In recent news, Congress has passed a bill (S.3346) which is being hailed as “a solid commitment” towards the goal of having a manned mission to mars within the next 25 years. The bipartisan bill authorized a budget increase for NASA, taking their total budget up to “$19.5 billion.”
This raises the question in many minds: Is there any biblical justification in exploring space and more importantly, spending such large amounts of money to do so? It seems to be an important question, after-all, we don’t want to support something if it amounts to a violation of God’s law.
For many religion seems as if it should play a role in our decision on whether or not to support space travel. It has been observed by many social commentators that Christians seem to have less interest in space exploration than the general population. In 2014 there was a study addressing this very issue entitled “Separation of Church and Space: Religious Influences on Support for Space Exploration Policy.”
The study found that religion did indeed play a part in people’s view of space travel. Naturally, those who believed that the return of Christ was imminent saw little value in such long term endeavors (a standard position for premillennialists). Others are worried that a major impetus for such ventures is the discovery of alien life in hopes of proving evolution. Ken Ham was criticized a few years ago for seemingly being opposed to space exploration on these grounds (along with an assertion that aliens [if they exist] would go to hell (Ken denied that he ever said this, but he did)). Ken doesn’t seem to actually be against space travel, but his criticism does raise a valid point that the motivations for space travel should influence our view of it.
Oh to be a child at space-camp again, oblivious to such considerations!
At the outset, however, we have to point out that there is a problem with the question, which we can counter with another question:
Is there any biblical justification for needing a biblical justification for exploring space?
That is to say, the original question assumes that something not having a ‘biblical justification’ means that it shouldn’t be done, and so first we have to answer the questions: What counts as Biblical justification? And more importantly, does the Bible tell us that all of our actions need to have a justification from somewhere in itself?
So what counts as a biblical justification? Is our answer that the bible has to explicitly endorse something – as we do with the regulative principle of worship? Afterall as Van Til famously stated “The Bible is thought of as authoritative on everything of which it speaks. Moreover, it speaks of everything.” So if the Bible speaks of everything, what does the Bible say about space exploration? Not much at all, unfortunately.
If we’re wanting a direct justification from the Bible on the question of space travel we’re out of luck. Then again, if we’re under the impression that we need an explicit justification for anything and everything we do in our lives then we’d best follow Wendell Berry’s advice and go agrarian (Wendell Berry is full of much wisdom, even if he probably doesn’t support space travel).
Perhaps a better approach to the question of what counts as a biblical justification is asking what principles we can infer from Scripture that can guide our decision-making. Van Til went on to say “We do not mean that [the Bible] speaks of football games, of atoms, etc., directly, but we do mean that it speaks of everything either directly or by implication. It tells us not only of the Christ and his work, but it also tells us who God is and where the universe about us has come from…”
So perhaps the question is one of implication. Along those lines the only thing we can really mine from Scripture is that “The heavens declare the glory of God; the skies proclaim the work of his hands.” While it would be wildly anachronistic to claim Psalm 19 is referencing space travel, the fact that the heavens declare the glory of God could theoretically provide some basis for exploration – afterall , the chief end of man is to glorify God and to enjoy him forever, so perhaps exploring the realm that declares that glory would be an inherently good thing.
Maybe we can infer from this that space exploration can serve as an act of worship, that “God would allow and approve of humans developing space-travel as a means of studying the earth, moon, and other celestial bodies from a large-scale perspective,” or that “our motivation to study the creation is that we understand that the world is not the result of random chance, but that God purposefully designed it.” Along these lines we might ask ourselves how space travel differs from ocean or jungle exploration, or microbiology or atomic research?
But then the critic can retort, can we not understand that without space exploration? Can we not glorify God in this way without spending all this money? Many Christians believe we are spending too much on our space programs, and I’ve had discussions with others who say that we should be using the money for other more humanitarian needs.
At this point the debate becomes more historical or pragmatic rather than theological or exegetical. There is arguably no dichotomy between exploration for discovering the glories of God’s universe along with the practical benefits/scientific advances made along the way on the one hand, and causes like world hunger and education on the other.
This is because economics is not a zero sum game. The money spent on NASA is not money robbed from feeding people or providing clean water. Those $19.5 billion aren’t sent into space. The money spent on building a rocket is money that is poured back into the economy. It goes to the people who make the glass for the shuttle windows, it goes to all the different places where the raw materials for building a space shuttle come from, it goes to the farmers and food manufacturers who produce and process the food the astronauts eat, it goes to pay the employees and contractors at NASA, who use their paychecks by buying normal things just like the rest of us. The money is not sent into space, it is funneled back into the economy.*
The distinction between space (or terrestrial or microscopic) exploration and solving world problems is a false dichotomy. Exploration, even for its own sake, often results in both scientific discoveries and the development of technologies that make lives better around the world; we tend to make great progress towards our humanitarian goals in the midst of pursuing our scientific ones. The work at NASA has led to developments in an entire array of areas, to include water and air purification, trash compactors, freeze-dry technology, fire resistant materials, solar energy, pollution control and measuring devices, sewage treatment technologies, breast cancer detectors, ultrasounds scanners, microlasers, radiation detectors, improved aircraft engines, doppler radar, wireless communications, and others.
Many of these are problems that we would have not been trying to solve were they not needed to make space exploration more feasible. Society as a whole has benefited greatly, if indirectly, from the advances made in the course of exploring the final frontier, going where no man has gone before.
But we still haven’t addressed the basic question, the presupposition on which this entire discussion rests: Is there any biblical justification for needing a biblical justification for exploring space?
I think a good lens for answering this question is provided by Kevin DeYoung in his book Just Do Something. The book is about discovering God’s will for our lives, and Kevin breaks down the God’s will into two different biblical categories. The first is God’s will of decree, that is, everything he ordains to happen in his sovereignty. The second is God’s will of desire, that is, his moral will for our lives – love God and love our neighbor.
A third category that we like to make up on our own is what we might call God’s will of direction. It is this will we refer to when we ask where we should live and work, who we should marry, whether we should use Xbox or PlayStation, Android or iPhone. As DeYoung states: “Trusting in God’s will of decree is good. Following His will of desire is obedient. Waiting for God’s will of direction is a mess.”
The thing that the Bible is concerned with us following is God’s will of desire, his moral will, as expressed in his Law. The Bible doesn’t tell us whether or not we should become a farmer or a businessman, it doesn’t tell us whether we should go to university or go to tech school, and it doesn’t tell us whether we should go to the moon or to mars.
The Bible does speak of everything, but it speaks of everything in terms of providing a worldview through which to look at everything and a basic morality through which to approach everything.
It doesn’t tell us whether or not to go to space, but it tells God created the heavens and that they declare his glory. It doesn’t tell us whether or not to go to space, but it tells us to not to commit theft or murder in the process. It doesn’t necessarily tell us what to do, but merely how to conduct ourselves morally in the midst of our endeavors.
The Bible does not ask us to seek a justification for everything we do within, but it does tell to do whatever we do for the glory of God, it tells us to love our neighbor in the midst of whatever path we choose.
So let us continue to explore all of God’s creation, throughout all the earth and all the heavens, and resting assured that when the time comes God will “send out the angels and gather his elect from the four winds, from the ends of the earth to the ends of heaven.”
*One caveat in this discussion is that much of the money spent on NASA is money that is created/printed for that purpose alone, money that in turn increase the national deficit and results in inflation (something true of most all large-scale government projects). The discussion resulting from factoring in these elements, however, is not directly relevant to the topic at hand. The topic at hand is not whether the government should fund such projects or whether NASA is the best means for carrying out these goals; that would be a purely political/economic discussion (and while we could discuss whether Christians should support that sort of taxation, that is not our topic here). The topic at hand is simply whether the goal of space exploration is justifiable in the first place.