On August 21st of this year, a total solar eclipse will be visible across the United States, along a narrow strip from Oregon to South Carolina. I strongly encourage you to make plans to see it, even if you must travel a great distance. It’s an experience that is typically only possible a few times in one’s life at most. However, make sure you observe it safely! I will be viewing the eclipse from an astrophysics meeting in Idaho.
We take it for granted that the sun and the moon appear roughly the same size in the sky. This is due to the remarkable fact that though the former is roughly 400 times wider than the latter, it is also roughly 400 times farther away. This is what makes total eclipses possible. However, the scientific details of how this situation came to be is nothing short of remarkable. The sun was formed roughly 4.6 billion years ago by the gravitational collapse of a cloud of gas. Its light and heat are produced by nuclear fusion, and Earth is situated at a distance from the sun so that it receives just the right amount of this energy for the development and sustenance of complex life. In the case of the moon, the available data strongly support the conclusion that it formed roughly 4.5 billion years ago when a Mars-sized object collided with the Earth, releasing material from both objects in a spectacular crash. The debris slowly collected under the influence of gravity to form the Moon. Surprisingly, it turns out the Moon is an important factor for life on Earth as well. The tides produced by the sun and the moon recycle nutrients and wastes in the oceans. Also, it has been hypothesized that the moon’s gravity helps to stabilize the tilt of Earth’s rotational axis, resulting in consistent seasons. Amazingly, the confluence of all of these factors produced an Earth-Sun-Moon system that also provides for the stunning spectacle of solar eclipses.
As a Christian, the eyes of faith lead me to see God’s hand at work in providing the sun and moon as lights to mark time (Genesis 1:14-19), to sustain life on Earth, and on special occasions like these, to provide us with an awe-inspiring sight. As an astrophysicist, the data and the hard work of many scientists leads me to the conclusion that the material origin of the sun and moon occurred via the processes described above. So, I hold these things together: God indeed made the Sun and the Moon, and it pleases God to let us discover for ourselves the details of how it was done through the work of science.
Needless to say, not everyone sees it this way. Plenty of people argue that if science can explain the formation of the sun and the moon by the laws of physics, then there’s no need to postulate the existence of God. Strangely, many Christians appear to agree, and therefore insist that for their faith in God to remain intact, all such “natural” explanations for the origins of things must be ruled out. What we are left with is a theology that implies that God is at work only if something “supernatural” is happening.
Yet this seems hardly consistent with the Scriptures, the broad scope of Jewish and Christian thinking over the centuries, and the common experience of many people. The fact that nearly all of us accept scientific explanations for human reproduction, how animals obtain their food, or how clouds produce snow and rain hardly diminishes for us the potency of nature poetry like that found in Job 38-41 or Psalm 104. There are of course exceptions, but essentially every Christian I know, when faced with an unfortunate medical diagnosis, will attempt to both obtain the best medical care that science has made available and ask for prayers. In our everyday lives, those of us who put our trust in a personal God take it for granted that he is always working, whether through the ordinary or extraordinary, the natural or the unnatural. This is because the Bible bears witness to a Creator who makes a wisely ordered cosmos, which we moderns now see as the laws of nature, discernible via the scientific method.
Yes, the material origin of the sun and moon have explanations that are fully accounted for by physics, supported by strong evidence. And yes, the phenomenon of the total solar eclipse itself is fully described by orbital mechanics. No doubt these facts will be on the minds of both myself and my colleagues later this month. But I strongly suspect that none of that will matter in those last few moments until the Moon fully covers the Sun. Instead, I am certain that moment will be uniformly greeted with an awe-filled “WOW!”, which is not so much a scientific impulse but a basic human one. For me, I am sure my heart will be further moved to respond as the Psalmist did so long ago:
“The heavens declare the glory of God, and the expanse proclaims the work of his hands.”–Psalm 19:1, CSB
“When I observe your heavens,
the work of your fingers,
the moon and the stars,
which you set in place,
what is a human being that you remember him,
a son of man that you look after him?” — Psalm 8:3-4, CSB