June 27, 2007

Theater of God's Glory

2007 1518 page24 capHE DATE IS 1990. A MANMADE SPACE vehicle, Voyager II, looks back over its shoulder for the last time as it leaves the solar system and takes a last picture of Planet Earth. Before Voyager’s camera the planets spread like jewels on the ebony of space. Saturn and Jupiter to the right of the sun. To the left, a small red point of light—Mars; yellow point of light—Venus. And between them, a blue point of light—that’s us. That’s home—a lonely blue dot almost lost against the background spangle of stars in the Milky Way.
Voyager’s creators hope that sometime in the next billions of years, somewhere among the billions of stars, beings alien to us will find Voyager and decipher its message. For on its golden jacket it carries information from the pit of our estrangement, our aloneness. On it are the following:
Greetings in 55 human languages and one whale language; a 12-minute sound essay, including a kiss, a baby’s cry, and a record of the meditations of a young woman in love; 118 pictures, digitally encoded, of our science, our civilization, and ourselves; 90 minutes of Earth’s music—Eastern and Western, classical and folk, a Navajo night chant, a Pygmy girl’s initiation song, a Peruvian wedding song, a Japanese shakuhchi piece, Bach, Beethoven, Mozart, Stravinsky, Louis Armstrong, and Chuck Berry singing “Johnny B. Goode.”
What Are the Odds?
It’s 2001. It’s settled, they say. There is life out there! Creatures with horns and multiple eyes front and back; creatures with faces as bright as the sun; creatures as dark as an astroid’s heart; creatures that crawl, swim, and fly; creatures that whistle, chirp, and yodel; creatures that communicate by mental telepathy; creatures invisible to human eyes; creatures just crawling out of the slime; creatures godlike in knowledge; creatures that travel faster than light; creatures that travel through time.
2007 1518 page24The “they’’ who say these things are the science-fictional writers, from the last millennium to the present: H. G. Wells, Edgar Rice Burroughs, E. E. “Doc” Smith, Isaac Asimov, Jack Chalker, Jack McDevitt, Arthur Clarke, Orson Scott Card, Michael Gear, Zenna Henderson, C. S. Lewis.
There are others who offer divine revelation as the source of their claim to life out there. Among them: John the revelator; Daniel the prophet; Job of Uz; Isaiah, son of Amoz; Ezekiel, son of Buzi; Zechariah, son of Berekiah. Moses, author of the Creation chronicle, claims to have actually met the God of the universe on a quaking mountain in the desert of Sinai.
And what of the scientists, as distinguished from the science fictionists? What is their belief? To start with, there are scientists and there are scientists. Darwinian evolutionary scientists, aware of the mathematical odds against life starting on earth by chance, tend to be the most pessimistic. Scientists committed to “Intelligent design” (that life didn’t just happen, that its very complexity points to a designer) are more optimistic. Though no scientifically valid evidence points to life on other planets, their belief in a designer—whoever and however he, she, it, works—allows a degree of optimism denied the Darwinist. Most optimistic, as one might expect, are the scientists who accept the Bible as God’s Word, for the Bible speaks of life elsewhere in the cosmos.
Discovering New Worlds
Today, a number of influential theologians and scientists of varying convictions are seeking to develop a cosmic theme. At a meeting of the Templeton Commission on the Future of Planetary Cosmology in Harvard’s Phillips Auditorium awhile back, officials proposed focusing on planets outside the solar system as a “spiritual quest.” Such an emphasis, said Charles Harper, planetary scientist and senior vice president of the John Templeton Foundation, would give people “a sense of participation in a great adventure to discover new worlds and thus give new meaning to human existence.” Other speakers suggested that planetary science could offer major new insights about ourselves and our universe.
NASA’s Robert Brown quoted early U.S. president John Quincy Adams as saying that astronomical research would provide “lighthouses in the sky.” Theologian and ethicist Ronald Cole-Turner suggested emphasizing the cosmos, as Calvin did, as the “theater of God’s glory.” Space exploration and the quest for life could then be seen as expanding our understanding of the magnitude of God’s concerns and glory. Here is an emphasis that may complement a longtime Adventist belief: That emphasis on the glory of God, as described in Revelation 14:7, is to characterize His closing ministry to mankind!
A Cosmic Vision
What, then, have Adventists to say to these visionaries who seek spiritual meaning in exploration of the cosmos?
Perhaps some skepticism is warranted. Reports from the Templeton Foundation meeting seem to emphasize the fundraising value of a spiritual emphasis component in a planetary research program. But the heavens themselves challenge earthlings to recognize the impress of Deity upon their being; surely, then, a generosity of spirit should grace our judgment of those who avowedly seek a role in the theater of God’s glory.
To begin with, we have observed that theistic scientists as well as theologians accept the likelihood, if not the surety, of life elsewhere in the cosmos. What is the empirical evidence?
Within the past few years, thanks to the Hubble telescope, astrophysicists have for the first time in human history detected planetlike objects circulating distant suns (23 to date), with three circling one sun. Because of their size—most larger than Jupiter—none seems to hold promise
of earthlike life.
However, there’s ample evidence that scientists take the possibility of life out there seriously. We may deduce this from (1) Voyager’s quest; (2) current planetary searches (astrophysicists are now seeking technology that will enable them to detect planetary bodies the size of earth); and (3) the massive radio receivers in West Virginia that are tuned in on the static of the stars. (Perhaps the Adventist Church near the site should put out a sign reading: “Try prayer!”)
Seeing the heavens as the “theater of God’s glory” is nothing new to Seventh-day Adventists. In fact, a cosmic vision has long permeated Adventist theology. A century ago, the most prolific of all Adventist writers, Ellen G. White, wrote the following: “The susceptible mind, brought in contact with the miracle and mystery of the universe, cannot but recognize the working of infinite power. . . . An unseen hand guides the planets in their circuit of the heavens. A mysterious life pervades all nature—a life that sustains the unnumbered worlds throughout immensity.”1 “From the stars that in their trackless courses through space follow from age to age their appointed path,” she said, “down to the minutest atom, the things of nature obey the Creator’s will.”2
Extraterrestrial Visitors
The Bible clearly affirms the existence of worlds other than earth, and of beings who inhabit them. The book of Hebrews says that God spoke to mankind through His Son, “through whom he made the universe” (Heb. 1:2). And the apostle Paul speaks of the apostles being “made a spectacle to the whole universe, to angels, as well as to men” (1 Cor. 4:9).
2007 1518 page24That extraterrestrials have visited earth is believed not only by Adventists but by most other Christians. Biblical texts pointing to a created species called “angels” are numerous. One of the more graphic accounts is found in Daniel 10:4. The prophet reports that on the 24th day of the first month, as he was standing on the bank of the Tigris River, he saw an extraterrestrial visitor. Says Daniel: “I lifted my eyes and looked, and behold, a certain man clothed in linen, whose waist was girded with gold of Uphaz! His body was like beryl, his face like the appearance of lightning, his eyes like torches of fire, his arms and feet like burnished bronze in color, and the sound of his words like the voice of a multitude” (verses 5, 6, NKJV).*
Daniel said his companions were so overwhelmed with terror that they fled and hid. Daniel himself was not exactly heroic. He confesses, “I was left alone, gazing at this great vision; I had no strength left, my face turned deathly pale and I was helpless. Then I heard him speaking, and as I listened to him, I fell into a deep sleep, my face to the ground” (verses 8, 9, NIV).
The visitor gets Daniel to his feet, tells him not to be afraid, and informs him that he has come to answer a question Daniel sent to heaven’s palace about the meaning “of a previous vision. The visitor explains that he had been delayed 21 days by the King of Persia, who’d resisted his mission. “Then,’’ he says, “Michael, one of the chief princes, came to help me.” The visitor then answers Daniel’s query by referring him to “what is written in the Book of Truth.”
Biblical accounts of angel visitors run into the hundreds. Ezekiel, son of Bezi, offers a fascinating glimpse of what our age would call a spaceship. And not just any spaceship, but the one in which the preincarnate Messiah arrives at the Jerusalem Temple for a work of judgment. Unfortunately, Ezekiel’s rural vocabulary falls short of providing technical details. We are left with a confusing description of “wheels within wheels”—four of them, intersecting each other (Eze. 10:9). He speaks of the noise made by the vehicle ascending from the Temple area as cherubim spread their wings (verse 5). Indeed, the vehicle may itself have consisted of living creatures—a concept science fiction writers of our age have explored. It rises, it moves, it pauses above the Mount of Olives, it leaves.
Adding to the credibility of the account is Ezekiel’s calendar of events: he dates his vision of the celestial chariot and its mission as the seventh month and the tenth day of the New Year (Rosh Hashana).
War in the Cosmos
The question of why earth is cut off from communication with other worlds and the very issue of evil itself is addressed in the book called “The Revelation of Jesus Christ” (Rev. 1:1). Jesus reveals that a war once convulsed the heavens. Their inhabitants rejoice at the defeat of Lucifer, the commander of the rebels who’d challenged the empire. But there is no rejoicing on earth: “Woe to the inhabitants of the earth and the sea,” John records, “for the devil has come down to you, having great wrath, because he knows that he has a short time” (Rev. 12:12, NKJV).
Thus the text not only distinguishes between beings in the cosmos and beings on earth but also provides information about a war that involved citizens of God’s universal empire. Implicit in the intelligence report is the answer to questions about good and evil: There’s a war going on!
The Old Testament book of Job takes the reader into a plenary session of the United Nations of the Universe, so to speak. “One day the angels came to present themselves before the Lord, and Satan also came with them.” When asked where he had been, Satan responded, “From roaming through the earth and going back and forth in it” (Job 1:6, 7). It appears that Satan, uninvited, attended the council claiming to be earth’s representative after having caused mankind’s fall.
The One Lost World
The cosmological spiritual emphasis sought by the astrophysicists meeting at Harvard is old hat to Adventists. Here’s one example from the 1900 book Christ’s Object Lessons, drawn from the parable of the lost sheep (Luke 15:1-7):
“The rabbis understood Christ’s parable as applying to the publicans and sinners; but it has also a wider meaning. By the lost sheep Christ represents not only the individual sinner but the one world that has apostatized and has been ruined by sin. This world is but an atom in the vast dominions over which God presides, yet this little fallen world—the one lost sheep—is more precious in His sight than are the ninety and nine that went not astray from the fold. Christ, the loved Commander in the heavenly courts, stooped from His high estate, laid aside the glory that He had with the Father, in order to save the one lost world. For this He left the sinless worlds on high, the ninety and nine that loved Him, and came to this earth, to be ‘wounded for our transgressions’ and ‘bruised for our iniquities.’ (Isa. 53:5). God gave Himself in His Son that He might have the joy of receiving back the sheep that was lost.”3
Lighthouses in the Sky
Space exploration and the quest for life out there could indeed, as the astrophysicists say, expand mankind’s understanding of the magnitude of God’s concerns and glory. It was the Creator Himself who set the “Lighthouses in the Sky” that point mankind to a future beyond the stars. But somehow the memory of Voyager II’s lonely journey into the black night of space haunts us, as does the information on it that scientists deemed a representative introductory to
the human race. Out of our estrangement, out of our aloneness, they offered Chuck Berry singing “Johnny B. Goode”!
Dear God! How dark our night!
On an observatory in Pittsburgh, astronomers offer this testimonial: “We have loved the stars too fondly to be fearful of the night.”
How compelling!
But if indeed astrophysicists seek God’s glory in the stars, let their motto henceforth read: “We have loved His Star too fondly to be fearful of the night.”
 “You who never can err, for You are the Way;
You whose infinite kingdom is flooded with day;
You whose eyes behold all, for You are the light;
Look down on us gently who journey by night.
For the pity revealed in your loneliest hour,
Forsaken, self-bound and self-emptied of power;
You who, even in death, had all heaven in sight,
Look down on us gently who journey by night.
On the road to Emmaus, they thought You were dead,
Yet they saw You and knew in the breaking of bread,
Though the day was far spent, in Your face there was
Look down on us gently who journey by night.”
—Author unknown
*Texts credited to NKJV are from the New King James Version. Copyright © 1979, 1980, 1982 by Thomas Nelson, Inc. Used by permission. All rights reserved.
1Ellen G. White, Education, p. 99.
2White, Steps to Christ, p. 86.
3White, Christ’s Object Lessons, pp. 190, 191.
Roland R. Hegstad, now retired, was a long-time editor of Liberty magazine, headquartered at the General Conference in Silver Spring, Maryland.