A Wrinkle in Heaven

Can the spiritual dimensions of reality be probed by science?
A Wrinkle in Heaven
Image: Courtesy of Walt Disney Pictures

This past weekend, millions of moviegoers saw A Wrinkle in Time and joined a group of tessering travelers as they warped through higher dimensions in pursuit of the heroine’s missing father. The film is, of course, based on the classic Newbery Award–winning children’s novel written by Madeleine L’Engle, a committed Christian who drew heavily on her personal study of modern physics as inspiration for the book.

In a 1979 interview with Christianity Today, L’Engle spoke of the mystical nature of contemporary physics and how science “should help us enlarge our vision: never change it, never diminish it, but enlarge it.” This can be said most of all about the science of higher dimensions upon which A Wrinkle in Time is based.

Nearly 100 years ago, the first scientific evidence for higher dimensions emerged. Since that time, the science community has reached a broad consensus that the universe contains at least five dimensions and perhaps many more. For some, conceptualizing multiple dimensions bears resemblance to Christian thinking on a spiritual world. N. T. Wright has gone so far as to say that “Heaven is the extra dimension, the God-dimension, of all our present reality.”

But the higher dimensions described by science are not merely spiritual, they are physical. Therefore they can be explored and even measured through science. In fact, today physicists at the world’s largest particle accelerator, the Large Hadron Collider, are conducting experiments that would allow them to detect and measure properties of these higher dimensions. This begs the uncomfortable question, “Can heaven be detected by a particle accelerator?”

To some, this may feel like yet one more encroachment of science into matters of faith. But I would like to offer an alternate interpretation: Could the physics of higher dimensions allow us to integrate the physical and spiritual worlds into a common framework, where they are no longer seen as separate disconnected realities but rather as a single cohesive creation? To see this vision, though, we will first need a quick primer on the physics of higher dimensions.

In 1919, the physicist Theodor Kaluza wrote a letter to Albert Einstein which contained a mathematical proof demonstrating how Einstein’s equations for gravity, when written in five dimensions, can also explain the behavior of electricity and magnetism. This was a truly shocking discovery that led Einstein himself to admit that it “would never have dawned on me.” The insight was so elegant and profound that it led to an entire branch of theoretical physics called string theory, which remains an area of active research to this day.

What exactly do we mean by five dimensions? Well, there are the three dimensions of space we are accustomed to (depth, width, and height), one dimension of time, and at least one additional dimension of space. It turns out that any time we add an extra dimension of space, our conception of what is possible expands dramatically.

Take, for example, the move from one dimension to two dimensions. In one dimension, all we have is length. The only “creatures” in such a world would be lines, and these lines could never move past one another. They are confined to sliding back and forth, bumping into one another like beads on a wire. When we add a second dimension, however, a whole new world of possibility is opened—up and down! Suddenly lines can move above or below one another, they can spin around and point in new directions, and they can even bend to take on new a form, like a circle.

The move from two dimensions to three dimensions is equally transformative. Consider the 1884 novel Flatland by Edwin Abbott, which follows the life of a square who lives in an entirely two-dimensional world. One day, he is visited by a mysterious creature who calls himself a “sphere.” To the square, the sphere appears only as a circle, but it seems to possess supernatural powers. As it moves above, below, and through the flat two-dimensional world, the sphere appears, disappears, and continuously changes size. It can mysteriously manifest inside a locked room simply by going over the wall, an idea that is entirely inconceivable to the square until he visits the three-dimensional Spaceland and sees the true nature of his mysterious visitor.

By natural extension, adding a single dimension of space to our three-dimensional experience has profound implications. Our entire universe, then, becomes just one layer in an infinite stack. Moving into this higher dimension, even if only a millimeter above or below our fingertips, we can find other planes of reality that are completely unseen and untouched by humanity. Modern physics suggests that belief in such an unseen reality is not only rational but scientific. It takes only a small leap of imagination, then, to wonder whether Jesus had access to such higher dimensions. Could he have tessered through space and time?

Scripture contains many beautiful yet bizarre stories of the spiritual world intersecting the physical world. These are challenging stories—the parting of the Red Sea, the chariots of fire, or the hand writing on the wall. How do we make sense of these stories in modern times? Do we look for naturalistic explanations? Or do we throw up our hands and simply say that they are miraculous events that cannot be explained?

What Christians label as miraculous can be misinterpreted as magical fairy tales by a culture that is steeped in a scientific worldview rooted in the philosophy of materialism. What if, as for L’Engle, physics could stoke a broader vision among would-be believers? Perhaps there is a pathway in the dialogue between faith and science that demonstrates how each illuminates rather than contradicts the other.

Modern physics opens the door to the possibility that the spiritual reality described in Scripture can be understood through the mind-bending logic of higher dimensions. For example, a locked upper room is no barrier for a risen Christ with access to higher dimensions, a fiery furnace cannot consume three friends when they are safely stowed away in a hidden dimension of space, and a hyper-dimensional kingdom of heaven can be simultaneously in our midst and yet not fully accessible.

This is not to diminish the importance of faith—in fact, just the opposite is true. The author of Hebrews 11:1 tells us that faith is “confidence in what we hope for and assurance about what we do not see.” The scientific community is continuously giving us even more assurance that our belief in an unseen reality is justified and rational.

Of all the characters in A Wrinkle in Time, my personal favorite is Aunt Beast. A creature without eyes or vision, Aunt Beast explains that her kind, “do not know what things look like. We know what things are like. It must be a very limiting thing, this seeing.” I tend to agree. Our sight can often blind us to the true nature of things. (Needless to say, Aunt Beast does not appear in the film adaptation, which begs the question of whether Hollywood can really handle the spiritual themes of A Wrinkle in Time.)

But, as L’Engle suggests, the physics of higher dimensions can enlarge our vision, enabling us to see through our physical world—this broken layer of a much larger reality—and to imagine that the physical and spiritual worlds are not separate and disconnected but rather that they are a single cohesive creation that waits in eager anticipation for the restoration of all things.

And as we wait, we take great comfort in knowing that the deposit on this restoration has already been made. Through Christ’s ascension, our human flesh resides in heaven, and in return, Christ has sent his Spirit to live among us. The reunion of physical and spiritual has already begun.

Andrew Vanden Heuvel is a professor of physics and astronomy at several community colleges across the country. He works from his home office near Grand Haven, Michigan.

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