The Apostle Paul wrote to his audiences in the first century describing their destiny to inherit “all things”—the universe—pointing out that, at this time, we do not yet see the fullness of that inheritance brought under man’s control (Hebrews 2:8).
Indeed, the vast, cosmic wilderness contains a bewildering array of exotic “creatures” scattered among the heavens above us—creations such as various nebulae, galaxies, stars and planets. Each item, in its own way, glorifies its Creator. We have yet to experience most of them firsthand, trapped as we still are on this small planet in our small corner of the universe. This has not stopped us, however, from exploring and searching out all we can, scanning the heavens with optical and radio telescopes and sending robotic probes to neighboring worlds. Using the laws of physics as we have come to understand them, we have even explored the cosmos through mathematics, following the equations wherever they lead us—to whatever they lead us—however fantastic and strange the results may be.
Within that portion of the menagerie we have explored, perhaps no object discovered through mathematical exploration is more exotic than black holes, predicted by Albert Einstein’s theory of general relativity before they were discovered. Possessing almost unfathomable destructive power, yet possibly serving a fundamental role in the structure of the universe, these strange and intimidating objects illustrate the majesty and power of an Almighty God who can call such “beasts” into existence through His will and word.
While there are yet many mysteries surrounding black holes, let’s explore them for a moment—from a safe distance, to be sure—and seek a glimpse of their Creator in the power and wisdom displayed in His works.
As we understand them, black holes are the inevitable result of the death of some stars.
Stars, like our own colossal sun, are massive balls of gas in space. Their mass is such that gravity has caused the gas to pull together so powerfully that nuclear fusion takes place, in which atoms are crushed together to make new atoms. This activity releases vast amounts of energy, causing the star to radiate light and heat—so much so that even at 93 million miles away (or 150 million kilometers) humans on Earth need sun protection to avoid being burned!
The force of gravity pulling the star’s gases together is countered by the radiation of the resulting energy flowing outward. But over time, the fuel of the star becomes spent. Scientists believe that stars like the sun eventually swell and then shrink to a much smaller size and much cooler temperatures as their fuel is increasingly depleted. But larger stars—say, eight times more massive than the sun or larger—experience much more violent deaths called supernovas, in which the outer layers of the star explode into space, leaving a dense core behind.
If that dense, remnant core is no more than three to five times the mass of the sun, it may contract to what is called a neutron star—an object so dense that a piece of it no larger than a sugar cube might weigh 200 million tons! However, if the core is even more massive than that, then Einstein’s theory predicts that something far stranger than a neutron star will result.
In that case, the mass of the remnant core of the original star is so great that the force of gravity continues to crush the matter together unstoppably to a single, unimaginably dense point—a singularity known as a black hole.
Black holes stand out as some of the most powerful objects in the universe. Their incredible mass—shrunken down to an infinitesimal point in space—results in a gravitational field so strong that even light is not fast enough to escape its awesome grip.
While mankind has learned to escape its own planet’s gravitational pull and propel objects into space using powerful rockets, there is no rocket fast enough to escape a black hole! Although photons of light are the fastest subatomic particles in the universe, if a beam of light passes within a certain distance of a black hole—a distance known as the Schwartzchild radius—then even the beam of light will be pulled in. It is this property of being so powerful that even light cannot escape that has given black holes their name: They are dark objects into which matter and energy “falls” and cannot escape, destroying everything that gets too close—even entire stars!
Because they trap even light, black holes cannot be seen by regular telescopes. However, we have discovered the telltale signs of black hole activity. For instance, objects that are falling into black holes and are being crushed by their immense gravity often emit powerful blasts of energy while they orbit the black hole, before they are finally consumed. Scientists search the heavens for such signs in their efforts to locate these cosmic monsters.
As more surrounding matter is pulled into a black hole, it increases in mass, size and reach until it runs out of nearby matter to consume. In fact, scientists have identified many phenomena in space that are best explained by the presence of black holes that are estimated to be more than ten billion times as massive as the Sun.
Yet, black holes can also reflect the sense of contradiction in Samson’s riddle, recorded in Judges 14:14, “Out of the eater came something to eat,” speaking of the honey he had found in the carcass of a lion.
For all their power to devour and destroy, black holes apparently also fill a fundamentally crucial role in the supporting structure of our universe, without which there could be no life in the cosmos.
When astrophysicists turn their attention to the galaxies that populate our universe and organize it into places where stars and planets can form, they often find supermassive black holes at the very hearts of those galaxies! According to various estimates, at the center of our very own Milky Way galaxy lies a black hole as massive as four million suns.
These powerful, colossal objects are believed to serve as seeds for galaxy formation and anchors that give galaxies coherence, structure and shape. Studies have suggested that the sizes of galaxies and the speed at which their stars travel around the galactic center are linked to the mass of the black hole at each galaxy’s heart.
It is possible that these strange and fascinating objects—which can seem to be some sort of dark, interstellar angels of death—are actually designed by God to fulfill life-giving roles as critical and indispensable building-blocks for the galactic structures that enable stars and planets like ours to flourish in the universe.
In Psalm 104, King David praises God for His creation, describing the “great and wide sea” in which numerous creatures, such as the fearsome and mysterious Leviathan, were free to roam and play (vv. 25–26). Perhaps black holes, these leviathans of the cosmic deep, can be seen to give similar honor and glory to their Creator, as well.