Reasons to Believe

“The Martian”: The Ultimate Rescue Mission

This Friday, the film adaptation of Andy Weir’s highly successful debut novel The Martian hits theaters. In anticipation of the film’s release, I met with editor Sandra Dimas to discuss how The Martian might help remind others of a different kind of rescue mission.

Sandra: In The Martian, astronaut Mark Watney (Matt Damon) is stranded on Mars by his crewmates after he is believed to be dead. It soon becomes clear that simply trying to survive on Mars is a constant struggle—yet life can thrive on Earth. As a Christian, what do you think that says about our home and our Creator?

Ken: I saw this interesting series on the Apollo astronauts. Almost all the astronauts looked back at Earth and compared it to our desolate, lifeless Moon. Numerous astronauts said that they had to come to the Moon to realize the gift of Earth. Atheists might wonder why there are so many places in the universe where life can’t survive. But I would ask, in light of all this inhospitality, why is Earth so hospitable to life? We kind of walk around Earth taking for granted that God has created this wonderful planet that has an adjacent Sun and Moon and stars. We take all of the benefits for granted, until we think about what life would be like on a planet that’s not friendly.

Yet we hear news stories about humans eventually colonizing Mars.

That’s right. In fact Stephen Hawking has said there’s going to be too many people on Earth and that we’ll have to travel to another planet. He is a brilliant scientist, but how could he say that humans could survive elsewhere knowing the incredible challenges that would pose? Earth is the goldilocks planet. Mars isn’t all that different from Earth in terms of size, but as The Martian shows us, it’s incredibly difficult for one person to try to survive on Mars, let alone a whole civilization.

Speaking of trying to survive on Mars, Mark must solve a slew of mechanical, mathematical, and engineering problems. Christians might say humanity’s ability to solve complex problems is a reflection of being made in God’s image. How might a naturalist explain such abilities?

In some way, Adam had to become the mechanic, the gardener, the zoologist, and so on. He had to tackle all of these challenges as they came. I think the Christian would say that God equipped him, and all of humanity, to face those challenges. When it comes to naturalism, evolution is the mechanism, but it’s unguided. Evolutionists will say the guiding mechanism is survivability, and that a person has to muster all of his reasoning, rationality, and intuition to survive in an environment that’s not hospitable to him.

Right. And that is very much the case for Mark. His survival is completely in his own hands.

In that sense, maybe there is an attraction toward atheism because of autonomy—“I get all of the responsibility of trying to survive but I also get all of the benefit.” Some people find that heroic. Philosopher and atheist Friedrich Nietzsche suggested that if God doesn’t exist, life is meaningless, but through your own strength of will you create meaning for yourself. I can understand how certain people would like that. I’m not one of them. If life had no meaning, I’d need some heavy doses of antidepressant medication. But some people think, “Well, if there’s no God then I take that role.”

One of the most powerful moments in The Martian is when Mark realizes the sacrifices that people made to try to save him—million-dollar missions abandoned, countless overtime hours worked, months spent traveling in space. Mark comes to the conclusion that every human being has a basic instinct to help each other out. What are your thoughts on such a statement and how might it lead us to think about the sacrifice that Christ made on the cross?

That’s a very provocative way of framing it. Here you have people who are sacrificing their time, their money, and their effort to rescue this one individual. Jesus rescues us from a sinful state. When people are uneasy about eternal conscious punishment, which I think everyone is at some point, typically my response is, what did it cost God to save us? God gave his only begotten son to redeem lost humanity. That’s where we have a lot of good questions to ask our naturalist friends. In a world of “survival of the fittest,” why would other people be so sacrificial? Aren’t they going against the evolutionary grain to use all those resources for one guy? But Christians don’t think that way. They think that every human being is made in the image of God and is therefore valuable and worth rescuing. God set the example when he came to rescue us.

This line here really hit home: “The cost for my survival must have been hundreds of billions of dollars, all to save one dorky botanist. Why bother?” When we reflect on ourselves, we might say, oh I’m just one dorky editor, or I’m just one dorky writer. Yet Christ saw us as worthy of rescuing, and the cost of our rescue was Christ’s life.

That’s absolutely right. As I think about it theologically, it would be one thing to rescue somebody who’s great, somebody who’s valuable, somebody who has all of these wonderful qualities, but God rescued a bunch of people who are rebellious, who give him the finger, who want their own way, and yet, he comes to die for the ungodly.

How does altruism look from a naturalistic perspective?

Altruism I think is a very difficult thing to define in an atheistic view. They have to weigh how many resources to use on this one individual. I think an atheist has every right to say this guy’s on another planet, he got himself there; to heck with him, it’s not my problem.

Mark Watney reflects on sacrifice, particularly for someone who, if you count the cost, doesn’t deserve to be saved. Yet the author of The Martian is agnostic. I think it’s interesting that it wasn’t his motivation to convey the gospel and Christ’s sacrifice, but he so beautifully conveyed that. I hope he sees your interview and I hope that he sees how his words impacted people.

I wonder if the author is not aware that he may still be dealing with the effects of being made in the image of God and God has put those beliefs in him. From a Christian point of view, with my Christian anthropology, I might look at that and say, he’s actually conveying something deep within his heart and he may not fully be aware that he’s conveying it. Sometimes non-Christians can present the gospel in better ways than Christians.

Absolutely. There’s value in such works. I certainly found value in this one. Do you plan on seeing the film?

Yeah, you’ve intrigued me by it…

Subjects: Worldviews