Science and the Paradox of the Unbelievable

by / December 16, 2015

Above: Artist’s depiction of Earth curving space according to Einstein’s theory of General Relativity while satellite GPB orbits.

Christians are often accused of believing the unbelievable. One of those “unbelievables” is the claim that the universe was created in 6 days. But is that really unbelievable? Even if it were, are Christians the only ones who believe something that’s unbelievable? Consider this: physicists also believe something once considered unbelievable. If that is true, perhaps the belief of Christians is not as wild and crazy as some think.

Physics and the Unbelievable

Consider the well known phenomenon of gravity. Since Newton published his theory of gravity in the seventeenth century, people have believed in the pull exerted by the force of gravity. Newton is widely credited with being the founder of modern science based on his law of gravity and laws of motion. Newton’s understanding of gravity seems intuitive – of course things are pulled by the force of gravity. Yet scientists today don’t believe his model of gravity. They say that force is not real; it’s something Newton just made up. There is no pull of gravity.

Which leaves those of us who were taught Newton’s theory of gravity as an unchanging “law” of science in a bit of a quandary. We are now told not to believe in a foundational theory of science given to us by the father of modern science. Saying Newton was wrong was once considered unthinkable, much less believable. Yet that is precisely what scientists today are asking us to do. Do you believe them? If you do, you too believe a number of things once considered nonsense by modern scientists. And if you don’t you’re at odds with modern science.

This creates a bit of a paradox. How can the unbelievable become believable? And if that’s possible, it just goes to show that everyone – including scientists – can believe something that was once considered unbelievable. But what moves one to believe something that was once unthinkable? It’s simpler than you think. The confusion comes because most people equate “unbelievable” with “impossible”. But once they understand and are convinced that the “impossible” is not truly impossible, they can then be persuaded to believe that which was formerly unbelievable. At that point it’s no longer a matter of possibility, it’s a matter of trust and personal convenience: “do I trust the person who is telling me this”, and “can I adapt this truth into my life?” If the answer to those two questions are yes, then the impossible becomes possible, and the unbelievable becomes believable.

On the other hand if the answer to those two are no – “I don’t trust the source”, and “I’m unwilling to make a change”, then even if convinced the unbelievable is possible, the person will remain unconvinced, because they are unwilling to allow a new truth to take hold in their lives. The first part of this process – showing the unbelievable is possible – is easy to demonstrate using the change of belief in the nature of gravity. But to do so we need to take a step back to see the larger picture.

Consider the nature of space and time. Common experience tells us space conforms to the Euclidean norms – 3 dimensions, at right angles to each other with lines from any two dimensions forming a flat plane that extends forever. Time is a separate entity that moves at a constant pace anywhere and everywhere in the infinite space of the 3 dimensional world.  It was with this understanding of space and time that Sir Isaac Newton formulated his theory of gravity.  Newton described gravity as a force that pulls all objects towards the center of a mass, acting with decreasing force as distance increased.  Newton didn’t know how this force worked or why it worked at a distance, keeping for instance, the planets in orbits around the stars. But his equations accurately predicted the movements of the planets and stars, and were precise enough to track the movements of the moon allowing NASA to land space craft there. They weren’t quite accurate enough, however to properly describe everything. The motion of the planet Mercury being one notable exception.

Nevertheless Newton’s gravity – and the common understanding of space and time in which it was born –  reigned until an unknown patent clerk published his theory of Special Relativity about light in 1905, and went on to publish a new theory of gravity called General Relativity in 1915. The theory correctly predicted the orbit of Mercury – and a great deal more.  The clerk was Albert Einstein. He was later to become the most famous scientist of the 20th century, whose name is synonymous with “genius”.  But he didn’t always have that fame, and his theory was not immediately  accepted. In fact it was initially quite controversial.

That’s because Einstein’s theory changed not only our understanding of gravity, but also the very nature of space and time. Einstein said that space and time are not separate entities. The 3 dimensions of space are bound together with the dimension of time making one 4 dimensional entity which he called space-time. And space-time is not like the Euclidean structure of our classical understanding which extends infinitely in all directions. Under the classical understanding, speaking of space as being “curved” is nonsensical and impossible.  But for Einstein, space is not merely a representation of 3 dimensions at right angles to each other; space can be thought of as a fabric that includes time. And this fabric can be distorted or curved by the presence of a physical mass: the greater the mass, the greater the distortion or curve.

In the classical understanding, it was inconceivable (and thus unbelievable) that space could be “curved”. But if you believe Einstein, space is indeed curved, and in fact as physicist Brian Greene says, “It’s this warping or curving of space-time that creates what we feel as gravity.” Thus, Einstein radically re-defined gravity, not as a force, but as a result of the geometry of space. As physicist Brian Cox puts it:

Einstein’s picture of gravity was that massive objects like stars and
galaxies curve space and time, and then other objects moving through that curvature feel gravity. Gravity in a sense, is the curvature of space and time.

So if you’re sitting in a chair, what’s keeping you in it? According to physics professor Michio Kaku, it’s not the gravitational pull as described by Newton:

There is no such thing as gravitational pull. The earth has curved the space around me and space is pushing me into this chair. Space itself can be curved.

So it’s not the “force of gravity” that “pulls” you; rather it’s the geometry of space that’s pushing you into the chair according to the physics of Einstein.

Thus many physicists today do not believe in a “force” of gravity; rather they have adopted Einstein’s description of gravity, famously summarized by John Wheeler as:

Matter tells space-time how to curve, and curved space-time tells matter how to move.

With this the new understanding, physicists have moved into the realm of what was once considered impossible and thus unbelievable: there is no force of gravity, and Newton’s description of such a “force” was wrong. Further, the once unbelievable concept – that space is curved – is true. Scientists proved it when they measured the position of the images of stars around the sun during a total eclipse and saw they were displaced in the precise amount as predicted by Einstein. The displacement was a result of the light following the curve of space bending around the mass of the sun.

Thus, there is no such thing as a “force” of gravity that “pulls”; rather it’s the push of the curvature of space. Learned men have been studying the stars at least since the time of the Wisemen who arrived in Jerusalem over 2000 years ago asking “Where is the one who has been born king of the Jews.” (Matt 2.1-2) That means it has taken over 2000 years for men of learning to figure out that space is curved. Given that, it’s not unreasonable to believe it will take a number of years more before scientists figure out that the universe is in fact thousands of years old, not billions. And as the theory of the “pull of gravity” has fallen, so will the theory of a “billions” year old universe.

Christianity and the Unbelievable

Which brings me back to my point. The paradox of the unbelievable is that the unbelievable can become believable – once it’s understood that 1. It’s not impossible and 2. The person who’s asking you to believe is trustworthy and reliable. Today, there are virtually no physicists who do not believe Einstein’s theory of gravity – General Relativity. Einstein made them believe the unbelievable because his theories better conformed to reality. A day is coming when all will also believe, “In the beginning, God created the heavens and the earth.” (Gen 1.1) Increasingly we see evidence 6 that confirms that first verse of the Bible better conforms to reality than do secular theories.

However until all recognize that truth, the paradox of the unbelievable is ever before those seeking God. That seekers should be presented with that paradox should come as no surprise. Because God gave – as an exemplar of the life of faith – the life of the Abraham, a man the Bible calls a “the man of faith” (Gal 3.9). He is a man of faith because whenever God called him to believe what would normally have been unbelievable, Abraham believed. He believed when God said:

  • From you I will raise a nation of people, living in their own land. – A land God would give them. (Gen 12)
  • You and your barren wife will have a child (Gen 15)
  • Give your child to me, and even though he dies without an heir, you will still be a mighty nation. (Gen 22)

Abraham is “the man of faith” because each time he believed God and faithfully obeyed. And God showed himself faithful by fulfilling his word: leading Abraham to the promised land (Gen 12.7), and by granting Abraham and Sarah a child of their own named Isaac (Gen 17.21, 21.1-3). The last item was a test to see how far Abraham would go to believe God. Would Abraham believe God up to and including destroying the means by which Abraham was supposed to be blessed? Yes, Abraham believed even that far. But God never wanted the life of Abraham’s son Isaac; what he did want was a demonstration of how much Abraham trusted that God would be true to his own word.

The times have changed, but God still gives his followers the opportunity to demonstrate trust in him by presenting them with the paradox of the unbelievable. He wants his people to understand that “unbelievable” does not mean impossible, particularly because as scripture says, nothing is too difficult for God (Gen 18.14; Jer 32.17). God does not ask you to believe the impossible; he’s looking for you to demonstrate how far you will go to trust him, just as he has asked his people in former times. He has not given us moderns the same difficult tasks as Abraham. Our task is simpler, but requires as much faith. After trusting his Son, God asks his followers to believe him when he says:

  • In the beginning God Created the heavens and the earth (Gen 1.1)
  • In Six days the Lord made the heavens and the earth (Ex 20.11)
  • God created all creatures “after their kind” (Gen 1.21)

If you can trust God with these so called “unbelievable” statements of fact, you are equipped to stand firm in the rest of the truths of the faith. For once you grasp the truth of the above, you understand it means that neither the Big Bang theory, nor the Darwinian theory of evolution is true, nor even has the possibility of being true. In believing that you’ll be standing against a secular culture unwilling to hear such truth. It is in those very situations that Christians are called to speak the truth and defend the faith (1 Pe 3.15). The question then becomes how to persuade others to believe the unbelievable? One of the better ways is to demonstrate that the earth is young – a few thousand years old, not the billions of years required by Evolution and the big bang. Since it disproves both Evolution and the Big Bang secular physicists and other deniers of the biblical account fight vehemently against it. But there are all kinds of evidences to the fact of a young earth.7

Conclusion

Adopting Einstein’s view of gravity requires that you merely change how gravity is understood. It had consequences for physicists – for instance they need to account for relativistic time changes in systems like the Global Positioning System (GPS)8, but there were no requirements on your life and behavior.

But adopting the biblical view of origins – with the central tenet being God as creator to whom you rightfully owe obedience – has consequences many would rather not face. Because once you acknowledge God as the creator, who is truthful in all he says; you must also acknowledge God as holy, who is serious in his call for all to “leave your life of sin.” (John 8.11) And “there” as the bard says, “is the rub”. Thus believing the unbelievable remains a task that for many remains unattainable – not because the unbelievable is impossible, but rather because they’re unwilling to live consistently with the knowledge of God as the creator of the universe.

Here we see the final paradox. In the end, the unbelievable (at least with regards to the bible) remains unbelievable not because the item in question is impossible; but rather because the required change to maintain integrity with what you know to be true is considered impossible. Thus for some, though the unbelievable is within their grasp, they refuse to reach out and embrace it, because they’re afraid if they do, when they look in the mirror, they will neither recognize the Christ like image looking back, nor like the changes within themselves that such belief has brought to their life.

We are all given the same test. God asks: are you willing to believe the unbelievable? We tend to act like the test concerns whether what God says is true. But if we’re honest with ourselves we know it’s really a test of our willingness to believe him who never lies. To follow him who rose from the dead. To live the new life he’s given us in full defiance of the naysayers who are appalled that we, for good reason, believe the unbelievable.

Foot Notes

1 Brian Greene, physicist, host in: “The Elegant Universe: Einstein’s Dream” NOVA / WGBH documentary, 2003
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2 Brian Cox, physicist, The University of Manchester in “Exploring Einstein: Life of a Genius” BBC documentary, 2005
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3 Michio Kaku, physicist, City University of New York in: “Einstein” History documentary, 2008
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4 John Wheeler, physicist, Princeton University and the University of Texas at Austin. This quote can be found in many places on the ‘net, one of them: The Einstein Field Equations: http://archive.ncsa.illinois.edu/Cyberia/NumRel/EinsteinEquations.html
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5 Einstein’s theory was proved correct when multiple teams measured the position of stars around the sun during the 1919 total eclipse of the sun visible in Africa. Separate teams led by Arthur Eddington and William Campbell confirmed that position of the image of the stars were deflected by the precise amount Einstein predicted due to the curvature of space. ref from “Einstein” History documentary, 2008
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6 See for example Eric Metaxis, “Science increasingly makes the case for God“, The Wall Street Journal, 12/25/2015, http://thecreationclub.com/science-increasingly-makes-the-case-for-god/
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7 See for example Don Batten, “Age of the Earth – 101 evidences for a young abe of earth and the universe“, Creation Ministries International, 6/4/2009, http://creation.com/age-of-the-earth
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8 The GPS satellites are about 12,500 miles above the earth moving at about 7,000 miles an hour. The effect of the distance from earth means the clocks on the satellites run faster by about 1/3 of a billionths of a second than clocks on earth. That would equate to a 6 mile difference per day if unaccounted for. The clocks run fast not because of a problem with the clocks, but because time itself is moving faster at that distance from the earth.
References:
Into the Universe with Stephen Hawking episode “Time Travel” Discovery Documentary, 2010;
The Universe episode “Light Speed”, History Documentary, 2008
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Image:

Artist’s depiction of Earth curving space according to Einstein’s theory of General Relativity while satellite GPB orbits GPB circling earth” by NASA – http://www.nasa.gov/mission_pages/gpb/gpb_012.html. Licensed under Public Domain via Commons

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Duane Caldwell
Duane holds a B.Sc. in Aeronautics and a M.Div. from Trinity International University. A former pastor, one of his favorite Bible verses is Isaiah 11.9: "...for the earth will be filled with the knowledge of the Lord as the waters cover the sea." Until that day arrives Duane is distressed to see the glory due God given to false ideas like Evolution and the Big Bang. He is likewise distressed to see those deceived into believing that science contradicts the Bible or has solved all problems apart from God. He considers his current ministry to be demonstrating why the Christian worldview is the only true worldview, and why science does not contradict it or the Bible. He blogs on numerous topics touching the faith at Rationalfaith.com.

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