Is the Universe a Message?

Why does the universe exist? Why is it as it is? Why should it be so vast and awe-inspiring? This question crosses people’s minds and people make significant choices when they deal with the question. One option is to just not deal with the question. Someone might think for example that it is an unanswerable question. Others might follow modern scientific ideas and say there is no “why” to the universe’s existence, that the universe just spontaneously happened. But this is not a satisfying answer.

Recall the book called Contact, written by the late Dr. Carl Sagan (published 1985). The book Contact was made into a movie. In Contact, a radio signal is received from space that is found to have a message in it from intelligent beings. So people on Earth find that the message is actually elaborate instructions for building a machine which will transport someone across the universe. So an astronomer, a woman named Dr. Arroway, makes the trip in the device and has an encounter with an alien being. There is an intriguing statement about the question of life in the universe repeated multiple times in the Contact movie. It begins when Eleanor Arroway is just an inquisitive girl who asks her father if there were people on other planets. After first saying he didn’t know, her father responds with the statement, “If it is just us, it seems like an awful waste of space.” Dr. Arroway later repeats this statement to school children.

Dr. Arroway in the story comes from the atheistic mindset, she does not believe in God but she accepts the concepts from modern science that the universe is billions of years old and it came from the Big Bang. The “wasted space” comment is I think implying a certain naturalistic (atheistic) argument that goes something like this. First, the universe formed not from the creative activity of an intelligent Creator but by natural processes over billions of years. Out of deep time and many combinations of processes forming stars and planets, life formed by natural processes in rare instances on certain planets in the universe. Given the many billions of years and the vast number of combinations of scenarios in how planets form, there is bound to be life forming on other planets the same way it formed on our own planet. I think this is Arroway’s thinking in the story. So I think the concept of “wasted space” from Dr. Arroway is actually a misnomer. If there is no “why” to the existence of the universe, then on what basis could you say that the vastness of space is wasted? She is saying that since we exist, other intelligent life must exist also, somewhere. This is not a “scientific” conclusion, it is more of a hope from a certain world view. Dr. Arroway thinks that it would be a “waste” if we were the only intelligent life, considering the vastness of the universe. There is a statement in the Contact book to the effect of, how could there be billions of worlds going to waste, as barren lifeless worlds? But the naturalistic mindset views the universe as a product of a kind of numbers game. It is because of the vast numbers of planets and stars out there and the long periods of time that we were lucky enough to exist. Out of many stars and planets the “waste” is that most of them don’t support life, but it is often believed that a few of them would and we are ‘lucky’ enough to be on one of those planets that support life. On the other hand, Biblically, it is not a numbers game at all! Isaiah 45:18 (NIV) makes clear that Earth exists by deliberate design for life, especially for us.

“For this is what the Lord says —
he who created the heavens,
he is God;
he who fashioned and made the earth,
he founded it;
he did not create it to be empty,
but formed it to be inhabited . . . .”

The scientific evidence for many extrasolar planets, discovered some years after the publication of Sagan’s Contact book, would be seen as supporting this view by many. But if Dr. Arroway were a real astronomer today, would the discoveries about extrasolar planets support the same “wasted space” concept? There are certainly many extrasolar planets. The scientific evidence for this is good. In our galaxy the Milky Way, it is not unreasonable to say there is likely to be as many extrasolar planets as there are stars in the galaxy. The number of stars in the Milky Way is now estimated at about 200 billion. Some stars have no planets but some have multiple planets. Astronomers debate the habitability of some of the extrasolar planets. Some are of the right distance from their stars to have a temperature range that could allow for liquid water. But this in itself doesn’t tell us if the exoplanet even has water. Even if there is a life-friendly atmosphere and liquid water on an exoplanet, there are effects from the star that could make life impossible. Many stars are not so stable as our own star and solar flares could destroy life on many of the known exoplanets. The scientific question of how life would arise on our own planet without a Creator is not really a resolved issue either, so we do not really know enough to confidently assert that life could arise on an exoplanet, just because it exists on Earth. So the question of life on extrasolar planets is really a question science cannot answer. There is reason for skepticism and yet there are planets that could be in the habitable zone for other stars. But in real scientific research, no one has found evidence of an intelligently coded message from space as in the Contact fictional story. Still many hope for something like the Contact story to happen one day.

The Biblical view suggests a very different way of understanding the universe. In the Bible, the important issue is not are there intelligent alien beings similar to us, but is there an intelligent Creator worth knowing and worshiping? What if the universe is first and foremost a means of communication from an infinite Creator-God? It is not vast for the purpose of supporting many different intelligent life forms, but it is vast primarily for helping finite mankind to imagine an infinite Creator. Since an all-powerful being could do anything easily, it would not be too much for an infinite Creator to make a vast universe to stimulate our thinking. The Bible presents God as unlimited in power and all-knowing. He is spirit, yet can exist in human form, as in the person of Jesus Christ. Solomon stated “the highest heavens cannot contain you…” when he was dedicating the temple long ago in ancient Israel (1 Kings 8:27, NIV). King David once wrote in Psalm 139, “If I go up to the heavens, you are there…” (Psalm 139:7-8). Psalm 19:1-4 makes the well-known statement “The heavens declare the glory of God, the skies proclaim the work of his hands….” What is this “glory” that the heavens declare? I think it is about God’s greatness and his nature as One who wants a relationship with us. The glory in the universe should motivate us to want to know its maker, and our Maker. The Bible does not really even entertain the notion that natural processes could be adequate to create the universe. Only an all-powerful Creator could be an adequate first cause, in the Christian world view. But the Bible, as the special revelation of the Creator-God, uses nature and sometimes references to the universe to help human beings grasp how God is so much different and greater than us.

Consider the passage below from Isaiah 55:6-9 (NIV).

“Seek the Lord while he may be found;
call on him while he is near.
Let the wicked forsake their ways
and the unrighteous their thoughts.
Let them turn to the Lord, and he
will have mercy on them,
and to our God, for he will freely

For my thoughts are not your thoughts,
neither are your ways my ways,
As the heavens are higher than the earth,
so are my ways higher than your ways
and my thoughts than your thoughts.”

It has always seemed an amazing thing to me that the infinite Creator would have any interest in our lives. Yet, Scripture actually goes so far as to “measure” God’s love by the vastness of the universe! Psalm 103:11 puts it in the strongest terms, “For as high as the heavens are above the earth, so great is his love for those who fear him.” I once wrote an article about a Gamma Ray Burster object (GRB 090423, CLICK TO GO TO). By the usual way scientists interpret redshifts to indicate distance (Hubble’s Law), this object would be over 13 billion light-years away from us! It was a very brief powerful burst of energy and scientists are not sure how so much energy could be generated. This has been described as one of the most distant known objects in the universe.

Biblically, the universe is not big and impersonal, but big and personal. It is something from an infinite Being who wanted to give finite human beings with limited imaginations something tangible to help us imagine what He is. If you try you can find another way to look at the universe, but I would say the other ideas are neither logical nor satisfying. I’ve wrestled with how secular science tends to view the universe differently than the Bible. The naturalistic origins theories from secular science are not so well established as most people think they are, including Big Bang theory. Science has not ruled out supernatural creation by a Creator, it simply cannot model it. We cannot argue that supernatural creation did not happen just because science cannot model it or quantify it.

So, what if the universe is a communication?  If it is, we must learn to listen the right way.  Perhaps there is a message we have missed, about the Creator.

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