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What got me thinking about all this is the discovery in Egypt of the oldest known depiction of a pharaoh, dating to about 3000 BC. Which is quite old, I assure you. 5000 years ago is a long time—3000 years before Christ.

I turned 55 in January, which is a shame because it makes calculating all this more difficult. Let’s just say I’m 50. 100 of my lifespans will get us back to a pharaoh who is largely forgotten and whose name no one knows.

But we should all be so lucky to be remembered at all 5000 years after exiting the earth.

The earth. That got me thinking even more.

Smart people with pocket protectors and who wear ties with short-sleeved shirts and live in their mothers’ basements assure us that the earth is 4.6 billion years old.

I broke out my calculator, and figured that my age is .0000000113 of the earth’s age.

That just makes me wish I were 46, not only because I’d have both my knees back, but because that divides so much more easily into 4.6 billion. Then I’d be .00000001 of the earth’s age—or 1/100,000,000 of the earth’s age.

But .00000001 still means nothing to me.

So, after several hours and a few “how ratios work” Google searches, I converted all this into a semi-human scale—which only succeeded in making the incomprehensibly large incomprehensibly small. Still, here is what I came up with.

If 4.6 billion years is scaled to one mile, my life span is .00005 feet, or .0006 inches. That’s 6/10,000 of an inch. You can’t see that with the naked eye.

If 4.6 billion years is scaled to the distance from home to first base (90 feet), my life is about 1/100,000 of an inch, which is more impossible to see with the naked eye, so let’s broaden this out a bit.

If 4.6 billion years is scaled to the length of a football field, my life is a little less than 4/100,000 of an inch.

If it helps, a sheet of paper is about 4/1000 of an inch thick. So, my life is 100 times thinner than a sheet of paper on a football field scale.

Are you getting tired of this? Too bad. I took the time to figure this out and you’re going to pay attention.

Three time analogies.

If 4.6 billion years is scaled to one hour, my life so far has taken up less than 4/100,000 of a second. Jesus lived a little more than 1/1000 of  a second ago—about the length of time it takes  Olympic sprinters and swimmers to bring home silver instead of gold.

If 4.6 billion years is scaled to one day, my life has taken up a little less than 2/1000 of a second. Jesus lived just under 8/100 seconds ago.

If 4.6 billion years is scaled to one year, my life has taken up the last 3/10 of a second. Jesus lived a whopping 12.6 seconds ago.

One more. I’m on a roll, this one adapted from Darrel Falk’s book, Coming to Peace with Science: Bridging the Worlds Between Faith and Biology, p. 133.

If you were to make a timeline of the age of the earth where every inch corresponds to 1000 years, the timeline would be 73 miles long. My lifespan would be the thickness of a piece of paper (4/1000 of an inch) at the end of that timeline.

My main take away from all this calculating and ratioing (after the initial %#&@*#@!) was, “well, I guess it’s not all about me then, after all, is it?”

I wish I had some grand lesson to draw from this, something super spiritual. I take some comfort, though, that at least one biblical writer—the always cheerful, never somber “Qohelet” from the book of Ecclesiastesseems to have a problem with the great expanse of time humans have to think about.

Qohelet says that God “has put a sense of past and future into their (humanity’s) minds, yet they cannot find out what God has done from the beginning to the end” (Ecclesiastes 3:11). And by the way, he is not giving God a compliment here. He follows up this verse by resigning himself that there is “nothing better” for humans to do in the face of this absurdity than to try to enjoy themselves and not think too much about it.

Qohelet is not talking about geological time, of course, but the seemingly endless line of generation after generation of people who have gone before, and who will presumably come after. To paraphrase v. 11: “Thinking about all this makes me want to throw up, because it makes no sense to me what kind of a world God has made.”

So, along with the author of Ecclesiastes, I have no super spiritual takeaway from this—although I will state the obvious: some issues confronting us today were inconceivable in Qohelet’s day, some 20 seconds ago (on a 4.6 billion = one year scale).

***This post first appeared in December 2012. I talk about the impact of science on faith a bit more in The Bible Tells Me So (HarperOne 2014) and The Sin of Certainty (HarperOne 2016).

Pete Enns, Ph.D.

Peter Enns (Ph.D., Harvard University) is Abram S. Clemens professor of biblical studies at Eastern University in St. Davids, Pennsylvania. He has written numerous books, including The Bible Tells Me So, The Sin of Certainty, and How the Bible Actually Works. Tweets at @peteenns.

43 Comments

  • gingoro says:

    “I have no super spiritual takeaway from this” Me neither although I think we live in a relatively young universe of 14 billion years age. An old universe might be a google worth of years ie 10100 years. You were recently asking about what to write your next book about. My suggestion would be what spiritual takeaways you see in the Bible overall.

    • Derek says:

      That sure would be an interesting book from Pete’s perspective. In light of the transitory and minuscule nature of humanity in the grand scheme of things, I’d imagine the average evangelical would zealously admonish the church to engage in the proclamation of the gospel and go out there and win souls. They would praise God for revealing and reconciling himself to a species so unworthy; and make large of the fact that Christian’s are called to be ambassador’s for the Messiah via the message of reconciliation (2Cor. 5:18).

      I don’t know how Pete sees all that, but I would certainly look forward to a book which contains his “spiritual takeaways” from the Bible overall, as well.

  • gingoro says:

    “I have no super spiritual takeaway from this” Me neither although I think we live in a relatively young universe of 14 billion years age. An old universe might be a google worth of years ie 10**100 years. You were recently asking about what to write your next book about. My suggestion would be what spiritual takeaways you see in the Bible overall.

    • Derek says:

      That sure would be an interesting book from Pete’s perspective. In light of the transitory and minuscule nature of humanity in the grand scheme of things, I’d imagine the average evangelical would zealously admonish the church to engage in the proclamation of the gospel and go out there and win souls. They would praise God for revealing and reconciling himself to a species so unworthy; and make large of the fact that Christian’s are called to be ambassador’s for the Messiah via the message of reconciliation (2Cor. 5:18).

      I don’t know how Pete sees all that, but I would certainly look forward to a book which contains his “spiritual takeaways” from the Bible overall, as well.

  • Gary says:

    I cringe a bit when I see something titled such as “coming to peace with ‘science’.”

    Take Alpha Centauri, it appears as a single star and has seemed as such to the naked eye since forever. But, with a telescope, it’s not. It’s actually not a single star. Sometimes, there are a more things on a more detailed investigation.

    Sometimes, I think it’s a bit like this with religion’s gaze. It’s not just “science” that’s being grappled with but *reality* itself. And it’s not quite like the binary stars of Alpha Centauri either. It’s more like the difference between the stars and the telescope. If “science” is analogous to the telescope, separately there’s reality which is analogous to the stars proper.

    What modern Christianity seems to centrally be grappling with isn’t science, but reality.

    If it were to be grappling more so with science proper (which it hasn’t really since days of excommunication’s power and the like), then we’d be asking how in the realm of religion consensus can be created. Regardless of race, creed, color, religion, and more, the scientific method seems to offer a means to create agreements about what really is. In the fenced-off separate way-of-knowing through revelation, is there a parallel through which consensus can be created?

    Both reality and science need engaged, richly and distinctly. That is if the doctrine of the Incarnation is to be taken seriously or any sort of eschatological Christian hope.

    Huge numbers are but a start. Until, clergy really shouldn’t be talking about things they know little about. Forgive me, but I swear in my anecdotal experience they blatantly lie in the little things in the same breath as wanting to be believed in the big things.

    Can the universe be measured in number of lies from the pulpit?

    • Hill Roberts says:

      I like your point Gary about it is not just science being grappled with, but reality itself. When worldview is confronted by a different reality – a real reality – things usually go badly. Somewhat like driving a car at high speed into a rock wall. Bad day for the crash dummies, especially when they are real living breathing flesh.

      • Gary says:

        This is one of the big differences to me. “Science” seems to have a means to create consensus that “religion” does not.

        There’s an asymmetry.

        The only way I think I can come up with something of some sort of functional equivalency is to turn it all upside down in the realm of religion. Take the fast and make it slow. And take the evidence and make it a different kind of proofing. What if, in the arc of the universe, paradoxically cruciform living were to inevitably win in the end?

        Regardless of the strength of either mythological or historical anchoring, I tend to think whatever religion(s) ease and morph themselves into such a way of being will be here in the end.

        Personally, I like to think that the Jesus way is a great way to be along these lines, but I don’t see an observable pivot of human, earthly, or cosmic scales that seem to be necessitated by the grandness and exclusivity of the claims, at least as they’ve commonly been passed down to us.

        But maybe all of this is related to the incomprehensible smallness of not only my life, but of Jesus’ life too.

        The so much of Christianity seems to retrograde doesn’t bode well for its continuity IMO. We’ve had more than one Great Awakening. Maybe this century is the First Great Burning of the Tares.

        We’ll see.

        • Hill Roberts says:

          Consensus? In religion??? You clearly are in a parallel universe of symmetry breaking where hope for such is not utterly hopeless. It isn’t just that science can (eventually) build a consensus whereas religion does not do as well at consensus building. (Not that such is your claim — I’m agreeing even more strongly). Instead whereas science does eventually build consensus, religion eventually destroys whatever germ of consensus buds. Squashes it, steps on it, crushes it out. At least that seems to be the only conclusion possible when looking at the tree of evolution of religious groups. Forever, splitting one into two ad infinitum, until in the end only the individual is left distinct from all others. In religion, eventually, EVERYONE is an island.

          • Gary says:

            How people do that yet nominally profess things such as the doctrine of the Trinity, the doctrine of the Incarnation, or any sort of ecclesiology is beyond me. Never mind any sort of approach to the hypostatic union or theosis.

            Never mind reconciliation of Christianity with reality, at times it can be challenging reconciling Christianity with itself. Thankfully, I now go to church but a couple times a year. It really makes limited sense what the guy up is talking about.

          • Darrin Hunter says:

            Orthodoxy beautifully addressed many of those issues for me, with strength and clarity. But when I was challenged to step back a little further and just listen to Christians attempting to defend the existence of God in the first place, so much of what became clear to me about Christianity becomes so much more in doubt. The doctrinal disagreements among Christians become almost nonsensical if we haven’t even established non question begging reasons for not only God, but OUR God.
            The mystical foundation of ancient Christianity may be the only thing that can save it. But why is God so hidden, while the house is freely plundered?

          • Gary says:

            Aesthetically and spiritually, I can grok Eastern Orthodoxy much more readily than nearly all Western forms. But that said, while I few more at home with some of the ancient mystics, I still feel like an alien in conversation with any Christians with discussing matters of faith. My best answer to why the house is plundered is because it simply isn’t the hoped-for or proclaimed exclusive pivot of the universe’s arc.

        • charlesburchfield says:

          The great burning of the tares! I’ve had that thought myself lately!

      • charlesburchfield says:

        Yes! I’m thinking of Mengele. =(

  • Gary says:

    I cringe a bit when I see something titled such as “coming to peace with ‘science’.”

    Take Alpha Centauri, it appears as a single star and has seemed as such to the naked eye since forever. But, with a telescope, it’s not. It’s actually not a single star. Sometimes, there are more things on a more detailed investigation.

    Sometimes, I think it’s a bit like this with religion’s gaze. It’s not just “science” that’s being grappled with but *reality* itself. And it’s not quite like the binary stars of Alpha Centauri either. It’s more like the difference between the stars and the telescope. If “science” is analogous to the telescope, separately there’s reality which is analogous to the stars proper.

    What modern Christianity seems to centrally be grappling with isn’t science, but reality.

    If it were to be grappling more so with science proper (which it hasn’t really since days of excommunication’s power and the like), then we’d be asking how in the realm of religion consensus can be created. Regardless of race, creed, color, religion, and more, the scientific method seems to offer a means to create agreements about what really is. In the fenced-off separate way-of-knowing through revelation, is there a parallel through which consensus can be created?

    Both reality and science need engaged, richly and distinctly. That is if the doctrine of the Incarnation is to be taken seriously or any sort of eschatological Christian hope.

    Huge numbers are but a start. Until, clergy really shouldn’t be talking about things they know little about. Forgive me, but I swear in my anecdotal experience they blatantly lie in the little things in the same breath as wanting to be believed in the big things.

    Can the universe be measured in number of lies from the pulpit?

    • Hill Roberts says:

      I like your point Gary about it is not just science being grappled with, but reality itself. When worldview is confronted by a different reality – a real reality – things usually go badly. Somewhat like driving a car at high speed into a rock wall. Bad day for the crash dummies, especially when they are real living breathing flesh.

      • Gary says:

        This is one of the big differences to me. “Science” seems to have a means to create consensus that “religion” does not.

        There’s an asymmetry.

        The only way I think I can come up with something of some sort of functional equivalency is to turn it all upside down in the realm of religion. Take the fast and make it slow. And take the evidence and make it a different kind of proofing. What if, in the arc of the universe, paradoxically cruciform living were to inevitably win in the end?

        Regardless of the strength of either mythological or historical anchoring, I tend to think whatever religion(s) ease and morph themselves into such a way of being will be here in the end.

        Personally, I like to think that the Jesus way is a great way to be along these lines, but I don’t see an observable pivot of human, earthly, or cosmic scales that seem to be necessitated by the grandness and exclusivity of the claims, at least as they’ve commonly been passed down to us.

        But maybe all of this is related to the incomprehensible smallness of not only my life, but of Jesus’ life too.

        That so much of Christianity seems to retrograde doesn’t bode well for its continuity IMO. We’ve had more than one Great Awakening. Maybe this century is the First Great Burning of the Tares.

        We’ll see.

        • Hill Roberts says:

          Consensus? In religion??? You clearly are in a parallel universe of symmetry breaking where hope for such is not utterly hopeless. It isn’t just that science can (eventually) build a consensus whereas religion does not do as well at consensus building. (Not that such is your claim — I’m agreeing even more strongly). Instead whereas science does eventually build consensus, religion eventually destroys whatever germ of consensus buds. Squashes it, steps on it, crushes it out. At least that seems to be the only conclusion possible when looking at the tree of evolution of religious groups. Forever, splitting one into two ad infinitum, until in the end only the individual is left distinct from all others. In religion, eventually, EVERYONE is an island.

          • Gary says:

            How people do that yet nominally profess things such as the doctrine of the Trinity, the doctrine of the Incarnation, or any sort of ecclesiology is beyond me. Never mind any sort of approach to the hypostatic union or theosis.

            Never mind reconciliation of Christianity with reality, at times it can be challenging reconciling Christianity with itself. Thankfully, I now go to church but a couple times a year. It really makes limited sense what the guy up on the stage is talking about.

          • Skeptical Christian says:

            Orthodoxy beautifully addressed many of those issues for me, with strength and clarity. But when I was challenged to step back a little further and just listen to Christians attempting to defend the existence of God in the first place, so much of what became clear to me about Christianity becomes so much more in doubt. The doctrinal disagreements among Christians become almost nonsensical if we haven’t even established non question begging reasons for not only God, but OUR God.
            The mystical foundation of ancient Christianity may be the only thing that can save it. But why is God so hidden, while the house is freely plundered?

        • The great burning of the tares! I’ve had that thought myself lately!

      • Yes! I’m thinking of Mengele. =(

  • Hill Roberts says:

    We are just a little whiff of vapor or a bit of dust in the bigger picture of space and time. Yet here we are trying to get our heads around these kinds of cosmic-scale concepts. Pretty astonishing for such apparently trivial bits – in the bigger existential picture! Might even cause one to wonder.

  • Hill Roberts says:

    We are just a little whiff of vapor or a bit of dust in the bigger picture of space and time. Yet here we are trying to get our heads around these kinds of cosmic-scale concepts. Pretty astonishing for such apparently trivial bits – in the bigger existential picture! Might even cause one to wonder.

  • charlesburchfield says:

    We are Stardust
    we are golden
    we are billion year old carbon
    and we got to get ourselves back to the garden!
    ~Joni Mitchell

  • We are Stardust
    we are golden
    we are billion year old carbon
    and we got to get ourselves back to the garden!
    ~Joni Mitchell

  • Veritas says:

    What the great and unimaginable scale and age of the universe impresses upon me is the great arrogance man must have to consider himself capable of understanding and judging the place of God in this great creation, let alone his own place in it.

    As Job heard with his own ears “Who is this that obscures divine plans with words of ignorance?….will we have arguing with the Almighty by the critic?”

    • brmckay says:

      “…the great arrogance man must have to consider himself capable of understanding and judging the place of God in this great creation, let alone his own place in it.”

      And yet….the underlying infinitude of the entirety indicates a seamless integrity. We are not actually separate in our relative experience, ephemeral and isolated though it seems to be.

  • Veritas says:

    What the great and unimaginable scale and age of the universe impresses upon me is the great arrogance man must have to consider himself capable of understanding and judging the place of God in this great creation, let alone his own place in it.

    As Job heard with his own ears “Who is this that obscures divine plans with words of ignorance?….will we have arguing with the Almighty by the critic?”

    • brmckay says:

      “…the great arrogance man must have to consider himself capable of understanding and judging the place of God in this great creation, let alone his own place in it.”

      And yet….the underlying infinitude of the entirety indicates a seamless integrity. We are not actually separate in our relative experience, ephemeral and isolated though it seems to be.

  • brmckay says:

    The unavoidable largeness of numbers is the best reason to turn one’s attention to the eternity of Now.

    No matter how “time” and its consort “the speed of light” behaves. There has never been anything but this single dimensionless moment.

    Right under our noses.

    • charlesburchfield says:

      Yes that’s why it’s so important to love one another right now IMHO!

      We shall surely pass
      When the one that left us here
      Returns for us at last
      We are but a moments sunlight
      Fading in the grass
      C’mon people now,
      Smile on your brother
      Ev’rybody get together
      Try and love one another right now
      ~Get Together
      The youngbloods

  • brmckay says:

    The unavoidable largeness of numbers is the best reason to turn one’s attention to the eternity of Now.

    No matter how “time” and its consort “the speed of light” behaves. There has never been anything but this single dimensionless moment.

    Right under our noses.

    • Yes that’s why it’s so important to love one another right now IMHO!

      We shall surely pass
      When the one that left us here
      Returns for us at last
      We are but a moments sunlight
      Fading in the grass
      C’mon people now,
      Smile on your brother
      Ev’rybody get together
      Try and love one another right now
      ~Get Together
      The youngbloods

  • Jefferson W. Slinkard says:

    Maybe why, when I first walked up to a giant Sequoia, (General Sherman I think?) I thought to myself, self…if this here behemouth is 3500-4000 yrs old, what could it teach me about life? Well, self didn’t answer back, but that quiet giant did! (it doesn’t think of itself as a general with the name Sherman, that like, wrecked havoc on southern cities during the civil war kind of way) no, no name was mentioned in this silent comprehending conversation, actually no words at all were needed, just the quiet with the ever so soft sound of wind whispering through its majestic heavenly bound branches. Pondering all of it made me realize, it is okay to be just a blip in the scale of endlessness.

  • Jefferson W. Slinkard says:

    Maybe why, when I first walked up to a giant Sequoia, (General Sherman I think?) I thought to myself, self…if this here behemouth is 3500-4000 yrs old, what could it teach me about life? Well, self didn’t answer back, but that quiet giant did! (it doesn’t think of itself as a general with the name Sherman, that like, wrecked havoc on southern cities during the civil war kind of way) no, no name was mentioned in this silent comprehending conversation, actually no words at all were needed, just the quiet with the ever so soft sound of wind whispering through its majestic heavenly bound branches. Pondering all of it made me realize, it is okay to be just a blip in the scale of endlessness.

  • Sheila Warner says:

    This is very cool. I’m 61 now, so my time span might be a few thousands of a second longer than yours! It helps put things into perspective, right? Make good of the time you have so you can pass good ideas onto the next generation. We, after all, stand on the shoulders of giants when we even have the capacity to do such ratios. Well done!

  • Sheila Warner says:

    This is very cool. I’m 61 now, so my time span might be a few thousands of a second longer than yours! It helps put things into perspective, right? Make good of the time you have so you can pass good ideas onto the next generation. We, after all, stand on the shoulders of giants when we even have the capacity to do such ratios. Well done!

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