The Webb Telescope And The Grandeur Of God’s Universe

Mar 18th, 2023 | By | Category: Culture & Wordview, Featured Issues

The mission of Issues in Perspective is to provide thoughtful, historical and biblically-centered perspectives on current ethical and cultural issues.

Image credit: NASA, ESA, CSA, and STScI

For most of human history, the universe was considered timeless and unchanging; no longer. At the Space Telescope Science Institute, on the Johns Hopkins University campus, a constant torrent of data pours in from NASA’s James Webb Space Telescope.  Launched 13 months ago, Webb is orbiting 940,000 miles above the earth.  George Will writes, “With its 18 mirrors and its five sunshield layers unfolded, it is a tennis-court-size engineering masterpiece. To function, each mirror must, after being hurled into space on a shuddering rocket, retain this exquisite precision: If each mirror were the size of the continental United States, each should not vary more than 2 inches from perfect conformity with the others.  Furthermore, the mirrors left Earth the ‘wrong’ size: They were designed to contract in space to achieve a precise shape at the temperature out there: minus-388 degrees Fahrenheit.  The wavelength of light is ‘stretched’ as the universe expands; hence the analysis of light can date the light’s source.”

 

The Webb photographs are stunning, exquisite and irresistibly beautiful.  They remind me of King David’s words in Psalm 19:

 

19 The heavens declare the glory of God,
    and the sky above] proclaims his handiwork.
Day to day pours out speech,
    and night to night reveals knowledge.
There is no speech, nor are there words,
    whose voice is not heard.
Their voice goes out through all the earth,
    and their words to the end of the world.
In them he has set a tent for the sun

    which comes out like a bridegroom leaving his chamber,
    and, like a strong man, runs its course with joy.
Its rising is from the end of the heavens,
    and its circuit to the end of them,
    and there is nothing hidden from its heat.  [ESV]

 

Or in Psalm 8:

 

8 O Lord, our Lord,
    how majestic is your name in all the earth!
You have set your glory above the heavens.
    Out of the mouth of babies and infants,
you have established strength because of your foes,
    to still the enemy and the avenger.

When I look at your heavens, the work of your fingers,
    the moon and the stars, which you have set in place,
what is man that you are mindful of him,
    and the son of man that you care for him? [ESV]

 

In the history of human exploration and thought about the physical universe and its relationship to God, has humanity accepted this revelation of the physical universe (aka General Revelation) as pointing to God the Creator?  The Apostle Paul makes this poignant observation in Romans 1:18-23:

 

18 For the wrath of God is revealed from heaven against all ungodliness and unrighteousness of men, who by their unrighteousness suppress the truth. 19 For what can be known about God is plain to them, because God has shown it to them. 20 For his invisible attributes, namely, his eternal power and divine nature, have been clearly perceived, ever since the creation of the world, in the things that have been made. So they are without excuse. 21 For although they knew God, they did not honor him as God or give thanks to him, but they became futile in their thinking, and their foolish hearts were darkened. 22 Claiming to be wise, they became fools, 23 and exchanged the glory of the immortal God for images resembling mortal man and birds and animals and creeping things. [ESV]

 

How then has modern science explained the physical universe in terms of its origin and its expansion?  According to William E. Carroll, Professor of History at Cornell College, the account given by contemporary cosmology of the origins of the universe goes something like this:  “The reigning theory among scientists today is that we live in the aftermath, or rather in the midst, of a giant explosion that began about fifteen billion years ago. Most cosmologists refer to the Big Bang as a ‘singularity,’ that is, an ultimate boundary or edge, a ‘state of infinite density’ where space-time has ceased. Thus it represents an outer limit of what we can know about the universe since it is not possible to speculate, at least in the natural sciences, about conditions before or beyond the categories of space and time . . . The contention of the new theories is that the laws of physics are sufficient to account for the origin and existence of the universe. If this be true, then, in a sense, we live in a self-creating universe that has sprung into existence spontaneously from a cosmic nothingness. Or, in [Stephen] Hawking’s analysis, since the question of a beginning of the universe becomes meaningless, there is no role for a creator. As Quentin Smith, a philosopher of science, observes, if Big Bang cosmology is true ‘our universe exists without explanation . . . . It exists non-necessarily, improbably, and causelessly. It exists for absolutely no reason at all.’  In such a self-sufficient universe, exhaustively understood in terms of the laws of physics, it would seem that there is no room for God . . .  The advances of modern science threaten to render traditional doctrines of creation and its Creator as intellectual artifacts from a less enlightened age. Perhaps the God of traditional theology is but a hypothesis now shown to be unnecessary.”

 

Carroll offers several salient comments about the history of science and faith:  “An eternal universe seemed incompatible with a universe created ex nihilo, and so some medieval Christians thought that Greek science, especially in the person of Aristotle, ought to be banned, since it contradicted the truths of revelation.  [Medieval Scholastic theologian, Thomas] Aquinas, believing that the truths of science and the truths of faith could not contradict one another—God being the author of all truth-went to work to reconcile Aristotelian science and Christian revelation.  The key to Aquinas’ analysis is the distinction he draws between creation and change. The natural sciences, whether Aristotelian or those of our own day, have as their subject the world of changing things: from sub-atomic particles to acorns to galaxies. Whenever there is a change there must be something that changes. The Greeks are right: from nothing, nothing comes; that is, if the verb ‘to come’ means a change . . . Creation, on the other hand, is the radical causing of the whole existence of whatever exists. To cause completely something to exist is not to produce a change in something, is not to work on or with some already existing material. If, in producing something new, an agent were to use something already existing, the agent would not by itself be the complete cause of the new thing. But such a complete causing is precisely what creation is. To create is to give existence, and all things are totally dependent upon God for the very fact that they are.”

The Bible makes it clear that God created the universe out of nothing (see Genesis 1:1; Psalm 33:6, 9; John 1:3; Hebrews 11:3, etc.).  Because God created everything out of nothing, matter is not eternal.  God did not simply reshape existing matter; He created everything from nothing (ex nihilo).  Because God created everything out of nothing, the universe has purpose and meaning, which comes from God.  God is not part of His creation, for He made it and rules over it.  He is above (i.e., transcendent) and independent of His creation.  But God is not an absentee landlord, so to speak; He is intimately involved in His creation.  Indeed, His creation is continually dependent on Him for its existence and its functioning.  The Bible is the story of God’s involvement with His creation, providentially accomplishing His purposes and sustaining His creation (Acts 17:25,  28; Colossians 1:17).  Isaiah 43:7 also demonstrates that the physical world was created for God’s glory.  When we view the Webb telescope photographs we naturally ask, “Who could have made all this?  Who could make it out of nothing?  Who has sustained these galaxies and star dust clusters for these endless years?”  As Wayne Grudem concludes, “Such infinite power, such intricate skill, is completely beyond our comprehension..  When we meditate on it, we give glory to God.”  Because God has given humanity dominion authority over His world (see Genesis 1-2 and 9), we have the desire to discover and master our physical world.  The Webb telescope illustrates this truth.  However, in doing so, the results of our discovery should drive us toward God; it is His revelation to us.  The Webb photographs should cause us to worship Him, to glory Him, to fall at His feel in astonishment for what He has done.  May these photos accomplish that purpose.

See William E. Carroll, “Aquinas and the Big Bang” in First Things (November 1999); George F. Will, “The Webb Space Telescope is telling humanity the history of everything” in the Washington Post (27 January 2023); and Wayne Grudem, Systematic Theology, pp. 262-272.

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