Did God create the universe in six 24hr days, or was it a gradual process over eons? Were humans made from the dust of the ground, or did we evolve from earlier species of primates? Was there a literal Adam and Eve? What about the fossil record, dinosaurs, and genetic evidence?
Since I was a child I’ve loved discovering how our universe works. Although my career has been far more focused on the humanities (culture, history, religion, etc) than the sciences, as a high school student my only honors classes were all in science. (My father had hopes I’d end up in medicine. Boy was he wrong.) Despite my layman’s appreciation for science, I have stayed far, far away from the faith versus science controversies that our society and media seem eager to engage.
It isn’t that I think these questions are unimportant, or that I don’t sympathize with those who struggle to reconcile their faith with science. And I am grateful for those seeking to thoughtfully and graciously bridge the divide between the scientific and faith communities. Some members of my own church have done wonderful work in this area. And lately I’ve been intrigued by the work of BioLogos. The group was started in 2007 by Francis Collins, the brilliant scientist who led the Human Genome Project. BioLogos’ mission is to show the compatibility of science and religion. The group’s website includes endorsements by many theologians, scientists, and pastors, and it includes articles on many of the questions I mentioned above.
Like those behind BioLogos, I share the belief that science is an indispensable, legitimate, and God-ordained vehicle for truth. It can tell us how our universe works, and these answer become the basis for solutions to many of humanity’s most vexing problems. So why do I remain hesitant to allow externally verifiable logic to trump faith when controversies arise between science and religion? Here’s why: Science can tell us how our universe works, but it cannot prove the universe has always worked, or will forever work, the same way. A lot of science, and the worldview behind it, is predicated on one assumption–that the laws that govern our universe are unchanging. From this premise the materialist worldview believes that if we can discover the way the cosmos works now, then we can peer back in time or project ahead and accurately understand both the origins and destiny of our world. But…
What if E has not always equaled mc2 ?
What if light has not always traveled at 299,792,458 meters per second?
What if the laws of gravity, motion, and thermodynamics which accurately describe the universe now, do not accurately describe the universe that was, or the universe that will be?
What if the scientific principles that govern the cosmos are less like an eternal monarch with unending reign, and more like a term-limited president?
What if natural laws are not immutable?
If one allows this possibility, then it becomes permissible to affirm all that science has proven without dismissing all that faith affirms. Part of Christian faith is the notion that the cosmos we experience today is not the same as the cosmos God created, and it will not be the same cosmos in the future. At some point in the distant past our universe was changed, and at some future time it will change again. To begin to understand this idea (and I say begin because I don’t believe we can fully grasp it), we must look to the hinge upon which all of Christianity turns: the Resurrection.
The Apostle Paul tells us that when Jesus rose from the grave his body was transformed, and that this transformation represents the change that awaits all who will be resurrected (1 Cor 15:42-49). This transformed body of Jesus is clearly evident in the Gospel accounts. While Jesus was still recognized as himself (he still ate breakfast and retained the wounds of his crucifixion), he could now appear and disappear, move through walls, and ascend into the air. It was Jesus’ body that was raised, but this same body was utterly changed into something different than it was. Notice, however, that Scripture does not say Jesus received a new body, because a new body could not rightly be called a resurrection but rather a reincarnation. Orthodox Christian belief based upon the Gospels affirms that it was his same body, raised and transformed. It was truly resurrection.
Why is this important? It’s important because in Christ’s resurrection we are offered a glimpse of the re-creation that awaits all things. Paul says that we who belong to Christ will also experience a transforming resurrection like his (1 Cor 15), and that all of creation is anxiously awaiting our resurrection because then “the creation itself also will will be set free from its slavery to corruption into the freedom of the glory of the children of God” (Romans 8:21). Scripture teaches that a day will come when the cosmos itself will be utterly transformed in a manner similar to the transformation witnessed in Jesus’ resurrection. This liberated cosmos will no longer be corrupted by death or decay. The curse of sin will be no more. An argument can be made that the very physical principles of the universe we now grasp through science will be replaced with a new set of governing laws, just as Jesus’ resurrected body seemed governed by laws unfamiliar to our common experience.
This cosmic transformation is what both Peter and John refer to when they speak of a “new heaven and new earth” (2 Peter 3:13; Revelation 21:1). The Greek word “new” in these text is not neo, which means “new in substance,” but rather the word kainon, meaning “new in quality.” A misreading of these two texts has led many Christians to the false belief that God will throw away this cosmos and start over with a new one. That is not the case. Our God does not make mistakes, nor does he replace. Our God restores. John and Peter use the word kainon because they are speaking of a transformation of the cosmos so radical that it will seem like a new world–just as Jesus resurrected body behaved so differently it might be mistaken for a replacement body, when in fact it was his same body transformed.
The best analogy I can think of for what Scripture says about the future is carbon. (Keep in mind this is just a metaphor, and like all metaphors it fails when stretched too far.) Carbon is a polymorphic element meaning it exists naturally as two very different substances: graphite and diamond. Both are chemically identical; they are both pure carbon. But diamonds and graphite share nothing in common in appearance or behavior due to their structural differences. In graphite the carbon atoms form sheets of bonds resulting in a substance that is opaque, brittle, and weak. Diamonds, however, are comprised of carbon atoms in a tetrahedral structure creating a crystal that is translucent and harder than any substance on earth.
Like carbon could our universe by polymorphic? In the age
to come, might this same universe with the same substance be structurally transformed in a manner that utterly changes its qualities down to its governing laws of physics? If so, then the science of this age will cease and a new science will be required to understand the remade creation that was inaugurated with Jesus’ resurrection. The idea intrigues me and seems consistent with what we know from Christ’s resurrection. But there is more.
Part of Christian teaching is not just the hope that the world will be transformed in an age to come, but that the world experienced a similar transformation long ago in reverse. The universe we presently experience does not behave the same as the universe God originally created and declared “very good” (Genesis 1:31). Paul can speak of a day to come when the universe will be “set free from its slavery to corruption” because he believed there was a time long past when it was “subjected to futility.” In theological language we call this event the Fall.
The story in Genesis is a familiar one and the subject of much debate between science and religion. It speaks of humanity rebelling against God to seek autonomous rule. By breaking their communion with the Living God they subjected themselves, and all of creation, to death. Genesis 3 speaks of the cursing of God’s good creation; it’s subjugation to sin, slavery, and decay. This corruption sets the scene for the redemption narrative of Judaism and Christianity; it creates the need for the liberation of God’s creation which is accomplished by Christ, inaugurated by his resurrection, and will be fulfilled at his unveiling in glory.
But if Christ’s resurrected body offers us a preview of creation set free from the curse, might it also provide a glimpse of the world before the curse? Did the cosmos prior to the Fall also function entirely differently than the cosmos we now experience? Was the Fall, in keeping with our metaphor, the restructuring of the cosmos from a diamond into a lump of graphite? Do we inhabit the same universe created by God in the beginning, but now utterly transformed in quality and behavior?
If our universe is polymorphic, then the ability of science to see beyond its current form may be severely limited. Just as science cannot possibly explain the qualities and laws of the new heaven and new earth, neither can it peer back before the Fall to the universe that existed at the beginning of time. And while scientific discoveries have provided hints at the origins of the cosmos, and even the origins of our species, how are we to know how these clues reconcile with an earlier permutation of the cosmos that we have no ability to access? Our greatest scientific minds use complex mathematics to prove theories about time, space, gravity, and even String Theory. But if mathematics itself is subject to change, then what? In other words, we have no way of knowing what we do not know.
I’m not proposing some highly developed theory of the universe. This post is just my external processing of questions I’ve carried for a long time about the intersection of faith and science. Unlike others who have ventured into this subject, rather than starting with indisputable science and finding a way to reconcile it with Scripture, I have chosen to start with the Resurrection and ask what it says about our ability to understand the cosmos. And I’ve landed (for now) on this idea: Our universe may well be polymorphic. It was utterly changed by the Fall and it will be utterly changed again at the Parousia. Therefore, while I continue to affirm the value and validity of all that science can teach us, it may not be able to speak to the nature of things beyond the world’s present form. Ultimate questions of origin and destiny are mere projections from our present cosmic point of view, which leaves room for answers beyond the scope of natural science.
I realize I’ve raised more questions than I’ve answered. And don’t ask me how this idea of a polymorphic universe reconciles with evolution, the Big Bang, or any other scientific theory. For that matter, don’t ask me where in the Genesis account the cosmos ‘morphed’ (or where the dinosaurs fit into the story- a favorite question among some mutilators of the Hebrew scriptures). I’m not equipped to talk about such surface-level matters. I’m still talking at a very high altitude about a broad idea that I’d welcome more intelligent minds to engage. But if there is any validity to a polymorphic universe, then perhaps we can affirm a great deal of what science has said about our universe without having to dismiss what faith says as well. While science can tell us what is, we can remain confidently committed to the God who is, and was, and is to come.