Like many of you, I’m fascinated by how ancient people understood the world / universe — the “cosmos” — and by what modern cosmologist who actually do the science say about it. Only rarely can someone speak confidently about both topics, wildly different as they are. So I’m pleased to publish this Platinum guest post by Charles Hawkins, which discusses cosmology in antiquity and modernity and the transition betwixt them, all in relation to the NT. In ONE post! I hope you enjoy it! Charles will be happy to hear your reactions.
Understanding cosmology, that is, our view of the structure of the Earth and its place in the universe, is an essential part of understanding the writings of both the Hebrew Bible and the Christian documents of the New Testament. More importantly, this understanding is a key (there are others) to working out how if at all these writings can be relevant to our era. Members of this blog may well be aware of much of what follows, but I’ve thought for some time about putting these thoughts into writing, so here goes!
I’m going to describe cosmology in four eras: ancient (up to about 1500), Newtonian (1500 to 1750), early modern (1750 to 1920), and current (1920 to 2020).
The ancient cosmology is often referred to as the three story universe: there is the Earth, there is an ocean under the earth, and there are waters above the Earth. A good example is the story of Noah: the “fountains of the deep” burst forth (water from the ground) and the heavens pour water down on the Earth. This accords with easy observations: water comes down from above as rain and it wells out of the ground at springs. If there are these vast bodies of water above and below, it is plausible to speak of water surging forth from them. After some time, the waters go back to their original locations. Of course, we now know about water tables, water vapor in the air and such. But the view was coherent and made sense then.
Given this model of the world (“cosmology”), the abode of God had to be above the waters that were above the sky, or above the firmament that kept the waters back. If the abode of God was above, then it was to be expected that emissaries of God, such as the Son of Man, would appear in the clouds, coming to Earth from above. This view then became part of Christian theology regarding the Second Coming of Christ: that he would appear coming down through the clouds and depending on your view of the end times, that Christians would meet him in the air (the Rapture).
Those beliefs continue to this day, even though they are based on a cosmology that is just plain wrong, or better put a crude first approximation.
Now jump forward 1500 years give or take to Copernicus. It is clear that by his time educated people did not think of the Earth as flat, despite what many of us were taught in school when learning about Columbus’ journey to the “New World”. In fact, the Greek scholar Eratosthenes used clever observations and calculations to derive the Earth’s circumference sometime around 200 BC, and his result was not that far off!
At any rate, beginning with Copernicus’ arguments for the sun being at the center of the universe (!), continuing through Galileo’s use of the telescope to discover moons of Jupiter, Kepler’s discovery of the laws of planetary motion and on into Newton’s mechanics and gravity, a revolution occurred. Humans could now comprehend and calculate events in the cosmos! Halley used Newton’s framework to calculate the date of return of the famous comet, and he was right, at least very close! This ability to calculate and hence to understand what had been mysterious, the realm of God or gods, led Alexander Pope to write “Nature, and Nature’s Laws lay hid in Night; God said Let Newton be and All was Light”.
So began the era known as the Enlightenment, where the view that human reason could comprehend anything and everything predominated. And of course, many things we take for granted, including the US Constitution, stem from that age. I won’t go into the details of that era or how it morphed into romanticism. I want to concentrate instead on the scientific advances in our understanding of the nature of the universe and our place in it.
The great astronomers William and Caroline Herschel took careful and detailed observations of the heavens in the late 1700s and early 1800s. Herschel discovered Uranus, the first planet not known in antiquity. Based on their observations of the stars, he produced a famous map of the universe. This map is included in most introductory astronomy texts: https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/William_Herschel#/media/File:Herschel-galaxy.jpg. It has the sun near the center of a blob of stars that Herschel thought was the universe.
A few years after Herschel’s work, astronomers began to get an inkling of the scale of the cosmos when Friedrich Bessel measured the parallax and hence the distance of the star 61 Cygni. Parallax refers to triangulation, the same method used by surveyors, except that the baseline is the orbit of the Earth around the Sun. Bessel measured 0.314 arc seconds for 61 Cygni; one arcsecond corresponds to 206,265 times the earth-sun distance, known as the astronomical unit. This relatively near star, then, is almost 657,000 times as far away as the Sun, or 11.4 light years in modern units.
As the 19th Century went along, better telescopes were made and observations accumulated. One observation was of many fuzzy but extended objects in the sky. The French astronomer Messier made a catalog of them in the 1780s in order to distinguish them from the comets he was searching for.
One group of these nebulae had a spiral shape, and by the early 20th Century there was a major debate: Were these simply rotating clouds of gas within the galaxy or were they something outside the galaxy? In other words, was the Milky Way galaxy the entire universe or were there structures outside it? Several astronomers provided evidence, and finally In the 1920s Hubble used the 100” telescope at Mt Wilson to resolve individual stars in the Andromeda “nebula”, demonstrating that it is indeed a galaxy (or island universe as they called it then) like the Milky Way.
By this point our view of cosmology has gone from three story universe with the Earth in the middle, to a spherical Earth at the center with the sun, moon, stars going around it, to the Earth and planets going around the sun, which itself was near the center of a strange structure of stars, to the sun being one star in a galaxy that itself is one of many galaxies.
During the rest of the 20th Century and into the 21st there were many advances, including Einstein’s theory of gravity, nuclear physics and the understanding of the source of stars’ energy output and their life cycles, and the discovery of many exotic objects. And of course the space probes within the Solar System showed that even the moons of the planets are unique worlds with their own geology and history.
Amidst all this excitement there is one thing I want to emphasize that to my knowledge, is not commonly known and that puts a fitting exclamation point on the above discussion. It is known as the Hubble Ultra Deep Field: https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Hubble_Ultra-Deep_Field. First there was the Deep Field, where the Director of STScI used his discretionary time on the Hubble to focus on one small area of the sky. Later the UDF was done between September 2003 and January 2004 on this same part of the sky, involving a total observing time of 11.3 days. There are around 10,000 galaxies in this field of view. The field is 2.4 x 2.4 arc minutes, or roughly 1 26-millionth of the total sky. That implies that there are at least 260 billion galaxies in the observable universe. “At least” because there are more that the Hubble was not sensitive enough to see. Note added 8/22/2023: Now we have the first deep field from JWST, showing even more galaxies in the same region of space. It is enlightening to switch back and forth between these images: https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Webb%27s_First_Deep_Field
Now move forward from “the sun being one star in a galaxy that itself is one of many” each consisting many stars, to the sun is one star in a galaxy that itself is one of a trillion or more galaxies each consisting of hundreds of trillions of stars. The latest data on extrasolar planets suggests that there are 2 planets on average for every star in the Milky Way. Extrapolate that to those hundreds of trillions of galaxies and you arrive at a view of the place of Earth in the cosmos that is very different form the three story world, to put it mildly!
The upshot is that not only was Paul wrong about when Christ’s return would be, but also about how it might happen, or whether it would happen at all. Heaven, if it exists, is not above the clouds. Given our current knowledge of the universe (and I’m not getting into the whole multiverse thing), the only possible location of heaven would be in another dimension. And of course there is no evidence of such.
In conclusion, I grew up in an evangelical Christian church. My experience is that most people in these churches expect that at the “Second Coming” Jesus will literally descend through the clouds. There are many different views as to how or when this will happen, but I think there is pretty much of a consensus on this aspect. As my discussion makes clear, this view ignores our current understanding of the cosmos, and in fact is based on a naive interpretation of texts from the NT and the Hebrew Bible. I doubt that there is any way to reconcile a “Second Coming” with our current understanding of the cosmos. Thus I expect that predictions of the end times will keep coming and failing for a many years to come.
I hope these comments will be of interest to others on the blog in thinking about these issues.
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