On July 11 and 12, the first set of images captured from the James Webb Space Telescope were released to the public. They included a deep field image speckled with thousands of galaxies, a view of a grouping of five galaxies, images of nebulae with stars enveloped in their variously sculpted dust-rich regions, and a transmission spectrum obtained from starlight filtered through the atmosphere of an exoplanet.
These images mark the highly anticipated beginning of science operations for this space telescope, and they were hailed with press releases around the world because of their stunning resolution, informational value, and intrinsic beauty.
This unprecedented opportunity for cosmic observation naturally engenders a desire for deeper reflection on human ingenuity, God’s creation, and a biblical understanding of our place and meaning in the cosmos.
Human Ingenuity: The Hallmark of a Good Creation
The successful acquisition of images by the James Webb Space Telescope is the product of more than 30 years of planning and implementation of a complex project by thousands of scientists, engineers, and technicians. From Galileo’s telescope to modern particle accelerators, technology and instrumentation have often been the catalysts for the discovery of new phenomena in nature and have helped us discriminate between competing ideas for their explanation.
Undoubtedly, the Webb telescope will similarly contribute to the expansion of the frontiers of knowledge. Irrespective of the scientific advancements that will be made possible by this instrument, however, its very existence and active operation are a testament to human ingenuity.
This incredible artifact built on earth and now located in space about four times farther than the moon’s orbit embodies the essence of what really makes us special: in science as in art, it is the ability to conceive, design, create, and implement something that was not there before. Scientific collaborations of this kind, especially when intended for the benefit of all, are an expression of how humans were made in God’s image.
We could also think of numerous instances where human ingenuity was set on building towers of Babel, perpetrating evil. The biblical perspective helps us make better sense of such contrasting outcomes of human creative efforts. If the ability to discover, design, and create is a good gift granted to us by our Creator, we cannot overlook the influence of sin on human priorities and ambitions: “God created mankind upright, but they have gone in search of many schemes” (Ecclesiastes 7:29, NIV).
Learning about the Cosmos: Opportunities and Challenges
What are some of the specific questions expected to be answered thanks to the James Webb Space Telescope? And what makes this telescope the right one to address them?
Perhaps, the key element is that the telescope’s scientific instruments are designed to make observations in the low frequency infrared and near-infrared region of the electromagnetic spectrum. This allows, among other things, capture of light from distant galaxies and faint or colder objects emitting radiation in the infrared, and to observe patterns of absorption of starlight by exoplanetary atmospheres. These observations are expected to provide new insight into cosmological models and the formation and evolution of galaxies, stars, and exoplanets.1
It is fascinating to think that astrophysicists will be able to use data acquired by the Webb telescope to extract generalities from the vast array of possibilities in configuration and composition that exist among galaxies, stars, and exoplanets. This ability to make sense of the cosmos, categorizing and understanding the dynamics of its phenomena, is what makes the scientific study of the creation remarkably fulfilling. Intelligibility and consistency occur within a tapestry of innumerable combinations and testify to the wisdom and greatness of God, but also to His desire to be known. His thoughts outnumber the grains of sand on our planet, and yet we can reflect upon them (Psalm 139:17, 18).
It is also unavoidable that some of the findings based on data acquired by the Webb telescope will be presented in ways that challenge the biblical worldview of origins. Cosmological models grounded in astrophysics are not insulated from philosophical questions about origins and can become framed within the larger picture of the longstanding debate of materialism versus theism.2
At a more specific level, we could expect that results related to exoplanets will project a narrative that detaches the origin of life from an act of special creation, and trivializes it as a common or inevitable phenomenon in the cosmos.3
Finally, the question of the age of the universe and its relation to biblical chronology and creation week will continue to be a source of discussion. It has been suggested that a “two-stage creation” model of an old universe and recent creation week can reconcile Genesis 1 with current cosmological models.4 This approach does not solve all the tension, however, because models of planetary evolution include processes such as the formation of crust, oceans, and atmosphere that are mentioned in the first days of creation and are typically modeled over long time scales. Like the Roman centurion, I believe Christ has authority over His creation (see Matthew 8:8, 9) and the power to instantaneously speak things into existence. When dealing with areas of tension, however, I find it helpful to refrain from speculating on things I know very little about, and I continue to value the importance of listening and engaging with differing perspectives.5
Between the Earthly and the Heavenly
In looking at the images obtained from the James Webb Space Telescope, I feel a little like David in his contemplation of the night sky. I am made aware of my finite state, but also of my value. God assigned to humans the earth as their home. And yet, while grounded daily in the earthly reality, we have been given the opportunity to consider the heavens.6 About 3,000 years ago, David did not know of black holes or exoplanets or galactic collisions. Yet, his inspired words of amazement and adoration ring so incredibly true: “Lord, our Lord, how majestic is your name in all the earth! You have set your glory in the heavens” (Psalm 8:1, NIV).