Stephen Hawking breathlessly reports in the new edition of A Brief History of Time that the publisher has sold one copy for every 750 men, women, and children on the planet. I finally joined that constellation of readers and came away awed at the vastness and complexity of our universe.
Science teeters between hubris and humility. Hawking's book shows how much we have learned. Yet just in the last few years astronomers have admitted underestimating the number of galaxies by 50 billion or so (oops!) and missing the age of the universe by around 8 billion years—and, oh yes, there is that embarrassing "dark matter," which no one has found yet but which may constitute 90 percent of the matter in the universe.
I remember the early Apollo missions, when engineers took pride in the spacecraft's 5 million parts, all of which had to work together with precision. This, the greatest technological achievement of our species, gave the first real glimpse of our puny place in the universe. As Stephen Hawking describes it, Earth is "a medium-sized planet orbiting around an average star in the outer suburbs of an ordinary spiral galaxy, which is itself only one of about a million million galaxies in the observable universe."
To the Apollo astronauts, though, that humdrum planet looked just fine. Jim Lovell, reflecting on the scene, said, "It was just another body, really, about four times bigger than the moon. But it held all the hope and all the life and all the things that the crew of Apollo 8 knew and loved. It was the most beautiful thing there was to see in all the heavens."
Scientists have a hard time imagining how it all happened. As astronomer Chet Raymo puts it, "If, one second after the Big Bang, the ratio of the density of the universe to its expansion rate had differed from its assumed value by only one part in 1015 (that's 1 followed by 15 zeros), the universe would have either quickly collapsed upon itself or ballooned so rapidly that stars and galaxies could not have condensed from the primal matter."
For those of us who have trouble counting in billions, Raymo explains, "If all the grains of sand on all the beaches of the Earth were possible universes—that is, universes consistent with the laws of physics as we know them—and only one of those grains of sand were a universe that allowed for the existence of intelligent life, then that one grain of sand is the universe we inhabit."
Looking at the world through a microscope rather than a telescope, Douglas Hofstadter ponders in amazement the complexity of the dna genetic code:
A natural and fundamental question to ask, on learning of these incredibly intricately interlocking pieces of software and hardware is: "How did they ever get started in the first place?" It is truly a baffling thing. … There are various theories on the origin of life. They all run aground on this most central of all central questions: "How did the Genetic Code, along with the mechanisms for its translation … , originate?"
Both these scientists share Hawking's religious agnosticism, and yet all three concede that the universe appears to be tuned with inconceivable precision so as to foster intelligent life on this planet. (Scientists call this observation "the anthropic principle.") Why? That question lies outside the realm of science.
For an answer to the "Why?" question, Christians look to Jesus of Nazareth—who, the New Testament tells us, was present at the moment of creation. In a remarkable scene with his disciples the night of his arrest, Jesus pulled back the curtain, allowing a peek at his life before Bethlehem.
"And now, Father, glorify me in your presence with the glory I had with you before the world began," Jesus prayed. He is reminiscing about life before planet Earth, eternity before time. In this lengthy, astonishing prayer (John 17:1-26), he gives the answer to the "Why?" question. From the beginning—before the beginning—God willed to share with other creatures the same love lavished on the Son "before the creation of the world."
Earth was indeed created with an anthropic principle. God's grace, claims Paul, "was given us in Christ Jesus before the beginning of time" (2 Tim. 1:9). Jesus' sacrifice on our behalf was "chosen before the creation of the world" (1 Peter 1:20). Similarly, our hope for eternal life was promised "before the beginning of time" (Titus 1:2).
Thus the essentials of theology—God's love, election, grace, atonement, resurrection—are specifically grounded outside time and creation. Long before Einstein's theory of the relativity of time and space, long before any notion of a Big Bang origin of the universe, the New Testament writers established these truths as, quite literally, timeless.
Stephen Hawking cites with approval Augustine's notion that any God must exist outside time. We are confined to a space-time universe that began at a moment of time, but God is not. Our sun, now middle-aged, will burn itself out in 5 billion years. Eventually the universe itself may collapse. Yet from the lips of the Creator we have a promise that we will join him, and see his glory, and share in it for eternity.
The universe is not such a lonely place after all, for God's love is longer than time.
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