The subject of “End times” continues to be popular and we have several reminders that the clock is ticking: The recent hype over the Mayan Calendar. Nostradamus has been a household name for years. Even before the “Walking dead” on AMC, for decades Hollywood has given us movies like the Road Warrior or the Book of Eli to whet our apocalyptic-appetites. And R.E.M. sang to us, “It’s the end of the world as we know it.” You may have also heard, the 2013 Pepperdine lectureships are being drawn from the book of Revelation -- a book many people look to for eschatological insights.
Typically, the study of eschatology revolves around four future events: Death, the Judgment, Heaven, and Hell. There’s another element to eschatology too, the final fate of our three-dimensional time-space reality, the eschaton. Well, with the prestige science has attained, can we as believers talk intelligently in today’s marketplace of ideas about “the end” of the world?
Popular culture suggests that there are firm lines drawn between the perspectives of faith and science, as if one worldview cancels out the other. While there may be endless debates on the origin of the universe and questions over multiverses, there are few disagreements that this universe will come to an end. That there is a conclusion in store for the material reality is a point where faith and science intersect. Both parties agree “the end” will happen.
It had all had to start, before it could endMost cosmologists sign-off on what popular culture labels the “big bang” theory -- a theory that posits a singularity from which all matter suddenly expanded into the entire universe as we know it today. This instant appearance of the physical universe out of nothing ties in well with Genesis 1:1 -- a beginning to the existence of a time-space reality.
Have you ever wondered why the night sky is only speckled with dots of starlight instead of being entirely white? The light traveling our way from multitudes of galaxies and the billions of stars should all descend on our senses as one bright light, or so it would seem. Unless -- unless the universe has a finite age and the light hasn’t all traveled here yet, if those stars are traveling away from us around the speed of light, and, if there is a lot of dark matter diffusing the light.
Astronomers tell us 95% of the universe is composed of dark matter (25%) and dark energy (70%). These two forces (and no this isn’t the Dark Side of the Force from Star Wars) are responsible for the gravity that holds all of the galaxies together, and possibly the acceleration of the expansion of the universe.
It will soon be impossible to determine the “boundaries” of the universe or where we are in the universe, since the dark matter of the universe is expanding so fast. The effects of Dark matter and energy will soon interfere with our methods of observation to the point where we won’t even be able to determine our location in the universe, let alone the very ends (if there are any) of the universe. So, technologically speaking, we are in a unique period of time to analyze the universe.
How could Moses have known, as he writes in Genesis 1:1, the universe was created out of nothing? Maybe, to sceptical people, Moses wasn’t inspired (though I think he was) and maybe he was a good analytic philosopher and simply deducted from pure reason that the universe began from nothing. Even so, for our sceptics, how could Peter in the New Testament have predicted the universe would end, and, how could he in his barely literate, pre-scientific world have known about the manner in which the world would end?
“But the day of the Lord will come like a thief, and then the heavens will pass away with a roar, and the heavenly bodies will be burned up and dissolved, and the earth and the works that are done on it will be exposed. Since all these things are thus to be dissolved, what sort of people ought you to be in lives of holiness and godliness, waiting for and hastening the coming of the day of God, because of which the heavens will be set on fire and dissolved, and the heavenly bodies will melt as they burn!” (2 Peter 3:10-12 ESV)
Peter was an Apostle not a scientist, and the Bible wasn’t written as a science textbook. Are we reading too much into Peter’s words? But look closer at what Peter says: The elements being burned up, dissolved, and stars and planets melting. Sounds like a very detailed description, a very specific account of how the end of time will happen. Peter’s details probably wouldn’t be very noteworthy, if they weren’t so close to what scientists predict about how the universe ends.
It all began, How will it all end
The beginning of the material universe started at the point when suddenly time started along with all of the Laws of Physics. This piece of knowledge that the Laws of Physics were all in place is important too, since the Laws of Physics speak also to the way things will eventually wind-down. The fact that all the Laws of Physics are in place at the big bang is interesting, since the First and Second Laws of Thermodynamics respectively state #1. Energy cannot be created or destroyed, and, #2 Everything is moving to a steady-state of being. It is the Second Law of Thermodynamics that we want to home in on as we think eschatologically.
The Second Law of Thermodynamics, also referred to as entropy, is the observation that the universe is composed in such a way that everything, literally everything, is in a state of increasing disorganization. Atoms move from order to chaos, things wear out, material decomposes, and instead of becoming more complex or structured everything “rusts” into oblivion.
Think of a glass of ice-water on your counter. Left there long enough, the ice becomes liquid and the entire contents of the glass become “room-temperature.” That’s actually an observation of the Second Law of Thermodynamics.
The universe is running out of energy and it will experience one of two endings, either incineration or freezing. What determines the difference? Imagine the universe is either enclosed, like inside a greenhouse, or the universe is set adrift without any bounds like a ship on an endless sea. The Second Law of Thermodynamics plays out differently, based on which of these two settings happens to be the case. How so?
In an “open” universe where there are no boundaries, the universe will continue to expand and eventually experiences a “cold” death. Every atom achieves a temperature of absolute zero, which is about 460 degrees fahrenheit below zero . In this “open” universe ending, Energy is exhausted; everything pretty much turns into helium after all of the stars expand, contract, and then the universe dies.
Or, think now about the universe being encapsulated in a greenhouse (versus an open field), eventually there would be a “heat” death where the very elements themselves erupt into an intense ball of fire. So instead of everything in the universe freezing, it burns up. Sound familiar?
To my knowledge, scientists haven’t finalized a conclusion about whether the universe is an open or closed system. Even if the universe is an open system, moving towards a “cold” death, Peter is still onto something with his prophecy of an intense heat consuming the heavenly bodies. Astronomers tell us that the stars of every solar system will die. They also have said that the formation rate of new stars has decreased dramatically. Even if time never ended, according to the latest research, we can only expect an increase of approximately 5% growth of new stars.
The lifecycle of every star begins as clouds of dust and gas form into what we usually think of as a nebula. After a period of time, depending on the size and density of the star once it is formed, the star will eventually use up its hydrogen which then becomes helium. Before your eyes glaze over here, catch the connection. What happens next in the lifecycle for the star is a massive expansion, a very hot one. Stars become white-hot as they expand, pushing outward, they will consume the planets that are orbiting them.
So, Peter’s observation that the universe will be destroyed with an intense heat still sticks whether our universe experiences a heat death or cold death. Either way, the stars will all grow into gigantic balls of flames, obliterating many of their planets before they die-out or collapse into black holes.
Why is it vital for the church to reclaim our stake in this conversation? Somehow along the way, perhaps between Hal Lindsey and the “Left Behind” series, we relinquished a key element of the Gospel; we shied away from talking about the End. We must re-engage in this discussion because the presentation of the Gospel message is only partially communicated when we leave off the climax.
This incompletion is twofold. For starters, evangelistically as we reach out, we are only telling part of the story when we leave off what the Bible says about end times. How so? In sharing the Good News, Jesus & the Apostles included the end of time as a major component of their message. Secondly, the doctrine of the end of time is the last rung of the ladder -- it’s the fulfillment of the Scriptural narrative.
Also. We as believers can provide what science can’t, the “Why” for the reason the universe is moving towards death. The fruition of Eden’s exile is located eschatologically in a cataclysmic renewal. As Peter concludes his teaching on the melting of the universe he immediately says, “But according to his promise we are waiting for new heavens and a new earth in which righteousness dwells.” (2 Peter 3:13 ESV). Also see Rev 21:1-4.
What’s the main difference between faith’s view and science’s view of the end of time? We believe time moves purposefully towards an end goal. On the other hand, Naturalism (the ideology that rejects the supernatural) thinks the beginning of the universe was a random or cosmic accident and the end of the universe will be as equally random without any design or purpose. The Apostle Paul puts the universe's renewal like this, “For I consider that the sufferings of this present time are not worth comparing with the glory that is to be revealed to us. For the creation waits with eager longing for the revealing of the sons of God. For the creation was subjected to futility, not willingly, but because of him who subjected it, in hope that the creation itself will be set free from its bondage to corruption and obtain the freedom of the glory of the children of God. For we know that the whole creation has been groaning together in the pains of childbirth until now. And not only the creation, but we ourselves, who have the firstfruits of the Spirit, groan inwardly as we wait eagerly for adoption as sons, the redemption of our bodies. For in this hope we were saved. Now hope that is seen is not hope. For who hopes for what he sees? But if we hope for what we do not see, we wait for it with patience.” (Romans 8:18-25 ESV)
The early church looked forward to the end of time with great anticipation, and our Restoration Movement heritage in the 19th century focused heavily on the Second Coming. Does the “Millennial Harbinger” ring a bell? Campbell thought we would usher in the millennial reign of Jesus when we achieved unity, thus the meaning of the title. I see the millennial-period differently than Campbell, in that I think we are already in Jesus’ thousand year reign.
In our generation, more than likely we will probably not win a debate on Evolution -- Darwinism is too entrenched in our culture. I’m not recommending “concession” I am saying perhaps we waste our breath trying to convince people against their will on this point. Darwin, by the way, didn’t attempt a theory on the initial spark or origin of life, only on how existing life developed and morphed over time. Arguing over evolution in our day is counterproductive. I say it’s time we move on and instead of addressing the origin of life, shift to the discussion to the end of all life.
The next time you are tempted to think Science is irrelevant, or the enemy of faith, think again. The end of time is a subject where faith and science can and should dialogue. The Bible wasn’t written as a Science textbook, yet Science and Scripture dovetail wonderfully well on the subject of the end of time. From its outset, the universe had a built-in mechanism that sets it on a self-destruct course. Sounds crazy, unless there’s something more than “something.” The corollary here is that both Scripture and Science teach that the universe is set to expire.
I love when Scripture seems so relevant, it seems like it was written in my lifetime. II Pet 3:7-13 is one of those fresh passages for me. Peter addresses a topic that’s on the contemporary radar and one that is scientifically verifiable. Science might tell us the “What” but it can’t provide the “Why.” From a Biblical perspective, we can give a reason “why” the universe is here, and “why” it will end. There is to be had, an intelligent and fruitful discussion of the teleological aspect of the eschaton -- the end goal of the universe, and here we can find common ground worth sharing with those we are trying to reach, not alienate.
[Author’s note: I owe a debt of gratitude to three dear christian brothers: Allan Fain, Dr. Rich Knopp (Director of Worldvieweyes) and Dr. O’Sheg Oshinowo (Physicist at Fermilab) for reading over my rough-draft, lending useful insights, and helping me clarify my thoughts.]