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As a prologue to our theological consideration of eschatology, we shall see what resources are available to us from culture in general and from science in particular. Because what is to come is related to what has been, we shall begin by considering science's account of the cosmic past and then its prognostications of the cosmic future.
The universe as we know it today emerged from the fiery singularity of the big bang, some fifteen billion years ago. Initially that world was extremely simple, being no more than an almost uniform expanding ball of energy. In the course of its long evolutionary history, the universe has become structured and diversified to a very high degree. The first generation of stars and galaxies condensed through the effects of gravity, which enhanced the small fluctuations of density present in the initial state of the cosmos. Within the interior nuclear furnaces of these first generation stars, many new chemical elements were formed, supplementing the hydrogen and helium that had constituted the primordial matter of the cosmos after the first three minutes of its bewilderingly rapid transformations ofmatter/energy. These chemical raw materials were then scattered abroad, and further augmented in their variety, through the effect of supernova explosions. When a second generation of stars and planets came into being, there was then available the appropriate chemical context within which carbon-based life could develop, here on Earth and perhaps on many other planets. Eventually the shuffling explorations of potentiality working through terrestrial biological evolution led to the appearance of self-conscious beings, the most astonishing development that we know about in all those fifteen billion years of cosmic history. In humanity, the universe had become aware of itself. As a corollary, science became a possibility, so that we are able to tell the story of our origins within the long history of the universe.
Although the universe appears to have been lifeless for the first eleven billion years of its existence, there is a real sense in which it was pregnant with the possibility of life from the very beginning. Only because the balance between the fundamental forces of gravity and electromagnetism is what it is and no different, have stars been able to burn for the billions of years that are necessary if they are to be able to fuel the development of life on one of their planets. Only because the laws of nuclear physics are what they are and no different, has the range of chemical elements necessary for carbon-based life been produced by the stars, from whose dead ashes we and all other living creatures here on Earth are made. This remarkable collection of scientific insights into the 'finely tuned' specificity of a biologically generative universe has been called the Anthropic Principle. Of course, it is the generality of carbon-based life rather than the particularity of homo sapiens that is the real concern of the Principle.
Evolutionary history seems to unfold through the interplay of two contrasting tendencies: 'chance' (by which is meant the particularity of historical contingency, that this happens rather than that), and 'necessity' (by which is meant the generality of the lawfully regular environment within which the process is played out, the reliability of the world). No one supposes that the early universe was pregnant with the genus homo, but if natural necessity had not taken the form it actually does, then the chance explorations of contingent possibility would have been quite unable of themselves to bring about the fruitfulness of life as we know it. There would have been no carbon-based life because there would have been no carbon.
The scientific facts on which the Anthropic Principle is based are not open to doubt. Much contention, however, relates to what deeper metaphysical significance might or might not be attributed to these remarkable insights. Such finely tuned potentiality might be held to indicate that there was a purpose being fulfilled in cosmic history, but those who (like the author) take that view have to be prepared to consider a number of other scientific insights of a rather different character, relating both to past events and to future expectations.
Sixty-five million years ago an asteroid at least ten kilometres in diameter struck the Earth. The hundred million megatons of energy generated by its impact brought about catastrophic consequences for the terrestrial environment, eliminating the dinosaurs which for more than one hundred and fifty million years had dominated life on Earth. Thereby the little furry mammals, who are our ancestors, were given their evolutionary opportunity. Here was 'chance' operating on a grand scale to influence the development of life.
Events of this magnitude may be expected to occur on average at intervals of the order of a hundred million years. Lesser, but still very destructive, incidents occur more frequently. In 1908 a meteorite only fifty metres or so in diameter exploded over a remote region of Siberia, devastating an area at least two thousand square kilometres in extent. Had the explosion occurred over a big city, all of it would have been destroyed. Very considerable technological effort and accuracy would be needed to provide artificial protection against the recurrence of catastrophes of even this more limited and localised kind. In 1994 watchers on our planet were given a ringside seat to observe the kind of consequences that could flow from a collision with circulating debris. Over a period of six days, twenty-one fragments of comet Shoemaker-Levy 9 crashed into Jupiter. None was larger than seven hundred metres in diameter, but they produced scars on the Jovian atmosphere some of which were larger than the size of the Earth and which persisted for more than a year. The solar system is a dangerous environment, full of threats.
Other external dangers to our life on Earth, unpredictable in their onset, could arise from distant events such as a supernova explosion in our part of the galaxy, or the collision of two neutron stars to form a black hole. Either occurrence could deluge our planet with highly damaging radiation. Perhaps we give comparatively little attention to these external threats because of their largely unpredictable character and because the timescales within which they are likely to happen are very long compared with a human generation, or even with recorded human history.
Further threats to life originate within the planet itself, for example from viral or bacterial mutations, of which the impact of the HIV virus is an anticipatory experience. Some can arise from human hubris or carelessness, as anxieties about nuclear war and global pollution illustrate clearly enough. The continuing increase of the world's population serves to enhance the likelihood of disasters of this latter kind.
Many of these home-grown catastrophes could be very destructive but it is unlikely that they would wipe out human or animal life completely. However that life itself, in its intrinsic nature, is not inherently stable, for the average biological lifetime of a species is only a few million years before evolution may be expected to produce its successor. It is hard to know what this general fact implies for the future of human life, for in our case the ordinary Darwinian process has been considerably modified by the Lamarckian process of cultural evolution. The human power to transmit acquired knowledge across the generations is much more effective than the slow and uncertain process of the natural selection of genetic variations. In just a few thousands of years, the effects of human cultural development have produced enormous consequences for the terrestrial environment and for other species. Humanity now stands at the threshold of being able to intervene directly in the process of life itself, through the ambiguous powers conferred upon it by advances in genetic engineering.
The incidence of these threats is largely uncertain in its detail but, on a statistical basis, we can say that some are likely to occur eventually. The fact that life has survived on Earth for between three and four billion years, despite at least five major mass extinctions to which the fossil record testifies, shows that there is a certain resilience present in carbon-based life as a whole. However, there are further kinds of catastrophe that are certain to occur and which will be absolutely destructive in their consequences.
The Sun shines through the effects of its internal nuclear reactions turning its hydrogen into helium. In about five billion years time, all the core hydrogen will be exhausted and the Sun will then swell to become a red giant, burning any life surviving on Earth into a frazzle in the process. Our understanding of the course of stellar evolution is good enough to make this prediction absolutely reliable.
Of course, by then it is possible that terrestrial life will have migrated elsewhere in the galaxy. However, the universe itself faces a highly problematic future. Its long-term history is controlled by the competing effects of expansion (the 'explosive' consequences of the big bang) and gravity (drawing matter together). These contrasting tendencies are very evenly balanced and we do not know for certain which will win in the end. If expansion predominates (the possibility currently favoured by most cosmologists), cosmic history will continue for ever in a world growing steadily colder and more dilute. Eventually, all will decay into low grade radiation. If gravity predominates, the present expansion will one day be halted and reversed. What began with the big bang will end with the big crunch, as the universe implodes into a cosmic melting pot. The timescales for these processes are immensely long, spanning many tens of billions of years, but one or other of them is a certain prognostication of the cosmic future. However fruitful the universe may seem today, its end lies in futility. It is perhaps not surprising that the distinguished American theoretical physicist Steven Weinberg, writing within the limited horizon of an atheist physicalism and with science alone as his guide, could say that the more he understood the universe, the more it seemed to him to be pointless. Here is a challenge to which theology must respond. As William Stoeger says, 'if we are to take the truth discovered by the sciences seriously, denying the scientific description of death and the more reliably supported accounts of eventual life-ending and earth-ending catastrophes is really not an option'.
QUESTIONS TO THEOLOGY
Jewish and Christian thinking takes seriously the reiterated divine statements in Genesis I that creation is 'good'. Although this claim is supported by science's discernment of the rational beauty and fruitful history of the universe, this goodness seems significantly qualified by the catastrophes and ultimate futility that we have been considering. Theology must negotiate these issues carefully. On the one hand, it would deny the reality of the present world as God's creation if it relied solely on 'pie in the sky' to come, yet, on the other hand, its account is incomplete on its own terms if it does not also point to a credible future hope beyond the demise of this universe.
Undoubtedly, in contemporary Western society, the most immediate threat to religious belief in an ultimately hopeful future is felt to lie not in the longer-term global threats we have been discussing, but in the short-term prospect of certain individual death, together with the widely held view that it results in the annihilation of the person. Of itself, science can only speak of presently embodied life and from its own resources it does not offer grounds for believing in the continuation of that life beyond the death of the body. To neuroscience, the mind appears to be ineluctably linked with the brain and so expected to perish with its decay. We shall see subsequently that Christian theology can fully accept a psychosomatic understanding of the human being, but it does not accept the further implications that are drawn from this by an atheistic style of thinking. That is because theology bases its post mortem hope on a reality inaccessible to scientific investigation, the faithfulness of the living God. In a similar way, theology can accept science's insight that an evolving world is one in which death is the necessary cost of new life, without thereby being condemned to supposing that the present process of the world represents the only form that the divine creative power might sustain in being. These issues await our later consideration. Meanwhile, we return to the significance of the catastrophes described in this chapter.
The spatial scale of much theological thinking is terrestrial, its timescale that of human history. Yet theology's real concern must be able to embrace the whole of created reality and the totality of cosmic history. In retrospect, in relation to the doctrine of creation, this has become widely acknowledged. Prospectively, in relation to eschatological fulfilment, there has been less extensive acceptance of all that this entails. But, if we are concerned with questions of ultimate significance, we cannot restrict ourselves to the domesticated horizon of simple human recollection and human expectation. The importance of the fact of cosmic collapse or decay is not diminished by its being so many billions of years in the future.
The gloomy prognostications of scientific cosmology press upon theology the necessity to recognise the seriousness of future threats and the vast timescales over which they operate. Whatever hopes there might be of human progress within history, they can amount to no more than a stay of execution of a sentence of inevitable futility. It is clear that a kind of evolutionary optimism that seeks a lasting fulfilment within the unfolding process of the present world is just not possible for us. Heraclitus was right, and all is in a state of flux. 'In our world, the cost of the evolution of novelty is the certainty of its impermanence'. Not only is this true of species, but it is true also of the whole of carbon-based life, everywhere it may come to exist. Eventually it will prove only to have been a transient episode in cosmic history.
Excerpted from The God of Hope and the End of the World by J. C. Polkinghorne Copyright © 2003 by J. C. Polkinghorne. Excerpted by permission.
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