Space. The Final Frontier. Most of us will recognize those words from the opening lines of the original Star Trek series as readily as Neil Armstrong's "giant leap for mankind." My own childhood discovery of outer space was larger through the lens of science fiction. I eagerly devoured the literature and programming of classic space opera, with their grandiose tales of battle and discovery on an epic, universal scale. For a time, the genre was embodied for me in franchises such as Star Wars and Star Trek, later superseded by the more rationally-imagined Honor Harrington series. As an adult, my interests expanded to the real-world space effort, specifically space settlements such as those described in The High Frontier by Gerard K. O'Neill and The Case For Mars by Robert Zubrin.
Initially, I perceived no potential conflict whatsoever between these interests and the precepts of my Christian faith. I believed that God had purposely designed human beings with a drive to explore, discover and expand - even to the very stars themselves - fulfilling our mandate for creation of new ideas, tools, technologies and even entirely new cultures and nations on unclaimed lands and worlds, adding new volumes to the grand book of human history. How I felt - and still feel - in this regard is best encapsulated in the words of John Milton, writing in Paradise Lost:
"Witness this new-made world, another Heaven
From Heaven-gate not far, founded in view
On the clear hyaline, the glassy sea
Of amplitude almost immense, with stars
Numerous, and every star perhaps a world
Of destined habitation..."
You can imagine how devastated I was to learn just how many of my fellow believers take a diametrically opposite view. A case in point was my discovery of this particular Facebook group of over 4,000 members during a random Google search:
We oppose space mysticism - the belief in better future waiting out there. God gave us Earth and it is a perfectly adequate home. Lets stay here!
Closer inspection has made me 99 percent certain this group is, in fact, intended as satire (most likely by atheists). I offer this (abridged) post as an example:
It's absolutely mind blowing when I'm just eating a hotdog a few minutes ago and all the sudden I'm starting to feel Holy Fire in my back! The power of the Holy Spirit starts Busting out & wind was coming out of my mouth which is the breath of God different kinds of gifts were manifesting. My cell phone wasn't near me so when I went back to my cell phone and I noticed I got text coming in so that's why the power of the Holy Spirit was manifesting to heal and deliver any NASA whistleblowers who'd be willing to come forward to CASE...
Literally all the other posts are just like that. Really. But the very existence of a parody usually indicates some form of larger reality. A 2014 study published in The Week magazine found that support for space exploration was significantly weaker among church attendees than the public at large, with Roman Catholics being slightly more supportive than evangelical Protestants. Those rejecting mainstream evolutionary theory appeared to be the least supportive.
Speaking as someone who embraces Young-Earth Creationism myself, I can attest to the reality of this mindset among many of its adherents. The late Henry Morris, author of The Genesis Flood, and considered by many the founder of the modern Creationist movement, also wrote an essay called "The Bounds of the Dominion Mandate," in which he asserted that man's biblical dominion is expressly limited to the planet Earth, citing the following passages of Scripture:
"The heaven, even the heavens, are the Lord's: but the earth hath He given to the children of men (Psalm 115:16)."
"God that made the world and all things therein, seeing that He is Lord of heaven and earth,... hath made of one blood all nations of men for to dwell on all the face of the earth, and hath determined the times before appointed and the bounds of their habitation (Acts 17:24, 26)."
He further quoted a contemporary scientist at the time who stated "astronomy and cosmology are of little earthly use," and went on to criticize the entire space program for "the waste of billions of dollars - not to mention sacrificing the lives of many dedicated and brilliant men and women," before grudgingly allowing that some "spinoffs" of space research provided valuable tools for improving life on earth (but were only justified insofar as they contributed to this alone).
The Scriptural passages Morris cited in his essay can be easily answered with another:
"What is man, that thou art mindful of him? and the son of man, that thou visitest him? For thou hast made him a little lower than the angels, and hast crowned him with glory and honour. Thou madest him to have dominion over the works of thy hands; thou hast put all things under his feet (Psalm 8:4-6)..."
Furthermore, not all biblical scholars (even those embracing an otherwise identical view of the Creation account) would interpret the prior two passages in the same way Morris did. John Wesley, in his commentaries, believed the passage in Acts referred to physical features of geography - such as rivers, mountains, seas, etc - which formed the natural borders of various nations/people-groups at the time it was written, emphasizing that God's providence had been a constant factor in their histories (Wesley's Explanatory Notes). Regarding the verse from Psalm 115, I actually had the opportunity some years ago to field a question on to the Answers in Genesis organization. The researcher I spoke with was gracious enough to answer me at length, and I've included a link to his full response here. Basically, the psalm's intended meaning is not a restriction of man's dominion - rather, it is a description of the relation between the spiritual realm (represented by Heaven) and the physical universe (represented by Earth). Only when someone starts with certain preconceived notions does it convey the idea of humankind being barred from inhabiting space (incidentally, the same can be said of Acts 17).
Why then are so many Christians so ambivalent towards space exploration? Primarily, I think this stems from the debate of extraterrestrial life. Young-Earth Creationists overwhelmingly believe that humans are alone in the universe. While the Bible never explicitly rules out the possibility of life on other worlds, it offers many significant indicators to cast doubt on its existence, which have been well-explained by many biblical scholars. Just one example can be found here. As someone who embraces a predominantly literal approach to Scripture, I find these arguments weighty. This perspective can, however, cause a knee-jerk reaction to identify all space exploration with an effort to disprove the Bible. But this focuses quite unfairly on only one side of space research to the exclusion of other possibilities. There have historically been many people of deep faith involved in the space program, the most significant of which were - and are - astronauts.
The other main contributing factor is the constricted view of the future implied by most mainstream Christian eschatological theories (the Left Behind series being the most significant). In some ways, the overwhelming dominance of these views in prophetic discourse is a parallel to the uphill battle faced by speculative authors in a Christian book market dominated by Amish fiction and Romance. I won't delve very deeply into them except to say that they are by no means the only possible interpretation of biblical prophecy - only when Christ returns will we finally know which of the myriad prophecy writers out there was closest to the truth. I personally take no dogmatic position on prophecy or the "end times". It's been my lifelong belief that an excessive focus on these tends to discourage long-term thinking.
In this vein, many contemporary Christians are consumed with time-bound issues such as cultural rot, gay marriage, the school system, persecution overseas, etc (usually seeing them as signs "the end is near"). All of these issues are important ones. But seeing only immediate concerns as worthy of attention is both deadening and disheartening - it's also a prescription to ensure no genuine solution to any of them will ever be found. I think Mars advocate Robert Zubrin sums things up quite well in this regard: "There were many problems in Spain in the year 1492 - and there still are." But what did these compare with the discovery and settlement of the New World and the entirely new nations that rose in its wake? What if our own contemporary problems obscure what could in fact be the cusp of a new and revolutionary era of similar expansion?
To me, a faith-based worldview is not a barrier but rather an impetus for space exploration - a desire to discover and see firsthand the wonders of Creation, seeking out new frontiers like the Pilgrims and Pioneers before us. One thing that has stayed with me is one of the closing statements from The Mars Underground (a documentary I highly recommend):
"I think the universe has a big sign on it that says 'Go forth and spread life.' Because when I look around at the universe, I think life is the most amazing thing we see. It is just incredible. And we human beings are uniquely positioned to help spread life from this little tiny planet which it seems to have been started on - beyond. And that's our gift. Earth's gift to the universe, I think, is the gift of life."
Though they came from the lips of a wholly secular researcher, those words spoke to me on a profoundly spiritual level. Just how divinely noble would it be for us as human beings, created in God's image, to fulfill our biblical mandate of dominion by literally bringing dead worlds to life? What might this enterprise tell us about how miraculous our existence - and the existence of life on Earth, truly is? What fresh perspective could it offer us on the mind of God? What if Earth, a planet uniquely fine-tuned for discovery and observation of the larger universe (The Privileged Planet), is destined to be remembered by future generations on distant worlds as "the cradle of life" from which their ancestors spread.
I leave you all with this quote from Francis Schaeffer:
"The Christian is the really free person - he is free to have imagination. This too is our heritage. The Christian is the one whose imagination should fly beyond the stars."
Join me next week as we continue our journey through the Dark Corners of Heaven and Earth.