Words in the Word: On the Multiverse

Written by
David Armstrong
Jul 20, 2021
David Armstrong

he multiverse, as a concept, has a long and checkered history as a means of getting out of the theistic implications of the sciences or philosophy.[1] Yet metaphysically speaking, the multiverse is no more ontologically possible without God than is a singular universe. More importantly, though, classical monotheists in general and Christians in particular have philosophical and theological reasons to believe in a multiverse. Especially from within the Trinitarian and incarnational metaphysics of creation specific to the Christian Tradition, it seems clear that God can no more fail to actualize an infinite number of possible worlds than he can fail to know and love the Son.

         In the natural sciences, philosophy, and popular culture, the multiverse is often floated as a get-out-of-God-free card. In antiquity, certainly, the simultaneous, spatial infinity of Epicurean kosmoi were intended to undercut the notion of the creative activity of any divine intelligence, while the sequential, temporal infinity of identical Stoic kosmoi maintained divine providence at the expense of true human freedom.[2] For these reasons, ancient Jews and Christians, even if they popularly accepted Stoic physics, logic, and ethics to varying degrees, trended towards Plato, Aristotle, and their intellectual heirs, all of whom stressed the world’s unicity, in the first century and throughout late antiquity. Medieval and early modern theologians did the same, and tended to stress the world’s unicity as evidence of its singular divine source, though there were exceptions to this rule speculating on cosmic infinity in theological perspective, some orthodox (like Nicholas of Cusa) and others heterodox (like Giordano Bruno).[3] Today, multiversal hypotheses usually respond to observational data and inferred conclusions concerning what is called the “anthropic” principle: namely, the idea that the universe seems to be almost perfectly well-disposed to our existence. And there are several options here, from the Copenhagen interpretation of quantum mechanics to the “ultimate multiverse” of an infinite nested series of universes, infinitely realized in all possible timelines, in an infinitely realized series of iterations and arrangements. All of them are, on some level, about trying to avoid God.

         Of course, all are unsuccessful, for the simple reason that the need for God as Creator is not unraveled by the supposition of a temporally infinite chain of linear causality. An infinite number of finite worlds, or quantitatively infinite worlds constituted by contingent, finite beings, is no less dependent on a simple, qualitatively infinite, and purely actual, absolute source than is a singular universe. In both cases, what is finite by its nature—which I am taking here not to signify extension or number, but essence, what-it-is, particularly where what-it-is does not include existence—requires something that is infinite by nature, which involves no combination of potency and act but whose very essence is to exist, which can impart the gift of being to it. The response is explicitly not to try and point to an antecedent temporal moment of creation for the multiverse—what would such a temporal measure mean when talking about a panoply of coexisting realities?—but to point to the fact that all the multiverses currently on the table share the same ontological instability of requiring a ground of existence which also functions as the telos of their being. Logically, a numerically infinite catalogue of finite beings is no more qualitatively infinite than a numerically finite catalogue of finite beings; on any reading, the very multiplicity of the multiverse requires a singularity, not only that originates it but that provides its pluralism with a supernal, overarching unity.

         This is simply good classically monotheistic metaphysics when one defines God as the inexhaustible font of being (sat), consciousness (citta), and bliss (ananda), to use the Vedantic triad that David Bentley Hart has most recently popularized in his excellent book on God.[4] But more to the point, an infinite created order is more appropriate to the God described by classical monotheism than is a singular world, and certainly than is some arbitrarily numbered multiverse as one sometimes finds in science fiction, fantasy, or books about quantum gravity. And so in some classically monotheistic traditions, an explicit multiversal cosmology is exactly what we find. So, for example, the Bhagavata Purana teaches a vast number of universes, which are collectively “the very body of the great person Vishnu” (Bhagavata Purana III.10.40).[5] Some kabbalistic cosmologies involve the notion of either temporal or spatial multiverses. Islamic thinkers like Fakhr al-Din al-Razi (1149-1209) posited a multiverse as the best possible reading of the Quranic praise of “God, Lord of the Worlds.” In each such case, the qualitative infinity of God motivates the belief in the superiority and likelihood of a quantiatively infinite creation—that God’s creation of a singular, finite world would be absurdly voluntaristic and arbitrary for an unconditioned, ultimate Reality capable of infinitely more.

         Christianity, insofar as it is a classical monotheism, ought to share this logic with Hinduism, Judaism, and Islam. For God, as the infinite fullness of Being, to choose but one set of possibilities for the creation of the world, and for this world to be the product of that election, cannot be squared with God’s absolute existence and contemplative vantage of all potentials. For God, in his infinite, eternal point of view, every finite reality, insofar as it is rooted in the truth, goodness, and beauty that he is, is equally valuable as his own theophany; God cannot isolate one of these possible worlds as particularly more valuable than others without, to some extent, discriminating about those possibilities that lay dormant within his own pure actuality.

         But Christianity has more specifically Christian reasons to believe in a multiverse. Christian triadology and Christology, particularly the Trinitarian and incarnational metaphysics of creation worked out at Nicaea and Constantinople I and by the Nicene Fathers (Sts. Athanasios of Alexandria, Gregory the Theologian, Basil the Great, and Gregory Nyssen), necessitates a quantitatively infinite, if essentially finite, created order. In suggesting so, I am, with no small degree of timidity, disagreeing with Origen of Alexandria, the theological inspiration behind the entirety of the Nicene project, who explicitly rejected any sort of infinity for the kosmos other than a differentiated sequence of temporally successive worlds as incompatible with divine infinity and undermining the extent of divine providence (De Principiis 1.2; 2.1-3). But in this case, it seems to me that Origen did not successfully differentiate between infinities; nor did he yet have the advantage of the Nicene theological vocabulary from which to articulate the relationship of the triadic hypostaseis and the world. The desiderata of Nicaea, as Khaled Anatolios lists them—preservation of Christ’s primacy, power to save by deification, and accounting for the philosophical turn away from the primordial matter of earlier philosophical schools towards creatio ex nihilo—condition the homoousian doctrine of the Symbol. Christ is of the same essence with the Father, the same what-it-is to be God, and this alone guarantees his power to be true Creator and Savior of the kosmos, the one in and through whom God calls forth all things out of nothingness into being in the singular encompassing act of their creation, in the process of which sin represents a misfiring of becoming and salvation the divine philanthropy of God stooping down to raise up his fallen infant creation. But creatio ex nihilo, as Nyssen and later St. Maximos the Confessor would come to articulate clearly, is really creatio ex Deo: creation from nothing other than God, creation from no primordial matter or exterior principle to the Godhead itself. And so this means that God’s creation of all things in and through Christ and vivification of them by the Spirit in what ancient Christians called oikonomia, the divine “economy,” must actually be understood to be both revelatory of and nested within the Trinitarian relations that constitute what they called theologia, “theology” proper. So before Christ is the Divine Word or Wisdom who is God’s agent in creation and salvation, he is God’s Word and Wisdom about himself; he is, as St. Augustine would go on to argue in the post-Nicene generation, the hypostatization or personification of God’s act of self-knowledge, the fruit and means of God’s self-contemplation. And it is as God’s self-knowledge, as the perfect revelation and reflection of the divine essence and hypostasis of the Father, that the Son is also the agent and location of the kosmos itself. In its ultimate form, this line of argumentation amounts to St. Maximos’ recognition that the Logos is the logoi, that is, the paradigmatic divine knowledge of all creatures that come to be as finite embodiments of the infinite Logos. In the language of Maximos’ Ambiguum 7, “The Logos is always and everywhere seeking to realize the mystery of his embodiment”—specifically, his embodiment as the creaturely logoi. That is to say, the Logos seeks embodiment as each of the logoi that subsist in him, without exception, and under the auspices of which creation, incarnation, and deification are all simultaneous movements towards this end.[6]

         Now, a triadology and Christology in which God the Father gazes upon the Son and, in contemplating himself in the Son, contemplates also all the possible embodiments of the Son, and in loving the Son, breathes forth the Spirit upon the Son and therefore upon all that paradigmatically indwells the Son, naturally leads to an infinite creation. Because the Logos is naturally, essentially infinite, being of the same essence as the infinite God, the logic of classical monotheism outlined above obtains in the hypostasis of the Logos: there exist an infinite number of paradigmatic possibilities for the Logos’ embodiment, all known to and seen by God eternally, and therefore all loved forth into being by God in that act of the Father’s total outpouring of love upon the whole Son. The Son’s generation is distinct from the world’s creation, insofar as the Son is “generated, not created,” in the language of the Symbol, but the world’s creation is nestled within the divine processions of Son and Spirit from Father, of the Father’s anointing the Son with the Spirit and the Son’s eternal self-offering to the Father by the Spirit. And in that infinite perichoresis of the Trinity, whereby Father, Son, and Spirit are totally transparent to one another and indwell one another without conflict or competition, creation as the work or play of God in the Trinitarian eros and ecstasy cannot be arbitrarily finite but must be finitely, quantitatively infinite, as much the image of God’s essential infinity as is time of eternity or space of divine omnipresence or matter of spirit. The Father cannot discriminate between those logoi that preexist within the Son as the prefigurations of creation, electing some and not others for true creation, anymore than he can discriminate between some “part” of the Son who is by nature without parts, as worthy of his love in distinction to other parts; the Father either pours out the whole of his self-emptying love upon the Son in breathing the Spirit upon him or he does not do it at all, and the natural ergon of this intradivine activity is the creation of the world in all its quantitative infinity.

         There are, as far as I can see, at least three objections to consider to a multiverse of this sort. One of them is merely terminological, about whether such a quantitative infinity really succeeds in producing a “multiverse” as opposed to a “universe.” It is true that the terminology as we use it has evolved over the course of the centuries of scientific, philosophical, and theological development and speculation that have conditioned the contemporary conversation. To speak of any catalogue of realia, noumena, or phenomena that are in some sense connected by an underlying or overlaying unity is to speak of a “universe,” if by that term we mean a holistic reality which encompasses all things; “multiverse” simply acknowledges that within that overarching unity there is an unavoidable perspectival pluralism of cosmic horizons. Matters are also made more difficult by the fact that there are different sorts of multiverse in the scientific and philosophical literature, though they tend to be speciations of the spatial and temporal multiverses of the Epicureans and Stoics, respectively; the “ultimate” multiverse is an infinitely branched reality that encompasses all such possible plurisingular worlds.[7] Certainly, in the singularity and simplicity of the divine contemplation of the Son and therefore of all that can come to be in and through the Son—everything logically possible for God, that is—there is simply one kosmos, one world, a universe whose unity comes from its singular hypostatic origin in the Son; but from the perspective of those things that come to be in and through the Son, the plurality of worlds is all too evident at nearly every ontological level.

         Another, more serious objection is the notion that God might be subject to some sort of necessity in creating, that he is constrained to create an infinite number of worlds. This was, of course, part and parcel of the objection of St. Thomas Aquinas and others to the notion of many worlds: that a singular world reflects divine sovereignty in election. But divine compulsion by necessity is only problematic for God’s absolute freedom if in fact the necessity arises from outside of God, from beyond the boundaries of the divine nature. If God creates an infinite number of worlds because this is what accords with his own nature, it is the ergon proper to his energeiai as Creator, then freedom and necessity are not opposed in God, as Sergei Bulgakov argued in the 20th century and David Bentley Hart has argued more recently in the 21st. Divine freedom does not make God a voluntarist, not even a benevolent voluntarist: it means that God suffers no obstacle in the realization of all that God can be, which includes being the Creator of an infinite multiverse.

         Finally, a third objection to the multiverse on theological grounds might be that it seems to relativize the incarnation of the Son as Jesus Christ. Is not, to borrow Hart’s language from the end of the Doors of the Sea, this the world in which Christ comes, this the world in which God is Jesus Christ? What is the value of this world if there are an infinite number of them, and how can our actions continue to have meaning?

         It is first worth noting by way of movement towards an answer to these questions that on the reading of almost all the Greek Fathers, the world as we experience it is a fallen kosmos whose diminution from divine glory happened in a primordial, pretemporal reality.[8] Corporeality is not evil, contra the gnostic didaskaloi: spiritual beings are corporeal because God alone is incorporeal. But the opaqueness of matter to spirit, space as a condition of separation, and time as a “metronomic”[9] condition of entropic loss and repetition are all aspects of creation’s fallen state; in its true spiritual state, as God’s creation, corporeal spirits enjoy a festival of transparency to the divine presence and to communion with others in communion with God that we experience only fractionally in the ongoing sacramentality of physical existence. The incarnation of Christ, the Logos’ becoming flesh under the conditions of the fallen world, does indeed signify the eternal divine intentionality behind the Incarnation, even in a contrafactual, hypothetical world in which the Fall had never taken place; but the fallen character of this world should not be mistaken as part of that eternal intention of God, but that in spite of which God continues to realize his intentions for the created world. When, as in the Gospel of John, Jesus’ crucifixion is depicted as the moment both of judgment of the fallen kosmos and the creation of the true kosmos through the creation of the truly human being, it is precisely this dualism that is at play, in that very Gospel that gives the most clear and canonical language for the doctrine of the Incarnation itself.

         Remembering that the world as we ordinarily experience it is not the protological world of God’s eternal intention nor the eschatological world in which God, through Christ, will be “all in all” (1 Cor 15:28), we should feel freed from the suffocating self-insistence of the fallen world. In God’s Kingdom, as in Aslan’s at the conclusion of The Last Battle, an infinite number of worlds are always, already created and deified in the ceaseless effulgence of the divine glory and the prodigal wastefulness of the divine love; in our entire fallen universe, we inhabit, as C.S. Lewis described hell in The Great Divorce, no more than a crack in the ground of the divine country. Rather than relativizing or mitigating the significance of God’s becoming human in our world, or in our actions in this world, acknowledging our own cosmic parochialism invites us to marvel both at the extent of the Son’s kenosis in his humanization as well as the infinite ascent into glory he has permitted our nature in the ascension. The endless epektasis of Irenaeus, Origen, and Nyssen, the never-ending pilgrimage of the saints ever “further up and further in” into the Trinitarian life of God, with Christ as our companion and leader, involves minimally coming to know and love God in all those things which he creates. Maximally, it involves coming to see God’s face (Rev 22:4), and the glory of God in the face of Jesus Christ (2 Cor 4:6), whose grave visage of judgment falls only on the marring of sin, on the nothingness of evil whose tendrils grip the worlds as they seek to emerge into the divine light, but whose delight is seen in all those numberless words of whom he is the Word.


David Armstrong is an Eastern Christian. He now writes regularly at A Perennial Digression (perennialdigression.substack.com), which also has an interview-based YouTube channel.

[1] There is no better introduction to this material than Mary-Jane Rubenstein, Worlds Without End: On the Many Lives of the Multiverse (New York: Columbia University Press, 2014).

[2] See Rubenstein, Worlds Without End, 39-68.

[3] See Rubenstein, Worlds Without End, 69-104.

[4] David Bentley Hart, The Experience of God: Being, Consciousness, Bliss (New Haven: Yale University Press, 2013).

[5] The translation is Ravi M. Gupta and Kenneth R. Valpey, The Bhagavata Purana: Selected Readings (New York: Columbia University Press, 2016), 60.

[6] See the forthcoming book by my friend Jordan Daniel Wood, The Whole Mystery of Christ: Creation as Incarnation in Maximus the Confessor (South Bend, IN: Notre Dame University Press, 2021).

[7] See Rubenstein, Worlds Without End, 176-236.

[8] See Alexander Khramov’s argument for alterism: https://www.orthodox-theology.com/media/PDF/1.2017/Alexander.Khramov.pdf.

[9] This is Paul Griffiths’ term. See Griffiths, Decreation: The Last Things of All Creatures (Waco, TX: Baylor University Press, 2014); Griffiths also writes about different corporeal states in Christian Flesh (Redwood, CA: Stanford University Press, 2018).

David Armstrong is an Eastern Christian. He now writes regularly at A Perennial Digression (perennialdigression.substack.com), which also has an interview-based YouTube channel.