Life was a lot simpler when there was just one Spider-Man. Okay, so it was a stretch of the imagination to think that a teenager bitten by a radioactive spider might develop superpowers and save the world, but it was manageable. One hero, one world. Simple.
Then, in 2018, Columbia and Sony unleashed Spider-Man: Into the Spider-Verse. It was a huge hit—critics and fans were delighted, an Oscar was awarded, and the movie made more money than any other Sony animation in history. What was the key plot device of this barnstorming blockbuster? A multiverse.
Yes, that’s right—the universe, I’m afraid, is old hat. That “uni” sitting at the front of it implies “one,” and it just won’t do any more. The Spider-Verse was a whole new realm; one in which there were countless Spider-Men and Spider-Women, countless New Yorks, countless bad guys, and countless storylines to be exploited—which the writers did to great (and brain-boggling) effect.
As it happens, interactive systems of parallel universes have existed in the world of science fiction for many years—from the big screen and small screen to paperback novels—and they have become a staple for any author looking to play with possibilities and muddle our minds. Thankfully, though, such complex extravagancies need not trouble us here in the real world, for the multiverse is fictional.
The rather surprising answer to that question is: not necessarily. Over the past decade or so, more and more top-level scientists have not only entertained the notion but have bought into it wholesale. According to some of the best minds in the business, there may very well be a lot more going on than just our own little (very, very big) universe. There may be lots of universes. There may even be an infinite number of them.
What on earth(s) is going on here? Where has such a strange idea come from? Is there any evidence for it? More to the point for Christians: What does it mean for God? Does he still exist? Might there even be Gods?
The first thing to point out is this: The concept of a multiverse can be arrived at by following many different scientific routes. It is, therefore, far too simplistic to write it off as an atheistic version of pie in the sky—one that was devised purely to try to get rid of God. Multiverses show up as possibilities when we start to ask questions about physics—and they show up often enough to be worthy of real, considered discussion.
Back in the mid-2000s, the MIT cosmologist Max Tegmark bit the bullet and reviewed all the different multiverse models that had been doing the rounds. He decided that every existing theory could be placed into one of four categories, which he called Levels I to IV. They are, briefly:
Level I: Our own universe carries on forever (or very, very far)—way past anything that we can currently, or could ever, observe.
Level II: There are other regions of space that have the same basic laws of physics as ours, but different constants of nature—different particle types, different numbers of dimensions, etc.
Level III: There are parallel and inaccessible universes that are constantly being created by quantum mechanical effects. Some of these will be very similar to ours, while some end up being very different.
Level IV: Anything goes. There is an infinite number of universes, all with their own laws of physics—some have no gravity, some no electricity, etc. The only limitations in place are due to the abstract laws of maths and logic.
Most, but not all, practising physicists are on board with the existence of at least a Level I multiverse. It should be pointed out, however, that this could still quite sensibly be called a universe, since there is only one of it. When we hit Levels II or higher, though, controversy reigns. This is because other universes are undetectable to us—and will almost certainly remain so, regardless of technological breakthroughs. Multiverses of these types, it would seem, are pretty close to being a matter of scientific gut instinct, or of taste, or of faith.
Getting Rid of God
Having said all this, there is an undeniable attraction to the multiverse for atheists because the existence of many universes can help them deal with an issue that is otherwise quite problematic for their worldview. One such thinker was Stephen Hawking, who nailed his atheistic colours to the mast in the years before his death in 2018. When discussing the dilemma of “fine-tuning”—the inescapable fact that our universe has rules and constants that are magnificently suited to our human existence—he wrote:
The discovery relatively recently of the extreme fine-tuning of so many of the laws of nature could lead at least some of us back to the old idea that this grand design is the work of some grand designer.
Hawking is right. The mind-blowing precision of the values we measure smacks of divine intervention; even the hard-nosed atheist Fred Hoyle admitted that “a common sense interpretation of the facts suggests that a super-intellect has monkeyed with physics.”
This often-undesired conclusion can be avoided, however, if a multiplicity of universes exists out there somewhere. Ours is perfect for us, yes, but there was bound to be at least one cosmology like that amongst the ensemble. The mystery, therefore, goes away. Hawking again writes:
The multiverse concept can explain the fine-tuning of physical law without the need for a benevolent creator who made the universe for our benefit.
Hawking saw fine-tuning and the necessity of a First Cause as being the two strongest arguments for the existence of God. In the 1980s, working with professor James Hartle of UC Santa Barbara, he figured that he had found a way of dealing with both of them—by combining the two most successful scientific theories of all time: quantum mechanics and general relativity.
The outcome was a universe that appeared to have no beginning in time, thus removing the need for a First Cause. What’s more, as the Hawking-Hartle model was let loose, it was capable of describing not only a universe that looked very loosely like ours but also billions of other universes. Hawking’s reassessment of the rules had not just brought about one potential cosmos but had built a countless number of them vying for his attention. Suddenly, the Spider-Verse doesn’t seem quite so crazy.
The Grand Design
Hawking’s model and its seemingly endless list of possible worlds caused him a major headache because pretty much each time the model was run, it predicted lifeless, empty universes. Why then, was the actual final outcome—ours—so rich and life-bearing? To answer this, the scientific genius decided to leave his specialized world of physics and dip his toe into a little philosophy. His solution was most unusual, and it makes the plots of most superhero movies look rather bland by comparison.
Hawking gives an example of his thinking in his book The Grand Design. He concedes, for instance, that his model allows for the existence of a universe just like ours but with a moon made out of cheese. The thing is, though, we have been to the moon, and we have discovered that it is not made of cheese. This discovery, Hawking says, has the most extraordinary effect: It echoes backward through time, explores his evolving multiverse, and removes all universe versions that contain cheese-moonsbefore they become reality.
In other words, every measurement we ever make of anything fixes that value in place. If I measure the length of my driveway and I find that it is 10 yards long, then all universes that might have existed in which it is 9 yards or 11 yards are cut out of the multiverse system before they even get going. If this sounds rather outrageous, that’s because it is. Hawking readily admits as much: “This leads to a radically different view of … the relation between cause and effect. … We create history by our observation, rather than history creating us.”
What is even more strange about this is that nothing in the actual science of his model demands this odd backward-in-time behaviour. Professor Tom Lancaster of Durham University told me in an interview that it is simply not necessary to argue that these alternative universes are in any way real, let alone posit that our present is changing the past: “Hawking’s physics does not require retrocausality.”
Time-traveling measurements or not, it is clear that the Cambridge cosmologist was convinced he had dismissed God from the table. No longer was there a traditional beginning to the universe, so a First Cause was irrelevant. Fine-tuning was not due to a divine Architect but was brought about by our own observations: We see ourselves, so we must be here by definition. After all, any universe in which we would not have existed has been deleted from the multiverse by our mere presence.
The Sign Given to Us
Don’t worry if you are finding this unsatisfactory or unconvincing. You are not the only one. In general, cosmologists are not in favor of Hawking’s theory. Even Jim Hartle, its co-inventor, is not committed to its actual truth, as he told fellow big-thinker Aron Wall (who holds the office next to Hawking’s old one). The unavoidable fact is that the Hawking-Hartle model ultimately predicts the existence of a sparse, boring, lifeless universe, and that it is, therefore, wrong.
But that is not really the point.
Trying to figure out where we came from is difficult—and no one knows how to do it. What makes Hawking so special is that he came up with a new idea when it looked like there was nothing at all to be done. He took a scientific step in the right direction and opened up the field for others. He gave his colleagues fresh hope that the laws of physics might, one day, be completely devised and understood. His thoughts on the expansion of the universe, on black holes, and on quantum information include some of the best physics done by anyone.
Where Hawking falls down is his theology. The case for God is not simply the First Cause argument and the appearance of design. Hawking only ever considered a God who was a vague and distant landlord, disinterested in his creation. And he was, of course, right to conclude that such a god is not worth all that much.
Instead, the case for the Christian God is historical, philosophical, psychological, experiential, scientific, and more. The Bible, for example, is a testable document. It describes real people, real events, and real places—and, when we subject it to examination on these points of evidence, it stands firm. This can help us make a decision about whether we can trust it on other more supernatural fronts, such as its central tenet: that Jesus rose from the dead. This assertion forms the capstone of Christianity—yet Hawking doesn’t give Easter a single mention.
Hawking’s colleague professor Don Page, with whom he wrote many papers, thinks this is a key point:
I personally think it might be a theological mistake to look for fine tuning as a sign of the existence of God … In other words, I regard the death and resurrection of Jesus as the sign given to us that He is indeed the Son of God and Saviour He claimed to be, rather than needing signs from fine tuning.
Page, like many others, is a scientist convinced of the truth of Christianity. While he clearly does not see his science as causing any problems for his faith, he also rejects the idea that cosmology should be the sole source of evidence for its truth. Hawking’s mistake, then, was to begin looking in one domain only—physics—for answers. Whenever we do that, our understanding will be incomplete, for we risk missing out on insights offered from other areas of human interest. History can inform psychology; biology can inform art. And—somewhat crucially in Hawking’s case—theology can inform science.
So then: What of beginnings, and what of the multiverse? The universe almost certainly has a beginning; but even if it doesn’t, that does not prove Christianity wrong. Wall, for example, says, “I think that belief in the creation of the universe does not really depend on there being a first moment of time.” God could have made a universe that stretches back infinitely far in time, he says, just as a human author could write a book that never specifies just how far back its fictional universe goes.
And, as far as the multiverse is concerned, the short answer is that we really have no idea whether it exists or not. We will probably never know, since those parallel universes are likely to remain forever beyond our reach. Christians need not be afraid of this conclusion, though—for, as Hawking’s fellow Oxbridge professor John Lennox reminds us: “God could create as many universes as he pleases. The multiverse concept of itself does not and cannot rule God out.”
This notion leads to some intriguing questions: Did God make other people in these other universes? Did they fall? Did Jesus die for them, too? Fascinatingly, humans have asked questions like this before. In the Middle Ages, theologians wondered about aliens living on other planets and about their relationship with God. Perhaps modern thinkers should revisit their work.
In Ephesians 3:10, Paul describes how God created our world and its salvation story to demonstrate his “manifold wisdom” to a supernatural audience. Manifold could equally be translated “many-colored” or “multifaceted.” Perhaps, then, God has displayed other colors and faces elsewhere. After all, it may turn out that one universe is simply not enough to exalt him fully—that a suitable display of God’s glory demands a few more.
Maybe, even, an infinite number of them.
The ideas expressed in this article are drawn from God, Stephen Hawking and the Multiverse: What Hawking Said and Why It Matters, by David Hutchings and David Wilkinson (SPCK, March 2020).
David Hutchings is a physics teacher at Pocklington School near York, United Kingdom. He is a fellow of the Institute of Physics and a leader in the local church in York. His first book, Let There Be Science:Why God loves science, and science needs God(Lion Hudson), was co-written with Tom McLeish, a fellow of the Royal Society.