Where I live in the Rocky Mountains, you can see several thousand stars with the naked eye on a clear night. All of them belong to the Milky Way Galaxy, which contains more than 100 billion stars, including an average-sized one that our planet Earth orbits around—the Sun. Our galaxy has plenty of room: 26 trillion miles separate the Sun from the star nearest to it. And traveling at the speed of light, it would take you 25,000 years to reach the center of the Milky Way from our home planet, which lies out in the galaxy’s margins.

Until a century ago, astronomers believed the universe consisted of our galaxy alone. Then, in 1925, Edwin Hubble proved that one apparent cloud of dust and gas in the night sky, named Andromeda, was actually a separate galaxy. Now there were two. When NASA launched a large telescope into space for a clearer view, they appropriately named it after Hubble.

In 1995, a scientist proposed pointing the Hubble telescope at one dark spot, the size of a grain of sand, to see what lay beyond the darkness. For ten days, the telescope orbited Earth and took hundreds of long-exposure photos of that spot. The result, which has been called “the most important image ever taken,” defied all expectations. That tiny spot contained almost 3,000 galaxies!

In later years, the Hubble telescope, refurbished by astronauts, revisited the same spot with more refined equipment, and identified many more galaxies. Astronomers mapped the Deep Field, the Ultra Deep Field, the eXtreme Deep Field, and the Frontiers Field. Reaching the limits of visible light—and perhaps running out of titles for Hubble’s exploits—they recently turned the task over to a new, stronger telescope. Launched last Christmas Day, the James Webb Space Telescope will be able to detect even more galaxies through infrared cameras.

Scientists now believe that if you had unlimited vision, you could hold a sewing needle at arm’s length toward the night sky, and you would see 10,000 galaxies in the eye of the needle. Move it an inch to the left and you’d find 10,000 more. Same to the right, or no matter where else you moved it. There are approximately a trillion galaxies out there, each encompassing an average of 100 to 200 billion stars.

Five hundred years ago, philosophy and science underwent a major revolution when Copernicus, Kepler, and Galileo established that the Sun did not revolve around Earth. To its shame, the church balked at accepting the new reality, famously putting Galileo on trial. Surely, the theologians argued, humans created in God’s own image must occupy a more exalted place in the universe.

In the years since, our home—this pale blue dot called Earth—has not stopped shrinking in comparative stature. Now it is exposed as a mid-sized planet orbiting a mid-rank star in one galaxy out of a trillion. How should we adapt to this humbling new reality?

One galaxy out of a trillion

Back when people assumed the universe comprised a few thousand stars, a psalmist marveled in prayer,

When I consider your heavens,
     the work of your fingers,
the moon and the stars,
     which you have set in place,
what is mankind that you are mindful of them,
     human beings that you care for them? (Psalm 8 NIV)

The question has expanded exponentially since David’s day. I try to wrap my mind around what I call “the Hubble telescope view of God.” The One who spun off a trillion galaxies, could that God possibly care about what happens on our infinitesimal planet?

Then I turn to the Book of Job, where poor, beleaguered Job turns the psalmist’s question on its head:

What is mankind that you make so much of them,
     that you give them so much attention,
that you examine them every morning
     and test them every moment?
Will you never look away from me,
     or let me alone even for an instant? (Job 7, NIV)

Job gets a direct answer from God, who speaks to him out of a whirlwind. Job had saved up a long list of questions, but it is God who interrogates, not Job. “Brace yourself like a man,” God begins. “I will question you, and you shall answer me.”

Reading this, the longest speech by God in the Bible, I hear God saying, “Let’s compare résumés, you and me, and I’ll go first.” Frederick Buechner sums up what follows: “God doesn’t explain. He explodes. He asks Job who he thinks he is anyway. He says that to try to explain the kind of things Job wants explained would be like trying to explain Einstein to a little-neck clam.” God does not need Job’s or anyone else’s advice on how to run the universe.

Brushing aside thirty-five chapters’ worth of debates on the problem of pain, God plunges instead into a dazzling poem on the many wonders of the natural world. God points out, one by one, the works of creation that give the greatest satisfaction. In effect, God asks Job, “Would you like to run the universe for a while? Go ahead, try designing an ostrich, or a mountain goat, or even a snowflake.” God even references astronomy: “Can you bind the beautiful Pleiades? Can you loose the cords of Orion? Can you bring forth the constellations in their season…?”

Job got a closeup lesson on how puny we humans are, compared to the God of the universe, and it silenced all his doubts and complaints. I’ve never experienced anything like the travails Job endured, but when I have my own doubts, I try to remember that perspective, the Hubble telescope view of God. In the words of a Broadway musical echoing God’s speech to Job, Your Arms Too Short to Box with God.

In my less self-absorbed moments, however, I turn to a very different passage from the Bible.

In his letter to the Philippians, the apostle Paul quotes what many believe to be a hymn from the early church. In a stately, lyrical paragraph, Paul marvels that Jesus gave up all the glory of heaven to take on the form of a man—and not just a man, but a servant, one who voluntarily subjected himself to an ignominious death on a cross.

I pause, and wonder at the mystery of Incarnation. In an act of humility beyond comprehension, the God of a trillion galaxies chose to con-descend—to descend to be with—the benighted humans on this small rebellious planet, out of billions in the universe. I falter at analogies: a human becoming an ant, perhaps, or an amoeba, or even a bacterium.

Yet according to Paul, that act of condescension proved to be a rescue mission that led to the healing of something broken in the universe.  The passage continues:

Therefore God exalted him to the highest place
     and gave him the name that is above every name,
that at the name of Jesus every knee should bow,
     in heaven and on earth and under the earth,
and every tongue acknowledge that Jesus Christ is Lord,
     to the glory of God the Father. (NIV)

Pale Blue Dot

We hear the roar of God at the end of the Book of Job, a voice that evokes awe and wonder more than intimacy and love. Philippians 2 gives a different slant on the Hubble telescope view. A God beyond the limits of space and time has a boundless capacity of love for his creations, no matter how small or how rebellious they might be.

As it happens, that message is best expressed not from a whirlwind, or burning bush, or smoking mountain, but rather person-to-person, by Jesus and his followers.





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44 responses to “The Incredible Shrinking Planet”

  1. Jane says:

    “All souls are mine” says the Lord God at Ezek 18:4. And He loves us all enough to put us first… and himself last.

    By the grace of God we all come to Jesus as Saviour… or Judge. And just as no one is able to keep the OT ‘law of works’, ALL are able to keep the NT ‘law of faith.’

    So the Lord’s invitation to all souls is to believe in Jesus and his Word of truth for salvation. Easy. Because his yoke is easy… and his burden is light (Matt 11:30). Let God bless you.

    Thank you for this good article.

  2. Clovis Barnett says:

    So thankful for you, Philip, and for how God has worked in and through your life all of these many years! Grateful for the intelligence, wisdom, and the ability to communicate, particularly in written form what God has taught you about Himself, yourself, and by extension the rest of us. We are blessed by it!

  3. Simona Rad says:

    This is so very beautiful. Thank you for the inspiration.

  4. Berwyn says:

    An awe-inspiring perspective, Philip. What a powerful reminder to “delight in the Lord” no matter what we may be experiencing. I love your sense of wonder. Thank you.

  5. Scott says:

    If reading this blog doesn’t make you wonder even more about the universe and all that we don’t know and have yet to discover, reading Eric Metaxas’ book “Is Atheism Dead?” does a good job of filling in the gaps. Thanks Philip for reminding us of just how small we are but just how enormous God’s love is to visit our tiny planet to save us from ourselves.

  6. Margaret Sutherland says:

    Love this!!! I have always been awed looking at the sky – from down in a valley, on the top of a mountain, or soaring in a plane. This blog just adds to my awe and wonder of all that our truly awesome God has created so richly for us to enjoy! And to think we haven’t seen anything yet, in comparison to what is to come!
    I was just reading 1 Chronicles 16 today, where David exhorts that we “give thanks to the Lord…proclaim His deeds…talk about all His wonderful works…remember His marvelous works which He has done…His wonders…declare His glory…” You have certainly done all that in this blog, Philip, filling us with praise and thanksgiving, and .humbling us again that this magnificent God has chosen us fallible humans to express His love for the people He created, “no matter how small or how rebellious they might be.”

  7. John Ragland says:

    Always interesting. But the poems and hymns and myths of the Bible fail to explain why God chose this pinprick of Levantine humanity to explain a bit of him/her/itself and we immediately assume that this very limited explanation must be “sold” to all of humanity, and presumably any other sentient beings, terrestrial or alien.

    On the subject of selling (and this is not directed at you) I found myself marveling, while driving through the deep heart of Texas this week, at the many ways we humans have discovered for getting rich off the life and death of a radical carpenter’s son who lived in Palestine some 2000 years ago.

  8. Darien Keane says:

    Thank you for writing this. My brain is dancing with joy to find a fellow pilgrim that shares some of my perpespective on God. The heavens declare the glory of God… Amen and Amen.

  9. Jean says:

    I was in awe, mouth open, as I read this. Such unimaginable love of the Father and the Son!

  10. Tony Foote says:

    Thank you for another beautiful message!
    As scientists press farther into both the micro and macro ends of creation’s continuum they give me new and more numerous hints of our unfathomable Father’s creativity and infinite power.

  11. McElwain Diane says:

    Awesome is our God. Thanks for this.

  12. Thank you Philip! You have given me thoughts for not only today, but for all days. God bless you!

  13. John Lezada says:

    “I’m wondering about this. With all the galaxies out there, do you think there is other life out there? How could we be taught that we are the only ones that God created or loves? I don’t think He would create all these planets and stars just for His amusement with no purpose, would He?” Domna Gallion, Philip, I also often wondered about this, too. My daughter, 21, and I discuss a lot about theology outside the parameters of this world we connect with daily. We’re happy to content ourselves with a speculation that fill our hearts with joy. It’s something that touches on Lewis’ thoughts about life on the new earth. We think we get to be transferred someplace in the blink of an eye, to a dimension only those who have passed on to the other life with God. These trillion of planets are already occupied, and the Eschaton is fully being played out in these interstellar habitations. Of course I have yet to wait a decade or two to finally see Him as He is and His prepared new heavens and earth . It will be when “I open at the close,” as quipped by a lone wizard. Oh, and my daughter love reading your books since she was 14.

  14. John Lezada says:

    Wonderful, awesome, humbling–leads one to prostrate in worship before God. Recently, read partially about scientists beginning to relate God’s love and purpose to first, the entire spectrum of living creatures, in particular, the evolution of humans for whom Christ died (loved and forgave) and, second, the staggering space of our growing universe our minds can’t even begin to fathom. In the light of the horrendous violence we have inflicted against one another and our world, beginning with Lucy (and the previous hominids prior to her family), to the present genocidal atrocities, a lot of ontological and theological questions arise that may never even find any answers in this dimension of our existence. One thing that kept me hanging on to an all-encompassing faith, is the Lord Jesus who had shown us an empty tomb. Some things will come to light soon, others, never will. I choose to a beginning of all things with God already there and prior to it, than an eternally timeless materiality. Seems to me there aren’t any but just these two faith options.

  15. Paul Mitchell says:

    Your mind-boggling description can only be surpassed if the reader will find a clear country night sky, and then put on a set of night vision goggles and look up. I was able to do this one and it was stunning, even frightening.
    BTW, concerning Fermi’s Paradox, I watched a science show (not Christian, either) that says with our computer processing speed advancing at racetrack speed, we will soon reach the point where a million planets have been investigated. If no life is detected, it will then be a statistical improbability life outside of Earth exists. That will give the atheist some sleepless nights….

  16. Very Good Morning,
    Brother Philip, this is wonderful and Christians must continue to trust in our Father Lord.
    It reminds me of when I participated in the 22nd Symposium of Remote Sensing of Environment organised by Environmental Research Institute of Michigan (ERIM) and Grande Traveaux now BNETD in Abidjan.
    Prominent Astraunauts participated including Louisma, The 1975 Space Man. I was really humbled to be at the Diner where Astronaut Loiusma showed the august gathering a film covering his space journey.
    I even had the opportunity to take picture with him.
    Please if he is blessed with long life and still around, Philip, kindly look for him and send my regards.
    To you Philip, your name Yancey is African name. The father of the present Mayor of Cocody at Abidjan, Ivory Coast was caĺled Phillippe Yacé. The late Father Yacé was Former President of The National Assembly of Ivory Coast now Côte d’Ivoire.
    Philip, you must try to trace your roots back to Abidjan. (Smile and laugh now).
    I can arrange when you are ready.
    Stay healthy and happy for we are worshipping the True God.

  17. Doug Yancey says:

    This is a great article! I have always had an interest in astronomy and the incomprehensible expanse of the universe. I am going to send this to some of my friends in my church (you remember which one that is).

  18. Beautiful !! What else can I say ?

  19. Tim Geisse says:

    Thanks Philip. I enjoy and appreciate your writing as always. I have said many times that there’s only one “star” visible with the naked eye that is not in our galaxy and that is Andromeda, an entire galaxy in itself. I like it because it means one point of light that we can see is equal to ( greater actually) than all the other stars put together. But is that incorrect? Is Andromeda not visible to the naked eye? Thanks again

    • Philip Yancey says:

      It is visible, yes. But it wasn’t conclusively identified as another galaxy until Hubble in 1925. Some thought it was a suspernova, or perhaps a large cloud of dust and gas.

  20. The Hubble Telescope view… so good. And terrifying. And humbling. What a great reminder that in our smallness, God still loves us, and this makes him the biggest, most majestic of all.

  21. Avenel Grace says:

    Dearest Phillip,
    It is such a humbling experience to even contemplate the greatness of God.
    I think of this when confronted with all the turmoil at this time on planet earth.
    I can only bow before the greatness of God and trust him for the remainder of our journey. Amen. My love always,
    Avenel Grace. Adelaide South Australia.

  22. Bradley Robertson says:

    The roar of God from the needlepoint of a pin-
    From way past the final Frontiers all galaxies describe-
    The infinite Infinite Who descended from light brighter than light-
    And became human that we may become fully human-
    In the great expanse of an inexhaustible height and depth-
    God sees into our roar of worth … though we are galaxies of quarks-
    He made we … from the needlepoint of a pin

  23. Ken Steckert says:

    Thanks for the thoughts on the incredulousness of God – too big and too small to comprehend.

    I recall years ago teaching in children’s church from Isaiah 40 where the poet writes in verse 12 “Who has measured the waters in the hollow of his hand …” I thought of the song “He’s Got the Whole World In His Hands” and how big God was. And then I thought maybe the idea is that God’s hands are no larger than mine, but the detail to which he cared for even how much water would be on the earth was to how many handfuls of water the earth needed.

  24. Uli Kaestner says:

    The mass between my ears is not equipped to fully process even a hint of God’s creation.
    I am thankful for being able to bent my knees in awe!

  25. John Wolfe says:

    Of the almost unlimited attributes God created us with,the ability to cope,carry on,forget the past is amazing.
    We are awed by God’s handiworks,however we are unable to stay in that state permanently. We must “work” at “loving God”.
    Is this situation a part of our God given “free will”?

  26. Maury J McNeil says:

    Thank you Philip for making our smallness as humanity something to be humbled over, yet also highlighting our corrupted humanity God so longed to redeem at such great personal cost to Him, which ought to evoke an unabated awe for Him and in much smaller way an awe for His image bearers too.

  27. Harry says:

    Beautifully said! Thanks Phil!

  28. Tony coffey says:

    Thank you for a wonderful message, so much to think about, to ponder and to pray.

  29. Michael Ti9bbetts says:

    Wow! Incredible! Thank you so much for sharing this. At this point in my life, I needed to hear this and reflect on it.

  30. Pamela Wood says:

    Thank you so much!!!! I so love articles like this. It makes me love our Creator and Father even more!!!! Fascinating!!!!!

  31. Thank you for your insights. The varied and continuous declarations of God’s glory, revealed by God, awaited their exposure through the human-made Hubble Telescope. And we rejoice in the revelations. Astounded and thankful. Confined by time, space, and matter, I’m overwhelmed by numbers, distances, and movements. “What is man that you are mindful of Him?” From the contrasts between God, His creation, and His image-bearing creatures, I think one of the lessons He is showing us is that size and space (observed through telescope or microscope) are irrelevant (though delightful) to our Creator God who is Spirit and personal. Matter is big or small, here or there. Spirit is not matter or location — not size or place, but infinite, good, holy, and love. “Who is God?” and “What is man?” intersect in my thoughts at Romans 8:16 which says, “The Spirit Himself testifies with our spirit that we are God’s children.” And that chapter concludes, reminding me that nothing in all of creation is capable of separating me from the love of God in Christ Jesus our Lord (Rom. 8:38-39). I rejoice in God through His revelations to us in His creation and in His Word.

  32. Carolyn Storey says:

    Thank you for weaving all of this information and scripture together.
    I am once again filled with awe and inspiration.

  33. Domna Gallion says:

    I appreciate each of your blogs, though I’ve never written to you. Thank you for your thoughtful presentations and for bringing us to worship our great God and Father. I’m wondering about this. With all the galaxies out there, do you think there is other life out there? How could we be taught that we are the only ones that God created or loves? I don’t think He would create all these planets and stars just for His amusement with no purpose, would He?

    • Philip Yancey says:

      No one knows for sure, and the distances are so vast that sentient life as we know it could not reach us before dying. Or, there may be different rules governing life elsewhere, as C. S. Lewis speculated in his space trilogy.

  34. Mark Shelp says:

    Oh my! This is just so good! It says so well what I often marvel and wonder about but struggle with trying to put into words—some things take a professional! Sometimes I’m so struck with the humility of Jesus, from birth to death, and how little of humility we see today in Christianity, and in myself. The old George Beverly Shea song, The Wonder Of It All comes to mind. Thank you Phillip!

  35. Peter Reece says:

    I used to pretend that I was a scientist but in recent years, when it comes to the universe, I have decided that I know less than nothing!!
    It is a source of total amazement that God cares!

  36. Jerry Holmaas says:

    You have blown my mind, Philip. Many times I felt shivers running up my spine as I read this writing, For the first time I believe I’ve grasped even a little of the majesty of the Master of the Universe. Rabbi Abraham Joshua Heschel said it first for me: “The grandeur of nature is only the beginning. Beyond the grandeur is God.” (from his book God in Search of Man: A Philosophy of Judaism). Your blog has given substance to the grandeur of nature. And then to ponder the Incarnation and the shocking humility of the Creator of a trillion galaxies, each comprised of billions of stars, who loved us so much….
    ” And when I think that God, His Son not sparing
    Sent Him to die, I scarce can take it in” (from the hymn “How Great Thou Art”)
    Deepest thanks for your writings, Philip. Once more God spoke to my heart through you!

  37. steve nerz says:

    Phillip, your blog reminded me of this joke. One day a group of scientists got together and decided that man had come a long way and no longer needed God. So they picked one scientist to go and tell Him that they were done with Him. The scientist walked up to God and said, “God, we’ve decided that we no longer need you. We’re to the point that we can clone people and do many miraculous things, so what don’t you go on and get lost. God listened very patiently and kindly to the man. After the scientist was done talking , God said, “very well, how about this?” Let us have a man-making contest.” The scientist said, “Okay, great.” But God added, “now we’re going to do this just like I did back in the old days with Adam.” The scientist said, “sure, no problem” and bent down and grabbed himself a handful of dirt. God looked at him, and said, “no, no, no. You got to get your own dirt!”

  38. Janice Elias says:

    Breathtaking, Philip. Thank you!

  39. erik post says:

    Philip Yancey’s fine blend of science and faith.

  40. Peter Olsson says:

    God is not beyond and separate from the universe; God is within the universe; God is the universe; The universe is God. Man made in the image of God is paradoxically through faith, able to be one with God in his grace and love.

    Science, including astronomy, if only limited to what can be seen, touched, measured, and only cognitively grasped is severely limited.

    I recommend Jeffrey Kripal’s fascinating book, THE FLIP: Epiphanies of Mind and the Future of Knowledge
    Peter Olsson MD

  41. Chima Christopher says:

    Thank you, I really needed to read this. One day, perhaps, if you’re available,I would like to send you a mail

  42. Kim Crum says:

    Thank you. Just for the reminder, for helping me think, and put things in perspective, yet also be in wonder that God still cares about the tiniest insignificant detail of our lives.

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