Do the Laws of Thermodynamics Resonate with Biblical Truth?

The Bible states that God created the heavens and the earth (Genesis 1:1). This biblical declaration is consistent with observations of the expanding universe (from nothing) first recognized by Edwin Hubble in 1929. Scientists have also discovered that the universe operates according to unchanging physical laws. If the universe was created by God, then resonance between the laws of physics—including the first and second laws of thermodynamics—and the nature of God revealed in the Bible would be expected. The laws of thermodynamics are the foundation for scientific work as well as practical engineering, so they provide a springboard for exploring the character of God via the equations that explain how the universe works.

The First Law Describes Total Sacrifice
In the early part of my career, I regularly taught a materials science and engineering course on thermodynamics. In trying to find ways to make the abstract aspects of the laws of thermodynamics comprehensible to students, I noticed a strong correlation between life and the first law, which states that energy is conserved (∑∆E=0). This law is commonly illustrated with billiard balls—when a moving ball hits another just right, it can transfer all of its kinetic energy into the other ball and stop moving while the hit ball moves onward with the same velocity—but it can also be illustrated with food. There’s a certain amount of energy in a grain of wheat, and when we eat it, we use that energy to think and work. But, the grain of wheat is deprived of ever becoming what it was naturally created to do—to reproduce itself. One life is “given up” for the sake of another, so continuation of life is an outcome of the conservation of energy.

More dramatically, a lamb or young calf will not reach maturity and reproduce if it’s sacrificed or butchered to become food (e.g., the Passover lamb, Exodus 13:15). This recognition of death enabling life to continue is ancient. It appears in Genesis 3:21, where God provided skins (clothes) for Adam and Eve to cover their shame when they were banished from the Garden of Eden. This sacrifice of one life given up so that another can live mirrors Jesus’s total sacrifice of himself on behalf of humans. The Creator of the universe sacrificed himself (experienced death and separation from the Father) to allow humans to outlive their earthly physical bodies. This profound sacrifice is much more than energy transfer—this is life transfer—both a physical and spiritual reflection of the first law. The Son of God gave up his earthly life so that earthly humans could live. 

The Second Law Also Describes Sacrifice
There’s a similar correlation between spiritual and physical truth about sacrifice in the second law, but it’s not quite as direct as the first law. The second law states that things naturally tend to fall apart and become disordered, something that we all experience daily. It’s possible to measure this tendency for disorder. It is given the symbol S, for entropy, where increasing disorder means that S gets larger, or, in an equation (∑∆S>0). By combining it with the first law we obtain one of the most important equations that describe how chemical reactions happen, which looks similar to how we think about taxes: net income = income – taxes. The money we get to spend is less than what we earn. Chemical changes depend on the Gibbs free energy, G, where G= H-TS, (T is temperature and H is enthalpy, which describes the state of energy of electrons in bonds within a piece of matter). At a given temperature, the change in the Gibbs free energy defines the maximum possible useful work that can be obtained from a change in H and S (∆G ≤ ∆H-T∆S). For example, this equation is used to find the maximum possible distance you can drive your car based on the reaction between a gallon of gasoline and oxygen. This equation states that only a fraction of the energy (H) can be used to move your car, and the rest cannot be used to do work, but this “entropy tax” makes the work that is done possible. 

If we think of money as a form of stored energy, where G is analogous to disposable income1 and entropy is a tax, taxes enable the government to provide a societal structure in which we can freely choose how we spend our remaining income. There’s a similar analogy with sacrifices practiced by ancient cultures. Sacrifices could be used to pre-pay the entropy tax in order to manipulate the gods to do what humans wanted them to do, such as bring rain and fertility to the soil for the next crop (e.g., 1 Kings 18). Other possibilities include offering a portion of what we have to cover our guilt or shame (e.g., Exodus 29:14), or to express our gratitude to God for a harvest (Exodus 23:16).  

Can Humans “Disobey” These Laws?
But why can’t we use all of the available energy (or money) without paying the entropy tax? Because it won’t work. These laws are not like human laws; they are absolutely nonnegotiable. The second law must be obeyed. Hence, it behooves designers to use the available energy efficiently to do useful work so that energy is not wasted (for example, building a profitable business while not destroying the environment). As with sacrifices, our attitude toward obeying the second law can vary. For example, we can be resentful about the fact that we can’t use all of the energy in a gallon of gas, or we can be grateful for the energy we do get to use.

In Genesis 4, Adam and Eve’s two sons Cain and Abel both made sacrifices to God. Abel’s was acceptable but Cain’s was not, inviting us to wonder why. Could it be that Abel was grateful to God, and Cain was resentful about making a sacrifice, but did so to manipulate God? God warns Cain in verses 6–7: “Then the Lord said to Cain, ‘Why are you angry? Why is your face downcast? If you do what is right, will you not be accepted? But if you do not do what is right, sin is crouching at your door; it desires to have you, but you must rule over it.’” When warned by God about using the fruit of his labor (his harvest) to manipulate God, Cain resentfully chose to murder his brother Abel (Genesis 4:8), and incurred God’s curse for himself and his descendants.

So, not only is sacrificing the fruit of our labor necessary, but our attitude is also important. If we resent paying “entropy taxes,” we may harbor resentment and bitterness toward God for constraining us. If we pay those taxes with gratitude for the stability we have in which we can also worship God freely, and especially if we sacrifice additionally to God, then the fruit of our work also helps others. 

For engineers and scientists, we know that our design work cannot violate the laws of thermodynamics, or it will not succeed. Hence, the laws of thermodynamics guide us when creating useful devices, but they also constrain us—violating them will result in design failure, and possibly death. Here, I see a resonance between the physical laws expressed in math, our work, and our relationship with God.2

Is Entropy Part of the Creator’s Life-Force?
Indeed, the nature of life is rather mysterious—a living animal gathers and concentrates entropy and eliminates it as urine and feces. Yet at the moment when life leaves a body, there’s no change in the atoms in the body, but the rate of decay (disordering) increases rapidly. But we also know that rejected and concentrated entropy + sun via photosynthesis provides the nutrients and energy needed for plants to thrive, thereby enabling the cycle of life. A materialistic argument for the highly organized aspects of life based only on random processes that we can measure is missing something: it struggles to account for the life force that enables and maintains life.  

Did God Build That Life Force into His Creation?
In a conversation with a colleague who does research on the biochemical processes of life, I commented that biology and biochemistry can identify how life works, but can it explain why life works? She said that it was a good question, but no, we cannot account for this life force itself. When I think about how the laws of thermodynamics govern energy, entropy, and the mystery of life, it’s like looking into the face of the Creator of the universe, and it inspires worship.


  1. About 40 years later, Lewis and Randall’s textbook made Gibbs’s developments accessible to chemists worldwide. SeeGilbert Newton Lewis and Merle Randall, Thermodynamics and the Free Energy of Chemical Substances(New York: McGraw-Hill, 1923).
  2. The laws of thermodynamics indicate that whenever useful work is done, the entropy tax is usually paid in the form of dissipated heat.