Friday, December 1, 2017

Life in an Impossible Universe

     In him all things were created:  things in heaven and on earth, visible and invisible, whether thrones or powers or rulers or authorities;  all things have been created through him and for him. He is before all things, and in him all things hold together.
-Colossians 1:16-17 (NIV)

If you’re not already sitting down, you might want to. I have some potentially bad news.
     Seriously, grab a blanket to snuggle into. Put on your most comfortable PJ’s. Grab a cup of coffee, or some chocolate, or whatever might make you feel better. Then come back. I’ll wait.
     Ready? OK, here it comes.
     You shouldn’t exist.
     I don’t mean that personally. I shouldn’t either. For that matter, according to the best science we have available to us right now, none of us should. Nothing should. According to physicists at the top of their field, people who have spent their scientific careers trying to figure this stuff out, there is no reason in — pardon the expression — the world that our universe should be. And every reason, in fact, that it shouldn’t be.
     That reason — the only one that’s necessary — is antimatter. Besides being what drives starships in Star Trek, antimatter is, as its name implies, the opposite of matter. Specifically, it has an opposite electrical charge to matter. So when matter and antimatter collide, the result is nothing short of spectacular. As in, spectacularly apocalyptic. They destroy each other. Cancel each other out completely.
     And here’s the fun thing: every model of the origins of the universe that scientists can generate using the known laws of physics has antimatter coming into existence in equal parts to matter. And matter — well, that’s us. And, you know, our pets and our houses and the trees and plants and the water and the sun and moon and…well, everything.
     So this perfect symmetry between matter and antimatter is the problem. Our universe should have immediately canceled itself out. Right after the “Big Bang” there should have been another Big Bang — maybe a Bigger Bang? — that annihilated everything that had just come into being. At least, according to what the best scientific minds have been able to come up with.
     Obviously, that didn’t happen. So, obviously, there’s something those minds haven’t thought of yet. They’re aware of that. They’re still looking, and I imagine at some point someone will come up with a good explanation. For now, though, the best we can do is say that according to the models, we don’t exist. 
     I warned you that you should sit down. 
     A couple of things to point out here. One is that science has provided immeasurable good to the world. Where would we be without science? Still treating cancer and heart disease by leeches and bloodletting. Still afraid of falling off the edge of the earth. Still too terrified of monsters to explore the seas. Still getting around on animals or on foot, still writing drivel like this with a stick and some charcoal from a fire (if we had fire), still living hard, ugly lives filled with disease and malnutrition and dying before our fortieth birthdays. 
     For all its accomplishment, though, occasionally a story like this reminds us that science isn’t about explaining everything. I think it’s wonderful to hear a scientist speak with the humility of Christian Smorra, who’s working on this problem: “All of our observations find a complete symmetry between matter and antimatter, which is why the universe should not actually exist. An asymmetry must exist here somewhere but we simply do not understand where the difference is.” 
    Did you hear it? Faith. “We know, but we don’t understand.” Science doesn’t cancel out the need for faith. Whether it’s faith in God or an asymmetry, it’s still faith. All the models say he’s wrong to believe, but there is observable evidence to say he’s right. To imagine that science lives in antagonism to faith is to not understand science, or faith, or perhaps either one very well. Science gives us so much. We should be grateful for and honor the work of scientists in our world. But don’t imagine, as sometimes human beings tend to do, that their work will make our need for faith irrelevant. Often, the more they uncover the more questions are raised.
     So I’d like to propose an answer to the question of why we exist. There won’t be a way to check my hypothesis in a computer model. It wouldn’t meet the standards of publication in any reputable physics journal. It will not satisfy the physicists hard at work on this problem — nor do I imagine that it should. But here’s my answer to the conundrum, an answer born, admittedly, more from theology than physics: We exist because God wants us to.
     Faith tells us that God created the heavens and the earth. Whether he used a Big Bang or not I’m not qualified to answer. Whether he suspended some of the laws of physics to do it or not I can’t tell you. But I do believe in a God who could separate matter from antimatter the way he separated the sea from the dry land. I believe in a God who, through Jesus, holds together and sustains the universe.  
     Here’s the thing, though: I didn’t come to that belief just by looking at the evidence. I didn’t come to believe in God on the basis of this unexplained mystery of physics. Sometimes believers get so anxious about convincing those who don’t believe that we build our case on shaky ground. Reasonable people might come to a very different conclusion than I do about this question. I don’t imagine that a mass conversion of physicists is coming on the basis of a verse or two from the Bible. 
     I come from the other direction, actually. I believe in God, and so I tend to look for him. That’s faith, too. Paul says that we ought to be able to see God and know something about him just by looking at the universe he’s made. But he wrote that to believers, to people already used to looking at the world through the lenses of faith. I don’t look to the universe around me and demand that it prove the existence of God. I believe in him because of his faithfulness to his people and his faithfulness to me. I believe in him because of Jesus Christ. And then I look to the universe around me to tell me more about him, to see in it the self-portrait of its Creator. 
     If our universe shouldn’t exist, if we don’t have the vocabulary to explain our own existence, if creation is so difficult that we can’t even imagine how it was done, then shouldn’t we be looking for a Creator? And shouldn’t we who believe be able to imagine that, as much as human beings seem to want to destroy what he made, he still holds it together in love and faithfulness to us? 
     So the laws of physics say we shouldn’t exist. Let’s live as outlaws, then. May our existence testify to the power and faithfulness of God to create and sustain what every law we know says should be neither create-able nor sustainable. May our curiosity about the universe around us serve the purpose of revealing more of who he is. And may our lives lived in this impossible universe testify to the impossible reach of his love and grace, especially in Jesus. 

     That’s what might convince skeptics to believe in a God who, with limitless, love and intention and power, created this impossibly wonderful, complex, and beautiful universe. 

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