The prophetic voice of the cosmosWritten by Subby Szterszky
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“The heavens declare the glory of God, and the sky above
proclaims His handiwork.”
– King David, Psalm 19:1
“The Cosmos is all that is, or ever was, or ever will be.”
– Carl Sagan, Cosmos
As summary statements of cosmology go, it’s hard to imagine two that are more disparate than these. They’re separated by three millennia of history and two mutually exclusive world views. The first is from an ancient song written by an Iron Age monarch noted for being a man after God’s heart. The second is from the intro to a TV series hosted by a scientist famous for his strident naturalism.
In terms of human knowledge about the cosmos, a lot has changed in 3,000 years. In David’s day, most people thought the earth was at the centre of the universe with the sun, moon, stars and planets circling above. By Carl Sagan’s time (and ours), the earth has long since been displaced from the centre, the known boundaries of the universe have stretched and its wonders multiplied to a degree the ancients could never have imagined.
For Sagan and other skeptics, this wider understanding about the created order has led to the strange belief that God is unnecessary and in fact does not exist. But for people of faith, expanding knowledge can only bring expanding glory to the Creator and an expanding sense of awe at His creation.
Scripture is full of stars
From beginning to end, God’s Word is filled with references to the cosmos. This is hardly surprising; after all, He made it. In fact, the narrative of Scripture begins with the assertion that God created the heavens and the earth, an Old Testament phrase encompassing the whole of the universe. A few verses later, the account goes into more detail with the creation of the sun and moon – a greater and lesser light to rule the day and night sky, respectively – and almost as an afterthought, the stars as well (Genesis 1:1, 14-18).
Later, after God leads Abraham into the land of Canaan, He brings him outside his tent and tells him to look up at the night sky, promising that his descendants will be as numerous as the stars (Genesis 15:5).
The story of Job, roughly contemporary with Abraham, is packed with allusions to the stars to showcase God’s wisdom, holiness and power. At the end of the book, God confronts Job with a series of rhetorical questions about the mysteries of His creation, including the movements of the constellations, Orion and the Pleiades among them (Job 38:31-33).
Besides Psalm 19, David the poet writes often about the sun, moon and stars reflecting God’s goodness and majesty. He even calls upon the heavenly bodies to praise their Creator. And when he ponders the wonders of the cosmos, he marvels that its Maker should be intimately concerned with individual human lives here on earth (Psalm 8:3-4; 36:5; 103:11; 148:3-4).
In his turn, Isaiah appeals to the height and scope of the heavens, so far beyond the earth, to illustrate the extent of God’s faithfulness and righteousness, equally far removed from human expectation or understanding. The prophet also speaks of God recreating the universe in the form of new heavens and a new earth, a theme echoed and expanded by Jesus and the apostles in the New Testament (Isaiah 55:6-9; 65:17; 66:22-23; Luke 21:25-28; 2 Peter 3:13).
In search of ancient astronomers
According to modern skeptics, people in the Ancient Near East, including the authors of Scripture, believed in a primitive cosmology with a flat earth under a clear dome holding the sun, moon and stars far – but not too far – above the world. From this, they have drawn the conclusion that the Scriptures reflect a faulty, pre-scientific view of nature, which rules out any divine inspiration or authority.
But this line of reasoning is misleading, to say the least. Even in Old Testament times, the ancient snow globe model of the universe, with its earth disk and crystal dome, was fast becoming a relic of the past. As early as the 5th century BC, Greek philosophers had theorized that the earth was round. By the 3rd century BC, they’d proven it via mathematical induction and empirical observation of lunar eclipses, shadows on the ground, and ships on the horizon. The earth was still thought to be at the centre of the universe, (although even that was being challenged), but it was surrounded by vast planetary and stellar orbits on a scale far beyond the primitive Bronze Age model.
Still, well-meaning Christians have on occasion responded by arguing that God must have revealed to the authors of Scripture an understanding of the universe more in line with what we know today. But such speculation is both hard to prove and unnecessary. The Scriptures aren’t concerned with abstract descriptions that meet modern technical standards. They speak in phenomenological language, of sunrises and sunsets and the stars above, just as we do today. Whatever ancient authors or modern readers might know about the cosmos is in this sense immaterial. God has chosen to reveal His glory by appealing to the universal human experience of looking up at the night sky and wondering what lies beyond.
Wonder leading to wrongful worship
In the book of Deuteronomy, as the people of Israel were poised to enter the Promised Land, Moses warned them about allowing their natural sense of wonder at the heavens to degenerate into idolatry. And as it turned out, this sin became one of the banes of the Israelites in their subsequent history, bowing down to the sun, moon and stars rather than to the God who made them. As the Apostle Paul later summed up, they worshipped the creation rather than the Creator (Deuteronomy 4:19; 2 Kings 17:16; 21:3-5; Romans 1:25).
Modern people aren’t immune to this temptation, either. In his introduction to the Cosmos TV series, Carl Sagan continued: “Our feeblest contemplations of the Cosmos stir us – there is a tingling in the spine, a catch in the voice, a faint sensation of a distant memory, as if we were falling from a great height. We know we are approaching the greatest of mysteries.”
That’s a stirring and evocative sentiment, taken on its own. But in the context of Sagan’s materialist beliefs, it takes on an entirely different cast. Sagan is embracing the beauty and wonder of the cosmos while denying there’s anything beyond it, certainly no divine hand of any sort. In effect he, too, is worshipping the creation rather than the Creator. And in the grandest of ironies, Sagan and others who share his beliefs sing the praises of the cosmos, which means created order, while vehemently insisting that it’s neither orderly nor created.
Far more than a watchmaker
At the time of the Enlightenment, when the integrity of Scripture was coming under concerted attack, theists as well as deists began to describe God as a watchmaker who started up the cosmos and then stepped back from it. They did this in order to preserve the idea that creation was designed with an ultimate purpose – the so-called teleological argument. But for deists in particular, it also kept God at arm’s length, a distant and impersonal Creator uninvolved in the daily workings of His creation.
With no disrespect to watchmakers, that’s a cold and sterile impression of God, and the Scriptures will have none of it. When God quizzes Job, He describes His creation of the earth as a time “when the morning stars sang together and all the sons of God shouted for joy.” Solomon echoes this in his Proverbs, personifying wisdom as God’s companion at creation, who “was daily His delight, rejoicing before Him always, rejoicing in His inhabited world and delighting in the children of man.” (Job 38:4-7; Proverbs 8:27-31)
David also sings about God’s care for His creation: “He determines the number of the stars; He gives to all of them their names.” And Isaiah takes this further still: “Lift up your eyes on high and see: who created these? He who brings out their host by number, calling them all by name; by the greatness of His might and because He is strong in power, not one is missing.” (Psalm 147:4; Isaiah 40:26)
Clearly God takes a personal and passionate delight in His cosmos. In light of these passages and others like them, G.K. Chesterton argued that we mustn’t think of the sunrise as a mechanistic process, but rather as an expression of childlike joy on God’s part that daily shouts, “Again! Do it again!”
Expanding knowledge and glory
For King David and other ancient stargazers, the universe was limited to what they could see with the naked eye. This included the sun, the moon, the visible stars, and the five inner planets, Mercury, Venus, Mars, Jupiter and Saturn, which looked like bright moving stars against a fixed stellar background.
However, once Galileo turned his telescope to the skies four centuries ago, the observable limits of the cosmos began to expand at an accelerating rate. Galileo discovered Jupiter’s four major moons, Ganymede, Io, Europa and Callisto, the first objects ever seen to be orbiting something other than the earth, thereby proving that our planet was not the centre of the universe. Jupiter itself proved to be far more than a bright point of light; it was a giant banded planet more than 11 times the diameter of our world. Its most prominent feature, the Great Red Spot, is a cyclonic storm twice the size of earth that has been swirling in Jupiter’s atmosphere for centuries.
The ensuing years saw the discovery of Uranus, Neptune, many more moons, and the fact that our solar system lies within the Milky Way, an immense spiral galaxy 100,000 light years across and containing hundreds of billions of stars. As the name implies, one light year is the distance light travels in a year, or about 9.5 trillion kilometres. For perspective, at a distance of 150 million kilometres, the sun is about 8.3 light minutes from earth.
Our sun itself, the great light that rules the day, proved to be far greater than the ancients might have guessed. It’s a massive ball of burning hydrogen 109 times the diameter of earth, with a core temperature of 15 million degrees Celsius, cooling at its surface to a balmy 5,500 degrees Celsius. And yet there are stars that are far bigger. Betelgeuse, a red supergiant in the constellation Orion, is about 950 to 1,200 times larger in diameter than the sun. If Betelgeuse were in our solar system, the earth would be inside it, and its surface would be out past the orbit of Jupiter. All of a sudden, God’s question to Job about loosening the cords of Orion takes on a whole new weight.
It was no more than a century ago that the Milky Way, immense as it is, was thought to be the extent of the entire universe. But advances in modern astronomy have shown that our galaxy is but one among hundreds of billions, arranged into superclusters and colossal filaments separated by titanic voids in an apparent foam-like structure. At present, the extent of the known universe is a sphere 92 billion light years across, containing untold trillions upon trillions of stars.
And God has numbered them all and given each a name. He has made them unique like snowflakes, each with its own colour, size, mass, temperature and brightness. In the understated words of the Apostle Paul, “star differs from star in glory.” (1 Corinthians 15:41)
There’s an undeniable hubris behind the skeptic’s claim that this mind-boggling expansion of knowledge has somehow disproved the existence of God. After all, Carl Sagan’s assertion that there’s nothing beyond the cosmos isn’t a scientific statement but a metaphysical one, resting on assumptions rather than evidence. Strictly speaking, it could never be proven that there’s nothing beyond the cosmos because all we can ever observe is the cosmos.
Three millennia ago, King David observed it and recognized its prophetic power to declare the glory of God. “Day to day pours out speech,” he wrote, “and night to night reveals knowledge. There is no speech, nor are there words, whose voice is not heard. Their voice goes out through all the earth, and their words to the end of the world.” (Psalm 19:2-4)
Even when the heavens could only be viewed with the unaided eye, their prophetic voice was clear and strong. But now, thanks to discoveries ranging from Galileo to Hubble and beyond, that voice has risen to a roar. Indeed, the more we come to know, the more we stand in awe before the mysteries and wonders of the created order, and the more we worship the One who ordered and created it.
Subby Szterszky is the managing editor of Focus on Faith and Culture, an e-newsletter produced by Focus on the Family Canada.
© 2018 Focus on the Family (Canada) Association. All rights reserved.
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