“A sad spectacle. If they be inhabited, what a scope for misery and folly. If they be not inhabited, what a waste of space.”
- Thomas Carlyle (1795-1881)
While Carl Sagan (1934-1996) paraphrased Carlyle, it is in the movie Contact (Warner Brothers, 1997), based on Sagan’s book, where the quote is most popularly known: “...I guess I’d say if it’s just us, seems like an awful waste of space.”
I think of this whenever something significant happens in our exploration and examination of the universe. This week NASA’s New Horizons probe flew by Pluto, giving us a beautifully clear view of this outlying member of our solar system’s neighborhood. Billions of miles away, Pluto and its five moons have long just been a fuzzy dot on the best of our telescopes. To see so clearly something so exceedingly remote is astounding and exciting to me. I am mindful, though, of the fact that Pluto’s massive orbit and distance from us is a pinprick in size compared the vastness of the rest of the created order.
So, is it a waste of space? Only if we’re the reference point.
John Piper helpfully puts Pluto (and all else above us) in a biblical context that I think is appropriate to quote this week. Several years ago, I led a group of men to read through Piper’s Seeing and Savoring Jesus Christ (Crossway, 2004) at a downtown coffee shop. This is what he has to say concerning this remarkable universe (including little Pluto and his moons):
“The created universe is all about glory. The deepest longing of the human heart and the deepest meaning of heaven and earth are summed up in this: the glory of God. The universe was made to show it, and we were made to see it and savor it. Nothing less will do. Which is why the world is as disordered and as dysfunctional as it is. We have exchanged the glory of God for other things (Romans 1:23). ‘The heavens declare the glory of God’ (Psalm 19:1). That is why the universe exists. It’s all about glory” (pg. 13).
Piper goes on to give an example of the vastness of the universe as seen through the Hubble telescope. But let’s consider what the little New Horizons probe has allowed us to do. We see details on a globe smaller than our own moon which is over three billion miles away. It takes light from the sun 5.3 hours to get to Pluto at 187,000 miles per second; it only takes light 8 minutes to get to the Earth from the sun. And we now know that Pluto is merely one of perhaps hundreds of similar worlds that make up the Kuiper Belt (the rural backwoods of our solar system). I got to run part of the Cactus to Cloud 50K last May (I say “part” because I had to drop out at mile 19.5). At mile 10, the race went by the National Solar Observatory near
. Starting at the
observatory, there were signs on the road showing the scale of the distance of
the planets from the sun. Mercury, Venus, Earth, and Mars were fairly close to
the observatory. Pluto was a long way out. But that little dwarf planet (still
a planet in Cloudcroft,
New Mexico New Mexico
according to House Joint Memorial 54 of the 48th Legislature in
March, 2007), which is invisible to the naked eye here on Earth, has now been
clearly seen! It’s amazing!
Back to Piper: “Sometimes people stumble over this vastness in relation to the apparent insignificance of man. It does seem to make us infinitesimally small. But the meaning of this magnitude is not mainly about us. It’s about God. ‘The heavens declare the glory of God,’ says the Scripture. The reason for ‘wasting’ so much space on a universe to house a speck of humanity is to make a point about our Maker, not us. ‘Lift up your eyes on high and see: who created [the stars...and Pluto]? He who brings out their host by number, calling them all by name, by the greatness of our might, and because he is strong in power not one of them is missing’ (Isaiah 40:26). The deepest longing of the human soul is to know and enjoy the glory of God. We were made for this...to see it, to savor it, and to show it – that is why we exist. The untracked, unimaginable stretches of the created universe are a parable about the inexhaustible ‘riches of his glory’ (Romans 9:23). The physical eye is meant to say to the spiritual eye, ‘Not this, but the Maker of this, is the Desire of your soul’...the ache in every human heart is an ache for this. But we suppress it and do not see fit to have God in our knowledge (Romans 1:28). Therefore the entire creation has fallen into disorder...we were made to know and treasure the glory of God above all things; and when we trade that treasure for images, everything is disordered...the healing of our soul begins by restoring the glory of God to its flaming, all-attracting place at the center. We are all starved for the glory of God, not self. No one goes to the
Grand Canyon to increase self-esteem. Why
do we go? Because there is greater healing for the soul in beholding splendor
than there is in beholding self. Indeed, what could be more ludicrous in a vast
and glorious universe like this than a human being, on the speck called earth,
standing in front of a mirror trying to find significance in his own
self-image? It is a great sadness that this is the gospel of the modern world.
But it is not the Christian Gospel...the Christian Gospel is about ‘the glory
of Christ,’ not about me. And when it is – in some measure – about me, it is
not about my being made much of by God, but about God mercifully enabling me to
enjoy making much of him forever. What was the most loving thing Jesus could do
for us? What was the endpoint, the highest good, of the Gospel? Redemption?
Forgiveness? Justification? Reconciliation? Sanctification? Adoption? Are not
all of these great wonders simply means to something greater? Something final?
Something that Jesus asked his Father to give us? ‘Father, I desire that they
also, whom you have given me, may be with me where I am, to see my glory
that you have given me’ (John 17:24)” (pgs. 13-16).
Seeing Pluto, Charon, Hydra, Nix,
and Kerberos is just another step in the unending riches of the universe. We’ve
discovered 484 planetary systems in other solar systems exponentially further
away than distant Pluto. We’ll most likely never see them with the detail the
pics of Pluto will have in the upcoming days, weeks, and months. This universe
will continue to astound us as long as we keep looking up. Mis-read it, and it
is Carlyle’s “sad spectacle” because it refuses to make much of us. May we read
this story rightly that the heavens are telling, for “the heavens are
telling of the glory of God” (Psalm 19:1). It is the glory of the Trinity,
the one true God Who is eternally three Persons.
“In the beginning God [the Father] created the heavens and the earth. The earth was formless and void, and darkness was over the surface of the deep, and the Spirit of God was moving over the surface of the waters. Then God said [the Son Who is the creating Word, John 1:1-3; cf. Colossians 1:15-17; Hebrews 1:1-3], ‘Let there be light’; and there was light. God saw that the light was good; and God separated the light from the darkness. God called the light day, and the darkness He called night. And there was evening and there was morning, one day...then God said, ‘Let there be lights in the expanse of the heavens to separate the day from the night, and let them be for signs and for seasons and for days and years; and let them be for lights in the expanse of the heavens to give light on the earth’; and it was so. God made the two great lights, the greater light to govern the day, and the lesser light to govern the night; He made the stars also. God placed them in the expanse of the heavens to give light on the earth, and to govern the day and the night, and to separate the light from the darkness; and God saw that it was good” (Genesis 1:1-5,14-18).
We are then meant, with the minds uniquely created for us, to consider the reality to which this universe points. “For God, Who said [in Genesis 1:3], ‘Light shall shine out of darkness,’ is the One Who has shone in our hearts to give the Light of the knowledge of the glory of God in the face of Christ. But we have this treasure in earthen vessels, so that the surpassing greatness of the power will be of God and not from ourselves” (2 Corinthians 4:6,7). This is the message of Pluto: we see we are smaller than we thought, and the Creator-God Who made this tiny, far-flung world in all its beautiful detail is even greater in glory than we could previously imagine. This same God is not merely concerned with making cosmic artwork. He has stooped down to us in His Son to save us from our self-centered foolishness and rebellion against Him. This is Good News, and it is truly glorious.
Did you hear Piper? “...there is greater healing for the soul in beholding splendor than there is in beholding self.” Marvel at what He has done, then look to the greater glory of His Son Jesus for your salvation, and find the wholeness you’ve been seeking all your life.