Just a Glass of Water
by Russell Haitch
You sit down at a restaurant and ask for a glass of water.
She brings it over and says: “Careful. This glass contains water from the Last Supper. Jesus shared some of these water molecules with his disciples.”
She isn’t kidding. Your server is a Christian, but also a scientist who knows her facts. The facts in this case look more interesting than what’s on the menu.
As one fact: molecules are small beyond belief. There are more molecules in a single glass than there are glasses of water in the entire world. If you poured all five oceans, plus all the lakes, rivers, streams, icecaps, and groundwater on earth into separate 12-ounce glasses, the number of all those glasses would still be fewer than the number of molecules in a single glass of ice water.
Pour that water into the ground, or let it evaporate or run through your body, and the molecules will disperse, mixing with all the other water out there. And so it comes to pass, after two thousand years of mixing, you can be pretty sure the next water you drink will contain at least a few molecules that Jesus also drank. Why go all the way to Jerusalem to walk in the footsteps of Jesus, when you can simply go to the kitchen, turn on the tap, and drink water (at least a few molecules) that once touched His very lips?
After the supper has ended, your server takes this idea further. Blood is mainly water. Which means people everyday are drinking molecules of Christ’s blood. Not as a mystical act of communion, but a literal fact of science: Two atoms of hydrogen and one atom of oxygen (H2O) equals one molecule of water, and molecules are small beyond belief.
Clearly for believers in Jesus, the point of Holy Communion is not the physical molecules. Still, physical matter does matter—in Christ, God took on flesh and blood—and through the eyes of science, we see more of its hidden wonders. We can think of blood, water, or anything else in smaller and smaller quantities, smaller even than molecules and atoms, smaller than protons, gluons or quarks. It is called the Little Infinity.
The Little Infinity, so far as we know, is mostly empty space. The nucleus of an atom vibrating inside its surrounding electrons is like a fly buzzing inside an empty football stadium. Nuclear interactions hold atoms together, but still, a wall of “solid” granite is mainly empty space, from the atomic point of view. If you walked smack into a stone wall, over and over, eventually your body could pass right through it, just like Jesus in the Gospels, passing through walls to the Upper Room after his resurrection. Unlike Jesus, you would need to walk into the same stone wall for billions or trillions of years before all the atoms aligned just right. Or possibly you could get lucky on the first try.
Through the eyes of science, the entire world down to the Little Infinity is an amazing, coruscating wonderland.
Go the other direction, toward the Big Infinity, and it is equally impossible to fathom. The universe is large beyond belief. Our blue dot of a planet orbits an average star, and how many other stars are out there? Even knowing the answer, we cannot grasp the magnitude. Pretend a single grain of sand along the beach represents a single star—which is a ridiculous scale, because the sun is large enough to hold 1.3 million earths, and some stars are 1800 times larger than the sun. So how many items of such unthinkable size are out there? In our galaxy, there about 100 billion stars. Not one of them is sitting still and twinkling. Instead they hurtle through space at speed up to two million miles an hour, emitting the energy of 100 billion nuclear bombs each and every second.
But 100 billion is just the number of stars in one galaxy, and how many other galaxies are out there? Again, the number is 100 billion—which means, in sum, that the number stars in the known universe is greater than all the grains of sand on all the beaches of all the oceans on earth. You may have heard this fact. But can we really grasp the fullness of it—or of this thought: “God determines the number of stars and gives each of them a name” (Ps. 147).
The Big Infinity, so far as we know, is mainly dusty space. The unbelievably numerous and massive stars are really tiny specks compared with the vast and vacant spaces between them. The typical distance between any two stars in our galaxy is 30 trillion miles. Our galaxy is relatively crowded. Overall in the known universe, the average distance between two stars is 10 thousand trillion miles. Le silence eterne des ces espaces infinis m’effraie—“The eternal silence of these infinite spaces terrifies me,” is how Pascal once put it.
Pascal’s reaction is not unusual. Among believers today, 45 percent say they “often feel a sense of wonder about the universe.” Among atheists, the number is 54 percent. For believers and atheists alike, the universe is a wonderland, and seeing it through the eyes of science increases our sense of awe. Imagine—molecules so small that people everyday are drinking the physical substance of Christ’s blood. A universe so large that the sun becomes a speck, while the earth recedes to nothing. And all that empty space between the stars or within a molecule…is it all empty of meaning too?
Teenage years are typically when we start to ask this kind of question in an acute way. Coming to a sense of themselves and the universe, young people start to wonder what does it all add up to, where is it all headed, what does any of it mean? Christian parents, teachers, and ministers hope their youth will decide that it all points to God. It all coheres around Jesus Christ (Col. 1:17). Jesus holds it all together, filling the cosmos with radiant purpose. Through eyes of the heart, youth can see Christ at the center of their lives, Christ at the center of the universe. Each star, every molecule displaying God’s glory.
But this faithful outcome is far from certain. Consider the case of the world’s most famous atheist…
To be continued…
Look for future installments.
Excerpts are taken from a forthcoming book by Russell Haitch entitled Eyes of the Heart: Helping Youth See God in an Age of Science (Fortress Press).
Russell Haitch is Professor of Theology and Human Science at Bethany Theological Seminary.