Deeper than Deep Space

The unbelievable and unfathomable truth of the universe is God’s childlike gaze. /

We were taking an evening walk, my son and I, at the end of a day of fly fishing in Colorado. Embedded in the mountains far from city lights, the sky pulsated with stars, the heavens saturated with millions of pinpricks of light. Overcome with a sense of wonder, I said, “I don’t know how anyone can not believe in God when looking at something like this.”

My son majored in physics at a secular liberal arts college, so he knew better. “A lot of people look at the vastness of space and say it just proves there is no God.”

He had a point, as I have come to more deeply appreciate.

Reading the book The Martian got me thinking about deep space again. One sobering exercise I go through every few years is trying to grasp the size of the known universe. Recently I once again looked up a few astounding astronomy facts, like the size of the observable universe.

The universe, they tell me, is curved, like the earth is round. You can watch a ship sail off into the distance only so far—2.9 miles to be exact—before you lose sight of it as it sinks below the horizon. Similarly, we can only see to “the horizon” of the universe, which is 13.8 billion light years.

Let’s review light years, which begin with the speed of light—186,000 miles every second. That’s 671 million miles per hour. If a plane could go that fast, it could circle the earth 7.5 times—in one second. There are 31.5 million seconds in a year, so light goes a long way in a year, about 5,878,499,817 miles.

So if each horizon of the universe is 13.8 billion light years away, that means the observable universe is nearly 28 billion light years wide. But scientists say it is much larger than that, in part because we can’t see over the horizon of the universe. Even the observable universe is bigger than we imagine. As Nola Taylor Redd wrote at, “While scientists might see a spot that lay 13.8 billion light-years from Earth at the time of the Big Bang, the universe has continued to expand over its lifetime. Today, that same spot is 46 billion light-years away, making the diameter of the observable universe a sphere around 92 billion light-years.”

Frankly, I don’t get it. I can’t get my mind around these numbers or understand deep down that there is more to the universe than we can see. Or that there might be other universes. But such things do begin to form within me a certain feeling: insignificance.

It’s the feeling you get when you are in a classroom of super students, who all raise their hand to answer a hard question the teacher has just asked. You are simply not noticed.

Or when you gaze across Yosemite Valley at El Capitan, marveling at the massive wall of granite and the stomach-wrenching view to the valley’s bottom. You feel small and fragile.

Or when you look at the stars in the heavens, and desperately try to grasp how large the universe is, how many suns and solar systems and galaxies there are. Our galaxy, the Milky Way, is said to contain 100 billion stars, though some say it could be more than 200 billion. Which is practically nothing, because the number of galaxies alone is astonishing.

Several times in recent years, the Hubble Space Telescope has been trained on one tiny spot or another in the sky to count galaxies. A 1995 exposure of such a spot in Ursa Major revealed about 3,000 faint galaxies. In 2003 and 2004, scientists looked at a smaller spot in the constellation Fornax and counted about 10,000 galaxies.

David Kornreich, an assistant professor at Ithaca College in New York State, thinks a lot about such things. He estimates, very roughly, that there are 10 trillion galaxies in the universe. Assuming the Milky Way is of average size, with its estimated 100 billion stars, we come up with 100 octillion stars, or 100,000,000,000,000,000,000,000,000,000 stars, or a “1” with 29 zeros after it. Kornreich, however, thinks this is a very conservative number.

As I said, I grant my son’s point. You observe and imagine the universe, and you feel small and insignificant—at best an accident of the universe, whose presence is not even a speck. The universe did not register when you were born, and will not care when you die. You are as good as non-existent.

The Bible, of course, tells a different story. There we find lots of talk about how important we are to God, how much he cares for us, how much he has done and will do for us. The Bible acts like we’re the most important creatures in the universe.

This naturally resonates for us—if you don’t think too much about the actual universe and its unfathomable size and scope. But when you do, it makes one wonder if the Bible’s message is just wishful thinking. Because if God is creator of this unfathomable universe, he must in some sense be “bigger” and more unfathomable. And we must be even smaller and more insignificant. It’s the reason some people, when they hear Christians talk about God’s love for each and every one of us, laugh. A nice sentiment, they say, but given the incomprehensibly massive size of reality, we’re nothing special. We’re less than nothing special, in fact. When there is so much wonder to behold in the vastness of space, why would God care to focus his attention on creatures so tiny and who pass so quickly—80 years, or 1/173.5 millionth of the age of the known universe—into oblivion?

Then again, perhaps God is like a toddler. Jesus tells us we should become like children (Matt. 18:3), and maybe one thing he meant is that we should become like God.

I was walking recently in Denver with my 3-year-old granddaughter. We were lazily strolling through a beautiful park: long stretches of prairie grass dotted with newly planted trees. We passed flower beds with the most colorful blooms shouting at us with their glory. We walked beneath white clouds billowing against a deep blue sky. There were grand and wonderful things to behold.

But my granddaughter barely glanced at these big wonders as her attention flitted from one thing to the next. Then she suddenly stopped, bent over, and picked up a piece of gravel, smaller than her smallest fingernail. In the middle of the magnificent scenery, she was mesmerized by this tiny wonder. It was one piece of gravel among thousands on the path at our feet, but she rolled it around in her fingers, examining it as if it were the only piece of gravel in the universe.

This is what the Bible says about the ultimate reality of the universe. God is a childlike divinity who spots one grain of sand on the beach that we call the universe, and picks it up, and rolls it around in his massive but gentle fingers, beholding it, marveling, gazing. It’s not the beach or the waves or the ocean stretching out to the horizon that captivates him, but the one grain of sand. In fact, he is said to know the number of hairs on each head of these “grains of sand” (Luke 12:7).

Some would say that’s about as unbelievable as the universe is unfathomable. Maybe so. But it is the gospel revealed to us in Jesus Christ. We can take the skeptics' word for it, that we are grains of sand in a vast universe and therefore mean less than nothing. Or we can take Jesus’ word for it, and believe that God—who created the starry heavens, who not only counts but names every star (Ps. 147.4)—also loves the world and every grain of a person in it.

Unbelievable and unfathomable, yes. But according to Jesus, this is what the deepest of space really looks like.

Mark Galli is editor of Christianity Today.

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Also in this Issue

Issue 34 / October 29, 2015
  1. Editor's Note from October 29, 2015

    Issue 34: The long, weighty future of a whale’s body, God’s childlike attention, and hip op. /

  2. Sunken Treasure

    The end of a great creature’s life is the beginning of a long, deep community. /

  3. The Joint of Strength and Mortality

    A doctor looks at Jacob’s hip. /

  4. Whale Fall

    “Its carrion / carries on” /

  5. Wonder on the Web

    Issue 34: Links to amazing stuff.

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