Monday, December 28, 2020

Signs in the Sky

 Worldwide excitement was high on December 21, 2020 as a special event in the evening sky unfolded. We were disappointed but not surprised that a normal weather condition—cloudiness—obscured personal observation of what some have dubbed the “2020 Christmas Star,” a close conjunction of two bright planets, Jupiter and Saturn. This degree of planetary meeting has not visually occurred since AD 1226. We do not disclaim the astronomical significance of such an important planetary conjunction. Unusual or rare sky phenomena deserve special attention. Our natural inclination may lead us to assign theological significance to the event. Scriptural references to “Signs in the Sky” may indicate possible eschatological importance. This rare planetary conjunction inspires special attention among astronomers, but does it deserve to be highlighted among theologians?

The Gospels of Luke and Matthew have been important in end times predictions. Luke 21 and Matthew 24 contain commentary concerning the presence of signs, including “signs in the sky” and their occurrence in the future, especially at the  “end of the age.” Such speculation is natural. Has God provided guidelines for Christians to relate specific physical events to the end of the age?” This depends on how we interpret the guidelines and how precisely we demand time frames for the events. Generally, these chapters quote Jesus on (a) the destruction of Jerusalem by Roman armies in 70 AD, (b) generally stressful experiences in the time between the destruction of Jerusalem and the approach of the end of the age, and (c) the traumatic distress of nations at the return of Christ. Commentators have made efforts to interpret these passages. Their comments are helpful but very specific information on events, times, and places is not generally appropriate, to the disappointment of some students of scripture prophecy. Interpretation of end times prophecies is not an exact science.

The recent planetary spectacular may be explained in purely scientific terms. 

Following the rare December 21 close conjunction, the visual distance between the bodies slowly increased daily because of their absolute movement and Earth’s motion in relation to the planets. But on December 21 and succeeding days the display of combined light from the two planets was not exceedIngly bright as pictured on many Christmas greeting cards. 

Sky watchers are interested in visual events. Astrophysicists may focus more on effects of planetary revolution resulting from gravitational forces and laws of motion. Observers of unusual events such as the planetary display of December 21 have a plethora of scientific causes and effects to help explain the wonderful event. For example, we pose this question: Why are planets of the Solar System coplanar? Answer: Planets were formed from dust surrounding the ancient Sun. The dust began to spin and collapse into a flattened disc. Later the coplanar Solar System planets formed within this disc.

The prophecies in Luke and Matthew serve to remind us that our Creator is in control of all things, including physical events in our environment. Laws of nature were authored by God. The manner in which God uses natural events to carry out His will or foretell the future are not always in our purview. We posit that unusual or awe-inspiring astronomical events occur to focus attention on the workings of God in our physical world, to inspire our sense of beauty and worship, and sometimes to call attention to His authorship of future events.  



Thursday, December 17, 2020

Star of Wonder 2020?

 “We Three Kings” is a popular Christmas carol composed in 1857 by John H. Hopkins for a New York City Christmas pageant. The Bible in Matthew 2:1-12 refers to the visit of the Magi, wise men from the east who visited the Holy Land and presented Jesus with gifts. They stated, “We saw his star in the east and have come to worship him” Matt. 2:2b (NIV). “We Three Kings” musically chronicles the visit of the Magi.

The star of Matt. 2:2 is called the “Christmas Star” or the “Star of Bethlehem.” In this Christmas season 2020 many commentators see significance in the current appearance of an astronomical phenomenon that very rarely appears in our skies. Has the original Christmas star made a return visit during this Advent season? Is it the same “Christmas Star” that appeared at the birth of Jesus? Many are fascinated by this prospect—its timing together with its astronomical rarity.

To what astronomical rarity do we refer? Jupiter and Saturn, largest planets in the Solar System, present a beautiful sight in our dark skies. Jupiter, the largest of the four ‘giant planets,’ and Saturn, a close second, possess significant brightness in dark skies, but rank second and third to the brightness of planet Venus. Individually, Jupiter and Saturn are magnificent to the naked eye. Their orbits are generally coplanar: they revolve about the sun in more or less the same plane. On some occasions their coplanarity is responsible for providing a visual meeting, but they are not really close to one another. Their visual proximity is known as a conjunction.

All celestial conjunctions are not equal. Conjunctions between astronomical bodies are fairly common. For instance, sky watchers are fascinated when the moon in its movements appears to come close to a visible planet or a star. Conjunctions between bright planets are more noteworthy. Very close conjunctions generate the most excitement among astronomy buffs. When an extremely close conjunction between two of the brightest planets in the heavens occurs, public excitement is heightened. 

On December 21, 2020 an exceedingly significant conjunction of Jupiter and Saturn occurs. Coincidentally, that date is the date of the winter solstice in the northern hemisphere, an important astronomical event. It is, in addition, the heart of the Christmas season. The two planets will be merely 0.1 degree away from each other, not enough to visually separate the combined light for many people. Others with outstanding visual acuity may be able to separate the planets’ light. Since November 1 the planets have been closing the visual gap between them.

The 2020 event is the closest Jupiter/Saturn conjunction since 1623 AD, but it was not as observable as a similar conjunction in 1226 AD owing to a more favorable distance from the sun’s brightness. A conjunction this close will not occur again until 2080. Conjunctions are not rare, but a combination of circumstances makes the event extraordinary.

Returning to the possibility that the “Christmas Star” of Matthew 2 has made a return visit, we have discovered many possible physical and spiritual explanations for the ancient coincidence of Jesus’ birth and the appearance of a “star.” Much speculation has centered around the unusual appearance of a planet or planets, a comet, or even a supernova. There is plentiful speculation about unusual appearances of conjunctions or other unusual astronomical phenomena, especially within this time frame. Several planetary conjunctions occurred around the time when Jesus was a young child.

Matthew 2 refers to a star the Magi had seen in the east which also went ahead of them from Jerusalem to Bethlehem to guide them to the child Jesus. In their home country they may have focused on an astronomical/astrological heavenly object “at its rising.” It is called a “heliacal rising,” related to the progression of seasons.

We are more confident that the star which “went ahead of them until it stopped over the place where the child was” is an example of a transcendent miracle. Such miracles are sometimes referred to as manifestations of the Shekinah Glory: a phenomenon denoting the visible presence God among men.

Should we assign the marvelous conjunction of Jupiter and Saturn on December 21, 2020 to a spectacular return of the “Christmas Star?” We prefer to join with Reasons to Believe president Dr. Hugh Ross. He states, in reference to the star and the visit of the Magi to the child Jesus, “What strikes me as the most important part of the account is its illustration of the hope and faith the Magi placed in the promised Messiah.”                 


Friday, December 11, 2020

Wonders of Water Solubility

 Our last two posts emphasized two substances—salt and water, two of the most vital substances on Planet Earth. Water is the most common liquid on Earth while salt water is the most common aqueous solution on the planet. Scientific knowledge concerning water is plentiful. Unique properties and characteristics of water are well known. We published seven posts on water in 2012, including this one:

When water acts by itself it manifests changes in density related to temperature and phase, cohesion and adhesion characteristics, and thermal properties related to weather such as specific heat and heat of vaporization. Another all-important characteristic is solubility—its ability to form solutions when other substances dissolve in it. We believe the properties mentioned above, along with its ability to dissolve various other substances, is a product of divine design by the Creator/Designer of All Things. Water, the universal solvent, dissolves thousands of substances. More substances dissolve in water than in any other known liquid. Water is able to dissolve many substances at the same time.

The solubility of many substances in water is a physical characteristic making possible many chemical changes on which our lives depend. Most chemical reactions occur in solutions. If water did not possess unique properties such as solubility, other necessary life processes would be impossible. “Ordinary” water is a compound whose molecules are composed of two hydrogen atoms bonded to one oxygen atom. Water is an example of a polar compound. Each water molecule has a positive charge on one side and a negative charge on the other. This fact is merely the beginning of a fascinating, complex story. Water’s polarity results in its ability to dissolve many substances.

Why is the water solubility characteristic so important? Our bodies’ digestive processes function to convert food into usable, absorbable forms. This means combining the food with materials that convert it to soluble substances. In digestion, food nutrients are altered to soluble substances which are then absorbed through the walls of the small intestine and into our blood stream for transport to trillions of body cells. Our cells metabolize food, synthesizing proteins and creating energy. Soluble waste products from cell activity are later carried to the kidneys to be filtered out of the blood and later removed from the body. CO2 is also a waste product dissolved in blood and must travel to the lungs to be exhaled. 

The human body is 60-70% water. Human blood is about 92% water, about 55% of which is plasma. Oxygen is dissolved in plasma after absorption in the lungs and quickly becomes dissolved in the water of plasma and red blood cells. The oxygen combines with hemoglobin molecules. The oxygen is then carried to human cells via hemoglobin. This exemplifies the solubility of gases in water. Solubility includes water’s ability to dissolve solids, other liquids, or gases.

Studying a physical property such as water solubility and the solubility of gases, solids and other liquids in water may seem tiresome or even boring. Reviewing this topic and researching related issues triggered renewed personal interest in a rather mundane topic. We all have experiences with the subject of solubility—for example, when we prepare meals in our kitchens. Perhaps we did not realize how important the topic was in relation to human body systems and bodily processes in all living things.

We link one more post from our 2012 series on water. Our prayer is that readers will acquire a heightened interest in the multiple design features of our universe. These features are not chaotic, random, or incoherent. When we study multiple physical systems and the orderly physical laws governing our lives, our conclusions concerning God’s creative works are inescapable.