Seeing the Rainbow

Gary B. Swanson

Seeing the Rainbow

“It is physically impossible to walk under a rainbow. They [sic.] literally exist only in the eyes of the observer.”1

Well, this suggests some interesting ideas and questions.

Is a rainbow real? Does it actually exist? Plainly it does exist, at least in the “eyes of the observer,” but in a sense, it is illusory. It is, as they say, “all in your head.” Yet, at the same time, there it is. When you see it, you may point it out to someone standing next to you and both of you can appreciate its beauty—its existence. You can photograph it to share with others.

Maybe another look should be taken then at reality. What does it mean to be real, to actually exist? Can existence be limited only to that which is physical?

The direction of this thought experiment is probably obvious. Is reality—of actual truth—possible only to the physical? What about to the spiritual?

Or, to consider the fact that a rainbow is real only to those who can see it, what does this suggest about those who cannot? Let us say that from where I stand in my front yard, I am looking at a full-blown double rainbow glowing in vivid, scintillating color to the east of my home. From my vantage it appears to be arced over the town of Burtonsville three miles away like that technicolor sweep of a magic wand over the castle at the beginning of a Disney film. The light of the late afternoon sun behind me has created this singular natural event. Breathtaking!

I fumble out my mobile phone and speed-dial my friend who lives in Burtonsville. When his phone clicks on, I can hear the roar of his lawnmower, and then it shuts off. “Are you seeing the magnificent rainbow?” I ask.

“What rainbow?” he answers.

“What, are you blind? It’s right over the top of you. Look straight up over your head. It’s huge!”

“Ain’t no rainbow here,” he says. “You’re seeing things!”

“It’s as plain as it can be,” I insist. “I guess you need to drive over here quick and see it before it’s gone.”

He sighs the way he does when I’m exulting over something he doesn’t understand or appreciate. And he knows I exult a lot. “You’re seeing things,” he mutters again. His lawnmower powers up again, and he ends the call.

There just may be something in all of this that relates to another ongoing discussion between my friend in Burtonsville and me. He doesn’t see the rainbow of religion either—never has. That is, he dismisses any evidence that he cannot personally experience himself. “Until I see empirical evidence of God,” he says, “I just don’t see how He can exist.” All of this is usually expressed in the friendliest of terms. Though we have been the warmest of long-term friends, we’ve had to agree to disagree, as they say. It is true that he gets a little frustrated with me when I’m exultant, but he’s OK with it. “That’s just the truth for you,” he says with all generosity.

But the double rainbow was as surely real as it could be. My friend was just in the wrong place to see it. If he had been standing with me where I was in my front yard, it would have been clearly evident to him. What you accept as truth is a matter of the position you choose to be in.

Since he’s taken the position that he can believe only what he can personally see, he will never see a rainbow that is arced over his very head. If he could take the position, in my front yard as it were, that there are things that exist that he cannot personally see, then maybe things would look different to him.

British poet Ralph Hodgson said, “Some things have to be believed to be seen.” He surely must have known that he was echoing something Jesus had said to Thomas, the doubter, “‘Blessed are those who have not seen and yet have believed’” (John 20:29, NIV).

Well, OK, it would have to be conceded that my friend in Burtonsville doesn’t truly disbelieve in rainbows. He has seen them before himself, always from a distance, as that is the nature of rainbows. So it can’t be said that he doubted my sighting of the rainbow from my front yard.

But in more general terms, belief, from individual to individual, is usually founded on differing givens. Because my Burtonsville friend has chosen to base his belief only the material, on what he can observe with the five senses, preferably those of his own, he arrives at the conclusion that there can be no truth in other viewpoints. He dismisses any evidence experienced by anyone or anything else. For him, this simply does not compute. And this, in essence, is an assertion of himself as the sole authority in deciding what is fact, what is true.

The apostle Luke describes some of the skeptics of Jesus’ time who, “testing Him, sought from Him a sign from heaven” (Luke 11:16, NKJV). They were demanding empirical evidence of His divinity. In this incident, they were not truly skeptical of the existence of the spiritual. These were a people who fully believed in the supernatural. They were questioning whether Jesus was of God or of the devil. But they were relying only on what they themselves could observe.

In a sense, then, these skeptics were demanding that the rainbow prove its own existence. For many long centuries, humankind has been enrapt by the utter elegance of the visible seven contiguous bands of color in the sunlight after a storm. They never could have doubted its existence, but beginning with Aristotle himself, scientists since have explained how the rainbow works. And that explanation has continued to be refined as more and more science has been applied to its study. As it happens, they have proved that there are actually more than seven hues, some of these additional not perceivable to the human eye. Which posits the question as to whether these additional colors are colors at all if they can’t be seen. And, if there truly are more than seven, how is it known that there aren’t many more yet undiscovered?

Very early in the beginning of Scripture is recorded the first mention of the rainbow. It was a stunning promise directly from God. And, as if it is arced over the entire history of humankind, there is mention in the last book of the Bible of the rainbow over the throne of heaven as well: “Then I saw another mighty angel [Christ Himself] coming down from heaven. He was robed in a cloud, with a rainbow above his head; his face was like the sun, and his legs were like fiery pillars” (Rev. 10:1, NIV).

The rainbow is itself an embodiment of belief. In its ephemeral way, it connects moments of note to timeless truth. It transposes things seen to things unseen. And even the materialist cannot claim to be entirely free of faith. “I believe in the supernatural as a matter of intellect and reason,” G. K. Chesterton said, “not as a matter of personal experience.”2



1. David S. Kidder and Noah D. Oppenheim, The Intellectual Devotional (New York: Rodale Press, 2012), 235.
2. G. K. Chesterton, Tremendous Trifles, iBooks.