Friday, April 29, 2011

Cosmology and Eschatology

If it were shown that the universe is indeed headed
for an all-enveloping death, then this might...
falsify Christian faith and abolish Christian hope.

John Macquarrie (Principles of Christian Theology 1977)

1. Eschatology poses a major dilemma for Christianity. Many Christians see mainstream science as complementing the Bible, not contradicting it. They claim, regarding origins, that science tells us what happened (the what, when and how) whereas the Bible gives us the deeper interpretation (the why and by Whom).

Such harmony is more difficult to construct regarding eschatology. The central feature of Christianity is belief in the return of Christ, the resurrection of the dead, and life everlasting on a renewed earth. Modern cosmology, on the other hand, predicts the eventual extinction of all life in the universe, whether by “freezing" or "frying”. Further, modern biology asserts that dead is dead--there can be no scientific resurrection of dead individuals.

2. How can this stark contrast be resolved? Theologian Hans Kűng opts for mainstream science. He demotes biblical eschatology to metaphorical images that should not be taken literally:
“Biblical miracles are metaphors, not historical events that break any laws of nature...It is necessary to warn against theological fallacies about the end of the world, as much as fallacies about the beginning of the world...Just as the biblical narratives of God’s work in creation were taken from the environment of the time, so too the reports of God’s final work were taken from contemporary apocalyptic…”  (Kűng, The Beginning of all Things, 2007)

While Kűng gets full marks for consistency, his approach clearly robs Christianity of its central thrust.

3. The only viable Christian alternative is to reject the dire predictions of Big Bang cosmology. This is done, among others, by John Polkinghorne (The God of Hope and the End of the World, 2002) and R.J. Russell (Cosmology: From Alpha to Omega, 2008), both of whom accept the evolutionary view of origins.

According to Russell, the challenge is not really from science as such, but, rather, from the philosophical assumption of 'nomological universality' (i.e., the assumption that the same laws of nature that govern the past will govern also the future). Russell contends that a strong philosophical case can be made that the laws of nature are only descriptive of what has thus far occurred, rather than prescriptive of what must necessarily always happen.

Further, Russell claims on theological grounds that the processes that science describes do not obey autonomous 'laws of nature' but are the results of God's ongoing action as Creator. The regularity of nature is the result of God's faithfulness (p.307). Yet God is free to act in radically new ways in the ongoing history of the universe, such as in the Easter event. Hence the predictions of the laws based on God's prior action need not apply in the future. In other words, the predictions of all scientific laws hold only all 'else being equal'. If God, at the eschaton, chooses to act in radically new ways to transform the world then all else is not equal. Our hope, then, must be in God's faithfulness rather than the current "laws of nature".

On theological grounds, Russell contends that the entire cosmos will be transformed. Addressing the problem of evil, Russell argues that the new creation must include not only humanity, but all species and individual creatures that have ever lived on earth (310). There will be much continuity: we shall recover our physical bodies and live on this (renewed) earth. But also there will be also discontinuity, in that we shall not sin and shall not be subject to physical decay. Russell associates the latter with entropy; he speculates that the new creation will include thermodynamics only to the extent that it contributes to natural good, not natural evil (310).

4. I fully concur with Russell about natural laws being fully under God's control. However, Russell insists that we must still embrace methodological naturalism regarding the cosmic past and present (307). Here I demur. If the observed natural laws are indeed only descriptive of what usually happens, rather than prescriptive of what must happen, then why could God not have acted radically also at times past? And if the Bible trumps methodological naturalism regarding eschatology, why not also elsewhere?

I concur also with Russell about the continuity between this life and the next: we shall be resurrected with physical bodies on this (renewed) earth. Also, the scope of transformation includes the entire cosmos. See, for example Cornelis Venema's The Promise of the Future (Ch.13, 2000).

However, Russell does not believe in an historical fall. He considers suffering, disease and death not to be caused by sin but, rather, as necessary by-products in a universe created by God to evolve moral agents with genuine freedom (221). According to Russell, man was never free of sin or evil. Here I believe Russell is mistaken. The Bible speaks of renewal, redemption, reconciliation--all terms that imply a restoration to an original good state. Thus we read (e.g., Rom.8:18-25,  2 Peter 3: 5-13) of the entire cosmos adversely affected by sin, from which it will be cleansed.

Russell suggests that, to avoid natural evil, the renewed earth needs somewhat modified natural laws (e.g., thermodynamics). If so, and if the renewed earth is a restoration of creation before the Fall, then one could speculate that the Fall resulted in greater changes to the cosmos (e.g., including thermodynamics) than is often acknowledged.

In short, any genuine Christian must break with mainstream science when it comes to eschatology. Here we must place our trust in the truth of God's written Word and in the power and faithfulness of our Lord--no matter how absurd this may seem to worldly philosophy and secular society. Why, then, should we not consistently apply this same methodology to other matters that the Bible addresses?


dean davis said...

Russell speaks of a "new creation." I would be interested to know who the Creator of the new creation is, and how he creates it.

Does Russell believe that Christ will come again, and that he himself, suddenly and supernaturally, will bring in the new creation? Or is it that God evolves the creation out of the old into the new, out of the evil into the good?

This, it seems to me, is the great peril of embracing theistic evolutionary creation: It sets the stage for theistic evolutionary redemption. It sets the stage for denying the holiness of God, the sinfulness of man, the organic link between the first Adam and the Last, and the thoroughly supernatural work of Christ, both at his first coming and his second.

In short, it completely overthrows the Gospel.

Moral? Keep up the good fight, John!

John Byl said...


Thanks for your comments. You raise some very interesting questions, which Russell does not address in detail. However, he is quite clear on the fact that the transformation into new creation is entirely a work of the almighty, tri-une God and involves a discontinuous change in physical laws. This seems to imply a supernatural act of God, rather than a natural “emergence” from the old creation.

Lyndon Unger said...

Interesting and insightful post as always, Dr. Byl. It's always interesting to watch methodological naturalists try to avoid the logical extensions of their own unwavering commitment to methodological naturalism.

I've talked with more than a few hard-line methodological naturalists (and blind proponents of scientism) who also claimed to be orthodox Christians of the conservative/reformed stripe. They usually tend to play up the "the Bible tells us the who, not the how" line. I enjoy asking them to explain the naturalistic mechanism that results in believers receiving their resurrected bodies, given the timing of 1 Corinthians 15:51-52, without making the entire passage a metaphor...which then suggests that believers won't actually be resurrected. That’s a problem.

I also enjoy exploring what they think the naturalistic mechanism will be that illumines the entire earth (without being a star) in Rev. 21:23, given the explicit explanation in Rev. 21:23 and with reference to the standard objection to life and light existing before the sun in Genesis 1.

Methodological naturalism chokes and dies on issues of eschatology, just like it does on issues of origins.

Isaiah 41:22-23 suggests that BOTH realms of knowledge (origins and eschatology) are the exclusive domain of deity. Only God experientially knows the past and the future and only God makes both known with anything other than guesswork.