The Ultimate Fate of the Universe

In the previous blog, I argued that God’s providence accounts for the orderliness and regularity of our universe. In essence, the reality of God’s providence allows one to have confidence in the use of the scientific method for the study of natural phenomena. If we believe that the natural world is simply a product of unguided physical laws, then the only way in which we can have confidence in the reliability of the scientific method is through induction of a large collection of observations, which is subject to interpretive errors. However, if we believe that the natural world is upheld and guided by God’s providence, then we can base our scientific knowledge claims on God’s revelation of the natural world.

These are two fundamentally different starting points for understanding our world and ultimately, this means that two people can come to radically different conclusions about the nature of the world based upon the same evidence. In the previous blog, I argued this principle by discussing some of the irrational interpretations from quantum theory, particularly the idea of effects without causes. It is my contention that the Christian worldview concerning the nature of the universe is most consistent with our evidence of the natural world. This means that the universe is not only understandable and consistent, but it is purposely designed to communicate a particular message concerning God’s invisible attributes. In previous blogs, I made arguments concerning the existence and knowability of God based on the creation and maintenance of the universe. To end this mini-series, I want to address a topic of growing interest: what is the ultimate fate of the universe? This is no longer a purely speculative, philosophical question, but it is now a scientific question. This topic is also important because our answer is fully based on deductive reasoning concerning the origin of the universe.

Heat Death or Cold Death

This semester, I have the privilege to teach my favorite physics course as an undergraduate: thermodynamics. The impetus for the development of thermodynamics was the industrial revolution and the efficiency of heat engines, but now we’ve come to understand that many of the fundamental phenomena in our world are implications of the laws of thermodynamics. The key to thermodynamics is to understand the role of entropy.  Entropy is the precursor of the definition of information as developed in information theory. Information is carried, stored and processed by all macroscopic physical systems and is ultimately governed by the laws of physics, so it’s not surprising that physics and information should be closely related to one another. The usefulness of the concept of entropy can hardly be overstated and it’s probably fair to say that the connection between physics and information is still not fully exploited.

There are many ways in which a person can qualitatively understand the concept of entropy. First, it can be said that entropy is a measure of energy concentration in that entropy increases as the energy of a system becomes more dispersed throughout time. This is related to the idea that entropy is a measure of disorder of a given system. Second, it can be said that entropy is the variable that determines irreversibility of physical processes; in particular, entropy controls the direction of heat transfer between systems as well as causal arrow of time in the universe. Finally, it can be said that entropy determines the amount of available energy that can be used to do useful work for a given system. Entropy is also a central concept in understanding the natural world because the 2nd law of thermodynamics states that the entropy of the universe (as a closed, isolated system) will always increase over time. In terms of the above definitions, this means that energy is become more dispersed throughout time, that time is irreversible, and that the avaiable energy in the universe is gradually decreasing.

image: universe

There are numerous implications of the 2nd law of thermodynamics, but one that is relevant concerns the fate of the universe. Even though it is difficult to define the entropy of the universe, there should be a theoretical point in time in the distant future in which the universe reaches a state of maximum entropy according to the 2nd Law. This happens when all the available energy of the universe has been completely exhausted. When this occurs, there will be no more heat flow, no more work done, and the universe will essentially become dead and inert.This can also be thought of in terms of chemical reactions. According to the 2nd law, a chemical reaction will only occur if it results in an increase of entropy. Any reaction that takes place will either result in the products becoming less ordered, or heat being given off. This means at some time far in the future, when all the possible reactions have taken place, all that will be left is heat and fundamental particles. No reactions will be possible, because the universe will have reached its maximum entropy. The only reactions that can take place will result in a decrease of entropy, which is not possible according to the second law, so in effect the universe will have died. Because of the emphasis on the lack of heat flow, this theory is sometimes called the heat death of the universe.

Another theory concerning the fate of the universe is based upon the expansion rate of the universe. Observations suggest that the expansion of the universe will continue forever and that the expansion rate of universe is increasing. If so, the universe will cool as it expands, eventually becoming too cold to sustain life. Moreover, the supply of gas needed for star formation will be exhausted, and as existing stars run out of fuel and ceases to shine, the universe will slowly and inexorably grow darker, one start at a time. Eventually, even the stellar remnants left behind by these stars will disappear, leaving behind only black holes, which themselves will eventually disappear as they emit radiation. In this scenario, the universe ends in a whimper, becoming dark and cold. Because the universe will approach absolute zero temperature in this scenario, this is known as the cold death of the universe

The Conclusion of the Matter

The heat death and cold death theories are just two of many theories produced by cosmologists that seek to explain the ultimate fate of the universe. Though these theories have numerous differences between them, what is common between them is the assumption that the universe will end through slow, gradual, unguided natural processes. Moreover, it is assumed that death of the universe comes from a source within itself and is based on the inherent futility of our universe. These theories are expected if it is believed that the universe has no inherent purpose for its existence and has purely naturalistic origins. The narrative produced by this worldview is that the universe was created without purpose, the earth has no preferred position in the universe, the life within the universe has no inherent purpose, the current cosmological epoch has no central place in time, and the end of the universe has no purpose. With this view of the universe, it’s no wonder why a growing number of people essentially agree with this famous quote from Richard Dawkins:

In a universe of electrons and selfish genes, blind physical forces and genetic replication, some people are going to get hurt, other people are going to get lucky, and you won’t find any rhyme or reason in it, nor any justice. The universe we observe has precisely the properties we should expect if there is, at bottom, no design, no purpose, no evil and no good, nothing but blind, pitiless indifference.

This conclusion is the result of attempting to understand our natural world without acknowledging God’s providence and eternal decree. As was argued previously, the origin of the universe and the meticulous fine tuning of the universe both point to the existence of God. Moreover, the constancy and regularity of the universe all point to the God’s active providence in the world. If the existence of the universe comes from a source outside of itself, then it stands to reason that the end of the universe will occur from a source outside of itself. In other words, if the origin of the universe has a purpose outside of itself, then the end of the universe has a purpose outside of itself as well.

The fundamental Christian argument is that God has intentionally designed our world (and the universe in general) to declare His glory and to make Himself known. Our physical world continues to march forward in time not in meaningless, random fashion, but its purpose is tied up in God’s purposes of redemption. This is best described by the Apostle Paul in Romans 8:19-23

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.

The message of the apostles is that the current age we live will end, not when entropy maximizes or when the universe approaches absolute zero, but when God completes His redemptive purposes. This means that we do live in a central place in time and that the end of the universe will also declare God’s glory. If the current universe was created solely from God’s Word (cf. Hebrews 11:3) and upheld by His providence, then it will end based on His decree. This is vividly expressed in 2 Peter 3 in which “the heavens and earth that now exist are stored up for fire, being kept until the day of judgment and destruction of the ungodly” and “the heavenly bodies will be burned up and dissolved, and the earth and the works that are done on it will be exposed.” This is the picture of catastrophic un-creation, which will be replaced by the new heavens and the new earth in the age to come (cf. Revelation 21-22).

So let’s return to the original questions which started this blog series: (1) Why do you believe that God exists? (2) Why do you believe that God can be known by us? The evidence of God can be known based on the very origin of the universe and the active maintenance of the universe. We see God’s power and wisdom in the origin of the universe; we see God’s power and faithfulness in the maintenance of the universe (as observed through the fine tuning of the fundamental forces in the universe); and we see God’s intention and purpose through His active interaction with creation. Contrary to popular opinion, all things are not continuing as they were from the beginning of time. There have been numerous miraculous signs in which God has judged His creation (such as the global flood) and rescued His people (such as the exodus). However, His supreme interaction with His creation and revelation to us has come through the incarnation of His Son through which we have redemption. God’s acts of redemption, creation, and providence ultimately give us the evidence that God exists and can be known.

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One thought on “The Ultimate Fate of the Universe

  1. Pingback: Dunker Bunker ‘Lots-o-Pre-Pub’ Edition [Weekly Audio Headlines] | The Confessing Baptist

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