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c) Eschatology and Scientific Cosmology

Promising though this may sound, what really happens if we shift the scope of eschatology to include the entire universe as described by scientific cosmology. Planet Earth and with it the biological sciences are not adequate if 1) it is the universe that theologians describe as the creation of God and therefor 2) the universe which must become ‘the New Creation.’ In this case we must return to physics --- and its theory of gravity and thus Big Bang cosmology --- to describe it scientifically. But according to Big Bang cosmology, the future of the universe is far from that described by the eschatologies we have sampled. Instead it is ‘freeze or fry’, and long before either, all biological life will be extinguished from the universe. Can Christian eschatology be seen as consistent with either of these scientific scenarios? At first glance, the answer would seem an alarming, “no!”.

*Science minisummary: Big Bang and the far future: freeze or fry. There are two scenarios for the far future of the universe according to Big Bang cosmology: ‘freeze or fry.’ (See Part 2, B, 1 above). If the universe is open (or flat), it will expand forever and continue to cool from its present temperature (about 2.70K), asymptotically approaching absolute zero. If it is closed, it will expand to a maximum size in another hundred billion years or so, then recollapse to arbitrarily small size and unendingly higher temperatures somewhat like a mirror image of its past expansion. In inflationary and quantum scenarios, the present expansion may be accelerating due to the presence of the ‘cosmological constant’, but the overall picture of these two options holds. In either case, the universe will become inhospitable to biological life in the nearer future, after stars nova and planetary systems decay. Life as we know it will, apparently, be untenable for more than a few tens of billions of years in the universe. Moreover, the future of the universe is predictable here using physics alone.

According to Wolfhart Pannenberg, all Christian theology depends on the future coming of God.Wolfhart Pannenberg, Systematic Theology, 713 pp, trans. G. W. Bromiley (Grand Rapids, Mich.: Eerdmans, 1998), 3:Ch. 15, esp. section 1, p. 531. Pannenberg claims that the future of God’s reign is...Eschatology thus involves “one of the most obvious conflicts between a worldview based on modern science and the Christian faith”. Wolfhart Pannenberg, "Theological Questions to Scientists," in The Sciences and Theology in the Twentieth Century, ed. A. R. Peacocke (Notre Dame: University of Notre Dame Press, 1981). See his...John Macquarrie, too, wrote that “...if it were shown that the universe is indeed headed for an all-enveloping death, then this might seem to constitute a state of affairs so negative that it might be held to falsify Christian faith and abolish Christian hope.”John Macquarrie, Principles of Christian Theology, Second Edition (New York: Charles Scribner's Sons, 1977 (1966)), Ch. 15, esp. 351-62.Are these conclusions avoidable?

Not easily, if we ‘play fair’ by the methodological rules adopted by the field. Recall that a specific methodological framework made scholarly work in ‘theology and science’ possible for the past four decades. This framework includes an epistemological hierarchy of constraints and emergence which requires that theology not ignore the results of physics or hope that higher levels, such as evolutionary biology, will simply overturn the predictions of physics. Since scientific cosmology (i.e., Big Bang cosmology, inflationary Big Bang, quantum cosmology, etc.) is part of physics (i.e., relativistically correct theories of gravity applied to the universe), the predictions of ‘freeze or fry’ --- or their scientific replacements in the future --- must place constraints on and challenge what theology can claim eschatologically just like the presence of death in evolutionary biology challenged the traditional connection between sin and death. No easy appeal to contingency, chaos theory, unpredictability, novelty, emergence, the future, or metaphysics alone will be sufficient to solve this problem. (The only alternative is truly radical: to pursue the possibility that a commitment to eschatology will lead to an alternative scientific cosmology (see Part 3, C, below).)

Peacocke clearly recognized that the inevitable end of life in the universe “undermines any intelligible grounds for hope being generated from within the purely scientific prospect itself... The Revelation of John is but a pale document compared with these modern scientific apocalypses!”A. R. Peacocke, Creation and the World of Science: The Bampton Lectures, 1979 (Oxford: Clarendon Press, 1979), 329.Instead, Peacocke affirms that Christian hope is based on Jesus’ Resurrection and its connection with eschatology. In earlier work he explored three schools of thought which might help relate eschatology and cosmology: the ‘theologians of hope’, the Teilhardians, and process theologians. For all three, hope actually consists in “our movement towards and into God beginning in the present but it transcends any literal sense of ‘the future.’ Instead, “our End will be our Beginning --- God’s own self” Peacocke, Theology for a Scientific Age, 344-45.Our hope, then, ultimately lies in a fulfilment “beyond space and time within the very being of God.”Peacocke, Creation and the World of Science, 353. For a recent approach to theology and evolution somewhat indebted to Teilhard see S. J. Mooney, Christopher F., Theology and Scientific Knowledge: Changing...Many atheistic scientists, too, from Bertrand RussellBertrand Russell, "A Free Man's Worship," in Mysticism and Logic, and Other Essays, 1963 edition (London: Allen & Unwin, 1903), p. 41.to Steven Weinberg,Steven Weinberg, The First Three Minutes: A Modern View of the Origin of the Universe (New York: Basic Books, Inc., 1977), 154-55.have given a thoroughly pessimistic, ‘dysteleological’ reading of scientific cosmology.

But perhaps there is an alternate way to interpret the scientific scenario, at least regarding the continuance of life in the far future of the universe. In a ground-breaking article published in 1979, Freeman Dyson worked out a partial response to cosmic pessimism by showing how life could survive forever in the open ‘freeze’ model.Freeman Dyson, "Time Without End: Physics and Biology in an Oopen Universe," Reviews of Modern Physics 51 (1979): 447-60.In 1986, Frank Tipler and John Barrow took up Dyson’s arguments in detail and extended them to the ‘fry’ scenario of a closed universe.John D. Barrow and Frank J. Tipler, The Anthropic Cosmological Principle (Oxford: Clarendon Press, 1986). Although the writings of Dyson and Tipler are recent examples and have received wide discussion,...In both cases, however, life is understood reductively within physics as ‘information processing’, and ‘eternal life’ as the endless processing of new information along a given worldline. The scientific details of Dyson’s work are fascinating, and his challenge to Weinberg’s pessimistic evaluation of the meaning of life in the universe is profound.Freeman Dyson, Disturbing the Universe (New York: Harper and Row, 1979), Ch. 23. Frereman Dyson, Infinite in All Directions (New York: Harper and Row, 1988), Ch. 6.Both Dyson, Tipler and Barrow raise important connections between physical cosmology and Christian eschatology, somewhat in the spirit of Teilhard. In his more recent writings, Tipler in particular claimed to treat a variety of theological concerns, including God, resurrection, and immortality, in terms of his “Omega point theory”Frank J. Tipler, The Physics of Immortality: Modern Cosmology, God, and the Resurrection of the Dead (New York: Doubleday, 1994). For an earlier reflections see Frank J. Tipler, "The Omega Point Theory:...But reaction to these arguments has been mixed. Drees has given a careful but critical analysis of both Dyson and Tipler’s works.Willem B. Drees, Beyond the Big Bang: Quantum Cosmologies and God (La Salle, Ill.: Open Court, 1990), Ch. 4. See also Fred W. Hallberg, "Barrow and Tipler's Anthropic Cosmological Principle,"...Tipler and Pannenberg have engaged in an interesting and constructive interactionFrank J. Tipler, "The Omega Point as Eschaton: Answers to Pannenberg's Questions for Scientists," Zygon: Journal of Religion & Science 24.2 (June 1989): 217-53. Wolfhart Pannenberg, "Theological... to which Drees, myself and others have repliedWillem B. Drees, "Contingency, Time, and the Theological Ambiguity of Science," in Beginning with the End..God, Science, and Wolfhart Pannenberg, ed. Carol Rausch Albright and Joel Haugen (Chicago:.... Meanwhile, Tipler’s scientific claims have been attacked aggressively by other scientistsHyung Sup Choi, "A Physicist Comments on Tipler's "The Physics of Immortality"," CTNS Bulletin 15.2(Spring 1995); William R. Stoeger, S.J. and George Ellis, "A Response to Tipler's... while both Dyson’s and Tipler’s theological proposals and their reductionist assumptions have been widely criticized by scholars including Polkinghorne, Barbour, Peacocke, Clayton and Worthing.Polkinghorne, Science and providence, 96; Barbour, Religion in an age of science, 151-52; Peacocke, Theology for a Scientific Age, 345; Clayton 1997: 132-136}; Worthing, God, Creation, and Contemporary...

If this alternative is not to be taken, what options are left? Polkinghorne is representative of most theological views when reminding us that “an ultimate hope will have to rest in an ultimate reality, that is to say, in the eternal God himself, and not in his creation.”John C. Polkinghorne, The Faith of a Physicist: Reflections of a Bottom-up Thinker, Theology and the Sciences Series (Minneapolis, Minn.: Fortress, 1994), 163.Such hope is not in the survival of death of a purported soul, since we are a psychosomatic unity. Instead it is in our resurrection: God remembering us and recreating us in a radically new environment. God will create the world to come through a transformation of the universe. The resurrection of Jesus begins a process whose fulfillment beyond history will join the destiny of humanity and the destiny of the universe. The new creation, a new heaven and a new earth, is not a “second attempt by God at what he had first tried to do in the old creation. It is a different kind of divine action altogether...the first creation was ex nihilo while the new creation will be ex vetera.. The new creation ... becomes a totally sacramental world, suffused with the divine presence... (and) free from suffering...” Such a transformed world offers the best response to theodicy, for “each generation must receive the healing and fulfilment that is its due... The life of heaven will involve the endless, dynamic exploration of the inexhaustible riches of the divine nature.”Polkinghorne, The faith of a physicist, 162-70.He thus supports eschatological panentheism.One can find a hint of this in Paul Tillich, Systematic Theology, 434 pp (Chicago: University of Chicago Press, 1963), 3:421.

The transformation of the universe is also a theme in the writings of Pannenberg and Worthing. In his Systematic Theology, Pannenberg argues that the Christian claim that the world will have an end can neither be supported by science, nor need it be in opposition to it. The scenario of a universe finite in space and time is “undoubtedly more compatible with the biblical view” than an infinite, imperishable scenario. Still the Biblical view of an imminent end, and the scientific view of a remote end, may not even “relate to the same event... Even if they do, it is only in the sense of very different forms of imminence.”Pannenberg, Systematic theology, 3:589-90. Pannenberg is apparently referring to the closed Big Bang model and not the open model, which, though possessing a finite past, is infinite in size and will continue...Worthing has proposed that we take up Pannenberg’s distinction between theological and scientific apocalyptic visions. Rather than equate the parousia with the remote future end of the universe, Worthing suggests we understand it as a renewal or transformation of the universe as a whole. The Biblical ‘end’ is not a cosmic end, since it “allows for a bodily resurrection and creation of a new heaven and new earth.”Worthing, God, Creation, and Contemporary Physics, 177-78.This, in turn, shifts the discussion from the end of the world to the concept of eternity as the real issue in relating science and theology. We are led to consider “the future of the universe...(as) taken up into the eternality of the Creator --- an eternality of a decisively different order from that which the physical universe could potentially possess...”Worthing, God, Creation, and Contemporary Physics, 198..

Ted Peters writes from just such a perspective, developing the Trinitarian theology of the 20th century with particular attention to the implications of Big Bang and quantum cosmology. What we need is “temporal holism”Ted Peters, God as Trinity: Relationality and Temporality in the Divine Life (Louisville, Ky.: Westminster/John Knox Press, 1993), 168-70. in which the cosmos as a unity of time and space is both created proleptically from the futureTed Peters, God--the World's Future: Systematic Theology for a Postmodern Era (Minneapolis, Minn.: Fortress Press, 1992), 134-39, esp. 134. "My hypothesis, then, is the following principle of proleptic... and redeemed eschatologically by God’s future initiative which we know proleptically in Jesus Christ.Peters, God as Trinity, 173.Prolepsis ties together futurum, the ordinary sense of future resulting from present causes, and adventus, the appearance of something absolutely new, namely the kingdom of God, the renewal of creation.Peters, God--the world's future, 308-09.The creation, from alpha to omega, will be consummated and transformed into the eschatological future which lies beyond, but which will include, this creation as a whole. “The eschatological future is the key that opens the gate to eternity.” Peters, too, is ruthlessly honest about the challenge from science. “Should the final future as forecasted by (scientific cosmology) come to pass...then we would have proof that our faith has been in vain. It would turn out to be that there is no God, at least not the God in whom follows of Jesus have put their faith.”Peters, God as Trinity, 175-76. See also George L. Murphy, "Cosmology and Christology," Science and Christian Belief 6.2(October 1994).

I believe the approaches suggested by Pannenberg, Polkinghorne, and Peters are particularly promising, but I also want to underscore the challenge of making them intelligible in detail in light of scientific cosmology as it currently stands. If we are to engage in a genuinely mutual interaction, a more complex methodology is called for. I will make preliminary suggestions about such a methodology in Part III:F below. Adopting it tentatively for the problem of cosmology and eschatology would lead to the following steps for future research: first, Trinitarian conceptions about time and eternity would have to be reformulated in light of relativity (refer to Part III:F, paths 1, 3)); second, in light of this reformulation, the assumptions on which physics (and thus cosmology as a part of physics) are based would be inspected (path 6). They may, in fact, be the root of the problem by leading to an insufficiently rich cosmology for theological appropriation.The problem, I suspect, lies in assuming the homogeneity of space and time and the homogeneous universality of the laws of nature (a spacetime equivalent of Hume’s ‘dead folk stay dead’)....This, in turn, would suggest that a more complex view of nature as creation might be sought, and its implications for revising contemporary scientific cosmology be considered (paths 7, 8). Finally, if such a revision were formulated in scientifically testable fashion, it would be entirely the province of secular physics to decide whether it had any empirical merit.One can argue precedent here: Fred Hoyle, for example, was apparently inspired to formulate his alternative theory of gravity and its cosmology --- the steady state theory --- for at least partially theological...At least, though, the conversation would be genuinely two-way.Hopefully such a project might be undertaken in the near future by my colleagues and me.

Contributed by: Dr. Robert Russell

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