Saturday, June 20, 2020

Sabbaticals, New Ideas, COVID, and The Good Place


It has been almost six months since I have written and posted anything on my blog. Thanks to many of you, my readers, who have sent me inquiries as to the reason why my blog has been dormant, expressing your appreciation for the content, and asking if, and when, I will be writing posts again. I really appreciate all the kind remarks so many of you have sent me over the last few months. 

First, I should say that I don't really have any unusual or profound reason for the drought of blog posts. After writing at least two posts per month for three years, I simply have fewer new ideas for what to write about and, therefore, less motivation to write, since so many of my ideas that relate science, reason, and logic, to Christianity have already been addressed in previous blog posts. In addition, as with any activity that is done for a long period of time, I had simply become a little fatigued with writing new posts week after week. I am a university professor and, in academics, professors are allowed to apply for a sabbatical every seven years in which they take a semester or two off from teaching in order to focus on research and creative activity and to generate new ideas and revitalize their creative endeavors. From my perspective as a professor then, maybe I just needed a short sabbatical from my blog activities to gain a revitalized perspective. I still am not sure what new thoughts and ideas I have to add to the many blog posts I have written over the last few years, but I will at least try to get back into the pattern of writing on a regular basis. As such, I appreciate any thoughts my readers may have on topics that could be addressed in this blog. 

As with so many people in the world right now, I have spent the last three months or so fairly sequestered in my house. Because my research is based at CERN laboratory in Geneva, Switzerland, but I live in Oklahoma and teach at the University of Oklahoma, my daily routine even before the COVID-19 pandemic consisted of spending a lot of time in video meetings and looking at data from the Large Hadron Collider using my local computer. So, actually my professional life lately while working from home has been quite similar to my professional life when working from the university buildings: writing and running computer code to analyze data and meeting with people and groups by video. However, my personal life has changed quite dramatically over the last few months. I have spent more time cooking at home and more time streaming video at home. 

My wife and I have watched more content from Netflix, Prime, Disney+ and other services than I ever thought I would in such a short time. And some of the content I have watched has even generated a few ideas for my blog. We have just finished watching all four seasons of the NBC show, The Good Place, and some of the themes and ideas explored in that show are pertinent to both physics and Christian thought. If you haven't seen the show I should warn you now that the rest of this post is full of spoilers. So if you don't want spoilers for The Good Place, you probably should stop reading now.

The show is about four people who have died and find themselves in what they are initially told is "The Good Place," but actually ends up being "The Bad Place." The plot over four seasons takes many twists and turns as it explores different concepts about human nature, what it means to be good or bad, whether human beings really change and grow as people, and even the fairness of an eternal destiny based on what choices each person makes during his or her short lifetime.

One topic that The Good Place addressed, but is not necessarily relevant to science and Christianity, is one of the most important principles in all of Christianity and I want to address it more fully in a future blog post. This concerns the criteria used to determine where one spends their eternal destiny which, in the television show, is based on a points system that evaluates a person's actions on earth. Every action gives either positive or negative points, and one's total points determines whether they spend eternity in "The Good Place" or "The Bad Place." As far as I know, Christianity is the only world view that does not base one's eternal destiny on a system that weighs an individual's good actions versus their bad actions. That is an important and profound distinctive of Christian doctrine.

Another plot theme in the last season of The Good Place is the nature of a person's eternal existence. In the show even those who have been granted access into "heaven" eventually become bored and listless because, over the course of eternity, they eventually experience all they have ever wanted to do and have no new goals to accomplish or adventures left to experience. So even "heaven" becomes, in essence, a "hell." The solution to this problem in the final season of the show is to give everyone a chance to simply cease to exist once they feel satisfied with all they have done. 

I have often thought about the Christian idea of heaven and wondered myself about the concept of eternity and how anyone could remain engaged forever without becoming bored. A satisfactory answer requires much more creativity and imagination than that displayed by the writers and producers of The Good Place. I believe that The Bible anticipates this problem. The solution proposed is not cessation of individual existence, but cessation of the type of universe we now live in with its limited possibilities. When the apostle John gets a glimpse of a universe prepared for eternity he describes it as being totally different than the one we currently have. The new "Jerusalem" is a city in the shape of a cube about 1400 miles on each side. It seems this would require new laws of physics since it is unlikely any such structure could be built based on the physics principles of this universe. The future universe is a place where there will be no night, no tears, no pain, no mourning. Specifically, "the old order of things has passed away" (Revelation 21:4, NIV). 

An eternal finite universe like the one we live in now would eventually become boring as we maybe eventually explore all it has to offer. But the teachings of Christ indicate that this is not what the next universe will be like. The same God who is so imaginative that he created quantum mechanics, black holes, and even 95% of the energy density of the universe we don't yet understand in dark matter and dark energy, has a whole new unimaginable universe waiting for those who have trusted and followed him while on earth. If that universe were simply more of the same as depicted in The Good Place, then we would become unsatisfied and listless with it. But that is not the case. It is, in fact, going to be totally different. The apostle Paul writes in 1 Corinthian 2:9 "No eye has seen, no ear has heard, and no mind has imagined what God has prepared for those who love him." Apart from that totally different and new "physical" universe itself we are told that God himself will be there. Simply encountering him as an eternal being and worshipping him would likely occupy us with no boredom for eternity. 

As creative as the minds were that gave us The Good Place, there is no way they could begin to compete with the creativity and imagination of the God and creator of this universe. He tells us that we as humans can't even begin to imagine what the new universe will be like. It is, in fact, mind boggling to begin to even try to think about how amazing a new universe could be that comes from the same mind that designed and created this one. As remarkable as this one is, the next will be of an entirely different quality and type. I'm sure that it will be so vast, limitless, new, and unique that we will never get bored. Such a universe must have entirely different laws of physics than those that apply to our current universe. Our current universe requires an arrow of time and the second law of thermodynamics. I'm pretty sure the next won't have a law like the second law that leads to less usable energy and higher randomness. Who knows? Maybe there won't even be time as we know it in the next universe. As a physicist this all presents an exciting opportunity. The future new "heaven and earth" will give me new laws of physics to explore, discover, and study for a long time. I expect to have fun doing that with the promise of future full employment and full opportunity: a "good place" far different from simply more of the same.

23 comments:

  1. Here's an idea for you for future blogs. I would appreciate a layperson's explanation and Christian perspective on new discoveries and theories in the area of physics and cosmology. I probably see an article headline every week about possibility of extraterrestrial life, multi-verses, universe origination, fusion power, new states of matter, etc. I believe you would be able to help us lay people understand it, and be honest about what we know and don't know. I would really appreciate a professional scientist's views on these claims. Keep up the good work. Thanks,

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    1. Thanks. These are all good topics for discussion. Some I'm not an expert on, but as a physicist I could possibly give some insight. I appreciate your comments and suggestions.

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  2. As I read this post, it occurred to me that I have been missing out by not going back to the beginning of your blog and reading through all of your posts. I am going to remedy that, starting today. Thank you for sharing your wisdom and insights so generously.

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    1. Thanks so much. That is very kind of you to say. I appreciate it.

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  3. "As far as I know, Christianity is the only world view that does not base one's eternal destiny on a system that weighs an individual's good actions versus their bad actions. That is an important and profound distinctive of Christian doctrine."

    This belief is a distinctive of CALVINIST doctrine. The majority of the world's Christians believes that ones actions very much play a role in one's eternal destiny. Not even Martin Luther believed in "once saved, always saved". Quotes by numerous Early Church Fathers strongly indicate that although faith and belief in Jesus as the Christ was a necessary prerequisite to eternal salvation good deeds were absolutely necessary to KEEP that salvation. Calvinist Protestants love to read the Epistle of Romans but how often do you hear a sermon in a calvinistic church from the Epistle of James?

    "Faith without works is dead."

    Calvinists can twist themselves into pretzels to claim that once one believes he has a Get-into-Heaven-Free card, but according to the author of James, no one gets into heaven by faith alone.

    Christianity is therefore NOT unique among the world's religions.

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    1. I'm sorry but you are totally incorrect in your understanding of Christianity. John writes in 1 John 5:13, "I write these things to you who believe in the name of the Son of God so that you may know that you have eternal life." Belief, not works, brings eternal life. You are misunderstanding James. James uses the word faith to mean intellectual assent and not true belief and trust, and works as the outflowing of true faith. Even Martin Luther misunderstood James's terms so thought James shouldn't be a part of scripture. But for every verse you can take out of context to try to support your premise that works are necessary, I can give you 10 verses that say just the opposite. See Ephesians 2:8-9 as quoted below. The most famous verse in the Bible tells how to have eternal life and mentions only belief, not works. John 3:16, "For God so loved the world that he gave his one and only Son, that whoever believes in him shall not perish but have eternal life."

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  4. “Righteousness is not that you turn your faces to the east and the west [in prayer]. But righteous is the one who believes in God, the Last Day, the Angels, the Scripture and the Prophets; who gives his wealth in spite of love for it to kinsfolk, orphans, the poor, the wayfarer, to those who ask and to set slaves free. And (righteous are) those who pray, pay alms, honor their agreements, and are patient in (times of) poverty, ailment and during conflict. Such are the people of truth. And they are the God-Fearing.”

    — Quran Surah 2: Verse 177

    Gary: So in Islam, belief (faith) and good works are necessary to attain righteousness. Historic Christianity teaches the exact same principle! Christianity is NOT unique among world religions!

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    1. I'm sorry, but you do not understand Christian doctrine. Over and over in the Bible people are saved by faith and not works. How could it be any more clear than what Paul says in Ephesians 2:8-9, "For it is by grace you have been saved, through faith—and this is not from yourselves, it is the gift of God - not by works, so that no one can boast." It seems that your understanding is tainted by your presuppositions.

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    2. When the world's Christians can agree on this issue, then you can claim that Christianity is unique.

      BTW: Conservative Lutherans believe that evangelicals teach salvation by works because you believe that you must make an informed "decision" to be saved. Making a decision is something you do of your own volition, therefore it is a work.

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    3. I guess you've never heard of the Protestant Reformation in which the key issue was salvation by grace through faith apart from works. Either you just want to argue or you seem to be very ignorant of history and Christian doctrine.

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    4. After growing up evangelical, I became a Lutheran. Lutherans believe that God gifts salvation. Humans do not decide to be saved, God gifts it to them. That is why Lutherans continue the ancient (catholic) Christian practice of baptizing infants when other Protestants (Baptists and Ana-Baptists) abandoned it. Lutherans believe that God grants faith and salvation to infants brought to the baptismal font. Lutherans also believe that adults can be saved by the power of the Word, spoken or read. They do not believe that the conversion of an adult has anything to do with a human "decision". Converts, whether infants or adults, believe because God elected for them to believe. Luther had Baptists burned at the stake for rejecting this teaching.

      Luther (nor Calvin) ever equated baptism with a work.

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  5. Correction: Luther authorized the execution of Ana-Baptists, not Baptists, and he allegedly did so because he thought their theology encouraged civil disorder. His is an article for the Ana-Baptists/Mennonites:

    https://gameo.org/index.php?title=Luther,_Martin_(1483-1546)

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    1. There are certainly different opinions on how each individual exercises faith, but within all the differences, the common belief is that salvation is by grace alone through faith alone. The five "solas" of the reformation were

      Sola scriptura ("by Scripture alone")
      Sola fide ("by faith alone")
      Sola gratia ("by grace alone")
      Solus Christus or Solo Christo ("Christ alone" or "through Christ alone")
      Soli Deo gloria ("glory to God alone")

      Notice, please, by grace alone by faith alone.

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    2. Yes, that is the Protestant version of Christianity, based on the Epistle to the Romans and denigrating (almost throwing out as non-canonical) the Epistle to the Romans. The fact remains that the overwhelming majority of the world's Christians (RCC and Eastern Orthodox) believe that works are essential to salvation. Protestantism is a product of Enlightenment philosophy. Original Christianity taught faith plus works equals salvation. I would encourage you to read the works of the Early Church Fathers. You won't find any of them saying "salvation is by faith alone".

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    3. Gary, you ask me to quote church fathers. I quote the Apostle Paul who precedes the church fathers and wrote, what Christians believe to be Scripture, with much more authority than anything the church fathers would write. But you say that isn't good enough, so I send a link to quotes from church fathers. You dismiss those and say they are taken out of context. As I said, the truth is out there for those who want to find it. Nothing I present will make any difference to you since your mind is made up despite any facts that I present.

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  6. Here is a challenge for you, Michael: Please provide a quote from one Early Church Father who states that "salvation is by faith in Jesus Christ alone. Works play no role in one obtaining eternal salvation".

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    1. Gary, I will not post any more of your comments on this because, as before, I answer your questions and you keep saying the same thing. My stated policy is I will not post comments that are simply repetitive. You seem incapable of understanding and assimilating simple statements. Paul is about as early a church father who there can be and writes Ephesians 2:8-9 as stated below. How much more clear could it be? "For it is by grace you have been saved, through faith—and this is not from yourselves, it is the gift of God - not by works, so that no one can boast."

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    2. For church fathers who believed in salvation by faith alone, just do a web search as found here, for instance, at https://actheologian.com/2016/04/21/church-fathers-on-sola-fide/. It's not that hard to find the truth if you want it. Too bad there are people who don't really care about the truth.

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    3. I read your link. Yes, you can find quotes that sound like early Church Fathers endorsed salvation by faith alone, but you are reading them out of context. As the comment I previously copied states, Roman Catholic do not believe that their works initially assist in the justification. They believe that works "participate in their ongoing justification". That is an important distinction.

      Check out this Catholic website:

      The Council of Trent, like Pope Saint Clement confirm that works do not merit the grace of justification. Many Protestants misunderstand what the Catholic Church teaches. As Trent decreed, the justified “increase in that justice which they have received through the grace of Christ” by means of “faith co-operating with good works,” to use the phrase of the Council and that of Saint James. Catholics do not earn the initial grace of justification."


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  7. I'm Really Glad to See You Back Posting!!!
    "Paul writes in 1 Corinthian 2:9 "No eye has seen, no ear has heard, and no mind has imagined what God has prepared for those who love him.""

    "I Can Imagine An Awful Lot!"
    Hans Solo

    Part of the problem is trying wrap our heads around some place where the laws we live by don't Apply. Heaven...every time is NOW, every place is HERE, three persons can be ONE, Isaiah trying to explain what an angel looks like....he and we had/have no frame of reference.

    I'm really looking forward to it.

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  8. Please continue your blog. You are much appreciated!!

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  9. Thank you for your thoughtful blog, Mike. Glad to see you back!

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  10. I enjoy watching your videos on YouTube and reading your post. I tell people who use science as an arguement and struggle with believing in God and Creation to read and watch your material. Thank you for taking the time to share.

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