“Unless a grain of wheat falls into the earth and dies, it remains alone; but if it dies, it bears much fruit.” – John 12:24
“The last enemy to be destroyed is death...Death is swallowed up in victory.” – 1 Corinthians 15:26, 54
"The greater the sin, the greater the mercy, the deeper the death and the brighter the rebirth.” - C. S. Lewis
"This story...has the very taste of primary truth." - J. R. R. Tolkien

Thursday, March 8, 2012

Is God Physical?

God may be, like our universe, “physical.” Not in the sense of having a body or of being in a particular location in space, or of experiencing reality in a sensory way like we do. I do not mean "physical" in that sense, which is more directly tied to our experience. What does it mean for the world to be physical, apart from human experience? - say, when earth was still forming and no life existed. Perhaps the key element is mathematics: the presence of underlying mathematical structure (of the laws of physics) governing how the world works. (Our sensory human experience of the world as "physical" can be described in this way.) This mathematical structure is tightly constrained and cannot simply be modified in any old way. It is probably best to think of the laws of physics, then, as being comparable to mathematical truths on a fundamental level: necessary truths, inherent to God's very nature. (The laws of our particular world - general relativity and the Standard Model of particle physics - do not appear to be necessary in this way, but is likely some deeper structure that is.) And it is difficult to conceive of any world or any reality at all without some mathematical description applying. This deep link between (physical) reality and mathematics leads us towards the idea that God himself is "physical" in a similar sense. Over and against an amorphous, fuzzy entity that summoned into existence a creation based on something (mathematics) wholly other than itself, and over and against the idea of an inventor God mechanically designing physical/mathematical laws for our world that have nothing much to do with His own nature, we should think of God as "giving birth" to a creation made deeply in His own image, on both "fundamental" and "emergent" levels.

To probe further, whereas our complex universe is generated from simple laws of nature, which we know in part, God in his fullness may be “generated” by deep and simple laws of the divine nature. That may sound provocative or even heretical to some, so let me explain.

Physicists are working hard to understand the fundamental physics which describes our world; we know that very simple equations and mathematical structures perfectly describe the world we live in. In The Grand Design, Stephen Hawking gives a toy example: “the game of life,” in which 4 simple rules generate a complex “universe.” In this case the “universe” is a flat, two-dimensional, discrete grid of squares evolving in time in discrete steps - obviously very different from our universe. But they share the same pattern: simple mathematical laws/structure - a “seed” - can generate infinitely complex structure - a “tree.”

Now, what do we mean when we say our world is “physical”? It is a word best defined by experience: when we experience the world with our five senses, we experience “physical” reality. When scientists test out theories to see if they match what happens in the lab, they study the “physical” world. This “physical” universe is precisely the complex “tree” that emerges from, or is generated by, simple laws of nature. Physicists have uncovered parts of those laws, but much is unknown. Whatever this unknown “seed” of our universe is, it is real in the sense that the world we experience, which emerges from it, is real. As far as we know, what we experience as the “physical” world is what is generated from this seed, and it may be that any possible “physical” reality would be marked by the same pattern.

God may be “physical” in a similar sense. If God exists, mathematical truth is certainly part of his divine nature, simply because mathematics is the language and structure of all reality, both God and creation. In mathematics we always find complexity emerging from simplicity, and so it may be within God. A simple mathematical “seed” may generate God in his fullness (in Christianity, this means the Trinity), just as simple laws have generated our universe, in which there are sentient beings. (I first explored this idea here, reacting to Dawkins’ argument for atheism in The God Delusion.) And if this pattern is shared, then what we experience as “physical” may also be quality shared by God.

Now, when I say “generate” or “emerge,” I do not mean that God was “born” from or created by the physical/mathematical seed. That is, I do not mean that the seed was simply there in the beginning, self-existent in itself, and that God came from it. If that were so, we would call the seed “God” and call God something else. On the contrary, the whole of God - the tree, the underlying seed, and the emergence of the tree from the seed - is self-existent, simply there in the beginning. The “process” of emergence does not “occur” in time or out of time, but is an eternal aspect of God’s nature. We should not speak of one part of God depending on another part of God. God is One. The fullness of God is inseparable from the seed: the tree is hidden within it, in a sense.

At this point, the analogy between God and the universe breaks down somewhat. A common view among physicists is that the laws of Nature are just there; they generate the universe, and so the universe is just there, but only insofar as Nature was there to generate it. But if we maintain that God is just there, we must maintain that the reason why there is something instead of nothing cannot be found in the physical/mathematical seed, or in any part, but only in the whole of God. God is more than the product of the “core” of his divine nature. Again, God is One.

If this picture of God is on the right track towards the truth (of course, it may be wrong), there are many implications. For example,

  • If God Himself is physical, how vast and endless might physical reality be? Our universe may just be a single seed dropped from the Great Tree that is God. That Tree may be infinitely fruitful: there may be worlds without end, each completely unique, and maybe each wildly different from our universe. We must use our imagination!
  • If God may be described as “physical” in a way at all like the physical universe we know, then our physical, sensory experience of reality may reflect, in small degree, God’s infinitely greater divine life and experience.
  • God is no less infinite and beautiful and glorious if the word “physical” describes God; rather, it is the greatest possible affirmation or exaltation of “physicality.” It is the ultimate defeater of the view that our material existence is trivial or unimportant, and that what really matters is our spiritual capacity, or immaterial souls. We ought never to say “mere matter” if the depth and height and beauty and meaning of the spiritual realm is rooted in the material seed, and especially if this pattern is in God himself.
  • If the Incarnation of God as a human being in Jesus affirms the goodness of our physical bodies and gives new meaning to our bearing “the image of God,” then how much more if “the physical” reflects something inherent to God’s very nature. We may bear “the image of God” in ways we never imagined.
  • The physical/mathematical laws that may characterize God would be extremely different than those of our universe. They would be perfect, supremely beautiful, holy, whereas as the laws of our universe would be, in comparison, lowly and imperfect. They would be the laws of a beautiful but broken world, in need of healing, whereas the laws of the divine Nature would be those of an unspeakably and infinitely glorious Being.


  1. Elliot, just stumbled upon your blog - AWESOME. I can always tell when someone's breathing the same air as Lewis and Tolkein, there is a beauty and a depth to your thinking about God that they exemplified and I am glad to see still lives. We need more people who can hear the songs Creation is singing and consider them!