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The Strange Case of Frank Jennings Tipler

Book Review

Martin Gardner

Volume 32.2, March / April 2008

The Physics of Christianity. By Frank Tipler. Doubleday, New York, 2007. ISBN: 0385514247. 336 pp. Hardcover, $27.50

The Physics of Christianity by Frank Tipler, a mathematical physicist at Tulane University, is a sequel to The Physics of Immortality, a bestseller in Germany before it was published here in 1994 by Doubleday. In that book, Tipler argued that anyone who understands modern physics will be compelled to believe that at a far-off future date, which Tipler calls the Omega Point (borrowing the term from the Jesuit paleontologist Tielhard de Chardin), God will resurrect every person who lived, as well as every person who could have lived! Our brains will be preserved as computer simulations and given new spiritual bodies to live happily forever in the paradise described in the New Testament.

In his new book, published in 2007 by Doubleday, Tipler goes far beyond his previous one. He claims that modern physics also provides reasonable explanations for the historical accuracy of all the central miracles of Christian faith, as well as the many alleged miracles that continue to take place, notably those associated with Catholic saints. “From the perspective of the latest physical theories,” Tipler writes in his introduction, “Christianity is not a mere religion but an experimentally testable science.” Roll over, Mary Baker Eddy!

It is no surprise that Tipler has become a conservative, orthodox Catholic. On page 217 he attributes his conversion to the influence of the German Lutheran theologian Wolfhart Pannenberg.1 “[He] spent fifteen years in a finally successful attempt to persuade an American physicist (me) that Christianity, undiluted Chalcedonian Christianity, might in fact be true and might even be proved to be true by science.”

There are two ways, Tipler writes, to regard miracles:

  1. They are, as David Hume famously maintained, supernatural events that violate laws of science.
  2. They are highly improbable events performed by God, but without violating any natural laws.

The second view is the heart of Tipler’s new book.

One can think of Tipler as a Christian version of Immanuel Velikovsky. A devout orthodox Jew, Velikovsky explained the great miracles of the Old Testament by invoking the laws of physics (see “Creationism, Catastrophism, and Velikovsky,” SI January/February 2008). Thus, Joshua was able to make the sun and moon stand still in the sky because a giant comet erupted from Jupiter and passed close to Earth causing it momentarily to stop rotating. It also caused the Red Sea to part precisely at the moment Moses commanded it. The comet showered edible manna on Israel before it settled down to become Venus.
Velikovsky had no interest in New Testament miracles, unlike Tipler who is concerned with New Testament miracles but is silent on Old Testament ones. It would be interesting to know what he thinks about the dreadful fate of Lot’s wife or the agony of Jonah in the belly of a whale. Tipler has a natural explanation for every miracle of Christianity, including those not in the Bible but infallibly validated by the Roman Church. All are caused by God, though “never ever” by abrogating any law of physics.

Tipler devotes chapter six to the Star of Bethlehem. The accuracy of Matthew’s account is never questioned. The star was not a supernatural event, nor was it a conjunction of Jupiter and Saturn as some Bible commentators surmise. It was, Tipler assures us, a supernova bursting in the galaxy of Andromeda. God cleverly timed the nova so it would signal the birth in Bethlehem of his only begotten son.
Chapter seven reveals for the first time the dark secret of the Virgin Birth. It was a rare case of parthenogenesis! This is the technical term for births that lack male fertilization of a female egg. The phenomenon is fairly common among certain vertebrates such as snakes, lizards, and turkeys; Tipler sees no reason why it can’t occur in humans, and he suspects it actually does occur. He is convinced this happened with Mary. Moreover, he thinks Mary’s parthenogenesis could be confirmed by careful analysis of Jesus’s blood on the Shroud of Turin!

Tipler has no doubts about the genuineness of the Shroud. Two microphotographs of the blood are introduced, and Tipler claims that its DNA is consistent with Mary’s virginity. True, the Holy Spirit played a mysterious role in the Virgin Birth, but the birth broke no biological laws. The Bible, Tipler reminds us, implies that Joseph did not believe his young wife when she denied that any man was involved in her being with child.

All conservative Christians believe Jesus was free of the original sin that resulted from the Fall, which has been passed on to all descendants of Adam and Eve. Catholics think that Mary, too, escaped original sin. (It is a Catholic heresy to reject the Immaculate Conception.) How does Tipler explain the way Jesus and Mary differ in this manner from all other humans?

Tipler’s answer is wonderful. There must be genes that carry original sin! This could be verified some day, he writes, by first identifying the gene. Thus, failing to find evidence of the gene on the Shroud of Turin would explain the sinlessness of both Jesus and his mother.

(I am, dear reader, doing my best to keep a straight face while I summarize Tipler’s convictions.)

Chapter seven is about Jesus’s resurrection. Here Tipler plunges into technical regions of quantum mechanics (QM). He is a firm believer in what is called the “many worlds interpretation” of QM. All I need say here about this fantastic view is that it assumes the reality of a “multiverse” that contains an infinity of universes similar to our own. Millions of these parallel worlds contain exact duplicates of you and me. Tipler quotes Stephen Hawking as saying to him that the many worlds interpretation of QM is “trivially true.”

If Hawking said this I think he meant that the many worlds interpretation is a useful language for talking about QM, but its infinity of parallel worlds are not “real” in the same way our universe is real. However, for Tipler they are very real. Denying the multiverse, he says “is the same as denying that 2+2=4” (Tipler 16).

Here is a typical paragraph about Jesus’s Resurrection:

I am proposing that the Son and Father Singularities guided the worlds of the multiverse to concentrate the energy of the particles constituting Jesus in our universe into the Jesus of our universe. In effect, Jesus’ dead body, lying in the tomb, would have been enveloped in a sphaleron field. This field would have dematerialized Jesus’ body into neutrinos and antineutrinos in a fraction of a second, after which the energy transferred to this world would have been transferred back to the other worlds from whence it came. Reversing this process (by having neutrinos and antineutrinos—almost certainly not the original neutrinos and antineutrinos dematerialized from Jesus’ body—materialize into another body) would generate Jesus’ Resurrection body.

Although Tipler has nothing to say about the resurrection of Lazarus and other revivals of the dead mentioned in the New Testament, presumably they have similar explanations.

Tipler also reveals, so help me, exactly how Jesus managed to walk on water. He performed this great magical feat by “directing a neutrino beam” downward from his feet. Similar neutrino beams account for his ascension into the clouds, as well as how his resurrected body was able to dematerialize and rematerialize. Mary’s assumption is similarly explained: Tipler recommends checking her tomb for tracks of nuclear particles that would have been generated by her assumption. Apparently, Tipler thinks her corpse floated into heaven from her tomb rather than from a funeral procession as legend has it.

Chapter nine describes how physics explains the Incarnation, and how it also can account for the real presence of the Lord’s body and blood in the bread and wine of the Catholic Eucharist.

I will spare the reader accounts of Tipler’s belief that within fifty years computers will surpass human intelligence, and how our organic brains will be replaced by computer emulations as the universe moves inexorably toward the Omega Point. When that point is reached, an evolving God will become omniscient in the sense of knowing everything that can be known and omnipotent in the sense of being able to do everything that can be done. As Thomas Aquinas taught, there are things God cannot do, such as create a world that contains logically impossible things like a triangle with four sides or a creature that is both a perfect human and a perfect horse. It is best, Aquinas adds, not to say there are things God can’t do, but that there are things that can’t be done.

Before fifty years have ended, Tipler warns us, Armageddon will be fought with weapons that will make nuclear bombs seem like “spitballs” (254). There will be mass conversions of Jews to Christianity. Tipler dedicates his book “To God’s Chosen People, the Jews, who for the first time in 2000 years are advancing Christianity.” After Armageddon, Jesus will return in glory to reign over a new Earth. How does Tipler know all this? Biblical prophecy says so! “Before the Second Coming,” he writes (369), I would expect to see a Jewish Pope.”

For a few moments, after finishing The Physics of Christianity, I began to wonder if the book could be a subtle, hilarious hoax. Sadly, it is not.

Note:

  1. Pannenberg was born in 1928 in what now is Poland. His best known works are Jesus: God and Man (1968) and a three-volume Systematic Theology (1994), both heavily influenced by Karl Barth. At sixteen he had an experience similar to Paul’s on the Road to Damascus. He and Tipler are good friends.

Martin Gardner

Martin Gardner is author of more than seventy books, most recently The Jinn from Hyperspace and When You Were a Tadpole and I was a Fish, and Other Speculations About This and That.