EDITOR’S NOTE: This article is more extensive than most content we publish. However, it addresses a relevant topic of interest to many thoughtful Christians. A recent cover story by David J. Wood in Christian Century began: “By and large mainline congregations have situated themselves outside the debates over religion and science, leaving it to the young earth creationists and the militant atheists to fight it out. Unfortunately, the rationale for disengagement from that shrill debate has resulted in a disengagement from science altogether.” This article takes a helpful course away from either of those extremes.
Toward a theology for the universe
Is it possible to have a theology for the universe? I am thinking of a Christian theology for a scientific understanding of the universe.
The reason for concern with a scientific understanding of the universe is that scientists appear to have the best evidence. Poets and storytellers may be insightful and even entertaining, but scientists do seem to have the most abundant and most reliable evidence for the nature of the universe.
More specifically, I am thinking of the areas where scientists usually agree concerning the universe. There are areas where scientists have very different views, including whether it is possible to go faster than the speed of light and whether there are parallel universes. Also, scientists still have much to explore concerning possible but mysterious parts of the universe such as dark matter and dark energy.
Our focus will be on areas of general agreement. Scientists believe much the same way on how the universe started, the age of the universe, and the immense size of the universe.
As we think about a theology for a scientific understanding of the universe, there are two main questions: What is at least a simplified summary of current scientific agreement on the universe? What major theological beliefs are compatible with that understanding?
For those of us who are not scientists, there are various sources for gaining some acquaintance with scientific views of the universe. Especially helpful to me have been Charles Darwin’s The Origin of Species and The Descent of Man, Stephen Hawkings’ A Brief History of Time, Carl Sagan’s Cosmos, and Neil deGrasse Tyson’s Origins.
Also of benefit were videos from the Discovery Channel, especially “The Story of Everything” in the series Into the Universe with Stephen Hawking and “Big Bang” in the series How the Universe Works.
There are also videos, usually giving various views on debatable questions, from the Science Channel’s series Through the Wormhole. Two especially intriguing programs at the end of this series are “Can We Resurrect the Dead?” and “Did We Invent God?”
Information gained in these ways does not match training as a scientist and may not be fully understood, but it is good to make some effort.
Scientists, primarily astrophysicists, have been trying to tell the rest of us their views about the universe. Some hope that eventually a comparatively simple formula will be discovered that expresses the essence of the universe.
Meanwhile, according to their Theory of Everything, scientists believe that everything in the universe started with and then developed from the Big Bang, a tremendous explosion that happened about 13.7 billion years ago.
Everything in the universe as currently understood refers to what has been or may be experienced. Dark matter and dark energy may be real but are not directly experienced. Astrophysicists think that some movements of objects in space can be explained by gravitational effects from something that cannot be seen. Thus there are references to something “dark.”
Details are complicated, but the scientific view is that cosmic dust and gas from the Big Bang were shaped by gravity and eventually developed into meteors, planets and stars. Hydrogen was apparently present at or near the beginning. Hydrogen is abundant and is the simplest of chemical elements with one electron circling one proton.
Then there were more chemical elements with more electrons going around more protons and even some neutrons. These additional chemical elements were developed through the activity of the stars. When some stars exploded, various chemical elements were dispersed throughout the universe.
At some later time, a combination of various chemical elements in the ocean, perhaps aided by the arrival of life-building materials from space, brought forth life on our planet. There were very simple living things capable of motion, absorption of food, growth, and reproduction.
Life forms became more complex over long periods of time. Eventually some living things, including humans, developed consciousness and intelligence. (A few living things became biologists and astrophysicists and tried to explain everything.)
The general view for many years was that the universe reached a certain size and stayed that size, not getting any bigger and not getting any smaller (the solid state view).
Then in 1929 Edwin Hubble made some startling astronomical observations that led him to believe the universe was expanding. Scientists now believe that the universe has been and is expanding very rapidly.
How big has the universe become? Quasars, the most distant objects from us in the universe, may be 8 to 10 billion light-years away.
A light-year is the distance that light goes in a year (one orbit of our planet around the sun). Since light travels at approximately 186,000 miles per second, the distance that it goes in a year is tremendous.
It is staggering to think that the edge of the universe is billions of light-years away. Scientists may disagree over exactly how big the universe is, but we get the idea that it is gigantic.
What is the future of the universe? Scientists believe that the end of the universe is many billions of years away but have different ideas of what might happen.
One view is the Big Chill: that the stars will eventually run out of the hydrogen they use for fuel. There would then be no light, no heat and no life anywhere.
Another view is the Big Crunch: that the universe for some reason will reverse its expansion and shrink back to its original tiny size. A further version is that a Big Crunch will be followed by another Big Bang, possibly with creation and destruction of the universe occurring over and over again.
There is, of course, much more to the universe than is indicated in this brief summary. Astrophysicists like to talk about many things. They especially like to talk about gravity and temperature and space.
But there is one subject they usually avoid. Astrophysicists almost never mention God.
If we think there should be a theology for a scientific understanding of the universe, what might that be? Astrophysicists are not going to supply any theology, so some of the rest of us can try.
How much do we have to do? Do we not already have what we need in the Bible? My answer is yes but a qualified yes. The Bible provides very valuable material, but it is not completely satisfactory. There are at least two difficulties.
One difficulty is that the Bible does not even acknowledge much of the universe. The first chapter of the Bible does refer to the heavens and the earth. There is specific mention of the greater light to rule the day (the sun) and the lesser light to rule the night (the moon).
We are further told that God made the stars. It is hard to find much else about the universe in the Bible. We do not find anything about planets, solar systems, galaxies, quasars, black holes, dark matter or dark energy. We are not told about the immense size of the universe, the expansion of the universe or what may be beyond the edge of the universe.
A good theology for the universe does not have to include mention of every object in the universe, but the theology should at least include recognition that our entire planet is only a very small part of a gigantic universe.
Another difficulty is that the Bible, or at least a completely literal interpretation of the Bible, sometimes comes into conflict with what scientists and many others claim about the universe, including our part of the universe.
For example, there is a reference in Revelation 7:1 to “the four corners of the earth” (NRSV). A literal interpretation of the reference supports the idea of the earth as flat, as perhaps having the four corners of a square, an outdated idea for almost everyone.
Also, there is mention in Joshua 10:13 that “the sun stood still” (NRSV). The statement reflects the old belief that the sun ordinarily moved around the earth (the geocentric or earth-centered view of the solar system).
Copernicus and Galileo were significant figures in promoting the scientific claim that the earth, rotating on its axis, moved around the sun (the heliocentric or sun-centered view of the solar system). For the sun to have appeared to be standing still, our planet would have had to stop rotating for a short time, not a very likely occurrence from a scientific perspective. (The sun, of course, is always “standing still” in relation to the planets in our solar system as they go around it.)
If we consider the age of the universe, there is another conflict between the Bible (or at least a literal interpretation of the Bible) and a scientific understanding. The first chapter of Genesis provides an account of the creation of the world and of humans within a period of six days.
Combining a literal interpretation of this account with other information in the Bible (such as genealogies), some have concluded that creation is only about 6,000 years old. In contrast the most recent claim of scientists is that the universe began about 13.7 billion years ago.
If we consider intelligent life in the universe, there is further conflict. The book of Genesis indicates that God directly created man and woman as adults in the beginning. The story in the second chapter of Genesis is that God created Adam out of earth and then created Eve out of one of Adam’s ribs.
In contrast the prevailing scientific view today is that extremely simple life began from a mixture of chemical elements under special conditions. The claim is that simpler forms of life then gradually developed over a long period of time into the intelligent life known as humans. The scientific view is not clear on exactly when adult humans first appeared, except not at the beginning.
If we consider our place in the universe, there is even more conflict. The first chapter of Genesis claims that God created “the heavens and the earth” (NRSV). There is at least the implied belief that the earth is extremely important.
The theory of Ptolemy, that the sun revolved around the earth, supported the view that our planet was the center of creation. But scientists have told us it is the earth that revolves around the sun and that we are not at the center of our solar system.
Nor is our solar system at the center of our Milky Way galaxy. And there are many other galaxies, some much larger than the Milky Way. Humans and our planet are hardly a speck in this gigantic universe and do not seem to be at the center of anything. The view of scientists greatly diminishes the importance of our planet (the earth) that we find in the Bible.
These conflicts and others between science and literal interpretations of the Bible challenge the view of the Bible as inerrant teachings from God.
Why then do many people believe that the Bible is infallible even when interpreted literally? Why do many defend the Bible with such ferocity? Might extreme devotion to the Bible represent, at least in part, a psychological wish for security and even certainty?
There is a view of the Bible that is more nearly compatible with a scientific understanding of the universe, namely that the Bible expresses profound and inspiring but not necessarily perfect beliefs from men of faith. Those who accept this latter understanding may have great respect for the Bible but still question some of the views in the Bible.
We have seen that there are convictions different from the views of men of the Bible about exactly how and when the universe began. There also might be questions about how much biblical writers were influenced by tribal and cultural ideas rather than the will of God.
How much may human rather than divine views be represented in such biblical matters as harsh penalties, extreme violence, animal sacrifice, slavery, the status of women and possibly additional issues?
Although the Bible has weaknesses regarding a theology for the universe, the Bible still has important contributions. We may regard the Bible as properly instructive in many areas.
What beliefs in the Bible are compatible with a scientific understanding of the universe?
The men of the Bible did have faith in God, including God as creator. Perhaps God did not create in the way that a literal reading of Genesis says that God did. There can still be faith in God as creator of the universe.
Scientists generally believe in the Big Bang as the beginning of the universe but have no idea as to what preceded the Big Bang. It is reasonable to believe that there was a very powerful, even if somewhat mysterious, force that produced the Big Bang. There is no conflict with the universe in believing that such a force was real and was God.
It is also reasonable to believe that this possible force at the beginning (before the Big Bang) has a continuing relationship with the universe. For example, the scientific explanation of the origin of life is far from satisfactory.
The scientific view of the origin of life may be accurate as far as it goes but does little to explain exactly how lifeless matter became living matter. There is also no clear scientific view on how consciousness and intelligence developed. Unless scientists arrive at a compelling alternative, it is not against the universe to believe that God is ultimately responsible for life, consciousness and intelligence.
The Bible as a whole presents the belief that God is especially concerned about people.
Does this idea fit a scientific understanding? In view of the vastness of the universe and the tiny place that our entire planet occupies in it, why would God be especially concerned about humans at all?
We may have various questions about God’s relationship to people, but the overall claim that God is concerned appears to be compatible with the universe. Humans and our planet are barely a speck in the vastness of the universe. Yet, as far as we know, we are the only intelligent life in the universe.
We have not yet detected even unintelligent life anywhere else than our planet. It seems preposterous in some ways but quite reasonable in other ways to believe that God is especially interested in people.
If God is interested in us, what does God expect from us?
A very important part of the teaching of Jesus in the New Testament was what he considered to be the greatest commandment: to love God with all of your heart, all of your soul, all of your mind and all of your strength.
The commandment allows for some flexibility in interpretation in its various parts but does call for great commitment to God. There seems to be no conflict with the universe in believing that God, if real, requires great devotion from people.
If so, what is the extent of God’s interest? What does God expect not only from us but also for us?
We find intriguing answers in some of the teachings of Jesus. According to John 10:10b, Jesus said, “I came that they may have life, and have it abundantly” (NRSV).
What was meant by having life? Was Jesus speaking about spiritual life that would be added to physical life?
The part of the statement about abundant life has usually been interpreted in the sense of spiritual fulfillment. Although there may be differences over its exact nature, improving life in some way sounds like an appropriate goal even for a scientific understanding of the universe.
We should also consider the often-quoted statement of Jesus in John 3:16: “For God so loved the world that he gave his only Son, so that everyone who believes in him may not perish but may have eternal life” (NRSV).
What is meant by believing in God’s only Son?
There are beliefs about Jesus that fit a theology for the universe because the beliefs are compatible with science.
Jesus taught that the greatest commandments were ones about love. He showed great compassion for the sick and the poor. He spoke against violence and promoted forgiveness. He criticized some who were extreme about minor matters but neglected weightier parts of the law concerning mercy. Jesus was willing to die for his convictions. There is much about Jesus that was admirable and that does not go against science.
But there is also much about Jesus that does not meet scientific expectations.
Does believing in Jesus require belief in his divine conception, his virgin birth, his salvation-granting death, his resurrection, and his ascension into heaven?
Should we go beyond biblical terms and believe that Jesus was of the same substance as the Father? Should we think that Jesus was one person with two natures (human and divine)?
Many Christians hold strongly to these beliefs, even though these beliefs are scientifically questionable.
What is the proper and full meaning of “believes in him” that is called for in John 3:16?
The belief is associated with not perishing but having eternal life. Many are convinced that a simple, childlike faith in Jesus is both necessary and sufficient for salvation (going to heaven). Science cannot prove nor disprove that claim.
If we go beyond simple faith, it is challenging to see how additional traditional views of Jesus (such as divine conception, virgin birth and resurrection) can be considered compatible with a scientific view of the universe.
Should these views be considered metaphorical? Perhaps interpreting them as symbols of some kind would be appropriate. Another possibility is for faith to go beyond science and perhaps even against science in this area. A further idea is to say that some beliefs about Jesus do exceed scientific expectations but are not necessarily false.
Extremeophiles, for example, exceed scientific expectations for conditions of life but are real. Extremeophiles are forms of deep ocean life that apparently thrive under normally unbelievable conditions of nearly boiling heat and high acidity. Extremeophiles do not have the significance of Christian beliefs about Jesus but simply indicate that scientific expectations are sometimes too limited. Perhaps Jesus is a special exception.
Let us think further concerning the claim in John 3:16 about not perishing but having eternal life.
Does eternal life sound like wishful, unscientific thinking?
Doubts have been expressed not only about the immortality of the soul but even the existence of souls.
As to another claim, does it sound realistic to talk about the resurrection of dead bodies?
The challenges are formidable.
Eternal life does not appear to fit in with a scientific view of the universe but consider various views of scientists. Our bodies are said to be made of chemicals, which are made of atoms. The atoms are composed of electrons, protons and neutrons, all of which are some kind of electrical energy.
Things made of atoms can change form, but the atoms or at least the component parts of atoms do not die. They can be reassembled.
If atoms or at least their component parts can be reassembled, might not bodies be reassembled or assembled in some new form?
If there is the objection that life cannot come from a collection of chemicals, we might remind ourselves of how scientists think that life started in the first place.
There may be other and better explanations, but the belief that God has provided for eternal life expresses a possibility that does seem to be compatible with the universe as scientifically understood. Continuation of life or renewal of life would not be much more astonishing than the existence of life itself.
So, as we consider a theology for the universe, what would be a proper view of the Bible?
Although the idea may be disturbing for many, a scientific outlook would not include belief in the Bible as wholly inerrant or perfect. There would be no wish to interpret the Bible literally all of the time. And there would be recognition that the writers of the Bible were probably very heavily influenced by the tribal and cultural views of their times. But there could be deep appreciation for the beliefs expressed in the Bible by men of faith if those beliefs were very carefully interpreted.
A theology for the universe should allow for distinguishing between various beliefs about God. Some traditional beliefs should be rejected because the scientific evidence is against them. These views include the belief that God created the world less than 10,000 years ago. Whether or not the universe is exactly 13.7 billion years old, scientists have reasonably established that the universe is extremely old.
Also to be rejected is the belief that God instantly created adult humans. Scientists are not clear on the exact time of the appearance of adult humans, but there is overwhelming evidence that life started with very simple forms.
There are other traditional beliefs about God that do not contradict scientific views and that may sometimes receive support from scientific views. It does not contradict science to believe that God is not only real but also is the power behind the Big Bang. Scientists currently have no serious proposals as to what may have preceded the Big Bang.
The belief that God is real and has special interest in humans seems to be a reasonable possibility when we consider that humans, as far as we know, are the only intelligent life in the universe. Our planet is only a speck in the vast universe, but human consciousness and intelligence suggest both a higher power and special significance for us.
As to inclusion of Jesus in a theology for the universe, here again there should be a distinction of beliefs. We have seen that some beliefs about Jesus are not in conflict with science. These beliefs include his emphasis on love in the two greatest commandments, his compassion for the sick and the poor, and his concern for mercy more than for strict adherence to minor matters. There is much about the life and teachings of Jesus that is free of conflict with science.
There are some special beliefs about Jesus that raise scientific objections or that, at least, are not supported by science. These beliefs include his divine conception, virgin birth, redeeming death, resurrection and ascension. These beliefs may be interpreted symbolically as well as literally. If any of these beliefs are accepted literally, it should be emphasized that these beliefs do not so much contradict science as exceed scientific expectations.
Some things that exceed current scientific expectations may still be real. Scientists and others may discuss the degree of probability that something is true, but possibilities are important for both science and theology.
There are questions about a theology for the universe that extend beyond the Bible.
Why did God, as far as we know, restrict life in the universe, including intelligent life, to our comparatively tiny planet? What is God’s plan for the universe beyond our planet? Has God provided for any universes beyond our own?
A complete theology for the universe should include but needs to go beyond very careful consideration of the Bible. These observations are far from being a full theology for the universe. Yet they do indicate some of the questions and problems as well as some positive possibilities. BT
By E. B. Self
—E. B. (Ben) Self of Hopkinsville, Ky., is the author of Ways of Thinking About God: The Bible, Philosophy, and Science (Nurturing Faith, 2013).