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Smart people tell us that the universe is about 13.8 billion years old and the edge of the observable universe is about 46.5 billion light-years in any direction from the earth.

Light travels about 5.87 trillion miles a year. When I multiply 5.87 trillion by 46.5 billion (to get the total number of miles from earth to the edge of the observable universe), my calculator spits out 2.70231100992E23.

When calculators use letters, it’s never a good sign.

According to my extensive 10 second Google search, “E23” means that the numbers to the left are to be multiplied by 10 to the 23rd power. And now we know what God laughing at us looks like. I’ll never complain again about driving “all the way” out to Pittsburgh.

It also seems that the universe is expanding at an increasing rate. And if that weren’t enough, now we are told there may be more than one of them.

Add to this the fact that there are billions upon billions of galaxies in our universe, each containing billions upon billions of stars. We cannot remotely comprehend these numbers. I also hear from reliable sources that stars within galaxies are millions, billions, trillions (what does it matter, really?) of light-years away from each other, and similar distances exist between the galaxies themselves.

And at the other end of the spectrum, we have subatomic particles—as if atoms weren’t small enough—and string theory.

If there is a God….a higher power, a supreme being, who is behind all this, I feel we should just stop talking for a minute and…well…just stop talking for a minute.

What kind of God is this, who is capable of these sorts of things? What claim can we have to speak for this Power, to think the Creator’s thoughts are our thoughts?

Who do we think we are, anyway?

Here’s another thing that unsettles me into silence. According to the Christian faith, this God who does literally incomprehensible things is also willing to line up next to us, to know us, even love us (as the Bible says again and again).

If there really is a God like this—a God who understands and controls things so big my calculator has to use a letter to get it across, who is also a God who walked among a tiny tribe of ancient people called Israelites, who allowed them to write about him in their tiny ancient ways, and who subjected himself to suffering and death (what we work so hard to avoid), well…

I think we’re talking mystery here, people.

A God who does both. There are no words for this sort of thing. Yeah, King David in the Psalms talked about praising God because of the wonders of the heavens (Psalm 19) and wondered out loud how a God who put the moon and stars in their place could be bothered by puny people (Psalm 8).

But David had a limited, quaint, view of “up there.” He did not, and could not, think of “heavens” as we now have to, what with our telescopes and such.

One God responsible for the unfathomably large and small, who is also near us. If there is such a God…

To take this all in, as far as I am concerned, is above our mortal pay grade. Those of us who believe this kind of God exists should feel put in our place, pretty much walking around with that “I can’t believe what I just saw” look in our eye.

The Bible calls this humility and awe, which, as hard as it is to pull off, is at least something we can understand.

[I visit this and similar themes 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.

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  • Wayfaring Michael says:

    And if anyone is still feeling cocky, according to that other good book, the Hitchhiker’s Guide to the Galaxy, we live in the “uncharted backwaters of the unfashionable end of the western spiral arm of the Galaxy.” I suppose there are some who believe that THOSE beings who inhabit the eastern spiral arm are actually lower down the scale than we are. But hey, the text is very clear, and seems pretty unambiguous to me. And that’s the end of that, right?

    • William Carr says:

      I knew a Rock Star who lived in the Eastern Spiral Arm.

      He made so much money, and his taxes got so screwed up, he had to spend a year dead for tax purposes.

      He’s fine now though.

  • Mitchell Robinson says:

    Great post.

  • Gary says:

    “Smart people” across race, creed, color, religion, etc. seem to tells us some of these things and the seem to be consistent. They seem to have found a way to build consensus.

    “According to the Christian faith,” in contrast, seems to be a plea of one of one. “According to the [___] faith(s),” lots of different things.

    Yes we’re talking about mystery. But we’re also talking about integrity. And we need to talk about how we build consensus among ourselves and with others. (Even bridges of understanding would be a start.)

    Maybe we ought to keep the mortal pay grade without the claims but with the kindness. Whether or not God is “also near,” others are.

    Others are very near us in this quite large cosmos.

    • charlesburchfield says:

      Your post made me think of this song:

      No I would not give you false hope
      On this strange and mournful day
      But the mother and child reunion
      Is only a motion away, oh, little darling of mine

      I can’t for the life of me
      Remember a sadder day
      I know they say let it be
      But it just don’t work out that way
      And the course of a lifetime runs
      Over and over again
      I would not give you false hope
      On this strange and mournful day
      But the mother and child reunion
      Is only a motion away, oh, little darling of mine

      I just can’t believe it’s so
      Though it seems strange to say
      I never been laid so low
      In such a mysterious way
      And the course of a lifetime runs
      Over and over again

      But I would not give you false hope
      On this strange and mournful day
      When the mother and child reunion
      Is only a motion away
      Paul Simon – Mother And Child Reunion

  • Hill Roberts says:

    Can’t help myself. Couple of corrections.

    Stars within a galaxy are less than a million ly away, since a galaxy like ours is from 0.1-0.2 million ly in diameter. So obviously many stars are much closer to us than that. For example, the nearest star to our Sun is Alpha Centauri which is a little under 3 ly from earth. (AC is actually three stars orbiting each other so close together they appear as one to casual observation.)

    Galaxies ARE way out there! (As if a few hundred thousand ly for the stars isn’t!) The nearest galaxy to our Milky Way (A bit presumptuous to call is “ours” isn’t it?) is Andromeda, which is about 2.5 million ly from the Milky Way. Yet, Andromeda and the Milky Way are still close enough to be in gravitational attraction in the “local group.” Clearly, “local” is a bit of a relative term in astronomy. But it does make your point. On cosmic scale a few million ly is “close”. So, there’s some wow mystery factor.

    Fun post. Thanks.

  • Tim says:

    I like the phrasing of this – “If there is such a God as this.” As it naturally leads to the question, “is there such a God as this?” Rather than assuming, “there is such a God as this.” So we have a good question. It would be good to see if people are honestly interested in seeking an answer for it.

    • Gary says:

      Yet, I’m at a point where I’m OK too with people not asking these questions. I mean, there’s plenty to engage people about from football to social justice to about anything (maybe even astronomy or cosmology!) without them pondering God questions.

      What I’m personally more limited by is persons who seem to never have really asked such questions but yet have answers for them. These people, especially the ones where it is a favorite topic, I now find less conversationally engaging. And it seems it’s not just this topic either. For whatever reasons, there seems to be an association; I’d simply rather not discuss politics and various other topics with these folks.

      Sadly, it’s a lot of my religious kin.

    • Hill Roberts says:

      I agree Tim. Putting these things in the form of a question is much more inviting to inquiry than shoving an answer out to meet theological expectations. It is Pete’s whole “sin of certainty” perspective in a nutshell. Can’t we learn to live with uncertainty rather than insisting everyone must come to share the same certainty I avow (but in my more honest moments will admit to my own uncertainties, doubts and questions). I think it is the seeking more than the finding that moves me closer to reality, God and peace. The freedom to seek than the constraint of dogma is where I find theological peace.

      • Tim says:

        Thank you Hill. I don’t know though that I’ve actually seen Pete take on this question. He seems comfortable with uncertainty, but also so comfortable as to remain there indefinitely. Such that any answer to this question remains ever out of reach…or so the thinking seems to go. Nonetheless the answer seems to be assumed as affirmative in perpetuity. Or that one is to “trust” it is as such. A distinction really without a difference. Hence my wish expressed at the end of my comment. That it would be good to see someone honestly attempt to in fact seek an answer to it.

        • Pete E. says:

          Tim, we’ve gone over this bridge several times before. Do you not get tired? I do want to say, though, that your awaiting an “honest” suggests that some of us have been “dishonest.” What you do not seem willing to accept is the possibility that the way forward may be learning to ask a different set of questions entirely and learning to be patient and wise in not seeking certain kinds of answers too quickly. And with that, I think we will bring this discussion to a close.

          • Tim says:

            Pete, I am happy to close off discussion if that’s what you want. But I hope common courtesy still prevails and you permit anyone to whom you levy a critique the opportunity to respond to it.

            To your point, I do not in any way object to you asking a different set of questions. But it was your post above which consequentially elevated this specific question. It made clear that the answer to it would effect the answers to the others you pose subsequently. In fact, from everything I understand of the Sin of Certainty, most of your other questions or answers would be dramatically effected by this one question if it came out differently than you would trust/assume. So perhaps my suggestion that it ought be worth looking into in addition to all those other questions you find worth pursuing isn’t so outlandish as to be considered.

            To your point on my recommending haste…I really don’t. But I have seen this rebuttal elsewhere in Christian apologetics. Young Earth Creationists attempt to appear measured and reasonable by saying they shouldn’t be too hasty in accepting the results of science on the age of the earth. Because they trust that when all the facts are in, their view will be vindicated. Inerrantists claim much the same on the issues of resolutions to “supposed” errors. Then the question becomes, well how long is long enough to avoid being “too hasty?” And the answer invariably is your entire life. While on this earth if you change your mind, by definition you’re being too hasty. So in the apologetic sense, yes, the most intellectually honest thing one can do is be “too hasty.” Otherwise you’re just running away from questions or issues that are too threatening to consider.

      • Daniel Fisher says:

        interesting…. but unless i am missing something, one must be to some degree “certain” that God has not in fact not revealed himself in some perspicuous way in order to see living with uncertainty (in the sense you describe) as a virtue. And i think it safe to say that this particular certainty – certainty that God didnt reveal himself in any such clear manner as has been traditionally understood – is as much a dogma as any other.

        If, for example, God had revealed himself in the clear and dramatic manner that he is described as doing for Moses in the bush, then Moses would have been demonstrating neither virtue nor humility by maintaining uncertainty in the face of things God had audibly and verbally just told him, no?

        when you speak of the “freedom to seek” – i wonder if you could clarify…. do you mean freedom to seek absolute truths about God that can be objectively and actually acertained? or does this seeking seek to understand a God who is, at core, genuinely unknowable by us humans? or something else?

      • charlesburchfield says:

        Finding I have some peace and love folded in my day keeps me tuned in. I have anxiety most of the time.

  • Derek says:

    We sure have come a long way from the three-tiered cosmos. I think the ancient’s would agree that the modern perspective of our cosmos only serves to accentuate God’s attributes. Although, I’m sure some of them would find the details troubling and a source of doubt, as well.

    Thanks for the great post, Pete!

  • charlesburchfield says:

    I like these quotes about mystery from one of my all time favorite authors:

    I’ve never seen anybody really find the answer, but they think they have. So they stop thinking. But the job is to seek mystery, evoke mystery, plant agarden in which strange plants growand mysteries bloom. The need for mystery is greater than the need for an answer.

    I’m for mystery, not interpretive answers. … The answer is never the answer. What’s really interesting is the mystery. If you seek the mystery instead of the answer, you’ll always be seeking.~ Ken Kesey

  • Sheila Warner says:

    I got my belief in the Christian God from my parents. It was based on believing certain passages in the Bible. I have come to see that the immensity of the known universe so blows the mind, that such a God just “has” to explain it all. But if such a God is a mystery, what real answers can be provided? It’s an argument from incredulity that is provided for most of the gods that are believed in. That incredulity is all over the Bible. I cannot accept the Bible anymore. It offers wonderful insights into how people struggled then, as now. But I do not believe in its God any longer.

  • Hill Roberts says:

    I’m “certain” about very little. And being uncertain about uncertainties is not certainty, it is just even more uncertainty. I think that makes some folks uncomfortable, but I’m not certain about that.

    • Daniel Fisher says:

      Nice thoughts. But I would suggest that if you are as uncertain as you describe here, you’d really have no justification for preferring Pete’s brand of uncertainty to, say, a John Piper sort of certainty…. You’d have to say you’re uncertain which is the better position, no?

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