If C. S. Lewis were alive today, he wouldn't be at all surprised by new evidence of life on Mars. When he wrote his science fiction novel, Out of the Silent Planet, Lewis introduced a medieval concept of the heavens to modern readers.
Moderns are taught to think of "space" as empty, except for an occasional star, separated by light years of nothingness, says Louis Markos, English professor at Houston Baptist University and author of Lewis Agonistes. Traveling to Mars via spaceship, Markos says, Lewis's hero Ransom "finds what the medievals would have expected—a warm place full of life."
Discoveries in space
For Christians, recent announcements about discoveries in space allow observers to see God's design of the heavens, not just facts about the universe. Scientists have announced the possibility of alien life on Mars, unveiled pictures of the universe's past, and discovered another planet within our solar system. For some Christian teachers, these discoveries are examples of God's faithfulness and a cause to praise him.
The Mars rovers, Spirit and Opportunity, have found proof of water on the red planet, and the European space program determined that methane gas was in the planet's atmosphere, meaning the gas may have been produced by microbial life.
Sedna, the recently discovered planet beyond Pluto, gives scientists a look at how planets in our solar system formed, said Deborah Haarsma, a professor in the Department of Physics and Astronomy at Calvin College. And the Hubble Ultra Deep Field allows scientists to track the universe's ancient development. "We're able to look further and further out into space, which allows us to look further back in time because light takes so long to travel," she explains. "That particular discovery is telling us mostly what early galaxies look like, and how galaxies change over time." The pictures capture light that left the galaxies between 400 and 800 million years after the moment of creation.
What do the heavens declare?
For Haarsma, these discoveries give her concrete reasons to praise God: "Look at the regular motions of the planets or the regularity of the seasons on earth, and it's rock solid. You can calculate it mathematically. It's so consistent. That's how consistent God is in his governance of the world."
These discoveries highlight the magnificence of creation and the joy of exploring it, Haarsma says. "Science is really expanding on the glory that you see when you look at the night sky." When David penned Psalm 19, saying "The heavens declare the glory of God / The skies proclaim the work of his hands," he could only look up at the sky. The view from the Hubble telescope adds new depth to what the Scriptures already tell us.
"You don't learn something from nature about God that isn't already in Scriptures," Haarsma said. "Scripture tells you God is loving, but then when you get an example from nature, it brings it home to your senses in a way that you wouldn't get just reading it off the page."
Some people view the immensity of the universe as proof that if there is a God, he could not care much about man. But Scott Hoezee, minister of preaching and administration at Calvin Christian Reformed Church in Grand Rapids, thinks such a view doesn't make sense. He likens it to a child in awe of his father's strength: "That doesn't make you think, 'My dad is so big that I must not be very important to him.' Quite the opposite, we draw strength from that because we know that the application of our father's strength will be that he's going to take care of us."
In fact, the more we learn about the universe, the more we see our unique place in the universe. This is the theme of The Privileged Planet (Regnery), a new book from Iowa State University astronomer Guillermo Gonzalez and the Discovery Institute's Jay Richards. One example is the moon. Gonzalez and Richards say that if the earth had a smaller moon, or two smaller moons like Mars, the planet could tilt more than 30 degrees off its axis, instead of its current 23.5 degrees. Not a big deal? Well, if the Earth tilted up to 60 degrees, during summer in the Northern Hemisphere, there would be months of scorching daylight sun, while the Southern Hemisphere froze until six months later when the two hemispheres would switch day and night. Earth's tilt, caused by the moon, also creates wind patterns and tidal currents that distribute heat and rain relatively evenly throughout the planet.
Our planet not only supports life, but strangely, the same conditions that allow for life also make it possible to observe the universe, Gonzalez and Richards say. Our atmosphere blocks much of the harmful energy of the sun, while allowing visible light. Made mostly of nitrogen and oxygen, our atmosphere is not only transparent, but also suitable to intelligent life.
Still, with the immensity of the universe, the Earth may not be so unique as it seems to scientists today. "God has chosen to make us and have a relationship with us, and that is the proper place to look for our meaning and purpose as humans," Haarsma says. "Discovering that the universe is large or that Earth is ordinary only reminds us how amazing it is that our Creator should want to have a personal relationship with us."
There is a suspicion among Christians of scientific discovery, Hoezee says. Because many scientists view the natural world as sufficient and consider the scientific method to be the only way to discover truth, many Christians distrust scientific claims. In his book Proclaim the Wonder: Engaging Science on Sunday (Baker, 2003), Hoezee says there can be a reconciliation. Christians can learn from science, viewing it as one way to learn about God.
Science can describe nature, but Hoezee says knowing how something works doesn't mean we understand it and don't need God. "We know so much more about conception than anybody [before us]," he explains. "But when Christian parents are expecting a child, we pray just as much about that pregnancy as a Christian couple would have 2,000 years ago."
It is a modern concept to think that because we can name something we know what it is. "When we look up at the universe, we just see space instead of a universe that is somehow intimately related to us," Markos says. "The Greek word cosmos means ornament. It is because the cosmos is God's ornament, it is his poem."
This poem of galaxies, nebulas, stars, and planets leads us back to God, Markos says. "That's why I love the journey of the magi. Here are people—not Christians, not Jews—all they know is the stars, but with that limited wisdom, they follow the stars and they lead them to Christ."
Rob Moll is assistant online editor for Christianity Today.
Copyright © 2004 Christianity Today. Click for reprint information.
Christianity Today's sister publication Books & Culture has a Science Pages section.
Professor Howard J. Van Till asked What Good Is Stardust? when he saw the Milky Way one night.
The Star of Bethlehem web site has an interesting look at the astronomical causes of the star the Magi followed.
Space.com has lots of information for space enthusiasts.
NASA has more information about the Hubble telescope.
World magazine devoted a January cover story to space exploration on the anniversary of the Columbia disaster.
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