Thoughts on cosmic death and resurrection

A statue on the roof of Notre-Dame Cathedral in Paris is seen during a supermoon Dec. 14, 2016. What does Christianity have to say about the anticipated end of the cosmos?
CNS photo/Christian Hartmann, Reuters

Heidi Ann Russell’s still relatively recent (2015) book “Quantum Shift: Theological and Pastoral Implications of Contemporary Developments in Science” contains a number of fascinating chapters on topics of interest to those curious about both grand meta-questions and the intricate details that constitute our reality. Thinking about the theological and pastoral implications of things like particle wave complementarity, the possibility of a multiverse and the second law of thermodynamics proves a worthwhile endeavor.

Jesuit Father George Coyne, Director Emeritus of the Vatican Observatory, says “to journey with the author through this book is a rather heady endeavor as to both the science and the theology, but it is masterfully written for a general audience….The effort of [the people in the pews] to venture into this intellectual adventure will, I am convinced, be very well rewarded.” I found myself to be particularly struck by the chapter on cosmic death and resurrection.

Building on the axiomatic theological claim that “protology is eschatology” — the assertion that our beginnings teach us about our eventual ends — Dr. Russell examines what Christianity has to say about the anticipated end of the cosmos. Science posits three potential outcomes. Either the universe will collapse in upon itself in a Big Crunch, or it will continue to accelerate until it tears apart in a Big Rip, or it will continue to expand but not fast enough to tear and instead grow eventually to where light cannot reach us or other planets as the stars burn out in a Big Freeze. I think of Robert Frost’s Dantean-inspired imagery:

Some say the world will end in fire,

Some say in ice.

From what I’ve tasted of desire

I hold with those who favor fire.

But if it had to perish twice,

I think I know enough of hate

To say that for destruction ice

Is also great

And would suffice.

Russell points out that there is accord among some cosmologists that our observable universe is not all that exists. Therefore, the Big Bang and Big Crunch, Rip or Freeze might not be the last word. “In other words,” she says, “there might be life after death for the universe itself.”

She draws on the Isaiah 65 and 2 Peter 3 texts about a “new heaven and a new earth” as well as the theology of Jurgen Moltmann to argue against an overly-anthropocentric eschatology. In simpler language, humanity may indeed be involved in a resurrection story, but one much larger than the resurrection of humankind. Death is not a “human” reality, but rather an integral part of creation: from mass extinctions to solar death, and ultimately to entropy and the entire observable universe itself.

“Resurrection is about what comes after death. There is continuity but also unexpectedness and transformation. … Such a position is congruent with the possibility of the death of our observable universe into the possible resurrection/birth of a new universe.”

It’s important to remember humanity’s place in all of this. If the history of the universe is a calendar year, we arrive on the scene at roughly 11:55 p.m. on New Year’s Eve. And in this analogy, the chances are that the centuries ahead of (and quite possibly without) us are unfathomably longer than the one individual year that has just come to a close.

None of this lessens our responsible to be moral actors within the universe as we experience it. As Dr. Russell draws from Keith Ward: human beings have a vocation and “positive responsibility to shape the material universe so that it is productive and protective of personal life, whatever its form.”

Even if the creation story does go far beyond what we can fathom, we are a cherished and significant part of this incredibly mysterious and holy cosmic project, in union with God through Christ and the Spirit.

Collingswood native Michael M. Canaris, Ph.D., teaches at Loyola University, Chicago.