Book Review by Steve Solomon

Beyond the Cosmos

by Hugh Ross, Ph.D.

NavPress. Reasons to Believe ©1996. 231 pages (hardback)

CAN BIBLICAL FAITH AND CUTTING-EDGE PHYSICS BE RECONCILED? Dr. Hugh Ross is convinced that they can. Ross earned an undergraduate degree in physics and two graduate degrees in astronomy, then conducted postdoctoral research at CalTech on quasars and galaxies. He is the founder and director of Reasons to Believe, described as "a nonprofit organization, without denominational affiliation, adhering to the doctrinal statements of the National Association of Evangelicals and of the International Council on Biblical Inerrancy" and providing "research and teaching on the harmony of God's revelation in the words of the Bible and in the facts of nature." Beyond the Cosmos   is an attempt to reconcile a literal interpretation of Scripture with the latest insights of astronomy and physics. Ross's motivation is to aid both Christians (who may feel their faith threatened by science) and non-Christians (whose skepticism prevents them from coming to faith) by removing scientific stumbling blocks to belief.

Beyond the Cosmos   raises some interesting points and offers a new way of looking at the Bible. Current physics demands the existence of higher-order dimensions (beyond the four we can experience--length, width, height, and time). Ross suggests the fascinating possibility that God and angelic beings might "reside" in those dimensions. Extra-dimensionality can go a long way toward explaining many of the miraculous events recorded in both the Old and New Testaments. For example, consider the perplexing visions of Ezekiel. The prophet's descriptions of the heavenly creatures he saw are so difficult to visualize that many readers have trouble believing that any such beings could exist. On the other hand, these descriptions do not sound like something Ezekiel fabricated--if he were going to make something up, why not something fantastic and awe-inspiring, yes, but a bit more believable? In his book Chariots of the Gods? Swiss UFO maven Erich von Däniken went so far as to assert that Ezekiel's "creatures" were actually high-tech landing craft piloted by extraterrestrials! Ross's interpretation of the creatures as angelic beings existing in higher-order dimensions is at least as believable and much more satisfying.

Questionable Theology

Helping people to believe in God is a worthy goal and one I share. However, Beyond the Cosmos   is not without its problems. Before criticizing the book on specific points, it seems only fair to state that I do not share the author's literal interpretation of the Bible. My views on the interpretation and significance of Scripture are much closer to those articulated by Lutheran theologian Joseph Sittler:

There are still voices abroad today that have the effrontery to suggest that only infallible, inerrant literalism is the Christian way to interpret Scripture. This proposing of a highly peculiar norm for the whole of world Christianity is a strange phenomenon. We ought not to fall for it. On the first page of the Bible there is an instance of how literalism is but an invitation to transcend the image to which literalism points. That first page is not geology, biology, or paleontology; it is high religion. For there we are told who we are in terms of our constitutive context. And if we could understand that, we would cease worrying about whether the antelopes or the cateloupes came in a certain order. Gravity & Grace, p. 36

Literalists will call me a liberal and accuse me of "picking and choosing" what I "want" to believe. I am aware of the dangers inherent in a relativistic view of the Bible, but the convoluted reasoning and mental gymnastics required to square a literal interpretation of Genesis, for example, with modern science strike me as intellectually dishonest. I have yet to see a truly convincing reconciliation of the Biblical creation stories (there are two) with the fossil record. Similarly, when Ross gets around to calculating the possible size of the "mansions" in the New Jerusalem, I am constrained to ask, Couldn't at least some parts of the Book of Revelation be meant metaphorically? What Ross makes of Old Testament doublets (pairs of stories that often contradict one another) or the tension between the conventional wisdom of Proverbs and the unconventional wisdom of Jesus, I don't know.

Sometimes even when I agree with Ross, I'm not always sure his explanations are helpful. Consider his proof of the efficacity of Christ's atoning death: Ross argues that although Christ hung on the cross for only about six hours from our time perspective, he could have suffered for an infinite amount of time from his perspective because he has access to extra-dimensional timelines. This explanation may help people who ask how one individual's (comparatively) brief suffering could expunge the accumulated sins of every human who ever lived or will live. I find the idea intellectually interesting, but not really necessary for my faith. It seems to me that the atoning power of Christ's death is something to be accepted by faith or not at all, not something that can be explained with physics.

Ross also uses extra dimensions to explain how God can hear billions of prayers at once (He can pack an unlimited number of extra timelines into one instant of our linear time) and how Jesus was able to appear inside the locked room where the disciples were hiding (he used extra dimensions of space inaccessible to us). Once again, whether such explanations are helpful depends on the individual reader. I find these ideas interesting, but not necessary for my faith. Why should we assume that God and the resurrected Christ would be bound by our human limitations? I have always assumed quite the opposite.

I see a danger in this sort of "spiritual mechanics"--rather than making Christianity more believable for scientifically-oriented skeptics, it can backfire and bring ridicule on the Christian faith. When I mentioned Ross's explanation of the atonement to a skeptical friend, he laughed and suggested that Santa Claus could avail himself of the same principle to visit every house on earth in one night. If my friend (who is a skeptic, but not generally hostile to religion) reacted this way, how might dyed-in-the-wool atheists respond?

Questionable Science

In addition to my theological differences with Ross, I must also take exception to his approach to scientific thought and to logical argumentation in general. Ross seems to blur the distinction between received religious truth and demonstrable scientific truth. He often presents assertions as established facts when they are actually matters of faith. At one point he states axiomatically that there can be no contradictions in Christian teaching. He never gives any evidence to support this statement, so I doubt that atheists and agnostics will find it (or the lines of reasoning based on it) very persuasive. Similarly, Ross asserts that apparent contradictions in Christian theology can be resolved through application of higher-order dimensional theory, whereas contradictions in the teachings of other religions cannot be resolved in this fashion. So sweeping a statement is inherently suspect, and all the more so here because it is self-serving (coming as it does from a Christian apologist eager to discredit other religions). In Beyond the Cosmos   Ross demonstrates an encyclopedic knowledge of the Bible and great zeal for squaring Christian theology with science, but I wonder if he is similarly well-versed in the scriptures of other religions or as zealous for their scientific vindication? He would need to be in order to make such an absolute claim credible.

In trying to prove the existence of a literal, personified Satan, Ross states that human evil is all out of proportion to the necessary "evils" perpetrated by animals in their attempts to survive. Humans alone kill for sport, revenge, or cruelty; animals kill only to eat. It is the supernatural influence of Satan and his fallen angels (to which humans are susceptible because of their greater spiritual capacity, both for good and evil) that makes humans capable of depravity. Once again, this does not strike me as scientifically sound thought. First of all, Ross's facts are suspect here: Are animals really incapable of what we would call evil? Cats toy with their prey cruelly before killing it. The competition between lions and hyenas seems to go beyond mere survival to hatred and revenge. Recent research on chimpanzees indicates that they commit murder and wage war. Secondly, couldn't humanity's greater capacity for moral extremes be simply the result of our more advanced brains and our presumably more developed imaginations? Isn't it just possible that Satan and his minions are metaphors? Must we jump to a supernatural conclusion? Personally, I am undecided as to the literal existence of the devil. For Ross, however, demons are as real as water, rocks, or carbon atoms. Certainly a scientist has the same right as anyone else to hold religious beliefs, but I would at least expect a scientist to be able to differentiate between religious truth and scientific fact.

Beyond the Cosmos   reaches its theological and scientific nadir in Ross's attempts to use extra dimensions to prove that (a) some people are predestined for hell, (b) despite predestination, they choose hell of their own free will, and (c) predestining people for hell is consistent with the character of a loving God. Ross tries to resolve this paradox by invoking extra-dimensional timelines. In essence, his argument is that God can, by virtue of His access to timelines beyond our experience, leave a person's will free, yet simultaneously manipulate situations such that the temptation to disobey Him will be too strong for that person to resist. If I understand correctly, this boils down to being forced to choose hell of one's own free will--an argument worthy of medieval Scholastics at their worst. The graphs plotting "Christlikeness" against time, with their vector arrows representing the contending wills of God, Satan, and the individual human soul in its progress toward one of two thresholds--salvation or blasphemy--strike me as mechanistic and pseudoscientific. (How were the lengths of those vector arrows determined? In what units is willpower measured?) I do not claim to have the answers to such weighty questions as free will versus predestination or the existence of hell, but I do know that Ross's explanations are not satisfying as Christian apology. If I, a Christian of moderate theological leanings, find them unconvincing, how much less persuasive will they be for the real skeptics whom Ross hopes to reach?

Finally, Beyond the Cosmos   suffers from a lack of focus. Ross tries to pack explanations for every theological paradox and answers to every challenge to Biblical literalism into one fairly slim volume. The book would have been more convincing if Ross had settled on a few broad theological topics and examined them in greater depth. I would also have preferred to have seen more science and less dogma. Ross spends considerable time recounting the histories of various theological concepts such as the Trinity. I suppose he considered this to be necessary background information, but it could profitably have been condensed in favor of devoting more space to the scientific aspects of his arguments. Ross sometimes seems to forget his non-believing readership and begins preaching to the choir. In Christian apologetics as in many other endeavors, less is more: the book that has most bolstered my faith in the literal resurrection of Christ is E. P. Sanders's The Historical Figure of Jesus, which is not a devotional work at all but a dispassionate book on New Testament history. I don't believe that Sanders's goal was to strengthen his readers' faith, but strengthen mine he did, simply by letting historical fact and reasonable inference do the talking. I wish Ross had taken a similar approach in his book.

All my criticisms notwithstanding, Beyond the Cosmos   does raise some interesting issues, issues that might profitably be debated by a wide audience of scientists, theologians, and science-literate laypersons. Unfortunately, that debate is unlikely to materialize. The book's dogmatic approach will probably limit it to distribution by evangelical Christian bookstores. I look forward to a more dispassionate, fact-based exposition of the theological implications of extra-dimensional physics, one that can stand alongside the works of Stephen Hawking and Paul Davies.

Edited May 7, 1997. Revised May 26, 2000.

Copyright ©1997-2000 by Steven R. Solomon. All rights reserved.
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