By Drew Luther
On Dec. 3 at 7:30PM, Dr. Ned Wisnefske, the Schumann Professor of Lutheran Studies at Roanoke College, gave a talk titled “The Fate of the Universe and the Faith of Christians” at the Salem Mill Mountain Coffee and Tea. In this talk, Dr. Wisnefske laid out his personal theology, using the end of the universe as a thought experiment to help frame his beliefs.
Wisnefske said that the end of the world “motivates ethical life” in the sense that people care about what happens after they are gone. There are several possible ends to the world. Humans could do themselves in by blowing up or poisoning the world, there could be a fleet of asteroids that slammed into Earth, or the universe expands into useless radiation.
There are several conclusions that could be taken from the world or universe ending according to Wisnefske. It could all be God’s will that this happened or that it was all just random chance that life and the universe existed in the first place.
To explain his beliefs, Wisnefske expounded on the theory of the universe expanding into radiation. To begin with energy expanded to make a mostly empty universe, matter formed, life was made, and humans came into existence. In the future, the sun will expand and incinerate the earth, and then the universe will expand until there is no heat.
“This isn’t what we expect from God,” said Wisnefske. It seems pointless for anything to have happened in a universe with a benevolent creator. This would tend to lead one towards atheism, but that also doesn’t help according to Wisnefske. If there was no God, then what made the cosmos from chaos? What made rational ? beings able to fathom order? It wasn’t just a fluke or a random occurrence that life occurred. This all needs to be accounted for.
What applies to part doesn’t apply to all. “It is one thing for a human to die, but another for the extinction of humans,” said Wisnefske. The death of the universe predicted by science wouldn’t even be dust to dust like in the Bible; there would be no dust left.
Wisnefske said that it is necessary to avoid the idea of God creating Earth just to destroy it, since God is the creator and savior of Earth; why would he declare creation as good, and promise to save it if he is just going to destroy it? The Earth also isn’t just a staging ground for an afterlife, because that would render ethical endeavors to make the world better and save it pointless; all that would matter is spiritual happiness.
According to Wisnefske, since God promised to save this world, it wouldn’t make sense for him to destroy it. If God didn’t want to save this world, then why say that it was good? It could just be a trial run to be thrown out and started over again.
Instead, there was a formless chaos in the beginning, and creating was the result of God separating and ordering things. “Chaos remains to oppose God,” said Wisnefske. The Messiah of the Old Testament and New Testament had to give his life to oppose the chaos. The only way to stop the end of the universe is for rational beings to work to keep it going and not ruin it themselves.
Wisnefske admitted that he could be wrong. If the universe slips into nothing, then scientists would be right, and if the sky rolls up and Jesus shows up, then literalists would be right, and in both cases, Wisnefske would be wrong. Wisnefske said that everyone, including religious believers and scientists, should be willing to admit that they could be wrong.
If there is a chance to save the future, whether in 20 or 100 years, Wisnefske believes that sacrifices should be made now. This applies even if it requires human life to leave the earth. Humanity has a future and ethical, rational beings are what thwart chaos and the eventual end of the universe.
After the talk, Wisnefske took questions from the audience about topics ranging from politics, astrophysics, predestination, and the best way theologically for the world to end. In regards to the best possible end for the universe, Wisnefske had this to say: “The best way for the world to end is for it not to end.”