Christian Scripture Predicted an Ending when Philosophers were predicting an eternal universe. Peter, one of Jesus’ best friends and most trusted allies once said, “…the heavens will pass away with a great noise, and the elements will melt with fervent heat; both the earth and the works that are in it will be burned up.” (2 Peter 3:10) In these words we find a description of what Peter calls, “the day of the Lord.” What’s most interesting to me is that Peter describes how the Earth will ultimately meet its end. The cool thing about this verse is that it can be theoretically tested by the science of astronomy.
Our sun has a life cycle. It’s not so different from your or my life cycle except that the sun’s will take billions of years to complete. The best research available suggests that our sun is about four and a half billion years into its main sequence. You could think of the main sequence as it relates to the engine of your old clunker car. There is an ignition when you turn the key, there is a time that it will run properly which could be called its main sequence. Then there is a time when the engine blows a head gasket bleeds all the oil from the cylinder chambers, sputters for a while, and eventually dies a smokey death.
A star is similar in some ways. Sol, the name of our star, is in its main sequence right now, which means it will be stable for a while longer. We think the main sequence of a sun-like star lasts for about eight to ten billion years. At that point something remarkable begins to happen. The sun will start to morph into a red giant. It will expand larger and larger. I told you its life cycle is like ours. I imagine that in my later years my circumference will grow as well.
Sol will continue to swell up like a fire retardant balloon full of lava. As it uses up its hydrogen it will begin to fuse helium into carbon and cool down. In a talk I recently heard by Dr. Mark Morris of UCLA, he explained that the sun will swell so big that the Earth will, at first begin to skim along its surface. Earth will ultimately be swallowed up by the sun. Ouch, that’s going to leave a mark. It’s accepted that unless some other catastrophe eliminates Earth, this will the be the ultimate demise of the the planet.
A Roman era fisherman from a poor agricultural village on the East end of the Mediterranean had no way of knowing that the sun would eventually bloat up like a dead fish and engulf the Earth with fire. He had no reason to think that the sun was going to be the ultimate fiery end of the solar system. Heck, he didn’t even know what the solar system was. None-the-less he describes the end of the planet in a very clear and scientifically plausible way.
Many philosophers in every era, until the recent one, have speculated that the current order of things is eternal and unable to be destroyed. For Aristotle the idea of the world being incinerated by fire seems impossible when he says, “The whole heaven is not generated nor can it be destroyed… but is unique and eternal, not having beginning or end to its lifetime…”1 This is very likely the view that a hellenized fisherman from the first century would have held, except for this one fact. He had another source of knowledge. Peter was speaking from the special revelation he had received when he wrote, “…the heavens will pass away with a great noise, and the elements will melt with fervent heat; both the earth and the works that are in it will be burned up.”
One might argue that the, “Day of the Lord,” was a common Jewish term. Maybe Peter, being a Jew, was just restating this Jewish idea. While it is true that the Jews had a concept of what the Day of the Lord would be, it was very different from what Peter saw and described. On the contrary a reading of the Jewish writings reveal many descriptions of the day of the Lord, but none of them claim that the Earth and the Heavens will be ruined up. In fact many of them talk about darkness, and no light. You can bet that when that obese ball of fire gobbles up the Earth it will be bright. In fact, many Jewish references to “the day of the Lord” are clearly referencing a temporal judgment that will come upon the nations of the world, however, in these references the world continues to exist as do the people in it. This is the sense that many of the references in the Jewish writing are talking about. However, when Peter speaks of the day of the Lord, he doesn’t mean a political judgement on a specific nation. Instead he is pointing to the end of the world and the destruction of its current order. He says that the earth will be melted down to nothing, for crying out loud.
There is yet another sense in which the universe will end. We call the ultimate end of all material action, ‘the heat death of the universe.’ For there to be any action there must be hot and cold bodies. I’m not talking about a husband and wife’s fight over the bed covers at night. I’m talking about the dynamic flow of heat from. For anything to happen in the material world there must be a flow of energy. Lord Kelvin was probably the best known physicist of the 1800s who tackled the implications of the second law of thermodynamics.2 He was certainly on the front end of the discussion but many have followed in his footsteps. It is now considered scientifically proven that, baring undiscovered realities, the universe will suffer an eventual winding down, and at some point all energy will rest. Most importantly for us, any kind of advanced life will not be able to physically exist indefinitely.3
Jesus often promised eternal life to those who believe in him. This could easily be seen as a contradiction of the modern laws of physics. If the universe is not going to last eternally, how could life last eternally in it? Many Christians might sweep this under the rug by saying something about spiritual bodies. However, I disagree with those Christians who claim that our eternal existence is only spiritual. I do this on the basis of Jesus’ words. He said that he would resurrect those who believe in him. Where eternal life is the state of the believer, resurrection is the mechanism he claims he will use. So, this means that believers will have physical bodies that will be experiencing that eternal life. If there are are bodies that exist eternally, but we know that the universe can’t, what are we to do?
In the final chapter of the Bible it says this, “Now I saw a new heaven and a new earth, for the first heaven and the first earth had passed away.” This is interesting for a couple of reasons. It’s talking about the first appearance of the eternal-state universe. We don’t know much about how it works, but we are given a few tidbits. Firstly, we know that it’s new. This is good news, because without the ability to indwell a new, or at least renovated, universe at some point, the resurrected believers would not be able to maintain eternal physical life. If a new universe is not created, or at least the old universe renewed in some way, we would be unable to have a physical eternal existence. However, this chapter in Revelation says that the one who sits on the throne will say this about the new universe, “I make all things new.” (Revelation 20:5) I love this because there is a lot implicit in these words. What I hear is that God will handle the thermodynamic problem of eternality. He will do this by replacing the old universe with a new one, and then renewing that future universe perpetually. You could think of the universe as a clock that needs to be rewound every so often. Luckily, He promises to do this. Boom! Eternal physical life solved.
I bring all of this up simply to point out that Christianity stood against the philosophical understand that had come before it. Philosophers considered the cosmos was considered to be eternal in past and future. Out of this idea came the Judeo-Christian worldview that claimed both a beginning and an end to the universe. The Christian understanding of cosmology takes into account many things that atheism simply doesn’t.
2 Thomson, W. “Ii. On the Dynamical Theory of Heat, With Numerical Results Deduced From Mr. Joule’s Equivalent of a Thermal Unit, and M. Regnault’s Observations on Steam.” The London (1852):
3 Krauss, LM, and GD Starkman. “Life, the Universe, and Nothing: Life and Death in an Ever-Expanding Universe.” The Astrophysical Journal (2000): 22-30