The week before Memorial Day, I vacationed with family in California. Instead of lying on balmy beaches, we visited several famous national parks: Yosemite, Sequoia & Kings Canyon, and Death Valley. Millions of people visit these parks every year for one shared reason; specifically, to admire the magnificent natural splendor displayed in these parks.
Each park exhibits its own unique beauty, whether thundering waterfalls, breathtaking mountain vistas, towering trees, or vast scorching landscapes. In a testament to the persistence of living things to survive, each location also features various species of flora and fauna specially adapted to their rugged environment.
Gazing upon the shimmering stars in Death Valley – far from bright artificial lights polluting the sky – the words of King David in Psalm 8 came to mind:
When I look at your heavens, the work of your fingers,
the moon and the stars, which you have set in place,
what is man that you are mindful of him,
and the son of man that you care for him?
These divinely inspired words have endured and struck a chord with readers down through the millennia. In part, this is because we can each relate to David’s sense of wonder. The human species universally and uniquely experiences awe when we encounter nature.
Of course, this occurs by design. Natural beauty awes us, thus pointing us to God the Creator. As Paul the Apostle writes, “For his invisible attributes, namely, his eternal power and divine nature, have been clearly perceived, ever since the creation of the world, in the things that have been made.” (Romans 1:20a, ESV)
As Christians, I assume many of us accept that at least part of the reason God created such a magnificent universe is to prove his existence and to demonstrate his glory. But a new realization dawned on me during my recent vacation. Our common human experience of awe when we encounter nature serves as further proof that God created the world and formed each individual human being.
Not only did God create a magnificently beautiful world in all of its brilliant complexity. He also gave humans the unique ability to identify it as beautiful.
I challenge any atheist to offer a convincing reason to explain humans perceiving our surroundings as awe-inspiring from an evolutionary perspective. What biologically necessary trait could explain our universal subjective reaction to amazing jaw-dropping beauty in nature? Why do humans see awesome natural sites as anything more than random collections of atoms or resources to be exploited for survival?
The consistency of human reactions to amazing views – even across different times and cultures – serves as particularly powerful evidence that our ability for subjective appreciation for creation is God-given.
Even those who fall outside the parameters of traditional Christianity can hardly avoid using theistic language when describing nature. Transcendentalist poet Ralph Waldo Emerson – an early proponent of creating national parks in the United States – rhapsodized thus about nature:
And when I am stretched beneath the pines,
Where the evening star so holy shines,
I laugh at the lore and the pride of man,
At the sophist schools and the learned clan,
For what are they all, in their high conceit,
When man in the bush with God may meet?
Conservationist John Muir, probably the single greatest advocate for America’s national parks, employed similar language. Despite his apparent trajectory from orthodox Christianity toward pantheism, he praised the “Godful” essence of nature, as I highlighted in a blog post last year. After one of his many journeys through Yosemite Valley, Muir wrote: “Lying out at night under those giant sequoias was lying in a temple built by no hand of man, a temple grander than any human architect could by any possibility build…”
One particular experience during my own journey in Yosemite sticks with me. The famous Yosemite Falls is the largest waterfall in North America. Yosemite Falls Trail remains among “Yosemite’s oldest historic trails (built 1873 to 1877),” according to the National Park Service, providing visitors with up-close views of this waterfall for the last 140 years. Although the shorter Lower Yosemite Fall Trail only showcases the final 320-foot drop in the waterfall, the view is still impressive. Hikers like myself round a bend as the paved path widens, and suddenly come upon a stunning view of the falls making their final plummet.
It’s an amazing sight, and the designers of the trail knew this. For generations, tourists from around the world have shared the same reaction upon catching this awe-inspiring view: “Wow!”
Just like us, our ancestors have marveled at nature, whether gazing upon the stars in ancient Israel or admiring massive waterfalls in nineteenth-century California. Today we enjoy indistinguishably similar instinctive reactions of amazement.
Why is this? Because not only did God design our incredible universe, but this same all-powerful Being created each one of us and blessed us with the innate capacity to appreciate His handiwork. The very fact that humans from different cultures and times all demonstrate the ability to subjectively perceive the divine in “the things that have been made” further proves that God intricately ordered the world.