Three Heavens - Our Home

Patricia H. Reiff

(Director, Rice Space Institute

Rice University)


(an edited version of this essay appears in "Professors Who Believe", published 1998 by IVP, edited by Paul Anderson, ISBN 0830815996. A review can be found in the listing)


"The heavens declare the glory of God; the firmament showeth his handiwork" [Ps. 19:1].

One of my fondest memories as a child is taking a father-daughter astronomy course with our Brownie troop at the Oklahoma City planetarium. I had always been interested in all of the natural world; our 5-acre place with its pond and animals gave me ample opportunity to observe life and its wonders, and, with an M.D. mother who chose to stay at home, I had the luxury of time. Bottle-feeding a lamb, who was rejected by his first-time mother, was sheer delight. Named "Georgie" because of his February 22nd birthday, his tail jerked in delight as he downed the bottle. By April he could almost bowl me over with his enthusiasm. Dressed in dress and hat that matched his ribbons, I proudly led him in the Easter fashion show at my church; proud, that is, until he made a huge puddle on the ramp! Despite that horrifying experience, I thought that a career as a veterinarian might be in my future - to combine the medical talents of my parents with my love of the outdoors.

I often sat in my quiet place in the woods: a flat rock surrounded by trees. From there no houses or people intruded on my sight, and the noise of civilization was quieter then. God talked to me in the bird song and the frog chorus. It's no wonder that "In the Garden" is my favorite hymn, then and now. I was very fortunate to grow up in a family whose belief in God was deep-rooted and sincere. Although our church was a bit toward the "social" side (a bowling alley in the downtown church, and Miss Oklahoma pageants in the outside amphitheater in the new site), the pastor was charming and warm, and spoke truth. I was the first person baptized in that futuristic "Church of Tomorrow", Easter 1957, with its paraboloid dome and unusual tower. Although I was only seven, that immersion sealed my true commitment to live for Christ as my personal Savior, and I have tried to keep that commitment ever since.

It's perhaps strange to be both pro-nature and high-tech, but the combination is not so unusual in my field. Sir Fred Hoyle predicted that when humans left the Earth, we would look back on the planet as small, fragile, and beautiful. He was right: the fresh perspective forever changed our appreciation of our island home. We have visited all save one of the planets and viewed all the large and moderate-sized moons; not only is there no life in evidence, we could not live there without major support systems. The recent evidence suggesting bacteria in early Mars is from a time when liquid water and Mars' magnetic field could protect such life from the ravages of the sun's ultraviolet and the galaxy's cosmic rays - protection which is gone now. Shielded from cosmic rays by our magnetic field, from energetic photons by our atmosphere, and nurtured by the ocean, Earth is a special place and deserves our careful stewardship. This lower atmosphere, the domain of life and weather, is the first heaven, and we are just now learning how precious and rare this Gift from God is. I really didn't appreciate our "heaven on earth" until I learned about the atmosphere of Venus that can melt lead, the sterile expanse of Mercury, the dry dust (and dry frost!) of Mars, the sulfurous volcanoes of Io, the noxious atmosphere of Titan and the frigid geysers of Triton. Pluto, our only unvisited planet, is unlikely to be more hospitable, with the sun appearing only as a rather bright star. The planets that scientists have found around other stars are scarcely inviting - all (so far) have been much too close to their home star for habitability, but it's possible that more inviting planets will eventually be found.

This brings us to the second heaven: the realm of the stars and galaxies. That astronomy class with my Dad left me with a sense of wonder over the vastness of the Universe and its mysteries, lighting a spark that did not blossom till much later. So when I went to Wellesley College in 1967 to be a Math major (joining my sister who was majoring in History), I signed up for the basic Astronomy course. In the suburbs of Boston, their 24-inch telescope could expand my view of the planets, if not the dimmer nebulae. But the professors at Wellesley knew something that many schools did not - that in order to really understand Astronomy, you needed to know Physics. So the first semester of Astronomy there was really Physics 100. Physics opened a new door for me - here I could put my Math talents to good use solving problems of how things work. I owe my professor there, Phyllis Fleming, a huge debt for making Physics fun and not the bore it is in most schools. I found my new Major.

Unfortunately, the continuation of Physics conflicted with the continuation of Astronomy, so the next semester I took Physics instead. At the time Wellesley had a very small number of women majoring in Physics (4 or 5 a year), so I thought about transferring back closer to home. Suffering from culture shock and severely Mexican-food-deprived, I left after a year to return to Oklahoma, my cowboy boots and my boyfriend, and to graduate with honors from Oklahoma State. Consequently, I never did take a course in "real" Astronomy at Wellesley. (It has boosted its emphasis on physics and astronomy considerably since I left.)

Rice University accepted me for graduate school in both the Physics and Space Science departments. When I learned that I could get a summer job analyzing data from the Apollo 14 mission to the Moon, my choice was clear. The drama of Apollo 13 was fresh on my mind, and the prospect of working with NASA as more lunar missions were still flying was captivating. I was a child of the space age - only seven when Sputnik first flew, and the thrill of learning something that noone ever knew before was far more exciting than merely adding to our knowledge of processes here on Earth.

E. W. Maunder, in his book The Astronomy of the Bible says that the Judaic God opened up the possibility for scientific study of the heavens. Contemporary religions had the Sun and Moon as major gods - as gods, they were not suitable for study, and an eclipse of either would strike terror. But the Bible teaches that the Sun and other heavenly bodies are just created objects [Ps 148], for days and seasons, for weeks and years [Gen 1:14; Ps 136], and as such are suitable for study and must not be worshipped [Dt 4:19]. Quoting Maunder: " cannot be imagined that God would have intervened to hamper [man's] growth in intellectual power by revealing to men facts and methods which it was within their own ability to discover for themselves. Men's mental powers have developed by their exercise; they would have been stunted had men been led to look to revelation rather than to diligent effort for the satisfaction of their curiosity." God encourages us to understand our universe, and many of the great names of Science, from Faraday to Newton, have attributed their success to divine inspiration. God is the author of all knowledge, and I give Him full credit both for my incremental additions to the field and the few flashes of special insight that I have had over the years.

Perhaps the most common question I hear as a believing scientist is, "what are your views on creation - how do you reconcile science with scripture?" Although I certainly believe that God could have created the entire universe in six earth days 6000 years ago, it seems so unlike God to deliberately confuse us by leaving so many clues that argue for a much older Universe. Instead, I believe that the Bible is literally true but uses figurative language (when the beggar Lazarus died [Luke 16:22] he was not implanted into Abraham's bosom but rather joined Abraham in Heaven). Since God is not subject to the limitation of the speed of light, then God's time is completely irrelevant to man's time. As Peter said in 2 Peter 3:8 (paraphrasing Ps. 90:4), "one day is with the Lord as a thousand years, and a thousand years as one day" (see Genesis and the Big Bang, by Gerald Schroeder for a discussion of relativity and God's time).

A book I highly recommend to help understand the fact that God's dimension is greater than man's is called Flatland by Edwin Abbott. That book discusses how life appears to two-dimensional beings (triangles, squares, and the like) confined to a plane. The flatland folk can only see each other's perimeters but not inside each other. They cannot imagine a three-dimensional being; they can only observe the intersection of a 3-D object with their world. If a three-dimensional person sticks three fingers into their plane, it appears to them as three separate circles. The 3-D being can see inside them and even flip them over or turn them inside out, things they cannot do for themselves. Similarly, time is another dimension which God is outside of - one can imagine us on a plane with time as one dimension and space the other. God can look to the left and see us doing things "in the past" and look to the right and see us doing things "in the future"; but it is all NOW to him.

Considering that the Bible was written thousands of years before Newton's laws and Maxwell's equations, the sequence described in Genesis is amazingly correct by current understanding. For example, a common argument used long ago against the Genesis account was this: "how could light have appeared on the first day when the sun wasn't created until the fourth day?"

We now know that there is not a better, simpler, description of the Big Bang than "light, be!". The farthest back most astronomers are willing to consider is the time when all the energy (and mass, and space, for that matter) in the universe was in the form of an infinitesimally small point of light energy that spontaneously arose many billions of years ago. Only when it expanded and cooled were nucleons able to condense out of the formless and fill the void. Similarly, the other five days of creation are the other times when God's specific creative power was required to make Man and his habitable world. Day 2 in my view covers the condensation of the galaxy, the solar system, and the planets - miraculous because of the delicacy of the balance between the pull of gravity and the inertia of the explosion. As outlined by Hugh Ross in the Creator and the Cosmos, each of the fundamental constants of physics can only exist in an extremely narrow range to allow stars and planets, and even atoms and molecules to form. In essence, day one was the Big Bang and the Laws of Physics; day two says that the fundamental constants and local conditions were just right so that galaxies, and specifically the Solar system and its Earth, could form. We now understand that our Sun is a second-generation star, formed out of the debris of a neighboring supernova. That fact is absolutely critical to life on Earth - without the supernova, we would not have the carbon and other heavy elements essential for life. And without the compression from the supernova's shock wave, the sun would not have condensed as a single star - leaving us as a mass of formless gas. A typical nebula needs several solar masses of material to spontaneously condense; the result is a system with two or more stars: planets in those systems have erratic orbits and wildly varying illumination, not conducive for life.

Day three gave Earth its unique combination of dry land and water - again, absolutely necessary for intelligent, communicating life. Day three also brought the first life. I really don't care whether this took an eyeblink or a billion years - the creation of life from non-life, even in a single-celled bacterium, is so complicated and unlikely that it has been compared to having an explosion in a junkyard which results in a 747. It's also possible that microbial life hitched a ride on as asteroid or comet (as Fred Hoyle has argued), or arrived on a fragment of Mars. God's hand was involved, of that I am sure. The transition from single-celled to multicelled life is another incredible change - the cooperation of cells to form a single entity; in many cases with the death of single cells necessary for the good of the organism. The plant life from day three made a profound change in Earth's atmosphere - taking carbon dioxide out of the atmosphere and putting it into soils, into limestone and microfossils, in the process creating food and oxygen for the animals to come. Thus the first heaven was given to us.

The fourth day the clouds parted to allow the earth to see the sun, moon, and stars. This was at least partially due to the extraction of carbon dioxide, cooling the atmosphere "just in time" because the sun was heating up. A transparent yet sheltering atmosphere is also unique in our solar system. Only Earthlings can stand on the ground and observe the wonders of the heavens without being scorched by the sun, blasted by cosmic rays, or shrouded by thick layers of clouds. Only Earthlings have perfect solar eclipses, where the sun's disk is exactly covered by an orbiting satellite, allowing the Sun's gorgeous, ghostly corona to be seen. It is no coincidence that our eyes are sensitive only to the portion of the electromagnetic spectrum which easily penetrates the atmosphere. Alone in the solar system we have a clear, safe view of the wonder-full second heaven.

The fifth day brought forth animal life in abundance, starting from the ocean. One can have life in oceans alone (hence the evidence for bacteria on Mars and a possibility of life in the subsurface oceans of Europa); however, only with the energy from fire can technology develop and thus long-range communication. Certainly dolphins and whales are intelligent creatures; but their ocean home allows communication only via sound waves. The combination of the nurturing ocean and the challenging land gives the Earth alone in our solar system the right conditions for an amazing array of life. The fifth day also brought birds to explore the skies. It seemed odd to me that the description of the leviathans of the sea is followed in the same sentence by birds; however, scientists now suggest that the dinosaurs are most closely related to birds, not to lizards!

The sixth day brought land animals, and last of all man. And finally, God made man of the dust of the earth and breathed His spirit into him. This infusion of God's spirit is perhaps the most significant creative act of all - it changed man from an intelligent animal to having the capability of eternal life. Whether "the dust of the earth" means an actual handful of soil or a walking australopithecine is also not crucial to me; it is clear that there is something special about man. And 60 million years of primate evolution in South America after its separation from Africa did not bring man to be there - only in God's hand did homo become humanity. In this way we could be cognizant of the third heaven - the realm of the spirit. But only through the sacrifice of his Son, Jesus Christ, can the third heaven become accessible to us.

So I am comfortable in being both a scientist and a Christian. God called me to understand His world, and gives me the insight to do it. And yes, I ascribe many of my best ideas to divine inspiration - the Aha! insight that Martin Gardner discusses often comes to me in my quiet times or in dreams. I have felt the Lord leading me, both in my choice of career, and in my everyday life - I have rested on the promise of Proverbs 3:5-6: "Trust in the Lord with all thine heart, and lean not unto thine own understanding. In all thy ways acknowledge him, and he shall direct thy paths."

I have also felt the presence of God in comfort, strength, and joy. Perhaps the most wonderful thing about the joy of the Lord is its ability to drive out fear. I travel many thousands of miles per year; but the bumps don't scare me because I always turn the flight over to the Lord. As a child, I got nightmares from time to time; but when I received the Holy Spirit and learned of God's power as well as his grace, then I rebuked the Prince of this world and banished him from my house by the blood of Jesus. Now my dreams are sweet [Prov. 3:24]. My children are also learning the peace which comes with the Lord. When a tornado touched down less than a mile from their school last school year, and they had to "duck and cover" for nearly an hour, each of my three children (independently) prayed to God for deliverance for themselves and their school, and lost their fear. When my mother died five years ago she saw the angels coming for her, and the nurses were amazed at her joy and strength. Many similar stories from my friends convince me that the home I have waiting for me far exceeds what is here on Earth. There is a wonderful story of a missionary returning to the U.S. after 40 years in the mission field. On the same ocean liner rode the Queen of England. When they arrived in New York, the ticker tapes flew and the press mobbed the Queen, but the missionary was ignored. He was lamenting the difference to his wife, but she sagely touched his arm and said, "yes, but dear, you're not home yet". I know where my eternal home is - and that knowledge gives me peace and joy every day.

This world's worries do not scare me - despite the severe cutbacks in federal research funding, I know my Father has the cattle of a thousand hills [Ps. 50:10] and will provide for me. And I have been very fortunate - a scientific mission that I helped conceive (IMAGE) was just selected as the next MIDEX (Mid-sized Explorer), and we are preparing for a launch near the turn of the millennium. I know you cannot out-give God. He asks for 10%, then returns us a hundredfold on our investment - so if we are faithful in His ministry, our own resources will grow [Luke 6:38; 2 Cor 9:6]. God's abundant provision towards us covers our professional lives and our daily sustenance as well as in the health of our eternal spirits. Part of my tithe (and my "time-tithe") I give to environmental organizations, including the Citizens' Environmental Coalition, of which I am a trustee. Many of Jesus's illustrations were of natural processes - the lilies of the field, the sower, the sparrow, the vine and the branches, the shepherd and the sheep. We are to "occupy till He comes" [Luke 19:13], and we will have to answer to God for what we do with our talents - including not only our personal abilities, but also our financial resources, and our treatment of the world and the people in it. If we hide our talents, they will be taken away, as the servant in Matthew 25 learned. (A favorite quote of mine is "if you are resting on your laurels, you're wearing them on the wrong end").

So, am I perfect? Far from it - as my extremely patient husband will say, I try to do too much, I leave too much clutter, spend too little time with the family. (Hoping to slow me down, he gave me a copy of The Type E Woman for Christmas one year. I didn't finish it.) Although I sin, I have an advocate with the Father, Jesus Christ the Righteous, and he is propitiation for our sins, and not for mine only, but also for the sins of the whole world [1 John 2:1-2]. If we confess our sins, he is faithful and just to forgive us, and to cleanse us from all unrighteousness [1 John 1:9]. The hallmark of true faith in God is hope [Heb. 6:17-20] , and the knowledge that God watches over all parts of our life, forgiving our sins, healing our diseases, judging righteously, leading us into truth and to eternal life [Ps. 103].

There can be no scientific proof of God - if there were, then only scientists would go to Heaven, and the children and the uneducated would be left behind. But Jesus came for the children and the poor, scorning the haughty intellectuals of his day. He came to show us what God living in you really looks like, and taught by simple parables that all could understand. He died a lamb for our sins and forever opened the throne of God to men. My faith is based on God's word and on the eyewitness of men and women who were willing to die, not on cleverly crafted fables [2 Peter 1:16]. The Dead Sea Scrolls just serve to confirm that only very minor variants occur in today's manuscripts from those 2000 years ago. Archaeological discoveries each year show new evidence of the veracity of the places and people spoken of in the Bible. God preserves his Word, and that is what speaks of Jesus. The Bible is very old, yet always new, and like an onion has many layers - each time I read it, I go a layer deeper, but never to the end. It is challenging enough for an intellectual, but simple enough for a child. Although the material heavens will pass away, the new heaven, God's home for us, will be eternal [2 Peter 3:10-13]. Until then, my study of the three heavens - the atmosphere, the galaxy, and our eternal home - continues.

(first presented as a lay sermon to the Macedonia United Methodist Church, Hockley, Texas, October 13, 1996)


Abbott, E. A., Flatland: A Romance of Many Dimensions, 83 pp, Dover Publications, N.Y., 1992 (originally published in 1884).

Braiker, H. B., The Type E Woman: How to Overcome the Stress of Being Everything to Everybody, 270 pp, Dodd, Mead & Co., N.Y., 1986.

Gardner, Martin, aha! Insight, 179 pp, Scientific American Press/W. H. Freeman, New York, 1978.

Maunder, E. W., The Astronomy of the Bible, 404 pp, Hodder and Stoughton, London, 1909.

Ross, Hugh, The Creator and the Cosmos: How the Greatest Scientific Discoveries of the Century Reveal God, 181 pp, NavPress, Colorado Springs, 1995.

Schroeder, Gerald, Genesis and the Big Bang, .

created: February 21, 1997; revised September 4, 2002

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