The universe is vast. On the average, it is about 140 million miles to Mars, which is our next-door neighbor. Considering the broader solar system (from Neptune to the sun), if we were to throw a dart at the solar system, the odds of hitting anything would only be about one in 10 million. Further out, the next closest star in our galaxy is four light years, or tens of trillions of miles, away. Andromeda, the next closest galaxy, is 2.5 million light years away.
Between here and there are not just linear miles, but cubic miles of oxygen- less, radiation-filled, vacuum. Every cubic inch, cubic mile and cubic light year is ready to end human life by means of missing gasses, low pressures, changing temperatures and deadly radiation. We are surrounded by a beautiful but lethal void, endlessly, in every direction.
We find a place to live and breathe in the thin layer of gas around just one planet, circling one star, at the edge of one galaxy. This harbor for life is thinner on the Earth than the peel of an apple is to the fruit. Here, and only here, are we able to find protection from radiation, exposure to nurturing gasses and the presence of liquid water.
For billions of years, life has flourished within this gentle nursery. There is a chain of life begetting life that stretches through billions of generations with untold diversity and complexity. Through the history of life on Earth, species and populations, ecosystems and niches, communities and dependencies have developed, ruled and fallen, leaving almost no trace save for a few hints turned to stone. These creatures knew plenty and want, excitement and fear, hope and despair – and then they were gone.
Only very recently did humans develop. If the 4 billion year history of life on Earth was reduced to a single year, then human beings developed in about the last 10 minutes of the year. Even our understanding of humanity as a species is only based on the snapshot in time during which we are here to make the observations. Our species has evolved, is evolving and will continue to evolve far into the future.
Humanity might be new, but there have already been a lot of us. More than 100 billion humans have been born in just the past 100,000 years. The events of any person, population or culture in the vast majority of that time have been completely lost to history. Modern humans with full cognitive, emotional and social abilities lived and died for tens of thousands of years, leaving almost no record of their existence save for the occasional stone tool.
We now are able to describe a history beginning a few thousand years ago of some people around the world – primarily those who left a record of written history, stable architecture or stone artifacts. Again, except for the few pieces that remain in museums today, most of the work of these people was briefly appreciated and then lost to the turning of time.
In the years since the development of the printing press and later the advent of computing and the internet, there has been an explosion of publishing. Libraries worldwide house books published for the past 500 years. These works allow us to listen in on conversations among people long dead. All too often, our eavesdropping reveals that these forgotten figures were having the same conversations we have today and that they made no more progress in their debates than we have in ours.
A precarious situation
Remembering that we stand upon a tiny speck in a vast void, that we breathe within a infinitesimally thin layer gas around but one rock, that nearly all life on Earth has been nonhuman, that humanity’s history is vast and essentially forgotten and that any work that is preserved is all but destined to be lost is despairing and humbling. But it also provides perspective. In light of these truths, what are my problems? In light of this, how should I treat the Earth? In light of this, how should we respond to the gift of life?
Informed by this perspective we will expect bodies to wear out, loved ones to get sick and die and institutions we count on to fail. Keeping a larger view of existence helps us to prepare for the setbacks life is certain to offer.
This is the topic of the Book of Ecclesiastes.
This book of wisdom offers the remedy for facing the truths expressed above. We are told, “Go, eat your food with gladness, and drink your wine with a joyful heart, for God has already approved what you do. Always be clothed in white, and always anoint your head with oil. Enjoy life with your wife, whom you love, all the days of this meaningless life that God has given you under the sun – all your meaningless days. For this is your lot in life and in your toilsome labor under the sun” (Ecclesiastes 9:7-9). The way to face the meaninglessness of human life is to enjoy it while it lasts. Eat and drink with gratitude. Work with joy. Appreciate your relationships. These are gifts from God.
Life might be meaningless or a vanity or a chasing after the wind, but it is not pointless.
Scripture attests that “In the beginning God created the heavens and the earth” (Genesis 1:1). This existence is not purposeless. It is made and sustained by the creator God who spoke it into being and declares it “very good” (Genesis 1:31). So good, in fact, that God himself has come into the world so that “the holy one to be born will be called the Son of God” (Luke 1:35). God himself has entered into creation, affirming the goodness of what he has made.
While we are called to enjoy what is good in God’s world, there is no reason to cling to it. “But Christ has indeed been raised from the dead, the firstfruits of those who have fallen asleep” (1 Corinthians 15:20). Death is not the end, and neither death nor time can steal forever the works of life. Christ has overcome the world (John 16:33).
We face injustice, depression, disease and decay, but these will not have the last word. He who sits on the throne over all the empty light years of creation, he who is sovereign over all the billions of years of history, he who loves all the endless life forms who have ever walked this planet, declares, “I am making everything new!” (Revelation 21:5).