Lessons From Pluto

On January 19, 2006 NASA’s New Horizons (NH) space probe was launched with Pluto as its destination. Ironically, the same year NH was launched, Pluto was demoted from its status as a planet and reclassified as a dwarf planet. A little over a year after launch, cruising at about 36,000 mph, NH swung around Jupiter, using the giant planet’s gravitational pull as a slingshot to propel itself toward Pluto, now at a speed of about 45,000 mph.

On July 14, 2015, nine and a half years after launch NH finally made its closest approach to Pluto. Since then it has been transmitting loads of data back to Earth—beautiful pictures of the before-uncharted topography of Pluto and information on its system of moons. Much of this data has baffled scientists. Director of planetary science at NASA, Jim Green, had this to say: “The New Horizons mission has taken what we thought we knew about Pluto and turned it upside down.”[1]

What they thought they knew was based on the naturalistic Big Bang theory, which has been developed as the premier cosmological model for the origin and subsequent expansion of the universe. Now that the Big Bang theory is the most widely accepted interpretation of astronomical data, all other discoveries regarding the form and movement of the universe are interpreted based on that assumption. Assuming that naturalism accounts for the existence of the universe, the Big Bang theory is the most plausible explanation of the formation of the universe. Notice I said “assuming naturalism.” The men and women holding to this theory are those who have not been enlightened by the work of the Holy Spirit to confess God as the origin of the universe. They will not see supernatural work in the universe, but see only the operation of natural processes; but more on this later. What has baffled the unbelieving scientists is that what they are observing via NH goes against what a naturalistic interpretation of the universe predicts.

First, with the assumption that Pluto is approaching a few billion years old, its surface should be riddled with many craters from meteorite impacts—old planet equals more craters. Yet this is not what NASA found. “This terrain is not easy to explain…The discovery of vast, craterless, very young plains [young meaning less than 10 million years for the evolutionary worldview] on Pluto exceeds all pre-flyby expectations.”[2] On an evolutionary timescale, Pluto is now seen as a lot younger than theories rooted in naturalism had predicted. Naturalism was what led unbelieving scientists astray in the first place and has now forced them to come up with a new explanation for the formation and age of Pluto. Unless they are instilled by God with the Holy Spirit to confess him as creator, they will incorrectly continue to use naturalism to explain the phenomena they discover.

Second, the NH mission made some surprising discoveries regarding Pluto’s system of moons. Pluto has one large moon named Charon, and four smaller moons. The four smaller moons are rotating extremely fast, much faster than the 24 hours it takes Earth to rotate. Hydra, the outermost of the smaller moons is spinning so fast that if it would spin any faster, its own gravity would not be enough to hold material on its surface. The bigger problem dealing with the rotation speed of the four smaller moons that naturalism cannot account for is that over the vast amount of time assumed, Pluto’s gravitational pull on these moons should have slowed their rotation speeds long ago.

What is to be learned from the latest observations of Pluto? Can science be trusted anymore to explain anything? Should we stop investigating the universe and just be content with saying, “God did it, and that’s all I need to know?” I think we can agree that this is not the proper response. So how can the believer view the latest discussion surrounding Pluto?

First, there is a problem in modern day science. Naturalism, today’s reigning philosophy of science, militates against any idea of God or any supernatural power having any part in the formation and government of the universe. But the fact that sin has so deeply infected God’s good gift of science does not take away from the legitimacy of using the scientific method to examine God’s creation. After man’s creation God gave him dominion over the earth (Gen. 1:28). I am convinced that part of that dominion is using the various disciplines of science to uncover God’s wonderful creation and his continued care to sustain it. With that view in mind, the scientific method of forming and testing hypotheses still stands as a legitimate and useful tool for the Christian to use. Both the believer and the unbeliever use this same process to collect their data. However, when the unbeliever uses the scientific method to study something like the formation of the planets, he does not view his data with the thought that a purely naturalistic explanation might not exist. His interpretation differs from that of the believer because he excludes any idea of the supernatural. Therefore whether he will admit it or not, he has a certain amount of faith—not in God, but in naturalism. His faith is that a material explanation is enough; there cannot be anything else. Naturalism by definition does not permit anything further than a strictly material explanation. With his faith in the “religion” of naturalism he interprets his data and confidently asserts “this is how it is.” In the end he really has an explanation that does not reflect true understanding, but is empty and no better than mere speculation. In his assertion the unbeliever foolishly leaves God out and will ultimately be judged by the creator at the end of time.

Second, God is sovereign. From the great speed of the rotation of a tiny moon orbiting Pluto (Ps. 104:2; Isa. 45:12) to the care of his creatures on earth (Ps. 104:27–29), God is sovereign. God did not as it were, wind up a clock in the beginning of time when he created the heavens and the earth, and then wait to see what would happen. Rather, “God, after He had created all things, did not forsake them, or give them up to fortune or chance, but…rules and governs them according to His holy will, so that nothing happens in this world without His appointment.”[3]

God also is sovereign over those he chooses to enlighten by his Holy Spirit to confess him as creator and those he leaves in darkness. We must remember that it is by grace alone that we confess God as our Father and creator. With this humbling thought, “we represent the truth humbly because we hope the same gospel that has rescued us will rescue other people.”[4] We do not go around swinging this truth as a hammer because “we’re right and those unbelievers are just a bunch of fools.” We humbly hold the truth high so that God is glorified. God may use our humble confession of the truth of creation to bring others to faith in Jesus Christ. Does that make you tremble? Does that make you feel inadequate? It does me. Thanks be to God it’s not up to us.

Herman Bavinck has the following to say about God’s sovereignty in these matters that will stand true no matter how deep into space man goes and no matter what he discovers: “one who does not find God in his or her immediate presence, in his or her heart and conscience, in the word and the Christian community, will not find him in the universe either, even though he equips himself with the best telescope that money can buy.”[5]



[3] Belgic Confession, Art. 13 in The Confessions and the Church Order of the Protestant Reformed Churches (Grandville, MI: Protestant Reformed Churches in America, 2005), 35-36.

[4] Joshua Harris, Humble Orthodoxy (Colorado Springs, CO: Multnomah Books, 2013), 20.

[5] Herman Bavinck, Reformed Dogmatics, vol. 2, God and Creation (Grand Rapids, MI: Dutch Reformed Translation Society, 2004), 485.