by Loren Seibold | 19 July 2022 |
The James Webb Space Telescope is one of the big scientific miracles of our time, one that I’m glad I’ve gotten to see while I’m still alive. This is a pinnacle of human scientific achievement: it can see galaxies (according to NASA’s description) 46 billion light years away.
Yet I confess that one of my first (or maybe second) thoughts upon seeing the Webb’s first pictures was this: “Could we get the James Webb Space Telescope people to focus in on that opening in Orion?”
Astronomy and me
One of my vivid memories is from the junior division at North Dakota camp meeting when I was probably 10 or 11 years old. The theme was, I think, heaven or the new earth. I remember that the backdrop set up in the Sheyenne River Academy gymnasium, painted on frame-stretched butcher paper, pictured the four outer stars of the constellation Orion whose names we learned that week (Betelgeuse, Rigel, Bellatrix and Saiph — proof that we remember what we’re taught when young!), and the inner stars that make up Orion’s belt and sword.
The “text” for the week (that was back in the days when an Ellen White quote could be used as a text or even a memory verse) was Ellen White’s statement that after the millennium in heaven, the Holy City would return to the earth through the constellation Orion:
“The atmosphere parted and rolled back; then we could look up through the open space in Orion, whence came the voice of God. The Holy City will come down through that open space.” Early Writings, p. 41.
The young pastor in charge of the junior meetings had much more to say about it, though. He told us that astronomers had studied the constellation Orion with powerful telescopes. What they saw there was a “hole in the sky.” That in itself was startling. But as they looked deeper into that hole, they saw bright lights and the dim outline of a fantastic scene, with colors and movement. The implication (he may have said it straight out) was that one could see straight into heaven and make out the Holy City.
An uncomfortable confrontation
I didn’t think much about it again until my first year in the ministry when serving a tiny church in Bottineau, North Dakota. The husband of one of my church members was a strong Lutheran, angrily opposed to his wife’s membership in the Seventh-day Adventist Church. The first time I visited their home he confronted me. He had either heard a sermon at which this story was told, or had heard it from his wife. He had written to a university astronomy department to ask if there was a hole in Orion through which you could see signs of celestial habitation, and a professor had written back to say that there was no such thing. (He had other complaints about Adventists, but I particularly remember that one, for it proved, he said, that everything we said was nonsense.)
I was uncertain how to respond. His dear, timid wife, meanwhile, was cringing with embarrassment. I have no memory of what I replied to him.
Joseph Bates and James Ferguson
So I knew of Ellen White’s statement about Orion. But since I discovered that Ellen White received many of her inspired visions from earthly sources, I’ve wondered if this idea came from someone else.
A few years ago I read The Autobiography of Joseph Bates. (This is, by the way, an interesting book, by an Adventist pioneer who was quite a colorful character). In Chapter 12 Bates, an amateur astronomer, writes:
“But the most remarkable of all the cloudy stars, he says, ‘is that in the middle of Orion’s sword, where seven stars (three of which are very close together) seem to shine through a cloud. It looks like a gap in the sky, through which one may see as it were a part of a much brighter region. Although most of these spaces are but a few minutes of a degree in breadth, yet since they are among the fixed stars they must be spaces larger than what is occupied by our solar system; and in which there seems to be a perpetual, uninterrupted day among numberless worlds which no human art can ever discover.’” [The italics are Bates’.]
The “he” Bates quotes is James Ferguson (1710-1776), a Scottish astronomer, from Ferguson’s book (and this is the actual title): Astronomy Explained upon Sir Isaac Newton’s Principles and Made Easy to Those Who Have Not Studied Mathematics, to Which Are Added a Plain Method of Finding the Distances to All the Planets from the Sun by the Transit of Venus over the Sun’s Disc, in the Year 1761: an Account of Mr. Horrox’s Observation of the Transit of Venus in the Year 1639: and of the Distances of All The Planets from the Sun and Deduced from Observations of the Transit in the Year 1761.
Bates concludes: “This gap or place in the sky is undoubtedly the same that is spoken of in the Scriptures. See John 1:51; Rev. 19:11.” Ferguson, like Bates, believed that science isn’t in conflict with the Bible. At the bottom of the title page, Ferguson writes “By James Ferguson, F.R.S. [Fellow of the Royal Society]. Heb. xi.3. The worlds were framed by the Word of God. Job xxvi.7. He hangeth the earth upon nothing. — 13. By his Spirit he hath garnished the heavens.”
When the story was told to me it was only referenced as far as Early Writings, which is the only place Ellen White speaks of Orion. When young, I wondered if it was something godless astronomers had seen, refused to tell us about, but that some believer-spy had managed to get ahold of.
It seems more likely that James Ferguson, via Joseph Bates, was the source, when he spoke of “a gap in the sky, through which one may see as it were a part of a much brighter region,” which opens to “perpetual, uninterrupted day among numberless worlds which no human art can discover.”
From there it was a short homiletical jump to an arresting sermon story for juniors at camp meeting in 1965 or so: that one could almost discern the perpetually daylighted landscape of heaven by looking through a telescope into the Orion Nebula.
Looking into Orion
James Ferguson was a great astronomer in his day — but his day was the 18th century. Though Ferguson had a Christian faith, it isn’t clear to me that in quoting Job 26:7 and Hebrews 11:3 he meant the same thing that Joseph Bates took from that passage—much less justify the fantastic embroidery that was added by Adventist myth-makers.
This is of more than historical interest right now. For one thing, the conflict between science and scripture has sharpened among us since I was a child at North Dakota camp meeting.
As we’ve often discussed in these pages, we Adventists are of two minds on science. We like science when it gives us electricity, the internet, air transportation, and proton cancer treatment. We don’t like science if someone suggests that earth is 4.5 billion years old, even though we can’t explain those hundreds of thousands of earth and rock layers with trilobites farther down, dinosaurs in the middle and mammoths nearer the top.
Orion may be the only place, though, where science and eschatology come into conflict. Even before the Webb telescope, people have been peering deeply into Orion. In an image released by the Hubble Space Telescope in 2006, Orion reveals “a cavern of roiling dust and gas where thousands of stars are forming… These stars reside in a dramatic dust-and-gas landscape of plateaus, mountains, and valleys that are reminiscent of the Grand Canyon.”
So the early astronomers with simple telescopes had an excuse to think they were seeing into some kind of fantastical landscape. But they didn’t see into heaven. This is just one of many myths that circulate among us.
Adventists are inveterate myth-makers—alas, a disease to which our conspiratorial eschatology makes us highly susceptible. Some years ago I was cornered by a man after preaching the service in a small church, who spun a number of them out for me: social security numbers on invisible barcodes stamped on hands and foreheads (there’s no evidence), the pope has said that Sunday should be enforced as the day of worship (he said no such thing), credit card companies will enforce the no buying, no selling order against Sabbathkeepers (anything is possible, but it seems right now that widely overextended credit is a bigger worry on the credit card front), President Obama was the antichrist (that one left me speechless.)
Thousands of you have heard similar stories and marked them as nonsense—unless, of course, you’ve had the vaccination, and tiny computers are circulating in your veins controlling your mind.
Read more carefully
When this Orion thing comes up, some have concluded that Ellen White meant that heaven was located in or behind the constellation Orion. She never says that. To this question, William Fagal of the White Estate wrote in 1999,
You will notice that Mrs. White does not claim that the throne of God is located in Orion, though she says that in this vision that the voice of God came from or through the “open space” in Orion. She says the Holy City will “come down through that open space.” But where does the city reside before it comes through that open space? She does not offer any suggestion.
As for the return route of the flying Holy City, I’m not sure why it matters. You and I are planning on being in that City when it transplants from heaven to the earth made new, so only earth’s one lonely inhabitant (in our eschatology, that’s Satan) will see which quadrant of the heavens that it will appear to come from. I suspect we’ll be so happy to be in the city that we won’t be looking at our phones trying to follow the sat-nav app.
Loren Seibold is the Executive Editor of Adventist Today