In 1995, NASA did something that seemed extremely stupid: they pointed the billion dollar Hubble Space Telescope at an empty patch of sky for 100 hours. This wasn’t just a potential waste of time and resources, though. It risked exposing the Hubble program, which had recently recovered from a PR nightmare (launching with a flaw in its primary mirror), to even more embarrassment.
But when the results came back, they were far from embarrassing. That seemingly empty spot was teeming with over 3,000 galaxies, some as old as 12 billion years — a result that, among other things, forced astronomers at the time to dramatically recalculate the total number of galaxies in the universe.
Since that original “Hubble Deep Field” image, several more “deep field” images have been taken, with similarly mind-blowing results. 2004’s “Ultra Deep Field” image, for instance, contains approximately 10,000 galaxies. Not stars, mind you, but galaxies, each one containing hundreds of billions of stars. (As a point of reference, our own Milky Way galaxy may contain as many as 400 billion stars.) And all of that in a relatively empty sliver of space that accounts for just 1/13,000,000th of the entire sky.
It makes one wonder what else might be hiding in the remaining 12,999,999/13,000,000ths — and it brings to mind the words of the Psalmist:
When I look at Your heavens, the work of Your fingers, the moon and the stars, which You have set in place, what is man that You are mindful of him, and the son of man that You care for him?
It also raises an interesting question: Why should there be so much out there? It all seems so… well… extravagant.
I was recently listening to a fascinating episode of the You Have Permission podcast on the topic of intelligent extraterrestrial life, and whether or not that presents any challenges to the Christian faith. (Spoiler alert: It doesn’t.)
One of the episode’s guests was David Wilkinson, a theoretical astrophysicist and Methodist minister, and while discussing the ever-increasing number of (possibly life-supporting) exoplanets, he made some lovely remarks concerning the incalculable nature of God’s creation and creativity:
There’s something about the universe which I’m continually impacted by, which is the basic question: Why couldn’t have God just created one sun and one planet? He could’ve developed relationships with the human race just by that.
But one of the things that strikes me, particularly about the Genesis account, is the extravagance of God… And the great understatement of the Bible, one of my favorites, which is God made the two great lights, the greater light to rule the day and the lesser light to rule the night, and then the writer pauses and says, “Oh, and by the way, He made the stars also.” This God is so great that He created a hundred billion stars in a hundred billion galaxies, and we’ll acknowledge that, we’ll not major on it, because He’s God.
Now, I think therefore, for a scientist and a Christian like myself, there’s an excitement with discovering the diversity within creation. Kepler… once said that science was thinking God’s thoughts after Him. Now one of the things that exoplanets do is to simply expand one’s vision of God and the kind of diversity that God rejoices in, just like a great artist.
So God is the great mathematical creator, in the sense that the laws of physics are beautiful, elegant, and very simple. But God is also the great artist, the one who composes through the mathematics these different worlds and it’s a voyage of discovery.
In these remarks, which begin at the 13:00 mark, Wilkinson is talking specifically of God’s extravagance with regards to the 4,000+ exoplanets that have been discovered since the early ‘90s. However, his comments apply just as well to Hubble’s “deep field” images and the thousands of galaxies that they’ve unveiled.
God’s aseity — His independent, self-originating, self-derived, and self-sufficient existence — as well as the community that exists within the Holy Trinity means that God has never lacked anything, and therefore, has never needed to create anything. To suggest that God needed something outside of Himself in order to become more complete or fulfilled is to basically suggest that He’s dependent on something other than Himself for some aspect of His existence, purpose, identity, and fulfillment.
In other words, all theology-speak aside, suggesting that God had to create anything is to suggest that God is not, in fact, God.
And yet, He did choose to create, and not just the bare minimum (i.e., a single sun and planet, or, for that matter, a single atom). Instead, he chose to create, well, what you see above: thousands upon thousands of galaxies containing billions upon billions of stars. He chose to create extravagantly — and indeed, well beyond extravagantly — and quite possibly for no other reason than because that was His free desire.
But this sense of extravagance is not just limited to the creation — be it the diversity in the sky or the diversity we see among life here on Earth — though that may be the most visible example. Throughout Holy Scripture, we see God’s extravagance in how He relates to humanity, whether He’s showering blessings on the exiled and afflicted, caring (and mandating care) for those who’ve been left ignored and abandoned on society’s margins, or — most poignantly and powerfully — sending Jesus Christ to be a sacrifice for the sins of humanity, and then pouring out forgiveness and redemption (e.g., Psalm 103).
Even those who reject God still benefit from this extravagance, in the form of common grace (e.g., Matthew 5:43 – 48) as well as the ability to enjoy and find inspiration in the glory and majesty of His creation — like that which is so readily apparent in Hubble’s “Deep Field” images.
Every artist puts something of himself into his art, some aspect of his personality, perspective, and experience. By considering the art, it’s therefore possible to get some sense of who the artist is as a person: what they value, love, and treasure. That’s as true of the Supreme Artist as any mortal one; as David wrote in Psalm 19, “the heavens declare the glory of God, and the sky above proclaims His handiwork.”
When I look at Hubble’s “Deep Field” images, I’m obviously left in awe, and with a sense of smallness and humility — which is quite appropriate, I think. It’s good to be reminded of one’s place in the cosmos à la David’s words in Psalm 8. But I’m never left with a sense of nihilism, that I don’t matter in the grand scheme of things.
Instead, I have faith, based on what I read in the Bible, that the One who created, with extravagance, the galaxies and their billions of stars can and will relate to us lowly humans, which are also a treasured part of His creation, with a similar extravagance.