Earthrise, Science and Christmas

The Revd Prof David Wilkinson

(Earthrise image by NASA)

This is the transcript of the Revd Prof David Wilkinson’s BBC Radio 4 Thought for the Day on 23rd December 2023.

Good morning.

On Christmas Eve 55 years ago, one of the most powerful and iconic photographs was taken. The crew of Apollo 8 had become the first people ever to orbit the Moon, and when Bill Anders saw the Earth rising from behind the lunar horizon, he took the famous colour photograph Earthrise.

Anders, in speaking about the image of the blue planet contrasted to the desolation of the lunar surface, would comment, ‘Here we came all this way to the Moon, and yet the most significant thing we’re seeing is our own home planet, the Earth.’

In 1948, the astronomer Sir Fred Hoyle had predicted that when such a photograph was taken ‘a new idea as powerful as any in history will be let loose’. Some say that it became the foundation of the environmental movement, but this downplays the earlier impact of works such as Rachel Carson’s book Silent Spring. However, the photograph did convey both the awe-inspiring beauty of the Earth in space, and the challenge to care for this fragile cosmic home.

This view of the Earth, sometimes called the overview effect, for some does lead to a change of thinking in experiencing a sense of the transcendent and an increased feeling of connection to other people and to the Earth itself. This doesn’t mean that religious faith is always strengthened. Anders himself found it destroyed his belief in a god who was simply concerned with matters of the church and individual sin.

Seeing things from a different perspective can be transformative. As an astrophysicist, the exploration of space by telescope or astronaut has been for me both inspiring and challenging, in seeing my place in an incredible universe.

But I don’t only find this in science.  A transformative perspective for me also comes from the story of a child born in a stable in Bethlehem, who would grow to be someone who taught, lived and died a message of the primacy of love, forgiveness and justice. In Jesus I see a new image of God, and of what it means to be human in all its beauty and fragility.

Apollo 8 gave us a new view of the world, but it also prepared the way for those who would walk on the Moon. One of those, James Irwin of Apollo 15, said ‘Jesus walking on the earth is more important than man walking on the moon.’ That’s why today I celebrate both the power of science, and of Christmas.


Article By The Revd Prof David Wilkinson

David is a professor in the Department of Theology and Religion at Durham University and has PhDs in astrophysics and systematic theology.


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