It seems like so long ago that a moonshot was just a moonshot. Today, “moonshot” has come to mean an improbable mission—curing cancer, artificial general intelligence, or interstellar flight—a giant leap for mankind. Humanity’s current leap is toward the sun, as the Parker Solar Probe speeds toward its third perihelion—the point in an orbit closest to our home star—in September.
As we mark the 50th anniversary of Neil Armstrong’s moonshot—his one small step on July 20, 1969—it is easy to forget how improbable reaching the moon seemed before we actually did, when a moonshot was just a moonshot, 11 years before at the dawn of the Space Age.
What might pastors and theologians from 60 years ago think about the success of our space missions today? In digging through our archives, we discovered that Christianity Today 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 does a moonshot mean for a Christian? Reading over the brief interviews today, several themes stand out: How do Christians interpret world events rapidly occurring without misreading their implication for Christians? In contrast to the many horrific events of the 20th century, can space exploration offer a new hope for the world? Or more of the same? And how does space exploration change the way we see people and the way we see God?
We had only just begun to absorb the ramifications of the Nuclear Age when the Soviet’s Sputnik 1 changed the trajectory of our world in the fall of 1957. With the further success of Sputnik 2, and for the Americans, Explorer 1, the United States formed the National Aeronautics and Space Administration in the fall of 1958. The space race was a go.
These interviews are a snapshot in time; as with the rest of the world, these theologians had only begun to digest the momentous changes they were living through. And unlike our tendency to look back at the Apollo missions with rose-colored glasses, public opinion leaned against investing in space research. It is unsurprising then that many had a modest skepticism about the endeavor.
Missing the Bigger Picture
The rapid succession of these events in the late ’50s 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. In fact, we experience today what the apostles saw through their telescopes of their age to come. We need not fear what these early believers knew would come to pass.
As it is hard for many to imagine what life was like before mobile phones and the internet, so too is it hard for most today to remember what it was like before people stood on the moon. And in fact, it has always been possible to dismiss it as unimportant.
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. Even as nuclear weapons seemed poised to destroy the world, space flight gave the world hope—and eventually, starting in 1975 with the European Space Agency and later with joint US-Russian endeavors leading to the International Space Station, a shared sense of the power of human cooperation.
An Unexpected Hope
Speaking several decades before the flowering of this cooperation, 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.”
Aside from the occasional mishap or misunderstanding, the International Space Station has remained a long-term, bright light of cooperation among 15 of the world’s most prominent countries. We may not have overcome terrestrial provincialism yet, but we are in the early stages of space exploration. Just as Columbus left mainland Spain with a staging point in the Canary Islands, so too is the moon a staging point for further destinations. We are merely at the liminal edge of the great, cold unknown.
This vision of the luxury of creation compels Christians to hope and explore. “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.
Yet more than ever, Christians have an obligation to use the tools God has granted humanity to demonstrate their ethical use, to explore the heavens that reveal the splendor of our Creator.
People Are Still People
As we continue to explore God’s creation, what does that say about people? 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.”
What Henry overlooked—and many of the interviewees noted—is that science and exploration are inextricably mired in the human condition. For every Tower of Babel built with human tools out of human pride (Gen. 11:1–9), there is a seamless robe woven with human tools for divine purpose (John 19:23) or gold refined with human tools that regales a king (Matt. 2:11). Among explorers, there will always be the benders and the vaunters, the Joshuas and the Achans.
On July 20, 1969, Neil Armstrong and Buzz Aldrin stepped onto the moon and staked the sign: “We came in peace for all mankind.” When we the faithful people of God make every effort to live in peace, our holy living makes a way for others to see God (Heb. 12:14).
God Is Still God
Perhaps the most important lesson of space flight is the one we learn about God. F. 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.
To paraphrase Paul’s analogy, there is one glory of the sun, and another glory of the moon, and another glory of the black hole’s event horizon (1 Cor. 15:41).
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.
When John F. Kennedy announced the moonshot in 1962, what we remember most is that “We choose to go to the moon.” Yet there is a more important choice that occupied his thoughts before this closing argument: People can use technology like space science for good or for evil, and thus we are called to use it for good. Fifty years later, the moon may seem mundane, but the sun and Mars and Enceladus (the sixth-largest moon of Saturn) and Proxima Centauri (the nearest star to the sun) are not. We, the people of God, still have time to find our voice, lend our hands, and go wherever God calls—for his glory, not ours.
Exploring Space Deepens Our Theology
Sensing the fear that could paralyze Christians, Tozer didn’t cool the engines of his critique. 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.”
We’ve come a long way since 1958, between the Parker Solar Probe, the exploration of Mars, the discovery of exoplanets, and the dawn of space tourism. In many ways, the world hasn’t changed; we still need to study the Scriptures, pray for peace, engage our communities, and proclaim the gospel for all to hear, all against the backdrop of a celestial map slowly being filled in one discovery at a time.
And what if we can’t get the gospel right with each other here on Earth? Well, as C. S. Lewis, the great novelist, professor, apologist, and scholar surmised, how then will we ever be able to share it with all the little green men we will soon meet on the moon, by the sun, around Mars, to infinity, and beyond?
Douglas Estes is associate professor of New Testament and practical theology at South University. He is the editor of Didaktikos, and his latest book is Braving the Future: Christian Faith in a World of Limitless Tech.