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Mathematics in the New Creation

One of the most amazing passages in the bible is near the end of the book of Revelation, where John describes his vision of the new heavens and the new earth:

1Then I saw a new heaven and a new earth, for the first heaven and the first earth had passed away, and the sea was no more. 2And I saw the holy city, new Jerusalem, coming down out of heaven from God, prepared as a bride adorned for her husband. 3And I heard a loud voice from the throne saying, “Behold, the dwelling place of God is with man. He will dwell with them, and they will be his people, and God himself will be with them as their God. 4 He will wipe away every tear from their eyes, and death shall be no more, neither shall there be mourning, nor crying, nor pain anymore, for the former things have passed away.” 5And he who was seated on the throne said, “Behold, I am making all things new.” (Revelation 21.1-5)

So God is planning on remaking the world, and he himself intends to dwell in it somehow. He who was seated on the throne, the king of the new creation, is Jesus (of course) and he is making all things new. All things. So it occurs to me, from time to time, that this activity that I occupy much of my waking life with–that is, mathematics–may be among the things that God will remake in the new creation. At least, I hope it isn’t destined for the scrapheap of history. I don’t think it is, though it may be drastically altered. So I have been thinking about what this will be like.

In general, the idea of God’s redeemed creation is that it will be similar to the world as it is now, and much of it will be the fulfillment or completion of what is already here. However, in spite of this, this world is really only a dim shadow of what is to come. We have to always remember that the new creation will be unimaginably beautiful and alive. All the effects of sin will be removed. It will be a place of peace and boundless love, and God, the source of all such things, will be gloriously present. With this basic set up in mind, let’s consider mathematics. For those of you who don’t actually do mathematics, I hope this will make some sense!

One thing I sometimes wonder about is how difficult mathematics will be in the new creation, and how much of the process of learning mathematics will be retained. For those of you who are unaware, much of my mathematical life is spent in a grueling process of attempting to assimilate and understand new mathematical constructs in order to, among other things, apply them to the problems I am thinking about. Now, this process certainly has its rewards, but it can also be quite frustrating. So I wonder if anything like this will still take place in the new creation.

It is conceivable that God would simply reveal beautiful mathematical truths to us, “fully formed,” so to speak. Yet I think it is somewhat doubtful that he would take away the learning process entirely. I think it likely that our ability to assimilate new ideas will be greatly increased–perhaps increase without bound throughout eternity, in parallel to the increasing beauty of God that is to be revealed–but I think there will always have to be a process involved. In general, I don’t think learning will ever be something that we no longer have to do. There will always be things we don’t know, since we will always be finite beings. I think the frustration will be gone–along with the feelings of failure, self-doubt, or anger–but the journey, the adventure, will be retained. Indeed, it will be greatly enhanced.

For learning, we will need teachers as well as students–though perhaps the roles will not be quite the same as on this earth. Most of the joy in mathematics comes from the moment one comprehends a new truth, or an idea crystallizes clearly for the first time. That, and the ability to share such moments with others. I think that God will give increase to both of these things. I’m not sure what structure, from earth, will remain. I’m talking about the basic format here. Some of it seems worth keeping: at the barest level, chalkboards, I hope, will still be there (Along with “good chalk” as my adviser is fond of saying. If you don’t know what this is, don’t worry about it.).

One relief, I think, is that there will certainly be no opportunity to worry about the passage of time, as there is in an earthly mathematical career. One of the sadder realizations that every mathematician has early on is that there is no way to even come close to learning all the details of the mathematics that he or she is interested in. We have to pick and choose, and we always feel like we could have done more, or need to do more. But, in heaven, there will be no more concern about what areas of mathematics are worth pursuing, worth fitting in to one’s lifetime. So if I, and a few mathematical friends, would like to explore completely the proof of deep and beautiful theorem, a project that might take several years, we could simply go ahead and do it.

When we are free from sin and thus free from pride, all of the silly competitiveness of academia will be gone. This will be another great relief: not to have to worry about one’s thesis, publications, academic reputation, or tenure! And not to possess a personal “body of work” at all except insofar as God has perhaps ordained in order to show to others the beauty of the individual minds he has created. I do suspect he will indeed do this. Euler’s theorems belong to Euler in that there is something of his mind, the first human mind that conceived of them, in the theorems themselves–or rather, they tell us about him. But also about Him, the God who thought the theorem first, and made it part of Euler.

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Categories: Uncategorized
  1. janet thayer williams
    June 21, 2010 at 9:42 am

    I wonder what the new Rochester will be like.

  2. June 24, 2010 at 10:36 pm

    I was actually thinking the other day about the important part mathematics — specifically as it relates to things like engineering — make up an important part of creation, and therefore the new creation as well. Forgive my mathematical ignorance overall as right now, I can only relate this to engineering, but I was thinking about how much of the Bible has to do with elaborate measurements and essentially blue prints for specific structures. This is how God communicates to man the things he desires to have in his kingdom. In this way, I’d say God doesn’t NEED mathematics, but we do if we are to serve him in a way we might understand. But beyond this, I think of a moment when God asserts having used mathematics — namely when he reams Job with a powerful “oh, snap”: Where were you when I laid the foundations of the earth? He goes on to talk about measurements and the like, suggesting that at some level beyond my comprehension, God used math. Whether this was the only way he could get his point across to Job or not, I don’t know, but it’s worth thinking about.

    I don’t think math will pass away anymore than I think any other good thing will pass away. (I fully intend to eat food in the new creation.) The only thing I’m not sure I agree with fully is the part about being finite. We may always lack in knowledge, but to me, finality suggests something less than eternal, but that is what we will be in this new creation. And while knowledge may always elude us, I don’t expect we’ll lack in it merely so much as we do now. I don’t know what that means as far as the learning process, but if we are to have the responsibility of judging the nations, I’d like to think that we’ll have enough wisdom to do so, yet in my current human state, I don’t see how we might do that without having a certain completeness of knowledge.

    Alas, there is at least very much to learn between here and there, if not beyond.

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