Telling stories is a major part of what makes human beings unique. Before books we passed myths, and legends through word of mouth. Then we discovered writing and began recording our words onto tablets of stone, and then paper scrolls. It’s this ability to communicate complex ideas, remember them, and pass them on to others that has allowed us to develop farming, and the wheel, and weapons, and government, and science, and university, and rocket ships, and intra-solar system travel.
It’s hard for me to recall a time when the idea of space travel hasn’t been a part of my life. My mother loved science-fiction dramas like Star Trek, and Star Wars. What else could be more thrilling than exploring, and visiting places never seen before? Reaching out to the unknown, and actually finding it. Meeting funny brown fishy antenna people, and green people with insect faces, and horned blue yetis with genitals on their knee caps. Rolling passed giant, swirly, polychromatic marbles like you’re driving through the Grand Teton National Park is a thing of my childhood dreams. It’s pure adventure!
Amazingly, all those sci-fi stories are relatively new to humans. Think about this. The first human being left our planet in 1961. My in-laws were a few months from leaving high school, and going to college. Eight years later we put boots on Luna. My mother was heading to her sophomore year of high school, and couldn’t even drive herself there. In general, if you were born anytime since 1961 then human space travel is apart of your cognitive experience. Pictures of moons, and planets, and distant stars are like everyday occurances barely worth a NASA notification banner on your phone.
Roughly three hundred fifty years before human beings broke the limits of heaven, people actually thought the Sun revolved around the Earth. Let that sink in.
Before the ideas of Copernicus and his heliocentric model began to shift human thought, European farmers enjoying a clear view of the Milky Way, or merchant sailors looking to the constellations for directions, had no idea what they were looking at. They saw it as a bunch of lights rotating around our gigantic globe. A big one by day, and smaller ones by night. At best, only hand fulls of people had seen fuzzy images of those balls through the newish invention of the telescope.
Even weirder, less than two hundred years before the Copernican Revolution, people still believed the world had an edge. As some American Southerners say, it was “flat as a flitter”. It was not unlike the paper maps sailors carried on voyages. It took the commercial and financial interests of European oligarchy, a lust for gold, and the ambitious Christopher Columbus to prove the world wasn’t a snow globe. (Side note: if you’re a Flat Earther, you’re trying too hard. The math has been checked. The science tested. Stop being contrary.)
Myths about the edge of the world, undiscovered lands, and titanic monsters were the norm before 1492. Think of myths like Jason and the Argonauts, or Homer’s poems the Iliad and the Odyssey. These were fantastic origin stories of places, and people groups known to ancient Mediterranean listeners. Complex dramas of gods and goddesses to explain things like mountains, and oceans, and lightening, and love, and death. Rulers in the sky, above the clouds, out of the reach of human civilization. Many of their names you know by heart. Why? Because humans named things in the sky after these mythical characters, and we’re still using them thousands of years later.
So, it’s no surprise that we still believe, and teach ancient stories as truth even though the science has long surpassed those traditional ideas. It was easy for ancient people to conceive of a global flood caused by underground fountains and sky windows being opened to allow rain to pour on the earth for 40 days. It wasn’t a metaphor to them. God and his heavenly hosts (aka the stars) were in the Expanse above the earth. And, up in heaven was water. All God had to do to flood the Earth was open some windows.
I know. Right now you’re trying to wrap your head around the implications of that. “That can’t be what the Bible says!” I promise you it is. The book of Genesis is very clear as to where Heaven is. It’s in the sky. This “Expanse”, literally the “Heights” (shamayim), separates the waters of earth from the waters in the sky. And, it has windows (arubbah) that can be opened, closed, and seen through. Sky windows show up multiple times in the Old Testament (ex. Gen 7:11; Gen 8:2; 2 Kings 7:2, 7:19; Isa 24:18).
Once you realize that the ancient Israelites saw the world… well, like a snow globe, as ancient people did, then those biblical stories start to make more sense. Trying to rationalize them through our modern understanding of the planet (and universe) will drive you crazy. The mental gymnastics alone will break your brain. Here’s a few thought experiments to argue my point:
Q: Why would anyone build a tower that reached up to heaven, and why would God even care? (Genesis 11) A: Because the sky is where God is! He had to put a stop to those shenanigans before he had uninvited dinner guests. Honestly, if I were god I’d let those jokers build their silly tower. It would either topple over and kill them all, or they’d run out of oxygen right after they passed the elevation of Mount Everest. Problem solved!
Q: Why would anyone dream about a ladder that could “reach” to heaven, and said ladder also have angels ascending and descending to Earth? (Gen 28:12) A: Because the sky is where angles are! It’s where God, and his heavenly court held council. It’s where they all peered down, and watched the earthlings mess up the joint. That’s right. Up there! In the sky! If only we had a ladder tall enough.
Q: How could God make the Sun and Moon freeze in place, for a full day, without any physiological, or geological effects? (Joshua 10:12) A: Simple! Because the Sun and Moon float above the Earth, up in the expanse, with all the other lights. Stopping them would change nothing on the ground. Imagine watching a movie on the domed ceiling of a planetarium. It’s like that. The Sun can roam if it wants to, roam around the world.
For many people, these stories are obviously outdated, but some people take them very, very, VERY literally. I know this because I used to think that, and teach it too. Because I was taught that the Bible was 100 percent without error. I assumed that these stories were synonymous with our modern knowledge. I was interpreting the words as if they had been written today with a shared understanding of how the universe works. I squished, and twisted, and mashed the ancient concepts into my modern box. When we do this we miss the perspective of the ancients, and thereby miss what the words actually meant to them.
Ultimately, science changed my mind. Consider the speed of light as one example. We know how fast light travels. Tiny photons escape their star, and travel in a straight line across space until they meet our eyes. If we could travel at the speed of light it would take us about 4.24 years to get to Proxima Centauri, the closest star outside of our solar system. That means, if the earth is only five to ten thousand years old then the photons of any star farther than 10,000 light years away wouldn’t have reached our planet yet. IF that were the case our sky would be much darker because there are literally hundreds of billions of stars and galaxies, that we can see, that are farther than that.
The ancient writers of the Hebrew Bible didn’t know about astrophysics, geology, paleontology, or well, almost everything contemporary humans learn before adulthood. And, I promise I’m not ancient bashing. Honest! Even my favorite science fiction writers miss the mark. Phillip K. Dick, Ray Bradbury, and Michael Crichton all wrote futuristic stories that have technologies that are obsolete, yet to happen, or flat out wrong. Reading fiction, especially science fiction, requires that you suspend disbelief. Or, at the very least, accept that not everything is accurate.
There’s a silent film from 1902, Le Voyage dans la Lune (A Trip to the Moon) that you should most definitely watch. It’s a masterpiece from early film history. In summary, a bullet shaped space capsule is fired from a cannon into the eye of the Man in the Moon. The five brave astronauts explore the moon without space suits. They sleep on blankets out in the open. They battle alien goblins, and find giant mushrooms in a cave. Audiences of the day received it with exuberant applause. It was absolutely sensational. It was obviously wrong.
I’m currently reading Babylon’s Ashes, by James S. A. Corey. It’s book 6 in The Expanse series, which you might have heard is kind of a big deal. Set in our own solar system, several hundred years in the not so distant future, human beings are living on moons, and rocks, and terra forming Mars. All is status quo until some space goo shows up, and changes the course of human interstellar colonization. It’s EPIC!
If you don’t have time to read it then I strongly recommend the SYFY/Amazon tv series. They’ve done a fantastic job of sticking to the major characters, and plots. Oh! And, Amos Burton (played by the amazingly talented, Georgia native, Wes Chatham) has got to be the coolest, space cowboy, character ever conceived. Think Clint Eastwood in mechanic overalls.
One day, in the future, rock hopping humans will look back on our own ignorances. Hopefully, they’ll graciously accept that we just didn’t know any better. And, maybe, just maybe, they’ll enjoy some of our stories for what they are. Stories.