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Physics and the Bible:

The Mystery of Time's Arrow

by Lambert Dolphin

Lambert Dolphin, Physicist Website

       Time is the most mysterious of the four usual dimensions of our space-time continuum. "It's not so much that there's something strange about time," said Dr. John A. Wheeler, the famous Princeton cosmologist, "the thing that's strange is what's going on inside time. We will first understand how simple the universe is when we recognize how strange time is."

       Time, as a variable frequently, appears in most of the mathematical equations used to describe the known physical world. However, whether time flows backwards or forwards usually makes no difference in the math. But in our everyday world we never see this happening. The fact that, in our experience, time is observed to always flow inexorably from past to present to future in real life is known as "time's arrow."

       There are several ways physicists delineate time's arrow. The Psychological Arrow is our subjective sense of time, the fact that we remember events in one direction of time, but not the other. The Electromagnetic Arrow of time is described by retarded solutions of Maxwell's equations, not advanced ones. (Maxwell's equations describe the propagation of radio waves and light).

       The Cosmological Arrow of time sees the history of the universe moving forward in time in an irreversible manner. There is an overall classification of "time's arrow" referred to as the Thermodynamic Arrow. This involves the Law of Entropy-the observed behavior that all the universe progresses from order to disorder as a net function. The Law of Entropy is, of course, also known as the Second Law of Thermodynamics.

       One current debate in cosmology is whether the thermodynamic arrow arose from boundary conditions prior to the Big Bang, or whether it developed early in the Big Bang expansion. Time's Arrow is an important but mysterious property of the world we live in.

       Theoretically, in the situations covered by Newton's Laws, forward time and backward time are indistinguishable. For instance, when the film of a tennis match is reversed (during a rally after a serve), it is not apparent to the viewer whether time is running forwards or backwards. But, in the case of an ice cube melting, there is an immediately noticeable difference when the film is run backwards! Heat flow is involved when ice melts and the thermodynamic arrow is immediately evident. The kettle boils only after we have set it on the stove, never before. The apple ripens only after the blossom falls, and all of us grow older with time, not younger.

       This is not the case in quantum or atomic physics, where time reversal seems to be entirely possible and even reasonable to imagine. However, even in atomic physics, though some processes can appear to run in reverse, time is not one of them-some very recent research has confirmed this.

       Experiments with transformations of charge (C), parity (P), and time (T) in certain meson interactions have yielded several fascinating anomalies. But the arrow of time is apparently still intact at the subatomic level. The main impetus for most of the recent research regarding CPT is to better understand the evolutionary concept of the Big Bang.

       A host of related questions are now under vigorous investigation. When the universe began, did it contain an equal number of particles and antiparticles? If so, what happened to all the anti-matter? Do mirror universes exist? Why are we stuck with time's arrow? Because science cannot answer questions about origins, these questions naturally overflow into metaphysics and philosophy.

       However, the Big Bang model tacitly assumes that God does not exist-or if he does, He plays no observable role in the ongoing history of the universe.

       Those of us who know and experience the living God know otherwise. It is not as if we were believing in an imaginary God, or clinging to outdated myths. Our relationship is with the Creator Himself, and we have the privilege of having our minds enlightened by the Holy Spirit who indwells us. He illuminates the Word of God for us and gives us discernment based on that Word when we view the natural world.

       Many Christians find reasons to question the basic assumptions of Big Bang cosmology in the first place. For Christians, we understand from Genesis that God originally created a very different universe than the one we now live in. His creative work in building the universe took place over a unique period of time, a time never again to be repeated, during which God created the raw materials of the universe (space, time, energy and matter) and then formed them into a well-ordered, low-entropy, self-renewing system. Creation was the work of a Master Artisan who took pleasure in His work in the same way an artist, a sculptor, or an architect takes delight in his handiwork.

       Genesis speaks of a definite beginning to the universe-and predicts a definite end as well. Here science and the Bible agree. The Bible confirms that the Second Law of Thermodynamics is also true-entropy always shows a net increase with the passage of time.

       But from the standpoint of the Bible, the Second Law is not a feature of the universe as it was originally created; it is a result of the subsequent introduction of fatal flaws into the machinery by an Enemy of God and of man. These flaws were not part of the original design.

       The clues to this catastrophe begin in Genesis 3. A rebellion among the angels took place in the early history of things, and the angels play a major role in God's government of nature as well as nations.

       In addition to introducing sin and death into the human race, the angelic rebellion wrecked the delicately tuned and finely designed mechanisms of the physical and spiritual realms, setting into motion an irreversible downhill course towards decay, disorder, and the increasingly unavailability of energy resources.

       In Proverbs, Solomon identifies the Creator with the Son of God, begotten by the Father (Proverbs 8:22). It was He who spoke the universe into existence and it is He who understands all its workings. Wisdom, personified in the feminine, speaks as follows:

The LORD brought me forth (begat) at the beginning of His work, the first of His acts of old. Ages ago I was set up, at the first, before the beginning of the earth. When there were no depths I was brought forth, when there were no springs abounding with water. Before the mountains had been shaped, before the hills, I was brought forth; before He had made the earth with its fields, or the first of the dust of the world. When He established the heavens, I was there, when He drew a circle on the face of the deep, when He made firm the skies above, when He established the fountains of the deep, when He assigned to the sea its limit, so that the waters might not transgress His command, when He marked out the foundations of the earth, I was beside Him, like a master workman; and I was daily His delight, rejoicing before Him always, rejoicing in His inhabited world and delighting in the sons of men. And now, my sons, listen to me: happy are those who keep my ways. Hear instruction and be wise, and do not neglect it. Happy is the man who listens to me, watching daily at my gates, waiting beside my doors. For he who finds me finds life and obtains favor from the LORD; but he who misses me injures himself; all who hate me love death.
Proverbs 8:22-35
      For those mystified by Old Testament Wisdom Literature, John's gospel says the same thing more plainly:

      

In the beginning was the Word, and the Word was with God, and the Word was God. He was in the beginning with God; all things were made through Him, and without Him was not anything made that was made. In Him was life, and the life was the light of men. The light shines in the darkness, and the darkness has not overcome it. He was in the world, and the world was made through Him, yet the world knew Him not. He came to His own home, and His own people received Him not. But to all who received Him, who believed in His name, He gave power to become children of God; who were born, not of blood nor of the will of the flesh nor of the will of man, but of God. And the Word became flesh and dwelt among us, full of grace and truth; we have beheld His glory, glory as of the only Son from the Father.
John 1:1-14
      The most important implication of time's arrow for us is that history is going somewhere. There was a time when you and I did not exist. Then we were created, formed in the womb, and born into the world. We began to grow towards maturity. But because of sin we also began to die. We are trapped in time and cannot go back and fix yesterday's mistakes. However, behind the scenes, a loving God is involved in all the details of ongoing history and He interacts with us in ways that can not be discovered, thus allowing each of us a multitude of opportunities to make choices for good or for ill.

       The master plan for the construction of the universe and all of history began with a design of the universe in the Mind of the Father, a plan executed by the Son of God. So history itself is headed toward an endpoint-a terminus. There, at the end, where the arrow of time is pointing, stands the same Jesus; Creator, Savior, Lord-and now the Judge of all. Meeting Him is unavoidable. Each person will either receive from Him a "Welcome home" or "Be banished forever into the outer darkness of eternal separation."

       Today we do have the opportunity to make decisions which will outlast time. We can choose God or continue in rebellion against Him. And, at the end of time, we will find that He has accepted our decisions. Each of us will either belong to Him...or not.


  1. Time's Arrows: Scientific Attitudes Toward Time, by Richard Morris, Simon and Schuster ,1985.
  2. Time's Arrow & Archimedes' Point : New Directions for the Physics of Time, by Huw Price, Oxford U. Press, 1992.
  3. The Arrow of Time : A Voyage Through Science to Solve Time's Greatest Mystery by Peter Coveney and Roger Highfield, Fawcett Books, 1992.
  4. Time, The Familiar Stranger, by J. T. Fraser, University of Massachusetts Press, 1987.
  5. The Second Law, by P. W. Atkins, Scientific American Library, W. H. Freeman Books, 1984.
  6. The Origin of Time Asymmetry, by S. W. Hawking, R. Laflamme and G. W. Lyons, preprint (http://math.hia.com/pcr/baeztime.html).
  7. "Where Does Time Go? Forward, Physics Shows," by Malcolm W. Browne, Science Desk, New York Times, December 22, 1998. From Physics News Update, American Institute of Physics, Monday, 7 December, 1998.

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