Time, Causation, and Salvation
By John Drury
Some of the most basic Christian doctrines presuppose a concept of time and causation. For theology, these categories have been almost entirely dictated by Newtonian physics, despite the fact that they have undergone radical reconfiguration within modern physics. Although modern physics may not have the final answer to these issues, Christian theological reflection is nevertheless wise to not lock-in to out of date categories. In this paper I aim to loosen the grip of Newtonian categories of time and causation from Christian soteriology. I hope this process will open the door to new reflection on age old issues like predestination, the tenses of salvation, and the doctrine of physical resurrection.
The discussion of the interaction between modern physics and Christian theology has tended to center around the issues of creation and miracles. The “big bang” of modern cosmology has received a mixed response from Christian theologians, and the issues of chance and probability has re-opened the debate over divine intervention. Many Christians have taken the new physics to be an opportunity to defend the existence and meaning of God anew.
I propose that Christian theology ought to have a much different attitude toward modern developments in physics. The aforementioned discussions attempt to use physics to “prove” God and his intervention in the world. However, modern physics may make room for belief in God, but it does little to prove it. For instance, many have tried to affirm the “big bang” as the moment in time when God created the cosmos. However, the “big bang” singularity is not just the beginning of matter and energy, but also of space-time and causation. How could a God act “before” time or “outside” space? How could God “cause” the processes of causation? We are forced to use senseless temporal-spatial and causal categories when trying to prove God and creation in this manner. At best we can speak of the possibility of God’s role, but the proposition is rather difficult to prove.
On the other hand, the new developments in modern physics have direct relation to significant Christian doctrines other than creation. The most significant of these is soteriology -- reflection on salvation. Soteriology is forced to assume certain categories of time and cause. Therefore, the changing view of these categories in modern physics is directly related to soteriology. In this discussion, however, the goal is not to prove Christian doctrines from science, but rather to utilize new scientific discoveries to reflect anew on the age old questions of soteriology.
It is important to note that this process does not imply Christian theology to be entirely subjected to modern physics. On the contrary, the point of this paper is that theology should not be held by the categories of any particular scientific paradigm. For the past few centuries Christian soteriology has been held tightly by Newtonian concepts of time and causation. My proposal is that theologians have every right to open the door to new discoveries in physics. This open-door policy will not only keep theology up-to-date, but also more liberated than it would be by locking-in to one particular scientific paradigm.
The Role of Temporal and Causal Categories in Science and Theology
The relationship between cause and effect has been an age-old discussion for philosophers and scientists. Time is a category of existence which must be dealt with in any scientific system. What is often taken for granted is the significance of these same categories for theological reflection. I will first point out the role of time and causation in scientific inquiry, then follow with a discussion of the often unspoken role of these categories in Christian soteriology.
The scientific discipline of physics studies the basic realities of the cosmos. One of these most basic elements is time. In order to speak of things “happening” in the universe, the scientist must speak in temporal categories. Although not a material entity, time is an integral part of reality. At the most basic level, the cosmos is made up of matter, energy, space and time. One cannot be a physicist without saying something about time.
Physics also studies the basic processes at work in the universe. The force of gravity, for instance, is a central topic of discussion for physicists. An even more basic process of the cosmos is causation. Actions are related by cause and effect in some way. Physicists observe actions in the universe and postulate their causes.
These same categories also play a central role in Christian theology. They play an obvious role in the discussion of creation and miracles, with which most science-theology dialogue is concerned. Yet they play an equally crucial albeit less recognized role in soteriology, which is usually thought to have little to do with science. Theologians must assume a great deal about time and causation to discuss God’s salvific activity.
For instance, the age-old debate over free-will and predestination takes for granted time and causation. When does God grant us grace? Who is the cause of salvation, our faith or divine decree? These are temporal and causal questions akin to that which a physicist might ask about natural processes in the universe. The discussion of physical resurrection, besides raising important mind-body questions, also carries implications for how the future interacts with the present. Christian soteriology is overwhelmingly eschatological, putting an emphasis on the meaning of the future. This future emphasis is necessarily influenced by one’s concept of time. Even the very term “salvation history” reveals the significance of time for Christian soteriology.
I propose that much of the grid-lock one finds in the current debate of these issues could be loosened if theologians would allow for a new understanding of temporal and causal categories. The rigid concepts of time and causation found in Newtonian physics have up to now defined the perimeters of the debate. New avenues for reflection will open if theology is willing to listen to the insights of modern physics. In order to do this, one must better understand the revolutionary new ideas of time and causation in contrast to Newtonian physics.
Time and Causation in Modern Physics
Simply put, Newton’s laws of time and cause are too rigid. This rigidity is exactly what has been critiqued by modern physics. His highly influential laws assumed time to be absolute (Hawking 18). Causation was also a rigid concept -- forces cause objects to move in predictable patterns. The theory of relativity, developed and popularized by Albert Einstein, “put an end to the idea of absolute time” (Hawking 22). Quantum mechanics, developed and popularized by Werner Heisenberg, destroyed the predictability of cause and effect by means of the uncertainty principle (Hawking 59).
The theory of relativity has given our understanding of time a thorough re-interpretation. For instance, the time dilation effect of highly sensitive atomic clocks implies that time is not absolute (Davies 120). Time is relative to each particular consciousness. One cannot, for instance, synchronize watches absolutely. Past, present and future are aspects of one’s consciousness. One person’s past is another person’s future. Furthermore, time is not a separate entity from space but is rather combined with it forming what is called space-time (Hawking 24). Therefore, time is not a mere measurement locating someone on a time-line, but rather a dynamic part of reality itself. (Hawking 36).
Like his concept of time, Newton’s rigid concept of causation has undergone attack by modern physics. Newton’s laws implied the absolute predictability of effects based on a knowledge of the causes (Hawking 57). The developments in quantum mechanics have now destroyed this predictability. For instance, one cannot simultaneously measure the location and the speed of a particle (Heisenberg 45). Rather, physicists must use probability to describe natural processes. This is known as the uncertainty principle. There remains the chance connection between events, yet a rigid concept of cause and effect cannot persist (Bohm 20). In light of the uncertainty principle, physicists have had to renounce of traditional Newtonian causality as a category of observation (Bohm 84)
Furthermore, chaos theory points out that when complex systems interact there are too many unknown causes at work for one to speak in terms other than probability. Also, quantum mechanics affirms the notion that the observer plays a significant role in observed reality (Gribbin 211-213). Therefore, causes are not known absolutely since the act of observing itself becomes a sort of undefined “cause.” Along with the revolutions in our concept of time, the traditional understanding of causation has been replaced with the principles of uncertainty and predictability. The cosmos remains related to itself as much as if not more so than before, yet without the rigidity of the Newtonian paradigm.
The Implications for Christian Soteriology
The considerable impact of relativity and quantum mechanics upon our traditional understanding of time and causation are undeniable. One might, however, contend that this has nothing to do with the world at large. However, the world is made up of these basic realities, so these observations have significant implications for the meaning of reality in general (Gribbin 211).
Nevertheless, even if the significance of modern physics on life in general is granted, one might still contend to its irrelevance to theology. Is not religion about the unseen world? Although religious matters are unseen, they must nevertheless be regarded as real, or else they have no meaning at all. Therefore, since the content of theology participates in reality, the developments of modern physics carry with them implications for it.
As we have already noted, the physical categories of time and causation are especially relevant to Christian soteriology. There are three areas of soteriology which experience significant re-interpretation in light of modern physics. These are the free-will versus predestination debate, the tenses of salvation, and physical resurrection. The objective is to free these discussions from rigid Newtonian categories of time and causation in order to open up new reflection and fresh possibilities.
Who is the “cause” of salvation? This is the basic question debated between proponents of free will and those who hold to predestination. The argument for predestination seems very simple within Newtonian categories of causation: God is the cause and human salvation is the effect. If humans played any part in the process, then God would become contingent on humanity and therefore would no longer be sovereign. Proponents of free will would retort by identifying salvation as a divine gift which can either be accepted or rejected. In both cases, God is affirmed as the first cause, yet the Newtonian categories typically used to debate the matter favor the argument for predestination.
What happens to the debate when the modern concept of causation is applied to it? Complete predictability and rigid causation have been repealed by quantum mechanics. Therefore, one can no longer simply say that God’s sovereignty is lost by the inclusion of human interaction. The fact that God’s act comes first does not necessarily make it a rigid cause (Davies 137). Quantum mechanics can speak of reverse-time causality, wherein an action in the future can cause an effect in the past. Also, according to chaos theory, the interaction of complex systems produces an uncertainty of causation. This implies that humans might be participating in their own salvation without necessarily making God a contingent being. Certainly the divine and human realms are systems as complex as anything at the quantum level. An open attitude toward the complex interaction between free-will and predestination is made possible by modern physics.
When are we saved? Were we saved in the past by divine decree, in the present by faithful confession, or in the future by the eschatological act of God? The appropriate answer to this question is that all three tenses are part of one salvation (Caird 118-119). However, holding these three in tension is very difficult, for they each carry implications which contradict each other under Newtonian categories of time. We are both already saved yet still awaiting salvation. This is an insoluble paradox where the discussion currently stands. New reflections are made possible, however, when one takes into account the relativity of time.
If time is a web where past, present, and future are relative aspects of reality, then a rigid distinction of what has already happened and what is still to come will not suffice. Theologians are often found equivocating on the temporal interaction between the present kingdom of God and its future culmination. The kingdom of God is incomplete now and therefore a future a reality, yet it also is experienced in the present through the Spirit. According to relativity, present need not precede the future except in our consciousness. Therefore, the complete kingdom of God remains in the future, yet is experienced in the present (Kung 221). “The end casts light and shade before it” (Kung 223). God then dwells in the future as His dimension (Kung 224). We can see here the relation between soteriology and modern physics, for past, present, and future are different dimensions rather than points an absolute time-line.
When are we resurrected? The doctrine of a physical resurrection has experienced a myriad of problems throughout the history of Christianity. What happens to the soul and/or the body when one dies? It is silly to think of the soul leaving the body to go to heaven, then returning with Jesus at the end of time to re-inhabit its body. Yet to simply deny the physical aspect of resurrection is to deny a core truth of the scriptures.
The possibilities opened up by the principle of relative time are considerable. One who experiences life after death would experience an increased consciousness of the unseen world (Griffin 105). As we have already noted, the unseen world is in many ways the realm of the future. Taking into account the relativity of time, death could very well bring about the increased consciousness of future realities. In other words, one is resurrected into the future.
Furthermore, one could believe in a physical resurrection without being relegated to a sharp mind-body dualism. Relative time implies the possibility of instantaneous physical resurrection into another realm of reality at the time of death while those who are yet living remain in this realm. In this way, those who die are entering into the future where Jesus has already entered (Moltmann 202). This proposal is in considerable harmony with the apostle Paul when he speaks of Jesus as the first-fruits of our own resurrection (I Cor. 15:23).
We have seen how modern physics has much to say about time and causation that is relevant for Christian theology. The above implications for soteriology are only the beginning. Much more theological reflection is to come. Nevertheless, the most significant revolution takes place when soteriology as a whole is freed from the shackles of Newtonian categories of time and causation. With this shift securely made, further reflection will become easier and the path to fresh solutions will be lighted.
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Caird, G. B. New Testament Theology. Oxford: Clarendon Press, 1994.
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Gribbin, John. In Search of Schrodinger’s Cat: Quantum Physics and Reality. Toronto: Bantam Books, 1984.
Griffin, David Ray. God and Religion in the Postmodern World. Albany, NY: State University of New York Press, 1989.
Hawking, Stephen. A Brief History of Time. Toronto: Bantam Books, 1989.
Heisenberg, Werner. Physics and Philosophy. New York: Harper & Row, 1958.
Kung, Hans. On Being A Christian. Garden City, NY: Doubleday, 1976.
Moltmann, Jurgen. Theology of Hope: On the Ground and the Implications of a Christian Eschatology. Minneapolis: Fortress Press, 1993.