This book grew out of a Templeton sponsored symposium, in Rome, 7-9 November, 2000. The editor, George F.R. Ellis, is an internationally known cosmologist and professor of applied mathematics at the University of Cape Town. The book concerns the apparent conflict between the end of the universe, as envisioned by natural science, and the end of history, as envisioned by Christian eschatology. According to the present scientific scenario, the universe will expand forever and die of heat death, as the stars burn out, leaving only black holes, electron-positron plasma, and radiation. How can this be made consonant with the Christian vision of the resurrection, and life eternal with God, Christ, and the saints, as well as with the transfigured creation envisioned by Romans 8?
Following an introduction by Ellis, and an essay by George Coyne ("Seeking the Future: a Theological Perspective"), the essays are grouped topically into cosmology and physics; biology; humanity; and theology. I will discuss these sections in order.
What is striking about the cosmological section is how little we know about the far future of the universe. Physicist John Barrow ("The Far, Far Future") lays out a range of possibilities: oscillating universes, a constantly expanding universe, and a universe in which the expansion accelerates, etc. But there is much we don't know. Will protons eventually decay ? Are the constants of nature changing? For "If one or more of these constants were changing, it could radically alter our picture of the universe's long-range future." (pp. 36-37) Physicist Paul Davies considers eternity ("Eternity: Who Needs It?") and concludes that there is no cosmological model that simultaneously satisfies two conditions "that the universe has an ultimate destiny or purpose, and that the universe will exist interestingly for eternity." (p. 50). Davies, however, seems to be considering eternity primarily as everlasting time, not as a transcendent state in which all time is eternally present. Michael Heller, a philosopher and mathematician, considers the reality of time in the universe ("Time of the Universe") and advances the surprising idea that "the fundamental level of physics (below the Planck scale) is atemporal and aspatial." Time, then, is an emergent reality. Finally, astronomer Martin Rees ("Living in a Multiverse") speculates on the possibility of a "multiverse," i.e. a huge, perhaps infinite ensemble of universes. In such a case "the entire history of our universe could [be] just an episode of the infinite multiverse; what we call the laws of nature may be just the parochial bylaws in our cosmic patch." (73)
In the section on biology, chemist A. Graham Cairns-Smith speculates on the possibility of new life emerging elsewhere in the universe and the possibility of humanity constructing artificial life which can last into far-future conditions. Simon Conway-Morris ("Biology, Eschatology, and Eschatology?") considers biological eschatology. And Physicist Freeman Dyson, in two essays ("Time without End: Physics and Biology in an Open Universe," and "Life in the Universe: Is Life Digital or Analogue?"), considers whether life could survive in the far-future universe. (It could, in an expanding universe, but "only by drastically reducing the quality of life as the temperature goes down." [p. 150]). But life, for Dyson, is essentially no more than information processing.
The section on humanity consists of four essays. Stephen Clark meditates on "Deep Time." Steven Brams and D. Marc Kilgour (Games that End in a Bang or a Whimper") explore bounded and unbounded games, and note that unbounded play (i.e. having no fixed endpoint) promotes hope and cooperation, while bounded play promotes selfishness. They suggest institutions which foster unbounded outlooks, so as to reduce destructive behavior. Margaret Boden considers "Artifical Intelligence and the Far Future" and concludes that advances in AI will help us understand better what is unique to human beings. Specifically religious questions, she thinks, will not be touched by the advances in A.I.. Finally, Owen Gingerich ("Eschatology: Cosmic Versus Human") thinks it unimaginable that humanity as we know it will survive in this universe another 10,000,000 years. This leads him to speculate on the nature of timeless eternity.
The Theology section contains four excellent essays: Keith Ward ("Cosmology and Religious Ideas about the End of the World"); Jurgen Moltmann ("Cosmos and Theosis"); Robert John Russell ("Eschatology and Physical Cosmology"); and George Ellis ("Natures of Existence: Temporal and Eternal). Ward considers the eschatological views of non-Christian religions, then observes that the Christian hope for an ultimate future is not confined to the future of this physical universe. Rather, Christians hope for the fulfillment of the whole creation in a transfigured state. Similarly, Moltmann argues that "The future, new eternal world is therefore to be the new creation of this world we know" (p. 261). Russell takes the extreme case of Jesus' resurrection, literally interpreted, and asks how it could be compatible with physics. He answers that scientific laws are not prescriptive but descriptive, and that in the case of the resurrection, and a transformed creation, the philosophical assumption that the laws of nature never change may be incorrect. Finally, Ellis argues that one's view of the far future depends on one's ontology. If one believes that there are ontological realities, such as God, and Platonic forms (e.g. mathematical forms, physical and moral laws) which transcend physical existence, then these will remain and will still preside over the universe's far future and ultimate fate.
This is an excellent book, on a topic not often discussed in theology and science circles. Many of the essays are highly speculative, but that is due to the nature of the topic. The inclusion of many prominent authors, from a wide variety of disciplinary perspectives, is especially helpful.