Harmony of Bible and Science Presented in a Series of Articles
06 Is The Universe Eternal?
Bible and Science – Is the Universe Eternal?
Thy kingdom is an everlasting kingdom, and thy dominion endureth
throughout all generations (Psalm 145:13)
When the Lord made His promises to the patriarch Abraham He said: For all the land which thou seest, to thee will I give it, and to thy seed for ever (Gen. 13:15).[i] The concept of an everlasting kingdom on earth is one of the most important themes in scripture. It is mentioned countless times, from the early words quoted from Genesis through the picture of the New Jerusalem provided in the final pages of our Bibles (Rev. 21:10). It would seem self-evident that for these promises to be completely fulfilled, the heavens and earth themselves must last forever. We have looked at the birth of the universe in previous chapters, now let us ask the question: Will it ever perish?
Scientists have looked into the future of the heavens and earth with the same keen interest as they have delved into the birth of the universe. There are many issues to consider when we ponder the future course of the universe. In this chapter we will consider several of these scenarios: first, the classical thermodynamic role of entropy,[ii] second, the lifetimes of stars from the view of nuclear physics, third, the possible reversal of the expanding universe and finally, the most recent efforts of high-energy physics with respect to the stability of the constituents of the atomic nucleus.
Disorder the rule
In the late nineteenth century scientists studied the basic physics that made heat engines work. In the course of these studies the three basic laws of thermodynamics were uncovered. So fundamental are these laws that, to paraphrase Einstein, one could say that if all else were someday found to fail in physics there would still be thermodynamics. The second law of thermodynamics states that the direction of spontaneous change in isolated systems is [always] toward maximum disorder.[iii] Hence heat always flows from a hotter body to a cooler body and if one leaves a cold cup of coffee on the kitchen table it will never spontaneously warm up of its own accord. Taken together, all processes occurring now will result in a universe of greater disorder.[iv]
Thus, without the intervention of some outside source, the universe as a whole must increase in entropy and gradually will cool down so that every star, every planet and, indeed, whatsoever life exists in it must eventually reach absolute zero and utterly freeze.
Problem for the sun
One of the consequences of this law is that the atomic fusion reactions that fuel our sun will ultimately die out. The energy that powers our sun comes from nuclear reactions similar to the hydrogen bomb. The sun is a fiery cauldron of nuclear fusion reactions, which create a dynamic plasma of intensely hot ion gases that flare outward from the surface layers of the sun. This outward pressure counteracts the gravitational forces that act to draw all the mass of the sun toward its center.
Since the mass of the sun is not infinite, scientists believe it is inevitable that one day the nuclear reactions will cease. When this happens there will not be enough energy to maintain this outward pressure and the sun will ultimately collapse into a dead mass. Of course, the earth and all the planets will be destroyed in the process. A similar fate awaits every star in the universe; it would simply be a matter of time when entropy more or less finished its job and produced utter darkness. No need to worry just yet, this is not expected to happen for some millions of years in the future; but of course if this scenario is correct, then the earth will surely not last forever.
Universe may be approaching stability
Another limitation on the life of the universe is implied in the outward expansion that has occurred since creation. We have discussed in an earlier article how every galaxy in the universe is moving away from us and the more distant a galaxy is the faster it is receding. The question arises: will this expansion eventually stop and reverse itself or will the expansion continue forever until all galaxies are infinitely far apart and the night sky is absolutely pitch black?
To answer this question cosmologists have sought to measure the net mass of the universe. If this mass is above a certain critical amount, the expansion of the universe will sooner or later stop, and the effect of gravitation will draw all the mass in the universe into one relatively small sphere. On the other hand, if the mass is below this critical amount then the universe will expand forever until it eventually disperses into space dust. Thus there are two possibilities: either the universe collapses in a big crunch or it flickers out and ends in a small whimper.
The key is whether or not there is enough mass to slow down the kinetic energy imparted to the galaxies by the initial big bang event. The way to determine which model is correct seems simple enough; measure all the mass in the universe and use Newton’s laws to calculate if that is sufficient to cause gravitational collapse or not. Measuring all the mass in the universe does not seem to scientists as difficult as the layman might imagine. The mass in all the stars and galaxies appears to be fairly uniformly distributed in space; therefore one need only measure a small sector of the night sky, obtain the mass density, and then scale this according to the entire spherical volume of the universe out to the Hubble limit.[v]
Of course, simple did not turn out to be simple at all! First, there seems to be strange gravitational effects which give strong hints of hidden mass in the universe. In fact, as much as 90% or more of the mass may not be detected when one makes normal cosmological observations. Where is this mass? Some scientists think it may lie in exotic particles called neutrinos,[vi] which were previously thought to be devoid of mass. The universe is literally awash in these neutrinos, which are the normal by-product of the nuclear reactions powering the stars. If neutrinos have even the smallest amount of mass this would solve a big problem. Unfortunately, detecting and measuring neutrino mass is not for the faint-hearted. Neutrinos have no electronic charge and interact so weakly with matter that billions of them can pass through our body every day and we would never even notice. Even with all the best estimates of mass in the universe, the question of crunch or whimper is almost impossible to answer.
A constant “C” has been defined (the details need not trouble us here) whereby if C is greater than 1 the universe expands forever and if C less than 1 it collapses. Remarkably, the best estimates of this constant come out with the result that C = 1 within the experimental error. Hence, it’s too close to call and scientists don’t yet have an answer; they simply cannot predict whether or not the universe will expand forever or collapse in a big crunch. Indeed if this result is exactly correct the universe will eventually reach stability and neither expand nor contract.
Protons remarkably stable
We have yet one more problem to think about and that is the very stability of matter itself. The “standard model” of the universe predicts that the proton is not stable, but will eventually decay into other subatomic particles. The proton is a fundamental constituent of every element in the periodic table. The hydrogen atom, for example, is made up of one positively charged proton in its nucleus accompanied by a negative electron orbiting in a shell around the nucleus.[vii]
The atomic number of an element is equal to the number of protons in the nucleus; the remainder of the mass is made up of another fundamental particle without electronic charge called the neutron. Therefore, if the proton disintegrated, every element in the universe would eventually become unstable and perform a disappearing act.
Calculations of the lifetime of the proton have yielded a figure of 1033 years, which is the number 10 followed by 33 zeros. That is a very long time to wait to see if a proton actually decays. However, this figure is also a probability and this offers a possible way of determining if instability of the proton actually exists. To do this all we need is 1033 protons and then the probability is that at least one of them will be found to decay within one year! This is exactly how scientists have chosen to attack the problem of proton decay in what is known as the IMB project.[viii]
The research team of the IMB project has built a huge chamber at the bottom of a salt mine with more than 1033 protons in it. Since you cannot isolate individual protons for very long, what is actually in the chamber is a 10,000-ton water Cerenkov detector.[ix] The water molecule is made up of one hydrogen atom and two oxygen atoms so there are plenty of individual protons available in the tank that could possibly decay. The IMB chamber is at the bottom of a salt mine to isolate it from other nuclear decay products that can occur, for example, from radioactive isotopes or cosmic rays. This huge water tank is completely surrounded with a giant array of photodetectors, which are continuously recording with the hope of finding a flash of light given off by the disintegration of a proton. The data from these detectors is processed with complex software to eliminate any spurious results from other types of subatomic decay products.
The IMB experiment ran for about 10 years, as have several other similar detectors (with somewhat larger amounts of water in their test chambers), which have run for long periods of time at several other places around the world. If everything followed expected theoretical predictions a number of proton decay events should have been observed by now. The remarkable result of all these experiments everywhere is that not a single proton decay observation has been made! Something is clearly wrong; either the lifetime predictions are way off or the proton simply doesn’t decay. Physicists are retracing their steps to see if there is something wrong with the “standard model” of the universe.
Promises ensure forever
We set out in this chapter to find out the future of the universe, both from the scientific and the biblical points of view. The indications from science are mixed; the principle of entropy and the eventual death of stars from exhausting their nuclear fuel seem to indicate that the universe will eventually die. However, whether or not the universe will expand forever or not and the questions concerning the stability of matter seem to give indeterminate results. What do scriptures say? Surely the Lord God could anticipate the findings of science in these latter days and would not leave us without guidance. When the Bible records that His kingdom would be forever we definitely take that to mean without end. Let us examine some relevant scriptures.
First of all, the Bible never says that the universe would last forever, the Bible clearly states that God only hath immortality (I Tim.6:16). It would seem that everything past, present and future is derived from the Lord God almighty and that His existence is undoubtedly the only thing in the universe that we can say for certain is from everlasting to everlasting (see I Cor. 15:28). The words of Psalm 102 reinforce this view:
In the beginning you laid the foundations of the earth, and the heavens are the work of your hands. They will perish, but you remain; they will all wear out like a garment. Like clothing you will change them and they will be discarded. But you remain the same, and your years will never end. The children of your servants will live in your presence; their descendants will be established before you.(Psa. 102:25-28 NIV)
The words of the prophet Isaiah also provide us with additional insight:
The sun will no more be your light by day, nor will the brightness of the moon shine on you, for the Lord will be your everlasting light, and your God will be your glory. Your sun will never set again, and your moon will wane no more; the LORD will be your everlasting light, and your days of sorrow will end(Isa. 60:19-20 NIV).
We might be tempted to say that the words of the Psalmist and of the prophet were merely meant to be poetic metaphors and not to be taken literally. But when we turn to the New Testament we find that the book of Hebrews paraphrases the passage from Psalm 102 and there is absolutely no need for either poetry or methaphor:
And, Thou, Lord, in the beginning hast laid the foundation of the earth; and the heavens are the works of thine hands: They shall perish; but thou remainest; and they all shall wax old as doth a garment; And as a vesture shalt thou fold them up, and they shall be changed: but thou art the same, and thy years shall not fail (Heb. 1:10-12).
Surely we believe literally with all our heart that the Lord, in the beginning laid the foundation of the earth and that the heavens are the works of His hands. That being the case why should we not believe the rest of the quote as literal truth?
With this in mind, we need not be concerned with the scientific findings of the law of entropy or the flameout of the stars from nuclear fuel exhaustion. For that matter, whatever the expectations from any other scientific findings on the future of the universe, however intriguing, we nonetheless know that the Lord God will prevail and his promises are secure. But as it is written, Eye hath not seen, nor ear heard, neither have entered into the heart of man, the things which God hath prepared for them that love him (I Cor. 2:9).
By John C. Bilello, Ann Arbor, Michigan
[i] See similar statement also in II Sam. 7:16; I Kgs. 2:33,45; 9:5; Psa. 37:29 and many more.
[ii] For those less scientifically inclined: thermodynamics is the study of heat flow and entropy is the degree of disorder in a system. The concept of entropy applies to all physical systems (as far as we know).
[iii] World Book Encyclopedia ©, Electronic edition, article on “Entropy”.
[v] The Hubble limit is the radius of the universe where the expansion velocity reaches the speed of light.
[vi] Originally invoked theoretically, later found experimentally by Enrico Fermi. He named it the “neutrino” (which means in colloquial Italian little neutral one).
[vii] Danish physicist Neils Bohr first pictured the electron as orbiting the proton much like the moon orbits the earth. The orbital energy was supposed to keep the electron in orbit, however, we know today that this model is too simple. More complex quantum mechanical explanations are beyond the scope of this article.
[viii] IMB stands for the names of the collaborating institutions that built and managed the “proton decay” project: Irvine/Michigan/Brookhaven, i.e. University of California, Irvine, University of Michigan and Brookhaven National Laboratory in New York. Together they built the proton-decay detector, which is located 2000 feet underground in the old Morton Salt mine near Cleveland, Ohio.
[ix] Copy of the original scientific proposal can be found at: http://www-personal.umich.edu/~jcv/imb/imb.html