The Great Cosmic Light Show
“The heavens declare the glory of God; the sky proclaims its builder’s craft.” – Psalm 19:2 (NAB)
One night around twenty-two hundred years ago, somewhere near Alexandria, Egypt, the writer of the book of Wisdom lay back on his lawn, his head cushioned on his arms, and stared awestruck at the starry heavens. We have probably all done this at one time or another. Like him, we share in his wonderment as we behold the cosmic light show, we recognize our littleness in the presence of such a gigantic universe. Also like him, we try to imagine the One who created such an immeasurable and beautiful marvel.
The next morning when our Wisdom author got to his desk, he looked for just the right metaphor to express the greatness of the Creator. He thought that to God the universe might seem like a grain of wheat that falls from a farmer’s scale. Or like a dew drop our writer saw that morning on a lotus flower in his pond. So, he took up his pen and wrote: “Indeed, before you the whole universe is as a grain from a balance, or a drop of morning dew come down upon the earth” (Wisdom 11:22; NAB). By reducing the vast world to the tiniest images he magnified the unimaginable power of God.
The writer conceived the universe as the Book of Genesis described it. A dome or “firmament,” like an inverted bowl, covered the land and the seas of the earth. The sun, moon, and stars were attached to the firmament as “lights in the dome of the sky” (Genesis 1:14) This universe appeared enormous to him, but he had no idea how big it really is.
We know now that the earth is a planet that orbits around the sun. And that our sun is a star—one of a billion stars in a galaxy called the Milky Way. We also know that the Milky Way is one of fifty to one hundred billion galaxies, each of which has its billions of stars. Scientists estimate that, all told, the universe has about three hundred billion trillion stars. Written in figures, that’s 300,000,000,000,000,000,000,000,000—a number so huge that our minds cannot begin to grasp it. I would love to have witnessed the astonishment of the Wisdom author when he got to heaven and someone reported these facts to him.
And there are more realities that would have boggled our author’s mind. (They boggle mine.) The galaxies and their stars are spread over an unimaginable expanse of space. The distances among them are so great that for convenience’s sake, astronomers measure them in terms of light-years rather than miles. Light travels at 186,282 miles per second or about six trillion miles in a whole year.
According to this standard of measurement, Proxima Centauri, the star nearest our solar system is 4.2 light-years or more than 25 trillion miles away from the earth. Andromeda, the closest galaxy to the Milky Way, is 2.5 million light years from us. And the most distant galaxies so far discovered by astronomers are an astounding 14 billion light-years from the earth. If you want to express that distance in miles, you do the math. Upon hearing this news, our Wisdom author would have prostrated himself before God’s throne. When I think about it, I want to fall on my face and join him.
The author of Wisdom may have had an inkling about the beginnings of the universe. “Not without means,” he wrote, “was your almighty hand, that fashioned the universe from formless matter” (Wisdom 11:17; NAB). Scientists tell us that about 13.7 billion years ago, the universe began to expand from a pinpoint of compressed potential. It was a speck (of “formless matter”?) billions of times smaller and denser than a single atom, whose energy was equivalent to all the energy and matter of the cosmos today. The speck exploded in a “Big Bang,” from which unfolded the immense and ever-expanding universe.
The Big Bang sent the cosmos crashing outward at an inconceivable speed. Yet the timing of the creative outburst was exactingly controlled. If the Big Bang had been slightly less violent and the initial expansion had been even a tad slower, the universe would have collapsed back on itself, the first matter and energy receding into the primordial speck. If the Big Bang had been slightly more violent and the expansion had been a tad faster, the initial elements would have exploded out too rapidly to have allowed the formation of stars. We are talking here about tiny fractions of seconds. And as George F. Will once observed, “the odds against us were—this is just the right word—astronomical.” But it seems to me that Someone knew exactly what had to be done and exactly what he was doing.Now we come to the most astounding truth about the origin of the heavens. Science cannot tell us where the speck was before the Big Bang. It was not hanging in the vast void we call space. The universe created space as it expanded. Before the initial explosion there was no space, no boundless abyss, no darkness, no place for the speck to be. There was no where. And so all the great expanse of the starry heavens came to be from nothing. I suspect that thought gave our Wisdom author goose bumps, as it does me. It is that fact more than the enormity of the universe itself—the fact that God created it all from nothing—that proclaims unequivocally his greatness.