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29 August 2012

Christians and the cosmos

The heavens really do declare the glory of God, writes astronomer and author Dr Jennifer J Wiseman…

The Bible begins with the most majestic and profound statement ever related to humankind: “In the Beginning, God created the heavens and the Earth.” From this revelation, all other aspects of our faith are derived, including the nature of God, our role as humans, the redemptive work of Jesus Christ, and the ultimate purpose for all of creation. 

The “heavenly bodies” are part of God’s created ensemble, and they speak to God’s nature. Indeed, the Psalmist writes: “The heavens declare the glory of God; the skies proclaim the work of His hands.” And yet many Christians are only vaguely aware of the vast universe around us. We, like most people around the world, have lost an awareness of the night sky and the humility it brings, largely because of light pollution and the constant distractions of earthly obligations, entertainment, and electronic media that keep our eyes and hearts from looking up. 

But I believe there are priceless treasures and important principles to be gained from giving attention to what we are learning through science about the larger universe we inhabit.

The universe is active, not stagnant. When we read in Genesis 1:16 that God “created all the stars”, as well as the “lights” that govern the day and the night, we can get the wrong impression that all is at rest in the heavens above us. Not so – by observing the heavens with telescopes and probes, we find activity everywhere. In our own solar system, asteroids collide, Mars shows signs of once having had lakes and rivers, Jupiter’s moon Io has erupting volcanoes, and Earth has tectonic plates that move, giving us the benefits of environmental recirculation while also causing earthquakes. 

The universe beyond our solar system is also active, and discoveries about it are growing at a staggering rate. Stars continue to form in dense interstellar clouds, where pockets of gas can collapse under their own weight, igniting the hydrogen fusion process that brings stars to light. Planets form around many of these stars; for the first time in human history, we can say that with certainty. In the past few years astronomers have used telescopes like the Kepler space observatory to detect hundreds and potentially thousands of planetary systems outside our own. 

Galaxies, comprised of billions of stars and the gas between them, are caught up in the expansion of space, moving apart from each other at an accelerating pace caused by a mysterious entity simply called “dark energy” while astronomers study its effects. 

Most astounding of all is the sense of progression and provision we find as we survey the vast history of the universe. Remember that astronomy offers us a timemachine: when observing distant galaxies, we are observing them as they were when their light was emitted, thereby allowing us to see what galaxies were like in the past. Our nearest “grand spiral” neighbour galaxy to our own Milky Way is Andromeda, and this is over two million light-years away. Yet with powerful telescopes like the Hubble Space Telescope, we are now glimpsing infant galaxies shining to us from over 10 billion years ago. Comparing distant galaxies to our own reveals how, over vast periods of time, stars themselves have produced and enriched our environment with elements like carbon and iron that we need for planets and life. 

Such a steady maturing of the universe over billions of years reminds us of God’s patience, and that often His ways of accomplishing things are not the ‘instant’ ways we are sometimes prone to imagining. As astronomical discoveries are opening up to us aspects of the universe never before seen by humankind, several responses are evoked. First is one of praise, humility, and awe. An enormous, beautiful, and complex universe speaks of an awesome God working over spaces and times that we can barely imagine. Second is a realisation that scientific study and exploration can be an act of worship and glorifying God. Studying God’s handiwork, and the forces and processes of nature, is a pursuit of truth. Science is a wonderful tool, a gift of God, for studying the ‘hows’ of nature: how forces and matter and physical processes work together. But the bigger questions of life, such as the ’why’ and ’who’ questions, are not usually addressable by science. These are the kinds of questions addressed by religious faith and the study of Scripture, and there need be no conflict with science.

Ultimately, a study of the universe is part of understanding our Saviour, Jesus Christ. The New Testament reveals to us that in some mysterious way, the Son of God is both the heir of the universe and its sustainer (Hebrews 1:1-3). In fact we are told that the universe was created “through him”. So the study and exploration of the universe is neither a threat nor irrelevant to us as Christians. In fact, by appreciating these fantastic new discoveries enabled by astronomy, we have a chance for the heavens to declare to us anew the glory of God. 

Dr Jennifer Wiseman

Dr Jennifer Wiseman is an astronomer, author, and speaker based in the US

Image: The Trifid Nebula, as imaged by the Hubble Space Telescope (credit: NASA and J. Hester)

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