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Isle of Lewis, Scotland
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Philae is dead. Or is it?
Posted by: Point and Knock Free Church Archives | more..
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Philae is dead. Or is it?

We have watched and listened for weeks, with justifiable wonder, at the exploits of Philae! Rendezvousing with comet 67P/Churyumov–Gerasimenko required travelling a long circuitous trip of 6.4 billion kilometres, involving gravity assists from four planetary flybys – one of Mars (2007) and three of Earth (2005, 2007 and 2009)! So, after a ten year journey the lander came down on the comet (which travels at 84,000 miles per hour!) with a bump greater than that of a Flybe flight into Stornoway airport in a raging gale. As we wonder (with thanks!) at the skill of pilots landing safely in such conditions so we marvelled at the expertise of the scientists who guided Philae safely onto 67P, even if the final landing site was not quite what they hoped for.

Then our minds boggled at their uploading of a set of experiments, curtailed by the fact that the lander ended up in shade with only a limited time to activate its instruments before its batteries drained, yet this including heating up its oven to 200C to analyse gases given off by the collected debris. These guys could cook your breakfast remotely even if you were a billion miles away, and your bacon and egg would be just right! The knowledge - genius even - of the teams involved in this has to be acknowledged and applauded. Hats off to them! They are worthy of praise.

However, for those of us who accept the teaching of the Bible, the same cannot be said of their commentary on the results of experiments carried out by the lander. They tell us that the detection of “organic (carbon) compounds” supports a view that comets may have brought chemicals to the Earth to kick-start life, and that these results might help piece together what happened in the early years of the Solar System when the planets were forming. The European Space Agency, whose project this is, state on their website, “There is convincing evidence that comets played a key role in the evolution of the planets, because cometary impacts are known to have been much more common in the early Solar System than today. Comets, for example, probably brought much of the water in today's oceans. They could even have provided the complex organic molecules that may have played a crucial role in the evolution of life on Earth.”

I have no problem with gaining further knowledge of such processes as were involved in the formation and development of substances. As human beings we have been given the capacity and desire for such an inquiry, and indeed my Bible encourages me to do this. On the origin of matter and of life, however, I do not look to scientific experiment to provide me with the data; I read my Bible. It has taken ten years for Philae to reach its target and send the data from which these suppositions have been arrived at, but I need only ten minutes to analyse the data of Genesis chapters 1 and 2, and just a few seconds to read the opening words - “In the beginning God created the heavens and the earth.”

Of course, I need to believe that this account is a reliable source of information first. But in doing that, I find it a more reasonable thing to believe that life on earth originated from the creative activity of God than that it was kick-started by a visit from a comet! Even if I believed that a comet brought chemicals to the Earth and that this may have kick-started life, it still leaves me with the question of origins - where did the chemicals come from, or the Earth for that matter? I can believe the Genesis account much more readily than I can believe in an evolutionary process that begins with a chemical kick-start and progresses to the complex intellects which sent Philae to 67P!

It’s also fascinating to see how the lander has become almost humanised in all of this. It’s described as a “little lander”, conjuring up an image of it being dwarfed, even intimidated, by the dimensions of space. When we think of the distance travelled, the flybys, and the ten years travel, we imagine the “little lander” engaged in an epic struggle, overcoming many obstacles before finally reaching its objective. We now hear of its “demise”, slowly “dying” as its shaded landing place keeps it from the light needed to recharge its batteries and of how “with its last ounce of strength” it sent back precious data. Philae is now dead! Or is it? We learn that there is a possibility that “it may come back to life”, as the comet’s route brings it nearer to the sun. We have really become emotionally involved in the “life” of this “little lander”! I think I’ll cry for joy if I hear that it’s not “dead” after all!

In thinking about all this I was reminded of some aspects of God’s mission in Jesus Christ for our salvation and of the importance of our being so intellectually and emotionally involved in it that we rejoice in the success of that mission.

First, the scientific teams involved with Philae speak of information sent by it as a “rich signal” received. By this they mean, presumably, that the information is so loaded with significant data that they can draw important conclusions from it. Scientifically, this is crucial. The data needs to be reliable and substantial, and it must conform to established scientific norms, if it is going to prove useful.

With the Bible we encounter that too, only for much more important assessments and conclusions. The faith by which we place our trust in God also involves a trust in the reliability of his word, the Bible. The Bible never sets out to give “proofs” of the existence of God; that is its basic presupposition. Nor is the Bible a “scientific” book; the first two chapters of Genesis, for example, are not a scientific account of the creation of the universe. This does not mean that the data is unreliable, or the Bible is anti-science, or always out of accord with the conclusions of science.

The Bible’s emphasis, rather, is theological, beginning with God and proceeding to tell us about his work in creating the universe and then bringing a specific order to “the heavens and the earth.” Then the emphasis changes to the salvific work of God, with the focus on sin and its consequences and on how God has been engaged in a “new creation” - in our salvation from sin. The incarnation of the Son of God, his raising of Lazarus from the dead, his own resurrection, God’s love and forgiveness, are not the kind of things that, like the debris gathered by Philae, you can put in a laboratory to obtain results by. The data of the Bible is not for conducting scientific experiments with, nor is it God asking us whether or not we agree with him; rather it is God’s “rich signal” calling for our response in repentance, faith and obedience.

Second, there was a “visit” to the Earth to “kick-start” life. It was made by God himself, through the incarnation of his Son, taking human nature to himself. The Bible’s data shows us that he lived a perfect life, died an atoning death by the Cross, was buried, rose from the dead, and ascended to glory. The purpose of this “visit” was indeed to “kick-start” life. He came to undo the consequences of our sin, namely our being “dead in trespasses and sin” (Ephesians 2:1). “But God, being rich in mercy, for the great love with which he loved us, even when we were dead in our trespasses, made us alive together with Christ…and raised us up with him” (Ephesians 2:4-6).

He’s completed the mission, with total success! One of the scientific team said in interview, ‘if you ask me whether we have done all we could have done, the answer is “No”, but I remain optimistic that the thing will come back to life and we will get the chance to do those things.’ How different it is with Jesus! He left nothing undone of what he came into the world to do. He landed perfectly, lived a flawless life, died for our sins and came back to life. Even his dying breath was not a silent ebbing out of life, but a shout of triumph - ‘Then Jesus, calling out with a loud voice said, “Father into your hands I commit my spirit”’ (Luke 23:46).

As the powerful warmth in Christ’s resurrection power comes into contact with our “dead batteries” we experience regeneration and a reconnection with God. The signals of fellowship, worship, praise and prayer are once again active and God’s data relayed to us by the Bible take on a new meaning.

One other thing. I was struck by the sheer excitement of these scientists as Philae landed safely and began its work. Some actually wept with joy and relief! No wonder. This was the culmination of years of planning, effort and patience. They were right to be excited and overjoyed!

Putting this to myself, I thought, “why am I not at least as excited and joyful over what God has done for me?” Landing Philae on a comet is hardly comparable to creating the universe! Nor is bringing the lander to life to do the work it was designed for comparable to what God has done in bringing me to life so that I can fulfil the purpose for which he designed me - what the Westminster Shorter Catechism calls “man’s chief end”, which is “to glorify God and to enjoy him forever.” That’s some achievement! That’s worth celebrating!

Is Philae dead? Who knows? But, as a Christian I do know this - “I know that my redeemer lives, and that at the last he will stand upon the earth. And after my skin has been thus destroyed, yet in my flesh I shall see God, whom I shall see for myself, and not as a stranger. How my heart yearns within me!” (Job 19:25-27).

Category:  Apologetic

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