A few weeks ago, on a cold, dark winter’s night, my wife, Barbara, and I looked in awe up at the sky. The millions of stars seemed exceptionally bright and beautiful. I then turned to the Pearl of Great Price and read again with wonder what the Lord God said to Moses: “And worlds without number have I created; and I also created them for mine own purpose; and by the Son I created them, which is mine Only Begotten” (Moses 1:33).
In our day the Hubble deep-space telescope has confirmed the magnitude of what Moses saw. Hubble scientists say the Milky Way galaxy, of which our earth and sun are just a tiny part, is estimated to be only one of over 200 billion similar galaxies. For me it is difficult to comprehend, impossible to fathom, so large and so vast are God’s creations.
I’m always pleased when a General Authority brings some science into their remarks. Elder Ballard’s comments invite a bit of reflection on how our understanding of the Universe as God’s creation has changed over the years and how the scriptures have described the Universe.
The Universe as Galaxies
We have only been aware of galaxies for about a century. The space telescope Elder Ballard referred to is named for Edwin Hubble, an astronomer who in 1925 published a paper presenting solid evidence that our own Milky Way galaxy was not, in fact, the extent of the observable Universe. From Hubble’s Wikipedia page: “His observations, made in 1922–1923, proved conclusively that these nebulae were much too distant to be part of the Milky Way and were, in fact, entire galaxies outside our own.” Yes, and as noted by Elder Ballard, it turns out there are close to 200 billion of them. In other words, since the time when the Book of Mormon and Doctrine and Covenants were published, our understanding of the size of the Universe has increased by a factor of 200 billion.
With that in mind, let’s look at a few scriptural passages. At D&C 1:33, which Elder Ballard quoted, God tells Moses, “Worlds without number have I created.” A few verses later is this encouraging passage, D&C 1:36-38:
36 Be merciful unto thy servant, O God, and tell me concerning this earth, and the inhabitants thereof, and also the heavens, and then thy servant will be content.
37 And the Lord God spake unto Moses, saying: The heavens, they are many, and they cannot be numbered unto man; but they are numbered unto me, for they are mine.
38 And as one earth shall pass away, and the heavens thereof even so shall another come; and there is no end to my works, neither to my words.
D&C 88:45-47 provides this rather poetic passage:
45 The earth rolls upon her wings, and the sun giveth his light by day, and the moon giveth her light by night, and the stars also give their light, as they roll upon their wings in their glory, in the midst of the power of God.
46 Unto what shall I liken these kingdoms, that ye may understand?
47 Behold, all these are kingdoms, and any man who hath seen any or the least of these hath seen God moving in his majesty and power.
The Universe as Sun and StarsHeliocentrism, of course, dates from Copernicus in the 16th century. While not known by biblical authors, it was of course well understood by the first readers of the Book of Mormon in our day. In case there are any readers who are heliocentrism deniers and need a scriptural witness, here is a passage in the Book of Mormon (Helaman 12:13-15) that confirms it:
13 Yea, and if he say unto the earth — Move — it is moved.
14 Yea, if he say unto the earth — Thou shalt go back, that it lengthen out the day for many hours — it is done;
15 And thus, according to his word the earth goeth back, and it appeareth unto man that the sun standeth still; yea, and behold, this is so; for surely it is the earth that moveth and not the sun.
Then there is Abraham 3. It discusses stars, in particular one Kolob:
2 And I saw the stars, that they were very great, and that one of them was nearest unto the throne of God; and there were many great ones which were near unto it;
3 And the Lord said unto me: These are the governing ones; and the name of the great one is Kolob, because it is near unto me, for I am the Lord thy God: I have set this one to govern all those which belong to the same order as that upon which thou standest.
For interesting discussion of the various modern LDS interpretations of Kolob, see the T&S post “Kolob” and the BCC post “Kolob as Sirius,” both from 2006. Abraham 3 goes on to discuss the Sun (“This is Shinehah, which is the sun”), the Moon (“Olea, which is the moon”), and other stars (“Kokaubeam, which signifies stars, or all the great lights, which were in the firmament of heaven”), apparently different from stars in verse 3 referred to as “the governing ones.”
The Universe as a Vaulted Dome Over the EarthThe term “firmament” in Abraham 3:13 ties that description of stars back to Genesis 1 and its Earth-centered three-tiered model of the Universe. “Firmament” is the term used in KJV Genesis 1 to describe the vaulted dome above the earth into which the Sun (“the greater light to rule the day”), the moon (“the lesser light to rule the night”), and the stars were placed or embedded. The NIV uses the term “expanse”; the NRSV used the term “dome”; and the Lexham English Bible uses the term “vaulted dome,” all translating the Hebrew term raqia. This raqia or firmament divides the waters above from the waters below (v. 6) and is called “heaven” or “sky” (v. 8, again depending on the translation). Interestingly, Abraham 4 uses the term “expanse” rather than “firmament” in its creation account.
So that’s a short review of our models of Universe, from the 20th- and 21st-century model of 200 billion galaxies, to the 16th- to 19th-century model of the Sun surrounded by lots and lots of stars, back to the ancient biblical model of Earth, Heaven above (the vaulted dome), and Sheol below. Let’s wind things up with one last scriptural quotation: KJV Genesis 1:14-18, the fourth day.
14 And God said, Let there be lights in the firmament of the heaven to divide the day from the night; and let them be for signs, and for seasons, and for days, and years:
15 And let them be for lights in the firmament of the heaven to give light upon the earth: and it was so.
16 And God made two great lights; the greater light to rule the day, and the lesser light to rule the night: he made the stars also.
17 And God set them in the firmament of the heaven to give light upon the earth,
18 And to rule over the day and over the night, and to divide the light from the darkness: and God saw that it was good.
As a member of a Hubble Team (there are several) let’s just say it is amazing to watch the new data come in. You sit there and say, “wow, every dot is a complete distinct galaxy that I very well and the first human to *ever* observe.” (Save someone like Moses perhaps) And to think Christ is behind it all! And 200 billion is low-balling things. When James Webb is launched the number of observable galaxies will go up significantly. (And who knows, maybe there is a larger multiverse and one day that will be observed. But I am skeptical)
It really is amazing stuff and to see how far our models have gotten. We are living at a fascinating time. Cosmology textbooks that are just 20 years old are not completely dated (are are almost funny now to read) showing the rate at which we are learning about the cosmos.
Awesome post Dave. I love scriptural cosmology, and I also love how the scriptures are pluralistic in how they teach everything. And this post has both! Thank you for your insightful thoughts.
Thanks for the comments. I didn’t even get around to the Big Bang theory (which most people accept and which can read into the Genesis account) versus the Steady State model (the now discredited theory which was popular in the mid-20th century and resembles in some ways the universe-with-no-beginning views some attribute to Joseph Smith and the D&C).
Joseph, it sounds like you should have been the one to write this post, not me.
There’s a fun discussion on Helaman 12: 13-15 here:
Some feel that those verses may actually reflect Nephite/Mayan cosmology rather than the prevailing cosmology of Joseph Smith’s day. It’s interesting.
Dave, a lot of folks who identify with Creatio Ex Nihilo have embraced the Big Bang, with its beginning in an inexplicable singularity, as scientific confirmation of their theological doctrine. However, as has been noted the progress of cosmology has continued over the decades since the Big Bang was first proposed. To explain the relative uniformity of the Cosmic Background radiation (the Arno and Penzias got the Nobel Prize for since it is considered the primary confirmation of the Big Bang), the best theory is that soon after the Big Bang began, there was a period of extremely rapid inflation of the universe. Then some other physicists noticed that there is no reason to think that the inflation is ever going to stop. So several proposals in cosmology are that Big Bangs happen all the time, turning small regions of space-time into big ones very rapidly, like budding yeast. That means that the there is no real beginning, but rather a repeating cycle of new universes coming into being as the daughters of similar universes.
The concept that the earth rotates on its axis is distinct from the concept of whether the sun moves around the earth or the earth moves around the sun. Even in a geocentric “universe”, there is the question whether the earth rotates once every day, or the entire vault of the “fixed stars” rotates around the earth and sun and all other heavenly bodies every day. To imagine that the stars, clearly very distant from us, is moving at the tremendous speed necessary to zoom around the sky in 24 hours, is hard to conceive. It is much easier to conceive of the solid body of the earth rotating at the same angular velocity, but at a much, much slower real velocity. After all, it is evident that the earth attracts solid objects toward itself, so they “fall”. On the other hand, since the stars were supposed to be made of some kind of different celestial “stuff”, what was holding the sphere of the stars together?
As to a heliocentric earth, the Greek natural philosopher Aristarchus in Alexandria made an argument for it bafore 200 BC, way before Ptolemy showed up. The ancient understanding of the mechanisms of the planets was much more sophisticated than we give them credit for, as manifested by the Antikythera device, a brass geared instrument dating from before 100 BC that was recovered less than a century ago from a shipwreck near that Greek island. Recent examination of it with x-rays have confirmed it is a sophisticated astronomical calculator, that could predict the locations of the objects observed to move in the heavens.
The same Greek scientists knew that the earth was a sphere, not a flat disc, as can readily be observed from the observation post at the top of a ship’s mast, as it approaches a harbor. It first sees a mountain, then further down the slopes until the harbor itself can be seen. That is why the observer was put up on the mast, because he could see much farther around the curvature of the earth than someone on deck. The approximate circumference of the globe had been worked out to astonishing accuracy based on the different angles by which the sun struck into the shaft of two different wells, one near Alexandria and the other far south, at the latitude of the Tropics when the sun was directly overhead on the solstice. Columbus’ proposal was criticized, not because of disagreement on the shape of the earth, but because of his deduction that Asia was thousands of miles longer than scholars believed it was. And Columbus was clearly wrong: he is remembered because he found the Americas by mistake.
The old Semitic concept of the universe as being fundamentally bodies of water, in the sky and below the plane of the earth, is based on common sense observation. People could see water fall from the sky; they did not see it rising. Therefore there must be a reservoir up there, which also explained the blue color of the sky. People also knew that there was a lot of water under the ground, which could be tapped by artesian springs and wells, and which you could discover by entering caverns. The more you dug, the more water you would find! Just about anyplace, if you dig far enough you will hit water, indicating that the amount of water will increase the further down you go. Ergo, it must be mostly water at the bottom.
When the creation of the earth in Genesis, as we have it, is couched in the terms of the limited horizon that came with this cosmology, we should remember that the narrative of Noah also assumes the same kind of near horizon, so the “windows of heaven” could dump water onto “all the earth”, without any recognition of the full scope of the earth as the surface of a sphere. NOah did not tell us that the entire surface of a sphere 24,000 miles in circumference was inundated in water up to the height of the tops of mountains, only that “the whole earth” within the limited horizon of the narrator was “covered with water”, which could mean it was covered by a half inch of water as it rained faster than the water could drain away. The main conflicts between Genesis and modern science relate to confusing the limited horizon of the earth as commonly understood four thousand years ago with the earth as we know it to be today. The biggest unjustified presumption is that Genesis One refers to the creation of the entire universe we know today, even though the actual language concerns features of the earth, water and sky as seen from one spot on the surface of the earth.
Creation ex nihilo doesn’t require that the universe has a beginning in time, as far as I can tell, but you’re absolutely right that many folks use the Big Bang as sort of a natural prooftext for the doctrine.
LDS theology wise, it is interesting to consider whether the residents of these worlds without number, if not all of them in the known universe, are the first generation spiritual descendants of one heavenly father and one heavenly mother, or whether God is using a plural I.
If the former, then it would appear to be a one universe per couple sort of thing, and you wonder how the celestial kingdom could be split across multiple universes, or be in a universe different than this one. If the latter, then you have something at least vaguely resembling either Brigham Young’s or Heber C. Kimball’s take on the issue – either a universe partitioned among heavenly parents or a conception where a couple becomes heavenly parents to all of their lineal and adopted posterity, sharing the role with the other progenitors of the same.
Without a telescope, Elder and Siste Ballard were not actually able to observe millions of distinct stars above them. Only 3,000 at most. They may have taken in the Milky Way, though. There’s not as much of it to see in winter, but there is still a portion of it glowing with the unresolved light from billions of stars. To distinguish that the Milky Way is composed of individual stars wasn’t possible until Galileo pointed a telescope at it. Anyone could number the visible stars if he really wanted to, but like the leap in the conceived size of the observed universe with Hubble’s galaxies, Galileo’s telescope did make the stars innumerable.