Space Exploration, Faith, and the Time of the End
by Lawrence Downing | 28 July 2022 |
Would you be surprised to learn that Adventist evangelists no longer have a lock on the “We’re in the end times” mantra?
A variation on that theme is heard in the community of those who are fascinated by the prospects of venturing beyond Earth’s atmosphere, there to establish sustainable human habitation.
Space provides scientists, adventurers, and others a unique opportunity to explore and develop the unlimited resources that await those who succeed. They imagine their ventures beginning with our moon, where humans would establish outposts in the shelter of volcanic tunnels. There they will grow food, find shelter from radiation, and prepare for the next steps in their exploratory journeys: Mars, and then on to Jupiter’s moons and countless other heavenly orbs.
Not long ago I had the opportunity to join a group of individuals on Zoom who worked for, or were tangentially involved in, government or private agencies that are part of the space exploration community: NASA, Ames Labs, JPL, Ball Space Industries, Stanford University, Harvard University, Princeton University, and numerous other academic or industrial organizations that are leaders in space exploration and development.
I, a pastor with no technical background or knowledge of what space travel involves, was very much in the minority. My only exposure to space travel is limited to what I have read in scripture and Ellen White—and these writings do not prepare an individual to climb into a spacecraft and take the ride of a lifetime!
Their thoughts and speculations were in many ways unique to the space exploration community. But from my perspective as an outsider, it caught my attention that their conversations ranged well beyond equations, thrust, or G-forces.
What they talked about
One of the first individuals to speak opened the conversation by stating that Stephen Spielberg had called him the previous week with the request that he design a new Klingon weapon for a new movie Spielberg was producing. This man opened his briefcase and pulled from it a proposed design for us to see.
This was not the first contact between this man and Spielberg—he had created sets for Star Trek and Star Wars. The sight of the newly designed prop weapon and the designer’s introduction to it provided the catalyst for the group interaction that followed. Along the way, I began to hear phrases that sounded familiar to me:
- “We know we are in Earth’s end times.”
- “Our future lies in the great beyond.”
- “We have to get this message out!”
As these responses ricocheted through the group, I took advantage of a break to say, “Are you aware that what you have been saying is what Evangelical Christians preach?”
“What do you mean?”
“Evangelicals constantly speak of ‘Earth’s end times,’ ‘going to be with God in the great beyond,’ ‘sharing the message.’ These phrases,” I explained, “and others like them, are part of the Evangelical Christian vocabulary.”
Another pause. “Well,” someone replied, “we are just following the evidence.”
A conversation centered on themes usually associated with evangelists was not what I expected. I was fascinated to hear women and men whose professional lives are in the space program use phrases that wouldn’t be entirely out of place (though admittedly the rest of the context would be quite different) in a Revelation seminar.
These conversations about space inevitably evoked religious implications, because in addition to apocalyptic warnings, they stimulate thoughts related to hope, possibilities, obligation, and other factors usually associated with faith organizations.
I realized then that the religious world did not have exclusive rights to words and phrases that were once limited to those who held to and promoted Christian apocalyptic themes. What began as a lone-wolf message howled far and wide by early Advent believers is today proclaimed by individuals from space scientists to television personalities.
Spiritual experiences in space
Space travel has taken quantum leaps since April 12, 1961, when a Vostok 1 rocket propelled cosmonaut Yuri Gagarin skyward. His rocket ride was one orbit around Earth, ending near Engels, Russia. Since those early ventures hundreds more have boarded various human-made vehicles to be hurled into the heavens. While Gagarin’s flight was limited to Earth orbit, others reached the fringe of space and returned. Human beings have lived for weeks and months in Skylab, a human-manufactured habitation in space. A lesser number have landed on the moon. No one has yet visited Mars—though it’s not impossible that may happen someday soon.
William Shatner, who with Leonard Nimoy defined the fictional Star Trek, boarded not a Hollywood mock-up whose flight originated and ended in a special effects studio, but a real-life rocket flight that would propel him, his fellow passengers, and crew beyond Earth and return them to a safe Earth landing. When Shatner stepped off the last rung of the ladder that deposited him and the others safely back on Mother Earth, the tears running down his cheeks showed the emotional impact of looking back on this world from space. Shatner joins a growing cadre of “ordinary” folk who have shown that space travel will not be forever limited to space-industry professionals.
Frank White, who is credited with coining the term “the overview effect” in his book titled with that term, interviewed for his book women and men who have ridden the giant candle into space and returned. White notes that without exception those who ventured beyond Earth returned to Earth with very different perspective than before they saw our magnificent green-blue marble from above.
Space travelers, White reports, experience what can only be described as a religious experience. Nearly all interviews with returned astronauts show that space travel especially impacts the spiritually sensitive traveler.
Religion in space
Human space ventures have led to discussions that could scarcely have been imagined in previous times. For example, how do you satisfy beliefs and practices of various religious traditions in space?
Everyone knows that weight is a fundamental limitation for those who venture into space. Every non-essential item is jettisoned. Moonwalker Buzz Aldrin wished to partake of Holy Communion while on the moon. For weight reasons he was limited to a minuscule bit of bread and a thimble of wine.
Being in orbit above the earth isn’t compatible with Muslim religious traditions, either. Zero gravity is not conducive to placing one’s knees to the ground in prayer, and a ninety-minute orbital day confuses the Muslim time for prayers. And that’s not even to take into account trying to face Mecca when traveling at five miles each second!
The problem for Muslim astronauts was addressed and solved by a decision handed down in the form of a special theological guideline for performing Ibadah in Skylab. The 24-hour clock located at the launch site served as the determinant for when the Muslim astronaut’s religious rituals were performed. No fewer than three damp wipes substituted for the Muslim’s ritual bathing.
The Seventh-day Adventist astronaut would face problems of their own. When is sundown? For that matter, when is Sabbath? What constitutes worship or work on Sabbath in that confined space? Should a space traveler respond to an Adventist space evangelist’s altar call to “float forward” to indicate her desire to be baptized, might the evangelist be allowed to sprinkle the new convert?
A denominational committee, to this author’s knowledge, has not yet ruled on these questions, and they may not for a long time. Adventist leaders used to advise young men and women that in order to keep their Sabbath and avoid other doctrinal compromises, they should refuse to join any branch of the armed forces. Might some say that in order to keep our doctrines we should refuse, as a matter of principle, to speed above Mother Earth at 17,380 miles per hour?
Humans and aliens
A December 27, 2021, New York Post piece by Hannah Sparks said that NASA had hired 24 theologians to study human reaction to aliens and anticipate the questions that will arise should humans confront alien life-forms. What could one find that is more fascinating to a pastor and theologian like me than a tie between space and theology? There’s only one problem: it was later reported the story was a hoax! Just a day later an Associated Press piece by Sophia Tulip admitted that “NASA hasn’t hired theologians to study reaction to alien life.”
But hoax or not, the questions remain. What would happen should we meet little green men from outer space? Would we try to convert them to Seventh-day Adventism?
A rescue mission
Space challenges the mind and opens unexplored avenues that await human migration. In my conversations with those who work in the Space industry it is clear that the prospect of extending human exploration to spheres which lie beyond our present boundaries evokes fascination and challenge. So it seems to me all the questions, as fanciful as they might sound, deserve thoughtful consideration.
Our earth is undeniably fragile. Both my space-exploring friends and my evangelical Christian colleagues, though for different reasons, speak of the need for a rescue for those of us who inhabit planet Earth, a rescue necessitated by the dramatic and climactic events expected to arise some time in a not-too-distant future. Both groups say that the rescue of those on a fragile planet could come from “out there” somewhere.
As Christians we might join the conversation and propose our own alternative rescue plan. We call it the parousia: Christ breaking into Earth’s history to initiate a rescue unlike any other. That is the message of the Christian gospel, and it is that message of rescue many of us hold firm within our very being.
Lawrence Downing, D.Min, is a retired pastor who has served as an adjunct instructor at La Sierra University School of Business and the School of Religion, and the Adventist International Institute of Advanced Studies in the Philippines (AIIAS).