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Pastor Glenn McDonald: Six Impossible Things

In Lewis Carroll’s book Alice’s Adventures in Wonderland, the heroine engages in a bit of philosophical give-and-take with the Red Queen.

Alice laughed. “There’s no use trying,” she said. “One can’t believe impossible things.”

“I dare say you haven’t had much practice,” said the Queen. “When I was younger, I always did it for half an hour a day. Why, sometimes I believed as many as six impossible things before breakfast.”

What we can say for sure about contemporary physicists is that they’re getting plenty of practice trying to believe impossible things.

By the beginning of the 20th century, the order (and orderliness) of the cosmos had seemed forever established by the work of Sir Isaac Newton more than two centuries earlier. Newton had discerned the rules governing the motions of observable objects, both great and small – principles that still guide today’s astronomers as they study galaxies one billion light years away.

Then came Albert Einstein. Working entirely by himself, the German physicist accomplished what seemed unthinkable: He overturned the Newtonian understanding of the cosmos. Reality, according to Einstein’s equations, is a mysterious “fabric” best described as Space-Time. Time itself is not fixed. Our experience of the passing of time is relative to how fast we are traveling – hence the term “relativity.”

Before scientists could fully come to grips with this new way of seeing things, the door swung open to the quantum realm.

As researchers began to explore how the universe operates at the level of atoms and subatomic particles, it quickly became clear that quantum physics is strange. It defies common sense.

Is light a particle? Yes. Experiments demonstrate that clearly. Is light a wave? The answer to that question is also yes. But how can light be a particle and a wave at the same time? That question was first posed about 100 years ago – and there is still no satisfactory answer.

Quantum mechanics implies that a particle can be in two places at once. And that the behavior of a particle on one side of the universe can simultaneously affect the behavior of its “twin” on the other side – even though they are separated by absurdly large distances.

Quantum equations assert that there are no laws governing the universe. When we start looking way down there, it appears that everything is random.

Einstein, for one, rebelled against such nonsense. He didn’t believe in what he called “spooky action at a distance.” He spent the rest of his life trying to reconcile the physics of relativity with the physics of the quantum realm. Stephen Hawking and a handful of other first-rate minds have attempted to do the same – to generate a Theory of Everything, something that makes sense of every shred of data.

So far, all such efforts have failed. Nobody has even gotten close.

In the spirit of the Red Queen’s assertion that she can believe a half dozen impossible things before breakfast, British astrophysicist John Gribbin wrote Six Impossible Things: The Mysteries of the Quantum World. He admits that many physicists have concluded, “We simply have to ignore this problem. The equations work. We just don’t know why they work.”

That actually sounds like what spiritual inquirers occasionally hear from exasperated clergy: “Don’t ask questions, just believe!”

But we can’t stop asking questions. We want to know why it’s reasonable to believe – whether in the physics classroom or on our knees in prayer.

Gribbin summarizes what he calls the “desperate remedies” that have been proposed to resolve quantum conundrums. Some of them are so incredible that “impossible” seems to be an entirely appropriate description. Here are a few of them:

  • The world does not exist unless you look at it.

  • Everything that could possibly happen is in fact happening – spread across an infinite number of parallel universes.

  • Everything that could possibly happen has already happened – we just happen to be noticing a tiny part of it.

  • Everything influences everything else instantly, as if space and time don’t even exist.

  • What we call “the present” is being written right now by something or someone that exists in the future.

Such notions – each of which has been seriously proposed by an esteemed physicist – are enough to give even the Red Queen a serious case of indigestion over her bowl of Cheerios.

Before we throw up our hands and retreat to something we can understand – like baking another batch of Grandma’s Christmas cookies – let’s embrace a spirit of humility. God never promised, after all, that the universe would be easy to understand, or that Isaac Newton should have an inside track on the nature of reality.

This is one of those moments in history when we might feel drawn to add our voices to that of the psalmist gazing up at the night sky: “Lord, our Lord, how majestic is your name in all the earth” (Psalm 8:1).

Likewise, we can zero in on the multiple texts of Scripture that remind us that there are some impossible things in the spiritual realm, too. Taking yet again the Red Queen’s lead, here are six of them:

“Ah, Sovereign Lord, you have made the heavens and the earth by your great power and outstretched arm. Nothing is too hard for you” (Jeremiah 32:17). Can anyone identify a task or a problem in the cosmos that would confound God? That’s impossible.

When Jesus’ disciples hear him say that it’s easier for a camel to go through the eye of a needle than for a rich man to enter heaven, they’re floored. “Who then can be saved?” Jesus answers, “With people this is impossible, but with God all things are possible” (Matthew 19:25-26).

The author of Hebrews asserts that God can never break a promise he has made or violate an oath he has taken. “God did this so that, by two unchangeable things in which it is impossible for God to lie, we who have fled to take hold of the hope set before us may be greatly encouraged” (Hebrews 6:18). So don’t freak out. When it comes to loving you, it’s impossible for God to change his mind.

Peter, preaching about Jesus, declares, “But God raised him from the dead, freeing him from the agony of death, because it was impossible for death to keep its hold on him” (Acts 2:24). Jesus went into the tomb, but it was impossible for him to stay there.

Jesus is likewise associated with another impossibility: “It is impossible for the blood of goats and bulls to take away sin” (Hebrews 10:4). God the Son surrendered his life so we might live. No possible substitute could take his place.

And finally, we arrive at the familiar words of the angel Gabriel to Mary.

She’s going to have a child. But not by the familiar pathway.

And as if that isn’t sufficiently jarring, one of her elderly relatives, Elizabeth – who has never been blessed with children – is already six months pregnant with John the Baptist.

Gabriel summarizes, “For with God nothing will be impossible” (Luke 1:37).

Sometimes people try to grab that verse and run. If nothing is impossible for God, does that mean he can make a square circle? No. Does that mean God is able and willing to reverse time so I can go back and avoid making that horrible mistake? God may be able, but he has made it quite clear that’s not how he runs the universe. Does that mean, if I ask in Jesus’ name, that God will lead me to pick the right numbers to win the next Powerball drawing? Please note the answer to the previous question.

The gist of Scripture’s assurance that nothing is impossible for God concerns his relentless desire to heal this broken world.

Nothing can thwart him. Not the sketchy track record of his chosen people, nor the faltering behavior of the people who claim to represent his Son.

Against all odds – whether in this world, the next world, or the quantum world – God’s purposes will prevail.

The deep and real truth of Christmas is that God’s redemptive plan has always been Mission Possible.


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