Why is the Universe Unfathomably Large? (RJS)

Why is the Universe Unfathomably Large? (RJS) September 6, 2012
Several hundred never before seen galaxies are visible in this “deepest-ever” view of the universe, called the Hubble Deep Field (HDF), made with NASA’s Hubble Space Telescope.

I wrote a post a while back Why would God use 4.6 Billion years? This post arose in response to a reflection of Ben Witherington’s with respect to the creation of the earth and received quite a bit of comment.

With the new feature found at the bottom of each post – You May Also Like – old posts are brought back to attention. A frequent reader saw the post and sent along by e-mail some thoughts it raised for him. I think they are worth considering here.

Why would God create a universe that is incredibly large?

Even if there is life on other planets (leaving aside the many theological questions and answers), a number of corollary challenges arise – why didn’t God create all life in one place? And if life were only found here on earth why not just the solar system? Or just a nice set of drawings in the sky outside the solar system? 😉

To me the incredible size (which is unnecessary, given infinite creational power – equally unnecessary to Witherington’s time question) raises the same question. And, if Witherington is questioning the age of the universe – then it seems to me he needs to equally question its size (though I think the evidence for both the size and age are tied together; most who superficially may question the age, do not question the size in the same way).

As far as we can tell, the universe is both infinite and expanding. There are billions and billions of stars … which is an underestimate. There are 100 billion to 400 billion or so stars in the Milky Way (I find different estimates in different sources). And our Milky Way is only one galaxy of many. In fact there appears to be something like 200 billion galaxies in the observable universe, each with its own set of stars. The picture above is a deep space image of galaxies, not of stars. We are now identifying planets around some of the stars in our galaxy. Whether there is life on other planets, in this galaxy or beyond, is something we will probably never know. The closest star is 4 light-years away, our galaxy itself some 100,000 light-years across. The size and complexity of the universe is unfathomable.

Is the age of the universe a conundrum, God’s use of 4.6 billion years a problem, but the size of the universe merely a wonder?

The writer continues:

My answer to both is that both help us see something about God (and of course the Scriptures themselves indicate that humanity should look to creation – which would include hints of age as well as other features – to see aspects of God; e.g., Rom. 1:18-21, 2:14-15; Ps. 19; etc.). What they help us see is His unimaginable power and greatness as well as the depth of His eternal nature.

God created a universe that seems infinitely large to us – which indicates His infinite power. So, too, this universe is not only huge in size beyond our ability to comprehend, its time is also beyond our comprehension (“he has set eternity in their heart”). The universe simultaneously demonstrates God’s eternal nature and His infinite power.

And, the unimaginable size and duration of the universe leads us to – perhaps this is the more important point – an unimaginable depth and beauty to the sacrifice of Jesus (the creator – Col. 1:15-20; John 1) – especially His voluntary humility and humiliation described in Phil. 2:6-8.

God bless,

Jeff Y

What do you think?

What does the scope and wonder of the universe teach us about God?

If you wish to you may contact me directly at rjs4mail[at]att.net.

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If you are interested, the rest of the caption from NASA to the image above: HUBBLE Deep Field Caption.

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  • phil_style

    A great question.
    The “age” thing partly get’s to people because I suspect they think it can be challenged. If there are theological/ scriptural reasons for challenging the age of the universe, then there is cause and effort to do so.

    The “size” of the universe cannot be challenged. Though. It’s observable now. And the letter writer is correct in asking why those who challenge the age of the universe also do not challenge it’s size. The bible seems to assume often enough for it to be a theme, that the “world” is all there is – and this world is often described in terms that are broadly consistent with our Geosphere. The bible writers are largely ignorant of this vast, vast, incomprehensibly vast amount of stuff, worlds, materials and dynamics going on out there in the universe.

    I’ve had to embrace the idea there it is highly unlikely that there is not more life out there, and in fact the idea that there is not some very intelligent life out there. Perhaps more intelligent/ advanced than ourselves. I don’t think there will ever be contact with this life, given the vast distances required to travel.. but it’s probably out there.

    This DOES propose theological difficulties, especially to those formations that think:
    1. That the death/ resurrection of Christ on earth was atonement for ALL of creation (i.e. the entire universe);
    2. That God created the universe with humanity as some kind of central function/ intent
    3. That the heavenly host who “fell” did so in response to the particular attributes of humanity and our world (i/.e. Satan’s jealously of man/ the earth)
    4. That the incarnation was a universal/historical specific to this earth and to humanity.

    We can get our head around a God who is greater than the earth, but can we get our heads around a Jesus who has a mission beyond his incarnation/ resurrection in human history? Can we get our heads around an incarnation/resurrection that reaches only as far as the human sphere of influence?

  • DRT

    Astronomy Picture of the Day (APOD) recently posted a wonderful movie of a simulated flight through the universe with the data used being from the Sloan Digital Sky Survey. It is a must watch since it gives a perspective of the shear magnitude of what is out there. Like the picture you posted in the article, every light in the movie is a galaxy composed of billions of stars, like our Milky way. I gives me the shivers to watch it.


    Explanation: What would it be like to fly through the universe? Possibly the best simulated video of this yet has been composed from recently-released galaxy data from the Sloan Digital Sky Survey. Every spot in the above video is a galaxy containing billions of stars. Many galaxies are part of huge clusters, long filaments, or small groups, while expansive voids nearly absent of galaxies also exist. The movie starts by flying right through a large nearby cluster of galaxies and later circles the SDSS-captured universe at about 2 billion light years (a redshift of about 0.15) from Earth. Analyses of galaxy positions and movements continues to bolster the case that our universe contains not only the bright matter seen, like galaxies, but also a significant amount of unseen dark matter and dark energy.

  • CGC

    Hi Everyone,
    No matter how old or large the universe is, most people seem stuck or unable to really trust God with their problems or think their seemingly giant problem is bigger than God.

  • Brian Metzer

    Psalm 8 and Heb 2. God has dignified man crowning him with glory and honor. Man is something, not nothing – there’s a very humble glory when we get this, that our glory is only rightly understood in and lived out in right relationship with the Creator. Jesus is Archetype, Man par excellence. The unfathomableness of the creation gives us a picture of the worth of Jesus for whom and by whom it all exists.

  • phil_style

    @CGC, your point is true I think.
    Do you, like me, however, think that is out theological formulations, often well grounded in a fair reading of scripture (for example) that leave no room for additional cosmological-scale information?

    Surely if the universe is very big, and very old, and God exist then there CAN be no issue. But if a certain type of God exists (the one we describe with our theology) and this necessitates a certain cosmology (say a human centered one) are we not left with a real problem?

  • The issue of the earth being billions of years old doesn’t challenge my understanding of the biblical narrative in the way the expansiveness of the universe does. What is the new creation? I hold to the view that our present reality is in some way radically transformed. There is no a destruction of the material universe in favor of a new one, or replacement with a spiritual existence. But what is the nature of new creation. Has it to do only with earth? Our solar system? Is God really going to rework or transform the entire expanse of the universe? This doesn’t challenge my faith in God or what God has promised but it sure messes with my ability to think eschatolotically. I put in the category of deep mystery.

  • Scott

    I think this makes me feel very small, even to the point of overwhelmed if I really dwell upon it. It also causes me wonder and awe at the creation and even more so at the God who created it. Perhaps this was his intent?

  • AJG

    I mentioned Nick Lane’s book on mitochondria here a couple of days ago and his belief that the odds of eukaryotic life evolving were so enormous that he thinks it probably hasn’t ever happened anywhere else in the universe, even as vast as it is. Perhaps God created a universe enormous enough to allow a single, unlikely event to occur on a speck of dust in infinity. Who knows? I no longer worry about whether I believe in God enough to merit salvation; I merely have a hope that God exists and cares for us. Maybe it’s a false hope, but it’s a choice I’ve made for myself.

  • Joe Canner

    Phil #1: Regarding your question about atonement for ALL creation, I can easily imagine that God might have totally separate, parallel relationships with creatures on other planets that would meet their unique atonement needs. I do not worry too much that this might contradict Scriptures that talk about Jesus atoning for all creation, for the same reason that I don’t worry about science contradicting Scripture: it is not meant to be an exhaustive, scientific description of the details of all creation. The ancients would not have assumed or contemplated life on other planets, so that consideration would never have entered into their theology.

  • Rodney Reeves

    The question of size works both ways: not only how big is creation, but also how small? We can’t see the end of things nor the bottom of things. I find it fascinating that the “bigness” factor inspires us to think of a big God. But what of the infinitesimally small?

  • Ava

    I’ve been wondering the same thing as Rodney as I’ve followed this post. How small does infinity get–or is that even a correct question? Can some “thing” like a particle become so infinitesimally small that it becomes no-thing or must it always be some-thing, no matter how “small’? Where would the answers to those questions put us theologically?

  • Marshall

    Given infinite creational power, incredible size is not an issue, just a feature.

    The universe we apprehend is indeed extremely large, but not infinite… that is it has a fixed, expanding extent spatially. And these days we understand that expansion will eventually destroy any meaningful structure. That is, from the Big Bang to the Big Rip the universe has an “extremely large” but not infinite extent in time.

    That would seem to be a problem for some views of Eternity; not that the universe is so big but that it is too small.

  • RJS


    The universe is infinite and expanding. It isn’t expanding “into” anything. The universe also has no “center” because it is infinite. (according to the current well supported cosmological model – subject to potential revision if the data demands)

  • Stephen W

    RJS – Sciencey question,

    I was watching Horizon here in the UK a couple of weeks ago which was about mapping the universe. Was pretty mind blowing actually (they followed up a week later with a programme on the smallness of the universe, which was equally mind-blowing).

    But something that they talked about they never explained – the universe is 14.7 billion-ish years old, yet the observable universe is 93 billion-sh light-years across and (mathematically at least) potentially infinite. If the big bang started from a singularity, how come the universe is that big in that amount of time?

  • CGC

    Hi Phil,
    You go from the universe is vast which probably means there is intelligent life out there somewhere even though the universe is so big we will probably never meet. Then the conclusion is Christians or the Bible need to reformulate Christ’s death for humanity (since their might be aliens out there?) and we should question the human centered cosmology? All of this from the univese is so large, there must be other intellible beings out there that possibly need Christ as well? Is that the argument?

    Michael K, good thoughts as always . . .

    AJG, how does Jesus fit in there or does he?

    RJS, what is the universe expanding into? It can not be empty space and time as we think of since that is what is expanding is it not? It just seems this may have some serious implications for theology but I could be wrong . . .

  • Joe Canner

    RJS #13, I’m not sure I follow you (probably my fault). Just because the university isn’t expanding “into” something, how does that make it infinite? If it started from a singularity and is expanding at a finite rate for a finite time, doesn’t that make it a finite size (even if we can’t observe its limits)? Perhaps we are using two different definitions of infinity?

  • phil_style

    Hi CGC, I don’t have an argument… I’m just saying that there are some theological formulations (some “grounded” in scripture) that rely quite heavily on a cosmology that has less room for other intelligent species and a vast universe filled with (potentially millions other worlds)… I don’t necessarily hold to these formulations myself, but a quick browse around and I’m sure we will find plenty of folks who do.

    I guess I’m agreeing with you that people can’t easily switch over to a theology that embraces this vast universe with all it’s potential and possibility for life…… I’m just trying to take your thinking the next step: What specifically is it that results in people being stuck or unable to really trust God with their problems or think their seemingly giant problem is bigger than God with regard to this issue? Is is just emotion? Or are there christian doctrines/ theologies that do create a real restriction?

    We can easily advance that god is infinitely creative. So at that level of theology, massive universe = no problem.
    But theologies of Christ become more strained when we think about, say, salvific plans on a multi-world scale. Are they unique or replicable? Are they necessary in other worlds?

  • Andy W.

    This is a really cool way to see the scale of the known universe. very cool!!


  • CGC

    Hi Phil,
    Maybe it’s more like God loves everybody but he doesn’t love me. My problem and my self is often the issue (despite one’s faith in God or living a supposed God-centered life). ‘Me’ often is still the problem. Since the Bible is written by humans for humans, I am not sure what you really are after in a cosmology? There is the hint of different kinds of angels and existence out there beyond earth and humanity. I’m not so sure what more Scripture should or could give?

    On a different note, some people it seems have a major problem of why are dinosaurs are not in the Bible. Despite some creationists who want to interpret them into the biblical text, let’s say dinosaurs are not in the Bible. What does dinosaurs have to do with redemptive history? What do dinosaurs or any other kind of animal species going extinct have to do with the telos of creation? And Joe Canner’s explantion on life in other worlds is similar to my own take on all this (if there is other alien life out there, I am a skeptic even though you are right, I suspect more people believe there is than there may not be). I do love science fiction movies with aliens 🙂

    And Joe (I read RJS post really quickly and I did not even noticed what you picked up on), I’m like you, how can the universe be infinite if it is expanding? Unless one wants to say that the universe isn’t expanding into anything (either nothing or the the universe is really not expanding?). How do you know RJS that the universe isn’t expanding into “anything?”

    Einstein said the universe was “limited but unbounded.” Maybe you are speaking about a both/and here where an apparent either/or is perceived by Joe and I? And maybe I am wrong about this but I always thought what we usually call “nothing” (the vast empty space out there) is what is part of what is expanding? It seems like the universe has a transcendent realm so I don’t know how it can be referred to as not “anything?” What am I missing?

  • BradK

    “As far as we can tell, the universe is both infinite and expanding.”

    RJS, isn’t whether the universe is infinite an open question? The visible universe is finite and bounded, right? If the inflationary model is correct we can’t see some regions so can’t know if it is infinite. Actually, I’m not sure how we could tell if the universe is infinite.

    Fwiw, neither the incredible age or size of the universe are a problem for me theologically. I’m not sure I’d draw the same conclusion as Jeff Y regarding what they say about Jesus though. Maybe this is due to a different understanding of the incarnation. Not that any of us actually understand the incarnation.

  • Derek

    The first time I thought about the size of the universe, other than the awe of sky watching, was when I read about the Total Perspective Vortex in the Hitchhikers Guide to the Galaxy.

    “When you are put into the Vortex you are given just one momentary glimpse of the entire unimaginable infinity of creation, and somewhere in it a tiny little mark, a microscopic dot on a microscopic dot, which says, “You are here.”

  • Kyle F

    Michael Kruse, why not new creation as ongoing creation, ie the colonization and reworking of spatial infinity? The futurists such as Ray Kurzweil (singularity) might have something to offer here as we map out our eschatology.

  • John I.

    The universe is large beyond comprehension, but it’s not possible for there to be an actual created infinite, not that we could tell anyway.

  • I have read the linked page and the page it links too also, stating Ben Witherington’s question of why did God need billions and billions of years. My thoughts:

    1. God didn’t need billions of years, he just took billions of years. For reasons that he understands and we don’t. Ben is perhaps making Job’s error, thinking that the methodology and rationale for God’s creation should make sense to us. But it does not need to.

    “Where were you when I laid the earth’s foundation? Tell me, if you understand. Who marked off its dimensions? Surely you know!” (Job 38.4-5).

    Now, Ben W. is not asking his question from faithlessness, but from wonder and seeking understanding of the ways of God. Doubtless, I have questions that Ben would never think important. Yet it is a prt of wisdom to know when we bump into limit questions, and I think Ben’s is one of them.

    2. Once created, say astrophysicists John Barrow and Frank Tipler, the universe had either to expand or collapse. But collapsing would make life impossible. An expanding universe becomes even bigger while stars form the elements necessary to constitute life. So whether one or a billion planets has life is not relevant to the universe’s size. If no life had formed anywhere to ask the question, the universe would still be as large as it is, and as old as it is.

    3. Ben seems rather curiously to wonder why God didn’t hurry up some things but I’ll bet that he’s glad, OTOH, that God is slow on other things, such as “slow to anger” (Exodus 34:6). Would we rather God be quick to anger? of course not. So why should we think that God should be quick in creation? Let us instead be grateful that God, slow as he may seem in creation, is quick where it counts: “quick to forgive” (Is. 55.7) or willing to come to our aid quickly (Ps 71.12).

    4. Perhaps my essay, “Clairvoyant science and the Deep Blue God,” offers some insights, too.

  • Marshall

    @RJS #13:

    Hmmm. I thought I knew it had been established that the geometry of the universe was closed, which would mean that space is finite, although it still has no center and isn’t expanding into anything. But I see that I am incorrect, the observable universe is quite as flat as we can measure. (eg, here.

    Many places postulate a point origin for the Big Bang and give a size curve for the early universe (fits into a teacup for the first 10 e -35 or so, expanding at a rapid but finite rate for finite time), but apparently that should correctly be the observable universe; for all we know the universe at BB could have been infinite in spatial extent as well as density, in which case it would be infinite in spatial extent today. I am corrected.

    …. Still is finite in duration, though.

  • Kathy

    Anybody read C.S. Lewis’s Space Trilogy? You should!

  • AJG

    @CGC. Jesus is who He said He was: God Incarnate sent to redeem the world from sin and death. That is my hope, even if I admit that I don’t fully believe it. My life as a Christian is a life in which I live as if what I profess to believe is true. Is it? I don’t know. But that’s the best I can do when confronted with a universe so vast that it seems ludicrous to argue that you or I make a whit of difference.

  • AndyM

    Just as God made adam fully grown, animals and trees fully mature, why should we suppose that God didn’t speak into being a fully grown universe?

  • DRT

    Sorry, still have not read the comments, but want to chime in.

    If there is one thing that I have learned from Jesus is that big and mighty don’t mean a thing relative to small and meek. Big universe? Small us? Does that matter? No.

    One of the things I value in life, a whole lot, is to be a child in wonder at all around. This goes from the smile on my son’s face after I picked him up from marching band last night, to the many nights lying in bed contemplating what it means to be infinite. We have been given a creation that is not easily understood, and provides joy to me.

    I have a rather large telescope that I don’t pull out all that often anymore, but when I do there is something quite exhilarating about actually seeing objects off in space with my own eyes rather that the higher quality pictures that are available from observatories.

    Why is it so large? It gives us infinite possibility.

  • DRT

    I also want to point out that the whole open/closed or flat etc are all human terms for something that it likely infinite. As we learn more we are not just confronted with “how far are it’s extents”, but also “how many extents does it have”. Given the radical nature of our current perception of what is, it points me toward there being much more than we are currently even capable of imagining. It is infinite in nearly every way we can envision.

    I also am a believer in multiverses, which puts the exclamation point on infinite creation.

  • CGC

    Hi Andy and all,
    Scripture is presenting in Genesis that God created everything. Almighty God is the Creator. For us to read Genesis in a way that says God made everything full grown not only goes beyond the text, but sets the reader up automatically for special problems in the text. God can do anything God wants in any way God wants but I believe these kind of superficial readings of Scripture or things we were taught in Sunday School need to be left behind. Genesis is beautiful prose with snapshots of creation. To read it as a chronology of exact details (which we think we get from the plain reading of the text but are actually details we fill in for the text) is not what the book of Genesis message is intending to convey. We need to read it properly in its literary, historical-cultural, and counter-cultural portrayal of creation where the Creator is to be properly worshiped, not the creation itself. To go beyond this is to go beyond Scripture. I’ve said it before but I wish Christians would read the earliest Christian interpretations of the book of Genesis. It would be quite revealing to say the least!

  • Doug Hendricks

    I am with those needing the infinite universe/expansion thing to be explained a little futher- and please talk real slow 🙂

    Kathy 26 I’ve heard about them but haven’t read them. Something along the lines of God creating all kinds of intelligent life but we were the only ones who rebelled and so were cut off from the rest, becoming the silent planet… is that about right?

  • Doug Hendricks

    CGC 31 Can you suggest any good sites for the early interpretations of Genesis?

  • phil_style

    @ Doug, without patronizing you hopefully, the wikipedia page is a good place to start, and from there dig further into the resources quoted on that page http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Allegorical_interpretations_of_Genesis

    Don’t always trust wiki of course.. but it always lists good names, publications and ancient texts that can then be found in their originals/ high-fidelity copies elsewhere.

  • John I.

    There is no one universally agreed upon answer to “how large is the universe”. Of course the known or observable universe is finite, but beyond that we cannot make observations (obviously). Theoretical answers to this question vary, from various finite (but large) sizes to infinite. Philosophical arguments generally lead to the conclusion that there can not be any actual infinity.

  • John I.

    above, by “theoretical answers”, I meant to refer to the size of the universe beyond the boundary of what is observable.

  • CGC

    Hi Doug,
    The best book I have read is by Peter Bouteneff “Beginnings: Ancient Christian readings of the Biblical Creation Narratives.” I would also recommend the Ancient Christian Commentary on Scripture. Genesis is edited by Andrew Louth. Lastly, a fascinating study on early Jewish and Christian interpretations on the book of Genesis is “The Genesis of Perfection: Adam and Eve in Jewish and Christian Imagination” by Gary Anderson.

    A new book I am curious about is by Johnny Miller called “In the Beginning . . . We Misunderstood: Interpreting Genesis One in Its original context” (?)

  • Doug Hendricks

    Phil 34 I was trying to avoid the “digging”- I don’t have a lot of time.

    CGC 37 I was hoping for an internet site because I don’t have a lot of $.


  • EricW

    Wouldn’t a standard scientific explanation for our universe’s 13 billion years of space-time (because they are one and the same thing or inseparable from each other) be something along the lines that it required those 13 billion years for the “stuff” of the “big bang” to cool and form the stars from which carbon atoms would come which would form the basis of a life that could replicate and evolve to the point where it could and would develop an intelligence and consciousness that could ask “Why did it take 13 billion years for us to get here?” And 13 billion years of such a universe expanding would at the same time result in the universe being multi-billion light years in size and growing at the time such life began to ask “Why so long?”

    Arthur Custance said something like this in one of his books http://www.custance.org/

  • EricW

    Here is the quote I remembered from Custance’s writings:

          No one . . . can fail to find thought-provoking a suggestion made by Dicke, half-jokingly, half seriously. “What sense does it have,” he asks, “to speak about a Universe unless that Universe contains intelligent beings?”
         But intelligence implies a brain. And a brain cannot come into being without life. As the foundation for life no biochemist sees any alternative but DNA. But DNA demands carbon for its construction. Carbon in turn comes into being by thermonuclear combustion in the stars. Thermonuclear combustion demands billions of years in time.
         But according to general relativity a Universe cannot provide billions of years of time unless it also has billions of light-years of extent. On this view it is not the Universe that has dominion over man, but man who governs the size of the Universe.

    From pp. 9-10 of Part 1 Chapter 3 of this book:



  • CGC

    Hi Doug and all,
    There are many websites on the early church fathers. If you want to look at one for example, here is one by the Roman Catholics. Look up: litteralchristianlibrary.com (and then go to “the early church fathers” section). From there, there are several that deal with Genesis.

    As far as money and books, I would recommend to anyone that they can inter-library loan books for free from the public library. This is a free service and unless the book has to come from out of State, then there could be a small charge.

  • CGC

    Ps – I meant:


  • Another book to add to the list is “Creation and Humanity: The Sources of Christian Theology” edited by Ian McFarland. Just got the book a month ago. I haven’t read it yet it but has pieces from a wide spectrum dating to the early church up to the present.

  • Mike M

    I can’t read ancient Greek. Is Col 1:16 “for” or “by”?

  • EricW

    44. Mike M.

    Colossians 1:16 is roughly:

    Because (hoti) in/by (en) him were created all things
    in (en) the heavens and upon (epi) the earth
    the visible and the invisible
    whether thrones whether lordships
    whether rulers whether authorities
    all things through (dia w/genitive) and unto/for (eis) him were created

  • CGC

    Hi Everyone,
    I am completely dumbfounded why RJS never responded to clarification of what she meant when she said the universe was infinite???

  • RJS


    Because I was at a conference (in Israel) all last week, and now have to get into the swing of the new term.

    I will try to come back to this in a new post.

  • CGC

    Hi RJS,
    Wow, I hope you share some of your reflections from your trip to Israel. Glad you’re back 🙂

  • Rick


    I hope you discuss this recent, somewhat related article:

    “Although cosmic mysteries remain, Sean Carroll, a theoretical cosmologist at the California Institute of Technology, says there’s good reason to think science will ultimately arrive at a complete understanding of the universe that leaves no grounds for God whatsoever. Carroll argues that God’s sphere of influence has shrunk drastically in modern times, as physics and cosmology have expanded in their ability to explain the origin and evolution of the universe. “As we learn more about the universe, there’s less and less need to look outside it for help,” he told Life’s Little Mysteries.”


  • RJS


    I was forwarded a link to another column by Carroll as well – I may post on it tomorrow.