The Future of Life and the Universe

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The Future of Life and the Universe

Proclaiming that the world is coming to an end isn’t new to Christianity. Centuries have already passed since we began preaching that “the end of all things is near” (1 Peter 4:7).[1] The popular image of a solitary man walking through the streets holding a sign with the words “The end of the world is near” has already become a Christian cliché. What is surprising to many, however, is that a new partner is joining forces in proclaiming the end of all things: Science.

Mass media has become saturated with messages about the effects of human development on the ecosystem. Discussions about global warming, CO2 emissions, and greenhouse effects have become quite common in daily life, something uncommon barely 50 years ago. Scientists have been warning governments for a while now about the effects of pollution, pesticides and deforestation on our planet. The “no-return point”an ecological threshold which, if passed, will result in disastrous chain reactions in nature, making it literally impossible to undois increasingly becoming the main issue for many who are involved in these discussions. Publications in renowned scientific magazines and academic journals have expressed the concern that nature is about to cross that threshold within a few decades, if it hasn’t already done so.

This widely-disseminated eschatological interest has inspired Hollywood to produce various blockbuster movies that seek to portray possible scenarios about the end of the world. Movies such as Armageddon, Interstellar, 2012, and The Day after Tomorrow, although not presenting the most realistic predictions about the fate of our planet, indicate that there is a real concern about what will happen to humanity in the future. Unfortunately, when we consider the end of the world from a scientific perspective, the collapse of the ecosystem is only a small fraction of the problems that concern scientists. Some of these issues have been presented by Isaac Asimov in his well-known book, A Choice of Catastrophes[2], and will be discussed here.

Cosmic Death

If we are able to survive the effects of global warming, one of the other dangers that threaten our society is the possibility of a nuclear war. Countries such as the United States, Russia, England, and France are aware of the potential destructiveness of another world war. At the peak of the cold war, in 1986, estimates were that a total of sixty thousand nuclear warheads were ready to be deployed. Today, the Bulletin of the Atomic Scientists states that that number has fallen to approximately ten thousand.[3] Although it is a lower number, if this nuclear arsenal were to be deployed in a world war, the effects would surely be devastating. To make the situation riskier, many of these weapons are kept in poor conditions, increasing the possibility of accidents and tragedies.

If, however, the future will not be interrupted by nuclear end, scientists point to another possible danger: a collision with an asteroid. Astronomers are constantly monitoring the skies in search of asteroids with the potential for mass destruction. According to some, an asteroid only 20 kilometers in diameter would be enough to annihilate life as we know it. Although, as Adventists, we don’t adhere to the cretaceous-paleogene extinction theory, which tries to substitute the Biblical account of the flood, the presence of thousands of craters on the Moon and the Earth indicate that such a hypothesis isn’t so absurd.

Another remote possibility involves our nearest source of heat, energy and light: the Sun. Scientists predict that, at the current rate of combustion, the Sun will burn through all of its hydrogen and helium within 5 billion years. As it approaches the moment of its “death,” the gravitational force of the Sun will decrease, turning it into a “red giant,” a star 256 times bigger than its actual size. By the time it reaches that size, it will have engulfed Mercury, Venus, and possibly the Earth, vaporizing them with its intense heat. The moment of its “death” will be marked by an event rarely observed in the Universe: a Supernova—a solar explosion whose luminosity can equal that of an entire galaxy.

Many scientists believe that, if we are able to stay alive until then, humanity will have already acquired the knowledge and means necessary to leave our planet and settle in another more appropriate environment. However, even if we are able to escape all these catastrophes, there is one that will impact everything that exists, and from that one, no one will be able to escape: the death of the Universe.

In 1856, physicists William Thomson, Hermann von Helmholtz, and William Rankine discovered what is now considered one of the most depressing facts in science: our Universe is dying. Entropy, the second law of thermodynamics, describes how our universe is gradually degenerating, constantly reaching lower states of energy, movement and order. If everything continues the way it is, the Universe will one day stop, freeze, and die. Just as an engine burns all of its fuel, stops working, and begins to rust, so will the Universe one day use up all of its energy and disintegrate. In a small scale, everything we know suffers the effects of entropy: batteries die, ice melts, coal cools down, our body ages, and food spoils. On a large scale, the Universe is deteriorating, and at some time in the distant future, everything will disintegrate. During the last moments, our Universe will undergo a “heat death,” often referred to by cosmologists as the “Great Freeze,” and then the end shall come.

These are only a few of the scientific prophecies concerning the end of the world. Although these predictions may seem fictitious to Christians, we must remember that, if the Universe does continue operating without any sort of divine intervention, undergoing the effects of natural laws, these theories won’t be just conjectures—they will be real possibilities.

When faced with such a pessimistic outcome, many question the meaning of life and the purpose of our existence. If all of this is true, Bertrand Russell’s famous words become almost prophetic. In his book Why I am not a Christian, the Literature Nobel prize winner states:

All the labours of the ages, all the devotion, all the inspiration, all the noonday brightness of human genius, are destined to extinction in the vast death of the solar system, and […] the whole temple of man’s achievement must inevitably be buried beneath the debris of a universe in ruins—all these things, if not quite beyond dispute, are yet so nearly certain that no philosophy which rejects them can hope to stand. Only within the scaffolding of these truths, only on the firm foundation of unyielding despair, can the soul’s habitation henceforth be safely built.

Continuing in this perspective, Physics’ Nobel Prize winner Steven Weinberg also laments: “The more the universe seems comprehensible, the more it also seems pointless.”[4] Their words sound very similar to the old lamentation of king Solomon: “Utterly Meaningless! Everything is Meaningless” (Ecclesiastes 1:2). As rightly observed by Sir John Polkinghorne and Michael Welker in their book The End of the World and the Ends of God, these predictions point, at best, to a “transient fruitfulness that leads to final futility, with the certain eventual disappearance of all life from the universe. These images of catastrophe feed cultural moods of nihilism and apocalyptic despair that are powerfully present in contemporary societies.”[5]

Our Greatest Hope

Although we may acknowledge the possibility of these scientific predictions, as Christians, we are inspired by a hope that points towards to a better future. As Stephen T. Davis stated, to the contrary of gloom and despair, Christians believe that “all of creation and history are moving toward a goal.”[6] The Bible, in different places, reminds us that our future will not end in death and futility. God promises a “new heaven and a new earth” (Revelation 21:1). The apostles believed in this promise and proclaimed it enthusiastically: “But in keeping with his promise we are looking forward to a new heaven and a new earth, where righteousness dwells” (2 Peter 3:13). For centuries, we have shouted to the world that we will be transformed “in a flash, in the twinkling of an eye, at the last trumpet. For the trumpet will sound, the dead will be raised imperishable, and we will be changed” (1 Corinthians 15:52).

Life will be eternally spent in the presence of God. It will not be a fictitious existence, but a very real, physical and concrete one. Isaiah 65:21-23 declares that the saved “will build houses and dwell in them; they will plant vineyards and eat their fruit.” The struggle for survival, the violence between species and the degeneration of the human body will not be part of reality anymore. “The wolf and the lamb will feed together, and the lion will eat straw like the ox, […] They will neither harm nor destroy” (Isaiah 65:25). “Then will the eyes of the blind be opened and the ears of the deaf unstopped. Then will the lame leap like a deer, and the mute tongue shout for joy” (Isaiah 35:5-6). The greatest enemy of all—death—will be thrown into the lake of fire (Revelation 20:14), and God “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” (Revelation 21:4).

However, how can we know that all of these things will really come true? If everything around us is trotting in the direction of annihilation and death, what evidence do we have to hope for the contrary? Could it be that all of this is just a fantasy created to give us comfort and peace, as Karl Marx used to claim? Peter Berger, a sociologist in religion, once argued that human beings have a significant intuition that all will end well, even though we may live in a world plagued by death.[7] Are we being mislead by our intuitions? Many skeptics have compared the hope of an eternal life of joy in paradise to fairy tales or mythical stories. The dichotomy between these two world-views has been clearly perceived by some: “The idea of a hope after death and an end that fulfills history as a whole is as intrinsic to the Christian tradition as it is foreign to the project of science.”[8] Could it be that we are deceiving ourselves with the belief in a global transformation, a “resurrection,” so to say, of the Universe? What evidence do we have that these promises will indeed come true?

 

Weighing the Evidence

While the scientific world bases its predictions on the uniformity of the natural realm, Christianity grounds its hope in a person: Jesus Christ. His teachings, life, death, and resurrection serve as evidence that God exists; He interacts with the Universe, and has the capacity to transform it. What makes this hope different from anything else is that it is rooted exclusively on the promise of divine intervention: “See, I will create new heavens and a new earth” (Isaiah 65:17). In this respect, the resurrection of Jesus becomes the most significant event for those who await eternity, for it carries with it not only anthropological implications, but cosmological ones too. Not only human beings, but all of “creation itself will be liberated from its bondage to decay” (Romans 8:20). The resurrection of Christ provides us with important information to better understand what this future redemption will be like.

As Sir John Polkinghorne, a renowned theologian-physicist at Cambridge University, has shown, there is an element of continuity and discontinuity in the resurrection and our ultimate hope[9]. Continuity, because after the transformation, history continues its course. Our personality and individuality will remain the same, memories will continue, and the new being will not be completely new, but will maintain characteristics of the past. What distinguishes our theology from those “secular futurologies,” however, is the element of discontinuity, for life will not be the same, and nature will not suffer anymore under the power of sin. Everything will be different, as Paul describes: “What no eye has seen, what no ear has heard, and what no human mind has conceived—the things God has prepared for those who love him” (1 Corinthians 2:9).

The best evidence that Christianity has to offer for those who doubt that the eschatological prophecies will be fulfilled is the resurrection of Jesus Christ. The empty tomb is a fact that makes all the difference for us. If Jesus is powerful enough to conquer death (Revelation 1:18) and receive a transformed and glorified body, we can be sure that the same will occur with creation.

While legends, myths, and stories are the result of human imagination and creativity, our hope in the glorification is inspired by a historical event. The resurrection of Jesus isn’t a story invented by the disciples. Jesus appeared alive to many after the crucifixion. The New Testament describes how he appeared to Mary (John 20:16, 17), to the disciples (John 20:19), to the unbelieving Thomas (John 20:27, 28), to James, the brother of Jesus (1 Corinthians 15:7), to Paul (1 Corinthians 15:8), and to more than 500 people on one single occasion (1 Corinthians 15:6).

Contrary to what skeptics say, the disciples were not victims of a mental delusion. They struggled to believe that something so extraordinary could have taken place. In order to convince them, Jesus allowed them to touch him (Jo 20:17, 27) and even ate with them (Luke 24:41-43). Jesus wasn’t merely a static vision. He talked, walked, touched and was touched, ate, and breathed. When we consider all that has been written about him in the Gospels, the evidence in favor of the resurrection speaks louder than the doubt of the skeptics.

When writing to the church at Corinth, Paul made a clear link between the resurrection of Christ and their hope of eternity: “If Christ has not been raised, our preaching is useless and so is your faith” (1 Corinthians 15:14). If Christ wasn’t able to rise from the dead, he also won’t be able to resurrect the just that are dead or overcome the effects of mortality. Actually, Paul declared that if Christ had not resurrected, “we are of all people most to be pitied” (1 Corinthians 15:19), for we would have to limit our hopes to the reality of this decaying world. However, Christ is risen! His tomb is empty and He is currently in Heaven, reigning with the Father (1 Corinthians 15:20-28). His resurrection is a guarantee that he is powerful enough to fulfill his promises.

When we stop to think about it, the resurrection of Christ is the best explanation for the explosive growth of the early Christian church. The disciples believed firmly in the promises of a better future because they were witnesses of a great event. If it were not for that, they wouldn’t have gone through starvation, freezing temperatures, persecution, ridicule, and punishment in order to preach the Gospel. Many of them lived without any earthly comfort, traveling from one place to another in order to proclaim the message of the resurrection (Hebrews 11:35-37).

All of them died for this message. Peter was crucified upside down, John was thrown into boiling oil, Andrew was crucified, Thomas was pierced with a spear, and James was stoned. What motivation could lead them through so much sacrifice, unless Christ had not risen from the dead? As J. P. Moreland correctly noted, “people won’t die for their religious beliefs if they know their beliefs are false.”[10] It is for this exact same reason that we are seeing now a growing number of renowned scholars abandoning liberal interpretations of the Bible and adopting a literal interpretation of the Gospels.

Herman Bavinck, a Dutch reformed theologian, once noted that “everything depends on the physical resurrection of Christ.”[11] It is the guarantee that the promises of God aren’t simply mental illusions, wishful thinking, or ill-intentioned strategies of religious leaders trying to aggregate more followers. God will not allow the Universe to be conquered by decay, destruction and death, for He himself conquered and holds the keys of death (Revelation 1:18). Believing in the hope of the resurrection does not mean that one must abandon scientific knowledge. Death is a real and threatening event. The laws of nature drive the universe with mathematical precision, and the effects of sin can be clearly studied. Proclaiming our hope does not mean ignoring these predictions, but transcending them. God, being the Creator of the Universe, has the power and the authority to change the flow of history and make all things new. Through the resurrection of Jesus Christ, we are certain that he is faithful and powerful to fulfill his promises.

______

Notes:

[1] Bible quotations are from the New International Version.

[2] Isaac Asimov, A Choice of Catastrophes: The Disasters That Threaten Our World (New York, NY: Simon and Schuster, 1979).

[3] Hans M. Kristensen, “Global nuclear weapons inventories, 1945-2013”. Bulletin of the Atomic Scientists, 16/10/2013. http://thebulletin.org/2013/september/global-nuclear-weapons-inventories-1945-2013

[4] Steven Weinberg, The First Three Minutes (New York, NY: Basic Books, 1977), p. 149.

[5] John Polkinghorne and Michael Welker, The End of the World and the Ends of God (Harrisburg, PA: Trinity Press International, 2000), p. 7.

[6] Stephen T. Davis, “Eschatology and Resurrection”, in Jerry Walls, ed., The Oxford Handbook of Eschatology (New York, NY: Oxford University Press, 2008), p. 384.

[7] Peter Berger, A Rumor of Angels: Modern Society and the Rediscovery of the Supernatural (New York, NY: Anchor Books, 1970), p. 54-56.

[8] Philip Clayton, “Eschatology as Metaphysics under the Guise of Hope,” in Joseph Bracken, ed., World without End (Grand Rapids, MI: Eerdmans, 2005), p. 134.

[9] John Polkinghorne, “Eschatology”, in John Polkinghorne and Michael Welker, eds., The End of the World and the Ends of God (Harrisburg, PA: Trinity Press International, 2000), p. 38-41.

[10] Lee Strobel, Case for Christ (Grand Rapids, MI: Zondervan Publishing House, 2013), p. 334.

[11] Herman Bavinck, Reformed Dogmatics: Sin and Salvation in Christ (Grand Rapids, MI: Baker Academic, 2006), v. 3, p. 442

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About the author

Glauber S. Araujo

Glauber S. Araujo is a PhD student in systematic theology at Universidad Adventista del Plata. He holds a master's degree in Sciences of Religion and works as editor at Casa Publicadora Brasileira. Passionate about Physics and Astronomy, he enjoys reading and writing about the intersections between science and religion.