Paper on John Polkinghorne’s Reasons for Saying the Physical Universe is Ultimately “Futile”

By David Tillman 

For class: Religion and Science, United Theological Seminary, MN –  2008

Summarize Polkinghorne’s reasons for saying the physical universe is ultimately “futile”

Polkinghorne tells us “Whatever hopes there might be of human progress within history, they can amount to no more than a stay of execution of a sentence of inevitable futility.”1  He continues, “In our world, the cost of the evolution of novelty is the certainty of the impermanence”, p.11.

Polkinghorne breaks down into four reactions to the universal futility as viewed by the scientific community which is not willing to look to religion to see the wider picture:

Defiance: “All culture, including science, will be not more than a transient episode, but while human society lasts it represents a small island of self-creating meaning, around which laps the ocean of cosmic meaningless”, p.21.

The Total View:  “Meaning is to be found in the whole process and not in individual events”, p.22. We see the inability of physics to explain the present moment and the observer’s different relative point of view of events.

Physical Eschatology: “When efforts of physical eschatology are properly evaluated, they seem simply to confirm our previous verdict that the physical process of this present universe can end up only in futility”, p.25.

Endless Fertility:  Based on quantum theory with the whole universe we think that parts of the universe are destroyed at the same time other parts are created. We see the universe as “The cosmic pot will boil away ‘forever’. Even if something like this proposal were to prove to be correct, it would only present a scene of occasional islands of transient meaningfulness erupting within an ocean of absurdity” p.26-27.

When looking at the physical world through the eyes of science all we see is futility, when life ends there is no more.  In the play King Lear upon King Lear’s death Shakespeare writes “He dies”.  Simply stated as nothing more,  nothing less.

When we add to the scientific view a theological view we can see God’s influence in the world we live in and find hope for our lives that goes beyond our physical death. The choice is ours whether we spend our lives as Jesus taught us to “love your neighbor as yourself”, Matthew 19:19, live life as a long search looking for a higher level of relationship to God, live life as meaningless and futile, or some combination of the three.  

Describe and evaluate some examples of “physical eschatology.”

Definitions of physical eschatology:  Physical, a, [GR. Physikos, pertaining to nature] 1. of nature and all matter; natural; material: opposed to spiritual, moral, mental.  Eschatology, n. [GR. Eschatos, furthest, and logos, discourse.] 1- The branch of theology dealing with the last or final things, such as death, judgment, mortality, etc.,  2 – the doctrines concerning these.

Freeman Dyson considers, “the case of a continually expanding universe, in which he believes that information-processing could continue indefinitely, albeit at ever slower rates and in physical systems that would have to husband their dwindling energy supplies through enduring long periods of dormancy”, p.24.

Frank Tipler considers “the case of the collapsing universe, which he believes could be manipulated so that the final phase would correspond to the whole cosmos becoming an ever-faster racing computer, fueled by the shear energy of the collapse and capable of processing an infinite amount of information in its dying gap”, p.24.

Teilhard de Chardin’s “vision of the end is not computerization but christogenesis; the inspiration of his thought is not physicalist but Eucharistic”, p.25. In the Epilogue Christogenesis2 we get a better understanding of Christogenesis, “Close to this idea is Teilhard’s conceptualization of Christogenesis–the birth of the whole Christ–in which the Incarnation is extended to the collective, evolutionary birth of humanity as a whole” and also learn that “Teilhard envisions the final stage of the evolution of consciousness as from mind (noo) to Spirit (Christo), a process he understands Paul to have begun on the road to Damascus.”

We have three very different views above to life’s end; energy decreasing over time, energy increasing over time, and Teilhard’s Christogenesis, a transformation from mind to spirit. It is interesting to look at the world today and see the faster pace of life and the ecological concerns about the earth we live in. Is this faster pace of life and how we take care of Mother Earth give us any indication of our time remaining?

My sense is humankind is at the near beginning of an evolutionary path and within the human spirit is an inborn yearning to have a higher level of relationship with God. This life’s interaction with the personal God, who is longing to share God’s self with us, ultimately transforms the human spirit to know God fully.

What is hope, and how does it differ from optimism and wishful thinking:

“As Watts says, true hope ‘thrives on the sense of what is inaugurated and possible, but always still coming into being”, p.30/31. ’Now hope that is seen is not hope. For who hopes for what is seen?’ (Romans 8:24). ‘For the Christian, hope arises out of endurance in the face of adversity, based on trust in the love of God (Romans 5:3-5), p.30. This differs from optimism “which springs from the prediction of what the future will bring”, p29 or wishful thinking “which is unconstrained by the probabilities of what that future will bring”, p.29.

As humans, we face the certainty of death. Even with our awareness of our mortality, we live life in hope. Our hope is founded and continually supported by our daily experiences in life. I see our hope coming from our connection with God, other people, all living things, the earth, and the universe. There is an inborn connection humans have to everything we see, hear, touch, smell and taste, love and think. As human beings we have a personal connection to God’s presence and love.  As Peter Berger states “Human beings possess a significant intuition that in the end all shall be well”, p.31

  1. John Polkinghorne, The God of Hope and the End of the World, Yale NB, 2002, various pages.
  2. Epilogue Christogenesis,


© David Tillman, 2008, rev. 2014, rev. Aug.2020, May 2024, all rights reserved.

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