Wolfhart Pannenberg

In his article “Resurrection and hereafter”, S. L. Bonting presented a critique of Frank Tipler’s book “The Physics of Immortality” and of my appreciative reaction to it. Prof. Tipler will response himself to the depiction of his Omega Point Theory, a depiction which he rejects as inaccurate in several points. I do not consider it my task to comment on the scientific issues involved, but I want to clarify some points, where mispresentations can and should be avoided, so that a less prejudiced discussion of Tipler’s project might become possible.

Bonting’s introductory remark that “science is by definition limited to this world” seems to involve that our Christian hope is concerned for a completely different world, which is not true: When we await “a new heaven and a new earth”, it is rather the transformation of the present heaven and earth that we expect, just as Paul speaks in 1. Cor 15,51ff. of a transformation of our bodily existence (cf. also Phil 3,21). According to Rom 8,18ff. this hope implicates all of creation. If there is a positive relationship between the first creation and its future transformation, however, one should be cautious to deny in principle the possibility of any positive contribution of science in this area, especially in view of the fact that in Jesus’ resurrection the eschatological future has had an impact already in our present world. We should always remember, of course, that “our knowledge is imperfect”, as Paul reminds us (1. Cor 13,9) with regard to theological knowledge, a remark that also applies to all other forms of knowledge.

Secondly, Bonting said that our Christian belief is in resurrection, not in immortality. That is correct in the sense that nothing in our present life is exempt from perishing. But on the other hand, the new life of the future, which Christians expect, is said to be imperishable (1. Cor 15,42.50ff.). Tipler uses the idea of immortality in this more general way, not opposed to resurrection.

Concerning the “final” anthropic principle, I express reservations myself in my Systematic Theology (vol. II). But I do not consider it a “mystical thought”, though it certainly is “a form of a teleology”. As such it convenes with the theological language about God’s purpose with humanity and with his creation, though this is a transcendent, not an immanent telos. It is nonsense to say that “Tipler has removed God” from the origin of the universe. He rather considered the eschatological future to be the place, from which God, the power of the future, created the entire course of the universe from its beginnings. This view is not a contradiction with some of the things Bonting says on creation, though in theological language “chaos” should not refer to an uncreated origin before the act of creation, because the theological doctrine of creatio ex nihilo has its point in asserting that nothing exists that was not created by God. I agree with Bonting in what he says on the contingent nature of the universe. And I should add that all events in the history of creation are also contingent, notwithstanding elements of uniformity in their sequence that allow for the application of formulas of natural law. The contingency of events, however, points to their origin from God as the power of the future, and it is in this perspective that creation and eschatology belong together. I do not think that in this matter “cosmological prediction” and biblical expectation must be “in flagrant conflict”, as Bonting asserts, because causation from the past, the basis of scientific prediction, and causation from the future (from God as source of contingency) are not necessarily in contradiction: since the creator wanted to have creatures of an enduring existence, the emergence of enduring patterns and the reliability of natural law was a necessary condition. The causation moving from the past to present and future also corresponds to the finite point of view of human experience, because as finite beings we are looking from our present and past to the future. On the other hand, the example of Tipler shows that this does not exclude the idea that on a deeper level causation works from the future of God to the presence and past of his creatures.

Concerning the resurrection of the dead it amounts to a distortion of Tipler’s view to assert, as Bonting does, that “Tipler has humans make themselves immortal through the transformation into information”. Rather, it seems that God, at the Omega Point of the cosmological process, has the power for restoring the life of his creatures, who were already created from his final future. Tipler thinks that the information responsible for our individual existence now will be at the disposal of God so that he may decide to provide a new existence for his creatures. The identity with their former lives then is secured by the information that remains at God’s disposal even where the bodily existence of the creature has passed away. This reminded me of St. Thomas’ idea that the programme of our bodily existence is contained in our soul and secures personal identity when it becomes the basis for a new form of bodily existence (ScT II, 58). The similarity with Tipler’s idea is surprising at this point, and this induced my judgment that here Tipler comes close to the Christian doctrine. Bonting indicates his disagreement, but does not comment on the similarity with Thomas Aquinas. Instead, he supposes that Tipler deviates from the Christian teaching on the bodily resurrection, because that involves the transformation to “a heavenly body, which is not identical with the earthly body”. Perhaps Bonting’s misunderstanding of Tipler’s conception at this point was occasioned by the image of a computer simulation that Tipler used to illustrate his point that the creature can be restored by God to his/her former individual identity. This does not exclude, however, profound transformation to another form of bodily existence. In his recent restatement of his position, Tipler makes this point abundantly clear.

In my earlier article on his thought I mentioned that there was indeed one important point of deviation from the Christian concept of resurrection in Tipler’s argument, – the relation of the Christian hope for resurrection to the event of the resurrection of Jesus. In his recent restatement of his position, however, he found arguments that make the occurrence of a case of eschatological resurrection in the midst of history acceptable. I consider this a very interesting argument in a situation where usually the Christian proclamation of Jesus’ resurrection is rejected as scientifically impossible, even by theologians, although purely historical considerations would rather suggest a positive judgment. In his book Tipler said that he would reconsider his position, if the appearance of such a person (Jesus as Son of God and the risen Lord of a redeemed humanity) would be necessary as a condition for the Omega Point to result in the end of the cosmic process. He has now convinced himself of arguments that indeed require such a revision, arguments that induce him to accept a Trinitarian conception of God and the incarnation of one of the singularities of the Trinity, the Son, in the person of Jesus. This also induces him now to revise his earlier judgment on the historical occurrence of Jesus’ resurrection.

As a Christian theologian, I can only feel deeply satisfied by this development in Frank Tipler’s thought, though I cannot concur with all the details of his discussion. Concerning the Lucan story of the Virgin Birth of Jesus, I am for purely historical reasons unable to claim the historicity of such an event. It is not the miraculous character of such an event that prevents from accepting it as a historical fact, but rather particularities in the Lucan text itself that indicate its literary form to be that of a legend. That Jesus was and is (on the basis of his resurrection) the Son of God, is a Christian affirmation that is older than the story of his Virgin Birth and quite independent from it in the New Testament tradition, where we have the idea of the Virgin Birth only in Luke and Matthew (1,18). Tipler actually would not need it for the assertion that the appearance of Jesus as Son of God was a necessary condition for the Omega Point to occur at the end of the history of the cosmos.

I also have problems with Tipler’s adoption of the multiple-worlds interpretation of quantum theory. As my treatment of the doctrine of creation in my Systematic Theology (vol. II) shows, I rather follow a version of the old Copenhagen interpretation in a form now pronounced by Hans Peter Dürr in his statement that the world is created anew with each new event. But there are many noted scientists who accept the multiple-worlds interpretation. On the other hand, not all of them accept the inflation theory of Alan Guth, which Bonting favors. Wouldn’t it be better to speak of different theoretical options rather than to judge other options as “pseudo-physics” as Bonting does, even with regard to a physicist whose profession it is to teach relativity theory?

Even if one does not follow all of Tipler’s arguments, Christian theologians should be grateful for Frank Tipler’s work and admire the intellectual courage of his attempt to bridge over the gulf between physics and the Christian faith in a future resurrection of the dead and in the resurrection of Jesus as a fact of history. There are so strong prejudices in this matter on both sides that suggest such a connection to be impossible, and therefore intellectual courage is indeed required for any attempt at restoring it. For the Christian faith, the sheer possibility of such a connection can be of enormous importance in order to change the public climate in our culture regarding the plausibility structure of the Christian proclamation of the resurrection of Jesus as a real event in human history, as well as of the corresponding Christian hope for the future. At the beginning of his article, Bonting expresses his concern with this situation, and thus he should be more open and sympathetic towards a contribution like Tipler’s.

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