Reasons to Believe

AVATAR: a New Hope?

Avatar, the movie released just a few weeks ago, already ranks as the second highest earning movie of all time and may exceed the current record holder, Titanic, within a few more weeks. Two aspects of the movie seem to be driving the strong response.

First, Avatar easily ranks as the highest quality and most spectacular 3-D movie yet produced. The 3-D effects are especially enthralling when seen on an IMAX screen. In fact, the movie appears to have been designed to fill the full height of an IMAX screen with images that immerse viewers in both the scenery and action.

Second, Avatar’s portrayal of Pandora, the Eden-like home of the Na’vi species, appeals powerfully to the universal human longing for a perfect world. A common thread among the world’s religions is the story of humanity’s beginning in a utopian realm soon tragically lost. And that loss seems to have provided a context for our ongoing quest to return there.
The powerful draw within each person for a restoration of paradise is illustrated by a somewhat surprising aftermath to the movie: a rise in depression and suicidal thoughts. Apparently the contrast between the lush landscape of Pandora and the less lustrous realities of their everyday life causes viewers to lose heart.

More on that topic to follow, except to say the movie did not cause me any despair, but it did bother me.  Like most scientists I can enjoy a good science fiction story. And by “good” I mean science fiction of the Jules Verne variety where futuristic technology is imagined but the reader need not suspend belief in the laws of physics or the established characteristics of the universe.

I’m aware that if someone wants to weave a tale about interstellar space travel by humans (or other physical beings), suspension of the laws of physics must be allowed. But Avatar pushed me too far, forcing me to suspend belief in countless known features of the universe, the Milky Way Galaxy, and the laws of physics for most of the film’s two-and-a-half-hour duration. The scientist within me was so jarred by the wholesale distortions of physical reality I had some difficulty enjoying the movie.

Other viewers, as I would anticipate, responded differently. Most came away with a sense of awe and wonder and excitement. They weren’t bothered by the physics and astronomy, as I was. Nor, perhaps, were they as concerned about the movie’s philosophical and theological message.

Many friends have asked me what I, an astronomer and as a Christian, think about the movie. Their curiosity has given me many opportunities to explain, first of all, how exquisitely designed our world is to make human life and human civilization possible, and better yet, how the biblical “new creation” by far exceeds even the spectacular beauty of Pandora.

Earth was designed not to be humanity’s ultimate destination but rather to be our preparation for something far better to come. Life here gets us ready to inherit an entirely new creation unimaginably more beautiful and more rewarding than anything depicted in the movie, as wonderful as Pandora appeared.

The physicist in me cannot help but make corrections to Pandoran physics and, in the process, present evidence for the supernatural design of the Milky Way Galaxy, Earth, and Earth’s life for the benefit of humanity (see added section below).

The pastor in me must begin with a discussion of Avatar’s mixed theological perspectives. It seems the film’s writers worked hard to garner a worldwide audience by incorporating elements of virtually all humanity’s religious traditions. However, the dominant religious themes come from Gaia, animism, and pantheism.

Gaia is the worship of Earth as the creator and sustainer of all life. In Avatar Earth is portrayed as a formerly great mother god and Pandora as a still great mother god. These great gods, however, are fragile. The Na’vi say of humans, “They killed their mother, and they will kill ours as well.”

Part of the Gaia doctrine is the balance of life. In the Avatar story, humans destroyed their mother god by allowing her population to reach such prodigious levels (twenty billion) that their consumptive life styles drove most animal life and vegetation to extinction. Referring to Earth the Na’vi say, “There is nothing green there.” In their dispute with the Earthling colonists on Pandora, the Na’vi shout, “God back to your dying planet!”

Gaia, animism, and pantheism blend together in the movie’s vision of a network of energy that flows through all living things, making us all one. The definition of “evil” in Avatar is the humans’ voracious killing of plants and animals without thought as to how such destruction diminishes and potentially destroys the god in all people and things.

By contrast, Christian theology says God’s existence transcends the creation. It cannot confine or diminish Him. The Bible says God created three distinct kinds of life on Earth: life that is purely physical, life that is both physical and soulish, and, in the case of one species, humanity, life that is physical, soulish, and spiritual. These three kinds of creatures, according to the Bible, all possess value and purpose but at differing levels. While we humans are to value and sustain all life, we are to care for physical life as a support for soulish life (species that nurture one another and manifest unique capacities to relate to human beings) and for soulish life as a support for human life. God calls humans to value and protect fellow humans above all other earthly creatures, but God also commanded humans (in Genesis 1) not to neglect the care of green plants. God’s point is that since green plants serve as the base of the food chain, failure to protect their vitality means no one gets to eat. On this point Avatar seems to align with Christianity.

The protection and nurture of green plants is not the only biblical principle expounded in Avatar. The film’s heroes are those humans who, at great personal cost, stand up to the rapacious Miles Quaritch, the colonel overseeing the military contingent of Pandora’s human colony. The Bible commands humanity to restrain evil individuals and oppressive regimes, so as to prevent evil from overtaking our societies.

Nevertheless, Avatar strongly promotes the anti-biblical worship of creation, rather than of the Creator. And while it asserts the inherent goodness of all Pandora’s species, the animals are depicted as violent, ready to kill whoever comes near—unless the Na’vi or human-Na’vi avatar somehow manages to join tendrils with them. This story element seems inconsistent.

A theme that seemed deeply troubling to me was the film’s shameless promotion of hyper-environmentalism. Advocacy for severe reductions in Earth’s population, living standard, and technology was blatant—promoted as the only possible solutions to Earth’s looming environmental crises.

Avatar’s setting is the twenty-second century because, as the story goes, twenty-first century humans ignored the environmentalists’ agenda. The human population ballooned to twenty billion, Earth’s resources were exhausted, and the entire planet turned into a toxic waste dump. The implied path to saving Earth: emulate the Na’vi. Avatar’s implied message is that humans must reduce their population from billions down to the Na’vi’s thousands. Likewise, they must trade their high-tech, energy-intensive civilization for the more primitive, ultra-green lifestyle of the Na’vi.

The error in the film’s “preaching,” here, lies in the presumption that environmental care demands severe economic sacrifice. This message contradicts the biblical assertion that God has designed Earth and its life in such a way that what is optimally ethical for humanity will also make sound economic sense. The challenge for humanity is to avoid “quick and dirty” solutions and instead do the necessary research to find fair, wise answers to their problems.

Often environmentalists portray Christians as greedy individuals who give no thought to caring for their planet or for other species of life. Those who behave this way represent disobedience to God’s commands.  In Genesis 1 God tells Adam and Eve (and thus all humanity) to manage Earth’s resources for the benefit of all life. In Job 38-39 God gives some specific instructions on how to carry out His command. Twenty-first century environmentalists would do well to heed the directives in Job.

Perhaps the gravest error of Avatar’s environmental doctrine is its promotion of an unattainable goal—the possibility of a permanent paradise somewhere within the physical universe. The filmmakers imply that if Earthlings would just adopt the environmental agenda, then Eden-like conditions could be established and maintained indefinitely throughout the Earth. There would be no need to seek out and ruin a Pandora.

The Bible makes clear that human nature, apart from submission to God’s authority, can never restore paradise on Earth. What’s more, whatever idyllic conditions we may establish on Earth will be only temporary.

As my book Why the Universe Is the Way It Is explains, the laws of physics and the space-time dimensions God chose in making the universe were designed to facilitate His efficient and permanent redemption of humanity and conquest of evil--both physical and spiritual. These laws of physics and cosmic space-time dimensions place strict limits on the window of time during which humans can live in a civilized state. Numerous indicators suggest that window is likely as brief as a few tens of thousands of years or less.

Neither Earth, nor Pandora, nor any other conceivable body within the universe can possibly sustain a civilized, intelligent species for a significantly longer period of time. The eventual end of our cosmic existence does not mean, however, that we are without any hope, purpose, or destiny.
The Bible declares that a moment is coming when the Creator will remove the current universe from existence and replace it with a brand new creation.

God’s plan for humanity is not to restore us to paradise. Rather, it is to prepare all people who worship Him to enjoy the rewards and blessings of the new creation—beyond the boundaries of space and time as we know them. In the new creation everyone will possess more freedom of will than we can now experience. Yet the possibility of anyone’s committing evil or causing suffering will no longer exist.

Scripture informs us that the new creation’s habitats and relationships are so marvelously good that no human can possibly imagine how great and wonderful they will be. Not even Hollywood’s best can dream up anything to compare with the coming creation. Something far better and infinitely more real than Pandora is in store for those who receive God’s forgiveness and submit to His authority.


A Scientific Assessment of Avatar’s Physics along with Evidences for Earth’s Supernatural Design

1.    Avatar depicts Pandora as a moon roughly as large as Earth but with a surface gravity merely a fraction of Earth’s. Consequently, adult Na’vi can grow ten feet tall in a slim bipedal body. However, the movie also portrays the Na’vi as creatures possessing an extraordinary agility and sense of balance. For example, they can sprint along tree limbs hundreds of feet above the ground without any apparent risk of slipping off.
                In truth, Earth possesses the just-right surface gravity for animal mobility. Without gravity as strong as Earth’s, animals could neither develop nor maintain an adequate sense of balance and agility Furthermore, a surface gravity any weaker than Earth’s would yield a thinner and lower pressure atmosphere lacking in water vapor and the possibility of precipitation. There would be no rainfall to sustain the lush forests of Pandora. One piece of evidence for Earth’s supernatural design for the benefit of all life, and of human life in particular, is that its surface gravity is optimally fine-tuned.

2.    Avatar depicts Pandora as a moon orbiting a gas giant planet, which in turn orbits the star Alpha Centauri, a Sun-like star. Inserting a moon into the Avatar plot resolves the problem that none of the 424 known extrasolar planets manifests the properties that would permit the existence of a planet like Earth (with the capacity to support advanced life) in its vicinity. Astronomers are being compelled by their discoveries of extrasolar planets to conclude that our solar system may be unique in allowing for the existence of a planet that can sustain advanced life. Given that extraterrestrial intelligent life (ETI) is likely impossible on a planet, ETI proponents suggest it may exist on a moon. For a number of reasons, however, advanced life on a moon would be impossible:
a.    If a moon orbits its planet close enough to avoid temperature extremes, it will be tidally locked to its planet. Like the moon that orbits Earth, such a moon will have one hemisphere permanently facing its planet. To avoid deadly day-night temperature extremes, it would need to orbit its planet at a very close distance. However, a close orbit would generate tidal heating and volcanic activity much more extreme than what we observe on Jupiter’s moon Io. And that’s not to mention destructive ocean tides. No advanced life would be possible on such a moon.
b.    Any moon orbiting a gas giant planet would require of that planet an almost perfectly circular orbit in order to stay in the “habitable zone,” the distance from the host star where surface liquid water on a planet would remain stable. However, gas giant planets do not and cannot form within the habitable zone. They form beyond the host star’s “snow line,” that distance where volatiles such as water remain permanently frozen. Gas giant planets in the habitable zone can only arrive there through inward drift. Such inward drift, however, generates eccentric, that is, non-circular, orbits. Indeed, the known extrasolar gas giant planets found close to their (Sun-like) host star’s habitable zone all possess eccentric orbits.
c.    A moon that orbits a gas giant planet would be unable to maintain a life sustaining atmosphere. That planet’s magnetosphere would quickly sputter away the life-sustaining gases from such a moon.
d.    A moon large enough to support life would have to orbit a truly enormous gas giant planet. As large as Jupiter is, its biggest moon is forty times less massive than Earth. For Pandora to be even nearly as big as Earth, its planet would have to be many times the mass of Jupiter. Such a massive planet is certain to generate deadly tides. It will also generate a lot of heat. A moon such as Pandora would receive its heat not only from its host star but also from its host planet. Such a double heat source would significantly impact Pandora’s climate, enough to make it unsuitable for advanced life.
e.    A moon closely orbiting a large gas giant planet would risk frequent asteroid and comet collisions. The planet’s strong gravity would attract asteroids, comets, and interplanetary debris passing near it.
In so many words, advanced life would be impossible to sustain on a moon. Advanced life only can be sustained on a planet the size and mass of Earth where that planet is orbited by a single moon the size, mass, and distance of Earth’s Moon. (Without the Moon’s exacting characteristics, Earth would not possess a stable rotation axis nor have the tides and rotation period critical for advanced life.) Every measureable feature of the Earth and Moon and the Earth-Moon relationship must be supernaturally fine-tuned for advanced life to be physically possible. 
3.    Avatar shows Pandora’s atmosphere as deadly for humans but life-sustaining for all the plants, animals, and the Na’vi on Pandora. Given the apparently high metabolic levels displayed by the different species of life on Pandora, the implication is that Pandora’s life chemistry is based on some element other than carbon. The problem with this notion is that biochemists have established for more than three decades life must be carbon based. Carbon is the only element in the universe that permits the building of molecules of adequate diversity and complexity to make possible life chemistry. Carbon also is the only element that yields complex molecules of sufficient size and stability for life.
Life must not only be carbon based, it must reside in the vicinity of a planet with a highly fine-tuned quantity of carbon. For its size and distance from its host star, Earth is about 500 times less abundant in carbon than what planetary formation models would dictate. A planet with the normal amount of carbon would possess a thick atmosphere loaded with carbon compounds that would trap huge amounts of heat and yield atmospheric pressures too great for lungs to handle. This atmosphere would also block out so much stellar light as to prevent photosynthesis. Only because of its supernatural design and supernaturally orchestrated life history does Earth have the precise amount of carbon—neither too much nor too little—for the support of advanced life.
4.    Pandora’s host star, Alpha Centauri, is too different from the Sun for advanced life to be possible anywhere within its planetary system, whether real or imagined. Although Alpha Centauri is a G-type dwarf star (as is the Sun) with an effective surface temperature close to that of the Sun’s 5,778° Kelvin, all similarity with the Sun ends here. Alpha Centauri’s age, 300 million years older than the Sun’s, is too far advanced (too far past the stable burning phase) for the survival of complex life in its vicinity.  Alpha Centauri is actually a triple star system. The diameter of Alpha Centauri A is 23 percent larger than the Sun’s and its luminosity is 52 percent greater. The diameter of Alpha Centauri B is 14 percent smaller than the Sun’s and its luminosity is 50 percent less. The diameter of Alpha Centauri C, also known as Proxima Centauri, is just 14 percent of the Sun’s, and its luminosity a mere 0.2 percent of the Sun’s.
Alpha Centauri A and B orbit one another in a period of 80 years. At their closest approach, they are as distant from each other as the Sun is from Saturn. At their greatest separation, the distance between them is akin to distance between the Sun and Neptune. The nature of the Alpha Centauri triple star system categorically rules out the possibility of any body in that same system with the capacity to support life. Actually, the Alpha Centauri system is close enough to Earth (4.36 light years away) that astronomers would be able to detect its planets if any existed. They’ve found no planets there the size of Earth or larger.
For the past fifty years different teams of astronomers have searched for a solar twin, a star sufficiently similar to the Sun to allow for the possibility of a life-sustaining planet in its orbit. Alas, no such solar twin has been found. Like Earth and its Moon, the Sun, too, appears to have been supernaturally designed to enable Earth to support advanced life. 
5.    Travel to any conceivable planet with a capacity to support life is impossible. The arduous search for extrasolar planets already has established that no advanced-life-habitable planets exist within a hundred light years of Earth. The search for signals from extraterrestrial intelligent civilizations has ruled out the possible existence of civilizations anywhere nearly as advanced as ours within 155 light years. This detection limit tells us that, at best, the journey to any possibly existent Earth-like site would be longer than a hundred light years. In Avatar, Earthlings traveled to Pandora at nearly the velocity of light. At such high speeds, however, a spacecraft would be damaged by its collisions with particles and dust to the point of killing all passengers on board. For the sake of the crew’s survival, speeds must be kept below one percent the velocity of light (7 million miles per hour). Consequently, the minimum time for a one-way trip exceeds ten thousand years. Such a long journey exceeds the maximum time any conceivable advanced species could sustain a sufficiently technology civilization to undertake interstellar space travel.
The impossibility of colonizing an extrasolar planet underscores the need to take good care of the one planet God has provided for us. If we ruin Earth, there is nowhere else to go. Wise stewardship of Earth’s resources for the benefit of all life is the first command God gave to the human race. It deserves our careful attention and utter dependence on Him for direction.
6.    Avatar’s Pandora as a body richly endowed with “unobtainium,” an element (or compound) that on Earth is said to sell for $20,000,000 an ounce and represents the last hope for solving Earth’s energy crisis. Those who remember seeing the Table of Elements will recall a section labeled “rare earths” and another of scarce elements, the “heavy elements.” Only in graduate level astronomy classes, however, does a student hear that Earth, in all likelihood, is the most richly endowed planet in the entire Milky Way Galaxy when it comes to the rare earth elements and heavy elements. The heaviest naturally occurring element in the table—and the greatest source of fissionable energy—is uranium. Compared to the Sun and the rest of the Milky Way Galaxy, Earth possesses 10,000 times more uranium per unit of mass.
Not only is Earth richly endowed with rare and heavy elements, but it also carries a superabundance of compounds and minerals. The proto-planetary disk from which Earth formed contained just 60 different mineral species. Thanks to Earth’s nearly four-billion-year history of diverse, complex life, with creatures introduced and removed at just right times and in just right amounts, Earth today contains 4,300 known mineral species. In mankind’s quest for precious elements, metals, compounds, and minerals, there is no better place to search than on Earth itself. Earth’s wealth of exotic elements and minerals testifies of the degree to which the Creator prepared and enriched Earth over the past four billion years so as to furnish humanity with all the resources needed to launch and sustain global high-technology civilization. 
7.    Avatar takes full advantage of all three space dimensions, length, width, and height, to mesmerize the audience with Pandora’s stunning beauty and grandeur. Pandora offers not only an exceptionally attractive surface but also a sky full of soaring thousand-foot-high trees and floating mountains. Most viewers likely realized that mountains floating in a breathable atmosphere are physically impossible. Few, though, may have realized that thousand-foot-tall trees likewise are impossible. The 350-foot-tall redwoods of northern California approach the height limit the laws of physics will permit. The taller the tree, the less efficiently fluids and nutrients can be transported up and down its height. Beyond 350 feet, the efficiency is too low to maintain the tree’s life. A marvelous feature of Earth’s surface is the presence of shrubs and trees in great abundance across the full range of heights permitted by the laws of physics. This complete panoply of trees in turn allows millions of diverse species of life to inhabit Earth simultaneously. These millions of species all contribute in some way to the well-being of the human race.

The science and theology for this article were taken from three of Dr. Ross’ books, Lights in the Sky and Little Green Men, Why the Universe Is the Way It Is, and More Than a Theory.

posted 1/21/10


Subjects: Life Design, TCM - Life Design, Worldviews

Dr. Hugh Ross

Reasons to Believe emerged from my passion to research, develop, and proclaim the most powerful new reasons to believe in Christ as Creator, Lord, and Savior and to use those new reasons to reach people for Christ. Read more about Dr. Hugh Ross.