We could be in for a celestial treat this holiday season thanks to a visitor from the distant Oort Cloud. First detected in December 2011, Comet ISON is believed to hold the potential to become the comet of the twenty-first century—if it can survive its trip around the Sun, that is. As I write, this much-anticipated traveler is approaching Mars and can be seen through most backyard telescopes.
Comet ISON is garnering attention in the Christian community for other reasons as well. Some believers claim that the comet’s path—which could take it through the constellation Virgo (the Virgin), the Crown (if it makes it past the Sun), and others—illustrates the story of Jesus. In essence, this idea is similar to the “gospel in the stars” concept that is sometimes attributed to the Christmas star.
RTB’s own Hugh Ross (astronomer) and Jeff Zweerink (astrophysicist) discussed Comet ISON’s supposed theological importance on a recent episode of Praise the Lord on Trinity Broadcasting Network (starting around 36 minutes). Both Hugh and Jeff cast doubt on the idea of a gospel-in-the-stars scenario for scientific and biblical reasons.
Hugh compares Comet ISON to the star of Bethlehem. Though the wise men took the unusual star as confirmation, they likely culled their knowledge of the timing of the Messiah’s arrival from a prophecy of Daniel. And when they asked the Jewish leaders in Jerusalem for help in determining the location, the answer was found in the book of Micah, not in the star itself.
So, if Comet ISON is really meant to be theologically significant, Hugh states, “I would expect to see something in Scripture to guide me, just like there was something in Scripture to guide the wise men.” Hugh further cautions believers against buying into the idea that Comet ISON will tell the story of Jesus because people can read whatever story they’d like into this event (similar to the concept of numerology and the Bible code).
Though some may be disappointed that this celestial event isn’t a sensational gospel-confirming phenomenon, Hugh and Jeff point out that Comet ISON should inspire plenty of awe—even without the questionable hype. To Jeff, this comet is a reminder of God’s hand in creation. He explains that God used a period of intense bombardment by asteroids and comets to prepare Earth’s surface and atmosphere for the arrival of advanced life and, eventually, humans.
Now the just-right placement and size of our gas giant neighbors protect us from devastating impact events. For example, if Comet ISON were to hit Earth, Jeff says, “It would, in all likelihood, release more energy than the simultaneous detonation of the world’s entire nuclear arsenal—that’s bad.”
Fortunately, we get to joyfully cheer Comet ISON on its journey, rather than fear it. Astronomers anticipate the comet will make its perilous encounter with the Sun on Thanksgiving Day (November 28). Only then will we know for sure if we’ll get a stunning holiday light show or disappointing fizzle. NASA lays out three possible scenarios for Comet ISON: (1) evaporation caused by the Sun’s heat; (2) a breakup of the comet into smaller pieces; and (3) survival and emergence with brightness so intense the comet will be visible to the naked eye in broad daylight.
Here’s to hoping for scenario number three! As Hugh says, “It could be spectacular—I wouldn’t miss it.”
Resources: Jeff explains cosmic signatures that substantiate the Bible’s declaration that the universe is designed for habitability in RTB Live! vol. 11: Signature of the Creator (DVD).