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Corban University

October 15, 2018

Physics as a Spiritual Science: Dr. Yufeng Zhao Shares How the Natural World Led Him to God

“Of all the disciplines, I think physics is one of the most fundamental sciences—and is also highly spiritual.”

Dr. Yufeng Zhao, Corban University’s new Assistant Professor of Physics, grew up in atheist China. He remembers learning Darwinism and Marxism as absolute truth. Growing up, he learned that the material world was the highest—and only—reality. Little did he know that the natural, material world would one day serve as the first signpost pointing him to Christ.

The Wheat Field and the Peach Tree

When Zhao was in school, the most respected fields and professions were “physics, mathematics, and other highly scholarly fields and disciplines.” Entering these coveted professions was extremely difficult and depended heavily on a student’s performance in school. Only the top 3% of students were likely to go to college, and even fewer were accepted to prestigious physics and mathematics programs.

But Zhao was a bright student, so making it to the top of his class didn’t seem out of reach—until he became extremely ill. Early in his high school career, Zhao developed a debilitating stomach illness. As it turned out, the drinking water in the small town where he attended high school was polluted, likely from a nearby hospital. For months, Zhao could barely do any schoolwork. “My performance dropped to the bottom of the class,” he says. Out of 50 students, he was ranked below 40. With such poor grades, college would be out of reach for him—not to mention a prestigious physics program. He became depressed.

One afternoon, in the spring of his sophomore year, Zhao walked out to the second-floor patio. He remembers looking out over wheat fields that were just turning green and peach trees with their spring blossoms. “Suddenly, an epiphany came to my mind and touched my heart.” Looking at the wheat fields and peach trees, he realized that every living organism must be sustained by a huge power outside of itself. The same power that sustained the wheat fields sustained the peach trees—and would sustain him. “Once the time has come, everything will be prosperous,” Zhao realized. At that moment, he felt a deep sense of release and freedom. He could feel his body finally relax, and he knew his journey to healing had begun.

Two months later, Zhao was fully recovered from his illness, and he began to pour himself into his academic studies once again. By the time he graduated high school, he had reached the top of his class. Most importantly, the divine healing and revelation he’d experienced had laid the foundation for a spiritual journey that would eventually lead him to the God of the Bible and Jesus Christ.

The Cult and the Church

After graduating high school, Zhao studied physics, first at Harpin University of Science and Technology (where he met his wife Sherry) and then at Peking University, where he earned his Ph.D. in physics. But illness struck again, this time as a result of grief and depression at the early deaths of his parents from cancer. Remembering the healing he had experienced in high school, he knew he had to seek a spiritual source, not merely a physical one, to get better.

“Unfortunately, we didn’t know the Christian church at that time,” he says, explaining that Christianity was not easily accessible in China. So instead, Zhao found a different spiritual movement to join—one that, as it turned out, was extremely radical. He could easily have been ensnared by the organization, but three days after he’d begun attending meetings, they were wiped out by the government, who’d seen them as a threat. Looking back, Zhao says with confidence, “God delivered me from that cult.”

About six months later, Zhao and his wife moved to the United States to take a research position in Houston, Texas. There, one of his schoolmates led him to a Chinese church. Although Zhao had never set foot in a church before, it felt like home. “Everything was so familiar to my heart.”

Zhao had discovered the power that sustained the universe, and he’d discovered the welcoming people of God, but it would take one more nudge for him to reject his atheistic upbringing and accept the God of the Bible on a personal level.

The Hospital and the Flood

Soon after arriving in the United States, Zhao and Sherry discovered they were pregnant. “We were extremely uncertain of our future,” he says, “because we were probably going to spend one year in the States and then go back to China. So I thought, maybe we should get an abortion.”

Unsure of what to do, Zhao and Sherry reached out to the church. They were shocked when people began showing up at their apartment to pray for them. “This is none of your business,” Zhao remembers thinking. But at the same time, their hearts were touched. Silently, he prayed, “If your God is the true God, stop me three times.”

The first time they left for the hospital for an abortion, it was closed by the time they arrived. The second time, Sherry wanted to take a shower before leaving for the appointment—and the entire apartment building had no hot water. The third time, they arrived at the hospital and completed the paperwork, but the doctor told Zhao that only a woman could accompany his wife for the procedure. For two hours, he tried to get ahold of the only female relative they had in the city, but she never answered the phone. “Maybe,” Zhao thought, “their God is the true God. We have to go back.”

Their son was born in the midst of Tropical Storm Allison, which brought devastating floods to Houston. But their apartment was on a high enough floor that nothing was damaged. Grateful for God’s provision, Zhao and Sherry named their son Noah.

The spiritual journey that had begun with wheat fields and peach trees had culminated in a deeply personal experience of God’s direction and provision. Both kinds of experiences would continue to be an integral part of Zhao’s faith as he began to share his faith with others.

The Planet and the Particle

After becoming a believer, Zhao began to research the intersection between physics and his Christian faith. “I studied a lot of scientific philosophy, and how fundamental physics actually supports our biblical worldview,” he says. What he discovered amazed him.

According to Zhao, the actual laws of physics can be used to demonstrate that spiritual reality is higher than physical reality. Zhao describes the tension between Einstein’s theory of relativity and the later discovery of quantum physics. One set of laws describes how the universe functions at a macro level—the gravity between planets, for example—and the other set of laws describes how particles function at a micro level—the kind of laws that make solar panels work.

However, these two systems for describing the universe are in sharp contrast: particles don’t behave according to Einstein’s theory, and planets don’t behave according to quantum physics. For Zhao, this points to the fact that the power and authenticity of physical laws transcend material reality. “Physical laws are absolute, and materials are relativistic,” he says; “physical laws are deterministic, while particles are probabilistic.”

This poses a problem for the scientist who believes the physical world is the only reality. “If you’re a materialist, mass is the ultimate and highest reality,” Zhao explains. Yet in order to guarantee the authority of physical laws, “the actual mass has to be sacrificed.”

Explaining spirituality through the lens of physics is one of Zhao’s favorite things to do, especially with college students. Not only does it allow him to teach from his expertise in physics, but it allows him to share the Gospel in a cross-cultural context. Zhao has discovered that physics can provide a cross-cultural language with which he can explain God’s truth.

Here at Corban, Zhao is able to integrate his passions for physics and spiritual mentorship like never before. Here, he is able to help students embark on the same journey he once set out on as a desperately ill high school boy at the bottom of his class: How does God speak to us through the natural world? How do we worship the Creator through scientific research? How do we share the Gospel cross-culturally through the common language of science? And how does God speak to us in personal, intimate ways? These are the questions that shaped Zhao’s story, and these are the questions he’s excited to help young people wrestle with as well. He says of Corban, “I am so blessed to find my passion here.”

Written by Amelia Kaspari, Staff Writer