God and the Hubble Telescope

Series: Window on the World

by Phil Ryken March 3, 1996

I suppose this Window on the World is really a window on the universe. Over the past several months, new data and new pictures have been pouring in from the Hubble telescope, and it’s worth thinking about their theological significance.

You may remember that when the Hubble telescope was first launched it was a monument to human fallibility. An essential light-gathering mirror in the telescope was ground to the wrong dimensions because a technician put a bolt on backwards. That error made all of the pictures blurry. Since that problem was corrected, however, the Hubble telescope has been transformed from a monument to human fallibility to a testament to divine glory.

Just before Thanksgiving we received spectacular photographs of things human eyes had never seen before. We saw pictures of the Cartwheel Galaxy, a galaxy the size of the Milky Way that seems to have had a smaller galaxy smash through its center, creating a magnificent ring out of billions of stars and supernovas. We saw pictures of the Eagle Nebula—haunting ultraviolet images of stars wrapped up in billowing hydrogen clouds some 6 trillion miles high [Michael D. Lemonick, “Cosmic Close-Ups,” TIME, 11/20/95, pp. 91-98]. Several months later we saw a stunning photograph of nebula NGC 7027, explosive in its white hot death throes [Philadelphia Inquirer, 1/17/96, A4].

The Hubble telescope has even discovered some things that we can’t see, like planets which may or may not be hospitable to life. In January, astronomers announced that the planets 70 Virginis and 47 Ursae Majoris had been detected revolving around stars that are visible to the naked eye. Planets have been discovered outside of our own solar system before, but not planets temperate enough to contain water in liquid form, like these are [Michael D. Lemonick, “Is Someone Out There?” TIME, 1/29/96, p. 64].

What are we to make of all this? The new discoveries remind us of two things that are true about God. First, God loves beauty. King David wrote: The heavens declare the glory of God; the skies proclaim the work of his hands. Day after day they pour forth speech; night after night they display knowledge [Psalm 19:1-2]. When he wrote about “glory,” David had in mind the beauty of the heavenly bodies, a glorious beauty which reflected God’s own glorious beauty. But David didn’t know the half of it. There were marvelous things in the heavens that he never saw. There were things in the heavens—things beautiful beyond description—that no one had ever seen before. And yet those stars, and those quasars, and those nebulae, and those galaxies have been saying “Glory to God,” “Glory to God,” “Glory to God,” without ceasing, since the day they were created. We are eager to see these things for ourselves, so that we may join in their praise.

The other truth about which the new discoveries remind us is that God is immense. Abraham heard and believed the promise that his offspring would be as numerous as the stars of the heavens [Genesis 15:5], but he couldn’t see the half of them. In December, the Hubble Telescope was pointed at a dark patch in space for ten straight days. During that time, 1500 new galaxies were discovered, some as far away as 14 billion light years [Philadelphia Inquirer, 1/16/96, A1, A8]. And yet we still haven’t seen all the way to the boundary of the universe… if the universe has a boundary. Even if Abraham had had the Hubble telescope at his disposal, he still wouldn’t have been able to count all the stars.

Isn’t it wonderful that God made the universe vast beyond our comprehension, so that every generation of humanity might stand in awe at his works? At the same time that astronomers have been peering at the horizon of the universe, nuclear physicists have been straining to understand the nature of matter. Scientists at Fermilab near Chicago have discovered the final subatomic quark that confirms the Standard Model of physics, but at the same time they have uncovered evidence of sub-quark particles that throw the whole theory into disarray. The universe is proving to be inexhaustible in its complexity, from the tiniest speck to the farthest galaxy.

How immense must God be, to create such an immense universe? He must be the kind of God David wrote about in Psalm 113 [vs. 6], a God who stoops down to look on the heavens and the earth.

Now in all the immensity of that universe, is there life anywhere else besides earth? Some of the reports about the probability of life elsewhere in the universe have been greatly exaggerated. After all, we haven‘t even seen any of these other planets yet, we’re just hypothesizing their existence on the basis of wobbles in the position of nearby stars. Those wobbles don’t always tell you as much as you want to know. Some scientists were claiming that conditions on one of the planets are a lot like conditions on Jupiter. That was ironic, because it was later that same week that the Galileo space probe revealed that conditions on Jupiter were nothing like conditions on Jupiter! [Philadelphia Inquirer, 1/23/96, A2].

The Bible is silent about the existence of life elsewhere in the universe. It doesn’t say one way or the other. But if life were to be discovered anywhere else in the universe, then what the Bible says about the position of man in the universe would still be true, and it would be more poignant than ever before: What is man that you are mindful of him? [Psalm 8:4a].

Besides, if there is life somewhere else in the universe, then we already know the answers to the two most important questions about it: “Who made it?” and “Why?” Even the toddlers of the kingdom of God know those answers from their Children’s Shorter Catechism [Q & A 2-3]: What else did God make? God made all things. Why did God make you and all things? For his own glory.

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