As it came from God's hand, Planet Earth was perfect, reflecting the characteristics of its Creator. Though sin has distorted our world, we can still gain an understanding of God through the nature we see around us.
"The earth, marred and defiled by sin, reflects but dimly the Creator's glory. It is true that His object lessons are not obliterated. Upon every page of the great volume of His created works may still be traced His handwriting. Nature still speaks of her Creator. Yet these revelations are partial and imperfect." —Education, p. 17.
However, we do have a tremendous universe to study that presumably is free from the effects of sin. To study it is to study an aspect of God's character. In its mysteries we may find reflected the creative and sustaining influence of God.
"The heavens may be to them [the youth] a study book, from which they may learn lessons of intense interest. The moon and the stars may be their companions, speaking to them in the most eloquent language of the love of God." —Ellen G. White, in The Youth's Instructor, Oct. 25, 1900.
Several lessons, each giving us an indication of what God is like, can be gained from a study of the heavens.
1. Whatever our biases and expectations, the universe displays surprises. God does not conform to our ideas of perfection.
To the unaided eyes of our ancestors the moon appeared a smooth sphere until Galileo with his first weak telescope ob served rough mountainous terrain with craters and jagged peaks. He also saw sunspots on the "perfect" sun. Jupiter was found to be accompanied by satellites, at variance with the then-accepted perfect-circle geocentric model in which all objects orbited the earth.
More recently radio astronomers were by Lawrence E. Turner, Jr. astonished to detect regular pulses from certain stellar sources—the pulsars.
Even today some Christians are a little upset to learn that dust and gravel float in interplanetary space. This material produces meteors, or glowing trails, when it collides with the upper atmosphere of the earth.
Our picture of Mars has changed with each new space probe. Prior to the past decade much speculation centered on an earthlike planet, perhaps once inhabited. Mariners 4 and 5 revealed a dead, dry, cratered world similar to the moon. Mariner 9 showed immense chasms and towering volcanoes. The Viking probes now portray a planet shaped and sculptured by erosive forces, even though Mars appears to be dry and has an atmosphere too thin for liquid water. Still, it is difficult to interpret the eroded channels and patterns as produced by anything but flowing water.
We must be willing to examine openly the universe of God and allow it to teach us without expecting it to conform to our expectations.
2. There is tremendous variety in the universe. God is an imaginative Creator. In our solar system each planet is unique, differing in size, composition, rotation speed, temperature, existence of an atmosphere, and number of satellites. We have the beauty of the giant planets such as Jupiter and Saturn, the bleakness of the small Mercury and Mars, and the comfort of Earth.
As we move out of the solar system we find stars of many different sizes and colors. The smallest and most dense are the pulsars, or neutron stars, in which a mass about twice that of our sun is squeezed by gravity into a sphere roughly ten miles in diameter. Of some what less mass but much larger, about the size of the earth, are the white dwarf stars. Ordinary stars, like our sun, have about the same mass but are about one hundred times larger still. The largest stars are the red giants, which can reach dimensions bigger than the orbit of Mars. Very bright, hot, blue stars, yellow stars like our sun, and many small, dim, cool red ones dot the sky. Often the stars are arranged in clusters—open clusters near the plane of our galaxy, such as the Pleiades, with hundreds or thousands of members; or spherical globular clusters, each containing a hundred thousand stars.
Stars are also located in regions known as nebulae, which are concentrations of dust and gas. Some regions, such as the nebula in Orion, contain immense clouds of glowing gas excited by bright, hot stars imbedded within them. Often found with the bright nebulae are obscuring dust clouds that absorb the light from stars behind them and appear as rifts, or holes, in the distribution of stars. This combination of both dust and gas in the same region produces a complex and beautiful structure.
On a larger scale we find stars, clusters, and nebulae organized into great systems, or galaxies, each containing from a billion to a trillion stars. The band of the Milky Way is an inside view of the great galaxy containing our sun. Here we also find variety. Some galaxies are irregular; many are spiral in a variety of shapes and sizes; most are elliptical.
Why has God created variety in the universe? Ellen White suggests an answer: "There is a variety in a tree, there are scarcely two leaves just alike. Yet this variety adds to the perfection of the tree as a whole." —Selected Messages, book 1, p. 21.
3. There is an underlying order to the universe. God is consistent.
Early man viewed Planet Earth as separate from the universe and filled with sin. He had no reason to suspect that the rest of the universe could be, and actually is, operated by the same rules that govern this world. However, in observing stars we find that the physics of the earth laboratory applies. The conditions are different, but the basic relationships patiently developed into a science by observations on this planet also explain the phenomena on stars and throughout the known universe. Atomic spectra give compositions, temperatures, pressures, and other conditions on the surface of the stars. Their speeds can be determined and distances to them computed by applications of principles understood and used daily on earth. Nuclear processes provide the energy radiated by stars, as well as energy for man's use. Gravity obeys the same laws for binary stars, star clusters, and galaxies as it does for our solar system, for Planet Earth, and for baseballs.
Only because God is orderly and plays by the same rules at different times and places can we observe these repeatable processes and understand the physics of the universe. Only thus can we deter mine distances, sizes, and changes in the universe.
"The same power that upholds nature, is working also in man. The same great laws that guide alike the star and the atom control human life." —Education, p. 99.
4. The universe is not serene and static, but dynamic and ever changing. God is active and energetic.
On Jupiter rage giant storms larger than twice the size of Earth. The sun produces tremendous flares and violent prominences. Stars explode. The Crab nebula is the remnant of a disruptive supernova event first visible in A.D. 1054. Such exploding stars are not rare. We find other remnants. On the average one is observed in a galaxy each century.
The pattern of stars—their distribution according to composition, temperature, and brightness—can be quite simply explained by a dynamic universe, where stars are continually forming, aging, and dying. In the act of dying, material processed in their interiors by nuclear reactions is released to help form new stars. The gas and dust complexes in Orion and in other nebulous regions seem to be areas where stellar formation is taking place, whereas the Crab nebula and other such remnants are the products of aged stars.
Galactic structure is likewise in a dynamic situation. Indeed the entire uni verse seems to be expanding from some gigantic explosion.
"Nature is the servant of her Creator. God does not annul His laws or work contrary to them, but He is continually using them as His instruments. Nature testifies of an intelligence, a presence, an active energy, that works in and through her laws. There is in nature the continual working of the Father and the Son." —Patriarchs and Prophets, p. 114.
5. The universe is extremely large. God is infinite.
Earth seems large, but when put into a cosmic perspective it is extremely small. If we reduced it to the size of a ball two inches in diameter, our sun would be a sphere 18 feet across located 1,800 feet away. We could walk this distance in eight minutes—roughly the time it takes light to travel from the sun to our world. On this scale the solar system would be several miles across, but the nearest star to our sun would be 100,000 miles away —almost half the actual distance to the moon.
Let us reduce our entire solar system to a handspan. Our galaxy would then be 4,000 miles in diameter, but even at this scale the universe is immense. Andromeda, the nearby large galaxy, would be 80,000 miles distant!
Reducing our galaxy to the size of a man's hand allows the known universe to be reduced to a manageable size. Now, Andromeda is found 5 feet away and the observed universe is contained within a sphere 5 miles in diameter. In this sphere are billions of star systems—from giant elliptical galaxies the size of basketballs to dwarf galaxies barely visible.
It is awesome to realize that God is capable of tending the garden of galaxies, of guiding the billion to trillion member stars in each galaxy, of strolling between galaxies with an intimate and personal knowledge of all the stars, planets, beings, and atoms of the entire system, of cradling each galaxy in His hands, and yet still caring for this earth and each of its inhabitants as if there were no other. "
[Christ] passed from star to star, from world to world, superintending all, by His providence supplying the needs of every order of being in His vast creation." —Ibid., p. 69.
The study of the universe gives a picture of God much different from the conception held by medieval man. His idea was of a serene, unchanging uni verse. A corresponding view of God still pervades our thinking. Yet modern astronomy allows us to see that God is a Being who creates variety because He enjoys His work and wants His creatures to enjoy it. Why does Saturn have rings? Do they serve any purpose except as an interesting structure? Perhaps God simply likes them.
Why do stars explode? Why are there pulsars? Quasars? The dynamic universe portrays a dynamic, vibrant God vigorously involved in its operation. We can see Him as He tends His universe, smiling with pleasure at the beauty in the fireworks display of an exploding star. Why do the same natural laws operate in stars and on earth? God is an orderly God. Earth is part of His universe.
God is an all-powerful God. To con template the scale of the universe is sobering, but consider how much more tremendous is its Creator. And yet this is the God who was willing to give His life for the good of His creatures.
"God calls men to look upon the heavens. See Him in the wonders of the starry heavens. . . . We are not merely to gaze upon the heavens; we are to consider the works of God. He would have us study the works of infinity, and from this study, learn to love and reverence and obey Him. The heavens and the earth with their treasures are to teach the lessons of God's love, care, and power." —The Seventh-day Adventist Bible Commentary, Ellen G. White Comments, on Isa. 40:26, p. 1145.