I never saw a moor, I never saw the sea; Yet know I how the heather looks, And what a wave must be.
I never spoke with God, Nor visited in heaven; Yet certain am I of the spot As if the chart were given.1
The reality of heaven is a certainty of Christian belief. It’s existence was confirmed by Jesus himself, who said, “There are many rooms in my Father’s house” (John 14:1). As to its physical location, most Adventists have traditionally located heaven somewhere within the area of the Orion Nebula. Adventist writers and evangelists have a long history of equating “the open space” of which Ellen White spoke with the Great Orion Nebula and deducing that the city of God and his throne exist on a planet somewhere within that system.
Early eighteenth- and nineteenth-century astronomers observed what they described as an empty or clear space in this area of the heavens. In a pamphlet self-published in May 1846 and titled “The Opening Heavens,” Joseph Bates described the space as a “gap” in the sky opening to the throne of God. However, this supposed celestial hole has long since been identified as an area of opaque gas and dust clouds. The light from behind these clouds is now recognized as coming from a cluster of hot, newborn stars whose ionization causes the nebula to glow.
In March 1976, Adventist scientists Dowell Martz and Merton Sprengel published a four-part article in the Review and Herald that examined Ellen White’s use of the term open space. They concluded that her statements “seem to suggest an open space in the atmospheric firmament surrounding the earth,” not an opening in the distant nebula. Thus, her description of an opening in the atmospheric clouds providing a view toward the constellation of Orion was not an endorsement of any astronomical gateway to the courts of heaven.2
By Sir Isaac Newton’s time, the earth had ceased being considered the center of the cosmos and had become one of several planets circling a distant starmuch to the dismay of theologians. As knowledge increased in the twentieth century, clergy and laity alike grappled with the concept that our little solar system itself is only one small area on the edge of a galaxy that exists among vast numbers of galaxies in an ever-expanding universe. Today, the idea of an unchanging static universe that exists forever has been replaced by the notion of a dynamic, expanding one that appears to have a finite beginning and a finite end.
Unlike our religious vocabulary, as our understanding of the natural world changed so did our language, our words, and our ways of thinking and speaking. In 1900, our solar system was seen as central to the starry heavens, and the Milky Way had not even been recognized as a galaxy. Now our understanding of the cosmos includes billions of galaxies and we speak of concepts like “event horizons,” “singularities,” and “black holes.” Quantum physics, in which objects can be in more than one place at the same time, have replaced fixed laws, where concrete objects are real and exist in definite states.3
In 1950, we described the atom as electrons circling a nucleus made up of protons and neutrons. When we speak of atoms now, we use words such as quarks, neutrinos, and strings. A deterministic view of reality in which the mechanics of the universe decide everything has fallen before the quantum factor, which says, at least on the atomic level, that events occur spontaneously, without prior causation.4
Unlike scientific thinking and speaking, which progress as knowledge expands, theological thinking and speaking struggle to keep pace. For hundreds of years, the earth was envisioned as the center of the cosmos and spoken of in a “two-tiered” level of understanding. There was the earth below, and the heaven above. God was a supernatural Being, that is, he was “super” or “above” nature, one who inhabited the heavenly realm in much the same way as an earthly king. He was viewed as sitting on his throne in his palace, high above the blue sky, surrounded by his court of angels and heavenly beings.
Most Christian believers continue to take this two-tier vision of the cosmos as factual. Traditional Christian language and teaching continue to present heaven in this two-tiered language. It is the received vocabulary of our hymns, our liturgy, and our ways of worship.
In his book, A Brief History of Time, Steven Hawking opines that up until now most scientists have been too occupied with the development of new theories that describe the universe to question the meaning of their discoveries. Meanwhile, says Hawking, the people whose business it is to ask serious questions, the philosophers and theologians, have not been able to keep up with advances in scientific theories.5 It seems that not only are we believers not asking the right questions, we don’t even have the language or vocabulary with which to formulate them!
God, who in times past spoke to our ancestors in many times and ways through the prophets, spoke to them in their own thought frames and cosmological understandings. Jesus, whose vocabulary was that of a Palestinian Jew of the first century, spoke in the language and the thought forms of his day, but, like the prophets of old, the truths he taught were timeless. He himself recognized this. “New wine cannot be put in old wineskins,” he said. “New wine must be put into fresh wineskins” (Luke 5:37, 38).
The expectation that in the last days our sons and our daughters will prophesy may involve a paradigm shift in our theological cosmology and religious language. Envisioning God and talking about his kingdom in the twenty-first century may require “new wineskins” and the “gift of tongues”a new vocabulary and a different cosmological perspective compared to those of our spiritual forefathers.
A contemporary vocabulary and a scientific cosmology do not, however, cancel or negate the timeless message of God’s love and will for our lives, as found in his revealed word. When Einstein discovered the theory of relativity, Newton’s theory of space-time mechanics was not discarded; it was merely found inadequate to describe the behavior of bodies moving close to the speed of light. Just as quantum physics does not invalidate traditional mathematics, scientific truths regarding physical realities do not invalidate revealed truths regarding spiritual realities.
As we wrestle with concepts our forefathers never envisioned, such as the possibility of parallel universes existing close to our ownthus allowing communication, access, and visitation of intelligences from other worldsrevealed truth assures us that “here and now we are God’s children. It does not yet appear what we shall bebut when he appears we will be like him” (1 John 3:2).
While we come to grips with the thought that even our vast universe has a finite lifespan and that the starry heavens may someday cease to bewhen the sun having used up all its energy grows dark and coldrevealed truth invites us to consider the exciting thought: “Heaven is a ceaseless approaching unto God.”6
Even though science may not be able to tell us exactly where Heaven is located on an astronomical chart, revealed truth comforts us with knowledge certain that “the dwelling place of God is with humankind” (Rev. 21:3).
Notes and References
1. Emily Dickinson, “I Never Saw a Moor,” Great Poems of the English Language (New York: Tudor, 1927), 1000. 2. Merton E. Sprengel and Dowell E. Martz, “Orion Revisited,” Review and Herald, Mar. 23Apr. 8, 1976. 3. Michio Kaku, Parallel Worlds (New York: Anchor Books, 2006), 149. 4. Ibid., 155. 5. Steven Hawking, A Brief History of Time (Toronto: Bantam, 1988), 174. 6. Ellen G. White, Desire of Ages (Mountain View, Calif.: Pacific Press, 1898), 331.
Donna Haerich is an elder at the Forest Lake Seventh-day Adventist Church, in Apopka, Florida, and teaches an hour-long Sabbath School class there.
This is a companion discussion topic for the original entry at http://spectrummagazine.org/node/1651