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God Changes His Mind

What really interests me is whether God had any choice in the creation of the world.

-- Albert Einstein

We like to think God’s will is as immutable as the law of gravity. However, there are numerous incidents in the Bible in which God changed his mind – and a good thing, too, since he was usually preparing to do something awful before he thought better of it. There was the time, for example, when Moses was up on Mt. Sinai while God was laying down the law, with the Hebrew people below worshipping the Golden Calf. The Lord was not amused. He had just told Moses in no uncertain terms that “thou shalt have no other gods before me.” The Lord was about to annihilate the Hebrew people after having already annihilated the pharoah’s army in order to deliver the Jews from bondage in Egypt. Thankfully, Moses managed to talk him out of it.

A world ruled by a God who changes his mind is fundamentally different from the scientific world view. Science is ruled by those immutable natural laws that operate uniformly throughout the universe. If you fall off a cliff, nature will not feel sorry for you and turn down the gravity to soften your landing. On balance, this is a good thing, since you generally want some predictability in the way things work. On the other hand, it leaves no margin for error if you are the one standing too close to the edge.

Admittedly, there are precious few documented cases in which God has intervened to soften the landing of someone who has run afoul of the law of gravity. Jesus wisely refused to bite when the devil suggested he throw himself off the pinnacle of the temple in Jerusalem in the expectation that angels would rush in to save him from a hard landing. “You shall not tempt the Lord your God,” Jesus told the devil, quoting Scripture.

If even Jesus would not be tempted to tempt the Lord on such matters, how much latitude is there to contravene the laws of nature in a world ostensibly ruled by God? Scientists would say none – and for good reason, since the laws of nature cannot be circumvented without calling the whole scientific enterprise into question. Deists -- who enjoyed some prominence in the 17th and 18th centuries -- were basically of the same mind, believing God created the world and pretty much left it to its own devices thereafter. For more hands-on types, there is the “God of the gaps” who operates in the margins, fine-tuning his creation from time to time without directly interfering with natural law. Isaac Newton, the discoverer of gravity, was one of those who believed God stepped in occasionally to keep things running smoothly. Quantum theory also offers a bit of wiggle room, since the laws of classical physics don’t seem to apply in the subatomic realm. All well and good; still, there doesn’t seem to be any way to reconcile any of this with Moses parting the Red Sea or Jesus rising from the dead.

If it’s divine intervention you want, the natural world would appear to offer little direct opportunity—at least not until you step back and take a look at the forest as well as the trees. By the early 1970s, scientists had begun to notice the fundamental forces of nature all seemed precisely calibrated to support life. On the surface, you might argue this was only natural: if the physical parameters of the universe didn’t support life, we wouldn’t be here to observe it. The precision, however, is uncanny. The force of gravity is obviously necessary to hold everything together. But if gravity were even minutely stronger or weaker than it is, the universe would either have long since collapsed upon itself or expanded too fast to form galaxies and planets. As it happens, the force of gravity binding two objects together is inversely proportional to the square of the distance between them – that’s exactly a factor of two, not 1.99999 or 2.00001. And it turns out that the values of numerous physical constants, including the four fundamental forces (gravity, electromagnetism, strong force and weak force), are all fine-tuned to make conditions in the universe just right for life to arise -- a phenomenon that physicist Paul Davies refers to as “the Goldilocks enigma.”

The conclusion might seem inescapable that there is “an intelligent order of the universe to which both man and nature are subservient,” as Max Planck, the founder of modern physics, once expressed it. That is, unless, as some quantum physicists now believe, our universe is just one of an infinite number of universes with different combinations of fundamental attributes, some of which support life and some that do not. In that case, the universe we happen to live in is a mere statistical crapshoot in the vast scheme of things, and the odds no longer seem quite so improbably stacked in our favor. The problem, of course, is that there is absolutely no evidence that any other universes exist, much less that they would operate with an entirely different set of immutable physical laws. At the very least this would suggest it’s not just the Lord God Almighty who changes his mind but also the god of science.

Exodus 20:3
Matthew 4:7

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