Eschatology and Science

Despite the much described eschatological revival during the twentieth century and its accompanying flood of books, articles, and essays, it appears that the relationship of eschatology and science has hardly been a topic of discussion until now. Bibliographies at the end of encyclopedia articles or in monographs allow us to conclude that, whenever eschatology has sought dialogue partners outside of its traditional field, it has generally turned to philosophy, occasionally to social ethics, and in some cases even to ecology, but hardly ever to the traditional natural sciences.97 It seems curious how, in one book after another, theologians can speak rather objectively of the end or consummation of the world without ever seriously asking what the future of the universe is likely to look like from the scientific perspective.98 The book edited by John Polkinghorne and Michael Welker entitled The End of the World and the Ends of God—Science and Theology on Eschatology99 sparks the hope, however, that this will change in the future.

It is certainly true that eschatology "does not examine the general future possibilities of history,"100 but it also cannot completely circumvent this topic. A strict division between the Christian future and the future of the world would make things far too simple for theology. An eschatology without cosmology becomes "a Gnostic myth of redemption,"101 Moltmann says—and subsequently outlines a cosmic eschatology that then no longer takes seriously the issue of cosmology itself. For him, at some points, cosmos seems to be synonymous with nature as we encounter it on our planet. Even if the inclusion of nature and his attempt at "synchronization of historical time and natural time"102 already represent a correction to one-sidedly anthropocentric approaches, Moltmann's eschatology remains nevertheless earth-centered. A clear terminological distinction among earth, world, cosmos, and universe is absent in Moltmann, though he is not alone in this regard. It appears to be taken for granted that the end of human history is the end of the world. This creates the impression that there is not the slightest possibility for the existence of extraterrestrial forms of life and civilization.

Eschatology and scientific questions show points of contact first and foremost in the area of cosmology. In this regard, it is not only modern cos-mological theories that have significance for the understanding of theologi cal eschatology. Much more fundamental is the fact that theology still does not pay enough attention to the paradigm shift from the closed cosmos of antiquity and the Middle Ages to the open universe of modern times.103 From this development emerges a basic question addressed to eschatology. In the face of the immensity of the universe, is eschatology not simply an anthropological particularism that has grown immeasurably? From a cosmological perspective, much in eschatology appears to be an absurd exaggeration of the significance of this earth, which actually is "just a tiny part of an overwhelmingly hostile universe."104 Both Steven Weinberg and Jacques Monod knew how to formulate this cosmological challenge in a suggestive manner: "The more the universe seems comprehensible, the more it also seems pointless,"105 Weinberg says, and then continues: "The effort to understand the universe is one of the very few things that lifts human life a little above the level of farce, and gives it some of the grace of tragedy."106 Monod's words are even more disillusioning. In his opinion, humans must finally awaken from their age-old dreams and recognize their complete desolation, their radical alienation; the ancient covenant is in pieces; we need to recognize that we are alone in the unfeeling immensity of the universe, out of which we emerged only by chance.107 Even if these conclusions drawn from cosmological theories are highly debatable scientifically, they nevertheless help us to understand how unnatural, indeed, and even how presumptuous, the postulate of a valid eschatology can seem from the cosmological perspective.108

Is it possible at all to speak of something resembling a scientific escha-tology? In fact, there are examples for eschatological models that have been developed by scientists on the basis of cosmological theories.109 Yet one must add that these models are controversial among physicists, which does not exclude the fact that schemes of this type create a certain amount of public sensation and exercise some influence on human thinking. The reason for discussing the following schemes is therefore not their degree of scientific seriousness, but rather their claim to be able to replace theological es-chatology with physics.

The physicist Frank J. Tipler has repeatedly discussed this topic and, through his book, Physics of Immortality, has become widely known to the general public. In this book he proclaimed his intention, which seemed suspect to many physicists and theologians alike, to establish theology as a branch of physics: "Either theology is pure nonsense, a subject with no content, or else theology must ultimately become a branch of physics."110 Freeman J. Dyson thinks along the same lines. He would like to accelerate the arrival of the day when eschatology—defined by him as the study of the end of the universe—is not only a branch of theology, but also a respectable sci entific discipline.111 The quintessence of his theory of the end of the universe is that there is no end: Under the condition of validity of the presuppositions specified by Dyson, life and the communication of information can continue forever.112

Tipler claims that the probability of the existence of God, of human free will, and of eternal life after death can be proven by pure physics alone. The Omega Point Theory provides him with the proof that God exists. It says that in the present, in the past, and in the future—and here he really speaks of the distant future, for it is assumed that the universe, despite its existence of approximately fifteen billion years, is still in a very early stage of its history—there must be an omnipotent, omniscient, and omnipresent person who is immanent and changeable in space and time, as well as transcendent and unchangeable, and who will "have a 'pointlike' structure in the ultimate future."113 The universe exists only when the omega point also exists in this universe, as the structure of the limiting condition that determines reality. Even if Tipler does not intend to equate the Omega Point Theory with Christianity, but rather to show that it harmonizes with the basic ideas of virtually all religions, he frequently refers to the theology of Pannenberg.114 A Christology does not result directly from the omega point model, but it also does not contradict it; however, it "depends on some unlikely possibilities in quantum cosmology."115 Eternal life is not based on the immortality of the soul; it is instead the result of a resurrection. The preservation of identity is not achieved by means of physical continuity, but instead by the most far-reaching correspondence in pattern. Resurrection is "an exact replica of ourselves . . . being simulated in the computer minds of the far future."116 The next stage of intelligent life will be information-processing machines—the extinction of humankind is "a logically necessary consequence of eternal progress"117—and, in the distant future, a computer capacity will be available that enables the perfect simulation (emulation) of all possible variants of the world and, thus, of the entire visible universe of all times.118 The resurrection of the dead will occur "when the computer capability of the universe is so large that the amount of capacity required to store all possible human simulations is an insignificant fraction of the entire capacity."119 Thus, the physics of immortality is not really concerned with "immortality" as such, but rather with the spontaneous reconstruction in the form of emulations—as if, "in the last moment," someone would build a super computer that images all human beings as a holograph program.

In contrast to Tipler, Dyson speaks neither of resurrection nor of eternal life. By using quantitative arguments, he wishes to demonstrate that life and intelligence can survive without limitations and that the communication of information is possible in spite of constantly increasing intergalactic dis tances. He is conscious of the fact that he mixes "science" and "science fiction" in his reflections, but he does not consider this particularly problematic, as long as the science is precise and the fiction is plausible.120

If consciousness is linked to the substance of molecules, then life will stop as soon as the necessary supply of free energy is consumed. If, on the other hand, as Dyson assumes, consciousness depends merely upon the structure of the molecules, then life can seek all kinds of practical embodiments, such as an interstellar black cloud or a sentient computer.121 Dyson sees the most probable form of future life in just such a cloud-type collection of dust particles, which, as carriers of positive and negative charges, organize themselves and communicate among themselves by using electromagnetic forces. The greatest problem with this lies in the fact that, in this case, the waste heat generated by the metabolism of life cannot be radiated away into space quickly enough. Dyson's solution to this difficulty is hibernation: The metabolism occurs periodically, so that, during constant radiation of waste heat, active phases alternate with phases without metabolism.122 In this way, an unlimited survival is possible with finite energy, and subjective time is infinite.123 In principle, Dyson says, even in an ever-expanding universe, infinite communication of information at finite expenditures of energy is possible.124 As he further states, in fact, the amount of energy that the sun radiates in eight hours is already sufficient to keep alive indefinitely a society with the degree of complexity that characterizes current human development. The energy supply of an entire galaxy would be able to supply a society with a 1024 greater degree of complexity.125 Even if Dyson stresses that, despite the 137 equations he lists, he is unable to present an ultimate mathematical proof for these claims, he is optimistic and extremely satisfied with his results: "I have found a universe growing without limit in richness and complexity, a universe of life surviving forever and making itself known to its neighbors across unimaginable gulfs of space and time."126 Thus, he says, science offers a solid foundation for a philosophy of hope.127

The evident thematic commonalities cannot hide the fact that theological and scientific eschatologies are considerably different in several respects. The task of theological eschatology is not limited to describing future conditions. From the very beginning, theological eschatology has not been merely descriptive; rather, it has also constantly had an appellative character that aimed to influence human conduct by offering an interpretation and orientation for life. In this way, it distinguishes itself from cosmological theories, which do not draw any moral conclusions from the description of different end-time or future scenarios.128 The "Last Things" of cosmology are then last things primarily in the chronological sense; they are the finale, but hardly ferment. The last things of theology, by contrast, have an indisputable ambiguity of temporal and meaning-related finality; thus, they are more ferment than finale. The tension between the "already" and the "not-yet" that is constitutive for theological eschatology is lacking in scientific es-chatology.

The difference in the respective subject matters of scientific eschatology and biblical eschatology is also striking. While in the one field the chief concern is with the human attempt—in the case of Tipler, with the help of an evolving God—to live eternally, in the other, one speaks primarily of God's initiative. That which is theologically conceived as an act of God with creation is, according to scientific understanding, a self-induced "hibernation." The former contains a cosmology,129 and the latter aims to explore usable opportunities, thus making eschatology a question of technology.

Furthermore, there is an obvious difference in the eschatological objective. Biblical eschatology is concerned less with the end of the world than with the end of evil. It climaxes in a new society, in the New Jerusalem that comes down from heaven adorned as a bride (Rev. 21:2). Life as computer emulation or in a cosmic dust cloud, on the contrary, basically seems to have to manage without the perspective of the victory over evil and the realization of new social complexity. Scientific concepts culminate instead in an exhaustive accumulation of information. The goal of biblical eschatology is a city; the goal of scientific eschatology is a computer.

In both cases, the question of what it means to be a person really becomes a burning issue. Whereas biblical eschatology hardly problematizes the identity and quality of personal existence within and beyond life, scientific eschatology can assert that a living person and his or her computer simulation are one and the same.130 This also leads to different understandings of resurrection. For Tipler, resurrection means the exact replica of ourselves, whereas, viewed theologically, as Colin Gunton remarks, "[t]he resurrection is not a doctrine of replication, but of transformation."131 The conception of life that is still somehow "human," but that, as a computer simulation or a cosmic dust cloud no longer has anything to do with the human being as a biological species, seems paradoxical. Anthropocentrism would finally have been overcome—but what would then replace anthropology?

What remains unclear in both concepts is the relationship between universal and local eschatology. The limitations of the biblical worldview result in a competition between statements with universal claims and those that relate only to this world. Furthermore, the uncertainty of cosmological theories in relation to the end of this universe leaves open the question of whether survival by means of information accumulation is a local or a universal phenomenon. Just as uncertain is whether or not the different scenar ios are to be conceived as intrinsic to history. Disregarding the fact that the proposals of Tipler and Dyson necessarily contain much speculation, from the perspective of Christian eschatology, primarily three weaknesses are evident.132 First, there are theological reductions that ultimately make the distinction between God and universe impossible.133 Also, Christology is missing altogether. Second, there is an anthropological reduction caused by an equating of life with information transmission or information production. Humans are one-sidedly defined in light of their rationality: "In the end, reason will sway emotion."134 The future perspective of endless information processing in cosmic dust clouds is not easily compatible with the eschato-logical question: "What may we hope?" Third, one can also speak of a temporal reduction, because the openness of the future is basically sacrificed to a determinism. John Polkinghorne is rigorous in his criticism at this point. He describes physical eschatology as a cosmic Tower of Babel and sees in it the most extreme reductio ad absurdum of an exclusively evolutionary optimism.135

The accomplishment of scientific eschatologies of this type consists in their illumination of the question of how survival or resurrection can be possible if the end of the universe means maximum entropy and thermal equilibrium, infinite expansion or a Big Crunch possibly followed by a new Big Bang. The fact that they are able to conceive only of different types of hibernation models, but not of models of divine re-creation, is intrinsic to the undertaking itself. There cannot be any scientific justification for theological eschatology precisely because it would be a contradiction in itself to treat aspects of eschatology, such as the resurrection of the dead and the New Creation, which by definition are rooted in divine initiative, as if they were a preprogrammed aspect of evolution. Not all language can be subsumed within scientific or philosophical language, but obvious contradictions should also not remain undiscussed.

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