Saturday, February 13, 2021

The Strong Force and Colossians 1:17

When I was in elementary school I went to Cedar Lake Camp in north-central Tennessee every summer. It was an awesome experience where I learned to handle a canoe, shoot rifles and bows, play tennis, do woodworking, and many more things. Maybe the best part was that I could buy chocolate soda for a dime. Cedar Lake was a Christian camp where Christian principles from the Bible were discussed. I vividly remember one lesson that was given by my camp counselor because it had to do with science and I was interested in science even as a kid. The counselor stated that the nucleus of an atom is made of neutrons and protons. He further explained that the protons all had a positive electric charge and that electric charges with the same sign repelled each other. He reasoned that because all the positive protons in the nucleus repelled each other the nucleus should be unstable, flying apart due to this strong repulsive force. But the nucleus doesn't do that. It doesn't fly apart. He claimed there was no explanation for this stable nucleus except the explanation given in the New Testament in Colossians 1:17 where the Apostle Paul writes, "He [Jesus] is before all things, and in him all things hold together" (NIV). The mystery of why the nucleus doesn't fly apart was solved: Jesus held it together. The counselor seemed to be implying that the laws of physics could not explain the stability of the nucleus but that Jesus supernaturally held the nucleus together.

This counselor is not the only one who has interpreted Colossians 1:17 in this manner. I get more emails and letters from people asking me about this verse in the Bible than any other verse. One reader recently quoted an article in an issue of Decision magazine that said, "Science can’t explain the forces that hold an atomic nucleus together—the protons and neutrons should repel each other but don’t. ...Physicists for years have toyed with the quantum chromodynamics theory, the notion that particles are bound with a sort of atomic glue. Jesus Christ is the real powder behind gravity, centrifugal and centripetal force."1 

It is ironic that I remember that incident from my childhood and now as an adult I have spent over 25 years studying the structure of the proton—what it is made of and what holds it together, including how protons are held together in the nucleus. Part of the irony is that I don't know of any conscious connection between what I heard at camp and the later decisions I made in life to become a particle physicist. The latter was simply a result of following my scientific interests.

So let me affirm that physicists have not simply "toyed with the quantum chromodynamics theory." Quantum Chromodynamics (QCD) is a complex and tested mathematical theory that describes the strong nuclear force, or simply the strong force. This is the force that binds together the constituent particles that make up the proton, called quarks. Additionally, a "residual" QCD force is responsible for binding the protons and neutrons together in the nucleus. The attractive strong force is more powerful at short distances than the repulsive electromagnetic force and the nucleus is cohesively bound. This is not a theory that is simply postulated or toyed with. It is a theory that has been tested over and over again and has been shown to be the correct theory of nuclear and nucleon2 binding.

When I affirm that QCD accurately describes how the neutrons and protons are bound together in the nucleus, that brings up at least two questions in my mind. The first is, "What do scientists mean when they say that a theory is correct, or accurately describes a phenomena?" and the second is, "What does Colossians mean when it states that Jesus holds all things together?" The first is a scientific, or at least a philosophy of science question, and the second is more of a theological question. I'll discuss the second question in the rest of this blog post and then discuss the first question in my next blog post.

How does Jesus hold all things together as Colossians says he does? Does he do it supernaturally apart from the laws of physics as my camp counselor and the writer in Decision magazine seem to imply? I don't know the definitive answer but I think there are two viable options which are not mutually exclusive, neither of which asserts that he holds the nucleus together supernaturally.

The first option is that this verse simply means that Jesus holds all things together at the atomic level in the same way he works in nature, in general. As I mentioned in one of the first blog posts I ever wrote, which can be read here, the Bible indicates that the usual way we see God in nature is through the fact that nature is so well designed and works so well. As an example of this consider one of the most famous verses in the Bible on the subject of seeing God's hand in nature. Psalm 19:1 says, "The heavens declare the glory of God; the skies proclaim the work of his hands" (NIV)." If the reader wants to know how the heavens declare God's glory and the skies show his work, the reasons are described further in the Psalm where verses 5 and 6 state, "In the heavens God has pitched a tent for the sun. It is like a bridegroom coming out of his chamber, like a champion rejoicing to run his course. It rises at one end of the heaven and makes its circuit to the other; nothing is deprived of its warmth" (NIV). God's glory is declared in the heavens, not through some supernatural occurrence or act, but through the everyday mundane motion of the sun and its life-giving effect on humans. This passage, and many many more, show how God is seen in nature. He is seen because the natural world works so beautifully, and because it works in a way that provides what is necessary for life. I believe this is the most likely meaning of Colossians 1:17, that Jesus holds things together in the same way he usually works in nature, through the amazingly designed and implemented principles within nature that provide what is needed for life to exist.

There is another option for the meaning of Colossians 1:17 that is more philosophical or theological. That is, in a metaphysical way Jesus holds everything together. He is the first and the last, the alpha and omega. He is before all things and created all things. He is the thread that binds the history of the universe together. Access to God the Father comes through him alone. Without Jesus there is no universe and there is no ultimate meaning and purpose in the universe. Without him nothing holds together; it all falls apart. This second option is, of course, completely compatible with the first and the two likely co-exist.

My understanding of Colossians 1:17 elicits a hypothetical question that I have asked a few theologians and Christian scientists alike, "If God were to remove his presence from this universe, would it continue to operate as it does or would it fall apart." In other words, "Is God's active presence required to sustain this physical universe?" The majority of those that I have asked believe that if God were to leave the universe it would cease to operate correctly or cease to exist altogether. They believe that God's active presence is required to sustain the universe. I believe the opposite. If God were to remove himself from this universe, (which is clearly hypothetical since God is omnipresent), I believe the physical universe would continue to operate just as it does. I don't have a compelling biblical reason for this belief, but it is based on my understanding of both God and of the universe. Any really good designer and builder of anything, whether it is an automobile, a computer program, or a building, should be able to walk away from their creation and if it is well designed and built, it should be able to continue operating just fine. In fact, a car that is constantly in the shop or a computer program that continually crashes is often an indication that the design or construction is quite flawed. I believe that God is the ultimate designer and builder, able to create something that has no flaws. I believe he created a physical universe that truly does declare his glory and power in that it works so well and is so well designed that if he were to leave the universe it would continue to operate like a finely crafted watch. 

Such a view of God and his creation may invoke the idea of a deistic god who created the universe then has left it to run on its own. In no way do I believe the one true God has done that. As the Bible indicates, and as I have experienced in my own life, God is a personal being who is actively involved with the human creatures in this universe. He is the creator of all life and cares about each individual human. He wants to have a personal relationship with each one and chooses to reveal himself to us and to be involved in our lives. He provides ultimate purpose and meaning in life. He performs miracles and sovereignly guides history. He is also the one who created the strong force which holds the nucleus together. More on that in my next blog post.

1Heitzig, Skip, (2020, December) "Jesus the Eternal Son of God," Decision.
2Nucleon is a word that means both protons and neutrons, the two particles that make up the nucleus of atoms.


  1. I may be anticipating the next blog; however, I understand that scientists have a variety of sophisticated "testing" procedures to examine the results of observations made on experimental data and that these tests determine a level of confidence whether or not the phenomenon conform or confirm the hypotheses that make up a theory they are advancing.

    If so, I would expect that there are "tests" one should use in determining when, on rare occasions, a believer or unbeliever have observed a phenomenon that is "best" explained as a supernatural intervention or even a miracle. If so, what tests would you advocate.

    1. I think the short and simplistic answer is that when all the evidence is best explained by a supernatural event, then the supernatural event is the most likely explanation.

  2. Would a discontinuity in the normal operations of any "system" be considered evidence of a supernatural event or intervention. Does science entertain discontinuous behavior in any of its expected behaviors under a widely accepted theory? Surely the biblical miracles would or cound be considered discontinuities from long observed norms. Is QM in its operations by its nature discontinuous but not miraculous? By example the universe operates in perhaps the only way it could over eons that permit life and us to observe it. But the ex nihilo beginning big bang was surely a discontinuity in any sense. Thinking on a frigid day might be too much.

  3. I think many could agree that the biblical miracles exhibit discontinuities: Withered hands restored, blind to see, back from the dead, rivers partly and water heaping up. I'm pretty sure most if not all scientists observing such discontinuous behavior is biological or mechanistic systems would agree to a miracle having occurred. The observed universe in its operations are "continuous" though complex and difficult to describe mathematically. It seems to be only universe that could permit life and our ability to observe it. But the ex nihilo beginning would certainly appear to be a singular discontinuity and a miracle to many. So are there accepted discontinuities in science that are accepted in the governing theory but not considered miraculous? Are QM operations and behaviors discontinuous but not miraculous? Is the phenomenon of discontinuity evidence of a miracle?

  4. Hi Dr. Strauss,
    Enjoyed this blog! Thanks for answering my question. Love how it brought back camp memories.

    You miss-typed ‘Discover’ as the second mention of ‘Decisions’ magazine.

    Blessings! Ed

  5. Hi Michael,
    you believe in the (hypothetical) absence of God everything would continue as we know it - the laws of physics and everything else. Could be the case. But if you consider for example the finetuning of the cosmos and it's constants as a sign of God's faithfullness towards us and his creation (as John Polkinghorne sees it), it could also be otherwise. Isn't God the guarantor of finetuning and the world as we know it? Of course this should not be due to God's action (that he would need to tune the cosmos from time to time), but due to his very nature (intrinsically good, loving and faithful), which is reflected in the creation. Just a thought :-)! Greetings and blessings from Germany, Marcel

  6. Read a report summarizing the results of a two year attempt to detect any "wrinkles" in spacetime occurring in measurements at the Planck Time Planck Volume ( I have no idea what those number mean) both linearly and rotationally. The report stated that on no occasion was even a single occurrence w detected. Apparently this experiment was at the edge of our technical capabilities. My question is whether this indicates that the transition from the large scale physics (general relativity) to the small scale physics (quantum physics) is likely to be described by continuous, smooth, "beautiful" mathematical formulation that corresponds to the reported experimental results?

    1. I don't really know the answer to your question. Whether we have a "smooth" or quantum discreet transition could either way lead to a beautiful mathematical description of quantum gravity. A quantized space size would solve the problems though I believe there are some challenges/complications with that solution.