Friday, July 12, 2013

Wonders in the Heavens

"And I will shew wonders in heaven above, and signs in the earth beneath; blood, and fire, and vapour of smoke: the sun shall be turned into darkness, and the moon into blood, before that great and notable day of the Lord come..." (Acts 2:19-20)

"And I will shew wonders in the heavens and in the earth, blood, and fire, and pillars of smoke. The sun shall be turned into darkness, and the moon into blood, before the great and the terrible day of the Lord come." (Joel 2:30-31)

Earlier this week, for scripture study, we were talking about keys to understanding prophecy. One of the keys is to live in the time prophesied.

As an example, we considered the prophecy about "wonders in the heavens." I gave my kids the gist of this idea, but it was so interesting, it turned into several science lessons. Those sparked my interest so much, I'm adding in several points now. (Using this timeline of astronomy from wikipedia as my main source.)

In the 1400s, the rare priest reading Joel 2:30 or Acts 2:19 might have thought "Well...I saw a particularly impressive bunch of shooting stars last night. Does that count?"

In the 1600s, an occasional educated person might have said "Well, I hear that there's a big debate going on about whether the Sun revolves around the Earth or vice versa. And I hear that with those new-fangled telescopes, scientists can see moons around Jupiter. I'm not sure if I believe it, but it's interesting."

In 1664, a great comet was seen in the sky of London and was assumed to portend evil. That belief was reinforced when the Great Plague broke out a few months later, and the Great Fire the year after. Was that a fulfillment of prophecy? Probably some people thought so. But they'd seen comets before.

In the 1700s, more Europeans had access to the Bible, and more people would have been aware that there were efforts to catalog stars, and that a new planet named Uranus had been discovered. The really impressive thing, though, is that Halley had used Newtonian physics to predict (accurately!) the return of a comet. Amazing! Scientists could now predict the future! Did that count as "wonders in heaven above, and signs in the earth beneath"?

Halley's Comet

In the 1800s, you got spectroscopy. Yawn. (Scientifically very useful, but not exciting to a layman.) But you also got the first photographs of telescopic images of the Sun and moon, plus the discovery of Neptune. Victorian colonists spread across the globe would have read articles about these things in the London Times.

First photograph of the Sun, 1845.

In the 1900s, we got airplanes, WWII bombing raids, Sputnik, and humans in orbit. By then, the Bible was ubiquitous, available to people all over the world in their native languages.

Then, in 1969, people all over the world watched on live television as men walked on the moon. Lots of other cool things happened that century, astonomically speaking, but to me, that's the seminal moment. The point when any person familiar with Joel 2:30 or Acts 2:19 could say "Okay, that TOTALLY counts!" Mankind had not only observed the heavens, and had not only predicted the future, but had effected actual change outside our own planet. Mission control and TV reception were still on Earth. So, "wonders in heaven above and signs in the earth beneath."
Man on the Moon, 1969

In that century, we also got robotic spacecraft sending back amazing telemetry from our solar system. As an elementary school kid in the 1980s, I got a feast of fantastic images from the other planets.
A Voyager 2 image of Neptune, 1989.

In the 1990s, The Hubble telescope gave us breathtaking pictures of spectacular nebulae, supernovae, and other phenomena. The Internet made it possible to find thousands of those pictures in a second. (Go do a google image search right now for "colliding galaxy". I'll wait.) Or you could just enjoy a small sampling below:

"A Rose Made of Galaxies"

Butterfly emerges from stellar demise in planetary nebula NGC 6302
The "Butterfly" Planetary Nebula

In this century, the Mars Rover Opportunity has performed the truly miraculous: it has exceeded official NASA estimates, by almost a factor of forty, in a good way.

The wonder has even become routine:

*The Voyager probes are leaving the solar system--again. The boundary keeps changing as we learn more about what's out there on the fringes.

*These days, discovery of extra-solar planets is a regular occurrence, and no longer confined to gas giants. We just discovered three Earth-sized planets in "Goldilocks" zones.

*We have so many dead satellites in orbit, they're turning into dangerous space junk. We keep launching more, though, because of consumer demand for better, faster radio/cell/wifi/tv/etc. service.

Orbital debris graphic that was computer generated from a distant oblique vantage point to provide a good view of the object population in the geosynchronous region (around 35,785 km altitude). (Photo: NASA Orbital Debris Program Office)
Space junk: a computerized image.

Speaking of communications technology, let's hear it for my new 4G smartphone. The integration of phone, internet, video, GPS, mapping software, and live telemetry means that I almost never get lost, and I know when to expect delays. I can find a hotel en route while I'm on the road, and if I'm too busy driving, I can call Jon and ask him to do the research for me.

So, wonderful satellites in heaven above, and "signs" (or location, directions and up-to-date traffic information) on earth below.

Does anyone want to argue about that portion of the prophecy having been fulfilled? (Anyone who believes in at least the Torah/Old Testament, that is. I'm not trying to start a debate with atheists right now.)

I don't want to be depressing, so I'll touch on the rest of those verses only briefly. LDS Prophet Gordon B. Hinckley referenced "blood and fire and pillars of smoke" when he discussed 9/11. I thought of the innocent people killed, people queuing up to donate blood, smoldering fires in the rubble of the twin towers, and the "pillar of smoke" visible from space. It made sense to me.

Above: the plume of smoke from Manhattan on 9/11, visible from space.

What about the sun darkened and the moon turned to blood? Are we talking about massive volcanic eruptions? A nuclear winter? Severe clouds from burning oil wells? All of my ideas involve some form of pollution darkening our atmosphere, refracting sunlight, and making the moon appear different. I can, however, only speculate; I don't know. That's because I am not living in the time when that prophecy is fulfilled.

Could a 15th century priest ever have imagined the communication network we have today? Could he have understood the idea of black holes or a quasars or novae or nebulae? Could he have believed that we would add to our treasure trove of such images on a daily basis, with people all over the world enjoying free access to such a wealth of information? Is this the kind of thing he would ever have predicted? Probably not.

The best we can do is to study the prophecies, and be prepared to recognize them at the right time. The fulfillment may come with breathtaking speed, or may creep in slowly, subtly. But whatever happens, it will be even more staggering than our strangest speculations.

While I'm waiting, I'll go enjoy a meteor shower. They may be "simple," but they're still amazing.

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