Physics as a
Foundation for Faith


by Edward Hamilton, Ph.D., Professor of Physics

 

If we look at the experience of Israel, extending into the period of the early church, we find frequent concern with the faithfulness of God to his people. Under the Abrahamic covenant, God had promised to preserve and bless Israel. The cycle of sin and repentance didn’t erase that covenant, but instead further emphasized the obligations that Israel needed to uphold to continue to be blessed. But as the Davidic monarchy unraveled and Israel was taken into exile, it became harder to believe that the covenant wasn’t collapsing into a state of permanent failure.

A similar problem reappears after the resurrection of Christ. In epistles like Galatians, Romans, and Hebrews, we can feel the apostolic church wrestling with anxiety over the sudden identity shift in God’s community, from an ethnic nation-state to a voluntary gathering of believers. Is God allowed to change the rules of the game like this? Has God been unfaithful to the original covenant promises made to Israel?

Several years ago, my colleague Steve Ball pointed me to a powerful passage in the book of Jeremiah where these problems are addressed. Chapter 31 is a source of several passages that receive special attention from New Testament authors. In verse 31, we find the promise of a New Covenant, one that is different than the old conditional covenant that Israel lost due to sin. Is there any risk that this covenant will also fail? Here are God’s answers (quoting from the NIV):

 

This is what the Lord says,

he who appoints the sun

to shine by day,

who decrees the moon and stars

to shine by night,

who stirs up the sea

so that its waves roar—

the Lord Almighty is his name:

“Only if these decrees vanish from my sight,”

declares the Lord,

“will Israel ever cease

being a nation before me.”

This is what the Lord says:

“Only if the heavens above can be measured

and the foundations of the earth below be searched out

will I reject all the descendants of Israel

because of all they have done,”

declares the Lord.

 

There are two answers here. Both of them could be paraphrased, quite fairly, as “We can trust God, because… physics!”

First, we can trust God because all of nature is a witness to the reliability of His promises. The sun, the moon, the stars, and the tides are all on set cycles – completely reliable cycles that are governed by “decrees, natural laws that govern the periods of their recurrence.

Divine promises come from the same source as natural laws. As long as those natural laws remain authoritative, we know that God’s promises are backed by an equal level of authority. We can trust God because the orderliness of astronomical processes, governed by what we now understand as the Newtonian theory of mechanics, is a powerful and universally accessible item on God’s personal C.V.

Second, we can trust God because the heavens and earth have secrets that are unknown to us, indeed, many secrets that are permanently unknowable to us by their very nature. We will never fully understand all of nature, and this appreciation paradoxically forces us into understanding ourselves as dependent on God’s sovereignty. There is a charming quote attributed to the British mathematician Sir Horace Lamb, the discoverer of Lamb Waves (guided acoustic waves that occur in geological or atmospheric layers), in a 1932 speech:

"I am an old man now, and when I die and go to heaven there are two matters on which I hope for enlightenment. One is quantum electrodynamics, and the other is the turbulent motion of fluids. And about the former I am rather optimistic."

He had spent his life studying fluid turbulence. The extent to which nature humbles us by revealing the limits of our understanding is a reminder of the frailty of human intellect, and a reassurance that the heavens will “never be measured,” nor will the “foundations of the earth” be completely “searched out.”

When I was in graduate school, one of my professors – surprisingly, in that we were at a secular institution – expressed the idea that it is a remarkable miracle that we live in a universe that is just complicated enough to be permanently interesting.

It would have been easy for God to make a universe governed by simple or trivial laws, nothing beyond first semester physics, but one without the richness and complexity of chaotic dynamics or the mysterious of quantum reality. That universe would satisfy the first of Jeremiah’s promises above, but not the second. It would also have been easy to create a universe so complicated that we would have no hope of understanding any of it, any more than an insect could understand an automobile. That would satisfy the second condition of Jeremiah 31, but not the first.

The fact that we live in a universe that is just complicated enough to conceal a storehouse of deep mysteries, but still simple enough to slowly yield them to our exploration, is a remarkable gift. It implies to us that, by the original divine plan, we were meant to be explorers and discoverers of this creation, but that this process of discovery would never be complete. But we also understand that this is also our position relative to God, the maker of creation. We can feel confident that we were meant to know God, but also that our knowledge will be a continual adventure of wonderful new discoveries without end.