Go to your kitchen and get a grain of rice. Take it outside. Hold it between two fingers of an outstretched hand held toward the sky. Behind that rice, stretching beyond the sky into the vast recesses of space lie countless galaxies. Untold trillions of stars and planets, moons and nebulae. In just that one tiny patch of sky.
Move the grain of rice ever so slightly in any direction, and the result is the same. All around us, in every direction, the universe is packed with so much stuff. More galaxies than our minds can possibly comprehend.
That’s what this image from the James Webb Space Telescope shows. Galaxy cluster SMACS 0723, where every point of light that isn’t shimmering is a galaxy. The shimmering points are stars in our own galaxy.
The absolute majesty of the universe made apparent through images like this can affect us in a variety of ways.
Maybe you feel small, with the realization that you’re just one person on a planet that is just one of many in a solar system that itself is one of billions in a galaxy that is itself a nondescript member of the universe’s billions of other galaxies.
That’s a fair assessment. We are small. Still, I want to encourage you not to forget that we are special — we are the universe made aware of itself. A trillion suns cannot fathom their own existence, cannot wonder about the existence of what is around them.
We can, and we do it with minds born of brains built from atoms forged in the hearts of long-dead stars. Extraordinary!
Maybe you’re of a more religious mind, and you see these images of just how expansive and wonderful our universe is and take that as an opportunity to praise your god for just how grand his works are, for as the Hebrews sang, “the heavens declare the glory of God” (Psalm 19:1 KJV).
Or maybe you see in these images an opportunity to mock the religious: “This massive universe, but God cares if you’re gay” or “here’s an incredibly detailed picture of the universe, but there is no god to be found.” I’ve seen numerous variations since the James Webb imagery has started to become available, and to be perfectly frank, they are frustrating.
They’re frustrating because they reflect extremely little critical thinking, despite being presented as fact and as “gotchas” against the religious. As an atheist, I dislike being lumped in with this nonsense, so let’s look at what the problems here are, not just to encourage atheists to use better memes but to encourage Christian readers as well.
However, does a massive universe mean that it is ridiculous for God to care about how you live your life?
I’m reminded of a problem faced by early Christians: They fervently believed that the second coming of Jesus was ever imminent, though decades had passed since Jesus first declared that his death wasn’t the end. Skeptics, as they do, mocked those early Christians for their beliefs, with the assertion that the earth would carry on as it always had.
This problem was enough to get the attention of the apostle Peter, who wrote to the derided Christians, among other things, “But do not overlook this one fact, beloved, that with the Lord one day is as a thousand years, and a thousand years as one day” (2 Peter 3:8 ESV).
Decades had passed, Christians were getting mocked, and Peter gently reminds them: Hey, guys, time with God just doesn’t work the same as it does for you and me!
Nearly two-thousand years have elapsed since Jesus said he would return, and well, he is as of yet a no-show. Still, if you are one to believe that he will return, then the mockery of unbelievers shouldn’t bother you. If what Peter said is true, then to God, it’s only been a few days since that promise was made, so to speak. If God experiences all of time at once, then what difference is there between millennia and days, even eons and seconds.
If God experiences time differently than we do, then should he who is omnipresent not also experience space differently than us? Does God, who fills the heavens and the earth (Jeremiah 23:24), really see a difference between a meter and a light-year? Why would he?
For the believer, find joy and awe in the James Webb imagery: How magnificent is God’s creation, how beautiful its expanse! Mockers will always say that the universe is too big for your God, but they’re objection makes no logical sense — what does “bigger” than omnipresent even mean?
For the unbeliever, I encourage you to take the James Webb imagery for what it is and stop dragging it through the muck of mockery. Nothing in the Bible hints at God being available to photograph in deep space, and the enormity of the universe does not take away God’s claimed care and concern over the peoples of Earth. Take the images and be in awe at their beauty and at what we can learn from them.
And look, I’m not trying to rain on your God-mocking parade — the Bible itself contains some legitimate god-mockery, albeit directed at someone other than the Hebrews’ God (1 Kings 18:27)! However, if you don’t want to come across as simply not understanding what you’re mocking at all, demand better of your memes! This is doubly true because of the often used “atheists understand the Bible better than Christians” or “the best way to become an atheist is to read the Bible” claims, neither of which I really buy into, given just how prevalent ignorance of religion and Christianity in general seems to be among atheists.
What does imagery of deepest space mean to me? I feel small, but not as small as I’d expect. As Douglas Adams said, “Space is big. You just won’t believe how vastly, hugely, mind-bogglingly big it is. I mean, you may think it’s a long way down the road to the chemist’s, but that’s just peanuts to space” (The Hitchhiker’s Guide to the Galaxy).
In fact, the observable universe is roughly 4.854×1081 times larger than I am! There is a lot of stuff out there, but there’s also a lot of stuff in me. As big as the observable universe is compared to me, I’m even bigger compared to our smallest meaningful volume, by 1.74×10103 times! I, like every human, contain whole universes of the extremely small, universes of infinitesimal space that is dwarfed by our cells.
Cells which contain the same atoms which have been recycled from hundreds of thousands of years of humans who have gone before us. “We are each so atomically numerous and so vigorously recycled at death that a significant number of our atoms — up to a billion for each of us, it has been suggested — probably once belonged to Shakespeare. A billion more each came from Buddha and Genghis Khan and Beethoven, and any other historical figure you care to name” (Bill Bryson, A Short History of Nearly Everything).
We are a culmination of generations who have gone before, both genetically and atomically. We, in a sense, reincarnate or embody uncountable people who have come before us and indeed of those around us. Every human exhales countless billions of carbon atoms — atoms which once made up their body — throughout their lives, and that carbon is incorporated into our food as plants use it to build themselves. We eat the plants or the animals that eat the plants and then that carbon becomes a part of us.
Just as we are built from atoms forged in the hearts of dying stars eons ago, we are part of a grand and wonderful cycle here on our own planet, a cycle which connects all of us at the most fundamental levels.
I think because of that we should all be better, more excellent one to another, either because we believe that is what Jesus wants us to do or because we genuinely feel compelled to do so. Be better Christians, living according to what Jesus called you to do so, not what the Pharisaical churches and conservative leaders rile you up to do. Be better atheists, living a peaceable life because we’re all on this interconnected journey through time and space together.
Be a better person. That’s what I feel when I look at things like the deep space imagery.