He has made everything beautiful in its time. He has also set eternity in the hearts of men; yet they cannot fathom what God has done from beginning to end. (Ecclesiastes 3:11)
I watched a video on The Big Think website a few months ago about the center of the universe. According to the video there are two universes: one is the actual universe, which is infinite; the other is the observable universe, which exists in proportion to its observers. No one can say where the center of the actual universe is, or even if there is one. As for the observable universe, each observer stands in the center of her own.
It was a great shock when astronomy shattered the Earth-centered model of the universe. We aren’t the center? How can that be, if we’re the crown jewels of creation? What does that say about our place in the cosmos? It came as a further shock to realize that our sun was not the center of the universe either.
The more we gazed into space, the more astounded and disoriented we became as we realized how vast it is. We call it infinite; as far as we’re concerned it is.
Infinity is limitless space, time, or quantity; eternity on the other hand refers only to limitless time. When you blow away all limits though, it doesn’t matter anymore whether you’re talking about space, time, or quantity. I cannot think of boundless space outside of imagining how long you would travel trying to reach its edge. I cannot think of endless time without thinking of it happening somewhere.
Here’s an explanation of eternity I heard many years ago in Sunday school, and included in one of my stories called “Hush Little Baby”:
A bird lives on the moon. Every one thousand years this bird comes down to earth and pecks one sand grain from a rock the size of the Empire State Building. It gets one tiny grain and flies with it back to the moon. One thousand years later, it comes and gets another grain. And so on plucking one grain every thousand years. After that bird has moved the whole massive rock and rendered it a pile of sand on the moon, the time spent would still not be equal to one second of eternity.
Terms of time lose all meaning. So do terms of space. The bird could move a rock the size of the earth grain by grain and it would still not be long enough to register as a second of eternity.
Within this universe are numberless galaxies, and within those galaxies are myriad solar systems, countless stars. I once heard an NPR piece about the star Betelgeuse in the Orion constellation. It isn’t the biggest star out there, but for perspective, if Betelgeuse were nine feet in diameter, another star by comparison would be the size of a BB.
That star so dwarfed by Betelgeuse is our sun. The sun that could, according to Jonathan Keohane and Jim Lochner at NASA’s Goddard Space Flight Center, hold the Earth inside it 1,000,000 times over. And on our Earth, humanity covers, by most estimations, between one and three percent of its surface—a humanity of which we each constitute roughly one in seven billion.
We are infinitesimally small by astronomical standards, small as a single-celled parasite in a mosquito’s intestine, smaller even. We are not large enough to be called a quark in the universe; likewise, we do not exist long enough to be called a blip in the light years of time it takes to get around in space. What we know is miniscule; our observable universe is a small briny bubble in a vast dark sea.
But wait. This might be the most astonishing thing of all: We have eternity in our hearts. The word translated as eternity in Ecclesiastes is cosmos, or the entire universe. All of creation is in our hearts? What can that even mean? We cannot fathom it, cannot get our heads around it.
Russell Edson calls our heads “teetering bulbs of dread and desire.” The dread and desire are born from sensing the cosmos in our hearts, knowing this raging desire for the eternal, and also knowing all too well that our end is rushing toward us.
Miguel de Unamuno calls this realization the “tragic sense of life.” We long for immortality, to exist in eternity, and yet we gaze out at a universe that takes no notice of our tiny existence, and will take no more notice when we disappear from it.
Is it not tragic to think that we carry this raging desire for the eternal inside us only to drag it with us into nonexistence? And don’t we know it in our hearts? We fight to survive, we strive, we love our children, we want our lives not just to be, but to beabout something. We dream of heaven, of life after this short earthly existence.
Tiny specks that we are, we are here and we are looking out—the condition of knowing, the act of observing, puts us each smack in the center of our own observable universe. That is no small thing. We cannot see far with our eyes for sure.
Our hearts however, our hearts’ desires go to the farthest reaches of the infinite universe, and from there burst on through into eternity.