Does a black hole lie at the center of the universe? That’s a question scientists have been asking themselves. A black hole, you may know, is a collapsed star so dense that nothing, not even light, can escape its gravitational field. Last year scientists discovered a monster black hole at the center of the universe, the largest and brightest ever found with a mass about 12 billion times that of the sun – that dates back to when the universe was less than one billion years old. Several years ago scientists discovered that yet another massive black hole lies at the center of the Milky Way, and this past January the second most massive black hole was found. (1)
So what do you think? Does everything in the universe collapse into intense and voracious darkness? Although I am hardly consoled by such a thought, I have no trouble believing it. Now I know where all those socks have gone that never made it back from the dryer. Everything that exists in the universe will eventually get sucked into a black hole as creation runs out of gas.
Perhaps now that everyone’s worst suspicions are scientifically confirmed, it would be well to name this black hole at the center of the universe. For we have all felt the strain of its dark gravitational pull tugging at our lives, tearing at everything we hold precious. The name of this brooding threat to consume every last ray of light by which we make our way in the world is FEAR.
Do you know what I mean when I say that fear is the black hole pulling at the center of things – and that it threatens to suck all meaning and purpose from our lives? We fear that no one will care for us after we have done everything to care for others. We fear that all the crazy risks we take in loving others will leave us empty and abandoned. We fear that doing the right thing will not get us anywhere in life. We fear that all our labors and sacrifices to make this world a better place may be in vain. We fear that the palatable lie is more believable than the painful truth; that revenge is more dependable than forgiveness; and mostly, we fear that death is stronger than life.
Look what happened in Brussels this past week with the bombing of innocent people. We fear the world around us and everything we hold precious is spiraling down into chaos. We see this spiraling downward in American politics right now. No one knows what will happen at the Republican Convention this summer and who will be nominated for President. Never in our lifetimes have we seen such vitriol in a political campaign.
The situation reminds me of Gore Vidal’s play The Best Man, which was made into a movie in 1964 starring Henry Fonda and Cliff Robertson as the two leading candidates battling for the nomination in a deadlocked convention. In the play, an aging ex-President asks one of the candidates, “Bill, do you believe in God?”
Bill stiffly replies, “I was confirmed in the Episcopal Church.”
“That’s not what I asked,” said the former President. “I’m a Methodist and I’m still asking you if you believe in God and a day of judgment and a hereafter.”
The ex-President confesses he is dying of cancer. “I tell you, son,” he said, “I’m scared to death…I don’t fancy being just a pinch of dust.”
The young candidate tries to console him by talking about how he we will be remembered in American history and all the good he has done for the country, to which the ex-President responds, “I suggest you tell yourself that when you finally have to face a whole pile of nothin’ up ahead.”
That “whole pile of nothin’ up ahead” is a black hole in which you and I are powerless to resist. Inevitably we all get sucked up into the darkness of death. But it isn’t just death that frightens us. It is fear that our life may end in nothingness.
That’s the greatest fear of all, isn’t it, the fear that at the end of life there is nothing but annihilation? We have that fear all the time. We fear that we are nobody; that our lives make no real difference to anyone; that our words do not mean anything; that our actions are without lasting consequence; that there will come a day when you and I will cease to exist. For death has consumed entire persons, many of whom we have known, some we have loved. They are gone, seemingly forever.
That thought of eventual annihilation is one that even Apple founder Steve Jobs could not accept. As he battled an ever-losing fight against cancer, he confessed to his biographer Walter Isaacson:
“Sometimes I believe in God, sometimes I don’t. I think its 50/50 maybe. But ever since I’ve had cancer, I’ve been thinking about him more, and I find myself believing a bit more. Maybe it’s because I want to believe in an afterlife, that when you die, it doesn’t all just disappear…the wisdom you’ve accumulated, somehow it lives on.” Then he paused for a second, and then said: “Yeah, but sometimes I think it’s just like an On/Off switch. Click, and you’re gone.” He paused, “And that’s why I don’t like putting On/Off switches on Apple devices.”
But there’s more to the story. Mona Simpson, Steve Jobs’ sister, gave a eulogy for her brother that was printed in The New York Times. The article shared a very personal moment when Steve Jobs died. According to Ms. Simpson: “Before embarking, he’d looked at his sister Patty, then for a long time he stared at his children, then at his life’s partner, Laurene, and then over their shoulders past them. Steve’s last words were, “Oh, wow. Oh wow. Oh wow.” (2)
What was Steve Jobs seeing? What was he experiencing in those moments when he repeated, “Oh wow” three times? Was it something beautiful? Was it his family and loved ones? Was it God? Those last moments didn’t seem like he was entering a black hole, but something so wonderful that the only word he could use to describe it was “Wow!”
I know… you may know people who have experienced an agonizing death whose last sounds were a scream or a cry. That’s how Jesus died on that first Good Friday. It seemed as if the black hole of the tomb had swallowed up even Jesus. Death, our ultimate dread, spares no one and nothing. Even Jesus who had seemed so different from the rest, turned out to be like everyone else. He was no match for the death that eventually claims us all – for Jesus was no less swallowed into the black hole when his turn came. Common sense tells us as much: no one who enters into the darkness ever comes out again.
And yet, Easter defies common sense. “Why do you look for the living among the dead? He is not here, but has risen.” Jesus who did indeed enter into the black hole of death did indeed come out again. God raised Jesus from the dead, and in so doing God forever vindicated faith over fear, hope over despair, and love over hate.
On that first Easter Sunday, the first rays of light escaped the pitched blackness of fear. “The light shines in the darkness, and the darkness did not overcome it,” says St. John’s Gospel. That’s what happened that first Easter – the light of God proved stronger by far than all the powers of darkness.
Fear is indeed the collapsed mass of a black hole, cowering and retreating within itself, snatching all that we hold precious. Fear truly possesses power to ingest all things bright and beautiful. And yet, because of the resurrection of Jesus Christ, we now know that God’s perfect love casts out fear. We can gaze confidently into a darkness even so severe as a black hole and know that at the center of life is love. That’s truly good news for any of us: that even when we die, God’s love never dies; and that we who abide in God’s love will share God’s life forever.
One of my dearest friends in ministry was a Presbyterian pastor by the name of Bob Williamson. When Bob announced to his congregation that he had terminal cancer, he told them: “For many years I have taught you how to live like a Christian. Now I have one final lesson to teach you: how to die like a Christian.”
In the months that followed Bob would enjoy the company of friends and family. As he grew increasingly weak, he was confined to bed where he fell in and out of consciousness. His wife Beulah was constantly by his side, and on the day he died, she reports that Bob opened his eyes and looked at her and said, “Beulah, do you see the lights? Do you see the lights?”
She said, “No, honey, I don’t see them. I wish I could, but I don’t see the lights.” Then Bob said, “You will!”
Dear people, at the end of our lives when we take our last breathe on this earth we will not be sucked into a black hole of annihilation but experience a tremendous sense of love as we enter into the light of God. So have no fear. Everywhere will be okay. The best is yet to come!
Dr. Gary Nicolosi
March 27, 2016
Text – Luke 24:1-10; I Cor. 15:19-26
Easter Sunday, C
1. Charles Q Choi, “Monster Black Hole Is the Largest and Brightest Ever Found,” February 25, 2015 at Space.com, and Ian O’Neill, “Milky Way’s Second Most Massive Black Hole Found,” January 16, 2016 at News.Discovery.com.
2. See Eric Nielsen, “Steve Jobs on Death and the Afterlife,” myCravings and “Life After Death and Steve Job’s Last Words,” liveboldandbloom.com.