The Heavens are the Lord's
Impact of space science upon Christian belief
Only during the twentieth century did men come to realise what an insignificant little speck of dust is our earth in the immensity of God's creation. The achievement of modern astronomers and physicists, probing the secrets of distant stars, discovering strange objects in outer space which no one previously suspected were there, have given almost everyone a completely new outlook upon man's place in the universe, and led some to wonder just how this new knowledge fits in with traditional ideas about God and the Christian faith. There are those who declare that it spells the doom of belief in Christianity; that the idea of Christ coming down to this little earth to save this puny human race is quite irreconcilable with the fact ‑ which, incidentally, is quite unproven ‑ that there must be many other worlds having intelligent creatures living on them. The scientific journal 'Nature' as far back as 1944, said that the new discoveries were "ticking like a time bomb at the foundation of Christian belief"; the discoveries which have been made since then render the knowledge of 1944 by comparison almost like that of the Dark Ages. One noted space expert said in 1965, "One of the results of space travel will be the end of the old religions ".
It is because these things are said by men possessing various academic qualifications which are thought to confer upon them wisdom greater than therest of us, and because in consequence ordinary people do not know the answers or do not perceive the fallacies in such statements and are liable therefore to be misled, it is very desirable that this question of the relation of Christian belief to the new knowledge of 'space science' be examined in the light of the Scriptures. If the Bible is indeed God's revelation to mankind, it has nothing to fear from such examination and in fact may be found to have much to contribute. It is not always remembered that Twenty-first Century scientists are not the world's first scientists and some of the men whose words and writings are preserved in the Bible were pretty acute observers in their own day; moreover they had the advantage of a much closer association with God than most of their modern counterparts.
The universe, vast as it is, is the work of God. The Christian faith is able to include in its philosophy the effect of every astronomical discovery man has made and every one he will yet make. That men until now have associated their faith only with this earth and with mankind is because they had no idea that any other sphere of life is possible. Primitive peoples pictured the earth as an island floating on a circular sea covered by a curved vault in which moved the sun, moon and stars. God, or the gods, as the case might be, dwelt somewhere on the earth although in a place inaccessible to man. Then there developed the idea that God's dwelling was in an aerial heaven outside the curved vault but still quite near the earth. Even when, not much more than two thousand years ago, it was realised that the earth is a globe, it was still considered the centre of the universe with the sun circling it at a respectful distance and this was the accepted scientific belief until the seventeenth century when Galileo and Kepler showed that the sun is the centre of the solar system. As late as the year 1920, it was still held by astronomers generally that the solar system is in the centre of the universe, due to its apparent position amongst all the visible stars in the heavens. (An earlier astronomer, Thomas Wright, in 1750 had claimed this same honour for the constellation Pleiades.) All of this tended to preserve the idea that there could be only two abodes of life, heaven, the place of God's throne and the home of the angels, and earth, the home of man. God speaks to men in the language used on earth and so He became, to them, a God of the earth and of mankind, having no other conceivable interests. The spiritual insight of Solomon, King of Israel, at the dedication of his temple a thousand years before Christ was appreciated and heeded only by a relative few. "But will God dwell indeed with man on the earth? Behold, heaven and the highest heaven cannot contain thee; how much less this house that I have built!" (2 Chron.6.13‑19). Only in the twentieth century have men realised that God is intrinsically independent of the physical universe; because He created it and sustains it, His existence must be limited by it.
Since 1920, knowledge of the universe has increased enormously, particularly so during the last seventy years. It is known now that our solar system is one component member of a vast conglomeration of stars, estimated by competent astronomers to number anything between ten thousand millions and thirty thousand millions, generally known by the term "Galaxy". The Galaxy has the shape of a gigantic cartwheel, revolving slowly in space, taking something like two or three hundred million years to complete one revolution. When we look up at the "Milky Way", the dense band of stars which arches over the heavens, we are looking straight into the "rim" of the "cartwheel"; but of all those millions of stars the naked eye can pick out only about six hundred at most. This, then, thought the observers, is the universe, a cloud of stars most of which are at such colossal distances that, although expressed in figures, the imagination cannot visualise them. But this is not the end; in more recent years it has found that far beyond the bounds of our Galaxy there are other galaxies, millions of them, each comprising more millions of stars, extending as far as men's measuring instruments can reach. There seems to be no end to it all, and although one expert, Hubble, has calculated the size of the universe from certain theoretical considerations, another, Hoyle, declares that there is no end ‑ it goes on into infinity. Since 1950 there have been new and mysterious objects discovered in deep space, radio stars, pulsars and quasars, not stars in the conventional sense but certainly storehouses of tremendous energy and no one is quite sure exactly what they are and what they do. It is still true that the only One who knows what the universe is all about is God!
The prophet Isaiah was aware of this, so was King David. "He determines the number of the stars; he gives to all of them their names. Great is our Lord, and abundant in power; his understanding is infinite " (Psa. 147. 4‑5). "Lift up your eyes on high and see who created these. He who brings out their host by number, calling them all by names by the greatness of his might, and because he is strong in power not one is missing" (Isa.40.26). Of course these statements were made by men, but they were men attuned to the Holy Spirit of God, and what they said and wrote was the word of God. Vast as is this creation, it all owes its existence to God. Range as far as men might range in the most sophisticated of space ships, they will never get away from God. The Psalmist knew that! "Whither shall I go from thy Spirit, or whither shall I flee from thy presence? If I ascend to heaven, thou art there! If I make my bed in Sheol" (the under-world, the grave, the death state) "thou art there! If I take the wings of the morning, and dwell in the uttermost parts of the sea, even there thy hand shall lead me " (Psa. 139.7‑10). A modem application of that last phrase might well in principle be applied to man's ambition to wing his flight to the distant recesses of outer space; if he does succeed in doing so he will still be within the sphere of Divine power. As the old hymn has it "God is present everywhere ".
At the moment, however, man is still limited to this earth. Astronauts have landed on the Moon for a few hours but the Moon is only just outside our front door, so to speak, and can be reached in two or three days, less than the time it takes a container ship to cross the Atlantic. But the Moon is not habitable. Neither are our neighbour planets, Mars and Venus, which men hope to visit some day although the journey may take years. Amongst the nine planets and their many moons which together constitute the solar system this earth is still man's only practicable home. That fact is in itself remarkable. This one planet of the nine is so admirably adapted for our needs that it gives every evidence of having been especially designed for creatures like ourselves.. Isaiah says as much. "The Lord formed the earth and made it. He did not create it a chaos, he formed it to be inhabited" (Isa.45.18). The Apostle Paul told the philosophers of Athens that God "made from one every nation of men to live on the face of the earth, having determined... the boundaries of their habitation" (Acts 17.26) which seems almost to hint that the practical limit of man's normal habitat is on and around this planet. At a much earlier date, David said much the same thing. "The heavens are the Lord's heavens, but the earth hath he given to the sons of men". (Psa.115.16).
Now all this in itself does not require logically that men will never, in the eternal ages of the future, find their way to distant planets. It only means that there is no Scriptural warrant for supposing that they will. It is true that one group from amongst mankind, the Christian church of this Age, dedicated believers in Christ, are promised a resurrection to another sphere of life. But so far as the Bible tells of the destiny of mankind in general, apart from the Church, it pictures them ultimately attaining a state of sinless perfection upon the earth; what might conceivably happen in the future ages of eternity can only be speculation.
Neither do the texts above quoted or any other direct Scripture statement forbid the possibility of the existence of intelligent beings in other parts of the universe. It neither affirms nor denies, and the likelihood or otherwise of such forms of life existing can only be considered in the light of the relation of that possibility to the basic principles of God's purpose in creation.
It is well established that the same physical laws operate throughout the universe and all the heavenly bodies are built up substantially from the same substances. Most of the stars, it is believed, are accompanied by planets in the same fashion as the star which is our sun, and although most of such planets are unsuitable for human life, it has been calculated by competent authorities that our own "Galaxy", the cloud of stars of which our solar system is a member, must contain between one hundred million and six hundred million planets ‑ the latter staggering figure being the latest and most favoured ‑ so similar to this earth that human beings could live on them comfortably. And this is in our own Galaxy only; Aslmov says that there are more than one hundred million galaxies! There would appear to be plenty of room for living creatures in God's universe.
It is not to be expected, though, that an astronaut of the future can land on the first piece of solid ground he encounters and expect to make himself at home. For a human being to survive there must be air and water. If the planet is less that six thousand miles in diameter it cannot retain enough breathable atmosphere for life; if greater than ten thousand the heavier force of gravity would render movement well nigh impossible. The earth at eight thousand is nicely between these limits. The 'sunlight' from the parent star or 'sun' must be within certain limits if plant and animal life is to flourish. The seasons, the length of day and night, the length of the year, and many other factors, determine whether a planet is habitable or not. In addition to the six hundred millions which could conceivably support beings like ourselves there is inevitably a much greater number which could not.
Could such planets support forms of life unknown to us? Some authorities think so. Genesis tells us that God made man of the 'dust of the ground" (Gen. 2.7); in other words, the elements of which the earth itself is made. More than 98% of the human body is composed of three elements, carbon, oxygen and hydrogen, and human beings can live only on a planet where these three elements are plentiful, so that water and air are essential. It is believed by some investigators that life processes could proceed in creatures constituted of certain other elements when placed in an appropriate environment. Thus a world might be possible in which ammonia replaced water and nitrogen replaced oxygen. Such creatures could stand intense cold intolerable to human beings. Another form of life is envisaged in which the physical body is made of sulphur, silicon and phosphorus and all the seas and rivers are of sulphuric acid instead of water; such beings could live in intense heat sufficient to burn everything on this earth to a cinder. These deductions are not at present greatly favoured because for a number of reasons it would appear, in the present state of knowledge, that the presence of carbon is essential to any kind of living creature. The knowledge of tomorrow may well upset this position but so far as science goes today the dictum is that if there are intelligent beings elsewhere in the universe they must be like ourselves.
Now before considering the effect upon the Christian faith if life should indeed exist elsewhere in the universe it may be well to take a look at the state of current scientific thought on the subject. The search for signs of what is called, in the best circles, "extraterrestrial life", has been going on for fifty years past. The most spectacular element in the search was "Project Ozma", the setting up of radio receivers at an American observatory in 1960, to listen for possible man-made signals from possible planets surrounding two relatively near-by stars. Observations were continued without success for two years and then the project was abandoned. Five years later Russian astronomers believed they had detected such signals from another part of the universe, but it was later established that the 'signals' were natural radio waves emanating from a particular kind of star known as a 'quasar'. The emphasis nowadays therefore is directed to investigating the physical conditions necessary for life and the type of life that could conceivably exist, and the probability of suitable centres for such life existing in other parts of space. A very comprehensive investigation into this subject a few years ago produced the conclusion that the average distance between any two "habitable" planets would not be less than 24 light years. A 'light year' is the distance light travels in one year at its speed of 186,000 miles a second; that does not convey much to the average reader but if we say that a moon rocket ship which could cross the Atlantic from Britain to America in ten minutes would take one million years to travel to the nearest habitable planet, it might give a better idea of the enormous distances involved. Our nearest neighbours, if they exist, are not so very near after all. And there is another difficulty. Shklovskh, of the State Astronomical Institute at Moscow, reputedly one .of the world's foremost astronomers, has made calculations leading to the supposition that whilst there could be as many as three hundred thousand planets on which life has at some time appeared, the birth and death of any two such civilisations could well be separated in time by up to a million years! One is led to reflect what a disappointment it would be to some future space travellers, or, rather, to their descendants in the space ship, after spending several million years making their way to an inhabited planet, to find upon arrival that all the inhabitants had died a million years earlier. One feels that the Bible message is both more helpful, more logical and more rational than some pronouncements based upon current wisdom. At any rate, the Scriptures do promise the solution of all human problems, and the attainment of God's purpose with man, at the end of another 'thousand years', which is a lot better than the astronomer's millions.
It is this vast universe, with all its possibilities, that we have to picture in our minds when we talk about the relevance of the Christian faith today. Men, in all sincerity but with great arrogance, look out at the vastness of it all and aspires to conquer it for themselves. They do not realise, or do not believe, that it is God's universe and that God created it for his own purposes, which though they may be unrevealed to us, will certainly be accomplished. Man's view is well expressed in words spoken at an astronomical conference some years ago: "Unrestrained expansion of human activity throughout the entire near-solar space is an inevitability.,. various criteria seem to suggest that humanity will conquer and transform the solar system in a few thousand years . . . there can be no limit to the abilities of that highly organised form of existence of matter which we call life ".
Long years ago the Creator of the universe and of man, speaking through the prophet Isaiah, said, "Have you not known ? Have you not heard? Has it not been told you from the beginning? It is he who sits above the circle of the earth and its inhabitants are like grass-hoppers, who stretches out the heavens like a curtain and spreads them like a tent to dwell in, who brings princes to nought and makes the rulers of the earth as nothing. Scarcely are they planted, scarcely sown, scarcely has their stem taken root in the earth, when he blows upon them and they wither, and the tempest carries them off like stubble" (Isa.40.21‑24).
For, after all, the heavens are the Lord's.
This article is reprinted, slightly edited, from the article 'God of all Space' which is available from BFU.