A pandemic that won’t let go. Political division. Racial tension. A changing—some might say—deteriorating, landscape for the Christian church. We know firsthand a thing or two about disorder. And it doesn’t even include the disorder each of us feels in the personal chaos we must navigate.
Our faith provides language to help us grasp and endure this kind of disorder. Sin, suffering, the groaning of creation, lament, grief. Science, however, sums up the ever-increasing disorder in a single word: entropy.
Entropy, also known as the second law of thermodynamics, succinctly states that as time marches forward, systems tend towards disorder. Its technical application does not translate well to our everyday experience of increasing disorder except by analogy.
Still, be it technical or by analogy, it is at first glance a troublesome concept. This leads me to ask, what kind of God would create a universe in which entropy, or disorder, always increases? Let’s see if wrestling with the concept of entropy hinders or helps our faith.
It is easy to think of beautiful, hopeful instances of order. New life, new creation, new possibilities. So how can it be true that chaos, decay, and wastefulness always increase?
The answer lies in the work that is necessary to create order. Think, for example, of a beautifully ordered and symmetrical log cabin. To build it, its builder must lay waste to a number of trees such that the total disorder of the system increases. Any system left on its own tends toward disorder unless work is applied from the outside.
The rub is that the entire universe is assumed to be a closed system, and so despite pockets of order that seem to contradict the second law, the sum total of entropy in the universe is always increasing. Fortunately, the universe is large enough to accommodate ample potential for order to emerge from the chaos. Life is one such example. With life teeming in earth’s waters and on its land (and perhaps on other planets as well), we can see that even if total disorder always increases at a cosmic scale, possibilities for local order remain.
...Here is a nice introduction to entropy that also makes the connection between the concept and the fate of our universe.
...Entropy, in its technical sense, is really about probabilities and energy states as this video explains. Consequently, some scientists assert that calling it a tendency towards disorder is too simplistic.
...Victor Stenger summarizes his argument that connects atheism to the concept of entropy, only to have interviewer Robert Lawrence Kuhn respond, “I kind of like that kind of God.”
...A Christian chemist dives deep into the concept of entropy and applies it to theology.
...Does thermodynamics disprove evolution? BioLogos responds to this common question and provides important nuance on how we understand biology and the second law of thermodynamics.
...This pastor boldly grapples with entropy as part of a sermon series entitled “The Physics of Faith“.
...Can entropy provide insights, by analogy, to our spiritual lives? This author thinks that “spiritual entropy says that no matter how hard we try… we cannot grow spiritually as closed systems.”
Taking a God’s-eye view, entropy suggests that ultimately disorder will win. The closed system of the universe is steadily running down towards a “heat death.” This reality has led some atheists like Victor Stenger to use the concept to argue that God does not exist (at least nothing like the God most Christians believe in).
Even if Stenger’s argument is new to us, most of us likely see entropy as a concept that suggests a universe without purpose. The second law of thermodynamics is one of those areas in which science seems to support the sentiment of Steven Weinberg: “The more the universe seems comprehensible, the more it also seems pointless.”
Moreover, it is the kind of universe where we want a God to intervene and bring order to its increasing disorder.
So, I return to my opening question: what kind of God would create a universe with increasing entropy?
For one, it is a God who is not afraid of chaos. According to Stenger, God created a universe that in its first moments contained maximum disorder. Billions of years later, after pockets of order had emerged, this same God entered the disorder in the person of Christ. God created entropy in the technical sense and has experienced all the varieties of disorder we face.
It is also a God who created processes with imbalances and probabilities in such a way that pockets of order can and do emerge. It may even be that something like entropy is required for what Carnegie Mellon chemical physicist Gary Patterson has called “the multitude of possibilities that God has given us in this world.” Our existence is merely one example of the many possibilities of order that can emerge out of the chaos. It is a counter-intuitive, but creative way to create.
Finally, it is an awe-some God. God created our universe nearly 14 billion years ago out of chaos with the possibilities of order, and will sustain those possibilities for many billions more. Even if this universe is running down, the timescales for it are nearly impossible to fathom. For our conceivable human future, hopeful instances of order remain possible. What billions of sinners might do to our future is a much greater concern than the effects of billions of years of entropy.
Is this the kind of God most Christians believe in? Well yes and no. When we worship, do we have in mind a God who created a universe with ever-increasing disorder using complex, probabilistic natural processes like the second law? Probably not. A God who can bring order to chaos, who is creative, and who is our ultimate source of hope? Yes
I hope this little exercise, asking what kind of God would create a universe where entropy always increases, offers a glimpse of the ways science can enrich our faith. It might challenge at first, but after a little wrestling and reflection, even a concept like entropy can reaffirm some of what we believe to be true about God while also expanding our view of our Creator.
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Strengthening the church through engaging with science
We believe that churches are strengthened by engaging with science. Science for the Church looks to a day when science accompanies Scripture as a tool for discipleship, catalyzes expressions of worship, illustrates sermons, elucidates biblical teachings, and supplements theological wisdom for the life of the world. We even wonder if wrestling with science might draw some of the “nones” (those who affiliate with no religion) and the “dones” (those who have left the church) to Christian communities once again.