Cliff's Edge

On (Not) Taking the Narratives Seriously

Science, Theology, and the End

Clifford Goldstein
On (Not) Taking the Narratives Seriously

“If we are to take the truth discovered by the sciences seriously,” wrote the astronomer and theologian William Stoeger, “denying the scientific description of death and the more reliably supported accounts of eventual life-ending and earth-ending catastrophes is really not an option.”[i]

He’s right. If people take the current scientific narrative about the end of the universe, and the end of life on earth, as seriously as they take the current scientific narrative, for instance, about the origin of the universe, and the origin of life on earth, then denying the “life-ending and earth-ending catastrophes” that science assures us are coming isn’t, really, “an option.”

Which leads to a slight conundrum, at least for Christians who hope in the promise of eternal life (Matthew 19:29; John 3:15, 16; 3:36; 10:28; Romans 5:21; 6:22; 1 Timothy 1:16; Jude 21, etc.) through Jesus. How are the saved supposed to live forever in a universe that the scientists declare will someday be incapable of hosting life? If in a few billion years (depending upon which narrative one accepts), the universe crunches in on itself, or keeps expanding until all the stars burn out, or if it rips apart—then the biblical promise of eternal life seems, according to some scientists, as mythical and fanciful as, according to other scientists, the biblical depiction of life’s origins.

What, then, are Christians to do who take the latest scientific narratives about both beginnings and ends seriously?

The Naked Presence of Infinite Reality

They could try, perhaps, what theoretical physicist, theologian, and Anglican priest John Polkinghorne KBE FRS (1930-2021) tried, which is to argue that God used the violence and struggle of evolution to make life on earth because God wanted to give creatures the freedom to create themselves. “First must come the old creation,” writes Polkinghorne, “existing at some distance from the veiled presence of its Creator so that creatures have the freedom to be themselves and to make themselves, without being overwhelmed by the naked presence of infinite Reality.”[ii]

Exactly how this “naked presence of infinite Reality” might have manifested Himself, Dr. Polkinghorne does not say. But because he had to think of something to harmonize Christianity with the latest scientific narrative, such as billions of years of evolution—the notion that protecting creatures from the “naked presence of infinite Reality” so that they could “make themselves” seems as good a guess as any.

Sin and Death

Polkinghorne at least had the integrity to admit what his taking the scientific narrative of origins seriously leads to. Dealing with the “Christian tradition” (as he calls it) of death as the consequence of sin, Polkinghorne in The God of Hope and the End of the World, quotes Paul: “‘just as sin came into the world through one man and death came through sin, so death spread to all because all have sinned’ (Rom. 5:12).” He then argues that in light of the scientific narrative about origins, when talking about death, Paul must not have been talking about the dissolution of our fleshly bodies.

“With our evolutionary understanding of the history of terrestrial life and of hominid origins,” Polkinghorne writes, “we can no longer hold this view literally in relation to the fact of physical death. However, in mythic mode the discourse conveys a truth about humankind whose coming to be must have had some counterpart in the history of our ancestors.”[iii]

In other words, the “Christian tradition” of sin causing death must, obviously, in light of the scientific narrative, be “mythic.” Instead, he writes that our hominid ancestors evolved to the point where they could “anticipate their future death, but at the same time they had become divorced from the God who is the only ground for hope of a destiny beyond that death. Thus, humanity became prey to that sadness and frustration at the thought of human transience that we may call mortality. In that sense ‘death’—the bitterness of mortality—had truly come into the world and passed to all. I think this interpretation does the theological work that Paul wants it to do in Romans 5.”[iv]

The death that Paul talked about in Romans 5, that is, the death that Adam brought and that Jesus came to undo wasn’t, really, physical death (it couldn’t be because science says it couldn’t be) but only the human awareness of death, the human realization of its own mortality. If we then follow Paul in Romans 5—who half a dozen times said that Jesus came to undo what Adam did, which was bring us an awareness of death—”that sadness and frustration at the thought of human transience that we may call mortality”—then Jesus, in undoing what Adam did, must have simply taken away our awareness of death. As Paul said in 1 Corinthians 15: 22, “For as in Adam all die [meaning, really, that in Adam we all become aware of our death], even so in Christ all shall be made alive {meaning, really, that in Jesus we all are no longer aware of our own death].”

Science, Theology, and the End

Polkinghorne’s attempt to harmonize the Bible with the latest scientific narrative about the end fares no better than did his attempt to harmonize the Bible with the latest scientific narrative about the beginning. He does, however, say this: “In a similar way, theology can accept science’s insight that an evolving world is one in which death is the necessary cost of new life, without thereby being condemned to supposing that the present process of the world represents the only form that the divine creative power might sustain in being.”[v]

We might not be condemned to assuming the present evolutionary process is how God will bring about the future, but Polkinghorne does so, anyway. After reiterating the notion that God evolved life on earth in a way that creation can “explore and realize as it ‘makes itself’” (billions of years of death and extinction is, apparently, creation making itself), he then writes that God will do something similar for “creation’s destiny beyond death.” Just as life didn’t originate quickly and abruptly but involved a long process, God’s plans for the end will be the same. “[E]schatological discontinuity,” he writes, “will not be so abrupt as to be an apocalyptic abolition of the old, wiping the cosmic slate clean in an act of almost magical tour de force and so severing all connection between the old and the new—any more than the present creation came into being ready-made and fully formed, out of nothing at a snap of the divine fingers.”[vi]

In whatever way God brings about the end, it will be similar to how God brought about the beginning, which was through billions of years of evolution rather than through something “ready-made and fully formed, out of nothing at a snap of the divine fingers,” such as what the Bible teaches in Genesis 1-2. Even though, for example, Scripture proclaims, “Then God said, ‘Let the earth bring forth grass, the herb that yields seed, and the fruit tree that yields fruit according to its kind, whose seed is in itself, on the earth’; and it was so” (Gen. 1:11), it was not so, it could not be so—at least according to the latest narratives. Writing about those narratives, Polkinghorne says that if “God allowed primeval process to unfold over billions of years, why should we not expect the same to be true of cosmic ending? We should not underestimate divine patience. . . .”[vii]

When, therefore, Scripture talks about believers “looking for and hastening the coming of the day of God, because of which the heavens will be dissolved, being on fire, and the elements will melt with fervent heat? Nevertheless we, according to His promise, look for new heavens and a new earth in which righteousness dwells” (2 Pet. 3:12, 13), this conflagration of heaven and earth, and their restoration “in which “righteousness dwells,” could take billions of years (remember, one should “not underestimate divine patience”). Unless, of course, these verses in Peter about our ends are as “mythic” as are the verses in Genesis about our origins.

Theological Gossip

In his attempt to harmonize faith with the latest scientific narratives, what had Dr. Polkinghorne concluded? First, that God used billions of years of violence, sickness, suffering and death to create life in a way that would protect earthly creatures from “the naked presence of infinite Reality” so that they also could “have the freedom to be themselves and to make themselves.” Next, in undoing what Adam did, Christ didn’t really save us from death but, simply, made us unaware of “that sadness and frustration at the thought of human transience that we may call mortality,” which Adam had first made us aware of. And, finally, though Scripture tells us that “in a moment, in the twinkling of an eye, at the last trumpet. For the trumpet will sound, and the dead will be raised incorruptible, and we shall be changed” (1 Cor. 15:52), that must be mythic as well because, if “God allowed primeval process to unfold over billions of years, why should we not expect the same to be true of cosmic ending?”

How did he wind up here? Logic, actually. Taking his premise—that the latest scientific narratives about origins and ends are true—Dr. Polkinghorne had to conjure up this honky-tonk stuff, the equivalent of theological gossip (except that gossip usually has some truth in it), which is pretty much what every Christian winds up with who tries to harmonize billions of years of evolution with the biblical teaching on beginnings, and, as in this case, who extends that evolutionary narrative to eschatological themes as well. However well-meaning these people are, the Word of God and these man-made narratives cannot be harmonized, and either the Word of God is wrong, or these man-made narratives are. And if the Word of God is wrong, then, it’s really not the Word of God, is it?

On (Not) Taking the Narratives Seriously

A prominent theologian bemoaned Christians who said things about nature that everyone knew were wrong, claiming that it makes the faith look bad when Christians display “utterly foolish and obviously untrue” views about the natural world. The theologian was Augustine, who lived from A.D. 354-430, when the best and the brightest knew, and would know for the next eleven centuries, that the earth did not move, that it was the center of the universe, and that all the stars and planets orbited it in perfect circles at constant speeds.

Meanwhile, any Christian who, not taking that geo-centric narrative seriously, dared to claim that the earth did move, or that it was not at the center of the universe, or that the stars and planets did not orbit the earth in perfect circles at constant speeds, would have been derided as uttering “utterly foolish and obviously untrue” statements about the natural world—just like those Christians who today, not taking the latest scientific narratives about evolution seriously, believe the Word of God instead.

But what about all the “overwhelming scientific evidence” for the evolutionary narrative? What about it? When the macro-evolutionary narrative is the only narrative allowed; when to even hint at conscious design in nature is to commit professional suicide (read about what the scientific community does to those who do); and when every school where every scientist is trained assumes the evolutionary narrative and nothing else—then, of course, the narrative is going proclaim “overwhelming scientific evidence” for evolution, just as something similar was claimed for 1800 years regarding the even more obvious “scientific narrative” (a phrase that they would not have used then) of the earth sitting immobile in the center of the universe.

Polkinghorne also does what all who try to harmonize Scripture with evolution do: weaken the authority of Scripture. They have to because current scientific narratives openly and obviously contradict the Bible. Either the scientific narratives or the Scripture has to give, and, with theistic evolutionists, it is always the Scripture. “For the Christian theologian,” Polkinghorne (therefore) writes, “the Bible is not a convenient divinely dictated handbook in which to look up the answers, but it is the record of the persons and events that have been particularly open to the presence of divine reality and through which the divine nature may most transparently be discerned.”[viii]

So, those people who were “particularly open,” and though whom “the divine nature may most transparently be discerned,” did such a good job of discerning the “divine nature” that they taught a literal six-day creation of life on earth (Genesis 1) when (according to the current narrative), even if it really took billions of years; they taught that death was the enemy to be destroyed (1 Corinthians 15:26), even though, according to the narrative, death was the means of creating more life on earth; and, finally, “particularly open” to “divine nature,” they taught the promise of eternal life in a new heavens and a new earth (John 3:16; 1 Timothy 1:16; 2 Peter 3:13; Revelation 21:1) but that really can’t happen because the narrative given by esteemed scientists (PhDs, even Nobel Laureate) says it can’t.

How, then, did scientists get their narratives about beginnings and ends so wrong? It’s easy: the meta-narrative behind them is false. It says—without proof but merely from philosophical speculation—that scientists can use only natural causes in attempting to explain reality. That assumption might be fine, even necessary, in depicting the sexual habits of salamanders, or in explaining how mass bends space and time. But because creation itself, and the promised eschatological re-creation, are both supernatural events, and the a priori meta-narrative behind science excludes the supernatural, it’s no wonder that the latest scientific narratives about origins and ends get both so wrong. And it’s also why attempts to harmonize those false narratives with Scriptures, like John Polkinghorne’s, while perhaps more fanciful than others, works no better than the others, unless one thinks that his idea of God protecting creatures from “the naked presence of infinite Reality” is something to run with.

[i] John Polkinghorne and Michael Welker, editors, The End of the World and the Ends of God (Harrisburg, PA.; Trinity Press International, 2000), pp. 19, 20. Kindle Edition, 2002.

[ii] John Polkinghorne, Science and Religion in Quest of Truth (New Haven, CT.: Yale University Press, 2011), p. 107.

[iii] John Polkinghorne, The God of Hope and the End of the World (Yale University Press), Kindle Edition, 2002.

[iv] Op. Cited. 3

[v] Op. Cited. 3

[vi] Op. Cited. 3

[vii] Op. Cited. 3

[viii] Op. Cited. 3

Clifford Goldstein

Clifford Goldstein is editor of the Adult Sabbath School Bible Study Guide. His most recent book is Risen: Finding Hope in the Empty Tomb.