For our 30th wedding anniversary, my wife and I took a small apartment in a courtyard voted the sixth most romantic spot in Rome. It was around the corner from a statue of Giordano Bruno, who looks exactly like the hero from video game Assassin’s Creed. They share the same hood, the same menacing stance and the same angry glare which, in the case of the statue, is directed across the river towards the Vatican.
The statue marks the site where Bruno was burned at the stake in 1600 for claiming that the stars are actually suns with planets of their own. It wasn’t until 1992, when the first planet was found around another star, that astronomers could be sure that Bruno was right. Astronomers have since identified 1,700 planets and even know what many of them are made from (one largely consists of diamond). But the twinkling beauties we enjoy spotting in our night skies have been the source of extensive theological and scientific controversy.
How do you feel when you look up at the stars on a clear night? Overawed? Inspired? A common reaction is a sudden sense of our own insignificance. All those suns, many with planets, put our existence into perspective. We could be forgiven for concluding that we are unimportant, but the Bible encourages us to thank God for the creation he made specifically for us. Modern astronomy may help us understand what the Bible tells us about stars and their purpose in God’s creation.
When the Bible was written, it was commonly believed that when you gazed up at the stars, you were seeing gods. The stars move and sparkle with apparent life. They are clearly a long way away because there is no visible parallax – they don’t move relative to each other as trees do when you walk past a wood. So the implication was that these gods must be huge. And they appeared to be powerful, because their movements reflected events on earth: seasons change with the stars; the moon moves the tides; the sun changes the weather. A star stirred up a sense of awe and terror.
A LUMINOUS ARMY
In the face of this widespread belief, it is remarkable that, through scripture, the Israelites and then Christians came to learn that there is only one God, and that he created and controls the stars. Rather than attempting unsuccessfully to remove the concept that the stars are gods by simply denying it, the stars became God’s army.
STARS WERE OCCASIONALLY IDENTIFIED AS ANGELS, BUT NOT AS FOREIGN GODS
The Hebrew word for ‘hosts’ (tsaba), which is used to describe the created stars (Genesis 2:1), is the normal word for an army. The Israelites called their God ‘the Lord of hosts’ because he commanded the army of stars. This title completely changed people’s perceptions about stars. Stars were occasionally identified as angels (Psalm 103:21; 148:2; Job 38:7), but not as foreign gods (although Deborah almost implied this in Judges 5:20-23). Claiming that the national deity of Israel controlled all the stars is like arguing that a hacker could control every computer on the planet. It was an utterly audacious assertion, but it won the day. It put God in charge of the universe and it put humanity at the centre of creation.
When humanity gradually worked out its scientific position in the universe, this concept began to cause problems. The Church didn’t mind when Copernicus proved mathematically that the stars and planets didn’t all revolve around the earth, but it was different 77 years later, in 1610, when people could look through Galileo’s telescope and actually see one of Jupiter’s moons disappear behind it. This made the theory into observable fact; a fact that was deemed heretical.
This was a terrible moment, and the Church still hasn’t recovered. Instead of using scientific observations to help interpret the Bible, the Church simply decided that its traditional understanding was correct. It made its interpretation of the Bible into a higher truth, separating it from discovered scientific reality.
SCIENCE DIVORCED FROM THE BIBLE
Today we have many academic disciplines: mathematics, astronomy, philosophy and archaeology, to name but a few. They all interact with each other, but biblical studies remain separate. When experts in these fields investigate a stellar event, such as the star of Bethlehem, for example, they attempt to reconcile the data from all their disciplines. If data from archaeology disagrees with data from astronomy, they will continue to investigate until there is an answer that accords with both sets of data.
However, the same concern is rarely shown by these disciplines if their theories disagree with biblical data. Thanks to the intransigence of the Church in Galileo’s day, biblical studies continue as an isolated discipline.
FROM STARDUST WE WERE CREATED
Humanity may not be at the literal centre of the universe, but we nevertheless may be the reason for it all. We now know that life on even one planet is impossible unless it is contained within a huge universe full of stars. In 1954, ardent atheist Fred Hoyle discovered the fact that is beloved by every schoolchild: we are made of stardust.
The complex elements that make life were not formed in the Big Bang. They form inside stars and are distributed when a supernova explodes. So a whole generation of stars had to be born and die before any life could become possible, and a small universe would collapse on itself before this happened. This means that the universe has to be huge in order for life to develop on even one planet. To make life on earth, God first had to make a billion trillion stars.
So it has again become reasonable to claim that the whole universe was created for us, who are so tiny, within it. This ‘womb’ of humanity is the largest imaginable, but the smallest necessary for the job. Whether or not there are people on other planets, all life will always be insignificant compared with the size of the universe. Along with the psalmist, we might be tempted to ask, ‘what is man that You think of him…?’ (Psalm 8:4, NLV). God’s reply leaves us in no doubt. He became one of us because we are precious in his sight.