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As you already know, I am a 70s child. So, science fiction movies like the original Star Wars trilogy, Battlestar Galactica, and Alien loomed large in my upbringing. I still remember the excitement I felt as I watched the crew of the Nostromo interstellar cruiser from Alien being shaken out of stasis to investigate a signal emanating from the fictional planet LV-426, only to find a xenomorph that killed everyone except officer Ripley, played by Sigourney Weaver. Of course, these movies represent but a minute sample of the genre, but they reveal our collective fascination with what lies beyond our blue planet.
From ancient times, we have peered into the skies seeking to understand the magnitude of God’s handiwork. Researchers have found cave art dating from the Paleolithic and Neolithic eras suggesting early humans’ use and understanding of complex astronomy. Even King David could not escape this fascination as he penned Psalm 19’s opening verse: “The heavens declare the glory of God, and the sky above proclaims his handiwork” (Psalm 19:1, ESV). This quest has led theologians and scientists alike to peer into the skies for clues to help them build and support cosmogonic theories. So, following this great tradition of scientific and theological inquiry, the James Webb space telescope images provide us with the latest window into God’s creative impetus.
A Framework of Cosmic Expansion
Just this summer, we stood transfixed with the first images captured by the Webb telescope. Images like the galaxy cluster SMACS 0723 and Stephan’s Quintet, a visual grouping of five galaxies, gave us the deepest and earliest known glimpses of the universe, providing new insight into galactic interactions and evolution in the early universe. Astrophysicist John Mather, senior project scientist for the Webb Space Telescope, posits that these magnificent images paint a picture of an ever-expanding cosmos, supporting the theory of an all-encompassing (i.e., happening everywhere at once) Big Bang as a process occurring in time. Therefore, Mather suggests, we can see evidence of the universe’s expansion that began about 13.8 billion years ago, spanning the sky and filling the universe.
The book of Genesis provides us with a theological narrative that begins with the creation of the cosmos. In this narrative, God speaks the cosmos into existence, ex nihilo (i.e., out of nothing), following the normative cosmology theistic formulation. Now, the Bible does not pretend to be a scientific treatise. However, it suggests a powerful force (i.e., God’s voice) setting in motion the creation events akin to the explosion described in the Big Bang theory. We all probably remember the bumper sticker that declared, “I believe in the Big Bang theory – God said it, and ‘Bang!’ it happened.” The images captured by the Webb telescope provide further evidence of God’s wisdom and power as he created the heavens and the earth, the sun, the moon, and the stars (Genesis 1:1-5).
...NPR’s Joe Palca reports about the discoveries made by the Webb Telescope and shares information about what is yet to come.
...In “Beyond Infinity,” author Alanna Mitchell provides a compelling account of what astronomers are learning through the data collected by the James Webb Telescope.
...Faith Stults at Biologos talks about the universe’s dynamic movement and how it constantly changes, expands, and evolves.
...For current and future Webb Telescope images, you can reference NASA’s Flickr page or the James Webb Telescope website.
...In an article reflecting on the Webb telescope launch, Faith Stults writes about the elegant mechanisms of creation and how they could lead us to worship God.
...Writer Thomas Salerno shares spiritual insights from the images captured by NASA’s James Webb Space Telescope.
...Images from the James Webb Telescope lend themselves easily to experiences of awe. For more resources on awe and wonder, visit our collection.
Cosmic Beginnings: More Than Meets the Eye
As massive amounts of data from the Webb telescope are analyzed, scientists are beginning to understand that things are not precisely as they previously thought. In a Washington Post article, Dan Coe, an astronomer at the Space Telescope Science Institute, explained that scientists thought the “early universe was this chaotic place where there’s all these clumps of star formation, and things are all a jumble.” However, the data show nicely disk-like organized galaxies and not the previously thought chaos. The Webb telescope revealed an expanded sample of early galaxies, providing scientists with a clearer idea of how galaxies came into being. It also provided a clearer picture of the reionization process that helped particles come together to form the necessary elements for the formation of stars and galaxies. All these elements together suggest an incredible combination of chaos and design. The surprising thing is that the data gathered by the Webb Telescope suggests more design and less chaos than expected, underscoring an interesting balance between these two forces.
I know that, for some, the first reaction is to think that all of this contradicts the long-held doctrine of biblical cosmology and stands in violation of biblical inerrancy. But that is not so. The data gathered by the Webb Telescope, the research produced, and the information analyzed support the theological idea of a God who created the cosmos by the power of his word. Moreover, we can see that the atheist’s framework of a random, chaotic creation is incapable of defeating God; nor do the arguments wielded by those advocating design theories fit seamlessly with the evidence. The pictures of red speckled galaxies, sparkling nebulas, and star clusters underscore the work of a God who has set his glory above for us to see as we look at his heavens and admire the work of his fingertips (Psalm 8:1b, 3, ESV).
One of the most salient images captured by the Hubble Telescope was the Eagle Nebula. This planetary nebula contains a structure nicknamed “the Pillars of Creation.” This image shows three pillars of dust illuminated by young stars, resembling an earthly landscape. NASA scientists can hardly wait to see the images the Webb Telescope will produce of this nebula and the new data to be gleaned by this fantastic instrument. It is clear there is more to our cosmos than we have previously been able to see.
In Alien: Covenant, the second Alien prequel, the crew of the Covenant was brought out of stasis by a rogue signal that turned out to be a rendition of John Denver’s song Take me Home, Country Roads sang by Elizabeth Shaw, the sole survivor of the Prometheus. This transmission led these explorers to a deadly encounter. It is highly improbable that the Webb Telescope picks up a rogue alien message, as portrayed by these movies. However, I think we will see more evidence of the creation of the universe. We will find scientific data that will help us understand how God leveraged design and chaos in fascinating ways to create the cosmos. And as we look at the stunning images captured by the telescope, we will join the psalmist in declaring how God’s glory is evident in the skies, and his power is proclaimed throughout creation (Psalm 19:1).