21st February 2003
``I am the Alpha and the Omega'' [the First and the Last, the Beginning and the End], says the Lord God, ``Who is, and who was, and who is to come, the Almighty.''— Revelation 1:8
Today we want to look at the awesomeness of God: his utter, ultimate power, knowledge and relevance to everything that ever happens. The three qualities of God that theologians talk about in this area are the ``omnis'':
We're going to look at all these in one session, somewhat mushed together, as they are facets of the same truth - the ``ultimateness'' or ``absoluteness'' of God, if you like. We won't try too hard to break the three ``omnis'' apart as they represent a rather artificial distinction. We'll see how they tie together.
For a lot of people, these issues are more fruitfully approached through the arts than than through the sciences. That's because, as we've observed before, God is just too big to fit into our finite, mortal minds. The best we can hope for is a piercing glimpse of the reality - which is what music, for example, can sometimes give us. While science wants to have everything mapped out neatly, and fails completely when it can't grasp its subject, art is content with allusions, hints and analogies. That's why, even though by nature I am a scientific kind of person, I've got more real insight into God's nature from novels and music than from any amount of theology. You need the theology so you can fit the glimpses into a coherent framework; but if all you have is a framework, you might as well give up and go home.
The key insight here is that God is much, much more than we understand. There is so much more to him than we will ever grasp in this life - and maybe in the next. Most Christians become Christians long before they have any real understanding of who it is they have come to love and trust; and to be truthful, we never fully find out. That's not a bad thing, though it may sound like it: it's like a developing love affair, which grows deeper as the lover grow to know each other more deeply. I didn't know half of what Fiona is when I met her, or even when I married her.
So let's see if we can get some glimpses of God's ultimateness and absoluteness.
``To whom will you compare me? Or who is my equal?'' says the Holy One. 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.— Isaiah 40:25-26
The best and clearest illustration of God's power is perhaps found in creation. Now I am not going to get sidetracked today into the whole thing of how long creation took and when it happened - six thousand or fifteen billion years ago - but what is absolutely clear from any objective reading of the bible is that God is the agent of creation. If you want to know why everything exists, the answer is clear: it's because God made it. It's only when you start to ask how he made it that things get more complicated.
The book of Job is perhaps the oldest in the bible. Many respected shcolars have described it standing proud among the very finest poetry ever written. but I would characterise it as essentially an extended thirty-five chapter whinge, bracketed by two chapters of plot at the start and five of real drama at the end. The story in a nutshell is that Job, though seemingly blameless, meets with all sorts of disasters not of his own making, then argues interminably with his friends about why God allows such injustice. In chapter 38, God himself turns up and joins the debate - or, it would be more accurate to say, he overwhelms it. From that point on, you don't hear one more word from Job's friends, and only a few sentence from Job himself. Here's how God announces his arrival:
Then the LORD answered Job out of the storm. He said: ``Who is this that darkens my counsel with words without knowledge? Brace yourself like a man; I will question you, and you shall answer me.
``Where were you when I laid the earth's foundation? Tell me, if you understand. Who marked off its dimensions? Surely you know! Who stretched a measuring line across it? On what were its footings set, or who laid its cornerstone - while the morning stars sang together and all the angels shouted for joy?''— Job 38:1-7
Let's take a brief look at the universe and see whether we can get a sense of scale - starting with the world that we live on.
The Earth is a rough sphere about eight thousand miles in diameter, which means that it's about four thousand miles straight down to the center. We're accustomed to thinking of it as a ball of rock, but that's not so: the great majority of the Earth is liquid - molten rock called magma swirling, incredible slowly, beneath our feet. The solid part of the earth that we live on, and in whose hollows the sea sits, is called the crust, and on average it's only a few miles thick - maybe ten miles. That's like a layer a third of a milimeter thick coating a football. We live on that incredibly fragile, thin layer of plates floating on the subterranean sea of magma.
You may been feeling a bit insecure now! And it may not help to think about the fact that the Earth is also zooming around the Sun at about thirty-three thousand mph, or the best part of ten miles per second. And the whole solar system - Sun, Earth and all - is whizzing around the centre of our galaxy at about 140 miles per second, so that it goes all the way round once every two hundred and fifty million years.
Now let's consider some sizes. The Earth weighs about seventy-three million million tonnes. If that seems substantial, consider that Saturn is nearly a hundred times as heavy; Jupiter is more than three hundred times as heavy; and the Sun is weighs about as much as a third of a million Earths.
But wait! All that is one tiny, insignificant solar system - which is very much just the beginning. Astronomical distances are measured in light-years: one light-year is the distance that light, travelling at 186 thousand miles per second, can travel in one year. It's about six million million miles. Our galaxy, called the Milky Way, is about 100 thousand light-years across, or six hundred thousand million million miles. If you made a model of the galaxy the same size as the whole Earth, its scale would be about one in 75 million million scale, so that your model of the Earth would be about a six-thousandth of a millimeter across.
But wait! Our galaxy is just one of several in a so-called ``Local Group'' which is about four million light-years across.
But wait! Our Local Group is a part of an elliptically shaped ``Local Supercluster'', consisting of about fifty Local Groups, and about 100 million light-years across.
But wait! There are many Local Superclusters, including some which have been detected as much as 600 million light-years away. This is so far away that if intelligent beings on a planet in that group were observing the Earth, they'd be seeing with light 600 million years old - which is long before there were dinosaurs, amphibians or even fish; or indeed any kind of animal life, so far as we know.
Our galaxy is estimated to contain about a hundred thousand million stars. Our best instruments can detect about a hundred thousand million galaxies, so it's not unreasonable to estimate that there are ten thousand million million million stars like the sun out there - and maybe many more, beyond the range of our science.
I'd love to go on, but the point is made. Douglas Adams makes it rather better than I could:
The Hitch Hiker's Guide to the Galaxy is a wholly remarkable book. It has been compiled and recompiled many times over many years and under many different editorships. It contains contributions from countless numbers of travellers and researchers.
The introduction begins like this:
``Space,'' it says, ``is big. Really big. You just won't believe how vastly hugely mindboggingly big it is. I mean you may think it's a long way down the road to the chemist, but that's just peanuts to space. Listen ..." and so on.
[...] To be fair though, when confronted by the sheer enormity of distances between the stars, better minds than the one responsible for the Guide's introduction have faltered. Some invite you to consider for a moment a peanut in Reading and a small walnut in Johannesburg, and other such dizzying concepts.
The simple truth is that interstellar distances will not fit into the human imagination.— Douglas Adams, The Hitch-Hiker's Guide to the Galaxy
[It would be fun to talk about the length of geological time, too: the old ``five minutes to midnight'' thing. Another day, maybe.]
Now the point of all this is not just so that we all go ``Wow, man!'', but to provoke us to worship: worship not of the creation but of its creator! (This is the big - and understandable - mistake of paganism. It's surely right to recognise that the universe is a wonderful thing; but it's crucial not to confuse it with its maker.) At the beginning of the book of Romans, Paul writes:
Since the creation of the world God's invisible qualities - his eternal power and divine nature - have been clearly seen, being understood from what has been made, so that men are without excuse.
They exchanged the truth of God for a lie, and worshiped and served created things rather than the Creator.— Romans 1:20,25
Finally in this section, I'd just like to touch on how excessive God has been in his creation, how lavish. The Genesis account describes the creation of the universe beyond our solar system as follows (exact words):
He also made the stars.— Genesis 1:16
Now Genesis's account of creation is of course very much from an Earth-o-centric perspective. But the connotation here, as I read it - and remember, we're talking about art here as much as science - is that the stars were an afterthought! As though God, having made the Earth, then thought to himself, ``Oh, OK, we'll have a few thousand million million million stars as well.''
So we need to avoid Sennacherib's mistake. He was the king of Assyria in Old Testament times, a powerful and aggressive nation. He brought his army to invade Israel, and As he laid seige to Jerusalem, he sent a message to the Israelites saying:
Do not let Hezekiah mislead you when he says, ``The LORD will deliver us.'' Has the god of any nation ever delivered his land from the hand of the king of Assyria? Where are the gods of Hamath and Arpad? Where are the gods of Sepharvaim? Have they rescued Samaria from my hand? Who of all the gods of these countries has been able to save his land from me? How then can the LORD deliver Jerusalem from my hand?— Isaiah 36:18-19
Sennacherib was thinking of God merely as a ``better man'', a greater warrior or cleverer strategist - so he thought that he could stand against him and win. He had no idea what he was dealing with. And sure enough, Isaiah 27:36 tells us, ``Then the angel of the LORD went out and put to death a hundred and eighty-five thousand men in the Assyrian camp.''
The thing to realise here is that we are also prone to make Sennacherib's mistake, if to a lesser degree. We think of God as being more or less like us but more so: a bit stronger, a bit cleverer, a bit wiser. No. We are talking about the creator.
I prayed to the LORD: Ah, Sovereign LORD, you have made the heavens and the earth by your great power and outstretched arm. Nothing is too hard for you.
Great are your purposes and mighty are your deeds. Your eyes are open to all the ways of men; you reward everyone according to his conduct and as his deeds deserve.— Jeremiah 32:16-17, 19
Notice how Jeremiah's prayer starts out on the theme of God's power, then shades into the theme of his wisdom. The two are inimately connected.
Alan Kay is a prominent and respected computer scientist. He works in a field where it's notoriously difficult to predict the future: ten years before the World Wide Web emerged, no-one anticipated anything like it: everyone thought back in the eighties that the future of computer was going to be in things like voice-recognition interfaces. His take on how to predict the future of computer science is insightful: ``The best way to predict the future is to invent it.'' We can understand God's perfect knowledge of past, present and future in much the same light: he invented it. He knows it perfectly because it's his plan.
O LORD, you have searched me and you know me. You know when I sit and when I rise; you perceive my thoughts from afar. You discern my going out and my lying down; you are familiar with all my ways. Before a word is on my tongue you know it completely, O LORD. You hem me in - behind and before; you have laid your hand upon me.
My frame was not hidden from you when I was made in the secret place. When I was woven together in the depths of the earth, your eyes saw my unformed body. All the days ordained for me were written in your book before one of them came to be.
Such knowledge is too wonderful for me. [...] How precious to me are your thoughts, O God!— Psalm 139:1-5, 15-16, 6, 17
Through the bare branches, across the ground that was once more stiffening with frost, a summer breeze ws blowing into the room, but the breeze of such a summer as England never has.
Tears ran down Ransom's cheeks. He alone knew from what seas and what islands that breeze blew. Merlin did not: but in him also the inconsolable wound with which man is born waked and ached at this touching. Low syllables of prehistoric Celtic self-pity murmured from his lips.— C. S. Lewis, That Hideous Strength
"god is everywhere" not in a new age sense "god is in us" in two senses: 1. made in his image, 2. indwelt the former is true of all humans, the latter only of christians when some people say "god is in us all", they mean that god is no more than the sum of us. this is NOT what the bible means!
Every good and perfect gift is from above, coming down from the Father.— James 1:17
love of a mother or husband/wife, glory of scenery, bravery of a war hero, majesty of dinosaurs, satisfaction of coming home, vastness of space and time: all are reflections of God's goodness. nostalgic longing for childhood is really a glimpse into something deeper. we are made for heaven, no wonder we struggle on earth that's why any kind of loss is so resonant: loss of a parent or child, or break-up of a marriage. our spirits know that we are defined by what we have lost: closeness to god. hence paul simon C. S. Lewis's definition of both "Joy" and "Romance" Q. "Are there circles in heaven?" A. There are spheres!
If you're reading a paper copy of this document, the soft-copy can be found at www.miketaylor.org.uk/xian/omni.html