When I was a kid I was fascinated by space and stars and the planets. I was a Star Trek geek before there were Trekkies. No matter how much fun I was having playing outside in the summer time, I would always come in to see what was happening that week with Kirk and Spock and Bones. Yes, I must confess, I was also an avid fan of Lost in Space. (“Danger! Danger! Be careful, Will Robinson!”) I read Tom Swift, and loved movies like Forbidden Planet, Earth Vs. The Flying Saucers and The Day The Earth Stood Still. I was a space nut.
Indeed, my ambition as a youngster was to become an astronomer. (God had other plans.) And so with this fascination with astronomy, it is not surprising that many of my youthful science projects involved models of the solar system. I made more than my fair share of planets out of Play-Doh and Stryofoam balls. I was the king of coat hangers and clay spheres. Yet, with all my juvenile enthusiasm I still missed something. I failed to comprehend the vastness of space. In fact, as is probably common with most young astronomers, I thought my wire and Stryofoam creations were pretty realistic.
This all changed for me a few years back. I was working on a series of classes on basic theology that I called “God 101.” We were studying the essential attributes of God. You know, His omniscience, infinity, eternity, immutability… that sort of stuff. When we came to the week where we were to study God’s omnipresence, I decided to use the size of the solar system as a model. I wanted to illustrate the vastness of space, and then make the point that God is present throughout all the created order. I also wanted to emphasize that as immense as space is, and God governs and oversees all that goes on in the entire universe, He still has time and interest in each of us. To prepare for this lesson I went to the Internet to find a good way of conveying the size of the solar system. I found several models—all of which surprised me. They showed me that my own understanding of the magnitude of the solar system’s size was limited indeed. Let me share with you the model that I used…
Imagine that the earth itself were the size of a peppercorn, you know those small black things that chef Emeril insists must be ground fresh on every dish in his kitchen. Anyway, the earth is a peppercorn. On this scale one inch is equal to 100,000 miles, and the sun is the size of a basketball. Get the idea? Now based on this scheme, how far away would the earth be from the sun? In reality the earth is 93 million miles from the sun. In our model the peppercorn earth is 78 feet away from the basketball sun. (Try it. Take a basketball and get about 80 feet away. You will find that the basketball looks about the same size as the sun does in the sky.) Let’s try some other measurements. If the earth is a peppercorn, then Mercury is a pinhead, Saturn is a hazelnut, and the mighty planet Jupiter is just a pecan. How about distance? Mercury is 30 feet from the sun. Jupiter is 405 feet out from the sun. And Pluto (alas, the former planet)? Well it’s the size of a pin point and it’s 3057 feet from the sun, over half a mile away. Yep, half a mile! Think that’s amazing, it gets better. The closest star to us is Promixa Centauri, which is 4.2 light years away from earth. In our scale model that would be 4200 miles away. (Keep in mind, the entire earth is only the size of a peppercorn.) Want to go farther? Well, the center of our Milky Way Galaxy is just a mere 26,000,000 miles away from us. Now understand, this is not 26 million miles in reality, this is 26 millions miles on our earth = peppercorn scale. On this scale, our galaxy has a diameter of about 100,000,000 miles. Yes, on this sun = basketball scale, the Milky Way is 100 million miles across!
Furthermore, it must be remembered that as huge as our own solar system seems to us, that our sun is only one of billions of stars scattered throughout the Milky Way Galaxy. And there are other suns and star systems vastly larger than our own. And then we must remind ourselves that our own galaxy is only one among the billions and billions of galaxies that are scattered throughout the known universe. It truly boggles the mind. It is also truly beyond our ability to comprehend in any meaningful way. We can speak of the numbers, but I think it is overwhelming to us to try to really grab hold of the concept of the immensity of space and the universe.
Now to my main point… such information is currently often used to denigrate the philosophers, scientists and (especially) theologians of the ancient past. For centuries, most notably in the church world, an anthropocentric view held sway in Western men’s thinking. It was accepted as axiomatic that mankind was the center of the universe. Humanity was the highest and greatest creation of God, and mankind was the focus of the created order and of the Creator’s attention. Such a view was easily validated by an earth-centered cosmology. But Copernicus, Galileo, and their cronies upset all this. They demonstrated that the sun, not the earth, is the center of our solar system. More modern scientists have shown us that the sun is not even the center of our galaxy. Sol wings it way through the heavens nearly on the fringes of the Milky Way. Mankind does not seem to be at the center of ANYTHING.
Thus as our knowledge of the universe expands, our regard for puny little homo sapiens diminishes. This has led to a popular perspective today, i.e, that mankind is indeed small and insignificant when compared with the entire cosmos. This means that man is really not all that important. We humans are only arrogant and presumptuous if we assume that in the greatness of all this reality, we are really anything important at all. Surely if there is a God, He would not create all this huge universe for such a lowly, insignificant thing as humanity.
Many interesting and disturbing concepts arise from this perspective. For example, this view asserts that man existence is only an incidental occurrence in the hugeness of the natural reality. He has no intrinsic meaning or purpose. There is no design or pattern to the cosmos—for surely the Divine would not be so foolish as to create this gigantic universe to serve one species on one smallish planet. Probably there are millions, nay, billions of other worlds with intelligent species on them. It only makes sense. There has to be SOMEBODY else out there in all that space! Some would even go so far as to say that the enormous scope of the universe argues against the existence of God. How could a Deity with any kind of wisdom or intelligence create something so immense, and so meaningless, for one tiny world and one scrawny species?
The question may be asked, no, demands to be asked: What is man in the vastness of this universe? Who are the children of men that they should be considered of any worth or importance? (Do these questions sound familiar?) In the immensity of space, where does man fit in? Let’s attempt an answer.
First of all, the point has to be made that the question itself is all wrong. The basic idea that size determines value is false to begin with. I think of my wife. Sue is about 5 foot 3 inches tall.
I love her with all my heart. She is the dearest and most precious person in all the world to me. But you know what, I would not love her less if she suddenly shrank to 4’ 11”. And I would not love her more if she suddenly grew to be six feet tall. Her worth is not dependent on her size. Her value in my eyes is not a consequence of how tall or short she is. Indeed, there are many things in this world that are huge compared with her. Mount Everest is gargantuan. But I love Sue more than Mt. Everest. The Pacific Ocean is vast, but my wife is more important to me than that ocean.
Of course, you say, but here we are only talking about relatively small changes in size. What is the difference between 5 feet and 5 miles compared to the size of the universe? But don’t you see, it all only a matter of degree. If my valuing of a person would not change if they grew 9 inches, neither would it change if a person (or thing) were 10 trillion times bigger. (And I must say if I had to choose between Sue and the Andromeda Galaxy, I would choose Sue.)
I think God views things in much the same way. Love and relationship are what God is all about. It is the essence of who He is. (After all, He existed in Trinitarian fellowship before the worlds began.) God’s yardstick of value is not based on physical size, but on the intrinsic value with which He created each thing. And mankind was created in His image. The stars were not. Planets were not made to reflect His personality. Solar systems were not made to have relationship with Him. Nebulae do not have souls. Jesus did not die for galaxies.
Remember I hinted that the questions we were addressing had a familiar ring to them. They should. David asked the very same questions 3000 years ago. “What is man, that You are mindful of him? And the son of man, that You visit him?” (Psalm 8:4) Do you remember David’s answer? “You have made him a little lower than the angels.” Amazing. And actually, even more amazing in the original Hebrew. David literally says, “You have made him [man] a little lower than Elohim.” Elohim is the most common name for God in the Hebrew Bible. God, in making mankind in His own image, made him a little lower than God! Now understand me, I have not converted to Mormonism. I understand that God is infinite, and so far above us that we cannot conceive it. But, as much as it is possible for finite, created, fleshly humanity to be like the infinite, uncreated, Spirit of the Creator, so we are. Wonderful!
This means we have great value in God’s eyes. And even in our fallenness, we have the remnants of the original glory of our creation. As Francis Schaeffer used to say, “Man may be fallen, but he is not junk.” There is worth in the human creature because God created us, and He created us in His image with purpose, design, dignity and value. How much value? Well, enough that God would send His Son to die to redeem us from our fallen state.
So God does not consider the physical size of something to determine its importance. He values a thing, or a person, based on the nature of its creation. Yes, man is the center of the universe and the focus of creation. This is true because of Him, His plan and purpose for us, and His sovereign choice in creating us as He did. Our worth is derived directly from the Creator.
Yet, a question may still be lurking in the back of your mind: Why then would God create such an immensely huge universe? I don’t know. I must leave that to the Mind who made it all. However, I can speculate on a few possible reasons. (These satisfy my mind, at least.) 1) God often conveys truth to us in imagery. Think of the Passover sacrificial lamb, Christ as the Rock, God riding the storm clouds, Abraham sacrificing Isaac, God sitting on a throne… all of these are examples. How then could God display to us His immensity, His omnipresence, His glory? Perhaps the universe itself is one huge object lesson on the greatness of God. 2) God sees and knows all. I do not know what exists on some planet revolving some star circling around the center of the Andromeda Galaxy. But God knows. And perhaps He created some thing of tremendous beauty on that planet that simply exists to give HIM pleasure. Who knows, perhaps there are trillions and trillions of such things out there whose entire purpose for existing is to glorify and please God (see Revelation 4:11). I don’t even need to know about these things, for He does. 3) God is the infinite and eternal Optimist. He created the world, the Garden of Eden, and even the Tree of Life, with the purpose of providing for unfallen humanity. He did this, even though He knew that we would actually fall. We cannot understand what might have been had Adam and Eve not fallen. Imagine six thousand years of perfect human existence. No sin. No disease. No death. No war or crime. Virtually no limits to human creativity, exploration or scientific endeavor. If we had not sinned, might we not have been out amongst those stars and galaxies by now. Perhaps God created this huge universe in anticipation of it being occupied by His children. And we blew it. 4) In the ages to come, God will create new heavens, and a new earth. But consider… He will create new HEAVENS. It seems that the new heavens will be much like our present universe, although pure, uncorrupted and untainted by sin. Could it be that in the eternal eras to come, we will indeed be occupying those planets and galaxies scattered throughout this universe?
One final thought regarding this matter of size and importance. If any would still assert that we should consider something important based on its size—then how do you explain the Incarnation? When God the Son, infinite and immortal Deity, came to earth, how did He come? He came not as a giant. He did not come as a great king. He was not even an adult. He came as a frail, small, helpless baby. Eternity clothed in the minutes of measured time. Infinity wrapped in swaddling clothes. Omnipotence finding life-giving nourishment at His mother’s breast. God, the Almighty, lying in a manger. Little. Weak. Seemingly insignificant. But as C. S. Lewis once commented, “A stable once had something inside it that was bigger than our whole world.”