Understanding Teilhard, Part IV: Space and the Universe

Updated: Jan 6

Ascension of Christ, Salvador Dali, 1958

Editor’s note: this essay is part 4 in a series on Teilhard, beginning here.

The human world of today has not grown cold, but… is ardently searching for a God proportionate to the new dimensions of a Universe whose appearance has completely revolutionized the scale of our faculty of worship.

-Teilhard de Chardin, The Heart of the Problem

I began this series by sharing the initial impression of Teilhard de Chardin that I’d gleaned from Dan Simmons’ Hyperion series of science fiction novels: that Teilhard called upon humanity to travel throughout space, subdue the universe in the name of God, and thereby draw closer into ultimate union with Him.

It turns out that the first and critical part of this impression—through no fault of Simmons’—was false. Actually, Teilhard frequently speculated that all space travel was impossible.

In one essay in The Future of Man, Teilhard—after voicing his doubts about the technical feasibility of combating degenerative aging—speculated that “journeying between celestial bodies” was also impracticable. Remarkably, Teilhard was not talking about traveling to another galaxy or even to Alpha Centauri, but simply traveling “to Venus.” Again, in The Phenomenon of Man, Teilhard is explicit. He not only doubts that humans can travel between solar systems, but even that we could ever navigate through “interplanetary space.”

This error cannot simply be chalked up to the times in which Teilhard lived. In 1929, Teilhard’s younger contemporary, the Marxist futurist J.D. Bernal, wrote that space travel was inevitable. As Bernal correctly explained:

Ultimately it would seem impossible that [space travel] should not be solved. Our opponent is here the simple curvature of space-time—a mere matter of acquiring sufficient acceleration on our own part—which, sooner or later, must be practicable.

In general, Bernal traveled in the wake of Teilhard—who circulated his Christian futurist ideas years before Bernal popularized his own secularized version of futurism. On space travel, however, Teilhard sadly lagged behind Bernal, who wrote the above quotation twenty-six years before Teilhard wrote The Phenomenon of Man. Teilhard seems to have remained doubtful about space travel his entire life.

The Luna 2 rocket, 1959

As mentioned earlier, Teilhard died in 1955. Just four years later, the Soviet probe Luna 2 became the first manmade object to reach the surface of the moon. Had Teilhard lived to see this milestone, he would have been only 77.

If Teilhard had lived to be 87, he would have seen the Apollo 11 astronauts reach the moon’s surface.

Having now read Teilhard extensively, I think I can say confidently that—if Teilhard had lived even four more years and learned of the Luna 2 success—he would have at first been startled and incredulous. Yet, once he had been satisfied that the reports were not a Soviet hoax, and that the probe had in fact reached its destination, he would have quickly worked out the probability of the Apollo missions and the now-inevitable success of a manned mission to Mars. This would have required a significant revision to his cosmic worldview.

But Teilhard did not live to see Luna 2, let alone the Apollo missions. How then did Teilhard think humanity would fulfill its divine function to “complete cosmic evolution”?

Teilhard’s Omega point theory

Famously, Teilhard described the conclusion of cosmic evolution as “the Omega point.” An Omega point is, simply put, any future state in which life has resolved the threat posed by the heat death of the universe and thereby finally triumphed over entropy itself. One might naturally expect that Teilhard—especially with his constant talk of “the cosmos” and “the universe”—believed that space travel was a necessary prerequisite to reaching the Omega point.

Yet, disappointingly, Teilhard’s specific vision of the Omega point was actually something like the following: humanity will create some kind of transuniversal wormhole here on Earth and thereby “[leave] Earth and stars to lapse slowly back into the dwindling mass of primordial energy.”

Because the Omega point represents the successful conclusion of evolution, this achievement will result in finally ushering all of the saved into the full presence of God. [1] In his essay The Formation of the Noosphere Teilhard says that consciousness “will break through the material framework of Time and Space to escape somewhere toward an ultracenter of unification and consistence, where there will finally be assembled, and in detail, everything that is irreplaceable and incommunicable in the world.”

Teilhard’s vision of the Omega point is a phenomenal letdown because it seems to contradict so many of the themes that run throughout his own writing—from his zeal for research and discovery to the specifically cosmic scale of his vision. While I cannot blame Dan Simmons' science fiction novels for my misimpression of Teilhard, I think I can justly blame Teilhard himself. Anyone who reads, at random, a few pages of Teilhard’s writing on eschatology is likely to come away thinking that Teilhard was an ardent advocate of space exploration. For someone so pessimistic about traveling even within our own solar system, Teilhard often had a funny way of choosing his words.

Teilhard’s puzzling ambivalence about space and the universe

Of course, Teilhard’s view that space travel is impossible has since been conclusively proven false. Not even the most bearish critic of space exploration today would deny that human beings are capable of traveling to other planets. In retrospect, Teilhard would have done well to heed his own ironic warning in Cosmic Life: “It is dangerous to challenge science and set a limit to its victories, for the hidden energies it summons from the depths are unfathomable.”

Christ Pantocrator, Viktor Mikhaylovich Vasnetsov, c. 1890

Yet, for two reasons, Teilhard’s vision of the Omega point is even more puzzling than disappointing. First, Teilhard's description of the Omega point reveals a certain internal incoherence. It seems incredible that Teilhard thought human beings would never travel to Mars, but that we would one day be able to “break through the material framework of Time and Space.” Besides—if humans did attain the ability to transcend time and space— why wouldn’t some of us use that ability to spread throughout the vast and beautiful universe we already inhabit and prevent its death? Doing so would allow for the “complete cosmic evolution” of this very universe in the fullest sense.

Secondly, Teilhard’s specific vision of the Omega point seems inconsistent with the Bible. While the general concept of an Omega point is biblically sound, most Christians familiar with biblical eschatology would expect a Christian Omega point to involve the renewal of this universe—not an abandonment of the universe in order to escape to a higher plane of existence.

In Romans 8:21, for instance, Paul writes that “the creation itself will be set free from its bondage to corruption and obtain the freedom of the glory of the children of God.” To give another specific illustration of this expectation, Revelation 22:2 says that the Tree of Life in the New Jerusalem will provide leaves “for the healing of the nations.”

Teilhard might retort that I am being insufficiently literal in my reading of Revelation 21:1, which introduces the New Heaven and the New Earth by saying “the first heaven and the first earth had passed away.” On Teilhard’s view, this is literally true.

Teilhard and the heat death

Without question, Teilhard’s most critical insight is his insistence that any worldview which purports to give life meaning must address the heat death of the universe.

In 1854, decades before Teilhard was born, physicists first realized that the universe itself is dying, and is on track to eventually eradicate all life within it. While physicists’ specific model of the universe’s end has changed—it has been settled in basically its current form since 1998—the essential significance of that initial discovery has remained the same.

Ever since it was first discovered, the heat death has been a source of existential despair for most people who have seriously considered it. Charles Darwin, who was in middle age when the heat death was discovered, wrote that “it is an intolerable thought that [mankind] and all other sentient beings are doomed to complete annihilation.”

In contrast, nihilists—who, after all, have been with us since the Epicureans—have historically welcomed the heat death as a vindication of their views. Bertrand Russell quipped that “I think it is almost a consolation.”

Teilhard put the general mood about the discovery well: “Since physics has discovered that all energy runs down, we seem to feel the world getting a shade chillier every day.” Teilhard offered a fuller analysis in his essay The End of the Species:

Is it not this presentiment of a blank wall ahead, underlying all sorts of tensions and specific fears, which paradoxically (at the very moment when every barrier seems to be giving way before our power of understanding and measuring the world) is darkening and hardening the minds of our generation? As psychiatry teaches us, we shall gain nothing by shutting our eyes to this shadow of collective death that has appeared on our horizon. On the contrary, we must open them wider. But how are we to exorcise the shadow?

Any worldview that does not attempt to answer the heat death, Teilhard observed, is useless. The heat death specifically refutes Marxism, he says, which has no answer to it and therefore “can neither justify nor sustain its momentum to the end.”

Teilhard de Chardin

To put the problem in contemporary language, any worldview which purports to give a meaningful account of human life—but which cannot account for the heat death—is a LARP. In Teilhard’s words, “Omega must be independent of the forces with which evolution is woven.”

Could the right tentative answer consist, in part, in having no answer? I sometimes imagine that Jesus’ response to modern questions about the heat death would be Matthew 6:34: “Sufficient for the day is its own trouble.” Even if Jesus were willing to give us a more specific answer, however, this one is at least immediately true in the sense that I must get up for work tomorrow and not simply occupy myself thinking about the heat death.

Yet we cannot unsee the evidence that the universe is on track to end all life, and—insofar as we have a serious worldview—it cannot simply take no account of this fact. Perhaps the most faithful application of Matthew 6:34 to this problem is to say that, so long as we know there are plausible resolutions of the heat death, we can have rational confidence that existence is meaningful without trying to choose between those resolutions now.

In Phenomenon, Teilhard wrote that—although the heat death or other smaller catastrophes could wipe out our species in theory—"we have higher reasons for being sure that they will not happen [to humanity].” Assuming we do not find Teilhard’s specific version of the Omega point plausible, however, what other answers to the heat death can Christianity offer?

Christianity and the heat death

William Lane Craig—who likely understands physics better than any other living theologian—once said somewhere that, although all the scientific evidence points to the universe being on track to end in a heat death, “God will roll up the scroll of history before that happens.”

While I admire and am indebted to Craig, this answer is inelegant and intellectually unsatisfying. For one thing, it seems unbiblical for exactly the same reasons as Chardin’s version of the Omega point. Craig’s view all but requires that this universe is not redeemed and therefore seems to mean that verses like Romans 8:21 are false.

An illustration from William Lane Craig's video "The Fine Tuning of the Universe" illustrating the extent to which the gravitational constant of our universe needed to be finely-tuned for life to exist.

Additionally, Craig’s answer is asymmetrical and unwieldy, and therefore seems out of step with what we know of God from both the Bible and natural theology.

Consider that God created a universe which, from its very inception, was finely-tuned to bring conscious agents into being. As far as we can tell, God did not need to rejigger the mechanics of the universe after it had cooled down enough for the first electrons to form.

Given that the beginning of this universe was so singular and elegant, without any need for readjustment, can we really expect God to stage some kind of ham-fisted intervention at the universe’s penultimate moment? It would be lopsided and awkward to think that the God who began the universe with one effortless stroke of creativity will end it with an ad hoc suspension of the processes that He began.

Craig’s suggestion almost mirrors certain folk versions of Young Earth Creationism. According to a certain naïve strain of Young-Earther, either God or the devil has deliberately crammed the universe with false appearances of age, causing scientists to be massively deceived about the universe’s past. If Craig is right about cosmic eschatology, scientists are being equally deceived about the universe’s future.

Teilhard’s basic answer—by which I mean the general concept of an Omega point and not the details of his specific theory—is the only graceful solution. According to an Omega point eschatology, God intended his creation to one day take control of the cosmos and engineer the defeat of the heat death.

In this way, an Omega point preserves elegance and symmetry throughout the whole story of the universe. It means that the universe’s initial c