Christianity, Cosmos, and Human Meaning

Recently, Bill Nye, The Science Guy, remarked in a YouTube video that Christians were fools for thinking that human beings had significance in a cosmos that dwarfs them. He is merely echoing a chorus of like-minded critics who employ to reason against Christianity. The smallness means insignificance argument is usually coupled with the old canard about Copernicus dislodging the earth from the center of the universe and, thus, dethroning man and destroying Christianity. Bertrand Russell was one of the biggest offenders, throwing this idea around in his popular, A History of Western Philosophy.

The controlling falsehoods in this argument are both historical and logical. As C.S. Lewis notes, the ancients regarded the earth as tiny in relation to the rest of the cosmos, even if their knowledge of its vastness was not that of our own. No theology of human significance was ever tied to the relative size of humans with respect to the universe as a whole. No, human worth depends on the God who made man in his own image and likeness (Genesis 1:26). The height, width, and weight of these image-bearers are irrelevant to their value. What counts is their nature. Humans represent God in the world through relationships, reason, emotion, and will. The Oxford Don drives this home in Miracles.

There is no doubt that we all feel the incongruity of supposing, say, that the planet Earth might be more important than the Great Nebula in Andromeda. On the other hand, we are all equally certain that only a lunatic would think a man six-feet high necessarily more important than a man five-feet high, or a horse necessarily more important than a man, or a man’s legs than his brain. In other words this supposed ratio of size to importance feels plausible only when one of the sizes involved is very great. And that betrays the true basis of this type of thought. When a relation is perceived by Reason, it is perceived to hold good universally. If our Reason told us that size was proportional to importance, the small differences in size would be accompanied by small differences in importance just as surely as great differences in size were accompanied by great differences in importance. Your six-foot man would have to be slightly more valuable than the man of five feet, and your leg slightly more important than your brain—which everyone knows to be nonsense. The conclusion is inevitable: the importance we attach to great differences of size is an affair not of reason but of emotion—of that peculiar emotion which superiorities in size begin to produce in us only after a certain point of absolute size has been reached (Miracles, chapter seven).

Here the critic may shift ground a bit and claim that Christianity is too anthropocentric, since it claims that God created all things for humans. The same critics, in fact, may do both at once, which is a contradiction. How dare we single ourselves out for such a compliment, we tiny mortals?

This barb bears at least two blunders. First, the Bible does not maintain that the universe has one purpose—to serve humanity. Rather, the cosmos is the handiwork of an infinite and personal Creator. The Maker crafted he world to manifest his goodness and to give him satisfaction, whether or not mortals are the beneficiaries. The Psalter features nature psalms or hymns that testify to God’s care and delight in the astronomic realm. Consider God’s call to nature in Psalm 148:

Praise the Lord.

Praise the Lord from the heavens;
           praise him in the heights above.
       Praise him, all his angels;
           praise him, all his heavenly hosts.
     Praise him, sun and moon;
         praise him, all you shining stars.
     Praise him, you highest heavens
         and you waters above the skies.

Let them praise the name of the Lord,        

   for at his command they were created,
  and he established them for ever and ever—
   he issued a decree that will never pass away

(Psalm 148:1-6; see also Psalm 104).

The heights above, the waters below, the angels, the sun, moon, and stars, are all praising God—with no human in sight. The purpose of creation is to bring God glory, not to set man at the center. Genesis chapter one reports that God was pleased with his creation—the heavens and earth, the plants and animals—before he created human beings. These were wrought by and for God before having any significance for human beings.

However, man alone bears the divine image. The ruin wrought by the Fall could not extinguish this image. As a man, God came into the world through Jesus Christ to save sinners by his death and resurrection (John 1:14; 1 Timothy 2:15). God, in his love, gave us a hospitable planet, which is perfectly placed to sustain life as we know it. The Privileged Planet by Guillermo Gonzales and Jay Richards argues this well. Still, this does not imply that the universe is anthropocentric. To the contrary, the universe is theocentric.

There is a second charge to unmask as errant. It is this: Christians are morally wrong to consider themselves as the objects of God’s special concern. Following from the accusation that Christians believe the world was made merely for humanity, atheists accuse believers of pride. After all, denying a special relation to God would be humble. Of course, the background assumption is that there is no God.)

But the skeptic cannot read the mind of a God he claims does not exist. The question is not, a priori, what seems the most humble way to view ourselves in the universe. Rather, the questions should be: Did God create us in his image and has he made a provision for us? The Gospel, moreover, indicts human beings as fallen and incapable of self-salvation. That is no compliment. And the greater something is, the farther it may fall. This is the human condition after the Fall.

Once again, I appeal to the master apologist, C.S. Lewis, this time for the last word.

Christianity does not involve the belief that all things were made for man. It does involve the belief that God loves man and for his sake became man and died. I have not yet succeeded in seeing how what we know (and have known since the days of Ptolemy) about the size of the universe affects the credibility of this doctrine one way or the other. . . . If it is maintained that anything so small as the Earth must, in any event, be too unimportant to merit the love of the Creator, we reply that no Christian ever supposed we did merit it. Christ did not die for men because they were intrinsically worth dying for, but because He is intrinsically love, and therefore loves infinitely (Miracles, chapter 7).

DG CONTRIBUTOR PROFILE

Author: Douglas Groothuis

Author of Christian Apologetics, Truth Decay, On Jesus, On Pascal, and others. Professor of Philosophy, Denver Seminary since 1993. Head of The Apologetics and Ethics Masters Degree Program and Co-Director of The Gordon Lewis Center for Christian Thought and Culture. Senior Fellow for Apologetics.com.

8 thoughts

  1. Your post reminded me of this quote from C. K. Chesterton, taken from Orthodoxy:

    For all denunciation implies a moral doctrine of some kind; and the modern revolutionist doubts not only the institution he denounces, but the doctrine by which he denounces it. Thus he writes one book complaining that imperial oppression insults the purity of women , and then he writes another book (about the sex problem) in which he insults it himself. He curses the Sultan because Christian girls lose their virginity, and then curses Mrs. Grundy because they keep it. As a politician, he will cry out that war is a waste of life, and then, as a philosopher, that all life is waste of time. A Russian pessimist will denounce a policeman for killing a peasant, and then prove by the highest philosophical principles that the peasant ought to have killed himself. A man denounces marriage as a lie, and then denounces aristocratic profligates for treating it as a lie. He calls a flag a bauble, and then blames the oppressors of Poland or Ireland because they take away that bauble. The man of this school goes first to a political meeting, where he complains that savages are treated as if they were beasts; then he takes his hat and umbrella and goes on to a scientific meeting , where he proves that they practically are beasts. In short, the modern revolutionist, being an infinite sceptic, is always engaged in undermining his own mines . In his book on politics he attacks men for trampling on morality; in his book on ethics he attacks morality for trampling on men. Therefore the modern man in revolt has become practically useless for all purposes of revolt. By rebelling against everything he has lost his right to rebel against anything.

    Those who cry foul for any claims that man is at the center of the universe do so from bodies that measure all things from the perspective of their own existence. They therefore cry, in my opinion, from the center of the universe, epistemologically, that we are not at the center of the universe astronomically, as if the two are the same thing.

    Chesterton also spoke of the size of the universe according to the atheist, in the same book. Perhaps I’ll look it up and pass it along here.

  2. Can you please share what YouTube video this is from? I’d like to share it with a class I’m teaching at church over the topic of what Christians believe about humanity.

  3. I would love an answer to my above question. I can’t find a video that claims such, mostly because there are so many of Bill Nye

    1. Hi Pacha! I’m yappy that you’ll share with your new catputer. Do you want suggestions for your IPawd? I have efurything on mine: Hip Hop, salsa, pawp classics, jazz, blues, you name it! I’ll unleash my entire list if you like. I sure miss your late brofur Choupet. I’m yappy that he’s a blissful cat angel in Heaven now, but life isn’t the same woofout my purrfect fuv.,ndiLoreeDolly xx

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