How Big Is God? (No, for real, let’s figure this out)

If God is real, God is big.  I never received a satisfactory answer on how big.  At some point in our childhood we asked this question, because children are curious creatures.  The adults we asked fumbled around a lot in trying to answer.

“Well, uh…bigger than an elephant….no, a whale…bigger than that.”

The reasoning seemed to be that God had to be bigger than anything currently living.  That was a way to show God’s supremacy.  If God was bigger than a whale God was mightier than a whale, or something like that.

Sometimes deep thinking adults would go even larger, and say God was bigger than our planet.  Again this made a certain sense.  Since God created our planet, and God could be everywhere on that planet at the same time, then certainly God was bigger than the planet.  How did that work anyway, God everywhere at once?  Maybe you rolled and stretched  God out like pizza dough and wrapped him around this great big floating ball.

And then every once in a while a clever adult would move up the ladder of abstraction and say something like, “Whatever you can think of, God is bigger than that.”  So we thought of an elephant, and a whale, and the planet, and then pizza dough.  Then we stopped thinking, still unsatisfied.

Sometime in our adult life we stopped asking the question.  Adults have a way of turning the curiosity switch off.  What’s the point?  Nobody knows.

There are other reasons we stopped asking.  For one, creation gets real big when you become an adult, too big to understand.  This past week I surfed around a bit on the NASA website reflecting on Psalm 147:4, “He determines the number of the stars; he gives to all of them their names.”  It didn’t take long for me to settle on an acute observation: that’s a big job for a big God.  How big?  Real big.  How real big?

Elephant?–>Whale?–>Planet?–>Pizza dough?

On the NASA website I saw a picture.  It was a very interesting picture in two ways.  It was both the oldest and the youngest picture ever taken.  It was the oldest because it had taken the light that formed the images on the picture nearly fourteen billion years to reach us.  It was the youngest picture ever taken because it was a snapshot of our newborn universe.  What did it look like you wonder–a lot like a psychedelic shag carpet from the seventies.  It’s true, believe me.

Do you see how that picture complicates things?  Light that is fourteen billion years old has traveled a long, long, ways to reach our eyes.  My dad, whose favorite show was Lost In Space and who had a love for everything out-of-this-world, tried to explain these things to me.  He taught me growing up that a light year was equivalent to six trillion miles.  So the light for this picture was 14 billion times six trillion miles away.  In contrast the largest species of elephant is about fourteen feet tall.  Creation comes in all sizes.  ALL sizes.  Therefore God must be big, real big.

But how big?  The verse from Psalm 147 says that God “determines the number of the stars; [and] he gives to all of them their names.”  Do you think that means he’s bigger than the universe–a universe that can span 14 billion times six trillion miles?  But then again, this verse from Psalm 147 is an ancient liturgical statement about a transcendent deity, it’s not scientific.  There is no way that the ancients new the numbers of the stars like we do.  They had no idea that stars were each their own solar systems.  They didn’t understand that solar systems clumped together into galaxies, or that in the Milky Way alone there are 100 thousand million of the little balls of light.  They just looked up and saw what they could see.  They reasoned that God rolled them all out (like someone unrolling a psychedelic shag carpet from the seventies).

Then again the ancients were only doing what I am doing now by telling you about billions and trillions, and light years, and NASA photos.  They were pointing in prose to the farthest reaches of their science and their human imagination, and they were saying “God is big, even bigger than that.”  This is an important theological claim.  It is the claim of God’s transcendence.   It means that God surpasses all our horizons.  Every time we reach out, or dig deeper, or see father–every time we go beyond, there is still no end to God.  God is still out of reach, deeper still, father yet.

God rolled out the stars and then he gave all those stars names.

The naming is significant.  People get all excited when they receive a certificate in the mail from a well meaning friend or family member that says a star was named after them.  It cost twenty dollars to get the star named and the certificate printed up.  It seems such a rare and lasting gift.  We reason that the honor is certainly worth the money.

Did you know that if we divided out the stars in the Milky Way alone every person on the planet could have seventeen stars named after them?  And that if you extrapolated that out to the remainder of the vast known universe (millions and millions of Galaxies) there are enough stars for everyone on the planet to be the namesake for 166 trillion little balls of light.  That’s a whole lot of Jesse’s twinkling up above the world so high, like little diamonds in the sky, not to mention a lot of certificates, and more twenty dollar bills then the mint has ever produced–ever!

The numbers I am sharing with you are so big they’re meaningless.  We speak about them, but we have no idea what they mean.  We have never seen 166 trillion anything, and we can’t imagine it if we tried.

So I might as well continue.

Professor Paul Reber in Scientific American magazine estimates that our brains hold 2.5 petabytes of information.   If you are knowledgeable about computers then it might help you to know that a petabyte equals a milllion gigabytes.  If that’s meaningless to you than let me offer this.  It is estimated that 2 petabytes is enough to store the information from every single academic library in the entire United States of America, every book, every thesis, every microfilm, every news paper, every periodical, every card catalogue entry, however many times they occur, no matter how much overlap.  If you’re more of a digital media kind of person, then you might like to know that one petabyte has the capacity to store 13.3 years of HDTV content–that’s a whopping 58,000 movies, which is a few more than you ipod can handle.  Your brain can store 2.5 times that amount.  But even with all the storage, if you were to give each star in our universe only a three letter name–Ben, Tom, Sue, Kim–and store those names in the same place all that HDTV content would have been stored then every brain on the planet combined would reach capacity and explode before even half of the known stars in our universe were named and remembered.

God “determines the number of the stars; [and] he gives to all of them their names.”  That’s a big job for a big God.

But why did the ancient Israelites feel a need to speak so eloquently about God’s transcendence?   Why did they use their times of corporate worship to extol and praise the one who hung the stars?  Isn’t such talk meaningless?  Nobody has ever seen 166 trillion anything.  What’s the point.  Nobody knows.  Turn off the curiosity switch.  We’re all adults now.

Yes, we are all adults.  We’ve gone a few rounds with life, and some of us have come out with a few lumps and bruises.  It’s not all roses and star certificates you know.  The Israelites drew the short straw and were thrown in the ring with the ancient equivalent of Muhammad Ali.  They’d hit the mat so many times they thought life was supposed to be lived lying down.  In our reading from Isaiah they had begun lamenting the abuse they had received.  They each cried out saying, “My way is hidden from the LORD; my cause is disregarded by my God.”  Have you ever heard that lament before?  Not only have I heard it, but I’ve heard it from people who deserved to say it.

Do you know what happened when that lament reached a fevered pitch amongst the Israelites?  The prophet of Isaiah 40 told everyone to look up into the sky.  He showed them a 14 billion year old psychedelic shag carpet from the seventies.  He told them that everyone had 166 trillion stars they could call their own.  He said I’m about to blow your 2.5 petabyte mind, so hold on to your hats.

And when he did all this the prophet of Second Isaiah answered the lament of the people by using a version of the same liturgical statement found in Psalm 147. Second Isaiah’s version went like this, “Lift your eyes and look to the heavens: Who created all these? He who brings out the starry host one by one, and calls them each by name. Because of his great power and mighty strength, not one of them is missing.”  Not one of them is missing.  All 166 trillion of your stars, even the ones that no human will ever see, are safe and sound.  So aren’t the stars of the person next to you, and the stars of your children, and the stars of the nice teller at the bank, and the shy mechanic down the street.  How big is God?  Real, real, big.

Don’t you forget it.  Don’t turn your curiosity switch off.  Don’t say “what’s the point” or throw your hands up and say “Nobody knows.”  Don’t believe numbers like 166 trillion are meaningless.  Science tells us that the universe is big, faith tells us the universe is big for a reason.

Because big Gods, thank the heavens, are out of our control.  Because big Gods can’t be moved.  Because big Gods are mighty beyond belief.  Because big Gods can’t be used up, or lost, or overdrawn.  Because big Gods are beyond us.  Because big Gods can handle big problems.  Because when we see a big God wrapped up, trimmed down, self emptied, and suffering in the person of Christ we marvel at just how rich the grace of God is.  The bigger God is, the smaller God had to become, and the greater God’s sacrifice, and the greater God’s love.  The bigger God is, the more worth you have.  Because God did it for you–all 5 or 6 feet of you.

God “determines the number of the stars; [and] he gives to all of them their names.”  That’s a big job for a big God.  The verse before it in Psalm 147 tell us that in God’s spare time God also “gathers the exiles of Israel,  heals the brokenhearted and binds up their wounds.”

Don’t ask me why?  I have no idea.  We’re just one planet among 9 (or is it 8), in one solar system among 100 thousand million other stars, in one galaxy, among millions of millions of other galaxies.

How big is God?  Big enough to blow my mind, which is also big enough for God to be mindful of me.  And even an adult who’s stopped asking questions can find that answer more than satisfactory.

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2 Responses to How Big Is God? (No, for real, let’s figure this out)

  1. I like your Big Gods terminology, if you have a spare minute I think you’ll enjoy my last post on (would you believe it) the size of God: http://neuraloutlet.wordpress.com/2012/02/04/large-numbers-infinities-god-33/

    I’d like to see what side you fall on, it’s basically Finite vs Infinite.

  2. Neural,

    Thanks for the comment. I read your blog post about whether God is finite or infinite. I suspect arriving at an answer will not change much. God will be what God will be. When God comes to Moses in the form of a burning bush Moses is concerned about God’s more precise definition, “Suppose I go to the Israelites and say to them, ‘The God of your fathers has sent me to you,’ and they ask me, ‘What is his name?’ Then what shall I tell them?” God’s answer (often translated “I am who I am.”) is most literally translated “I will be what I will be.” Basically God said, “It’s my prerogative to be what I want…deal with it.” Perhaps the most salient point of God’s transcendence is humanity’s inability to define what God is. God is out of our control, which means all our definitions and theological refinements are kindling for the divine furnace. Even my “God is big” terminology is a hopeless anthropomorphism (i.e. what is ‘big’ is relative to our humanity).

    I think the more important question you raise is whether or not God is “personal.” That is a powerfully important question which speaks to our deeply felt finiteness, and our heartbreak over the problem of suffering and evil.

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