Mars follows right after Earth in the planet list memorized by children when they are learning about the solar system. This rocky planet is smaller than Earth, but it’s still sizable, with a diameter slightly more than half the Earth’s. Yet, because of its great distance from Earth, to the naked eye it does not look much more than a small bright star in the sky. Only the invention of telescopes about four centuries ago made it possible to discern more detailed features of this planet’s appearance.
Our knowledge of Mars has exploded at an exponential rate in the recent past. Multiple robotic spacecraft have provided and are providing streams of high-resolution information on its composition, topography, surface processes, and rock record, both from the planet’s surface and looking down from orbit. We now have stunning images, videos, maps, and digital reconstructions of Martian surface features, often accessible to the general public through the websites of governmental agencies.1 Some of these features are strikingly similar to geologic features observed on Earth, both at the large scale, such as mountains, valleys, plateaus, and canyons, and at the small scale, such as cross-bedding and other sedimentary structures produced by wind and possibly water.
Christians living in the twenty-first century are immersed in a stream of exciting details from this current frontier of space exploration. While the features of this distant world become somehow more familiar, our minds turn to God for guidance and inspiration on how to place such new knowledge in the context of the biblical worldview.
How does God’s self-disclosure of His character and plan for us as revealed in the Scriptures help give meaning to what we encounter in the study of His creation? How does Martian geology fit with the God of the Bible? Here are some personal reflections on these questions.
In considering what we know about the surface and geologic processes acting on Mars, there is an interesting balance between what looks exotic and what appears familiar to us. For example, we find that the knowledge accrued by humans in disciplines such as physics and chemistry works well not only on Earth but also on Mars. What we have learned about gravity has allowed for successful planning and execution of space travel from Earth to Mars and the landing of the 2,000-pound (900-kilogram) Curiosity rover. The consistency and applicability of the principles of physics beyond the realm of Planet Earth speak of a universal Designer who created and sustains the entire creation: “He is before all things, and in Him all things hold together” (Col. 1:17). Indeed, “all things” means so much more than our beautiful planetary home.
At the same time, what intrigues us about Mars are the distinctive elements that make it a different place. Mars and Earth are made from the elements of the same periodic table, yet they are uniquely complex worlds, which differ, for example, in the composition and thickness of their atmosphere or availability of liquid water on their surface.
The vastness of possible combinations, the genius of immense variability built upon a shared foundation, the delight of being surprised by the unanticipated, speak to us of an incommensurably creative God, who will always transcend us. We cannot help exclaiming with the psalmist: “How precious to me are your thoughts, God! How vast is the sum of them! Were I to count them, they would outnumber the grains of sand—when I awake, I am still with you” (Ps. 139:17, 18).
The combination of these two aspects, consistency and variability, suggests that discovery was part of God’s plan for His creatures.
The combination of these two aspects—consistency and variability—suggests that discovery was part of God’s plan for His creatures. There are innumerable things to explore in the universe, and they have been made in a way that we can discover them. The invitation to growth and expansion is included in the divine mandate to “be fruitful and increase in number; fill the earth and subdue it” (Gen. 1:28).
I sometimes wonder whether God smiles with satisfaction as He witnesses these tiny human beings who, like a colony of ants, laboriously expand their sphere of influence. Yet, for all our advancements, we cannot help feeling like Newton, who is reported to have said: “I seem to have been only like a boy playing on the seashore, and diverting myself in now and then finding a smoother pebble or a prettier shell than ordinary, whilst the great ocean of truth lay all undiscovered before me.”
As we learn more about the geology of Mars, our minds strive to organize the record contained in its rocks and sediments into a succession of events.
The questions that we ask of this apparent history are not dissimilar from those we ask here on Earth: questions of time and process. In some ways these have implications for philosophical questions about origins. When something begins, we are used to tracking its growth. This is true of humans, developing from an embryo to mature individuals, but also of engineering projects, where materials are assembled and a design implemented.
At the same time, our experience attests that new entities don’t come out of nothing, be it babies from their parents or projects from engineers. As we think of God and His relation to the universe He created, the Bible provides a true compass to help us navigate the unknown.
On Earth we encounter evidence that points to history and process, but we are also told that God creates fully functional and equipped ecosystems and that He operates in powerful ways that transcend our understanding and creative capabilities. God is worthy of our worship because He is a powerful Creator who acted in history. Therefore, I do not resonate with origin models that remove God from His creation, like a vessel telling the potter, “You did not make me” (cf. Isa. 29:16). Neither do I find promise in models that deny God the unfathomable power that He displayed in the days of Creation week.
It’s true that space exploration can be an expression of noble human ambitions, but it’s also entangled with a darker component, summarized in the words power, pollution, and peril.
Power: The missions assembled to study Mars are often marvelous examples of international cooperation. Technological advancements developed for space exploration, however, can find military applications. Moreover, accomplishments in space exploration are often used by governments to assert dominance and technological supremacy, as happened in the years of the Cold War.
Pollution: As the physical footprint of humans expands beyond our planet, so does the garbage we leave in our wake. Agencies have been established to mitigate the polluting effects of space exploration, but an impression remains that once we set foot on a place, some of its pristine qualities are lost.
Peril: There are true dangers connected with the exploration of another planet. Some of them derive from the fact that God fully equipped us for life on Earth, not Mars. Others come from partial understanding of the dynamics of a different environment, and others still can be the result of haste, error, or misguidance. Because of these dangers, no human has yet visited Mars, and such a mission would involve significant risk.
When we connect the call to discovery with such negative realities, we recognize our longing for something better. We long for a time when God’s plan for our growth will unfold in harmony and peace, and a time when “they will neither harm nor destroy on all my holy mountain, for the earth will be filled with the knowledge of the Lord as the waters cover the sea” (Isa. 11:9).
This year let’s celebrate Creation Sabbath
on October 24, perhaps with an activity involving the study of Mars.2 It will remind us of the God who made us for discovery, provided us with a place in history, and has redeemed us for exploration in the new heaven and new earth.
Ronny Nalin, Ph.D., serves as director of the Geoscience Research Institute.