polkinghorne, 102.