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Peering Into Orion

Recently I ran across a story that contained the headline, “Hole in Space”. It’s about the Herschel telescope’s discovery of a massive expanse in a nebula that appears to be empty of matter — the result, they surmise, of a young star spewing jets of gas that clear everything away.

The headline caught my eye because of a story it brought to mind from my childhood.

I’m not sure when I first heard it, but my most vivid memory is from the junior division at North Dakota camp meeting. The theme was the new earth. I remember that the backdrop, painted on frame-stretched butcher paper, pictured the four outer stars of the constellation Orion whose names we learned that week (Betelgeuse, Rigel, Bellatrix and Saiph — proof that we remember what we’re taught when young!), and the inner stars that make up Orion’s belt and sword.

The “text” for the week was Ellen White’s statement that after the millennium in heaven, the Holy City would return to the earth through the constellation Orion:

“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.” Early Writings, p. 41.

The young pastor in charge of the junior meetings had more to say about it, though. He told us that astronomers had studied the constellation Orion with powerful telescopes. What they saw there was a “hole in the sky.” That in itself was startling. But as they looked deeper into that hole, they saw bright lights and the dim outline of a fantastic scene, with colors and movement. The implication (he may have said it straight out) was that one could almost, but not quite, see into heaven and make out the Holy City.

I didn’t think about it much until my first year in the ministry, when serving a tiny church in Bottineau, North Dakota. The husband of one of my church members was a strong Lutheran, very opposed to his wife’s membership in the Seventh-day Adventist Church. The first time I visited their home, he confronted me. He had either heard a sermon at which this story was told, or had heard it from his wife. He had written to a university astronomy department to ask if there was a hole in Orion through which you could see signs of celestial habitation, and a professor had written back to say that there was no such thing. He had other complaints about Adventists, but I particularly remember that one, for it proved, he said, that everything we said was nonsense.

I was 24 years old and uncertain how to respond. His dear, timid wife, meanwhile, was dying of embarrassment.

I knew of Ellen White’s statement about Orion. But for years, I’ve wondered where those extra details came from.

Recently I was reading The Autobiography of Joseph Bates (which is, by the way, an interesting book, by an Adventist pioneer who was quite a colorful character). In Chapter 12 Bates, an amateur astronomer, writes:

“But the most remarkable of all the cloudy stars, he says, ‘is that in the middle of Orion’s sword, where seven stars (three of which are very close together) seem to shine through a cloud. It looks like a gap in the sky, through which one may see as it were a part of a much brighter region. Although most of these spaces are but a few minutes of a degree in breadth, yet since they are among the fixed stars they must be spaces larger than what is occupied by our solar system; and in which there seems to be a perpetual, uninterrupted day among numberless worlds which no human art can ever discover.’” [The italics are Bates’].

The “he” Bates quotes is James Ferguson (1710-1776), a Scottish astronomer, from his book Astronomy Explained upon Sir Isaac Newton’s Principles [1].

Bates adds, “This gap or place in the sky is undoubtedly the same that is spoken of in the Scriptures. See John 1:51; Rev. 19:11.”

When the story has been told to me it was always unreferenced. When young, I assumed it was something godless astronomers had seen, refused to tell us about, but that some believer had managed to get ahold of it.

It seems more likely that James Ferguson, via Joseph Bates, was the source, when he spoke of “a gap in the sky, through which one may see as it were a part of a much brighter region,” which opens to “perpetual, uninterrupted day among numberless worlds which no human art can discover.” From there it would be a short homiletical jump to an arresting sermon story: that one could almost discern the perpetually daylighted landscape of heaven by looking through a telescope into the Orion Nebula.

James Ferguson was a great astronomer in his day — but his day was the 18th century. Ferguson had a Christian faith [2] , but it isn’t clear to me that he meant the same thing that Joseph Bates took from that passage, much less the fantastic embroidery that was added by Adventist storytellers.

This is mostly of historical interest, of course. Astronomers with telescopes haven’t peered into heaven. It’s just one of many eschatological myths that continue to circulate among us. I was cornered by a man after preaching the service in a small church, who spun a number of them out for me: social security numbers on invisible barcodes stamped on hands and foreheads (there’s no evidence), the pope has said that Sunday should be enforced as the day of worship (he said no such thing), credit card companies will enforce the no buying, no selling order against Sabbathkeepers (anything is possible, but it seems right now that widely overextended credit is a bigger worry), President Obama is the antichrist (that one left me speechless.)

As for Ellen White’s route of the flying Holy City, since you and I are planning on being in that City when it transplants from heaven to the earth made new, the quadrant of the heavens that it will appear to come from to the one lonely inhabitant of earth (in our eschatology, that’s Satan) won’t matter to us!

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1 The full title runs, Astronomy Explained upon Sir Isaac Newton’s Principles and Made Easy to Those Who Have Not Studied Mathematics, to Which Are Added a Plain Method of Finding the Distances to All the Planets from the Sun by the Transit of Venus over the Sun’s Disc, in the Year 1761: an Account of Mr. Horrox’s Observation of the Transit of Venus in the Year 1639: and of the Distances of All The Planets from the Sun and Deduced from Observations of the Transit in the Year 1761.
2 At the bottom of the title page: “By James Ferguson, F.R.S. [Fellow of the Royal Society]. Heb. xi.3. The worlds were framed by the Word of God. Job xxvi.7. He hangeth the earth upon nothing. — 13. By his Spirit he hath garnished the heavens.”