In the last decade or two, our knowledge of the universe has grown dramatically as many new telescopes and spacecraft have come online. In this essay, I’ve selected some of my favorite recent astronomy photographs to share with you. As a professional astronomer and a Christian, I feel God has called me to share these wonders with the church. Many times, these new discoveries are presented without any mention of God, and sometimes in a context of overt atheism. I want to share these things with you in a Christian context, with God as their creator.
In July 2011, the spacecraft Dawn arrived at the asteroid Vesta and took the photograph shown in Figure 3. Vesta is about 530 kilometers across, or about the size of Wyoming. This beautiful image shows the varied texture on Vesta’s surface. Vesta has craters like the moon, but also ridged bands along the upper left. In fact, there are craters on top of the ridged bands! Just from looking at the surface, it is clear that Vesta has a history, in which the bands formed first, and after that small asteroids hit Vesta to make the craters on top of the bands.
Astronomers now know the orbits of nearly half a million individual asteroids in the asteroid belt. The asteroids are grouped into families that have similar chemical composition and similar orbits. College students with whom I work have programmed computers to run the orbits back in time under the laws of gravity. The students find the same thing that professionals do: asteroids in the same family have orbits that converge at a certain time in the past, millions of years ago. This was the time when two asteroids collided, breaking off many smaller asteroids. The new smaller asteroids are seen as a family today.
Charting the origins of asteroids is an excellent example of historical science: by using the evidence we see today, we can deduce what must have happened in the past. Very few assumptions go into the orbit calculation, just Newton’s laws of mechanics and gravity. Even though no one was there to see the collision, the orbits today show that a collision occurred millions of years ago. God gives us a glimpse of how he created the asteroid belt. The idea that something happened millions of years ago may seem startling to you. Christians disagree about the age of the earth, solar system, and universe. Some Christians believe the solar system is only 10,000 years old, in agreement with the genealogies recorded in the Bible. Other Christians believe the solar system is 4.6 billion years old, in agreement with many lines of evidence from astronomy and geology, including asteroid collisions.
Since God has revealed himself in both scripture and nature, we need to take both revelations seriously. Both revelations require human interpretation: scientists interpret the evidence in the natural world, and Christians interpret the Bible every time they read it. Many biblical scholars say that the best interpretation of Genesis indicates that it was never intended to teach scientific information about the age of the universe, but it was intended to teach truths about God’s sovereignty and the goodness of creation.
When you look at the night sky, the space between the stars looks black. Figure 4, however, shows that the space between the stars is actually filled with rich complexes of dust and gas. The Carina Nebula is located 7,500 light-years away. A light-year is the distance that light travels in one year, so that means the light we see left the nebula 7,500 years ago. This image is about thirty light years across. The beautiful colors represent different types of gas: blue for nitrogen, green for hydrogen, and red for sulfur. The dark clumps and filaments are regions where dust clouds absorb the light.
This nebula displays God’s creative nature in another way: in this region God is creating new stars. It is an active “stellar nursery.” The smallest dark globules in the lower center of the picture are similar in size to our own solar system. Each globule will likely become a star with planets of its own. Our own solar system probably had its origin in a nebula like this. God brought together the dust and gasses in a swirling cloud to make the sun, earth, and planets. The very nitrogen in our bodies was once glowing in a beautiful nebula. God made us from stardust.
This nebula illustrates an important truth: a scientific explanation does not replace God. Some atheists say, “Scientists can explain this, so there’s no need for God.” And some Christians say, “Scientists can’t explain this, so God must have made it.” Both statements make the error of assuming that a scientific explanation is somehow a substitute for God. Yet in other areas—gravity or photosynthesis or chemical reactions—we view God as upholding the laws of nature. We don’t say that natural laws indicate God’s absence. For a Christian, a scientific explanation doesn’t diminish God’s role; it gives additional insight into God’s action and increases our praise of him.
Figure 6 looks like a child’s marble or a funny planet, but it is actually an image of the whole sky. Imagine yourself standing at the center of the sphere and looking out at the universe all around you. You’ll also need to imagine that your eyes can detect microwaves, because this image was taken by the Wilkinson Microwave Anisotropy Probe (WMAP), launched in 2001. Throughout this decade, WMAP has sent back increasingly precise pictures of microwave radiation from all over the sky.
This image shows the heat radiation left over from the beginning of the universe. When these photons first started traveling, the universe was as hot as iron in a blacksmith forge, but the expansion has cooled the universe way down to -454.49 degrees Fahrenheit. In the early 1900s, the prevailing view was that the universe was infinitely old and unchanging. By the mid-1950s, astronomers were considering a new model: the Big Bang. The Big Bang model predicted that faint heat radiation would be detected from all over the sky. When this was detected in 1965, most astronomers accepted the Big Bang model. In this model, the universe has a beginning in time, which is closer to the biblical picture. Unfortunately, some scientists have told the story differently, claiming that the Big Bang model means that God is unnecessary. But as with the Carina Nebula, a scientific explanation does not eliminate God. I see the Big Bang model as a scientific description of how God brought about the universe.
The Christian faith has never said God was restricted to our planet; we have always claimed God is outside of his creation and is thus, in a sense, bigger than all of his creation.
But if God is so huge, how can he care about our little planet? How can he care about my little life on this planet? This question isn’t new. David writes in the Psalms:
“When I consider your heavens, the work of your fingers, the moon and the stars, which you have set in place, what are mere mortals that you are mindful of them, human beings that you care for them?” (8:3-4, TNIV )
The question of human significance in the face of the cosmos has been with us for thousands of years. David answered it by remembering that
“You have made them a little lower than the angels and crowned them with glory and honor. You made them rulers over the works of your hands; you put everything under their feet…” (8:5-6)
One reason we are significant is that God gave us a special role in creation, to study it and care for it. He has asked us to be partners with him in governing his creation. We are not insignificant. In fact, our responsibility to care for this earth is a much more important issue for Christians to be concerned about than arguments over the age of the universe.
Since David’s time, we have learned so much more about God through his revelation to us. God himself chose to become human, like one of us. He sacrificed all of his glory, held back all of his power, and died to show us how much we matter to him. The same God who governs the galaxies all across the universe also loves each one of us enough to die for us. As Psalm 103 says,
“For as high as the heavens are above the earth, so great is his love for those who fear him; as far as the east is from the west, so far has he removed our transgressions from us.” (v10-11)
The night sky isn’t meant to remind us of how small we are; it is meant to remind us of how vast God’s love is.
This article was compiled from excerpts of Deborah Haarsma’s essay “Delight in Creation: Recent Discoveries in Astronomy”, copyright @2012 Center for Excellence in Preaching, Calvin Theological Seminary, a product of The Ministry Theorem, and reprinted at biologos.org. Used with permission.
This is post is the final article in a series that addresses the relationship between faith and science. We invite readers to study and evaluate the claims of the authors in light of Scripture, and also to review previous posts on iAt that address various Christian perspectives on this topic.