The Boundless Universe Proposal: Engaging Science and Theology

An understanding of space and time is inextricably linked to an understanding of cosmology. Religions, philosophers, and the sciences are seeking to understand these concepts better. “Before 1915, space and time were thought of as a fixed arena in which events took place, but which was not affected by what happened in it. … It was natural to think that space and time went on forever.”[1] However, Albert Einstein’s general theory of relativity shifted these prior conceptions. “The old idea of an essentially unchanging universe that could have existed, and could continue to exist, forever was replaced by the notion of a dynamic, expanding universe that seems to have begun a finite time ago, and that might end at a finite time in the future.”[2] Based on just these two scientific ideas, it is apparent how people can think about space-time in an eternal or finite sense. In this paper, I will argue that Stephen Hawking’s proposal on a no boundary universe may broaden our current understanding of cosmology and in effect, may provide a more robust eschatology.

Before diving into Hawking’s proposal, I would like to investigate what happened in the seventeenth-century with the infamous trial of Galileo Galilei. I would like to frame this paper in this context so that Hawking’s proposal is not simply dismissed on the grounds of pure scientific inquiry. Galileo’s main proposal was to defend the Copernican system of heliocentrism[3]—a cosmological understanding that most take for granted today. A pre-Copernican cosmology assumed that the earth was static and the sun revolved around it. It was a “common popular assent” that was also accepted by those with ecclesiastical authority.[4] The Holy Office and ecclesiastical court “declared the motion of the earth to be ‘stupid and absurd in philosophy.’”[5] They “held that the immobility of the sun was foolish and formally heretical because it contradicted the literal meaning of the Scriptures.”[6] When Galileo published the Dialogue on the Two Principal World Systems, he was eventually “suspected of heresy” and condemned to prison for promoting the Copernican model.[7]

They “held that the immobility of the sun was foolish and formally heretical because it contradicted the literal meaning of the Scriptures.”

While this is an extremely brief snapshot of what took place, the intention of my investigation is to highlight the true tragedy that ensued. The “rejection of a purely scientific theory of the universe was a disastrous blunder for the church. It led not only to Galileo’s condemnation in 1633, but also to an antiscience reputation.”[8] We are now approaching nearly four centuries since this incident and while there have been some attempts to bridge the gap between science and religion, the two camps are still largely at odds with or simply have no relevance to one another. Theologians still argue that “theology is queen of all the sciences, [and] she need not bend in any way to accommodate herself to the teachings of less worthy sciences which are subordinate to her.”[9] And non-theologians believe that “science has replaced theology on the throne of Western thought.”[10] The main takeaway here is that the Church and Christians should not dismiss scientific theory on aiding in matters such as cosmology or we would still assume that the earth was static. Galileo understood the different roles science and theology ought to play in understanding the universe. By adopting his theological and scientific worldview, I hope the following presentation of Stephen Hawking’s proposal on the no boundary universe will not be read with a presupposed, antiscience posture.

Stephen Hawking, interestingly, was born exactly 300 years after the death of Galileo.[11] He also interacted with an ecclesiastical authority during his lifetime when he and other experts were invited to attend a conference on cosmology hosted by the Catholic Church. The pope advised these experts “that it was all right to the study the evolution of the universe after the big bang, but [they] should not inquire into the big bang itself because that was the moment of Creation and therefore the work of God.”[12] Ironically enough, Hawking did not want to suffer the same fate as Galileo as his proposal posited “the possibility that space-time was finite but had no boundary,” thus could mean that “it had no beginning, no moment of Creation.”[13]

The boundless universe proposal is Hawking’s attempt to formulate a unified theory on quantum mechanics and gravity.[14] Two features necessary for this unified theory is “Feynman’s proposal to formulate quantum theory in terms of a sum over histories” and “Einstein’s idea that the gravitational field is represented by curved space-time.”[15] Explaining these complex theories in detail are outside the scope of this paper, however, one very interesting concept Hawking discusses is the use of imaginary time. He likens the idea to the mathematical concept of imaginary and real numbers. In order to overcome the technical difficulties found in Feynman’s proposal, one must measure time using imaginary numbers, which “has an interesting effect on space-time: the distinction between time and space disappears completely.”[16] This creates a boundless universe where space-time would appear like the surface of the earth. “The surface of the earth is finite in extent but it doesn’t have a boundary or edge” as depicted below.[17]

Source: Figure from Stephen Hawking, A Brief History of Time (Toronto: Bantam Books, 1988), 138.

Hawking argues, “There would be no singularities at which the laws of science broke down and no edge of space-time at which one would have to appeal to God or some new law to set the boundary conditions for space-time. … The universe would be completely self-contained and not affected by anything outside itself. It would neither be created nor destroyed. It would just BE.”[18] He continues,

“In real time, the universe has a beginning and an end at singularities that form a boundary to space-time and at which the laws of science break down. … So maybe what we call imaginary time is really more basic, and what we call real is just an idea that we invent to help us describe what we think the universe is like. … So it is meaningless to ask: Which is real, ‘real’ or ‘imaginary’ time? It is simply a matter of which is the more useful description.”[19]

As demonstrated by this summary, the boundless universe proposal has some major implications, particularly with how people perceive time, that I will discuss later.

Hawking sought to propose a new model for the universe not for simple aesthetic or metaphysical thought, but because this was important to explain the very existence of life in his way with his particular talents and language.[20] Interestingly, he saw limitations to the current theories on the origin of the universe from a scientific and mathematical perspective, including the “hot big bang model,” which is generally accepted by most in the modern West.[21] Hawking also does not accept a simple, relativistic approach such as the “anthropic principle” where we simply see the universe the way we perceive it to be.[22] And he does not leave it up to mere chance as that would remove all hope and understanding.[23]

While most may not use the technical language above to describe their beliefs and thoughts on the origin of the universe, the contemporary sentiment and understanding of cosmology vastly ranges including these views. Most in the pragmatic West are not interested in these topics and give little thought to them, yet would probably borrow from a mixture of sources to formulate an opinion if probed. As evidenced earlier, religious leaders are not exempt from the broader cultural shaping as well. In the Middle-Ages, most of society acknowledged a “God-confidence” over self-confidence and did everything to the glory of God.[24] However, the prevailing thought on cosmology was the Ptolemaic model. Hawking critiques the adoption of this model by the Christian church because it fit with the reading of Scripture, “for it had the great advantage that it left lots of room outside the sphere of fixed stars for heaven and hell.”[25] Martin Luther also operated from a pre-Copernican cosmology. While he mocked those who placed God in a cosmological way, he reasoned that “because the visible heaven or sky is constantly moving, … this would mean that God cannot sit still for one moment.”[26] And now, Hawking argues, “With the success of scientific theories in describing events, most people have come to believe that God allows the universe to evolve according to a set of laws and does not intervene in the universe to break these laws.”[27] Cosmology has advanced since Galileo’s time, however, it is still a large mystery now as it was then. While religious and university establishments may have overstepped their boundaries influencing Galileo’s trial,[28] the result now where science and religion have little to no interaction with one another is just as detrimental to a wholesome understanding of the universe and time.

Considering the current understanding of cosmology, or lack thereof, what would a wholesome interaction between science and theology look like? That is, if Stephen Hawking’s proposal on the boundless universe was proven by observational evidence and advance quantum computing, how would religious leaders respond to these discoveries? Two major implications would be regarding the nature of creation and the concept of time. Hawking states, “If the universe is really completely self-contained, having no boundary or edge, it would have neither beginning nor end: it would simply be.” He follows by questioning, “What place, then, for a creator?”[29] The knee-jerk reaction of most conservative Christians would be to judge this as heresy. It is very clear from one of the most famous Bible verses, “In the beginning God created the heavens and earth.”[30] However, what if this was not a description of the entire universe, as we understand today, but utilizing the anthropic principle, was how Moses and Jewish believers understood their cosmology? How would Hawking’s analogous description of the universe as a surface be compared to the darkness “over the surface of the deep,” and how “the Spirit of God was moving over the surface of the waters?”[31] Either one would have to acknowledge this surface was in reference to the earth or the surface of the universe. On the other side of the coin, Hawking’s proposal would not necessarily negate the singularity of a moment of creation, particularly in real time. “When one goes back to the real time in which we live, however, there will still appear to be singularities.”[32]

It is the concept of time that will also face major challenges if the boundless universe proposal is proven to be true. As mentioned earlier, based on the classical theory of gravity, most assume that the universe existed for an infinite amount of time or had a particular beginning and thus may have a particular end.[33] This is not a new concept as most other religions or worldviews operate in a cyclical perception of time while a “linear understanding of time originated in the Judeo-Christian religion.”[34] The boundless universe proposal would appear to enrich this concept of time. It would not necessarily disprove any current understanding of linear time as this is what is perceived in real time. However, time would not necessarily end in the way a modern person perceives time as a chronological, historical idea.

It is also this concept of imaginary and real time that I believe greatly aids one’s understanding of “spiritual time”.[35] The practical Western mind that has operated under chronological, linear time would find conversations about a higher form of time as something out of science fiction or the Marvel Universe. However, what if the distinction Hawking makes as real and imaginary time is what Charles Taylor defined as ordinary and higher time, or sacramental time? A modern individual, unfortunately, looks on antiquated philosophies with suspicion. However, if novel scientific discoveries can validate some of these seemingly antiquated ideas of cosmology and eschatology, perhaps there can be better explanations of the origin and eschaton of the universe and time.

With any good scientific theory, there would have to be rebuttals. The first was already mentioned that Hawking’s boundless universe proposal is just that, a proposal. Also, quantum mechanics and computing are still limited even till this day. An argument could be made that Stephen Hawking is an atheist,[36] but to reiterate again, this posture will only be detrimental to all. Another rebuttal from a religious perspective would be on how to place the doctrine of creatio ex nihilo. While space does not permit to thoroughly explain the various arguments, the biggest challenge for contemporary theologians in the West would be to suspend their interpretation of the doctrine of creatio ex nihilo from a temporal perspective.[37]            

This presentation of Stephen Hawking’s boundless universe proposal is not an argument to adopt this model, despite how it can enrich one’s understanding of the universe and time. With new discoveries in the sciences and a rich theological foundation, an interdisciplinary approach to understanding life may be beneficial to all of humanity. If both camps conversed with humble postures, perhaps we can continue to uncover the mysteries of the universe. Hawking attempted to convey “the basic ideas about the origin and fate of the universe” without using complex mathematical formulas, which most who do not have an advanced education would not understand.[38] He presumes that most “go about our daily lives understanding almost nothing of the world. … In our society it is still customary for parents and teachers to answer most of these questions with a shrug, or with an appeal to vaguely religious precepts.”[39] I believe the onus is on scholars of both science and theology to convey their messages in a language that the majority will be able to understand. “Ever since the dawn of civilization, people have not been content to see events as unconnected and inexplicable. They have craved an understanding of the underlying order in the world. Today we still yearn to know why we are here and where we came from.[40] Let us hope we do not make the disastrous blunder of separating science and theology to the point where leading intellectuals convince their people that the “Son” revolves around the earth.

[1] Stephen Hawking, A Brief History of Time: From the Big Bang to Black Holes (Toronto: Bantam Books, 1988), 33.

[2] Hawking, 33–34.

[3] I.e. the sun is stationary and the earth revolves around the sun.

[4] Galileo Galilei, “Letter to Madame Christina of Lorraine, Grand Duchess of Tuscany,”, accessed March 19, 2019.

[5] Charles E. Hummel, The Galileo Connection: Resolving Conflicts between Science & the Bible (Downers Grove, Ill.: InterVarsity Press, 1986), 109.

[6] Ibid., 108.

[7] Ibid., 9–13.

[8] Ibid., 112.

[9] Galileo, “Letter to Christina”.

[10] Hummel, 7.

[11] Hawking, 116.

[12] Ibid.

[13] Ibid.

[14] Hawking admits that this proposal cannot be deduced from other principles. “The real test,” he states, “is whether it makes predictions that agree with observation.” See Hawking, 136-7.

[15] Ibid, 134-5.

[16] Ibid., 134.

[17] Hawking, 135-6.

[18] Ibid., 136.

[19] Ibid., 139.

[20] Hawking, 13, 136.

[21] Ibid., 116.

[22] Ibid., 124.

[23] Ibid., 133.

[24] Hans Schwarz, Eschatology (Grand Rapids, Mich.: W.B. Eerdmans, 2000), 14.

[25] Hawking, 3.

[26] Schwarz, 401.

[27] Hawking, 140. Also see Charles Taylor, A Secular Age (Cambridge, MA: Belknap Press, 2007), 325.

[28] Hummel, 125.

[29] Hawking, 141.

[30] Gen 1:1 (NASB).

[31] Gen 1:2.

[32] Hawking, 139.

[33] Ibid., 33-4, 135.

[34] Schwarz, 7.

[35] Taylor, 54-5.

[36] Alan Boyle, “‘I’m an Atheist’: Stephen Hawking on God and Space Travel,” accessed March 18, 2019.

[37] See Alan Torrance, “Creatio ex Nihilo and the Spatio-Temporal Dimensions, with special reference to Jürgen Moltmann and D. C. Williams,” Chapter 5 of The Doctrine of Creation: Essays in Dogmatics, History, and Philosophy, ed. Colin E. Gunton (Edinburgh, Scotland: T&T Clark, 1997), 83-103. Torrance engages with Moltmann’s linear view of time as well as his possible suggestion of panentheism. He also engages with D. C. Williams who discusses the four-dimensional aspect of space-time from a philosophical perspective, which Hawking also argues from a scientific model.

[38] Hawking, vi.

[39] Ibid., ix.

[40] Ibid., 13.