All posts by waynespencer

Faith and Apollo 8

Christmas Eve 2018 marks 50 years from time of the Apollo 8 mission to the Moon. There are a lot of interesting background stories behind the early years of NASA and the Apollo missions. One of those stories happening in the background is about the role that Christian faith had in the mission. Apollo 8 in particular has a special place for the role of faith because while orbiting the Moon the astronauts read from the book of Genesis. So the effort to go to the Moon was more than a scientific effort, more than just exploration, for those open to it, it was also man finding a part of God’s glory. In going to the Moon, orbiting it, and returning to Earth, human beings experienced a number of things they hadn’t done before. People had never left Earth and entered orbit around another body in space. People had never seen the dark side of the Moon before. People had never orbited the Moon and returned to Earth. The experience of the astronauts had a major influence on people back on Earth. To see the Moon in the sky from Earth is routine. But to see the Moon from lunar orbit and look back on the Earth from there was an awesome experience that we should not forget. (This lead to the famous picture called “Earthrise,” which was taken while the astronauts were in orbit around the Moon.)

Earthrise picture from Apollo 8, 1968.

Today many do not remember those events, so it is worth taking time to remember. In 1968, I was 10 years old and like everyone else, I was watching the Apollo mission on TV. The Apollo program was an answer to John F. Kennedy’s challenge to America during the time of what has been called the “space race.” The “race” was with Russia because Russia had made it to space before America. So the challenge from President Kennedy was to deliver men to the Moon and return them safely to the Earth before the decade of the 1960’s ended. At the time he issued this challenge, the United States was behind Russia in the space race. So, NASA was endeavoring to catch up with and surpass the Russians.

In September 1968, the Russian spacecraft called Zond 5 traveled to the Moon, orbited it, and returned safely to the Earth. But Zond 5 did not carry cosmonauts, instead it carried other life forms to find out what the effect of the radiation of space would be to them. Zond 5 carried bacteria, meal worms, flies, plants, seeds, and two tortoises. Zond 5 followed a couple of failed attempts to orbit the Moon and return to the Earth. But Zond 5 did successfully return and it splashed down in the Indian ocean. The tortoises survived. The tortoises may have had a rough ride on the way back because the spacecraft lost its attitude control, which probably made it spin out of control some.

In December of 1968 the lunar lander module was not yet ready and NASA wanted to catch up with the Russians. So NASA advanced the schedule and made the mission for the astronauts to orbit the Moon with just the “command module” and return to the Earth. The Russians sent several spacecraft to the Moon in the late 1960’s and early 70’s but they never sent men. The Russians never sent cosmonauts to the Moon. It really was a very dangerous thing to do. The Apollo 8 spacecraft had to travel about 234,000 miles from Earth orbit to get to the Moon. Then they had to change their trajectory to get into orbit around the Moon. Traveling to the Moon they were moving at about 2,300 miles per hour and they had to slow down but not too much. It took them 68 hours to travel to the Moon. If they went to slow they could crash into the Moon. If they were not close enough to the Moon or they were moving too fast they could miss the Moon or maybe get into the wrong kind of orbit and then not be able to make it back to Earth. They orbited the Moon 10 times over a period of 20 hours.

Two memorable parts of the Apollo 8 mission were the picture taken of Earth while orbiting the Moon and the astronauts reading from the book of Genesis. The picture was a beautiful picture showing the blue Earth in the black background of space. This came to be called “Earthrise.” It was a very inspiring picture and made people talk about how good our planet was. It motivated people to want to take care of Earth. Reading Genesis was a surprise to many people. NASA only told the astronauts “say something appropriate.” But the astronauts couldn’t decide what to say, so they started asking others to come up with an idea of what to say. To hear the story, listen to the podcast below. But I think it was a wonderful reminder of God and a beautiful thing to read from Genesis.

It took many people to make the Apollo 8 mission a success. Someone estimated it took 400,000 people. Over the years it has become evident that many people connected to the space program are Christians. During the Apollo years there was a group of people who voluntarily set out to pray for NASA’s missions. They called themselves the Apollo Prayer League. It was not “sponsored by NASA” but a behind the scenes effort from people of faith. There are a lot of quiet behind the scenes efforts of people of faith. They don’t do it for recognition or fame.

There were other expressions of faith during the Apollo years as well. There was James Irwin for example. He was a geologist and he collected lunar rocks on the Apollo 15 mission. After his Apollo years he became an outspoken Christian and a creationist. He wrote a book called More Than Earthlings: An Astronaut’s Thoughts for Christ-Centered Living. In that book he makes this statement:

“I am now more than an earthling, because I have walked on the moon. Being on the moon had a profound spiritual impact upon my life. Before I entered space with the Apollo 15 mission in July of 1971, I was…[a] silent Christian, but I feel the Lord sent me to the moon so I could return to the earth and share his Son, Jesus Christ.”

Other astronauts expressed their faith in other ways. Buzz Aldrin on Apollo 11 took communion on the Moon. Edgar Mitchell went to special effort to take the Bible to the Moon, in microfilm form. There is a book about this effort called The Apostles of Apollo. Another astronaut who is a Christian is Shannon Lucid, a woman. She was on five space flights during the years of the Space Shuttle. One of these included spending some time on the Russian Mir space station. She has a Ph.D. in biochemistry and for a time she held the record for a non-Russian spending the most hours in space. She was part of a special conference in China where some Christian scholars and others went to China to present information to the Chinese government on Christianity. It was called “The Future Impact of Christianity on China.” I knew about this event because another person who is a friend of mine, Dr. Paul Ackerman, was also involved with the trip. Dr. Ackerman is a retired Psychology professor. Shannon Lucid was one of the people on this trip who spoke at this conference. She has a connection to China because she was actually born there as a child of Christian missionaries. Paul Ackerman was not allowed to present the paper he wrote for this conference but he was able to hand out some copies of it. I made a webpage for it on my website, called Christian Principles in Human Affairs. It is very worth reading.

The Apollo program was an example of a major project in which many people, some people of faith and some not, worked together to achieve something great. Christians and nonchristians can work together and respect each other. We can learn from these examples as we continue to explore God’s creation.

The Road to Faith

Before Jesus began his ministry in the first century, the Jews had a long tradition of accepting the Old Testament Scriptures as being the word of God. They had scribes that had used extreme measures for centuries to accurately copy the Old Testament Scriptures. However, there had been a long hiatus without God sending a prophet for some 400 years. Then came John the Baptizer and Jesus of Nazareth. Jesus called out a group of 12 disciples to follow him. He taught them more in a life-mentoring manner than in an academic manner.

In the period of Jesus doing his ministry in Israel, someone might have asked the disciples, “Why are you following Jesus?” The various disciples of the time may have had different answers to this question. But I think their answer would revolve around what they had seen and heard personally from their direct interaction with Jesus. They could have mentioned his miracles and how no one else did miracles like Jesus. They could have mentioned his authoritative teaching and argued that he was the Messiah, that he was a prophet and much more. They could have mentioned his character and how he conducted himself and how he led them. Or they could have mentioned the special intimate kind of relationship he seemed to have with God. The point is they followed him because they met him and he asked or invited them to come with him. It was a personal relationship.

But today we are far removed from the times of the writing of the New Testament and Old Testament. We have not had the direct interaction with Jesus that the original disciples did in the first century. So today questions come up like how can we believe what the Bible says? There can be questions about the Bible writers and questions about the transmission of the text for example. How do we know what we have is like the original manuscripts? There are good answers to these questions but that is not what I’m addressing at the moment. Other confusing issues come up in which people ask how two different statements or verses in the Bible can both be true? These issues are alleged contradictions in the Bible. To the original disciples, these questions did not come up, because they knew Jesus personally in a day-by-day manner.

So in the first century, the question about ‘why believe?’ was mainly a personal question, not an academic question. So if you asked the disciples in the first century, “Did Jesus pay his taxes?” The Apostles Peter or John could have told about incidents when Jesus paid his taxes or taught about taxes. Jesus could answer their questions directly. When the phony religious leaders of the time tried to trap Jesus in what he said, they always failed. But what if the disciples in the first century said something incorrect about Jesus? At that time other people could have verified or caught the mistake, since there were many other people around who also saw many of the same incidents in Jesus ministry years. So, many outside of the small group of 12 disciples could have confirmed what the Apostles said about Jesus. The Apostle Paul encountered questions in his dealings with Roman Gentiles which were different from what he would have heard from Jews. We have an example of this in Acts chapter 17 for instance. Paul had both a Greek/Roman education and a Jewish education. He seemed to often speak of his conversion and how he met Jesus personally. But he could also reason with Jews and Romans.

So what is the role of reason for us today, in putting faith in God? I would think of it in the following way. This may be simplistic approach, but I hope it is useful. There is a personal relational side of the issue and a more rational or mental side of it. We are born with a bias against God. But I think children are more open than adults. I think this difference between children and adults is largely from learned attitudes and ideas we pick up in life as we grow to adulthood. But we have the ability to choose also. I would imagine our journey to coming to faith in God as like traveling on a road. We have a seemingly innate knowledge that this road heads toward God, or away from God. On the road toward God we tend to put up on it roadblocks and obstacles that we ourselves make. We may also add to it obstacles made by others. Friends or family may give us blocks to add to our path. A child may have fewer and smaller blocks on their path, but as they get older they tend to add to the roadblocks, to make them higher, or to add more of them. It is each person’s choice how big an obstacle is and whether to go around the obstacle or not.

Having a question does not in and of itself make that question a roadblock. To make a question a roadblock involves making a choice to put the block in your own path. If you find an answer to the question, you can remove the roadblock, find a way around it, or you can leave it in the path. To go forward toward God, you may be able to step over or climb over a roadblock and keep going forward in spite of it. Or you may decide it is such a tough roadblock that you can’t go any further. I would think of apologetics, or reasons for faith, as like learning things that make the roadblocks or obstacles smaller and fewer in number. The blocks are never 100% removed, but it is possible to remove most of them. However, removing the roadblocks requires a choice. So finding reasons to believe are not enough in and of themselves to come to faith because there is a relational aspect of the problem.

I was consciously an agnostic as a young man in high school and early years of college. But I had personal problems that became serious, including serious depression for a time. In the midst of personal pain (of whatever form) you can become desperate. In desperation you may ignore the obstacles and go around them and “take a chance” by reaching out to God in some way. I did this in asking God for help as a young man. I did not think of “why believe” questions at the time, because I felt my need was urgent. Why I made the choice to move in a direction toward God and not away from God is something I just cannot explain. I think I have to attribute this inexplicable aspect to God. Another person may deal with it differently than I did. I essentially decided to skip the obstacles and move toward the end of the road toward God.

Other people may react to desperation in a different way. They may change to a different road altogether, one that goes away from God, and ignore the dangers. Personal pain can lead you to ignore reason and try to jump to the end. This leads some people in a very unhealthy or destructive direction. Also, asking questions like “why should I believe” can be either honest or dishonest. An honest question is not an obstacle, it is an unknown. An unknown is not a reason not to believe in and of itself. A dishonest question is something that you have latched onto because you want to make it an obstacle on the road toward God. You may not want a clear path, whether the question can be answered or not. It is not easy to sort out your own real motives and determine what really matters.

Now if someone who is not a believer would have talked to me at my moment of desperation, they may have advised me not to ask God for help. Perhaps they would have advised me to do something else instead. This was actually more like the advice I was actually getting from counseling I received at the time. So to someone who is traveling on the road in the opposite direction that I’m going, it appears to them like I am going the wrong way. But because of certain things I was experiencing I decided to consider something no one was advising me to do, to ask God for help. We do not have the direct interaction with Jesus that his original disciples had in the first century. But we can have a kind of indirect interaction. Answers from God are almost never like  bolts of lightning, they are more often quiet subtle things. But they can also be great insights now and then, if we are ready for them. Asking God for help did not make me a Christian yet, I don’t think. But it started me moving toward a different way of thinking that eventually led to me becoming a Christian. Talking to some Christian friends were an important factor for me as well. So I did have friends who pointed the way. Someone might say that in my desperation I made an irrational decision. This may have been true when it happened, but it was the right decision. There are also plenty of rational reasons to make the decision I made. This is true whether I knew it at the time or not. Many others have made the same decision to follow Christ, and it was a decision with good consequences for them, and for me.

All this is to say that there is much more that goes on in someone’s head and in their motives than just asking a question like “if this is how it is, why should I believe?” I do not mean to imply that the questions do not matter or that they do not deserve answering. They do deserve answering. But finding the answer to such a question is not necessarily making progress in and of itself unless you can get past it being an obstacle. Different people have different obstacles that hold them up. But obstacles or not, Jesus can get through somehow if that is his purpose, in spite of obstacles. Think about the Apostle Paul, or Saul as his given name was while a nonbeliever. For Paul there were many obstacles because of all the baggage he had that made him feel compelled to arrest Christians. Yet he met Jesus and he responded properly by doing as Jesus told him. He gave up his intended plan to arrest Christians and became one of them instead! For a while Christians had trouble trusting him. But God was very evident in his life. All the reasons Paul had against believing in Jesus evaporated into nothing when Jesus met him on the road to Damascus. So I think the relational side actually outweighs the rational/mental side. So it takes more than a rational answer to remove an obstacle. How a Christian treats the nonchristian can be a major factor in whether the nonchristian makes their question an obstacle or not.

There is a passage in the New Testament book of John that kind of illustrates what I’m saying here. Jesus taught something that kind of shocked people and as a result some stopped following him. So he spoke to the twelve who were still there, and he said ” ‘You do not want to leave too, do you?’ Jesus asked the Twelve. Simon Peter answered him, ‘Lord, to whom shall we go? You have the words of eternal life. We have come to believe and to know that you are the Holy One of God.’ “ (John 6:67-69, NIV)

I have searched for some good websites that deal with answering contradictions or difficulties with certain Bible passages. The sites below are pretty good in dealing with some common questions and the topic of the inerrancy of the Bible.

This is like a list of alleged contradictions with links that go to more detailed pages on each issue.

This is a list of 52 issues. It is answers to issues brought up by a Bible skeptic.

This is a website from a man named Mike Winger. He also has some good videos on YouTube. He deals well with answering apparent contradictions and various common questions about the Bible

This is a good site about the issue of inerrancy, what it means, and some issues skeptical scholars have brought up about the Bible.

So to sum up, why do people believe the Bible?  Really, it’s because they need to.  But whether you are aware you need to or not, there are good rational reasons to believe it.  The reasons come from logical evidence, textual evidence, archeological evidence, scientific evidence, and the evidence of changed lives.