Seeing Through Heaven?

Gary B. Swanson

Seeing Through Heaven?

.In Steps to Christ, Ellen G. White writes of “the unnumbered worlds throughout immensity.”1 In her use of this evocative language, she attempts to portray the entire cosmos at a time in human history that its true vastness was only beginning to be realized.

In one of my all-time favorite short stories, “The Man Who Saw Through Heaven” (1919),2 Wilbur Daniel Steele recounts the imaginative experience of the Reverend Hubert Diana who, at the beginning of the narrative, is about to embark for a mission field somewhere in East Africa early in the 20th century. On the eve of his departure by ship from the port of Boston, he happens to visit an observatory where, with some intellectual guile that is apparent to the reader but not to the reverend, an astronomer named Mr. Krum introduces him to these same “unnumbered worlds throughout immensity.” The Reverend Diana peers into the eyepiece of a telescope, and a remark by Mr. Krum as to the length of time it would take for the light from the star that the reverend is looking at to reach the eyepiece seizes the reverend’s thought. For the first time in his life, he realizes that this scientific marvel of astronomy may suggest a worldview, as it were, that is alternative to his previously unexamined literal interpretation of Scripture. In a sense, as the title suggests, it is as if he sees through heaven.

The experience in that observatory that night obliterates the Reverend Diana’s faith—and, indeed, his sanity. Next day, he somehow stumbles aboard the ship, the interestingly named Platonic, bound for Africa with his new wife, but by the time of his arrival on that continent after a four-day voyage, he is utterly lost. Soon after landing there, he abandons his mission and his wife and disappears into the bush.

What follows in the story is the search for the Reverend Hubert Diana by his indomitable wife with the assistance of an agent, the narrator of the story. And the conclusion does offer the hope of a return to faith, for the man and for the reader.

“The Man Who Saw Through Heaven” is one of the earlier accounts of the assault that a strictly materialist interpretation of science is making ever increasingly to this day on the world of faith. With its emphasis on measurement—on the quantifying of the “unnumbered worlds”—this worldview is completely dismissive of the idea of the unknowable. Its quest is to bring everything under subjection to human knowledge and reason.

And to the materialist, this emphasis on knowledge and reason must be based solely on empirical evidence, on what is observable only to the human senses and experiment, else how could it ever be measured? In due time, science has reduced its focus to “materialist science.”

This wasn’t always so. In fact, science had its beginning in the world of faith. Out of Christianity itself, in reaction to Greek thought, it was originally an expression of the seeking of the heart for God’s truth through the study of His creation. It was an effort to know God ever more intimately by observation of the universe that He had made. Physicist C. F. Von Weizsacker has called modern science a legacy of Christian thought. Chemist Charles Thaxton has reached even further, calling science “a child of Christianity.”3

Yet today, science has increasingly refined and intensified its emphasis on empirical evidence in its interpretation of reality. This has become so “organic” to cultural thought that it affects all search for truth. And it has become universal in all interpretation of the universe.

Even in the media, which have always been a kind of open market of thought, evolution has become the standard by which information is represented and explained. Whenever a recent scientific discovery—whether in so-called hard science or soft science—is announced in newspaper stories, magazine articles, televised newscasts, or Internet reports, it is inevitably interpreted in evolutionary terms.

In an article reporting on research into human behavior, a Pennsylvania State University researcher offered some interesting observations on human nature—all based on apparently closely measured empirical evidence. The study reported that it takes an average of 27 seconds for a car to back out of a parking space if no one is waiting; if someone is waiting, it takes 31 seconds.

Though this is hardly any kind of highly significant scientific study, it does raise a certain curiosity. What exactly is going on here? An explanation offered by sociologists is that this reluctance to give up possession of something—in this case, a parking space—is a manifestation of territorial instincts that go back millions of years. They say it reflects a time in human evolution when protection of one’s territory was necessary for survival.

The interpretation of this human behavior is expressed in only evolutionary context. No attempt is made to see this hesitancy to give up possession of something from a theocentric worldview. From that viewpoint, the behavior may be attributed to the proposition that, as Scripture says, “The heart is . . . desperately wicked” (Jer. 17:9, KJV), that, after the Fall, humanity became a sinful race that exhibits selfishness.

Similarly, Smithsonian magazine recently published an article entitled “Behind the Scenes at the National Zoo With the World’s Most Dangerous Bird.” It describes the cassowary, a menacing ostrich-sized creature native to Papua New Guinea, Indonesia, and northeastern Australia, as still having “that mysterious aura about her—that prehistoric, dinosaur-walking-through-the-rainforest-quality.” It further observes that “cassowaries help illuminate the reptilian ancestry of all avian species. Yet these birds are mere evolutionary holdouts.”4 As the reader has surely come to expect, the article is written on the assumption—on the given—that evolution is no longer theoretical.

Throughout the media today, description, definition, explanation, interpretation—all are expressed through the lens of evolutionary terms. And any variance of interpretation from that of science, as it is represented today, is dismissed as delusional or branded as anti-intellectual.

In 1888, Ellen G. White addressed an intellectual climate in which spiritualism was attacking the role of Christ in the plan of salvation. “Skeptics and scoffers denounce the bigotry of those who contend for the faith of prophets and apostles,” she wrote, “and they divert themselves by holding up to ridicule the solemn declarations of the Scriptures."5 The same line of attack, today, appears to be aimed at those who understand the origins of life on this planet to be recounted in the literal reading of Scripture.

In fact, there appears to have been a kind of confluence in today’s culture of science and spiritualism. This may at first sound incongruous: are not materialist science and ethereal spirituality mutually exclusive?

It seems not.

“The Bible,” writes Kwabena Donkor, “predicts an intense period of spiritualistic activities as the world’s history draws to a close, and evolutionary thinking seems to provide the needed framework for these phenomena.”6 Donkor develops this idea further in summarizing observations of James A. Herrick, who “refers to scientists who believe that when physicists and astronomers probe the deep recesses of the universe, they find an indefinite and apparently infinite field of energy—a vacuum or void. Quantum physicists who speak of this void or vacuum see it as similar to the Buddhist concept of Sunyata.”7

The evolutionary worldview and the scientific field of physics, especially, are blending to suggest a new metaphysics that combines mind, thought, and matter. This is an emerging spirituality—a new faith—that would seemingly obviate the need for a Creator God.

Solomon, in his inspired wisdom, counseled his readers to “Remember now your Creator in the days of your youth” (Eccl. 12:1). It appears that such a reminder should be urged on those of any age—or epoch.



1. Steps to Christ, p. 86.
3. Charles Thaxton, “Modern Science, a Child of Christianity,” in Kelly Munroe Kullberg and Lael Arrington, A Faith and Cultural Devotional: Daily Reading on Art, Science, and Life (Grand Rapids, Mich.: Zondervan, 2008), p. 49.
5. The Great Controversy, p. 561.
6. Article: Evolutionary Thought and Spiritualism.
7. James A. Herrick, The Making of the New Spirituality: The Eclipse of the Western Religious Tradition (Downers Grove, Ill.: InterVarsity, 2003).