The Challenge of Cosmology
The Challenge of Cosmology
In the past century, our knowledge of the universe has grown at an extraordinary rate. Distant “nebulae” thought to be objects in our own galaxy were found to be entire galaxies of their own. Later observations unveiled galaxy clusters, clusters of clusters, massivefilaments and superclusters, and giant walls of galaxies millions of light-years in length. On the largest scales, these structures are distributed uniformly, and nothing seems to distinguish our galaxy as a unique vantage point. What’s more, observations of the cosmic microwave background - the dim “afterglow” of the Big Bang—continue to point towards cosmological inflation as a likely event in the early universe, and inflation naturally generates a universe in which the portion that we can observe is only a tiny fraction of the whole. Not surprisingly, some have portrayed the history of cosmology as a history of our demotion from the center of the universe to complete insignificance.
What does all this mean for Christianity, which emerged in an age when the cosmological picture centered on our solar system? Richard Feynman objected that Christianity is “too local, too provincial” in its claim that God came here, to our pale blue dot, so that our world is in some sense the center of it all. “Look at what’s out there!” exclaimed Feynman. The challenge of modern cosmology is a serious one: How can the terrestrial tale of Christianity accommodate such a staggeringly vast universe? Does it have anything to say about the cosmos? Our observable universe hosts many billions of galaxies, each with billions of planets, possibly many of them fertile ground for life, and may well be a tiny patch in an enormous volume produced out of the same Big Bang, which may itself be one localized bang in a yet larger spacetime. Is the “provincial” story of Jesus in tension with the vast scale of physical reality? Is Christianity too small?
We will approach this question by (1) looking at the grand vision of the New Testament for the still-to-come “birth” of creation, (2) hearing C. S. Lewis’ description in Perelandra of the Cosmic Dance, in which the story we know is just the first move, and (3) raising a few scientific and theological questions of how the cosmos we observe fits into this Great Story and Dance.
Unless a Seed Dies
Let’s begin by recalling that although the early Christians were unaware of the extent of the cosmos, the New Testament paints a picture of what God is doing in and through Jesus that is both global (going beyond Israel, “to the ends of the earth”) and cosmic (ultimately reverberating through and encompassing the entire universe).
Christianity was from its inception a global rather than local movement, in ways that were surprising even to the earliest Christians. Acts 10, for example, describes the apostle Peter’s meeting with Cornelius, a Roman centurion who embraced the message of Jesus and his resurrection, and Peter’s realization that through Jesus the door was opened for all people to know and come to God, not only the Jewish people. A rethinking and rescaling of God’s purposes was in order: as described in Acts 1:8, the redemption and victory over evil accomplished by Jesus was global, meant to spread out to the ends of the earth.
Christianity does claim to be telling the story of the entire universe. In this story, God himself suffers, bearing the weight of a dying world and a lost humanity, loving us even unto death. Through this passage out of darkness, love overcomes and redeems death, and creation is united with God forever: Christianity is first and foremost a romance. And it is all-encompassing: not only humans, butall things are reconciled to God through Christ (Colossians 1:15-20). “[God’s] plan was to sum up the whole cosmos in the King” (Ephesians 1:10 ).
But Christianity makes no claim to have told this story in its entirety. The book of Revelation paints a glorious picture of the presence of God with his people in the new creation, but it is not a precise forecast, still less a comprehensive script of the future. Nowhere is it stated or implied that all of God’s plans have been brought to final and fixed completion. New mysteries and questions as are brought to light: What wondrous new reality will be born from the marriage of Christ and his bride—of God and creation? Not a whisper is given.
Although no definite continuation of the story is offered, there are hints that what we are told is only the beginning of something incomparably greater. In 1 Corinthians 15, Paul lays out his majestic treatment of the resurrection of Christ and of all humanity, using the image of a planted seed to describe what will happen: “Someone will ask, How are the dead raised? With what kind of body do they come?” he writes, “You foolish person! What you sow does not come to life unless it dies. And what you sow is not the body that is to be, but a bare kernel” (ESV). In other words, the relation between our bodies in this present age and our resurrection bodies in the new world is like the relationship of a seed to a tree. The metaphor of birth from a seed or womb is also used to describe nothing less than the entire created world: “the whole creation has been groaning together in the pains of childbirth” (Romans 8:22 , ESV). The entire cosmos is but a seed, a womb, for the new creation that is to come. If Christianity is then telling us the story of the planting of this seed through the death and resurrection of God Himself in Jesus, we can only imagine the glory of its flowering.
While we cannot penetrate the mystery of this unfolding story in advance, a healthy and humble speculation can give us a deeper intuition and wider imagination for what may lie ahead. Even fictional stories can strengthen our understanding of the nature of reality.
C. S. Lewis paints a beautiful portrait of the unfolding Story in Perelandra, the second book of his space trilogy. We encounter a new world, Perelandra, with intelligent creatures that are different yet still human, in an Eden-like paradise, untainted by sin and evil. There is a danger of falling into darkness, which is only overcome through sacrifice and suffering. But as those who have read it know well, the salvation of Perelandra is no mere repetition of our story. It is the next chapter of that same story, an utterly new and different event, with its own unique twists. The sacrifice that saves Perelandra extends to this new world the victory over evil accomplished through Christ, and thus the seed of redeemed life that was planted in our world grows into the cosmos and bears fruit.
The book closes with a beautiful scene of worship and joy. Ages still to come are foretold, when “it will be whispered that the morning is at hand.” All that has happened is but the first move in a Great Dance:
The Tree was planted in that world but the fruit has ripened in this...From here onward the stream flows deep and turns in the direction of the sea. This is the Morning Star which He promised to those who conquer. In the plan of the Great Dance plans without number interlock, and each movement becomes in its season the breaking into flower of the whole design to which all else had been directed.
Lewis’ tale is a fiction, but it challenges us to think outside the box about the story of Christianity. In physics and cosmology it is common to use simpler “toy models” to get an intuition for the features of more complex, realistic theories. In a similar fashion, Perelandra offers a “toy narrative” for Christian theology.
The Image of God in the Cosmos
With the cosmic New Testament vision in mind, and Lewis’ Great Dance stretching our imagination of it, we turn to a few questions which modern cosmology raises for that vision.
The possibility of alien life, for example, forces us to ask what it means to be made “in God’s image.” Earlier we noted the discovery of the early Church at Pentecost, the house of Cornelius, etc., that all nations and races were God’s people (see Ephesians 2:11), not only the Jews. As good students of history, and seeing the vast extent of the cosmos, we might ask if another expansion of our understanding of God’s people may lie in store, as Lewis’ Perelandra suggests. Indeed, if intelligent life exists elsewhere in the cosmos, the implications for Christian theology are enormous. Is humanity as we know it unique as God’s children, or could mildly (or even wildly) different biological life have the same capacity to know, love, and reflect God? Should we expect intelligent life arising from the same or similar physical laws to be, like us, in need of healing and redemption?
The idea that the story we know is only the very beginning raises a new question in place of Feynman’s objection that Christianity is provincial. Is it presumptuous to claim that in such a grand universe, possibly with intelligent life arising in many places, the redemption and transformation of the entire cosmos starts here, on our pale blue dot? Do we have any reason to think that we should find ourselves in such an “atypical” place in God’s story? The question of intelligent life in the cosmos is highly relevant here. If we are in some sense the only characters, it may be less surprising that we are now at the beginning of the story. But if we are not alone, are we in fact at the beginning of a larger story, or are there many preceding chapters, unknown to us?
Here we are asking a similar “observational selection” question to cosmology in various contexts. For example, the theory of eternal inflation predicts that not only is our patch of the universe one of countless others, but that other patches where galaxies have formed can have different amounts of matter, different rates of expansion, and possibly even different particles and forces. In order to make observational predictions for what we would expect to measure in our patch, one must face the question of what a typical cosmic environment looks like, among the countless island universes where life could exist. This is known as the measure problem.
Whether or not the universe is eternally inflating, Christian theology can perhaps learn from the discussion of observational selection effects in cosmology and elsewhere. We can ask, for example, if our seemingly seminal position in the story would be “atypical” compared to that of other life. Or we can ask how similar to us other life would have to be for an “observational selection” comparison like this to be appropriate.
At present, not only human beings but all of creation is fallen, wounded and corrupted by evil—as Paul puts it, in “bondage to corruption” (Romans 8:21). But this may suggest that the laws of nature themselves—the standard ‘ΛCDM’ cosmology, the Standard Model of particle physics, the periodic table of the elements, etc.—are in some way broken and imperfect, for it is these laws that determined the emergent characteristics of the world. Features of biological life such as suffering and death in the evolutionary process are rooted in the underlying chemistry and physics. Human nature is shaped ultimately by the physical laws of our world. But the cosmos will be freed from this corruption, born from the womb (Romans 8:22). The physics we know is the seed that must die.
How this is to play out, or how it is that Jesus’ death and resurrection is the impetus for this metamorphosis, we do not know. We can, perhaps, ask what feature(s) of our laws of physics (perhaps the thermodynamic increase of entropy) underlie such processes as decay and death or the “survival of the fittest” nature of evolution, and if there is flexibility in the more fundamental underlying physical structure allowing for these features to be altered.
Even if such questions are presently unanswerable, we learn greatly from asking them and recognizing the relevance of science for our understanding of God’s designs for the universe.
Christianity and Cosmology
As Christians we ought to be ready to give an account for the hope that we have (1 Peter 3:15). Today this necessitates an acquaintance with modern science, and not least cosmology, given the cosmic nature of our hope. An enormous amount of attention has been rightly given to the question of biological evolution, which is perhaps more pressing given the ongoing damage of the view that Christianity must be anti-evolution. Yet cosmology is more relevant to the cosmic worldview of the New Testament, and continues to move forward at an astounding rate, fueled by a massive, growing influx of astronomical data. In a decade the Square Kilometer Array will collect an exabyte—roughly today’s internet traffic—of radio wave data per day.
Christianity is cosmic. It makes bold claims about the nature and future of the physical universe (so much for “non-overlapping magisteria”), and must therefore face the challenge of modern cosmology. This challenge is not a threat but an opportunity: an opportunity to ask what light can be shed by science on the nature of God and creation, an opportunity to face apparent tensions and conflict with honesty and learn from them rather than smoothing over them, an opportunity to rethink what we think we know in pursuit of a richer and more imaginative—and indeed more faithful—vision of the story of Christianity.
- For some key passages, see Romans 8:37-39, Ephesians 1:17-19, Ephesians 3:18, 1 Corinthians 15:25-26,54-55; Revelation 1:4- 5,17-18; 1 Corinthians 13:9-12. [return to body text]
- N. T. Wright, The Kingdom New Testament. [return to body text]
- See also Colossians 1:15-20, Revelation 21-22, as well as N. T. Wright’s Surprised by Hope, especially chapter 6, “What the Whole World’s Waiting For.” [return to body text]
- Pondering this analogy, Peter Kreeft commented, “Before you were born, your mother’s womb was everything that there was. You might have believed that there was life after birth, maybe not. Maybe you argued about it, you philosophized about it: ‘What’s it going to be like? Bigger and better wombs, maybe?’” [return to body text]
- Among all Lewis’ works, Perelandra offers perhaps the most remarkable insights into the nature of reality and of God’s purposes and plans. Peter Kreeft said of the final chapter, “The Great Dance,” that “When I first read it, I remember thinking, ‘This is too good to be true. This is good beyond hope, to use the phrase Lewis used to describe Tolkien’s The Lord of the Rings. I had never read anything like it before, and I have not read anything like it since.’ ” [return to body text]
- One might think such a cosmic expansion of the image of God would threaten our uniqueness or value, and yet we believe God loves each person even though His people number in the billions - the love of God cannot be quenched by mere numbers. [return to body text]
- “Simulating the Universe,” lecture by Joel Primack at the UCSC Philosophy of Cosmology Summer Institute. [return to body text]
Elliot Nelson is a graduate student in physics and cosmology at Penn State University.