The message of the James Webb Space Telescope

When I studied at Newbold College in 1962-1964, the study of theology was part of the curriculum for the American bachelor’s degree. In addition to the major in theology, there were a number of general subjects. Which subjects these were depended in part on the professors who were available at any given time. Albert Watson, who was responsible for the dormitory for the male students, was pursuing a university degree in astronomy and taught a two-hour class in astronomy . I found it quite complicated. It was the class in which I scored lower than in any other subject. But to this day I have retained some technical terms and some basic knowledge. This may be the reason why I still have a more than average interest in astronomical developments.

This past week was special for all people with astronomical interests The James Webb Space Telescope (JWST), launched on Christmas Day 2021, sent the first pictures to Earth. Named after James Webb (1906-1992), one of the first directors of NASA, this giant infrared telescope measures 20 by 14 meters when fully unfolded. It will continue to orbit the sun at a distance of 1.5 million kilometers from Earth (that’s four times the distance to the moon) for the next few years. As might be expected with such projects, the cost came way over budget and the price tag ended up being over ten billion dollars.

The fascinating pictures that a few days ago could be proudly shared with the world actually depict what was going on in space in the very distant past. The light from celestial bodies that is now captured by the telescope has been traveling for a very long time. The new telescope captures light from the universe that has been traveling for more than four billion light-years. A light-year is equal to the distance light travels in one year. The speed of light is 300,000 km per second, so a light-year is 300,000 x 60 x 60 x 24 x 365 km. And this we must multiply by 4,3 billion.

The pictures we were shown this week only cover a small part of our universe in which there are billions of galaxies. New ones are constantly being born while stars are also dying out. Experts tell us that there are other universes besides our universe. It is impossible to comprehend this with our human brain. According to mainstream science, this is all the result of the Big Bang that supposedly happened 8.6 billion light-years ago. Suppose there was such a thing as a “big bang”. Did it just happen by itself? Or is there an omnipotent, eternal Creator who set it all in motion? I believe the latter, but the how, what and when will remain shrouded in mystery, even after all the images from the JWST have been studied by scientists.

What all can be found in the universe remains an inexhaustible source of study. Incidentally, the new telescope also has its limitations. It will not allow the people of NASA to look into God’s heaven, because God inhabits another dimension, which will only open up for us when we are “changed” in such a way that we can share in God’s heavenly dimension. For now, the most important thing for us is to realize that “in the beginning” (Genesis 1:1) God created in a minuscule piece of the immeasurable universe something that He called “heaven and earth,” and that He entrusted this in the care of us humans. When and how this happened and what processes He used in doing so? Some think they know the details, based on a literal interpretation of the first chapters of Genesis. The JWST will not be able to give us an answer to such questions. I’m not worried about that. It’s enough for me to know that the almighty God of the universe is also the God of this small part of the universe where we live. It is beyond my comprehension that He is concerned with that. He had a plan for the earth and for mankind, but we have messed it up. However, He had a plan B in place, and everything will work out in the end.

Has this great God other similar experiments going on, somewhere in the universe? Someday, when we have broken through the barrier that separates time from eternity, we will find out. If the JWST continues to function as planned, the images we will yet see can only increase our awe and gratitude for our Creator. After all, that great awe-inspiring Creator is our loving God, whom we are privileged to call “our Father.” What more could we want?