Sunday, 5 March 2017

The Far Future Universe

George F.R. Ellis (editor), The Far Future Universe: Eschatology from a Cosmic Perspective, 2002 Templeton Foundation Press

This collection of essays by both scientists and theologians explores the future end of the cosmos when the stars die out. It asks whether any element of humanity can survive to or beyond the heat death of the universe. Call me a fundamentalist if you like, but to my mind, the answer to such questions is simple. At some unknown point in the future, Jesus Christ will return, the universe will be renewed and transfigured and the redeemed will dwell with Christ for all eternity. Whatever conclusions science offers as to the end of the universe must be submitted to the certain promise of the Scriptures regarding eternity.

The bulk of the essays in this book are written by scientists. Most of them went over my head. For the most part, they don't really interact with theological perspectives. Of course, it's not altogether obvious how they would have interacted, given that science and theology use very different methodologies.

The first theological contribution in the book is from Keith Ward. Ward seems to shy away from affirming a physical transformation of the cosmos in the future. He follows Barth in locating eschatology outside of history and the eschaton as trans-historical, to be experienced by believers in all times. Robert John Russell avoids offering any definite conclusions on the question of cosmological eschatology. He points out that if the orthodox Christian view of the resurrection is correct, it entails a future transformation of the universe. If scientific theories about the heat-death of the universe are in the end proven true, then the orthodox Christian view will be shown to be false. However, he suggests that those scientific theories cannot be treated as absolutely certain, as if they were 'Gospel truth.' He suggests a number of guidelines for how theologians and scientists should interact with their differing ideas.

Interestingly, the most theologically conservative essay in this book comes from Jurgen Moltmann. Those who have read Moltmann's book 'The Coming of God' will be familiar with the material in this essay, entitled 'Cosmos and Theosis.' He rejects the Lutheran idea (also held by some Evangelicals) that the Earth will be annihilated, instead affirming the idea of Calvinist, Catholic and Orthodox theology that the Earth will be transformed and renewed, not destroyed in the eschaton. He turns in particular to Eastern Orthodox eschatology, with it's emphasis on the deification of the cosmos, the future participation of all created things in the divine life:

"The world does not become God, nor does it dissolve into God's infinitude; but it participates as world in God's eternal being. It will become the temple of his eternal presence. That is what is meant by the image of the heavenly Jerusalem, the city of God that comes down to Earth: a cosmic temple."

Moltmann's faith in the certainty of this eschatological goal is not diminished by the scientific theories about the universe's future. He denies that natural laws should be seen as eternal or the order we perceive in the universe as being eternal. The universe should be seen as a system open to fundamental change. It is perhaps odd to see Moltmann acting as the sole champion of Christian orthodoxy and theological conservatism, but that is the role he essentially plays in this book. The Far Future Universe would have been a much poorer book without his contribution.

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