How many stars are there? Why did God create so many of them? What relation do they have to our little earth? In which direction are they traveling and why? Why are some of them hot and others cold? Questions such as these have fascinated man for several centuries. The most ancient of documents, irrespective of their origin, are full of references to the sun, moon and stars. And as we all Know, until comparatively recent times, the popular conception of the universe amounted to little more than myth and superstition. The age when sunbeams were thought to be the golden arrows of Apollo is not very far removed from the one which describes them in terms of their wave lengths and vibrations.
Yes, great changes have taken place in our conceptions of the universe. Today we smile a bit condescendingly at the pronouncement made by Hipparchus in 150 B.C. that there are 1026 stars. The correction made by Ptolemy a few years later, when he stated that his master had missed counting thirty stars and that the number actually was 1056, tends to make our smile a bit broader. Now we know that there are billions of stars and that our stellar universe is but one among millions of others scattered throughout space.
The significant fact connected with these discoveries is that they have changed our interpretations of certain Scriptural passages. The Bible tells us over and over again that the stars are innumerable. Not many centuries ago passages such as Jeremiah 33:22 which reads, “As the host of heaven cannot be numbered,” were considered to have only a figurative meaning. Today we know that these passages arc literally true and we feel once again that the Scriptures have always taught us the truth, even though at times we have failed to see it.
Christianity For the Atomic Age
Many people will readily agree that such discoveries of science are wonderful. Yet these same people rebel at accepting other conclusions which logically follow from similar discoveries. We so often forget that the intellectual atmosphere of our age is vastly different from that of the first century of the Christian era, and that many of the ideas which were believed true at that time must be greatly changed to fit in with the facts we know today.
And it is right here that true Christianity faces one of its tests. Can the faith which first breathed in the unscientific atmosphere of the first. century survive in this atomic age? We who, by the grace of God, have accepted the Scriptures as the inerrant, infallible Word of God mow that Christianity not only survives but grows. History makes out-moded other religions, but it never outgrows Christianity. Since Christianity is the only faith for all ages it not only must be, but actually is, capable of being presented without fear of contradiction to each age no matter how advanced the knowledge and ideas of that age might be. This does not mean that the basic truths of Christianity change with each age. It means, rather, that each succeeding age should have a deeper sense of appreciation for its truths -each age, as well as individuals, must grow in grace. We shall try to show how in a few instances the changing of our ideas concerning space have aided us in this respect.
Although the conception of the universe among the Greeks was largely poetic and mythological, we must credit the scholars of that day with founding the science of astronomy. Their ideas dominated the thinking of several centuries and many of their guesses have since been proved to be correct. The Greeks recognized, long before Columbus discovered America or Magellan made the first voyage around the globe, that the earth was approximately spherical in form. In fact, some of the ancient mathematicians actually calculated the approximate size of the earth. Aristarchus proposed the theory that the earth and other planets moved around the sun. This motion was considered to be heretical at the time and Aristarchus was persecuted for his views. The idea that the earth is the center of the universe was developed by Ptolemy, who lived in the city of Alexandria, Egypt. This error was believed for nearly fourteen hundred years and greatly influenced religious thought during those centuries. Copernicus overthrew this theory when his book was published in 1543, although it took a Galileo and his telescope actually to prove that Ptolemy was wrong.
The ideas concerning the natural world which prevailed among the early Christians were based on . the belief that the earth was the center of the universe and that the heavenly bodies revolved around it. Although some of the Greeks believed the world to be round, the Christian church in its early days accepted for the most part the idea that the earth was flat. Later on both opinions were accepted by the church. After Magellan sailed around the globe in 1522 the sphericity of the earth was universally recognized.
As time went on more discoveries were made which led to the recognition that the solar system (our sun and its nine planets) was vastly greater than anyone had ever imagined. Later on it developed that the size of our solar system was utterly inSignificant in comparison with the dimensions of the whole universe.
A few of the facts related to this general pattern may be of interest to the reader. Astronomers tell us that we can see about 2,000 stars at one observation with the unaided eye. With the aid of the telescope this number has increased to such an extent that it is difficult even to picture it. On the basis of the number of stars found in certain portions of the heavens, astronomers have estimated that there arc about 200,000,000,000 stars in what is know as our galaxy, that is, our Milky Way. This means that there are 100 stars in our galaxy for every human living today. Beyond this galaxy there are other Milky Ways. each in turn composed of billions of stars.
“In the Beginning—God”
All of these stars arc in constant motion. Some move only at the speed of 7,000 miles an hour while others travel at speeds approaching 2,000,000 miles an hour. The motion of our own earth can be divided into three parts. First, we travel 1,000 miles an hour on our axis, a trip· which is completed once every twenty-four hours. Secondly, during a year with its seasons we travel between 500 and 600 millions of miles on our path around the sun. And finally, the entire solar system is moving in an orbit all of its own at the rate of 400,000,000 miles a year, and we are told that it requires millions of years to complete this orbit.
One hardly dares to dwell on the complexity of the millions of each of the billions of stars. Can you imagine what a tremendous force was needed to set this all in motion and what is meant by a providence which upholds this entire creation? And when one realizes that a body can be set in motion only by some outside force acting on it, man finally must get to the point where he recognizes that some mind must have started it all. Somehow or other evolutionists either shy away from such questions or try to convince themselves that these problems are not important. The Christian has always had the answer, in fact his Bible starts there—“In the beginning—God.”
If these numbers seem large to the reader, let him consider the great distances between these stars. The nearest star to our earth is called Alpha Centauri and it is about 25,000,000,000,000 miles away from us. This is approximately 270,000 times the 92,000,000 miles that our earth is away from the sun. Since such numbers are too large to use conveniently, the astronomer uses a different type of measuring stick, known as the lightyear. When one learns that light travels 186,000 miles per second and that a light-year equals 6,000,000,000,000 miles one can begin to appreciate how much empty space there is in this universe of stars. In fact, it is mainly space. Thus we see that it takes the light from the star nearest our earth 4.3 years to reach our earth. Only seven star systems are known to be less than 10 light-years from us. Some stars of the Big Dipper are 70 light-years away and the North Star is 300 light-years from us. Stars over 2,000,000,000 light-years away are measured routinely by astronomers today.
The size of some of these stars is enough to stagger the imagination. Betelgeuse, one of the stars in the constellation Orion and which can be seen in our latitude during the winter time as a bright star, has been estimated as being 25,000,000 times bigger than the sun in volume. It is 215,000,000 miles in diameter. Compare this with the diameter of the earth which is about 8,000 miles. Beyond this lies Antares with a diameter 450 times that of the sun and a volume three and a half times that of Betelgeuse. And as the universe continues to grow larger to human thought. the earth grows relatively smaller. Little wonder that it has become but a mere speck in the infinite vastness of this created universe. Yet the Bible tells us more about the creative acts on this globe than it does about the entire remainder of this vast creation.
“What Is Man!”
These great astronomical discoveries were not always readily accepted, nor were they made without theological opposition. Before Columbus and Magellan made their discoveries the idea of a spherical earth, although tolerated in the church, was regarded by many as not strictly orthodox. When Copernicus proposed his theory, which made the sun the center of our solar system, the church stated that it was contradictory to the Bible and therefore destructive of Christian faith. This is readily understandable when we realize that man’s pride had to suffer a great fall if these theories were correct. Man was no longer the center of the universe and his earth became but a dwarf among the planets. Somehow or other man was unable to reconcile these theories with his ideas of God’s concern for him.
Yet today, instead of wondering whether man is of any consequence, the Christian realizes more fully than ever before that man is the apex of God’s creation and that these discoveries have given man a new dignity which he did not enjoy some centuries ago. Because man is as important as he is in God’s plan, the Bible describes his creation in far greater detail than it does the stars. How wonderful that God permitted man on this small globe to discover and measure these great things in his universe! Any being who can make a telescope which can peer billions of light-years out into space should be considered as the greatest part of this creation—greater than all the inert matter combined. How anyone can believe that such a creature simply.evolved out of the dust remains a mystery to me. The greatness of the creation and man’s place in it point in only one direction, namely, to our Creator.
As we reflect on these discoveries we should gain a deeper appreciation for those well-known words, “When I consider thy heavens…what is man that thou art mindful of him?” And again, “For as the heavens are high above the earth, so great is his mercy toward them that fear him.” How great God’s love is for sinful man! How wonderful his plan of salvation which he ordained before the world was created! Billions upon billions of stars moving according to his will—what a God of infinite wisdom! And millions of men on this piece of cosmic dust—physically insignificant but deemed great enough by God for him to send his Son to make propitiation for their sins—what a God of infinite love!
It cannot be denied that these discoveries changed some religiOUS concepts in the past and gave us new ones in their places. When Newton dis covered the law of gravitation many well-meaning Christians identified this with essential atheism. They reasoned that man was substituting a mathematical formula for the power of God as the supreme control over the universe.
“Science, Foe of God?”
We still find people who reason along similar lines today. Somehow they feel that science has robbed Goo of some of his greatness by reducing so many of these age-old mysteries to mathematical equations. They fail to see that God receives greater glory when we get a minute insight into a portion of his plan. Who appreciates an intricate mechanism more, the man who just looks at it and departs with mere y a dim feeling of mystery about it, or the man who, although also mystified, looks at it in the light of its architectural design and the laws which were planned to guide and operate it? To ask the question is to answer it. As soon as we realize that the Bible writers use the language of common life and not the language of science we shall escape a good deal of pernicious and unsound theology not only as regards science, but other isms as well.
The story of the ascension of Jesus as recounted for us in the Book of Acts is a striking illustration of the truth that the progress of science renders inevitable some change in the beliefs which have been considered an integral part of Christianity. Whatever the Apostles saw, the event must have had one meaning to men who supposed that directly above the flat and stationary earth, and beyond the cloudy expanse of firmament, was the throne of God. It certainly has a different meaning to men who believe that the earth is whirling through space at a rate of eighteen miles per second and that the direction of the zenith is constantly changing. We like to think of heaven at; being up -but where is it? Of course, the essential and eternal truth is that Christ did ascend into heaven. But mortals that we are, we like to have a mental picture of where heaven is, where our loved ones are. The simple answer is that we do better not to visualize its location and that we concentrate on the fact that someday we shall be where Christ has ascended. Science can never tell us where heaven is, but it certainly has changed the picture men have formed about its location.
Christianity! A Growing Faith
The most significant fact connected with these astronomical discoveries is the simple one that Christianity did survive. Many beliefs hallowed by tradition throughout the ages were shown to he false, and yet Christianity survived. But men adjusted their minds to the new beliefs, and the essential doctrines of Christianity eventually appeared more reasonable than ever before and its stores of moral inspiration and comfort no less precious.
This unimpaired vitality of Christian faith should teach our generation a great lesson. We are living in an age when science is making wonderful discoveries. Let us face them honestly and courageously, separating that which we know is really true from that which is doubtful. And having done so, let us integrate these new discoveries into the heritage of thought which we shall pass on to the succeeding generations, if the Lord tarries, confident in the realization that even as Christianity survived when the solid earth on which it once stood was whirled away from beneath its feet, so it will never be destroyed by the discoveries of our age or of an y age. Only a growing faith can be a living faith.
John DeVries is professor of Chemistry at Calvin College.