The wise men who came from the East to worship the infant Jesus were the scientists of their day. Known as Magi, they studied the heavens and the earth, seeking to understand the natural world, and make sense of the supernatural.
When they observed a mysterious sign in the sky, they knew it was significant. Exactly what they saw is not known. Was it a comet? A conjunction of planets? A unique special creation? Whatever it was, it guided these Magi to Jerusalem, and eventually to a house in Bethlehem where the infant Jesus was staying. There they worshipped him and gave him gifts.
The heavens have always been a source of inspiration to those who seek to understand the meaning of existence. A thousand years before the Magi, King David wrote:
When I consider your heavens, the work of your fingers, the moon and the stars, which you have set in place, what is man that you are mindful of him, the son of man that you care for him? (Psalm 8:3-4)
David could have seen with the naked eye between 5,000 and 6,000 stars, and maybe five of the planets. He could not have known that some of those “stars” were galaxies, composed of millions of stars. Today we know that those few thousand visible stars are just a handful of the estimated two to three hundred billion stars in our Milky Way galaxy. And our galaxy is just one of at least 100 billion galaxies. I’m being conservative; new data from the Hubble telescope suggests there could be as many as 500 billion galaxies, each with maybe 300 billion stars of its own.
We will likely never know for certain how many stars there are. Even if we did, old stars burn out and new stars come into existence every day. Astronomers have estimated that in each galaxy, one star dies and one is born at the rate of about one a year. Assuming a conservative 100 billion galaxies in the observable universe, there are about 100 billion stars being born and dying each year. That means an average of about 275 million per day. In the time it is taking you to read this paragraph, maybe a million stars have collapsed and another million have burst into life.
There is far more going on out there than we have even begun to observe or measure. About 70 percent of the universe seems to consist of what scientists call “dark energy.” By “dark” they mean it is beyond the range of our ability to measure and observe. Of the remaining 30 percent, 26 percent seems to be made of “dark matter.” Only four percent of the universe consists of material that we can measure, or even describe. And the more we learn about that four percent, the more mysterious it becomes.
As the English astronomer Sir Arthur Eddington put it, “Not only is the universe stranger than we imagine, it is stranger than we can imagine.”
Is God necessary?
Even with the limited understanding of his time, David could write confidently, “The heavens declare the glory of God; the skies proclaim the work of his hands” (Psalm 19:1).
Well, it doesn’t work for everyone. In a recently published book, The Grand Design, physicists Stephen Hawking and Leonard Mlodinow argue that a belief in God is not needed to explain the origins of the universe. They claim that the theory of quantum mechanics and the theory of relativity help us understand how universes could have formed out of nothing. They argue that the Big Bang is a consequence of the laws of physics alone. Hawking has said: “One can’t prove that God doesn’t exist, but science makes God unnecessary.”
That is a bold claim, but is it right? Physicist and science writer Paul Davies doesn’t think so. While accepting that cosmology can probably now explain how our universe began, he says,
A much tougher problem now looms, however. What is the source of those ingenious laws that enable a universe to pop into being from nothing? … There is no compelling need for a supernatural being or prime mover to start the universe off. But when it comes to the laws that explain the big bang, we are in murkier waters.
Missing something big
Murkier waters indeed. Even if the origins of the universe can be described entirely by laws of physics, as Hawking asserts, the question remains as to how can we explain the origin of those laws? In a remarkably frank book about the state of research today, physicist Lee Smolin admitted that physics has come to an impasse:
The one thing that everyone who cares about fundamental physics seems to agree on is that new ideas are needed. From the most skeptical critics to the most strenuous advocates of string theory, you hear the same thing: We are missing something big. (Lee Smolin, The Trouble with Physics, p. 308)
So today, our astounding investigations into the incomprehensibly vast expanse of the known universe and the equally incomprehensibly miniscule world of sub-atomic particles have not made God unnecessary. The unfathomable night sky still reflects the glory of God and the mysterious quarks join it in proclaiming the work of his hands.
In another recently published book, Robert J. Spitzer argues that far from doing away with the need for God, cutting-edge scientific discoveries have shown ever more clearly that faith is a rational response to the state of our knowledge. If the scientific evidence we have today is taken seriously, Spitzer writes, “they cannot help but transform our view of the universe, transcendence, our destiny and the meaning of life” (New Proofs for the Existence of God, pages 10–11).
Twenty years ago, astronomer Robert Jastrow anticipated this situation when he wrote,
For the scientist who has lived by his faith in the power of reason, the story ends like a bad dream. He has scaled the mountains of ignorance, he is about to conquer the highest peak; as he pulls himself over the final rock, he is greeted by a band of theologians who have been sitting there for centuries. (Robert Jastrow, God and the Astronomers, p. 107)
Reading that, it is tempting for religious people to offer a smug “We told you so.” But let’s be careful. Far from Jastrow’s picture of theologians sitting on the highest peak, theologians have more often preferred to squat complacently on the lowest slopes of scientific discovery, stubbornly clutching old ideas and resisting—sometimes viciously opposing—anything new and ground-breaking. Let’s not forget Copernicus and Galileo, whom the church attempted to silence because of their discoveries that the earth was not the center of the universe.
Theologians, just as much as scientists, need to ask whether we are missing something big, starting with the common perception among religious people that God is a rather remote, stern Judge “out there” somewhere, who is difficult to please and preoccupied with sinful behavior. But is that the God that Jesus came to reveal? Has our understanding of God been too narrow?
The Magi followed the star to worship Jesus because they knew his birth was in some way significant. They could not have known just how significant. They thought he was the new king of the Jews, the long-awaited Messiah. How could they know that he was far more than that—the loving and faithful Creator of all they had studied, come to earth as a human being to heal and transform humanity into a new creation in himself?
As his life and ministry unfolded, Jesus showed us what God is really like, and he and his apostles told us of the purpose of the universe and human life. The Creator became one of us, not only forgiving all our sins by taking them on himself, but also giving us his own righteousness by becoming one with us. He died for us, rose from the dead for us and lives eternally for us, drawing us relentlessly into his new creation, into the love relationship he shares eternally with the Father and the Spirit.
As the carols remind us, “Long lay the world in sin and error pining ‘til he appeared, and the soul felt its worth,” and “Man will live forevermore because of Christmas Day.”
The brilliant lights of science, which are no more than human discoveries of what God has created, and the ancient glow of the gospel, which is nothing less than God’s revelation of his unfathomable love for all human beings, both lead us to Jesus. Through him alone we come face to face with the Creator who not only loves us more than we have imagined, but more than we can imagine.