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Space, Time, Religion: How Einstein’s Insights Give Us Perspective of God

Second only to the question of God’s existence, is the origin of the universe and the laws that govern it. Today, we will examine a particular subset of these laws. Namely the remarkably fixed speed of light derived from Albert Einstein’s special relativity. It is argued that Einstein’s discoveries prod us to deepen the foundations of our Christian faith, helpful for those of us who place trust in empiric data.

In recent years, cosmologists have provided a coherent and somewhat controversial story of the origin of the universe, not including a sentient creator. However, there are several unexplained puzzles in the observed data of how the universe began. Standard cosmology begins in “deep” time, based on evidence for a “big bang” about fourteen billion years ago. Only then did time come into existence. To make this picture a better fit, Alan Guth proposed the idea in 1980, and it is still a favored hypothesis that the universe underwent a super-expansion called “inflation.” 

To illustrate this: if the universe, at the size of a grapefruit, had undergone an equivalent proportional expansion (it did not) that would take it to a dimension that far exceeds the size of the observable universe. Far beyond the size of our Milky Way galaxy. 

Remember that science progresses from theory to predictions and are born or contradicted by observed data. And certainly, further findings will in future amend the fantastical-sounding theory of the big bang in important ways.

If there is a God behind it, as we Christians believe, it seems that God is not micromanaging divine creation. Rather a “smarter” approach would be to determine a small number of broad themes that connect several fundamental structures of our universe. These themes are the natural laws of our universe, which appear to be carefully selected to result in the variety of consequences and developments we see everywhere.

The Issue of Time

We grew up in rather theologically conservative homes. And we wondered: what was in place before God created the universe? How old is God? What was over the fence at the edge of the universe? If these questions about God, time, and space have no response, is the whole idea of God doubtful?

Creationists often make the case that things as complex as the universe need a creator. We never seem to observe complex structures forming spontaneously. Without additional guidance from at least some laws mandating organization, only chaos remains. Without a sentient planner, how else do we account for the underlying laws that seem critical in governing our universe?

Science is largely silent on these questions of ultimate origin. However, if we posit the existence of a creator God, it seems to throw the conundrum back a step. Who created the creator? Time as we call it must be carefully examined. The words “before” and “after” seem central to questions of origins. Answers to these questions are exceedingly complex. The existence of verb tenses, cause and effect, and memory all testify to the centrality of time in our lives.

Humans measure time with accuracy because of clocks. Yet, Einsteinian relativity throws this illusion of constancy to the wind. With the advent of rocketry, subatomic particles, and global positioning satellites requiring great accuracy, non-intuitive adjustments to time and space must be made. With experiments from Albert A. Michelson and Edward W. Morley (in 1887) and especially the later work of Roy J. Kennedy and Edward M. Thorndike (in 1932), they found the speed of light did not change the emitter or the receiver. This result would be like firing a bullet from a spacecraft traveling toward a planet at 10,000 miles per hour. Imagine your surprise when the planetary authorities find that the bullet arrived traveling at 500 miles per hour instead of 10,500. That is always the case with light.

Einstein realized that there are some algebraic consequences that follow and they must affect both space and time. If the spacecraft and an Earth station set their clocks to coincide, and the spacecraft slowly went a distance away, turned, and accelerated back past Earth at high speed; the Earth observer could see the spacecraft clock zooming by going slower than its own. This is symmetric. If the spacecraft pilot could see the Earth clock, it would be going slower than his. This impossibility is resolved by the relativity of simultaneity, stating that there is no such thing as “at the same time.” Simultaneity is a psychological construct that only works between entities approximately at rest with respect to each other. 

Now imagine a spacecraft traveling at 0.5c from Earth to Alpha Centauri. The relative speed of 150,000 km/second seems correct to both Earth and the traveler. But the ticks of the spacecraft clock appear slowed by 13 percent as viewed by Earth. To keep the agreed upon speed correct, distances must also have decreased by 13 percent for the spacecraft.

The Earth observer knows that Alpha Centauri is 4.4 light-years away. So they expect the spacecraft will arrive in 8.8 of his years. The Earth observer is pleased to see that the spacecraft arrives at the star 13.2 years after it left. If the spacecraft returns home at the same speed, it will arrive back, by Earth clocks, a total of 17.6 years after leaving. However, the spacecraft would have measured only 7.7 years in each direction and would have arrived back on earth 15.4 years later according to his slowed clock. This also means that the traveler must maintain that he traveled only 7.7 light years in total and must believe that Alpha Centauri is 3.85 light years distant. Did the distance shrink?

For different observers, the answer is yes. But is space really contracting and expanding by billions of miles? Almost certainly not. It seems more likely that it is our perceptions of time and metrics, and the apparent rates of all mechanical processes depending on these, that are malleable. Different relative speeds through space affect them both. Although, compared to those on Earth, travelers’ clocks do tick relatively slower, but the travelers would never notice it as their thinking and physiology slow in exact proportion. Radioactive atoms decay slower when they travel at great speeds (a proven fact). People will age less quickly than expected when traveling at speed, although they are unaware of this until they again meet the stationary observer. All this results from that mysterious and non-intuitive constancy of the speed of light in a vacuum, as experienced by all observers. Our universe has unusual characteristics!

The Permanence of The Past

We can directly access only one moment in time, wherever we are spatially, and then that time seems to be immediately gone and is inaccessible thereafter. We do, however, have a fading memory of it—a type of reality. “Now-ness” we have seen is fuzzy, probably a psychological concept. But if the “now” sensation is psychological alone, our conscious attention to a “now moment” must also be a limited construct. It is one instant of a permanent time dimension—permanent for past time at least.

Does that “now moment” really disappear from any firmer reality, or is it always there but just unavailable to us except by an incomplete memory? For many main-stream physicists, the reality of a fully detailed permanently existing past is hardly controversial. They see it as a logical consequence of special relativity, although there is, of course, no direct experimental confirmation of a fully existent past. This notion has been labeled the “block” model of time. If a model depicts the future as still to be constructed, it is often called a “progressive block” model. This more flexible model fits more easily with quantum theory, where a new specific present is actualized from quantum probability only with observation or measurement. Before this, it is an array of probabilities. Thus, a moving present is allowed, also a fixed past, but an open future. Einstein is said to have stated, “For we convinced physicists, the distinction between past, present, and future is only an illusion, however persistent.” Even though we are locked out of this past, if the universe was created in this way, surely this very large past portion of divine creation is still available to God and perhaps even other sentient beings. 

Many physicists and philosophers are seriously suggesting that the past is naturally fully preserved in all its detail. But the nature of future time and events may still be conjectural. The possibility of an “open” future, although controversial, is also consistent with a certain stream of theological/philosophical thought as has been explicated by our Loma Linda University colleague Richard Rice and others. 

In a block-time universe, Oxford physicist David Deutsch, along with others, explains that the sensation of a flow of time is likely created by the passage of our attention through a set of fixed 3-D snapshots or slices through space-time, each of which captures our universe in a particular state. Their order of succession, however, must satisfy the laws of physics. This is analogous to our movies, where depicted actions are in fact a rapid succession of still frames.

Deutsch posits that the sensation of time flowing is this succession of attention to different snapshots. But, if there is some “super-clock” that measures “God-time,” then whether that time has lapses of two seconds or two thousand years between our adjacent snapshots, it would give us an identical sensation of personal time passing. Our sensation of time as a uniformly progressing entity is completely illusory. Many small birds or insects may have a completely different sensation of time as compared to our own. Time is also intimately tied to, perhaps even defined by, “change.” You cannot find a movement or action that takes no time at all. 

Special relativity says that the rate of passing of time varies between individuals according to their relative velocities. But according to the above model, the rate of passing of time is close to nonsense if the metric of time is just a count of the number of still frames that our attention has passed. A rate, by definition, is a change in some feature divided by the time that it took. But then the rate of passing of time is just the number of still frames that have passed divided by this same quantity—not a useful or informative measure to the scientist. Thus, time must just be our perception of changes in states of reality. 

However, the writers and readers of this essay are flesh-and-blood persons who have their attention particularly directed to this time. We possess present-day sensibilities about reality—and this matters. That today’s views will later be at least partially incorrect is highly likely. And that’s okay. However, this in no way depreciates the value of our present perceptions. They matter to us personally, and we Christians believe they matter to God.

Why should a series of occasions ever have a beginning or an end? Does God live forever? Or is that even a sensible question given that “forever” involves time, and we conclude that time is a created psychological concept? It is hard to imagine something infinite, yet there seems no rational reason to rule it out. It also seems reasonable to conclude that any creative God must, at least in part, exist outside of our space-time in order to have created it. The creator-God that we and others advance is only more—not less—basic than our natural laws, even more basic than some “grand unified theory” of physics. Does the concept of a creator-God fill a gap in this wealth of scientific wonders? Philosophical theologian Paul Tillich sees God as beyond and other than the most powerful/good/enduring being imaginable. For him, God isn’t a being among beings, but is “being itself.” This powerful statement is discussed in detail by T. Jamedi Longkumer, and there briefly interpreted it as the “source of all being.”

This “God outside of time” concept becomes perhaps less problematic, given the understanding that time appears amenable to change, is constrained by the physical characteristics of physicality, and is probably a product of our minds. These more flexible notions of time demonstrate how constrained our intuitive ideas of world and universe truly are. And the basic argument of this essay is integrally related: the plausibility of the notion of a time-infinite, or time-independent, wholly transcendent divine. Then, difficult questions about the origin of God, the infinite universe, what is over the fence at its edge, all take on a different feel. These hypothetical issues have much less force. God can finally be labeled as “being-itself.” As a matter of Job-induced faith, how can our God be less? Accordingly, many of our old traditional questions do not seem to make as much sense. 

Further, if the past is all laid out permanently and completely as a permanent record, though unavailable to us, in that sense we never die. There is more than a “record” there. The actual reality persists. Surely this makes a later intervention to resurrect and continue that life less of an intellectual stretch. Others, including philosopher John Leslie, have made this point.

Religious Implications

Christians—and everyone else who deeply considers such matters—finally believe by simple faith. Further, for some believers, perhaps those of a more scientific persuasion, faith in some religious beliefs can be bolstered by the existence of known or sensible postulated mechanisms. Can we understand God? Not at all, as that would make us “like God.” Can we understand some of God’s ways and methods? Yes, as that is what science has successfully accomplished in the last two hundred to three hundred years. We now know that onset of disease is not usually explained as “God’s will,” and that heaven does not reside just outside a watery atmospheric dome. May some of what is described above also have some interesting religious implications? We believe so.

The ancient Hebraic believers of three thousand years ago postulated a warrior God who commanded total destruction of the enemy—man, woman, child, ox, and ass. Given their knowledge and sensibilities, these followers of God did the best they knew how. Knowledge has exponentially grown; our moral sensibilities are different. Today we confess that all models for the infinite are inadequate. Hence, God is nothing less than being-itself. Special relativity is mysterious to most of us; quantum theory is mysterious to even cutting-edge physicists. God is the ultimate mystery—and that’s to be celebrated, not lamented.

Many Christian traditions emphasize accountability for personal deeds and misdeeds, and they often believe these will determine one’s fitness for an afterlife. For example, the Book of Revelation pictures God pouring over judgment books (Rev 20:12). The prominent theme in current science—holding that past time and activities back then are probably permanent fixtures in the universe, though inaccessible to us—can make the concept of a final judgment more plausible to some. In earlier times God was deemed to have a perfect memory of all humans’ thoughts and deeds, thus enabling perfect judgments. But the block-time universe makes so-called past deeds and words easily accessed by the eternal. While a time dimension exists, our pasts must all also exist in full reality and detail—which is not necessarily a good thought for us perhaps. That said, there are still huge questions about individual culpability and reward, given our increased knowledge about the impact of both one’s inherited genetic code. With access to our past, even these things could, in theory, be examined in full detail.

If time is largely or entirely a construct of the human mind, the idea of a being who is eternal and at least partially “outside of time” becomes more comprehensible. Similarly, the possibility of an eternal existence for “saved” humans is more plausible. 

That everlasting personal “physical and mental information” could exist is ever more believable. We are already immortal in a restricted sense, but our minds and self-awareness only function naturally during the seventy to eighty years of our current lives. However, this limited but persistent reality, it seems, would constitute the perfect template and springboard for the amended personae and reactivated minds necessary for a future heavenly existence. In a word, contemporary scientific knowledge makes this religious concept of a resurrection all the more tenable, for at least some of us.

Jesus Christ’s life of Palestinian ministry, death, and resurrection is no longer relegated to a distant past. It remains as a witness for all eternity—in all its horror and glory—available to those with access, as one sequence of block-time frames.

Conclusion

After reviewing the evidence, it seems that time and space appear malleable to us. Under certain circumstances they can stretch, contract, or nearly disappear. Time may be a psychological construct, it is nevertheless real. The past persists in reality with all its detail. This has a few religious ramifications. Increasing knowledge will no doubt continue to refine these ideas. And we believe that science will continue to provide new ideas about the universe that will inform religious belief. This prospect is exciting, precisely because God is being-itself.

About the authors

Gary Fraser

Gary Fraser is a Kiwi, longtime director of Adventist Health studies and director of the Adventist Health Studies and distinguished professor at Loma Linda University. He enjoys mathematical statistics, classical piano, hiking, and has a layman’s interest in natural sciences.
More from Gary Fraser.

James Walters

James Walters is a professor of ethics at the Loma Linda University Center for Christian Bioethics. He received his undergraduate degree from Southern Adventist University and completed his master of divinity at Andrews University. He also earned a masters and PhD from the Claremont Graduate School. More from James Walters.
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