Thinking Biblically About Space Exploration

Aug 10th, 2019 | By | Category: Culture & Wordview, Featured Issues

This summer we are celebrating the 50th anniversary of Neil Armstrong walking on the moon (20 July 1969).  Those of us who are older can remember what we were doing that day in July fifty years ago.  It was a monumental achievement of American technology, drive and perseverance.  The Apollo space program harnessed nearly everything that was unique about American civilization to realize one of humanity’s greatest achievements.  But it was also wrapped around the realities of the Cold War. The Soviet Union had launched the space age years earlier with its 1957 Sputnik satellite and the achievement of cosmonaut Yuri Gagarin, the first man to reach space and orbit the earth in April 1961.  In 1962, President John F. Kennedy pledged that the US would catch up with the USSR and win: The US would land a man on the moon and safely return him to earth in that decade.  That effort involved, across the private sector and the government, roughly 400,000 people, with NASA comprising 4.4% of the federal budget by 1966.  The US won the race to the moon, solidifying American supremacy even in space.  The inability of the Soviet Union to keep up with American technology would ultimately spell its demise in 1991 when the USSR went out of existence.    Columnist Ross Douthat correctly concludes that this singular achievement “represents . . . not goodness but greatness, not moral progress but magnificence, a sublime example of human daring that our civilization hasn’t matched since. . . .  a feat of technical mastery inspires a feeling of near-religious awe.”

 

But was the Apollo program worth it?  With all of the problems of humanity on earth, does it make sense to spend so much human and financial capital on space exploration?  The Apollo program gave way to the Space Shuttle and unmanned probes (e.g., Voyager 1 and 2 and the recent New Horizon craft that flew by Pluto in 2015).  How should we think biblically about space exploration?  What might pastors and theologians from 60 years ago think about the success of our space missions today? In digging through its archives, Christianity Today (CT) writers discovered that in 1958 they had posed the question, “Moonshot: Its Meaning?” to 25 of the greatest theological minds of 1958, from Karl Barth to C. S. Lewis to Paul Tillich to Emil Brunner, coupled with a lead-off essay by A. W. Tozer, “A Christian Look at the Space Age.”  What follows is a summary of several of the responses to CT in 1958:

 

  • The rapid succession of the events of the late 1950s brought with them a sense of uncertainty. Sensing that many were “deeply troubled,” A. W. Tozer, a noted pastor and author, explained that the expectations of the early modern age lulled many Christians into a false sense of normalcy. As a result, Christians were examining the headlines closely, as with a microscope. But according to Tozer, this is the wrong instrument—to understand our world we must get out our telescopes to see the big picture of what God is doing.
  • Reinhold Niebuhr, perhaps the most prominent American theologian of the 20th century and the founder of Christian realism, insisted that he was “baffled” that we would spend any time thinking about traveling to the moon when we had more pressing issues facing the world, notably nuclear weapons. “Having witnessed the unfathomable evil of the Holocaust, the rise of atheistic communism, and the hate and injustice that subsumed so much of the 20th century, what Niebuhr couldn’t imagine was that powerful technology can be a force for good in our world, not just evil.”
  • Paul Tillich, famed existential philosopher and theologian, suggested that while there may not be direct religious effects to the exploration of space, there are several positives for our world that Christians should applaud. For example, “the opening of outer space can overcome our terrestrial provincialism and produce a new vision of the greatness of the creation of which earth and mankind, their space and their time, are only a part.”
  • “Shooting the moon, therefore, is a divinely appointed task,” reasoned Gordon H. Clark, the Calvinist philosopher and founder of Scripturalism. “Unfortunately, however, the ungodly are generally reputed to have obeyed this commandment more successfully than devout Christians have.” [“Fifty years afterward, Clark’s assumption still seems to define the Christian’s place in space. From the exploration of Mars to caring for our planet, evangelical Protestants are less likely to support national investment in NASA’s space efforts than those who are Catholic or unaffiliated with religion, according to a 2018 Pew Research Center survey. While almost half of US adults (47 percent) support NASA ‘conducting basic scientific research to increase knowledge and understanding of space,’ only 35 percent of evangelical Protestants do.”]
  • Carl F. H. Henry, prominent American evangelical theologian and founding editor of Christianity Today, warned that moonshots are nothing more than the evidence of humanity’s pride, following “in the spirit of proud Lucifer exalting himself against God.” In contrast, the Christians’ purpose is “to bend the universe to God’s purpose,” asserted Henry, but “as a sinner, [humanity] exploits the universe instead; [humanity] reaches for infinity to vaunt his own glory.”
  • F. Bruce, a leading British biblical scholar, declared that while human explorers can have selfish motives, “the more that men discover about the universe of God, the more cause they have for admiring his wisdom and power.” How can a Christian look at the stars in the night sky and not see the handiwork of God? How can a Christian look at the black hole in the middle of Messier 87 captured by the Event Horizon Telescope and not see the handiwork of God? What divine sublimity our ancestors saw dimly, we today see with ever-increasing clarity.
  • Karl Barth, frequently lauded as the greatest theologian of the modern era, explained that from the heights of heaven to the depths of the sea, wherever people are, so too is God (referencing Ps. 139:7–10). So go to the moon! God will be there.
  • While Christians have every right and responsibility to grieve over the evil and hatred in our world, the injustice and the hurts, Tozer noted, if Christians give in “to panic before the growing knowledge of the heavenly bodies [this only will] reveal how inadequate has been our conception of God and how little we really understand the meaning of the resurrection of Christ and his ascension to the right hand of the Majesty in the heavens.”

I believe that Christians have an obligation to use the tools God has granted humanity to explore the heavens that reveal the splendor of our Creator.  Perhaps the most important lesson of space flight is the one we learn about God.  Space exploration, the photos that have come from the Hubble telescope, the knowledge and data gained from unmanned space probes, all reveal the glory, the majesty, the power, and the infinity of our Creator God.  Certainly David’s exaltation that “the heavens declare the glory of God, and the sky above proclaims His handiwork” (Psalm 19:1 ESV) is as appropriate for us today as it was 3,000 years ago when he penned this praise.  Space exploration, whether manned or unmanned, reflects the dominion authority God granted to us as a dimension of His Creation Ordinance (see Genesis 1:26ff).

See Douglas Estes, “Moonshot: What Barth, Tillich, and Tozer Thought of the Space Age,” www.christianitytoday.com (17 July 2019); Wall Street Journal editorial (20-21 July 2019); and Ross Douthat in the New York Times (21 July 2019).

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