By Jack Hoehn, September 19, 2016:
I woke during the night as I often do, but this time it was summer and I was in a cabin at the edge of Lake Wallowa, in northeast Oregon. Wallowa Lake is seven miles long, a perfect glacier-carved moraine lake with both sides of the lake a 400-foot-high dam of crushed rocks carried down from the mountains behind. The ice ages that made 400-foot-deep rivers of ice carving out mountain valleys and dropping the debris in the plains below started long ago. They finally began to recede about 15,000 years before Christ, or 17,000 years before me. Now all that remains of the glaciers is the beautiful lake of melted ice with rocky moraine edges and a little patch of snow that survives the summer high up on Glacier Peak a few miles away.
But tonight as I looked east the horizon across the lake in the darkness was a smooth line of black against the 3 am sky. And right across from me pushing up from the dark rim of the glacial moraine were three stars almost vertical to the dark horizon beyond the lake. I suddenly realized I was watching the earth turn towards Orion. The three stars in a line were his belt. His two arms including the reddish twinkling of Betelgeuse and bluish Bellatrix were clear above him, and his feet and faint sword were not yet seen. And as I sat in the summer comfort of the mountain night on the cabin deck with the dark lake below, I watched our earth spin eastward and beheld as Orion rose in the sky.
MOST VISIBLE CONSTELLATION
The Orion constellation of stars is visible from almost all parts of earth. I have seen it well from South Africa, and you can see it from the far North. It is one of the most recognizable of the constellations, and even non-astronomers like me have little difficulty finding it.
Adventists have a special affinity for Orion because our founders thought Jesus should return to earth through what Joseph Bates called a “gap” in the middle of Orion’s sword, the cluster of three fainter stars that I began to see join the three brighter stars of the belt as the earth turned further towards the coming sunrise.
I went back to bed after about 30 minutes of confirming that Earth did spin towards the east and that Orion could be watched to be actually rising in my night sky as Oregon hurled towards it.
JOSEPH BATES SAW A GAP IN ORION
Orion was known to the ancients and is mentioned in the Bible. And Captain Joseph Bates, an early Adventist, published a pamphlet in 1846 called The Opening Heavens where he applied John 1:51 that reads in the King James as, “Verily, verily, I say unto you, hereafter ye shall see HEAVEN OPEN and the angels of God ascending and descending upon the son of man [emphasis added]” to the “Opening in the Orion Nebula” thought to be found in the stars of the sword of the constellation. This “gap” was seen with 18th-century optics and was described in a 1770 astronomy book Bates quotes from as follows:
The most remarkable of all the cloudy stars is that in the middle of Orion’s Sword, where seven stars (of which three are very close together) seem to shine through a cloud, very lucid in the middle, but faint and ill-defined about the edges. It looks like a GAP in the sky, through which one may see (as it were) part of a much brighter region… in which there seems to be a perpetual uninterrupted day among numberless worlds, which no human art can ever discover—Furgerson’s Treatise on Astronomy, edition A. D. 1770.
Since Orion can be seen from almost everywhere on earth, and astronomers felt there was a starry gap, Bates cobbled this together with the “HEAVEN OPEN” statement, and reasoned that this must be the place through which Jesus would return to earth. Bates’ sources told him the size of the constellation—“This constellation measures about one thousand miles from North to South, and five hundred from East to West, and is visible to all the inhabitants of the earth.”
Jacob’s ladder’s top, he reasoned, must have rested in Orion. And Ezekiel saw “the heavens opened [Ezekiel 1:1].” So again the “opening in Orion” seemed to him to be the conduit to heaven.
ELLEN WHITE SAW AN OPEN SPACE TO HEAVEN
Ellen White not only picked up 7th-day Sabbath observance from Captain Bates, but also favored his suggestion that Christ would return to earth through the Orion Nebula. She had just passed her 21st birthday and was pregnant with her second son when the young visionary published this in 1848:
“The Lord gave me a view of the shaking of the powers of the heavens…The powers of heaven are the sun, moon, and stars…The powers of heaven will be shaken at the voice of God. Then the sun, moon, and stars will be moved out of their places. They will not pass away, but be shaken by the voice of God.
Dark, heavy clouds came up and clashed against each other. 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.”
NO GAP, JUST A DUST CLOUD
In 1976, however, Adventist science teachers Merton E. Sprengel, M.S., then a chemistry teacher at Union College, and Dowell E. Martz, Ph.D., then a physicist at Pacific Union College, published three articles in the Review and Herald that examined how the opinion of Joseph Bates and the single mention of “the open space in Orion” by the young prophetess have been taken up by subsequent Adventist authors and expanded into a highly speculative idea about Orion as being a starry corridor leading to Heaven. They concluded there was no “gap in the sky,” no “opening in Orion,” but instead a cloud of stellar dust or gas blocking the stars behind with naked eye or weaker early telescopes.
HUBBLE SEES MORE
Launched in 1993 the Hubble satellite provides telescope images 100 times more powerful than the strongest telescopes on earth have taken. In 104 of its orbits it has focused on the Orion Nebula to piece together a beautiful picture of the stellar dust and hydrogen gas cloud, and the bright new stars forming in this “star factory” closest to earth. Of course, instead of “1,000 miles” across it is 24 light years across.
1 light year = 5,876,625,000,000 miles, so you do the math!
Looking at the beautiful Hubble montage, of course there is no reason why Jesus, with his version of Jerusalem from on high, couldn’t come back to earth through this cloud of hydrogen and stellar dust amidst the 2,800 “new” stars (propylids, hydrogen and dust arcs, rings, blobs, pillars, bright Trapezium stars, brown dwarfs, red stars, blue stars, binaries) that appear to have been formed there. But if so, there is no longer any possibility of a 500 x 1,000-mile canyon into Heaven!
And the size and scope of the Universe, including the stars and nebulae that form Orion to human eyes, now dwarf our previous understanding of the extent of our universe. Our Adventist pioneers in the 19th century saw the same stars I saw this August summer night. They read and used the scientific literature of their day to construct an interpretation of Bible texts to speculate on Heaven and the second coming of Christ. Ellen White once envisioned something very similar to Joseph Bates’ interpretation.
Captain Bates would not have written his pamphlet after stronger telescopes changed the optical illusion of a “dark place” or “gap” in the Orion Nebula. And Hubble images and better sizing of the distance and size of Orion’s sword might have changed what Ellen White reported to her audience as a single aside that made sense in her day, but not in ours.
7 DAYS THROUGH ORION?
Surely a “seven-day trip through Orion to heaven” as taught to me in my Adventist youth, is no longer a possibility even at the speed of light! So either those “seven days” of stellar travel are the same “seven days of creation” that happened on a 4.5 billion solar year-old earth with evidence of life starting 3.8 billion years ago, or both Genesis and Ellen White are speaking of things outside of the natural world and its 24-hour days, making any attempt to explain them in natural terms such as “recent” or “the same unit of time we call a week” irrelevant.
I watched Orion rise over the edge of Lake Wallowa’s margins, and if I were Joseph Bates or Ellen White with 19th-century science, it could have been seven days away and 1,000 miles across, as far as my eyes could tell. And the beautiful glaciated lake with its stony moraine margins could have been 6,000 years old for all I knew, for none of us was here 6,000 years ago.
But I and my fellow Adventists now live in the 21st century, with much different telescopes, much different astronomy, much different geology, much different paleontology, much better science than Captain Bates and Prophetess White or her audiences had access to. I know it took a rocket ship three days to get to the moon, I know that it takes a probe nine months to get to Mars, and I know that even if we could travel at the speed of light it takes 1,344 or so years for light to get to us from the middle of Orion’s sword!
SAME BIBLE, DIFFERENT SCIENCE
We share the same Bible, we share the same Sabbath, we share the same expectation of the second coming of Jesus Christ as they did. We share with them the same duty to do justice, love mercy, and walk humbly with our God.
But surely our understanding of details such as the size of the Nebula of Orion, its distance from earth, and the “seven days” of either creation or travel through Orion to Heaven need to be adjusted to fit the best evidence. Our Adventist pioneers interpreted the Bible and spoke to each other about it using the science they had. So we now must reinterpret and seek to understand, as they did, both Bible statements and Ellen White’s visions using our science, not theirs.
God remains Creator, Redeemer, Sustainer. We remain creatures limited by our brief mortality and imperfect knowledge of both science and revelation, so our opinions must remain the best guesses we can make and held lightly as opinions, not as doctrines, not testing truths, not essentials for salvation.
Like Captain Joseph Bates and Prophetess Ellen White, we too need mostly to do justice, to love mercy, and to always walk humbly with our understanding of God and with our interpretations of the Bible and the science known to its writers. Just don’t ask me to do so based on a desperate clinging to some version of inadequate 19th-century science as of equal value to the dear Bible itself.
(Photos of Orion and Orion Nebula from NASA-Public Domain.)
 Orion—see Job 9:9; Job 38:31,32; Amos 5:8.
 Joseph Bates, The Opening Heavens, page 10.
 Ellen G. White, Early Writings, page 41.
 See https://angusmcphee.wordpress.com/appendix-5-the-open-space-in-orion/ for more details on these articles in the Review and Herald of March 23 – April 8, 1976.
 Again likely based on a single “seven day” remark in another youthful vision of Ellen White, recorded in Early Writings, page 16, and expanded by Adventist imagination and creativity into a fanciful week trip including a stop for lunch at a planet en route to heaven!