Who Made the Laws That Govern Our Universe?
“HAVE you grasped the celestial laws?” (Job 38:33, The New Jerusalem Bible) In asking Job that question, God was helping His troubled servant to understand just how little humans really know in comparison with the limitless wisdom of the Creator. What do you think of that comparison?
Humans have learned a great deal about the laws that govern the physical heavens, but most scientists will readily admit that there is much yet to be learned. Again and again, new discoveries have led scientists to rethink their theories on the workings of the universe. Have new findings rendered God’s question to Job obsolete? Or does such progress actually furnish proof that Jehovah is the Author of the laws of the heavens?
The Bible contains fascinating statements that help to answer such questions. Granted, the Bible does not claim to be a science book. However, when it comments on the starry heavens, what it says is amazingly accurate and often far ahead of its time.
Some Historical Perspective
To provide some perspective, let us go to the fourth century B.C.E., about a century after the writing of the Old Testament—the Hebrew portion of the Bible—was completed. At that time, the Greek philosopher Aristotle was teaching the leading scholars of his day about the physical heavens. Today, he is still ranked among the most influential scientists who ever lived. (See the box on page 25.) According to the Encyclopædia Britannica, “Aristotle was the first genuine scientist in history. . . . Every scientist is in his debt.”
Aristotle carefully worked out a model for the cosmos. He proposed a system in which the earth was at the center of a universe made of over 50 crystalline spheres, one nestled inside the other. The stars were affixed to the outermost sphere, the planets to spheres nearer the earth. Everything beyond earth was eternal, changeless. Those ideas may sound fanciful to us today, but they influenced men of science for some 2,000 years.
How, though, do Aristotle’s teachings compare with those in the Bible? Which teachings have withstood the test of time? Let us consider three questions about the laws that govern our universe. The answers will help us build faith in the Author of the Bible, the Lawmaker behind “the statutes of the heavens.”—Job 38:33.
1. Is the Universe Rigid?
Aristotle reasoned that the celestial spheres were rigid. The one holding the stars in place, like the others, could neither shrink nor expand.
Does the Bible offer a similar conjecture? No; it states nothing dogmatically on this point. However, note the interesting word picture that it presents: “There is One who is dwelling above the circle of the earth, the dwellers in which are as grasshoppers, the One who is stretching out the heavens just as a fine gauze, who spreads them out like a tent in which to dwell.”—Isaiah 40:22. *
Which proves more fitting today—Aristotle’s model or the Bible’s imagery? How does modern cosmology view the universe? In the 20th century, astronomers were amazed to learn that the universe is anything but rigid. In fact, the galaxies appear to be moving rapidly away from one another. Few scientists, if any, had ever imagined such expansion of the universe. Today, cosmologists generally believe that the universe started out in a very compact state and has been expanding ever since. In effect, science has rendered Aristotle’s model obsolete.
What about the Bible’s words? It is not hard to imagine such a man as the prophet Isaiah looking at the starry sky draped elegantly overhead and finding that the image of a tent stretched out was remarkably apt. * He might even have noted the similarity between the Milky Way and the appearance of “fine gauze.”
Further, Isaiah’s words invite us to create mental pictures. We may imagine a tent of Bible times; perhaps we envision a relatively small bundle of sturdy fabric being opened, unfurled, and spread out before being raised up on poles and becoming a home. Similarly, we may imagine a merchant picking up a small bundle of fine gauze and stretching it out for a customer to inspect. In either case, something relatively compact is spread out and becomes larger to our eyes.
Of course, we are not saying that the Bible’s poetic imagery of a tent and fine gauze is meant to explain the expansion of the physical universe. Is it not fascinating, though, that the Bible offers a description of the universe that fits in so well with modern science? Isaiah lived more than three centuries before Aristotle’s day and thousands of years before science provided compelling evidence on this subject. Yet, the description penned by this humble Hebrew prophet does not need to be revised as does the ingenious model designed by Aristotle.
2. What Holds the Heavenly Bodies in Place?
To Aristotle, the universe was packed full. He saw the earth and its atmosphere as composed of four elements—earth, water, air, and fire. The universe beyond was filled with crystalline spheres, all composed of an eternal substance he called ether. The heavenly bodies were attached to the invisible spheres. Aristotle’s idea long appealed to most men of science, for it seemed to fit a basic assumption: An object must rest on or be attached to something, or else it will fall.
What about the Bible? It contains a record of the words of a faithful man named Job, who said about Jehovah: “He is . . . hanging the earth upon nothing.” (Job 26:7) Such a notion would surely have struck Aristotle as preposterous.
In the 17th century C.E., some 3,000 years after Job’s day, prevailing scientific theory held that the universe was filled, not with crystalline spheres, but with a kind of fluid. Late in that century, though, physicist Sir Isaac Newton proposed a completely different idea. Gravity, he said, caused an attraction between the heavenly bodies. Newton had come one step closer to understanding that the earth and other heavenly bodies did indeed hang in empty space, what would appear to humans as “nothing.”
Newton’s theory about gravity met with a great deal of opposition. It was still hard for many scientifically minded men to envision that stars and other heavenly bodies were not held in place by something substantial. How could our massive earth or the heavenly orbs simply hang there in space? The idea struck some as supernatural. Since Aristotle’s day, most men of science had believed that space must be filled with something.
Of course, Job knew nothing of the invisible means by which the earth is held in a stable orbit around the sun. What, then, led him to say that our planet hangs “upon nothing”?
Further, the notion that nothing holds up the earth raises another question: What keeps it and other heavenly bodies on course? Notice the fascinating words with which God once addressed Job: “Can you tie fast the bonds of the Kimah constellation, or can you loosen the very cords of the Kesil constellation?” (Job 38:31) Night after night of his long life, Job saw those familiar star formations rise and set. * But why did they look the same, year after year, decade after decade? What bonds held those stars, and all other heavenly bodies, in their relative positions? Surely, thinking about that was awe-inspiring to Job.
If the stars were simply affixed to celestial spheres, there would be no need for such bonds. Only thousands of years later did scientists learn more about the invisible “bonds” or “cords” that hold the heavenly bodies together in their long, slow dance through the blackness of space. Isaac Newton and later Albert Einstein became famous for their discoveries in this field. Of course, Job knew nothing of the forces God uses to bind the heavenly bodies together. Yet, the inspired words in the book of Job have withstood the test of time far better than have the notions of the learned Aristotle. Who but the Lawmaker could have such insight?
3. Eternal or Subject to Decay?
Aristotle believed that there was an enormous distinction between the heavens and the earth. The earth, he said, is subject to change, decay, and deterioration, whereas the ether of which the starry heavens are made is utterly changeless, eternal. Aristotle’s crystalline spheres and the heavenly bodies attached to them could never change, wear out, or die.
Is that what the Bible teaches? Psalm 102:25-27 reads: “Long ago you laid the foundations of the earth itself, and the heavens are the work of your hands. They themselves will perish, but you yourself will keep standing; and just like a garment they will all of them wear out. Just like clothing you will replace them, and they will finish their turn. But you are the same, and your own years will not be completed.”
Note that this psalmist, writing perhaps two centuries before Aristotle’s time, does not contrast the earth with the starry heavens, as if the earth is subject to decay while the stars are eternal. Rather, he sets both heaven and earth in contrast with God, the mighty Spirit who directed their creation. * This psalm suggests that the stars are as subject to decay as anything on the earth. And what has modern science found?
The science of geology supports both the Bible and Aristotle in saying that the earth is subject to decay. In fact, the rocks of our earth are ever wearing down through erosion and being replenished through volcanic and other geologic activity.
What, though, about the stars? Are they naturally subject to decay, as the Bible suggests, or are they inherently eternal, as Aristotle taught? European astronomers began to doubt Aristotle’s notion of eternal stars in the 16th century C.E. when, for the first time, they observed a supernova, the spectacular explosion of a star. Scientists have since observed that stars may die violently in such explosions or burn out slowly or even collapse on themselves. However, astronomers have also observed new stars forming in ‘stellar nurseries,’ clouds of gas enriched by the explosions of old stars. Hence, the Bible writer’s image of clothing wearing out and being replaced is entirely appropriate. * How remarkable that this psalmist of ancient times managed to write words that harmonize so well with modern-day discoveries!
Still, you might wonder: ‘Does the Bible teach that the earth or the starry heavens as a whole will one day come to an end or need replacing?’ No, the Bible promises that they will last forever. (Psalm 104:5; 119:90) But that is not because such creations are eternal in themselves; rather, the God who created them promises to sustain them. (Psalm 148:4-6) He does not say how, but does it not stand to reason that the One who created the universe would have the power to sustain it? In a similar way, a master builder might lovingly maintain a house he built for himself and his family.
Who Should Get the Glory and the Honor?
Contemplating a few of the laws of the heavens sheds brilliant light on this question. When we consider who caused the innumerable stars to stretch out across the vastness of space, who holds them in place with the bonds of gravity, and who sustains them through their endless cycles, are we not filled with awe?
Perhaps the reasons for such awe are best expressed at Isaiah 40:26: “Raise your eyes high up and see. Who has created these things? It is the One who is bringing forth the army of them even by number, all of whom he calls even by name.” The stars are well likened to an army, which may comprise vast numbers of individual soldiers. Without instructions from a commander, that army would be nothing but a mob in chaos. Without laws from Jehovah, the planets, stars, and galaxies would not follow orderly paths; all would be chaos. Instead, just picture an army of billions with a Commander who not only orders the movements of his troops but also knows by heart each soldier’s name, whereabouts, and condition!
The laws of the heavens give us a glimpse into the limitless mind of this Commander. Who else could have designed such laws and inspired men to write accurately on such subjects centuries and even millenniums before scientists understood them? Without question, then, we have all the reasons in the universe to give Jehovah “the glory and the honor.”—Revelation 4:11.
^ par. 11 It is remarkable that the Bible calls the earth a circle, or sphere, as the Hebrew word may also be translated. Aristotle and other Greeks of ancient times theorized that the earth is spherical, but this question was still debated millenniums later.
^ par. 22 “Kimah constellation” may have referred to the Pleiades star group. “Kesil constellation” was probably a reference to the Orion constellation. It takes tens of thousands of years for such star formations to change significantly.
^ par. 27 Because Jehovah used his only-begotten spirit Son as the “master worker” to bring all things into existence, the words of this passage may also be applied to the Son.—Proverbs 8:30, 31; Colossians 1:15-17; Hebrews 1:10.
^ par. 29 In the 19th century, scientist William Thomson, also known as Lord Kelvin, discovered the second law of thermodynamics, which explains why, over time, natural systems tend to decay and break down. One factor that inspired him to reach this conclusion was a careful study of Psalm 102:25-27.
[Box/Pictures on pages 24, 25]
A Profound Influence
“Aristotle was the greatest philosopher and scientist of the ancient world.” So says the book The 100—A Ranking of the Most Influential Persons in History. It is not hard to see why such statements are made about this unusual man. Aristotle (384-322 B.C.E.) was a student of the famous philosopher Plato and later tutored the prince who became Alexander the Great. According to ancient lists, Aristotle’s prodigious output included some 170 books, 47 of which have survived. He wrote extensively on astronomy, biology, chemistry, zoology, physics, geology, and psychology. Some of the minute details he recorded about living things were not observed and studied again for centuries. “Aristotle’s influence upon all later Western thought has been immense,” notes The 100. It adds, however: “Admiration for Aristotle became so great that in late medieval times it approached idolatry.”
Royal Astronomical Society/Photo Researchers, Inc.
From the book A General History for Colleges and High Schools, 1900
[Picture on pages 26, 27]
Gravity holds heavenly bodies in place
NASA and The Hubble Heritage Team (AURA/STScl)
[Picture on pages 26, 27]
Pleiades star cluster
[Picture on page 28]
Some stars end in a supernova
[Picture on page 28]
New stars are formed in a stellar “nursery”
J. Hester and P. Scowen (AZ State Univ.), NASA
[Picture Credit Line on page 24]
© Peter Arnold, Inc./Alamy