Chapter 1

The Perfect Seat for Viewing the Cosmos

From the booklet Our Awesome Universe Potential
By Joel Hilliker

Hundreds of miles above the surface of our planet, the Hubble Space Telescope orbits the Earth every 97 minutes. This 11-ton, 43-foot-long instrument has made more than 100,000 trips around our planet, covering 2.5 billion miles.

As it flies through space at 17,500 mph, it is taking some of the most captivating photos ever seen.

The gases of Earth’s atmosphere distort and block wavelengths of light from space, so the Hubble’s position 353 miles above the ground enables its 8-foot-diameter mirror and its four cameras to capture more and purer light. The data is transmitted to a relay satellite, then a ground station in New Mexico, and then it is sent to Maryland, where it is decoded.

The results are spectacular.

We see breathtaking images of purple- and blue-hued nebulae, and sparkling, diamond-like fields of galaxies where we thought there was nothing but empty space. We see awe-inspiring, brilliant pictures of stars and galaxies and clusters in whites, golds, oranges, blues and greens. We see infrared, luminous, ultra-luminous, radiant views of objects so far away, so gigantic, so dazzling our minds can’t even process them.

From the Hubble, we have seen supernovas, galaxies in their early stages, and massive stars collapsing. We have seen comets striking planets, and births of stars; we can recognize black holes. These images give us spectacular views of our expanding universe.

Some scientists believe that the greatest development of the past century was the Hubble Space Telescope.

Hubble makes about 20,000 observations per year. It has recorded more than half a million pictures over the past two decades, which nasa has released to astronomers all over the world to study—and to us, to marvel at. Every month, Hubble produces 70 gigabytes of data, which is enough to fill 70 complete sets of encyclopedias.

These dazzling images inspire some penetrating questions. Where does it end? Where did it all come from? Is there any meaning behind it all? Why is it here? Why, for that matter, am I here?

This telescope is the most impressive of an array of tools that are helping us coax the cosmos into revealing its secrets and mysteries. And the more we study, and the more we learn, the stronger the evidence becomes of an absolutely remarkable truth:

There is an Author of the cosmos. And He intended for us to be able to study the stars—to help us come to know Him!

Beautiful Darkness

Walk outside and look up on a clear night. You will see several hundred stars—perhaps a few thousand if it is dark enough and your view is unobstructed.

Do you realize how unusual and special that view really is?

How motivated would you be to contemplate the night sky if all you saw was a canopy of impenetrably thick clouds of particles and gases? Happy for us, Earth’s atmosphere is transparent. Not only is our oxygen-rich air necessary for life, its invisibility also happens to make gazing up at the stars a whole lot more interesting and informative than would be the case on most planets.

Some would say we are lucky.

Actually, this is only one of several unique physical conditions that make our study of the heavens possible, and so richly rewarding.

Another favorable circumstance: our position within our galaxy. The Milky Way is an incomprehensible 100,000 light years across, and we sit in its slim “galactic habitable zone” (ghz)—just far enough from the center that we’re not killed by radiation, but just close enough that sufficient heavy elements needed for life are present. At the same time, our position is a perfect seat for viewing the rest of the cosmos.

Why? Many reasons. For one, it is so beautifully dark here. Light can be the enemy of astronomical discovery—for basically the same reason that you want the lights off in the theater while watching a movie. Conveniently, our solar system is in the darkest part of the galaxy’s ghz, far from all the Milky Way’s brightest lights. We live almost exactly halfway between two of the Milky Way’s spiral arms, which are crowded with radiant stars and thick dust clouds that would obscure our view. Our vision is also free of any nearby gaseous nebulae. We likewise live thousands of light years away from the galaxy’s many blinding star clusters.

Making matters even more favorable, the Milky Way happens to be in the darkest habitable area of its galaxy cluster. While a typical galaxy cluster has over 10,000 tightly packed galaxies, ours has only about 40, all but two of which (one being the Milky Way) are small or dwarf galaxies. On top of that, our galaxy cluster, called the Local Group, is in the darkest habitable part of its supercluster of galaxies, the Virgo supercluster.

Thus, there is virtually nothing in the way of our peering deep into the outer reaches of the cosmos.

Another wonderful factor that improves our understanding of the heavens is the presence of perfect solar eclipses. It’s extraordinary that our gargantuan sun—864,300 miles in diameter, 332,840 times the Earth’s mass—can be visually obscured by the moon, which is a tiny two tenths of 1 percent of its size. But the relative distances of these two heavenly bodies from Earth, coupled with their unusually exquisite roundness, make the perfect solar eclipse possible.

This has proven quite helpful to scientists who are trying to unriddle the mysteries of the universe. Hundreds of years ago, a perfect eclipse helped observers confirm that stars are composed of gas. More recently, an eclipse helped verify the theory of relativity, showing that light is bent by the sun’s gravity. That we see a perfect eclipse (rather than a “super-eclipse,” in which our moon would completely obscure the sun) gave us our first glimpses of the sun’s gaseous chromosphere, which has yielded additional insights about stars.

Another convenient feature of our cosmic vantage point is how protected Earth is from collisions. The four gas-giant planets in our solar system—Jupiter, Saturn, Uranus and Neptune—do us a big favor by shielding Earth from dangerous space projectiles like asteroids and comets. Their gravitational pull tends to absorb or deflect the most dangerous of these colliders. Yet they’re not too efficient: The few smaller asteroids that have made it through and hit Earth have actually aided in scientific discovery. (It’s also worth noting that these huge planets are not so close as to block or wash out our view of space. If gigantic Jupiter resided where Mars currently sits, it would be 1,550 times brighter to us than it is now.)

Not Just Luck

The more scientists learn about the universe, the more of these outstandingly helpful conditions they identify. “For some reason our earthly location is extraordinarily well suited to allow us to peer into the heavens and discover its secrets,” wrote the grateful authors of The Privileged Planet. A host of finely tuned factors “are not only necessary for Earth’s habitability; they also have been surprisingly crucial for scientists to measure and make discoveries about the universe. Mankind is unusually well positioned to decipher the cosmos.”

It appears that several factors make even this period in the history of Earth and the universe uniquely suited to studying the cosmos. For example, the fact that the universe is expanding suggests that earlier in its history, all the bright matter would have been too close together for decent visibility. Today, everything is spread apart enough that we can see everything with remarkable clarity.

Is this all the result of a series of fortunate coincidences?

Scientists have come to refer to Earth as a “Goldilocks planet.” That is, in every conceivable way, conditions aren’t too hot or too cold, too large or too small, too close or too far—too anything. No matter what is measured, it is “just right” (inset, “Our ‘Goldilocks Planet,’” page 12). Not only for the existence of life, but also for discovery. And to a mind-boggling level of precision. Even the minutest deviation would make cosmic observation difficult or impossible—or would wipe out all prospect of life.

Maybe it’s not luck after all.

A growing number of astronomers are acknowledging the possibility not only that the precise conditions for life on Earth were specifically, painstakingly established by a creative mind of extraordinary intelligence—but also that this Power ensured we would be able to follow the signs back to their source. The multiplicity and exactitude of these signs reflect engineering advanced infinitely beyond human capability.

The superintelligent Engineer behind this project not only wanted us to breathe—He also wanted us to see. Think about that the next time you look up at the stars. A superintelligent Creator went to a lot of trouble to make that view possible for you.

Think about this too when you study the images produced by the Hubble telescope (inset, “A Stunning Look at a Young Universe,” page 36). We can’t give all the credit to the scientists. We have to acknowledge the superpowerful, deliberate hand that opened these magnificent cosmic vistas to us.

Do that, and then you have to ask yourself, just why did He go to such lengths to ensure we could see all that?

God clearly wanted us to make these cosmic discoveries. Romans 1:20 says, “Ever since the creation of the world his invisible nature, namely, his eternal power and deity, has been clearly perceived in the things that have been made” (Revised Standard Version). In other words, as we study that handiwork, we will gain appreciation for God’s eternal power, and will even learn things about His divinity! It is there for everyone to see—and more and more as our technology improves. All we need to do is open our eyes and acknowledge its Author.

“Clearly, Someone wanted human beings to exist and thrive. Just as clearly, Someone wanted us to see all He had done in the universe,” Dr. Hugh Ross wrote. “His purposes for human existence must be highly valuable” (Why the Universe Is the Way It Is; emphasis ours).

Indeed.

A Message of Hope

Today we live in dangerous times. Biblical prophecy shows that we are about to plunge into the blackest, darkest period in human history. The proliferation of weapons of mass destruction casts the survival of our race in doubt. In fact, Jesus Christ prophesied that if not for His Second Coming, no flesh on this planet would survive (Matthew 24:21-22).

As conditions worsen and get nearer to their violent climax, people’s hearts will be failing them for fear (Luke 21:26).

This is a time when the world needs hope.

We don’t believe it is mere coincidence that right now, amid these dire global threats, our view of and appreciation for the cosmos is undergoing such a spectacular revolution. The Hubble Space Telescope surely is one of the greatest developments of modern science. Human beings, made in the image and likeness of God, are probing deeply into the universe as never before—observing the Creator’s handiwork. You can be sure God is paying close attention. He is very interested in this program and what people are saying about it. We believe it is reasonable to speculate that He has likely blessed that program in order to ensure its success.

Here is an inspiring truth: Those Hubble pictures should give this whole world a great deal more hope. Do you know why? It’s not only because those countless awesome galaxies point us to their Creator and His limitless power. It is also because, when understood according to the revelation in the Bible, they expand our understanding of the incredible human potential God has given us!

Truly, His purposes for human existence are highly valuable! And the understanding of the universe, explained by the revelatory truth of Scripture, expands our minds to better grasp just what those inspiring purposes are.

Do you know why this vast, sparkling, shimmering, powerful universe exists? The Bible gives us some absolutely stunning answers—answers we will reveal in this booklet.

If you believe the Bible, you know that the same God who created the universe also founded a Church that He promised would never die (Matthew 16:18). That Church is alive today—and actively guided by the God of the heavens.

The Philadelphia Church of God began proclaiming its message in January 1990. The pcg’s founding was specifically prophesied in several biblical passages (request a free copy of Malachi’s Message to God’s Church Today for proof).

It was just four months later that the Hubble Space Telescope was carried into Earth’s orbit aboard the space shuttle Discovery.

In our view, the alignment of these events suggests that we bear a certain responsibility. The heavens are communicating a message to us—but how many people understand what they are saying? That is something mankind needs to know. God wants all people to better understand what is out there—and, more importantly, why it is out there. He wants His Church to use the revelations from Hubble to give the world true, living hope.

The Philadelphia Church of God is all about hope. We proclaim the Bible’s message about how to live a life of hope.

The images from the Hubble Space Telescope are crying out for us to explain them to you! They are crying out for us to show the remarkable hope they offer. The understanding of the cosmos we are gaining as a result of this marvelous technological wonder should be inspiring the whole world!

It is our hope that you will enjoy your interstellar journey in the chapters to come.

Our “Goldilocks Planet”

Is there life out there? Carl Sagan famously estimated in 1974 that the Milky Way may host as many as 1 million civilizations. Scientists have wised up a lot since then. They’re realizing that the factors required for a civilization to exist are almost impossibly complex—and must be exceedingly rare, even in a universe as incomprehensibly vast as ours. Consider just a few features that make our home in the cosmos “just right” for us to live and thrive here.

“Just Right” Earth

• It is the perfect distance from both sun and moon to have a stable, predictable orbit. Twenty-four-hour days ensure Earth’s entire surface is properly warmed and cooled every day.

• It is the perfect size and mass. If it were less dense, an atmosphere would not form and remain; if it were more dense, its atmosphere would be uninhabitable. As it is, our atmosphere allows just the right amount of radiation to keep us warm but not kill us.

• Earth’s metal core produces a magnetic field that protects the surface from radiation from space. Radioactive heat from the core, mantle and crust creates plate tectonics, necessary for life for several reasons.

• Humans need 27 elements, including carbon, oxygen, nitrogen, phosphorus, potassium, sodium, iron and copper, to live. Earth has just the right mix of them.

• Earth has just the right amount of water in the proper ratios of liquid, solid and gas. A little more, and the continents would be drowned. A little less, and the planet would probably be too hot to host life.

“Just Right” Moon

• Our moon is huge: Its mass ratio compared to Earth is 50 times greater than that of any other known moon-planet combination. Yet it is the perfect size to stabilize the tilt of Earth’s rotational axis. Without our moon, the tilt of our planet would vary from zero to 85 degrees, producing catastrophic climate changes.

• Its gravity creates tidal movement. Thus, ocean waters do not stagnate—they clean the waters on the coasts from toxins and enrich them with nutrients. Yet these massive ocean movements never spill over across the continents. The ocean currents also regulate climate by circulating enormous amounts of heat.

“Just Right” Sun

• Most stars (two thirds to three quarters of them) are found in groups of two, three, four or more. If we had more than one sun, it would make life far less stable on Earth because of erratic gravitational effects, and/or possible dangerous eruptions of tidal gas passing between the stars.

• Ninety-five percent of all stars are less massive than the sun. A smaller, less dense sun would mean we’d have to be much closer to it to stay warm. The tidal locking would create synchronous rotation—where the same side of the Earth always faced the sun. Thus, half the planet would freeze.

• It has the perfect luminosity. Because it is a yellow star, its energy lies mostly in the visible part of the light spectrum—not even 10 percent of its energy is ultraviolet. If it was much hotter, producing mostly ultraviolet light, life would be impossible. If it was a smaller red star, the supply of visible light would be inadequate.

• The sun’s size and distance from Earth creates stable temperature fluctuations that allow Earth’s water to remain in perfect balance among its three phases, liquid, solid and gas.

“Just Right” Solar System

• Giant planets act as “comet and asteroid catchers.” Their gravity cleans up our solar system of space junk that might otherwise collide with Earth. Cosmic collisions can cause mass extinctions.

• Our solar system is unusually rich in metal content, necessary for advanced life.

“Just Right” Cosmic Location

• Evidence suggests that elliptical galaxies lack enough elements heavier than helium to host advanced life. Spiral galaxies like ours have enough.

• Within the Milky Way, we sit in the “galactic habitable zone”—far enough from the center that we’re not killed by radiation, but close enough that sufficient heavy elements needed for life are present.

• We’re nowhere near dangerous star clusters, quasars, nebulae, neutron stars or supernovas.

• “Real-estate brokers often say the key to property value is location, location, location,” wrote Hugh Ross. “If this principle applies to the cosmic scene, Earth’s location would be considered way beyond ‘prime.’ … Earth appears to reside in the only neighborhood in the universe where humans can exist and thrive long enough to enjoy a global, high-tech civilization and to discover how rare they are.”

Continue Reading: Chapter 2: The Heavens Declare God’s Glory