ABOUT THE AUTHOR OF ARTICLE
Dr David Wilkinson is and ordained minister. He holds the position of Wesley Research Lecturer in Theology and Science in the Department of theology and Religion at the University of Durham. He has a PhD in theoretical astrophysics for his work on galaxy evolution and cosmology.
Dr Wilkinson was recently awarded a second PhD in systematic theology for his work on what the Christian faith says about the end of the Universe.
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|The end of any story is important in understanding the story itself.
|Few theologians have directly thought about the future of the physical Universe in the purposes of God.
WILL ANIMALS BE SAVED
May I be permitted to mention here a conjecture concerning the brute creation? What, if it should then please the all-wise, the all-gracious Creator to raise them higher in the scale of beings? What, if it should please him, when he makes us 'equals to angels,' to make them what we are now - creatures capable of God; capable of knowing and loving and enjoying the Author of their being? If it should be so,ought our eye to be evil because he is good? However this be, he will certainly do what will be most for his own glory.
If it be objected to all this, (as very probably it will), 'But of what use will those creatures be in that future state?' I answer this by another question, what use are they now? If there be - as commonly been supposed - 8,000 species of insects, who is able to inform us of what use 7,000 of them are? If there are 4,000 of fishes, who can tell us of what use are more than 3,000 of them? If there are 600 sorts of birds, who can tell of what use 500 of those species are? If there be 400 sorts of beasts, to what use do 300 of them serve? Consider this; consider how little we know of even the present designs of God; and then you will not wonder that we know still less of what he designs to do in the new heavens and the new earth.
John Wesley, from The General Deliverance, a sermon given in 1781.
|God does not tell us everything about the new creation but tells us something.
|It is this life that is the 'shadowlands' and the next in full colour. The resurrection of Jesus is a clear signal that God's purposes for good cannot be defeated.
|Is the end of the universe nigh?|
A few years ago I saw a vision statement on the notice board of a church which set out it's main aims and objections for the next decade. It was entitled: ' To survive until 2005!' It was not the most ambitious vision statement I had ever seen, yet, in a funny way, its pessimism about the future echoes the pessimism of science.
ome people predict the future with great certainty. James Ussher (1581-1656), Archbishop of Armagh, calculated that the world was scheduled to end on 22 October, 1996. Meanwhile, those who still hold to the dream of human progress believe that science, technology and education will deliver us into a utopian world.
Don't count on it! When it comes to contemplating the future of the Earth and the Universe modern science can be quite discouraging. It paints four pictures of doom:
1. Environmental catastrophe
While we use up valuable fossil fuels and pollute the land, sea and atmosphere we are, in the words of one scientist, 'running out of world'. Whatever a few newspaper reports might say, global warming due to the burning of fossil fuels is real and the world's scientific community is agreed on its serious consequences. The Scientific Assessment Group of the Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change calculates an average increase in temperature for the Earth of between 1.5 and 6 degrees in the next century. Even at the lower end of this increase, it would lead to millions of environmental refugees in the next hundred years.
2. Comet or asteroid impact
While there is substantial evidence for a comet's impact leading to the dinosaur extinction of 65 million years ago through climate and vegetation changes, of more immediate concern is the possibility of a smaller impact from the 2,000 or so asteroids whose orbits cross the orbit of the earth, and therefore potentially could cause catastrophic environmental conditions for human beings. The impact of an asteroid only 100m wide would lead to tidal waves or an explosion which would destroy a large city depending on whether it impacted on sea or land. Smaller asteroids not leading to extinction events may be expected every 0.3 million years, while larger ones capable of mass extinction may be expected every 100 million years.
This has led to serious political discussion on how the earth may be protected. The NASA Spaceguard Survey has begun an exhaustive mapping of the bodies and their orbits in the solar system, and scientists have been discussing the changing of orbits of those bodies with a possibility of earth impact either through nuclear explosions or through a 'space tug' attached to the asteroid. While for some people this may be the stuff Bruce Willis and Armageddon, it is a serious reminder of the fragility of the Earth's environment for the development of life. It also rises an interesting question of how much in ensuring that such a catastrophic event does not happen.
3. The death of the Sun
Even if we avoid an asteroid impact, the earth will not last for ever. In another 4-5 billion years the Sun will come to the end of its available hydrogen fuel and will begin to swell up as a red giant. Its outer layers will absorb the Earth - and the Earth will be no more. Now by this stage it is thought that human beings would be able to move to other planets where they would 'terra-form' - that is, be able to change the planet's atmosphere to make it suitable to sustain human life. This is a simple reminder fro theologians that God's purposes cannot be tied to the Earth for eternity. There is also the question being explored in scientific literature of what gives human beings the right to take over new worlds, particularly if there is some life-form, however primitive, already there.
4. The end of the Universe
If these scenarios are not bleak enough, since 1998 we have begun to see that the Universe it self will die, perhaps quicker than anyone thought. The Supernova Cosmology Project of Saul Perlmutter and the High-Z Supernovae Search which was headed by Brian Schmidt and Adam Riess looked at distant supernovae explosions to see how the Universe was expanding from the 'Big Bang'. The results indicated that, far from the Universe slowing down as was expected, the expansion of the Universe was actually speeding up. This sent a shock wave through the scientific community in terms of how to interpret this conclusion. Some doubted the results but these have been confirmed by recent observations from the Wilkinson Microwave Anistropy Probe (WMAP) satellite. This has pushed scientists to recognize that some unknown type of material or force throughout the Universe is accelerating its rate of expansion, the so-called 'dark energy'.
This means that rather that the Universe contracting and experiencing a 'Big Crunch' it will expand forever. However, the prospects are still bleak. The Universe expands into 'heat death' and becomes a cold, lifeless place full of dead stars. Some such as Freeman Dyson and Frank Tipler have tried to argue that life will find a way to go on but these scenarios of life existing as large, cold dust-clouds are not particularly comforting. Noble Prize winning physicist, Steven Weinberg, comments on this end of futility in the words, 'The more the Universe is comprehensible the more it seems pointless'. In fact, the philosopher Bertrand Ruseel had commented in a similar way on the Earth being absorbed by the Sun: '......the world which science presents for our belief is even more purposeless, more void of meaning....that all the labours of the ages, all the noonday brightness of human genius, are destined to extinction in the vast depth 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 that rejects them can hope to stand.'
5. The response of the theologians
You might expect that religion might have some hope to share in the face of such cosmic pessimism.The reality, however, is that theologians who think about these things have found it hard to raise their horizon beyond human life. This is surprising because thinking about the future has become big businnes both in academic theology and Christian fiction.
Theologians such as Jurgen Moltmann and Wolfhart Pannenberg have led such strong interest in the importance of the future that another theologian has written that such eschatology has recently been working overtime since its office was shut down in the nineteenth century. Moltmann in particular has stressed the importance of the resurrection of Jesus as a pointer to God's purposes for the future. He has attempted to see what this might mean for the Christian responsibility to care for the environment - but on the future of the Universe as a whole he has remained largely silent.
The Left Behind series of particularly in the USA, engaged a fascination in people's minds with the future. In 1995 Tim LaHaye and Jerry Jenkins wrote the first novel in what came to be known as the left Behind series which details a rapture of believers, that is, Christians are taken off to heaven by an invisible return of Jesus. There then follows a seven-year tribulation period while unbelievers remain on earth to be subjected to countless horrors at the hand of the antichrist, before the final return of Christ and his triumph in Armageddon. It has been a publishing phenomenon, having sold over 40 million copies worldwide; been translated into over twenty languages; and is a regular feature of the New York Times' Bestseller List. It has spawned a children's series of books, movies, games - and even calendars.
Its popularity has grown grown in fruitful context. A Time/CNN poll in 2003 showed that 59% of Americans believe that the events in Revelation are going to come true. Indeed such millennial speculations have become 'America's favourite pastime' or the 'doom-boom' , as some commentators has characterized it. Yet it has little say regarding the future of the Universe. Its two key biblical passages, 1 Thessalonians 4:13-18 and 1 Corinthians 15:51-57, are interpreted not as the physical resurrection of believers, but as disappearance to heaven in the rapture.
In fact, very few theologians have directly thought about the future of the physical Universe in the purposes of God. One was the founder of Methodism, John Wesley. He preached a strong emphasis on God's saving purposes for the physical creation. This stemmed from his biblical convictions brought into direct contact with the science of his day, and can be seen in his sermon The General Deliverance where he speculates about animal salvation. (See yellow box on the right.)
Is it possible to follow this method today to see what Christians might say to the cosmic pessimism of science in terms of the future of the Universe? What biblical themes might be important?
What does the Bible say about cosmological hope?
When we come to the question of how the bible discusses the future we are presented with a complexity of different kinds of literature and the way they have been interpreted over the years by the church. Yet at the same time there is an impressive tendency to look at the bigger picture throughout these writings, that is, to relate the hope for human beings to hope for the whole Universe. We can draw a number of common themes:
1. New creation
While creation is seen to be good because of a good God, there is another biblical theme which exists alongside the Genesis emphasis on this creation. It is that God's purposes go beyond this creation to a new creation characterized by 'a new heaven and a new earth' (Revelation 21:1)>. Indeed we know that the end of any story is important in understanding the story itself. It is this biblical emphasis that challenges many futurologies around today. To those who say that the future hope is about a heaven where out souls float up to a kind of ghostly, otherworldly existence, the theme of new creation emphasizes the importance of the physical in the purposes of God. Yet to those such as Dyson and Tipler who want to keep this creation alive for as long as possible, new creation suggests that God's purposes go beyond this creation to something better.
2. Hope for the future because of a Creator God
The many passages which discuss new creation all their future hope on the God of creation (Isaiah 65:17-25; Revelation 21). It is because he made all things in the beginning, that he is able to make all things new. Therefore whatever the circumstances, creation is not limited to its own inherent possibilities. There is someone greater that the Universe who can give hope. This is in contrast to those who believe in the myth of human progress, which puts faith in the power of science and technology to build a perfect world. It is also in contrast with those who put their faith for the future in the cyclicity of history or, as Orphan Annie would say, 'The Sun'll come out tomorrow,' The Sun might not emerge tomorrow as we have seen, but Christians believe that the God who created the whole Universe is well able to do something new.
3. Creation and new creation are a mutually inter-dependent
Creation needs to be seen in the light of new creation, and new creation needs to be seen in the light of creation. Some theological systems have put a lot of emphasis on the beginning of things, while other systems have put a lot o emphasis on the end. Yet both are important in the Bible. Indeed, we might be expect pointers to new creation. For example, Paul discusses the very suffering, frustration and decay of this world to be pointers to God's future purposes in new creation (Romans 8:18-30). Thus Christians should not be worried that the scientists speak of a future of the Universe destined to futility. For some this could be a pointer to a new creation. At the same time, this creation is not worthless as some Christian groups would say. This creation is necessary for new creation.
4. New creation is a transformation of the present creation
Some would object to the above, saying surely the Bible speaks of God destroying this creation before beginning again with a new heaven and earth. This view is built on a translation of 2 Peter 3:10 as 'the earth and everything in it will be burned up'. Thus it is thought that God will destroy everything and start again. Yet as Richard Bauckham and other have shown, the main influence in this passage is Jewish apocalyptic, and the better translation is the 'earth and everything in it will be laid bare' . The image is of judgement rather than annihilation. Indeed the passages which speak of new creation are better understood as God trnasforming this present creation into new creation.
5. Transformation is both a gradual and sudden process
The life, death and resurrection of Jesus Christ were the key points in the beginning of new creation. God is now working - through his Holy Spirit - in the transformation of the believer, the Christian community and in acts of reconciliation and justice in the world. We believe that this process continues even when we cannot see it or fully understand it. However, Christians have differed on timescales and how to picture this event, the second coming is a reminder of the importance of the particular action of God within his more general activity of sustaining and transforming the Universe. God works in both and Christians must be careful not to limit the activity of God to the final event alone or the gradual process alone.
6. The resurrection of Jesus is the model by which we hold the continuity together
The sceptic might say to all of this what's the evidence? Is it all pie-in-the-sky wehn you die? This is where the resurrection of Jesus is so imprortant. The evidence of the empty tomb, resurrection appearances and the transformation of the disciples points convincingly to a God who raised Jesus from the dead, able to give hope even in the face of death. Further in 1 Corinthians 15, Paul views the resurrection of Jesus as the firstfruits of what will happen - not jut to the followers of Jesus, but to the whole universe. God gives us a model which does not tell us everything about the new creation but tell us something.
For example, the empty tomb means the transformation rather than replacement of the body and therefore, by implication, that God's purposes for the material world are that it should be transformed not discarded. At the same time the resurrection opposes the view that this Universe is an end in itself, for there is new experience in the resurrection. The gospel writers, in trying to describe the appearances of the risen Jesus, struggle with this continuity and discontinuity. He is the same Jesus, for they see the marks of the nails, but he is also different, no longer constrained by space and time. He eats fish with the disciples, but also appears in rooms where the doors are locked.
What might this mean to the physicist is intriguing. Will the new creation have space and time, but in a way that is not associated with experiences of limitation or decay? Will the atoms of new creation themselves be different from the atoms of this creation or will it simply be our relationship with the material that is different? Whatever the answers are to these questions, C S Lewis was surely right to see the new creation as more real and than this creation. It is this life that is the 'shadowlands' and the next in full colour.
Wait and see!
Einstein once wrote to a child anxious about the fate of the world, 'As for the question of the end of it I advise: Wait and see!' There is some wisdom in this. While we can project what science says about the future with increasing sophistication, there remain many questions unanswered.
Some will dismiss such thinking about he far future as a waste of time, but Sir Martin Rees, the Astronomer Royal comments: ' what happens in the far-future aeons may seem blazingly irrelevant to the practicalities of our lives. But I don't think the cosmic context entirely irrelevant to the way we perceive our Earth and the fate of humans'.
A new creation
Certainly, the pessimism of science poses the old question of why we are here. The Christian response is one of hope.The resurrection of Jesus is a clear signal that God's purposes for good cannot be defeated and, one day, both believers and the whole Universe will be transformed to a new creation. I t is the light of that hope that Christians are called to share in the transformation by trusting God's power and sharing with him the work of mission, whether it is caring for the environment or sharing hope with others. We are called to wait and see, but to wait with a living hope and a daily obedience to the risen Lord.