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09 February 2018

Faith in outer space

John Coleby is public policy researcher at the Evangelical Alliance.

On Tuesday, millions watched the successful launch of the Falcon Heavy rocket, at the Kennedy Space Center in Florida. It is the heaviest rocket ever to be launched.  

In this field, bigger rockets mean bigger plans. Elon Musk, the CEO of SpaceX has promised – amongst other things – a huge number of satellites delivering broadband worldwide, fast travel via space around the earth, a manned lunar base, and a Mars mission by 2022. We're not there yet, and deadlines in the space industry tend to whoosh past like – well you know what I mean. Nonetheless, it's entirely possible that in many of our lifetimes, human life really will be revolutionised through space travel. 

Ever since space exploration began, people have been wondering what it means for faith in God. Yuri Gagarin, USSR cosmonaut and first human to go into space, is reported to have said: "I looked and looked but I didn't see God," though this quote is now disputed. In contrast, on Christmas Eve in 1968, astronauts on the Apollo 8 mission read from Genesis as their spacecraft orbited the moon. 

But the Gagarin "quote" hints at a broader problem which a lot of people have with our faith even today. As we celebrate scientific advances, we know that for many these human achievements like space travel simply look more impressive than the Church's proclamation of the good news. Sceptics find it odd that we look back 2,000 years to the cross and resurrection even as we look ahead to colonies on Mars and interstellar travel. People may ask why the gospels could not have contained some new mathematical formula, or a prediction of future science – blueprints for a rocket, perhaps. This would surely have been more convincing evidence of God's work than the testimony of the apostles. 

While Paul's audience in Corinth weren't constructing rockets or planning lunar bases, they were facing a similar insecurity. Paul's preaching in nearby Athens had been drowned out with laughter at the mere mention of resurrection. Christianity looked so primitive to many Corinthians, compared to the human achievement and human philosophy that was around at the time. 

And yet into this sophisticated city Paul preaches the Cross of Christ. He writes to the church: 'Since in the wisdom of God the world through its wisdom did not know him, God was pleased through the foolishness of what was preached to save those who believe. Jews demand signs and Greeks look for wisdom, but we preach Christ crucified: a stumbling-block to Jews and foolishness to Gentiles, but to those whom God has called, both Jews and Greeks, Christ the power of God and the wisdom of God.' (1 Corinthians 1:22-25). 

Paul is telling the Corinthians that ultimately the Church does not exist to celebrate human wisdom and achievement, but the power of God. The most intelligent Christian who ever lived is as much a testimony to God's grace as the least – both were saved the same way, through Jesus Christ. This equality is part of the scandal of the good news. 

This does not mean that wisdom or learning are valueless. Paul himself honours his colleague Apollos, who in Acts is described as learned and a great speaker. It's just that this knowledge isn't what saves him. Today's Church may contain the next space entrepreneur or a scientific pioneer, and we should celebrate their achievements. But they will be as dependent on grace as we are. The Church isn't a huddle of Apollos-like minds, but a group of people whom God has called, from all walks of life and all levels of ability. And God calls each of us to love and serve the other, as Christ loved us. 

So whatever the space entrepreneurs have in store for us next, we can remember that God does not call us to be part of something smaller than that, but something greater. Instead of being called to build a technical marvel such as a rocket, in the Church we are called to be built into a spiritual wonder: a community of every nation, tribe, people and language serving Christ and bearing with each other in love. However much they transform our lives, so many human achievements will be forgotten, but God's work will never pass away.

Image: SpaceX