Theology to Come

As a theologian, Bible scholar, science fiction author and fan, I have odd thoughts on a regular basis. What follow are somewhat random thoughts in need of much more contemplation.

The universe we know today is radically larger than that which the authors of the Bible knew, than that which the Church Fathers knew, and what the theologians of the Reformation and early modern era knew.

Yet, if we look at the bulk of theological musings since the burst of information that has become available in the twentieth and twenty-first centuries, much of it seems stuck in a geocentric, medieval, small-scale universe.

What adjustments must be made in our understanding of God and the Bible as a result of quantum and relativistic physics, astronomy, geology, biology and neurological and computational science? Those who reject the existence of God will see the question as entirely nonsensical, while many Christians will be tempted to pick up stones or worse, will simply fail to comprehend that any of these questions need to be thought about at all.

But as odd as the following questions may seem, I believe they may affect our understanding of God and his workings.

So. What do we do with the inevitable discovery of both life and intelligence elsewhere in the universe? The Milky Way Galaxy alone contains around 400 billion stars. We now know planets are common. If even one percent of those stars have planets like Earth, that’s 4 billion just in the Milky Way. What of the hundreds of billions of other galaxies just within the observable universe, each of which might contain 4 billion or more Earth-like worlds?

If there are multiple-beyond-comprehension intelligent species scattered through the universe, did their equivalent of Jesus die for their sins? Will it be necessary at some point in the future for theologians to do “comparative” Christianity: discuss the similarities and differences of the incarnation of God on other worlds and the resulting religion? Should we start planning for that eventuality?

Given the size of the universe, why “is God mindful of man” as the Psalmist writes in Psalm 8:4?  Is humanity alone special, or should we assume that God’s mindfulness extends to all sentient beings in the universe? If not, why not?

What effect might neuroscience and computers have on our understanding of the soul? What are we going to do when strong AI becomes a reality? I’d suggest that those who imagine HAL 9000 or its equivalent isn’t ever going to happen are naïve. We need to think about this and come to grips with it now, before someone like Data, Star Trek’s android, appears and starts wondering about the eternal destiny of his soul.

How is the resurrection accomplished? What happens at death? How does God restore us? Does our experience with computers help us understand that? Is the universe like a computer simulation, but with much better graphics? Does he “save” our running programs—our souls—to his flash drive? Is the resurrection thanks to the fact that God has created a backup of each of us?

According to some branches of Christian theology, Christians will, at some future point be “raptured” when Jesus comes back to the Earth. What are the logistics of that if I’m on the International Space Station, or on the Moon, or Mars or in interstellar space? How does the resurrection work if my body is buried on the moon or in orbit? After all, the astronomer Gene Shoemaker’s ashes are already sitting on the moon, and the ashes of several other people are currently in orbit. This is not just a theoretical question.  It is now a real one. Most theological treatments of the resurrection and second coming are hopelessly geocentric and naïve, it seems to me. Perhaps the wording of Mark 13:7 is more literal than most have thought:

“And he will send his angels and gather his elect from the four winds, from the ends of the earth to the ends of the heavens.”

What I’m doing here is just thinking out loud. Asking crazy questions. But that’s what theology is really all about: asking questions and then looking to see if there are answers–and then finding even more questions. 

There is more to doing theology than just reading the Bible. Most theologians recognize that God’s revelation of himself to humanity is not limited to just what is called “special revelation”: the Bible. It also includes his “general revelation”: God’s creation. As the Psalmist wrote, “the heavens declare the glory of God.” (Psalm 19)

Modern theology must therefore address the ramifications of what we’ve learned from general revelation. With each new discovery, God becomes bigger. When that Psalmist commented about what the “heavens declare” during the first millennium BC, he knew of only about three thousand stars and five planets: all that can be seen with the naked eye on a dark night.

Thanks to modern astronomy, the ancient psalmist’s words have become far more profound and powerful. Today we see a heaven filled with more stars than all the grains of sand on Earth, planets beyond counting, galaxies, super novas, black holes and quasars.

Theology becomes ever harder and the questions ever multiply. Our understanding of theology is still in its infancy.

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About R.P. Nettelhorst

I'm married with three daughters. I live in southern California and I'm the interim pastor at Quartz Hill Community Church. I have written several books. I spent a couple of summers while I was in college working on a kibbutz in Israel. In 2004, I was a volunteer with the Ansari X-Prize at the winning launches of SpaceShipOne. Member of Society of Biblical Literature, American Academy of Religion, and The Authors Guild
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