Nasa’s Osiris-Rex capsule dropped onto Utah’s West Desert on 4th September after having completed a seven-year mission designed to obtain dust from the surface of the asteroid BennuIts arrival was eagerly anticipated by scientists hoping to identify some of the building blocks of the Universe, and potentially shed some light on the formation of the Earth. Erik Strandness explores some of the theological and philosophical implications of this project


Harvesting the soil of an asteroid whose course and location were discerned by inhabitants of a uniquely located, life enabling, consciousness nurturing celestial orb makes one wonder if what Carl Sagan described as an insignificant pale blue dot should more accurately be described as an exceptionally “privileged planet”. It is a planet populated by truly remarkable creatures capable of not only making detailed astronomical observations and asking questions about its origins, but also technologically adept enough to design and send rockets into space to dig around for some answers. 

What is it that causes us to look to the heavens? Is it the siren song of space calling us to investigate a desolate solar system where no one can hear us scream? Or is it a desire to find the best seat in the house from which to hear the heavens declare? 

As Annie Dillard asks: “What is the difference between a cathedral and a physics lab? Are they not both saying: ‘Hello’?” 


Read more:

Why Dawkins & Collins need God for our “hole-in-one” universe

John Lennox: The case for design in biology and the Universe

Dogma and the Universe - CS Lewis’ essays

Roger Penrose can’t escape an ultimate explanation for the universe


Rocks cry out

It appears that after spotting Bennu dancing across the cosmic room, scientists developed a serious crush on her. Captivated by her free spirit they zealously pursued her even going to great technological lengths to meet her face to face. It got so serious that they arranged for a driver to pick her up and bring her home to meet their mother Earth.  

While you may object to me comparing this scientific endeavor to a romance, read the response of the lead investigator, Professor Dante Lauretta, after the soil sample safely arrived on the Earth: 

“That’s when I just emotionally let it go. You know, tears were streaming down my eyes. I was like, OK, that’s the only thing I needed to hear. From this point on, we know what to do. We’re safe. We’re home. We did it.” 

The giddiness in Professor Lauretta’s voice seems a bit over the top if he is talking about space rocks but perfectly appropriate if he just got his hands on one of God’s earliest spoken word recordings. Is it possible that Lauretta and his team, while bending a scientific ear to what the dust has to say, will actually hear the rocks cry out? Believing they have become an audience to echoes of the Big Bang, will they instead be serenaded by that still small Voice?

Executive chef

The scientists on this project will take this asteroid dust, undefiled by our planet, and see if they can explain the Earth’s virgin birth. Lauretta stated his hopes like this:

“We’re trying to piece together our beginnings. How did the Earth form and why is it a habitable world? Where did the oceans get their water? Where did the air in our atmosphere come from? And, most importantly, what is the source of the organic molecules that make up all life on Earth?” 

In other words, he is seeking an origin story.  

Every worldview needs an origin story to legitimise itself. Just about every religion has one but it wasn’t until Darwin that atheists were able to join the club without having to carry around all that Designer baggage. And while Darwin didn’t explain how life began, he did allow scientists to splash around in a warm little pond without fear of drowning in the divine depths.  

I don’t know the religious background of these scientists, but I suspect they will be content identifying the ingredients in the primordial soup, but have little desire to identity the executive chef. They will strain the broth picking out every amino acid but won’t taste and see that he is good. 

Word search

Origins are tricky things because they require an originator and since physical things cannot create themselves it raises the possibility of a transcendent creator. Origin stories have taken many different forms, but most begin with a primordial chaos, which is brought under control by a series of gods through acts of violence, sex or even sneezing.  

Each god an expert in earth, wind, and fire management but who believed that tending to the Earth was a distraction from their real passion, squabbling with their siblings. Sadly, the only way to tear them away from their family intrigue and keep them on task was to offer them sacrificial bribes. 

Atheists found pandering to a petty pantheon a poor explanation for the wonder around them, so they evicted the gods and replaced them with a deaf, dumb and blind watchmaker who sure plays a mean cosmic pinball. 

Christianity, however, gives the most satisfactory explanation for how the Universe works and why we would feel the need to get the dirt on some random asteroid. The God of the Bible acts alone, doesn’t involve himself in internecine squabbles and gets right down to the business of planning and organising the Universe by introducing new bits of information in a series of divine lectures (And God said…). Lectures, which have been recorded in the heavens and are available day after day and night after night to any scientist who has ears to hear. The Universe as it turns out is a divine document inviting us all to do an extensive Word search. 

“The heavens declare the glory of God; the skies proclaim the work of his hands. Day after day they pour forth speech; night after night they reveal knowledge. They have no speech, they use no words; no sound is heard from them. Yet their voice goes out into all the earth, their words to the ends of the world.” (Psalm 19:1-4)


Understanding our origins is extremely important because it gives us a point A from which we can chronicle our journey to point B and anticipate the expedition to point C. Origin stories give us a starting point from which we can plot the human vector. We must, however, not get so caught up in the trajectory that we fail to notice the magnitude of the points we passed through along the way. 

The vector begins with something from nothing, passes through non-life to life, proceeds from simple to complex, until it reaches a point where non-consciousness becomes conscious. A series of points that can only be described as miraculous and which, if ignored, empty life of all meaning. As Socrates said, and I’m paraphrasing here: “An unexamined vector is not worth pointing.” 

It takes one to know One

It will be fascinating to learn what these researchers discover. I must admit that my world would truly be rocked if they discovered some sort of microorganism buried in the cosmic gravel, because it would lend credibility to the theory of panspermia. However, I suspect that all they will find is some building blocks but no instruction manual on how to put them together. If we can’t find life on asteroids, meteors and comets then Directed Panspermia becomes nothing but Peter Panspermia requiring magic pixie dust and wishes so the theory can fly. 

Ironically, some of the greatest scientific minds in the world will take this data and try to explain how it all mindlessly came together. A veritable alphabet stew of academic degrees will come together and prove that it all began in a warm little pond filled with primordial soup. I find it surprising how much brainpower is required to prove that the Universe was just the result of dumb luck.

In addition, the materialist tendency to reduce things to its component parts is in itself a profound act of the mind because scientists don’t just blow stuff up but carefully take it apart in order not to disturb the precision with which they knew it had been put together. While ultimately missing the forest for the trees, the meticulous way in which they will dissect this dust will be a tip of the hat to the great Arborist. 

Why would someone carefully analyse a space rock unless they believed it had something to say? It was a question that haunted Einstein, who said: “The most incomprehensible thing about the world is that it is comprehensible.” 

It seems more accurate to say that when great minds study asteroid dirt they are having an encounter with the Rock of Ages. It appears that when conducting science, it takes one to know One.   


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Motivational speaker

Professor Lauretta said: “We’re trying to piece together our beginnings”, which is a valid pursuit but it still raises the profound question Stephen Hawking asked in his book, A Brief History of Time

“Even if there is only one possible unified theory, it is just a set of rules and equations. What is it that breathes fire into the equations and makes a Universe for them to describe? The usual approach of science of constructing a mathematical model cannot answer the questions of why there should be a Universe for the model to describe. Why does the Universe go to all the bother of existing?” (Stephen Hawking, A Brief History of Time)

Hawking recognised that building a Universe with conscious creatures was no easy task and therefore begged the question of why it would then go to all the bother of existing. Why did the cosmos engage in a multi-billion-year process filled with collisions, collocations and consciousness just to spit out creatures who had the nerve to look back and ask what it was thinking? 

Asking such a question assumes a motivated Universe with a puritan work ethic rather than a slacker cosmos with failure to launch syndrome. So, if the universe wasn’t a self-starter, then who told it to get off its sorry Tohu wa-bohu butt and get to work? Interestingly, the Bible has just such a motivational speaker - And God Said…

I think it’s clear that a Universe of blind pitiless indifference has no reason to go to all the bother of existing, but a world that God so loved would seem to be worth the effort. Is it possible that the unifying theory explaining the appearance of the Universe isn’t found in arithmetic but agape?

Head in the clouds

The history of the Universe has a point A and will ultimately end at a point Z. It is a vector that has both direction (purpose) and magnitude (meaning). If we are just a pale blue dot graphed upon a “mind-bogglingly” big Universe, then there may indeed be “at bottom, no design, no purpose, no evil, no good, nothing but blind pitiless indifference”, but if God plotted something bigger, then that dot is just the beginning of a line of thinking that blows our scientific minds.

While Hawking’s question of why the Universe bothers to exist is interesting, perhaps a better question is why did it evolve creatures who feel the need to ask it about its motivation? While the contents from this probe will help us identify the ingredients, they will be inadequate to explain why we became the main course.  

I think the bottom line is that the atheist and Christian, the scientist and the theologian, all have their heads in the clouds. They both believe that to find the answer to the big question of life, the universe and everything they must look to the sky. One sends a probe and another a prayer; one looks to dig up some dirt and the other to divine a deity. One finds themselves in a cosmic theatre of the absurd improvising their lives away while the other senses they are in a Broadway production compelled to ask the Director: “What’s my motivation?”.


Erik Strandness is a physician and Christian apologist who has practiced neonatal medicine for more than 20 years.