Confession: I just wrote an entire book trying to explain and define God, but I actually know practically nothing about him.
I hope you will forgive me for it.
Of course, I’m in good company, as plenty before me have tried to do the same.
Add in the fact that each of us individually have all sort of made up our own ideas about God without really having much of a clue and likely shared them with others along the way.
“But wait a second, Steve,” you say, “there’s plenty of evidence out there telling us exactly what God is like.”
But God himself begs to differ:
“For as the heavens are higher than the earth, so are my ways higher than your ways and my thoughts than your thoughts.” (Isaiah 55:9, ESV)
In context, the “heavens” here refers to the celestial bodies way out in space (planets, stars, etc.) that people in Old Testament times would have observed (at least partially) as they gazed up into the night sky – in other words, the whole big universe.
So just how high is the universe? And how much can we even comprehend?
The Incomprehensible Universe
Scientists estimate that the edge of just the observable universe is 46 billion light years away. That means the known universe is at least 92 billion light years in diameter.
To put these distances into perspective: light travels at a rate of 670 million miles per hour, meaning anyone traveling at that speed could circle the entire earth just under eight times in one second. If a person were to travel at that speed for an entire year (thus, a “light year”) they would travel roughly 6 trillion miles – the equivalent of circling the earth around 240 million times.
As stated, the outskirts of the observable part of this universe are 46 billion of these light years away. Thus, one would have to travel 276,000,000,000,000,000,000,000, or 276 billion trillion, miles to reach them.
That, however, is just the observable universe from our tiny planet’s point of view. The total universe is at least 400 times larger; and it could be even much bigger than that. As Brian Oberlein, a professor of astrophysics, states:
“If the size of the total Universe before inflation was the distance light could travel since the big bang, then the current Universe is about 1027 larger than the observable universe. In other words, comparing the observable universe to the entire Universe is like comparing a grain of sand to the observable universe. It could be much larger, perhaps even infinite.”
Wow. That’s one big universe.
Add to this the possibility that the universe we know may not be the only one. There could be multi-verses. In fact, as Dr. Caleb A. Scharf, Director of Astrobiology at Columbia University, proposes there could be “more than 10 to the power of 10 to the power of 16 distinguishable realities.”
With such a large universe (and possibly universes) I think it is safe to assume that humankind will never be able to fully explore or comprehend all there is to know about the universe and beyond.
Even if we eventually developed the capability of traveling at light speed, no human being would ever live long enough to travel to the farthest reaches. Plus, we would never be able to explore the 14 billion years the universe has already existed in the past.
Thus, we will NEVER know even the smallest portion of all there is to know.
But even with what is within “observable range,” how much do we actually know?
With dark matter and dark energy (two things that scientists are still trying to figure out what the heck they are) comprising the majority of the observable universe, what we are actually able to see is a very small percentage.
After winning the Nobel prize as part of the team that discovered dark energy, astrophysicist and professor of astronomy Aleksey Filippenko admitted:
“I don’t think scientists will ever truly understand creation because I don’t think we will know where the laws of physics came from…. Why are there any mathematical laws of physics rather than just nothing at all? I don’t know whether we will ever understand that. Scientists are only well-aware of 4 per cent of the universe – that is, we understand pretty well the nature of 4 per cent of the universe. The stuff that is made of atoms. Ninety-six per cent of the universe is made out of dark matter and dark energy. And although we know they are present we don’t know what their detailed properties are or why they are there. Or what exactly is going on.“
Further yet, of the 4% of the observable part of the universe, how much do we really know?
Scientists are still trying to learn about our nearest planet Mars.
We know only a tiny percentage of our own miniscule planet. 71% of the earth is covered in ocean and 95% of that remains unexplored.
In the end, humankind has only explored 0.4% of the Earth’s total mass.
Archeologists and anthropologists are still trying to uncover aspects of our own history, much of which is disagreed upon.
Add to this, each one of us over 7 billion people on this planet is limited to knowing whatever small amount of information is given to us in our individual circumstances in our specific locations during our short average lifespan of 70 some years. And if you are like me, you end up not comprehending or forgetting half of what you learn.
In his article “This Is What We Don’t Know About The Universe” Dr. Scharf goes on to list additional things we don’t know:
- We don’t know whether life exists anywhere else.
- We don’t fully understand or agree on quantum mechanics.
- We don’t understand our own biology. Otherwise, we’d be able to eliminate disease.
- We don’t know how the earth works.
- There’s a long list of unproven, unsolved [math] problems and unproven conjectures.
- We don’t know how to make an artificial intelligence.
And, as Scientific American adds, we only understand about 10% of how our own brains function.
In short, in comparison to all there is to know about our gigantic universe, and even the planet we live on, we know practically nothing.
Dr. Scharf concludes, however:
“But the point is not to get despondent, because this ignorance is a beautiful thing. It’s what ultimately drives science, and it’s what makes the universe truly awe-inspiring.”
Does this mean that we can’t know anything about the distant “heavens?”
Not at all.
While science will likely never give us all the answers, it can at the very least give us ideas. We may only have general knowledge of how a tiny fraction of 4% of the known universe works, but that tiny fraction has given us incredible breakthroughs in medicine and technology that have almost certainly benefited our lives.
And it is a general assumption in science that the things we do know here are likely true, based on natural laws, across the entirety of the universe.
It’s just that there is no way we can know for sure. Because of our limitations, there is simply no way of ascertaining if known laws are congruent with things that happen billions of light years away – or in another universe – or even (at least for the time being) in the bottom depths of the ocean – or in the 90% of the brain we don’t yet understand.
We thus must take it on “faith” that the few things we do understand are universally true.
“Faith is the assurance of things hoped for, the conviction of things not seen” (Heb 11:1, ESV), and belief in things that cannot be known for sure.
It is for this reason, we have to accept the possibility that explanations for how everything works in our universe may forever be outside our comprehension.
Thus, if the universe is that incomprehensible, how much more would be the one who created it – God?
The Incomprehensible God
The Old and New Testaments portray throughout a God continually revealing himself and making himself known – from the creation of the universe, to the words of the prophets, to his “Word” becoming “flesh.” Many would contend, including me, that the recording of these texts themselves were an inspired revelation of God.
But also throughout we see examples of humankind’s continual inability to comprehend God:
The book of Job (thought by many to be the very first biblical text recorded) is all about the world’s currently most righteous man questioning God’s ways with God rebuking him by asking, “Where were you when I laid the foundation of the earth? Tell me, if you have understanding.” (Job 38:4, ESV)
Adam and Eve’s first sin was an attempt to gain knowledge of something (good and evil) that was never meant for them to understand.
Through the prophet Isaiah, God warned, “Who comprehends the mind of the Lord or gives him instruction?” (Isaiah 40:13, NET).
Solomon, declared to be the wisest man who ever lived, admitted, “Then I saw all the work of God, that man cannot find out the work that is done under the sun. However much man may toil in seeking, he will not find it out. Even though a wise man claims to know, he cannot find it out” (Eccles. 8:17, ESV). He further admitted that neither the temple he built nor the “highest heaven” could possibly “contain” God (1 King 8:27).
Even Jesus’ disciples, who got to follow around God in the flesh, were shown as frequently failing to understand everything Jesus said or did.
And the apostle Paul, the author of the majority of the letters comprising the New Testament, conceded, “Now we see things imperfectly, like puzzling reflections in a mirror…” (1 Cor 13:12, NLT).
The word “theology” comes from the Greek “Theos” for God and “logia,” meaning “utterances, sayings, or oracles.” Ultimately, it is translated as the study of God, with the goal of making sense of him.
But if the one known as the “I Am” is the designer behind even the 96% of the universe we don’t yet understand, do we really ever have any hope of making sense of God?
Today religious rituals continue to be practiced both with the intention of improving our relationship with God and of understanding him. Millions of people go to “Bible studies” and listen to sermons every week to gain greater comprehension.
Seminaries have been established to train thousands of students every year how to become better instructors of the things of God. Numerous spiritual books continue to be written with the idea of helping us gain greater comprehension.
Of course, alongside this, factions continue to divide over often minute theological differences of interpretation. People separate into various denominations because of differing preferences of practices as well as understandings of God.
Whole websites are established with the goal of calling out various “heretics” of the faith – those who teach allegedly false doctrines about God. All this while all those involved remain certain that they have the only true comprehension of God.
But if God is the source of, and therefore bigger than, our incomprehensible universe, is it possible that God is simply bigger than any theology or religion?
If all of the advances in science have not been able to explain to even the smallest percentage of all there is to know in the universe, can we expect “advancements” in theology and a series or revelations over the years to explain more than a small percentage of all there is to know about the much bigger being known as the “I Am?”
This, of course, does not mean we cannot know anything about God. Just as science, with what we do know, can both improve our lives and give us at least a picture of the characteristics of the greater universe, so can the revelations that we do have of God help us greater flourish in life and give us a picture of the character of God.
And just as the results of an experiment that does not match previously known scientific law might cause a scientist to go back to the drawing board, a new “revelation” of God, should cause anyone to go back to the drawing board if it doesn’t match what has been known about God already through scripture.
Just as all new scientific experiments should be peer reviewed to make sure they match previously known results, it’s legitimate for all new understandings of God to be peer reviewed to make sure they match definitely known characteristics of God.
But if 200,000 years of modern human’s existence on this earth could not even come close to understanding the tiniest portion of the 92 billion light years of just the observable universe, how could we expect 4000 years of Jewish/Christian religion and a 1200-page (on average) Bible to come close to ever fully explaining God?
If neither the temple nor the “highest heaven” could “contain” God, can we expect religion or a book to do any better? Perhaps, theology and ritual, like science, can only at maximum give a partial glimpse of the 4% or less that is even observable. Perhaps, for all intents and purposes, with all that has been “learned” about God over all these years, we still know practically nothing.
Perhaps this should be a bit humbling to all of us armchair theologians and professional theologians alike. Perhaps it should give us pause before we crucify someone with whom we theologically disagree. And perhaps it’s time we admit that there may be things we believe that ultimately wrong.
It is for this reason I have come to see my comprehension of God as a journey rather than as one who has all the answers readily at hand.
It is for this reason I have learned to read scripture differently – not seeing it as an “answer-book” but rather as an opportunity to come alongside fellow-journeymen, all learning how to relate with this big and incomprehensible God.
There are passages where I have no idea what they are saying. There are verses that completely seem to contradict each other and others that are just plain weird.
There are things God says and does that completely baffle me; and other ones where he simply makes me angry. God, what the heck are you doing???
There are times where I feel like I’m just getting to understand God and times where I feel like I hardly know who he is at all.
But the one thing that I have come to “know” about God is this: he seems far more interested in me entering into relationship with him than in fully comprehending him. In fact, it is often the very mystery of God and his ways that actually cause me to press in closer.
It is often the times when I wrestle with him that I seem to come away better understanding his heart. It is only in the pressing in, that I can even begin to “get” who he is.
And as I get to learn his intimate ways, I then can simply have faith that the loving-kindness and goodness I discover extends to the wholeness of who he is and all that he does.
We are but tiny grains of sand in a gigantic universe way beyond our comprehension. Who are we to question God or define for him who he is? Who am I?
How much higher are God’s ways than my ways? At least 46 billion light years away.
But just as Dr. Scharf said regarding science, the point is not to get despondent, because this ignorance is a beautiful thing. It’s ultimately what drives us and what makes God truly awe-inspiring.
Portions of this article are adapted from Rethinking God: Because God is Bigger, Closer, and More Real Than You Think.