photograph of stars and galaxies

The James Webb Space Telescope Images and the Mocking of Christians by Atheists

Go to your kitchen and get a grain of rice. Take it out­side. Hold it between two fin­gers of an out­stretched hand held toward the sky. Behind that rice, stretch­ing beyond the sky into the vast recess­es of space lie count­less galax­ies. Untold tril­lions of stars and plan­ets, moons and neb­u­lae. In just that one tiny patch of sky.

Move the grain of rice ever so slight­ly in any direc­tion, and the result is the same. All around us, in every direc­tion, the uni­verse is packed with so much stuff. More galax­ies than our minds can pos­si­bly comprehend.

That’s what this image from the James Webb Space Tele­scope shows. Galaxy clus­ter SMACS 0723, where every point of light that isn’t shim­mer­ing is a galaxy. The shim­mer­ing points are stars in our own galaxy.

The absolute majesty of the uni­verse made appar­ent through images like this can affect us in a vari­ety of ways.

Maybe you feel small, with the real­iza­tion that you’re just one per­son on a plan­et that is just one of many in a solar sys­tem that itself is one of bil­lions in a galaxy that is itself a non­de­script mem­ber of the uni­verse’s bil­lions of oth­er galaxies.

That’s a fair assess­ment. We are small. Still, I want to encour­age you not to for­get that we are spe­cial — we are the uni­verse made aware of itself. A tril­lion suns can­not fath­om their own exis­tence, can­not won­der about the exis­tence of what is around them.

We can, and we do it with minds born of brains built from atoms forged in the hearts of long-dead stars. Extraordinary!

Maybe you’re of a more reli­gious mind, and you see these images of just how expan­sive and won­der­ful our uni­verse is and take that as an oppor­tu­ni­ty to praise your god for just how grand his works are, for as the Hebrews sang, “the heav­ens declare the glo­ry of God” (Psalm 19:1 KJV).

Or maybe you see in these images an oppor­tu­ni­ty to mock the reli­gious: “This mas­sive uni­verse, but God cares if you’re gay” or “here’s an incred­i­bly detailed pic­ture of the uni­verse, but there is no god to be found.” I’ve seen numer­ous vari­a­tions since the James Webb imagery has start­ed to become avail­able, and to be per­fect­ly frank, they are frustrating.

They’re frus­trat­ing because they reflect extreme­ly lit­tle crit­i­cal think­ing, despite being pre­sent­ed as fact and as “gotchas” against the reli­gious. As an athe­ist, I dis­like being lumped in with this non­sense, so let’s look at what the prob­lems here are, not just to encour­age athe­ists to use bet­ter memes but to encour­age Chris­t­ian read­ers as well.

four panel comic strip depicting Calvin looking up at the night sky, proclaiming "I'M SIGNIFICANT! ... screamed the dust speck."
Bill Wat­ter­son | Calvin & Hobbes

How­ev­er, does a mas­sive uni­verse mean that it is ridicu­lous for God to care about how you live your life?

I’m remind­ed of a prob­lem faced by ear­ly Chris­tians: They fer­vent­ly believed that the sec­ond com­ing of Jesus was ever immi­nent, though decades had passed since Jesus first declared that his death was­n’t the end. Skep­tics, as they do, mocked those ear­ly Chris­tians for their beliefs, with the asser­tion that the earth would car­ry on as it always had.

This prob­lem was enough to get the atten­tion of the apos­tle Peter, who wrote to the derid­ed Chris­tians, among oth­er things, “But do not over­look this one fact, beloved, that with the Lord one day is as a thou­sand years, and a thou­sand years as one day” (2 Peter 3:8 ESV).

Decades had passed, Chris­tians were get­ting mocked, and Peter gen­tly reminds them: Hey, guys, time with God just does­n’t work the same as it does for you and me! 

Near­ly two-thou­sand years have elapsed since Jesus said he would return, and well, he is as of yet a no-show. Still, if you are one to believe that he will return, then the mock­ery of unbe­liev­ers should­n’t both­er you. If what Peter said is true, then to God, it’s only been a few days since that promise was made, so to speak. If God expe­ri­ences all of time at once, then what dif­fer­ence is there between mil­len­nia and days, even eons and seconds.

If God expe­ri­ences time dif­fer­ent­ly than we do, then should he who is omnipresent not also expe­ri­ence space dif­fer­ent­ly than us? Does God, who fills the heav­ens and the earth (Jere­mi­ah 23:24), real­ly see a dif­fer­ence between a meter and a light-year? Why would he? 

For the believ­er, find joy and awe in the James Webb imagery: How mag­nif­i­cent is God’s cre­ation, how beau­ti­ful its expanse! Mock­ers will always say that the uni­verse is too big for your God, but they’re objec­tion makes no log­i­cal sense — what does “big­ger” than omnipresent even mean?

For the unbe­liev­er, I encour­age you to take the James Webb imagery for what it is and stop drag­ging it through the muck of mock­ery. Noth­ing in the Bible hints at God being avail­able to pho­to­graph in deep space, and the enor­mi­ty of the uni­verse does not take away God’s claimed care and con­cern over the peo­ples of Earth. Take the images and be in awe at their beau­ty and at what we can learn from them.

And look, I’m not try­ing to rain on your God-mock­ing parade — the Bible itself con­tains some legit­i­mate god-mock­ery, albeit direct­ed at some­one oth­er than the Hebrews’ God (1 Kings 18:27)! How­ev­er, if you don’t want to come across as sim­ply not under­stand­ing what you’re mock­ing at all, demand bet­ter of your memes! This is dou­bly true because of the often used “athe­ists under­stand the Bible bet­ter than Chris­tians” or “the best way to become an athe­ist is to read the Bible” claims, nei­ther of which I real­ly buy into, giv­en just how preva­lent igno­rance of reli­gion and Chris­tian­i­ty in gen­er­al seems to be among atheists.

What does imagery of deep­est space mean to me? I feel small, but not as small as I’d expect. As Dou­glas Adams said, “Space is big. You just won’t believe how vast­ly, huge­ly, mind-bog­gling­ly big it is. I mean, you may think it’s a long way down the road to the chemist’s, but that’s just peanuts to space” (The Hitch­hik­er’s Guide to the Galaxy).

In fact, the observ­able uni­verse is rough­ly 4.854×1081 times larg­er than I am! There is a lot of stuff out there, but there’s also a lot of stuff in me. As big as the observ­able uni­verse is com­pared to me, I’m even big­ger com­pared to our small­est mean­ing­ful vol­ume, by 1.74×10103 times! I, like every human, con­tain whole uni­vers­es of the extreme­ly small, uni­vers­es of infin­i­tes­i­mal space that is dwarfed by our cells.

Cells which con­tain the same atoms which have been recy­cled from hun­dreds of thou­sands of years of humans who have gone before us. “We are each so atom­i­cal­ly numer­ous and so vig­or­ous­ly recy­cled at death that a sig­nif­i­cant num­ber of our atoms—up to a bil­lion for each of us, it has been suggested—probably once belonged to Shake­speare. A bil­lion more each came from Bud­dha and Genghis Khan and Beethoven, and any oth­er his­tor­i­cal fig­ure you care to name” (Bill Bryson, A Short His­to­ry of Near­ly Every­thing).

We are a cul­mi­na­tion of gen­er­a­tions who have gone before, both genet­i­cal­ly and atom­i­cal­ly. We, in a sense, rein­car­nate or embody uncount­able peo­ple who have come before us and indeed of those around us. Every human exhales count­less bil­lions of car­bon atoms — atoms which once made up their body — through­out their lives, and that car­bon is incor­po­rat­ed into our food as plants use it to build them­selves. We eat the plants or the ani­mals that eat the plants and then that car­bon becomes a part of us.

Just as we are built from atoms forged in the hearts of dying stars eons ago, we are part of a grand and won­der­ful cycle here on our own plan­et, a cycle which con­nects all of us at the most fun­da­men­tal levels.

I think because of that we should all be bet­ter, more excel­lent one to anoth­er, either because we believe that is what Jesus wants us to do or because we gen­uine­ly feel com­pelled to do so. Be bet­ter Chris­tians, liv­ing accord­ing to what Jesus called you to do so, not what the Phar­i­saical church­es and con­ser­v­a­tive lead­ers rile you up to do. Be bet­ter athe­ists, liv­ing a peace­able life because we’re all on this inter­con­nect­ed jour­ney through time and space together.

Be a bet­ter per­son. That’s what I feel when I look at things like the deep space imagery.

2 thoughts on “The James Webb Space Telescope Images and the Mocking of Christians by Atheists”

  1. “Be a bet­ter person.”

    Some­where along the line, this is what I decid­ed the pur­pose of liv­ing is: to be a bet­ter per­son today than I was yesterday.

    Not that I suc­ceed in that often. But I do think I have made progress at it over the decades.

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Rick Beckman