Science Ch.3 - What Are the Stars For?

The stars aren’t gods (as pagans thought in Bible times), or holes in the dome of heaven (as the medieval church thought). We know they are suns, and we now know why God created so many.


How do you feel when you look up at the stars on a clear night? Overawed? Inspired? Insignificant? All those suns, many with planets, put our existence into perspective. We might be forgiven for concluding that we are unimportant, but the Bible’s creation narrative encourages us to thank God for the creation he made specifically for us. However, if this universe really is made for us, it can be difficult to understand why there are so many stars – what are they there for? In the vastness of the universe, our insignificance makes us seem like an accident looking for a purpose, but modern astronomy may help us understand what the Bible tells us about stars and their purpose in God’s creation.

       In ancient times, when people looked at the heavens they were awed and somewhat terrified – believing they were seeing gods. It was a logical conclusion: the stars twinkle and move with apparent life, and they are clearly a long way away, so they must be huge. Also, they appear to be powerful because their movements reflect events on Earth: seasons change with the stars; the moon moves the tides; and the sun changes the weather.

       In the face of this widespread belief, it is remarkable that the Israelites, and subsequently Christians, came to believe that there is only one God. One of the ways that the Bible asserts this is to say that this one God created and controls the stars. Instead of attempting to challenge the concept that the stars are gods by simply denying it, the Old Testament writers refer to them as God’s “army.” This is how they are described in Genesis 2:1, which says (translating word-by-word), “And he completed the heavens and the Earth and the whole army” – though most English translations use the old English word for an army: “host.”

5-minute summary

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LORD of hosts

Israel called their God “the LORD of hosts” because he commanded the armies of stars. The word tsava (translated “host”) is the normal Hebrew word for an “army,” so the phrase “LORD of hosts” was an excellent translation in the days of King James. Nowadays we should perhaps translate it “LORD of armies,” and this is how it is translated in most non-English Bibles. For example, traditional Spanish Bibles use “JEHOVÁ de los ejércitos” – though I do like the phrase “Dios del universe,” which replaces this in some modern Spanish Bibles. However, “LORD of armies” sounds rather militaristic, so English versions such as the ESV, NRSV, and NASB tend to stick with the archaic word “hosts.” The NIV often uses “LORD Almighty,” following a convention that started before Jesus’ day in the ancient Greek translation (see the quotation of Isa 6:3 at Rev 4:8).

       The title “LORD of hosts” completely changed ancient Israel’s perceptions about the stars. Instead of thinking of them as gods, people in the Old Testament regarded them as part of God’s workforce or entourage. Occasionally, stars were identified as angels (Pss 103:21; 148:2; Job 28:7), but never as foreign gods (though Deborah almost implied this at Judg 5:20-23). This was an amazing contrast to other nations’ belief that the stars were gods.

       Keeping so many Bible authors on message over hundreds of years helps to convince me of the Holy Spirit’s intervention in writing Scripture. Claiming that the national deity of Israel controlled all the stars in the universe is as audacious as a hacker who claims to control all the computers on the planet. Nevertheless, this assertion won the day in Israel, and then in Christendom. Even the monotheism of Islam was inspired by the Bible, which was Muslims’ holy book before the Qur’an. (The Qur’an refers to the Bible as “the Book,” and Muslims still regard a printed Bible as too holy to place on the floor even for a moment.) But as well as teaching that God is in charge of the whole universe, the Bible has another implied message: humanity is at the center of the universe, surrounded by the stars.

       We now know that all stars are suns like our own sun, and many have planets around them. But the road to acknowledging this was a bumpy one. Not only did it raise questions about the purpose of so many “extra” suns, but it also created new theological problems, as people found out when they started to voice their discoveries and new ideas.

Life on other planets

In celebration of our thirtieth wedding anniversary, my wife and I rented a small apartment for a couple of weeks near the Campo de’ Fiori (“field of flowers”) in Rome. This beautiful piazza was witness to an ugly history. In the middle of the market square is a statue of Giordano Bruno that looks exactly like the grim hero of Assassin’s Creed (a popular computer game). He has the same hood, the same menacing stance, and the same angry glare – which is directed across the river at the Vatican. The statue marks where Bruno was burned at the stake in 1600 for, in addition to questioning several key Christian doctrines, suggesting that the stars are actually suns that could have planets of their own.

       It wasn’t until nearly four hundred years later, in 1992, when the first planet was found around another star, that astronomers could be sure that Bruno was right. The Kepler space telescope later discovered another 2,662 planets around stars in our galaxy before it ran out of fuel.1 These include an extreme variety of bodies – one consists mainly of diamond! Earth remains very special, not only because very few of these planets are potentially friendly to life, but mainly because we are adapted to this planet – this is our home.

       Is there intelligent life on other planets? This suggestion got Bruno burned at the stake. He was accused of various other heresies, which he denied, but he insistently defended his book On the Infinite Universe and Worlds.2 In this he describes the heavens as “the void, in which are all those worlds which contain animals and inhabitants no less than can our own Earth, since those worlds have no less virtue nor a nature different from that of our Earth.”3

       One of his heresies was saying that there may be life on other planets – but what’s wrong with that? The answer is that the Bible teaches that Christ died only once to deal with all sin, in contrast to the Old Testament sacrifices, which had to be repeated constantly (Rom 6:10; Heb 7:27). If other worlds had sinners, this teaching was a problem. Would Christ’s death on Earth cover them too, or does “die once” refer only to him dying as a human?

       C. S. Lewis had an intriguing solution for this problem in his novels about life on Mars and Venus.4 He suggested that the Earth may be different from other planets because Satan came here and corrupted humans – unlike on other planets, which never suffered the fall. This means Jesus would never have had to die on another planet to save its inhabitants from sin.

       Personally, I don’t see any problem with the idea that Jesus redeems other planets. Perhaps he has several forms or faces in heaven, like some angels do (Ezek 10:14; Rev 4:6-8). That way he could represent every planet he has saved. And I see no reason why we should expect the Bible to tell us about all of this, because it wasn’t written to instruct us about the whole universe – only about how God wants to rescue us and how we should live.

       However, whether or not Jesus redeemed other planets, this doesn’t answer the question of why there are so many stars in the first place. Even though there are planets around many of them, these are mostly uninhabitable by any form of complex life that we can imagine. We have still not received any signals from intelligent life, and so far there is no evidence that even simple life has formed elsewhere. If life occurs on only our own or a few planets, why did God create all the billions of stars with no planets or dead planets?

We need all those stars

Astronomers can now answer that question: we need a universe as large as ours in order for there to be even one planet where life can form. The atoms life is made of (such as carbon and oxygen) can only form within the core of the largest stars, and other heavier essential elements (such as iodine) can only form when those large stars explode as a supernova. This means that complex life can’t form until some of the first stars have shone, collapsed, and exploded. These events fling complex elements into space, which can then coalesce to form solar systems with planets that can sustain life. A universe lighter than ours would expand too thinly, so these large stars would never form, and a universe heavier than ours would soon stop expanding and then contract before these large stars had time to explode and form the elements for life. Our universe, however, is just the right size to form life-supporting planets.5

       Together, the Bible and science have produced a useful answer to the question of the stars. Not only do we know what they are, but we also know why they are there. Whether there is other life in the universe, this huge surplus of uninhabited star systems is still necessary. Our universe needs to contain a billion trillion stars – because if it contained any fewer, life could never exist on even one planet.

       When we stare into space, we may realize how small we are in the universe, but we are certainly not insignificant. The Bible’s message is that God created this huge universe with a purpose: to support intelligent life – that is, us! The brief words “God created the heavens and the Earth” contain a far larger event than we had previously realized, and indicate how much preparation and investment was put into producing and supporting intelligent life. In other words, the vastness of empty space doesn’t teach us that we are insignificant – it shows us the opposite. We are so significant to God that he created this vast universe in order to give us a home where we can live.

Summary


• Ancient people thought the stars were gods. Medieval Christians thought they were simple lights or holes in heaven.
• The discovery that stars are suns like our own sun caused major theological problems.
• The universe needs this vast number of stars because if it contained any fewer, life could never exist on even one planet.
• Proposal: There are so many stars in the universe because they are needed to support life on this planet and possibly others.

1^ See Wikipedia, “Kepler Space Telescope” (tinyurl.com/KeplerST).
2^ See Wikipedia, “Giordano Bruno” (tinyurl.com/GioBruno).
3^ See Giordano Bruno, “Third Dialogue,” in On the Infinite Universe and Worlds (Venice, 1584) (tinyurl.com/BrunoWorlds).
4^ See Wikipedia, “The Space Trilogy” (tinyurl.com/CSL-Space).
5^ See Ethan Siegel, “Going Nuclear: How Stars Die,” Science Blogs (tinyurl.com/HowStarsDie).

This was previously published in a similar form in Christianity magazine

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