By Matt Steel
08 September 2021
J.R.R. Tolkien begins The Silmarillion, his mythic history of Middle Earth and Valinor, with a creation story. He describes a choir of heavenly beings who sang the world into existence. In the eternity before time and within the Void they created Ëa, All that Is. Deep within the vastness of Ëa, they made Arda, the Elvish name for Earth, to be a home for myriad living things.
“There was Eru, the One, who in Arda is called Ilúvatar; and he made first the Ainur, the Holy Ones, that were the offspring of his thought, and they were with him before aught else was made.”
Chief among the Ainur was Melkor, “he who arises in might.” Envying Eru’s mastery, Melkor devised a theme of his own which twisted and fought with Eru’s Great Music.
“And it seemed at last that there were two musics progressing at one time before the seat of Ilúvatar, and they were utterly at variance. The one was deep and wide and beautiful, but slow and blended with an immeasurable sorrow, from which its beauty chiefly came. The other had now achieved a unity of its own; but it was loud, and vain, and endlessly repeated; and it had little harmony, but rather a clamorous unison as of many trumpets braying upon a few notes. And it essayed to drown the other music by the violence of its voice, but it seemed that its most triumphant notes were taken by the other and woven into its own solemn pattern.”
After the world took form, the Ainur descended and shaped it in preparation for the birth of Elves and Men. But nearly everything that the Ainur created was somehow broken or tainted by Melkor and his fellow rebels. Where the Ainur made gardens, Melkor made wastes. From the great beasts roaming forests and plains, Melkor captured and filled some with malevolent spirits to create earthbound terrors. And from among the Elves, Melkor twisted and bred some of those he captured to make Orcs, his slaves and legions. Melkor became known as Morgoth, “the dark enemy,” the first dark lord and the greater predecessor of Sauron. And so much like the world where you and I live, pain, death and evil were woven not only into the story of one planet but the entire fabric of Ëa – the multiverse – from the very beginning of time. Ëa was beautiful yet marred. There was little hope for healing.
· § ·
Christians believe Jesus’ life, death and resurrection were the cost of our peace. By his suffering, we are healed. But if our hope reaches no further than the renewal of humanity and this planet, we think far too much of ourselves and far too little of Christ. After all, we’ve known for centuries that the heavens don’t revolve around us. A radical widening of perspective is in order.
Jesus says in Revelation that he is making all things new. What if his sacrifice was the catalyst of a total remaking of all creation? Why else would he have created such an incomprehensibly vast cosmos? Fringe decoration?
In Colossians 1, Paul describes the scope of Jesus’ work. I think the passage bears revisiting with fresh eyes and unhurried reading. Emphasis mine: “For it pleased the Father that in Him all the fullness should dwell, and by Him to reconcile all things to Himself, by Him, whether things on earth or things in heaven, having made peace through the blood of His cross.”
Yes, Jesus died to make us right with God. He also died for the ground in which the cross was sunk. And Jesus died to heal the black holes that swallow planets in the reaches of space. His sacrifice is not just for us. Not only is humankind permeated and warped by the fungus of sin, but so is all of creation. Every corner. Every particle. Every void.
When sin entered creation through our first ancestors’ abuse of free will, the fungus didn’t stop there. Violence, futility and death entered the natural world and twisted its original design. People fell first and the spiral of death grew into a cosmic hurricane that still rages.
This means the universe’s renewal began at Golgotha when Jesus died a slow and excruciating death between two thieves. Human restoration is only part of a larger process touching all that exists and all that will exist. God so loved the worlds!
Humankind may be God’s most prized creation, “a little lower than the heavenly beings,” as the Psalmist put it, and yet the multitude of people past, present and future is less than a grain of sand in all the seas of Ëa.
Our smallness can’t be overstated.
I know of two stories that offer at least some sense of the universe’s endless breadth of scale and how infinitesimal we are. The first is a scientific short film and the second comes from a science fiction novel.
In my senior year of college, one of my design professors wanted to enhance our appreciation of scale. He showed us a classic short film to illustrate what happens to perspective and perception when we look at things up close and from afar.
In 1977, design luminaries Charles and Ray Eames created Powers of Ten for ibm. Beginning with a sunny picnic scene in Chicago, we look down on a napping man from exactly one meter above him. One hand rests on his chest. The camera steadily zooms out of the Windy City, through the atmosphere, the solar system, the Milky Way and continues to the edges of the known universe. Then, as described on the Eames Office’s web archive, “At a rate of ten-to-the-tenth meters per second, the film takes us towards Earth again, continuing back to the sleeping man’s hand and eventually down to the level of a carbon atom.”
Powers of Ten blew my mind. In a mere nine minutes, the film demonstrates surprising resemblances that only appear at micro and macro extremes of scale. At ten light-years from Earth, outer space looks exactly like sub-atomic space. At ten to the 22nd power or a million light-years from Lake Michigan, the Milky Way looks like a ball of cotton. And at ten to the –12th power, we see the bright nucleus of a carbon atom in the man’s hand, floating in a vast interior darkness. Cotton again.
The second example appears in the pages of a masterwork of nihilistic British space humor (naturally).
In The Restaurant at the End of the Universe by Douglas Adams, the most “savage psychic torture a sentient being can undergo” takes place in a machine called the Total Perspective Vortex. The tpv is a form of capital punishment reserved for the galaxy’s most unregenerate criminals. In a matter of seconds, the tpv annihilates a person’s soul while allowing the body to live on. Its method is simple. The Vortex shows a victim “the whole infinite Universe. The infinite suns, the infinite distances between them and yourself an invisible dot on an invisible dot, infinitely small.” The shock of this sudden and total sense of proportion shucks the soul from the body like an oyster from its shell, leaving nothing but an animal husk bereft of all personhood.
This terrifying contraption came about as the result of a run-of-the-mill marital spat.
“Trin Trigula … was a dreamer, a thinker, a speculative philosopher, or, as his wife would have it, an idiot.
“And she would nag him incessantly about the utterly inordinate amount of time he spent staring out into space, or mulling over the mechanics of safety pins, or doing spectrographic analyses of pieces of fairy cake.
“‘Have some sense of proportion!’ she would say, sometimes as often as thirty-eight times in a single day.
“And so he built the Total Perspective Vortex – just to show her.
“And into one end he plugged the whole of reality as extrapolated from a piece of fairy cake, and into the other end he plugged his wife: so that when he turned it on she saw in one instant the whole infinity of creation and herself in relation to it.
“To Trin Trigula’s horror, the shock completely annihilated her brain; but to his satisfaction he realized that he had proved conclusively that if life is going to exist in a Universe of this size, then the one thing it cannot afford is to have a sense of proportion.”
It’s a whimsical tale in a science fiction novel, but sometimes humor and fantasy can help us can tiptoe around truths that would destroy our minds if we were to meet them head-on.
· § ·
Somewhere between a speeding electron and the dusty black velvet of the universe, you’ll find this Earth and every person on it. Jesus told his disciples that God is mindful of us. “Even the very hairs of your head are numbered.”
Taken in context, Jesus wasn’t telling a parable, cracking a joke or making a hyperbolic point. Nor does the original text afford any ambiguity in translation. So we can draw one of five conclusions.
Option one: it’s plain old fiction. We can dismiss it and the delusional or wayward people who wrote it. Find a spot on the same shelf with Douglas Adams if we’re feeling kind.
Option two: Jesus said it but he suffered from schizophrenia, clinical narcissism or multiple personality disorder.
Option three: Jesus said it but he was drunk.
Option four: Jesus said it but he was a liar and a sadist. Thus far, every option should cause us to pity and mistrust the poor saps who’ve followed him over the last two millennia.
Option five: Jesus said it and it’s true. God loves us more than we can imagine. We owe him our undying gratitude and devotion.
Every option is scandalous – the last most of all!
· § ·
At the cross, God took thought and action for man the gardener; but a gardener’s work will always be frustrated until the land itself is redeemed. Garden and gardener need each other: God is remaking both. Eden began as a place with boundaries, a dominion located only on Earth. The new Eden will be boundless. It will stretch beyond Earth, beyond our solar system, beyond the Milky Way, beyond this universe, perhaps even throughout the multiverse. Scientists tell us this particular universe is still expanding, and if the multiverse theory is true then the expansion is universal and unidimensional. Will the process end after Christ returns? Why would it ever stop?
God has no end. Neither does creation.
Consider the implications and possibilities of a completely transformed multiverse. In Revelation 21:4, an angel declared to John the apostle that God “will wipe away every tear from their eyes, and death shall be no more, neither shall there be mourning, nor crying, nor pain anymore, for the former things have passed away.”
No more wars. No more pandemics. No more lies, betrayals or theft. No more rape, murder, fear, waste. All sin, all vice, clean gone.
Death, suffering and futility will be completely removed from the existential equation. Entropy, too, by its intrinsic involvement with death and destruction. Without death and decay as essential stages in the life cycle, the very laws of Nature would be rewritten.
No more predator and prey. (Fear not, meat-eaters. We’ll have better options than tofu and kale.) No more global warming or ice ages. No more stranded polar bears. No more earthquakes or tsunamis. No more waning suns. No more interstellar cataclysms.
No more limits in technology – without death, healthy innovation would take all the time it needs. In eternity, the multiverse will be our oyster.
Scripture tells us those who hope in Christ will reign with him. Good rulers travel their kingdoms in order to understand and appreciate everything they rule. We think now of how life will be on this transformed Earth. But perhaps our planet is only the first stepping stone. What new Earths will we explore in eternity – Earths that exist undiscovered in the present universe – Earths to come in the relentless expansion of God’s love expressed as creation – undying Earths that we’ll see with undying eyes and tread with undying feet?
We might find purple oceans. Airborne mountains. Molten silver cataracts. Sentient forests. Benevolent dragons. Gray or blue humans, furry and tall, short and hairless. Singing vapors. Lions resting with lambs. Arrakis, Perelandra, Earthsea, Middle Earth. Travel at speeds exceeding light. Anything can happen. Any distance can be crossed. All of it will exist for God’s glory and for our enjoyment. It seems we’ll have our fairy cake and eat it too.
I wonder and joke. And at the same time, I’m as serious as an event horizon. Our imaginations are too small!
I tremble. This God whose physical and spiritual kingdom will never end – he knows us, he loves us, he guides the banal and boring details of our lives with the same care that causes stars to burn with void-warming and life-giving heat.
I tremble before an empty hole in the earth. Of course it couldn’t hold him.