A Christian reflection on the eclipse: Timing is everything

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You can view the eclipse as a really weird coincidence or as a reminder that the hand of God is at work …

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[“How is it that the sun is the same size as the moon?” The great eclipse taking place on August 21, 2017, prompts questions both simple and complicated. This piece by Dr. Michael Ross is a comprehensive, fun, and ultimately surprising look at what is about to occur in our skies, and how — when it comes to both life on Earth, and human salvation — “timing is everything.” We hope you’ll linger over the piece and enjoy it, in anticipation of the eclipse. – Ed.]

How is it that the sun appears to be the same size as the moon? We know that the sun has a diameter (distance from one side to the other) of 1,392,000 kilometers, while the earth and the moon are much smaller. To put this in terms that are easier to fathom, let’s shrink things down to a scale that is easier to understand – inches. The proportions of the sun, earth, and moon would be 145.5 feet (1,746 inches), 16 inches, and 4.4 inches respectively. In other words, the sun is HUGE compared to the moon. So why is it the same size when we look at it during a solar eclipse, or any other time for that matter? The answer is purely optical geometry. The sun’s diameter is about 400 times greater than the moon, and the sun is also 400 times farther from the earth than the moon is. As a result, the two appear to be about the same size. Great! Right? That answers the “how” question.

The problem is, the “how” answer leaves a nagging gut level thought … that this is a really really really weird coincidence. As an analytical thinker, I am not really big on coincidences, especially ones that occur on an astronomical level. I have not come across a law of physics, or theories of astronomy, that explain why the two heavenly bodies in our sky should be the same size. Perhaps one is yet to be discovered. Until such time, there are a few “alignments” that point us in the direction of other associations and some insights.

The timing and placement of the moon

One thing that you can say about the sun, moon, and earth is that there is a definite rhythm to their movements, like a metronome or grandfather clock. This makes them very predictable over days, weeks, months, and centuries. However, on the grander scale of millions of years, the moon is slowly moving away from the earth. The rate is about 4 cm per year. This means that in the distant past the moon entirely eclipsed the sun and the outside rim of the sun, known as the corona, was not even visible. In the distant future, the moon will be a much smaller circle that crosses the sun but does not totally eclipse it. We are at a distinct time in Earth history, when the moon is exactly the size as the sun so that during an eclipse it completely covers the sun. This allows us to see the ring of solar flares coming off from the surface of the sun without the blinding sun to obscure that view. Ironically, this timing perfectly aligns with another event on our planet Earth – human life.

Before we consider the issue of human life, let’s first consider the alignment conditions that allow for life to occur on Earth, then let’s consider the timing of life on our planet.

Alignment of the essentials for life on earth

What is remarkable about the presence of life on planet Earth? Is it merely through a series of coincidences that life arose here? If so, then why are we not picking up countless signals from fellow intelligent beings sending out radio signals like we are? It has been said before that the chances of life occurring through a series of random events on Earth is similar to the chances of a tornado hitting a barn, ripping it to shreds, then putting it back together as an airplane. In order for the most basic life (our original bacteria that swam in the ocean) to exist on our planet, what are the basic things that our planet needs?

The first is basic chemistry. That is the right mixture of oxygen, carbon, nitrogen, sulfur, iron, and of course hydrogen and a handful of other key ingredients. Ideally these chemicals would form water as we know it. Although science fiction writers have imaged life forms using a different mixture of chemicals from our own, there is no theoretical evidence supporting such a self-replicating life form. So, we will stick with the basic chemistry of water.

The next is a “Habitable Zone,” or distance from the sun and placement within a galaxy. Within our Milky Way Galaxy, there are zones where the stars are unlikely to allow life. We are in a good region of our galaxy. Stars come in different sizes and intensities. Our star is the perfect size to allow life to occur. Finally, our planet is a perfect distance from our sun to allow temperatures that allow basic chemistry of life to occur.

A planet needs a “Clean Up Crew.” All the planets in our solar system are infrequently, but regularly, pounded with meteorites and comets. We know of a few that changed our landscape and life on Earth. Two things protect us from these incoming threats – Jupiter and our atmosphere. Jupiter, our solar system’s largest planet, is so big that it attracts rogue comets that would otherwise smash into earth. It also holds meteors in the meteor belt back from Earth. Next, the friction of our atmosphere burns up most flying objects that would otherwise smash into Earth. We have another layer of safety as a result of our earth’s large metallic core. Because of this feature, our planet acts like a huge magnet that shields us from deadly blasts of cosmic rays that the sun regularly belches out into space. Our earth magnetosphere draws away these deadly rays to the north and south poles, protecting us from death by radiation.

A planet also needs a recycling crew to recycle all of the essential elements of the planet that are needed for life. This comes from the constantly shifting land masses, or plate tectonics, and an atmosphere that allows elements and the surface of the earth to constantly refresh itself with new land masses, recycled carbon dioxide, and minerals. The ebb and flow of the waves, caused by the gravitational pull of the earth on the moon, also is constantly reforming the land.

So, our planet has a perfect recipe to allow life to occur, including the basic chemistry, living in the right habitable zone, having an effective cleanup crew, and an effective recycling program. All of these things lined up to allow life to occur, but life as we know it has not always been here. Now let’s consider the timing of life on earth.

The timing of life on Earth

Earth is estimated to be 4.5 billion years old — that is one million years happening 4,500 times. To help get our head around this, let’s crunch all of planet Earth’s history into a timescale that we can fathom: one calendar year. Let’s march through that year.

On New Year’s Day Earth would be a molten ball of rock circling the sun.

From January to March constant rain, winds, volcanoes are sculpting the face of the earth.

Finally, on April Fool’s Day life springs forth in the primitive broth of the oceans! This new life is a microscopic single celled organism with DNA inside that allows it to reproduce. Basically, it is a bacterium. Because of its simple design, it is incapable of being anything more than a single-celled life form.

As we move ahead on our time scale, in that month of April something remarkable occurs. Two become one. One single celled organism enters into the cell body of a separate single celled organism – giving rise to something inside of that cell called Mitochondria! This is a huge change. Working together, the host cell provides the nutrients and safe conditions and the Mitochondria provide energy in ways never possible before.

This change allows clumps of cells to work together, leading to tissues and multi-cellular life. Because of this, life on Earth moves from a simple bacterial broth to an incredible explosion of life forms. At its core, this occurred because one organism joined another, providing for the good of the other.

Perhaps this is a biological metaphor for love. Let’s keep the clock ticking …

In May, some of the first sea creatures show up, called trilobites. By the end of the month creatures with spines, or vertebrates, show up to munch on the trilobites. At this time 60 percent of North America is under ocean water and is located south of the equator.

In July plants show up on Earth.

In August, the seas are teeming with creatures and a few brave fish wander onto land and develop lungs.

Early September sees the arrival of insects, and late September sees the arrival of dinosaurs – who will romp around the earth for another 150 million years.

In December, following the departure of the dinosaurs, mammals show up and proliferate.

On Christmas Day, the Grand Canyon starts to form. Still no humans.

On December 31, the last day of the year a few remarkable things start to occur.

Around noon the first ape-like mammals, called hominids, show up in Africa.

In the last few hours of the year massive ice sheets the size of mountains cover much of the earth. These will come and go about four times.

With one hour left to go, a primate called Neanderthal shows up.

At 11:45 PM homo sapiens, or “humans” as we know ourselves, make knives and spears.

Around 11:55 PM human civilization appears. First with villages, then cities, then with more organized societies that allow for the building of things like the pyramids.

Then at 11:58 PM a most remarkable little thing occurs. We will come back to this event in a moment. First let’s review the alignments that we have seen so far.

Alignment of the eclipse with life, and more …

An eclipse is the alignment of the moon with the sun, but a perfect total eclipse is an alignment that marks a unique time in Earth’s history. That time corresponds with human life on Earth. The mere existence of life on Earth is the result of the alignment of several planetary features that allow life to occur. However, human life is more than mere life on Earth. There is no other creature that lives, or has lived, that is like humans. Humans control fire, create machines, work together in complex ways, control their environment, think, write, and do so many things. Arguably, humans are not simply wonderful apes. Humans are the most significant creatures that have lived on planet Earth. We have done wonderful things, and terrible things, and are capable of so much more than that which our animal design is limited to. One could argue that life on our planet is the most remarkable feature of any planet, and that human life is the pinnacle of life on Earth. If this is true, then what is the pinnacle of human life? Going back to our “one year” analogy for life on earth, that pinnacle event of human life occurred at a moment at 11:58 PM on the last day of that one-year time scale for planet earth . . .

In a small unknown village, a child was born to a humble unknown young lady. Her name was Mary.  His name is Jesus. He lived like us, played like us, experienced pain like us, and in the end died like us.  So what? The answer is best summarized in a writing by Dr. James Allen Francis from 1926:

He was born in an obscure village, the child of a peasant woman. He grew up in another village. He worked in a carpenter shop until He was thirty. Then for three years He was an itinerant preacher. He never owned a home. He never wrote a book. He never held an office. He never had a family. He never went to college. He never put His foot inside a big city. He never traveled two hundred miles from the place He was born. He never did one of the things that usually accompany greatness. He had no credentials but Himself …

While still a young man, the tide of popular opinion turned against him. His friends ran away. One of them denied Him. He was turned over to His enemies. He went through the mockery of a trial. He was nailed upon a cross between two thieves. While He was dying His executioners gambled for the only piece of property He had on earth – His coat. When He was dead, He was laid in a borrowed grave through the pity of a friend.

Nineteen long centuries have come and gone, and today He is a centerpiece of the human race and leader of the column of progress. All of the armies that ever marched, all of the navies that were ever built, all the parliaments that ever sat and all the kings that ever reigned, put together, have not affected the life of man upon this earth as powerfully as has that one solitary life.

We believe that there is a God, and that God created time, and space, and the universe — with an order and a purpose. We believe that when we were becoming hopelessly lost God performed the greatest of all miracles. In order to guide us and save us, the creator of the known universe, the creator of time and space, became a man. He lived with us, taught us, and then was brutally executed and died for us. His death was a pivotal moment of his life on planet earth, and it is the pivotal moment of human life on earth. Remarkably, the time of his death was marked with a solar eclipse:

It was now about noon and darkness came over the whole land until three in the afternoon because of an eclipse of the sun (Luke 23:44-45).

With his death on a cross, the love of God eclipsed the failures of the human race. It was an alignment of God’s love with all the ugliness, hatred, cruelty, and sin that humans were doing, had ever done, and will ever do. It showed that God’s love is more powerful than death when he rose from death on the third day. From that moment, that act, we are made new with hope and purpose. His death was not a terrible thing. In fact, it was a most wonderful thing.

So, you can view the eclipse as a really weird coincidence or you can see the eclipse as a reminder that the hand of God is at work. That we are here for a reason. That God loves us and is with us with a really big smile. When the eclipse is at its peak, called “totality,” you can see a ring which is the surface of the sun and the rays of sunlight coming from it. It is those rays that support life on planet Earth. Perhaps that ring is an image of God’s smile upon the earth. Enjoy that smile.

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