Reasons to Believe

A Classical Perspective on the “Physics of Sin”

In his apologetic speaking and writing, Hugh Ross has introduced a concept referred to as the “physics of sin.”[1] He argues that the laws of nature work in a divinely ordained way to curb the expression of humanity’s fallen nature. This view has stirred considerable reaction, especially among those outside the sciences, and theologians may find themselves confused as to how Ross’s idea aligns with the classical categories of Christian theology. An exploration of the theological concept of “common grace” may help dispel some of that confusion.

Theologians have long distinguished between two categories of God’s grace: saving grace and common grace.[2] Saving grace is God’s removal (on behalf of Christ’s payment) of the penalty for sin and the gradual transformation of the inner person, setting the individual free from sin’s grip. God’s common grace extends to all humanity.It does not remove the penalty for sin, but it does endow unbelievers with “innumerable blessings” from God.[3] Common grace means that God bestows good gifts on all people, those who have received saving grace and those who have not,[4] and restrains the full expression of evil.

In the words of reformed scholar Louis Berkhof, “[Common grace] curbs the destructive power of sin, maintains in a measure the moral order of the universe, thus making an orderly life possible, distributes in varying degrees gifts and talents among men, promotes the development of science and art, and showers untold blessings upon the children of men.”[5] Though God has pronounced a death sentence upon those who refuse his saving grace (Rom. 3:23), the punishment has been temporarily stayed.[6] God may patiently prolong the natural life of an unbeliever to give him more time to repent.[7] The differences between saving grace and common grace may be characterized in this way:[8]

 

Saving Grace

Common Grace

Recipients Those who believe Available to all people in all times and all places
Results Provides a pardon for sin Imparts natural blessings
  Gradually transforms the inner person toward Christlikeness. Acts as an external restraint on sin.
  Enjoyed forever, in this life and the next Enjoyed in this life

An understanding of common grace helps reconcile the biblical description of unbelievers with ordinary experience. Consider, for example, the apostle Paul’s description of unbelievers as he links together a series of Old Testament statements in Romans 3:10-18:

“There is no one righteous, not even one; there is no one who understands, no one who seeks God. All have turned away, they have together become worthless; there is no one who does good, not even one.” “Their throats are open graves; their tongues practice deceit.” “The poison of vipers is on their lips.” “Their mouths are full of cursing and bitterness.” “Their feet are swift to shed blood; ruin and misery mark their ways, and the way of peace they do not know.” “There is no fear of God before their eyes.”

Paul's harsh description seems to contradict everyday experience. Everyone can point to examples of non-Christian friends and family who regularly express kindness and other virtues. Christians certainly have not cornered the market on loving their families, caring for the sick, and risking their lives for others. In other words, the influence of sin does not appear to be as pervasive as one might expect, given the biblical description. The restraining power of God’s common grace may help explain this observation.

Theologians note several means by which God administers common grace. For example, the Bible describes how God has constructed the natural world so that all humans—both the just and the unjust—may enjoy its fruits. God’s provision of food and the cooperation of the weather are familiar biblical examples. Jesus said that God “makes the sun rise on the evil and on the good, and sends rain on the just and on the unjust” (Matt. 5:44-45). Similarly, Paul said, “In past generations [God] allowed the nations to walk in their own ways; yet he did not leave himself without witness, for he did good and gave you from heaven rains and fruitful seasons, satisfying your hearts with food and gladness” (Acts 14:16-17).

We also see evidence of God’s common grace in the establishment of various structures within human society. At a foundational level, God has ordained the family unit. Even pagan parents typically know that they should nurture their children (Matt. 7:9-10) and raise them to become responsible adults. God has also ordained governments to help maintain order in society (Rom. 13).

Another means of God’s common grace is the human conscience. The apostle Paul says that when unbelieving Gentiles, “who do not have the law, do by nature things required by the law, they are a law for themselves, even though they do not have the law, since they show that the requirements of the law are written on their hearts, their consciences also bearing witness, and their thoughts now accusing, now even defending them” (Rom. 2:14-15). God sheds His light on everyone’s conscience, teaching unbelievers the differences between right and wrong. As God works through the conscience, Christians can work side-by-side with non-Christian allies to pass civil laws that are in external conformity with the law of God. Positive public pressure leads to a system of societal rewards and punishments that encourages external goodness and curbs evil conduct. So, although the unregenerate cannot perform good deeds that merit salvation, the Bible makes clear that unbelievers are capable of performing outwardly good deeds that align with God’s moral law.[9]

Based on his education as a physicist, Ross seeks to extend the historic theological understanding of common grace in his idea of the “physics of sin.” He suggests that God has built a guidance system of rewards and punishments into the natural order.

God's design of gravity, electromagnetism, strong and weak nuclear forces, and thermodynamics yields this result: the more a person sins, the more work he must perform and the more pain he must experience…Because of their propensity to defy God, individuals need discipline. God's act of ejecting Adam and Eve from the Garden of Eden to the world outside, where they had to plant their own gardens and deal, for example, with "thorns and thistles," helped set in motion the discipline they needed to understand that God's ways are best. The propensity to do things their own way (as opposed to following God's wisdom), consigned Adam and Eve and their descendents to experience much more work and much more pain…God designed the laws of physics to gently but firmly encourage humankind to depart from sin.[10]

Although Ross limits his remarks to the laws of physics, entailed within this understanding are also those physics-obeying aspects of biology, chemistry, and the rest of nature.[11] Based on this clarification, it would seem that what Ross is referring to as the “laws of physics” generally corresponds to the more commonly used term “laws of nature.” The consistency of the created order forms an important, God-given ally to the human conscience. As one cooperates with these natural laws, life tends to go better.

The second law of thermodynamics guarantees that whatever a man organizes, whatever he designs, and whatever information he accumulates becomes increasingly disordered. However, sin speeds up the breakdown. For example, if a man abuses his tools, they become less productive and wear out faster, leading him to experience more pain and more work when he uses them. If he abuses his animals, his employees, or a woman who might become his spouse, their response to the abuse causes him more work, less pleasure, and more pain.[12]

This list of examples often has the effect of flooding the reader’s (or listener’s) mind with a list of counter examples. After all, will the laws of physics treat me differently if I steal a ring from the jewelry store rather than buy it? Both apparently result in the same outcome—the possession of a diamond ring—and in the former case without financial expense. How do the laws of nature encourage me to remain faithful to my spouse rather than commit adultery? Why do sweet fatty treats typically taste better than a tossed salad? If God wanted the laws of nature to discourage a person from eating Ding Dongs, it seems He should have made sugar taste like dirt.

Considering the long-term consequences of human decisions and actions brings the connection to the laws of nature into sharper focus. A life marked by thievery may result in legal penalty, but even if it does not, the stresses of evading detection take their toll, including relational costs. A pleasurable adulterous encounter has its costs and risks, also. It introduces guilt and deceit into the marriage relationship, damages trust, and erodes intimacy. Such an encounter may also result in an unwanted pregnancy and/or a sexually transmitted disease. A pattern of sexual immorality leads to a variety of relational, emotional, and physical costs. A habitual pattern of ingesting Ding Dongs will most likely result in obesity and a compromised immune system. Where obesity results, the law of gravity takes direct effect in degenerating the joints. In other words, although individual situations may seem immune to the physical laws God has built into the universe, natural consequences serve to curb the desirability of sin over the long term. Suddenly, honesty, marital fidelity, and watching one’s weight in the short-term have long-term merit.

Not only do the laws of nature help to encourage good behavior, but they also help to restrain evil. Consider, for example, the fact that we live in a universe with only one dimension of time, which cannot be stopped or reversed. This is a great blessing. It prevents blood-thirsty dictators and abusive tyrants from wreaking havoc indefinitely.[13] Their demise is inevitable, if not by the hand of the criminal justice system, then by death through natural causes. Their reigns of terror cannot endure forever.

Understanding of Ross’s idea may be helped by comparing God’s use of the physical laws in restraining evil with the institution of human government, another component of common grace. The rule of law, even in an imperfect and inconsistent government, protects the innocent and punishes the guilty. One reason incidents of injustice remain is that people are less consistent in applying the laws of society than nature is in applying its laws. Nevertheless, few would argue that anarchy is beneficial to the quality of human life and the survival of civilization. Some, albeit imperfect, restraint on evil is better than none at all. With this in mind, we hear in Ross’s ideas echoes of Berkhof:

Through the operation of common grace sin is restrained in the lives of individuals and in society. The element of corruption that entered the life of the human race is not permitted, for the present, to accomplish its disintegrating work…This restraint may be external or internal or both, but does not change the heart.[14]

Ross’s conception of the role natural laws play in the restraint of evil is that they provide tangible, experiential support to the laws of morality written on the human conscience. They provide orderliness and stability to our understanding of the operation of everyday life. The laws of nature don’t discriminate. They operate equitably and predictably at all times. One can know in advance that if she chooses action A, consequence B will follow. The pain of a burn provides support to the command, “Don’t touch a hot stove.” This kind of predictable cause-and-effect relationship provides (and reinforces) accountability for one's actions.

Ross’s choice of terminology in referring to the “physics of sin” may be the real cause of confusion and controversy. While Ross may have intended to provoke readers’ attention, his choice of words suggests to some that he seeks to describe how physics affects sin or sin affects physics. A better description for his concept would be “how the physical laws God established for the universe help to restrain sin.” Although not as catchy, it is more reflective of what Ross actually proposes. Terminology aside, however, Ross’s pioneering efforts to bring scientific perspectives to bear on this theological concept provide theologians with an augmented understanding of God’s administration of common grace.

According to Scripture, the universe as we know it—with its distinct physical attributes—will end.[15] Revelation 21 says Christians can look forward to an eternity with God and the saints in the “new heavens and new earth.” Some day the restraint of sin will be total and complete. And to that day we look forward in faith and hope.


References:

[1] Hugh Ross, “The Physics of Sin,” Facts for Faith 8 (2002), 47-51.

[2] Classically, “saving grace” has been called “particular grace.” I am, however, adopting the terminology used by Wayne Grudem because it seems a little more modern in what it conveys. Wayne Grudem, Systematic Theology: Introduction to Biblical Doctrine, (Grand Rapids, MI: Zondervan Publishing, 1994), p. 657.

[3] Summarized from Grudem, p. 657.

[4] Gen. 17:20 (comp. vs. 18); 39:5; Ps. 145:9,15,16; Matt. 5:44,45; Luke 6:35, 36; Acts 14:16, 17; 1 Tim. 4:10.

[5] Louis Berkhof, Systematic Theology, 4th ed. (Grand Rapids, MI: Wm. B. Eerdmans, 1979), p. 434, summarizing Calvin’s position on common grace.

[6] This analogy is borrowed from Berkhof, 442.

[7] Isa. 48:9; Jer. 7:23-25; Luke 13:6-9; Rom. 2:4; 9:22; 2 Peter 3:9

[8] This discussion of the differences between saving grace and common grace is admittedly brief. For a more in depth treatment of the nuances of these ideas, see Berkhof, pp. 436-440.

[9] 2 Kings 10:29, 30; 12:2 (compare with 2 Chron. 24:17-25); 14:3,14-16,20,27 (compare with 2 Chron. 25:2); Luke 6:33; Rom. 2:14,15.

[10] Ross, pp. 48-49.

[11] This point was clarified for me in a conversation at a Scholar’s Lunch at Reasons To Believe in February 2004.

[12] Ross, p. 49.

[13] If Ross’s idea that God may have access to multiple dimensions of time is correct, then it’s possible that God could have set up a world in which His creations also had access to multiple dimensions of time. Had this been the case, then, evil men like Hitler and Stalin could have perpetuated evil on all people simultaneously and for eternity.  By limiting time to one dimension, however, God has set up the universe to curb our access to time, thereby limiting the evil that humans can do. See Hugh Ross, Beyond the Cosmos:The Extradimensionality of God, rev. ed. (Colorado Springs, CO: NavPress, 1999), pp. 73-79.

[14] Berkhof, p. 442.

[15] According to Ross, the current laws of physics and space-time dimensions that accompany them will be replaced in the new creation with new physics and new dimensionality. This will enable humans to experience greater depth of relationships and love. See Ross, Beyond the Cosmos, pp. 223-227.

Subjects: Laws of Physics, Philosophy of Science