On August 15, 1977, a man named Jerry Ehman came across a radio signal from deep space that confounds scientists to this day. Ehman, a volunteer for SETI — an organization dedicated to the search for extraterrestrial intelligence — was monitoring the Big Ear radio telescope at Ohio State University. Looking over the printouts of what that Big Ear had been hearing, Ehman could see all the typical background noise of outer space: the standard movements of satellites, the signals emanating from earth refracted off of space debris, and the like. But then something stood out. There was an anomaly. A big one.
6EQUJ5. That was the sequence on the printout indicating a strong, unique signal from outer space. It did not match the background noise. In fact, it looked much like you’d expect a radio signal from an intelligent source to look. It came from the region in the sky where the constellation Sagittarius is found, and its frequency appeared to match the “hydrogen line,” a promising trait for SETI researchers who figured intelligent beings might use the most common element in the universe to broadcast a signal.
Blown away by what he’d discovered, Ehman took a red pen and circled the 6EQUJ5 sequence on the printout, writing “Wow!” off to the side.
Scientists have never found the source of the Wow! signal. They have never heard it again, despite consistently listening in over the years to the same region of space with radio telescopes much more powerful than the Big Ear. They have so far heard nothing like it. And yet the Wow! signal continues to captivate, stirring curiosity and fueling hope that somewhere out there someone is listening to us, that someone is sending out a signal.
Why does the search for extraterrestrial life entertain us so much? Since the earliest days of UFO sightings and the burgeoning genre of science fiction in the likes of Jules Verne and H. G. Wells, what itch does yearning for outer space scratch?
One of my favorite movies is Stephen Spielberg’s Close Encounters of the Third Kind. Though overshadowed by Spielberg’s other sci-fi masterwork —- a little movie called E.T. the Extraterrestrial — Close Encounters follows similar themes but on a much larger scale. In E.T., Spielberg uses the science fiction conceit really to speak to the ideas of fatherlessness and family. In Close Encounters, he speaks to man’s universal search for meaning.
As the aliens get closer to revealing themselves to mankind’s official spokespeople in a stunning climatic scene at Devil’s Tower in Wyoming, key characters inexplicably find themselves making replicas of the tower or seeing visions of it. Richard Dreyfuss starts with his mashed potatoes at dinner. Eventually he’s pulling up the landscaping to make a minitower in his living room. A little boy shares these compulsions. A scattered group is drawn together by their inner yearning for this extraterrestrial contact. It seems to speak to something missing in their lives, to promise an answer to everything that is unsettled in them.
When the aliens do finally arrive, for these aching souls it is like heaven has finally come to earth. Dreyfuss’s character goes with them in their spaceship to lands unknown.
Of course, for many, many people, interest in science fiction and little green men and rockets to the moon aren’t a reality at all. But I still think the inner human ache for the search for life in outer space is universal. We may seek to satisfy it in different ways, but we’re all really trying to solve two fundamental human problems: loneliness and insignificance.
Deep down, though many do not realize it or admit it, human beings carry a deep-seated need to know and to be known, a need to feel worthy, to be part of something bigger, as if all that is around us is more than it seems. This is a collectively human problem, not just an individual one. We feel lonely as a species, not just as people, otherwise the community offerings all around us would do the trick. And being in community with people is extremely helpful and necessary. But our hearts still yearn for more. This is why we find it so hard sometimes to live with each other.
Humanity also faces the problem of insignificance. Consider how each generation, at least in the United States, identifies so strongly with cultural milestones like WWII or Woodstock. It isn’t simply that we want to be thought great as individuals—though we do—but that we also want to be known as a great people. Tom Brokaw even wrote a book called The Greatest Generation. We identify strongly with our generations, our colleges, our states, and of course our nations. But these collective identities don’t ultimately satisfy either. So what is the last frontier for man to be seen as great, to feel a part of something grand, universal, and important—not just in the world but the universe? Well, outer space, of course.
Volunteers around the world today have set up their computers to take part in a vast SETI network, harnessing their collective strength to provide a great big listening grid aimed at the heavens. Every day these noble souls diligently scan computer screens and paper printouts looking for that next Wow! But what is it, really, that they are looking for?
I think we are all really looking for connection and significance, and we’re all looking for them in ways we can’t quite get a grasp on with the ordinary stuff of earth.
But the good news is that the answer really is out there.
God’s plan to bring lasting, satisfying connection and significance to mankind, to cure the angst for more that we all feel deep inside, to make us feel less like aliens and less like searching for them — is found in this thing the Bible calls grace. Grace is God’s modus operandi in the world. Not everybody gets all the grace God has to give, but everybody who wants it does, and everybody else gets some grace just for being a human creature trying to get by in the world. (Christian theologians call this “common grace.”)
Living our lives driven by appetites, seeking to gain as much pleasure or comfort or power as we can, does not solve the deep need for significance. It might medicate us against it for a while, but it just doesn’t last. Alternatively, living on the religious duty treadmill, trying to earn credit with God through personal righteousness, basically just trying to be “good people,” doesn’t solve our deep need for connection.
But the signal is coming from deep space. It transmits on lots of frequencies, some stronger than others. God is doing something with us. He is meaning something with creation. The message of grace — unmerited favor — hits the universal need with a specific message. And it bids us turn our gaze to the heavens to see God’s impressive strategy for the whole world.
The problem of loneliness and insignificance is actually a lack of glory. The glory of God solves those problems (and a million others besides). It actually cracks the code of human existence and the future of creation. See, God has not been silent. He has declared these realities. He actually tells us what he’s going to do with everything! Like a Wow! signal straight from heaven, Habakkuk 2:14 announces, “For the earth will be filled with the knowledge of the glory of the Lord as the waters cover the sea.”
This is God’s endgame for everything. Glory. He wants his glory to fill the earth, to drench it, really, making all the dry places alive again and all the dull places shine again.
This is the secret of the universe. The “thing” that makes sense of everything is the glory of God brought to bear by the grace of God. And God’s modus operandi, his plan to reveal this secret, is the proclamation of the message the Bible calls “the gospel,” the good news that the glorious God has sent the radiance of his glory to restore men who have sinned and fallen short of his glory (Rom. 3:23). As Martin Luther says, “For what is the Gospel but a declaring of the glory of God and his works?”
The gospel is the Wow! signal from deep space that changes everything.
(This is an edited excerpt from The Story of Everything: How You, Your Pets, and The Swiss Alps Fit Into God’s Plan for the World)