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March 16, 2002
Column #1072

Templeton Prize Awarded to Scientist/Theologian

     John Polkinghorne, who resigned as a prestigious Professor of Mathematical Physics at Cambridge University in 1979 to become an Anglican priest, won the $1 million Templeton Prize for Progress Toward Research or Discoveries About Spiritual Realities on Thursday.

     He has written many books applying scientific habits to Christianity, resulting in a modern and compelling new exploration of the faith. His approach to the fundamentals of Christian orthodoxy such as Christ's resurrection and God's creation of the universe using the skills of a rigorous scientific mind, demonstrate that the truth of science and the truths of Christian faith, are not polar opposites but can present a broader understanding of God's purpose.

     The Templeton Prize, founded by Sir John Templeton, is larger than the Nobel Prizes to underscore Templeton's belief that spiritual discoveries are more important than other human endeavors. Mother Teresa won the first Templeton Prize in 1973, six years before receiving the Nobel Peace Prize. Other recipients include Billy Graham and Chuck Colson.

     Polkingnorne's newest book, "The God of Hope and the End of the World," begins with a flat statement: "The universe as we know it today emerged from the fiery singularity of the big bang, some fifteen billion years ago...In about five billion years time, all the core hydrogen will be exhausted and the Sun will then swell to become a red giant, burning any life surviving on Earth into a frazzle in the process." 

     Steven Weinberg, a distinguished physicist, who is an atheist, concluded that the more he understood of the universe, the more it seemed to him to be pointless. "Here is a challenge to which theology must respond," wrote Polkinghorne. "Jewish and Christian thinking takes seriously the reiterated divine statements in Genesis 1 that creation is good." 

     How can that be reconciled with the ultimate end of the world, on which scientists agree?  Of course, for most people, the ultimate issue is not what happens in five billion years, but their own death in the much nearer future. Science does not offer hope for life after death. "Theology bases its port mortem hope on a reality inaccessible to scientific investigation, the faithfulness of the living God," he writes. 

     "Theology claims that what is ultimate is not physical process but the will and purpose of God the Creator. God's purpose will no more be frustrated by cosmic death on a timescale of tens of billions of years than they are by human death on a timescale of tens of years."

     Polkinghorne asserts, "Human beings possess a significant intuition that in the end all shall be well." This hope has some scientific grounding. People who have come back to life after apparently being clinically dead tell common stories of being greeted "by a figure of light and sensations of warmth and welcome." Most impressively, survivors of near death experiences develop a "complete lack of the fear of death."

     At bottom, however, our hope rests in our belief in a faithful Creator and upon the unique value of each human being. This is a moral view, requiring action, such as caring for an aging parent. That hope is undergirded by Scripture.

     More than anything else, the resurrection of Jesus fuels hope.. He seemed to die in failure, yet he became the most influential figure in history. St. Paul, writing 25 years after his crucifixion, says Jesus appeared "to more than five hundred brothers and sisters at one time, most of whom are still alive" (I Cor. 15).

     To a Christian, it is a "coherent hope to believe that the laws of its nature will be perfectly adapted to the everlasting life where `Death will be no more; mourning and crying will be no more"' (Rev. 21.4). But this raises basic questions about Death, Judgment, Heaven and Hell.

     Will those who never heard the Gospel in life be condemned to eternal death? 

     Jesus says he will separate the sheep who fed the hungry from the goats who did not. "Do we find ourselves unambiguously in one company or the other?" asks Polkinghorne. "We are neither wholly sheep nor wholly goat...Perhaps judgment is a process rather than a verdict. Perhaps judgment builds up the sheep and diminishes the goat in each of us." Purgatory makes sense to him, a place where we have hope of purification and redemption.

     He asserts, "God's offer of mercy and forgiveness is not withdrawn at death, but, rather, divine love is everlasting." That means the contempt of some for God may melt after death. If not, they have "condemned themselves to hell." 

     I would rather live on the assumption my decisions now are decisive for heaven or hell. 

Copyright 2002 Michael J. McManus.

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