The end of the world as we know it (1)

One of the things I usually make a point of doing when we’re visiting my wife’s family in Indianapolis is to make a trip to Half Price Books. They sell both used books and remainders, and it’s rare that I can’t find some gem at low, low prices. (They also have HPB in California, but I’ve yet to find any on the East Coast.)

Anyway, when we were there over Christmas I picked up John Polkinghorne’s The God of Hope and the End of the World. Polkinghorne, the physicist-turned-Anglican-priest, offers here a meditation on eschatology in the 21st century. His contention in that Christian theologians need to engage with the picture of the destiny of the cosmos delivered to us by modern science: cosmologists are able to predict with a high degree of certainty that the physical universe will end either in a “big crunch” — where the universe essentially collapses back in on itself — or will continue to spread out indefinitely with entropy reigning as everything decays to low grade radiation. More locally, our sun will eventually go nova and destroy any remaining life on earth (assuming we have avoided man-made or biological catastrophes).

Even though these events are billions of years in the future, Polkinghorne says, they still call into question the ultimate significance of the universe. If the cosmos is destined to end with a bang or a whimper, it seems to threaten a kind of ultimate meaninglessness. The human prospect will long since have come to an end and all that will be left is, at best, a dead cosmos. Polkinghorne thinks that a credible eschatology has to take this rather bleak picture seriously. His book is part-apologetic, part-constructive theology as he attempts to show how sense can be made of the biblical promise that God will create a “new heaven and new earth.” In this series of posts I’ll highlight some of what I think are Polkinghorne’s more fruitful and intriguing reflections.

12 thoughts on “The end of the world as we know it (1)

  1. Pingback: The end of the world as we know it (2) « A Thinking Reed

  2. Wilson

    There are some Half Price Bookses in Texas — several in Austin alone. I rather miss them here in Syracuse.

    On the other hand, making a used bookstore into a chain seems sort of … Wrong. Then again, I’m posting this from a chain coffee shop. In a world where 20th Century Fox produces “indie” films, what can one do?

  3. I agree with what you’re saying, more or less, but the point isn’t helped by statements like this:

    cosmologists are able to predict with a high degree of certainty that the physical universe will end either in a “big crunch” — where the universe essentially collapses back in on itself — or will continue to spread out indefinitely with entropy reigning as everything decays to low grade radiation.

    A “high degree of certainty” leads to a high degree of ambiguity as to two completely different outcomes? I don’t think that’s correct. There’s a huge amount of uncertainty involved; astrophysics is far less precise even than rocket science, and we saw how difficulty that is with a catastrophic end to two space shuttles.

  4. Fair point. A less ambiguous way of saying it would be that it’s highly likely that one of these two outcomes will occur, either of which would result in drawing the curtain down on life in the universe. Polkinghorne says that “one or other of them is a certain prognostication of the cosmic future,” but I take it there’s a ceteris paribus rider attached.

  5. Sounds interesting.

    Of course, there’s a parallel problem with any sort of creation theology because of the immense gap before the appearance of life. I’ve typically been willing to ignore both sides of the timeline, but I’m glad to see someone who knows something about it trying to think about the issue.

    The biggest problem I see with both of Polkinghorne’s ending scenarios is that neither one really ends. As I understand it, a big crunch is expected by most scientists to be followed by another big bang and so one ad infinitum. And of course the slow cool just fizzles out forever. It would seem as though there’d have to be some change in the rules, or an invocation of a rule that we aren’t aware of.

  6. Pingback: The end of the world as we know it (3) « A Thinking Reed

  7. Steven Carr

    I’m sure that the Reverend Polkinghorne will argue that only the present physical conditions allow life to exist, so any new universe is going to have to be just as finely-tuned as this one.

    I mean, the Reverend Polkinghorne is not just going to throw in the garbage pile all his many, many, many books claiming that only the universe we see now allows life to exist.

  8. I don’t think that Polkinghorne has claimed that only the universe we see now allows life to exist. That would be a remarkably strong claim, after all, and unnecessary for his argument.

  9. Pingback: The end of the world as we know it (6): animals « A Thinking Reed

  10. Steven Carr

    Where did Polkinghorne claim that life was possible on a world without earthquakes?

    Haven’t you bothered to read his arguments?

  11. Polkinghorne (along with people who argue in a similar vein) says that the kinds of laws of nature that make life (as we know it) possible also make things like earthquakes possible. I take it this is intended as at least a partial solution to the so-called problem of natural evil. But that’s pretty obviously not the same as saying that only a world with earthquakes (or analogous natural evils) could contain life in any form. Polkinghorne’s idea of what a “new creation” is one in which conditions are thoroughly transformed, so I would be surprised if he committed the elementary fallacy you’re attributing to him. But I’m certainly open to being pointed to where he makes the claim you say he does.

  12. Pingback: 2008: The year in book blogging « A Thinking Reed

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