Naturalism, or Faith in God
By Daniel H. Harris, Ph.D.
I. The Choices.
At this time of year astronomers, historians and scholars, those who think they know, like to tell us their naturalistic explanations for the Christmas Star. Some say that the star was some bright planets all together on the sky, or perhaps it was an "exploding star," a supernova. These scholars suppose they are doing a service by "explaining" the Christmas Star, so the public will not cling to superstition.
When I was in elementary school my father took me several times to the Griffith Planetarium in Los Angeles. On at least one of those occasions the lecturer showed what the sky supposedly looked like shortly before the time of Jesus' birth. He showed certain bright planets all together on the sky, and he suggested that this planetary alignment, or perhaps an exploding star, alerted the wise men, and so sent them off on their journey to Jerusalem. Even though I was then young and impressionable, I was not fully persuaded. And over the years, when I saw other similar planetarium shows, when I was an astronomy graduate student, even when I myself presented planetarium lectures, the naturalistic "explanations" of the Christmas Star never fully convinced me.
Of course the only alternative to a naturalistic explanation is to believe that something supernatural happened that night long ago.
II. The Question.
So, the question is, "was the Christmas Star something astronomical; that is, explainable by natural law; or was it a miracle of God?" We can either hold to naturalism, which trusts in nature and discounts God; or we can recognize the miraculous hand of God at work showing a notable sign.
Many people, not just astronomers, would prefer not to believe in miracles. The noted Chinese pastor and Bible scholar Watchman Nee, in his book, "Aids to Revelation" tells us that, "God knows men only care for natural occurrences, but He wants us to come face to face with Him. Hence He will deal with us on supernatural ground. People may tolerate reading about the supernatural events of the (distant) past because they can have no effect upon them .... But if in (the present or) the future such supernatural events are yet to come to pass, these will strike deadly blows to their materialism and their scorn of miracles and wonders."1 (parenthesis by Harris). That is, if miracles continue to occur, we are forced to either face Him who makes miracles, or to turn away and invent fables.
III. The Bible is God's Word.
I assert that the Bible is the inspired word of God, without error. So I ask you to temporarily suspend your disbelief [as you do when watching an entertainment] and for a time go along with the supposition that the Bible is indeed the inspired Word of God. So let's see what the Bible says. The relevant Scripture is in Matthew, ch 2, verses 1 - 12. Our first key to these Scriptures is verse 9.
"When they had heard the king they departed; and, the star which they saw in the East, went before them, till it came and stood over where the young child was."
IV. The Star Went Before Them!
So the Scripture makes clear, that star "went before them," implying motion, and a continuing action in leading them. To actively lead them, the star had to change direction as they moved on the ground, as they followed the road over the hills of Judea toward Bethlehem. The star had to always direct them towards Bethlehem.
V. No Astronomical Object Could Go Before Them.
No astronomical object or grouping of planets could go before them, pointing the way, as the Scripture describes.
Astronomical objects can not change direction reacting to our motion on the ground. Astronomical objects follow the same path as the stars, rising in the east and setting in the west, as the Earth turns. (Planets move only slowly against the background of stars, the name planet meaning "wanderer").
Astronomical objects don't point in the same direction for many hours or days at a time, they rise, come to maximum altitude, and then they set. The only astronomical object that can stay fixed on the sky is the north star, Polaris. But Bethlehem is not to the north as you leave Jerusalem, and the wise men were clearly not so foolish as to follow the north star.
Since the Scriptures tell us that the star "went before them, till it came and stood over where the young child was," and no astronomical object could have gone before them as the Scripture says; we are therefore forced to either accept the supernatural, or to discount or modify the Scriptures to obtain agreement with a naturalistic model.
VI. Herod's Advisors Were Watching!
We know from Matthew ch 2, verses 3 & 4, that Herod gathered the chief priests and the scribes of Jerusalem, the wisest men of his kingdom, and enquired of them regarding the star; and that Herod and all of Jerusalem was troubled (verse 3). So the wise men of Jerusalem were watching. If the Christmas Star had been seen by the priests, by the scribes, or by the servants of Herod, then they also would have followed the Star to Bethlehem; and they would have brought the child back to Jerusalem, or killed Him if they could. But the Star was not seen by the servants of Herod, so they couldn't follow what they didn't see. This shows us that the wise men from the East, who were believers and worshipers of the one true God, who waited for the trut King of Israel, they saw the Star. But the wicked and unbelieving servants of Herod, who were also looking, couldn't see His star. This clearly shows the supernatural nature of the Christmas Star.
VII. The Star Then Stood Over the House!
Suddenly there was a change in the stars' motion. Again in verse 9 we read that, the star "stood over where the young child was." The description is of a clear change, from leading and going before them, to lead the way; to standing still, and by standing affirming that they had found the child, which they had traveled so far to see.
VIII. No Astronomical Object Could Point to the Place Where He Was.
An astronomical object can't point to a particular place on earth. To see this, consider the Moon. As seen from opposite sides of the Earth, the Moon shifts against the background of distant stars by less than two degrees, about one finger at arms length. You can verify this by watching the Moon as you travel on a long straight road. The Moon will remain in the same direction, except for its slow motion across the sky with the stars. Since the Moon is our closest neighbor in space, it is clear that no object at the distance of the Moon or beyond could point the wise men to a particular house within the village of Bethlehem.
IX. The Star Had to be near the Ground.
To point to a particular house within the village, by standing over the house as the Scripture says, the star when seen from different locations inside the village would have to change position against the background of stars. For this to happen the Christmas star had to be within the Earth's atmosphere and close to the ground, perhaps only a few hundred meters up. This requires a genuine miracle, like the pillar of fire and of smoke which led the Israelites in the wilderness for forty years. The Scriptures tell us that the pillar of fire and smoke was the glory of God, clothed in cloud to protect the children of Israel. So should we be surprised to find the glory of God leading the wise men to the savior of the world, Jesus the Christ. There is always the possibility that the star, was indeed like the pilar pointing at the house, or that the star shown a light on the ground, illuminating the house. Even if such were the case the "star" was likely within the Earth's atmosphere
X. The Miracle!
So we see
1) The leading of the Star,
2) The inability of Herod's servants to see or follow the Star even
while the wise men saw it easily;
3) The fact that the Star "stood over where the young child was," and
4) Clearly pointed to a particular house in the village of Bethlehem;
All these clearly show the supernatural nature of the Christmas Star. There is no astronomical explanation which fits, unless you are willing to do violence to the Scriptures to force a fit.
If we are willing to accept this true miracle, one of the many clearly described in the Scriptures, perhaps we should be willing, to as Watchman Nee says, "come face to face" with the God who does miracles.
XI. Why Scientists Choose to Not Believe.
So why are most scientists and scholars so closed minded regarding the obvious truth that the Christmas Star was a genuine miracle? Most scientists and scholars have been indoctrinated into faith in the laws of nature only, and they have no true communion with the God of the Scriptures.
Generally in order to become a scientist or scholar the candidate must repeatedly confess belief in naturalism. The candidate must demonstrate belief in an accepted body of knowledge recognized by other scholars. And the candidate must practice the faith of naturalism in publications and communications with colleagues. Scientists and scholars are carefully trained to exclude all thought of God and miracles. From their earliest schooling onward their experiences, training and instructional materials promoted natural law as a sufficient cause for all phenomena. When such a person so indoctrinated reads the Scriptures, they automatically superimpose on the Scriptures naturalistic preconceptions. Faith in naturalism, automatically makes a scientist close minded. All contrary facts and concepts are excluded or modified in order to fit the faith of naturalism.
Scientists and scholars naturally want to believe in naturalism, because it's their passion. They want to believe in their own work. They want to think they are smart and so are other scholars. They want to explain the world in terms of natural law only. As part of that process they exclude God as unnecessary. In excluding God and figuring out their own natural law explanations natural, even forcing explanations that don't fit, they consider themeselves to be wise, even as they become fools by exalting themselves. Most scientists prefer to find agreement with their colleagues, rather than accept an inconvenient anomaly. Scientists and scholars are all too willing to agree with one another, so that they can find assurance among themselves, and thereby pretend that they really know what they are doing. This is the dominant form of political correctness among scientists and scholars.
XII. The Wise Fools - Sophomores.
Two thousand years ago Jesus spoke about the prevalence of unbelief in our time. In Matthew, 24, verses 11 and 12, Jesus said;
"many false prophets shall rise, and shall deceive many." and "...because iniquity shall abound (that is, rebellion shall increase), the love of many shall wax cold." (that is, become cold)
He knew that there would be many deceivers; deceiving themselves in our time, that many would fall way, no longer trusting in the exquisite simplicity of God's Word. What Jesus described in Matthew 24, is indeed occurring today. Many have turned from faith in God's word, trusting instead in human understanding, and creating fables and stories to explain away the true miracles of God.
The skeptical and unbelieving scientists and scholars, are well described by in Romans ch 1, verse 18 - 22. "When they knew God, they glorified him not as God, neither were thankful; but became vain in their imaginations, and their foolish heart was darkened. Professing themselves to be wise, they became fools."
As a scientist and as a Christian, I prefer to rest my foundational belief about the nature and origin of the cosmos on the testimony of the Scriptures, and to let that testimony guide all my understanding.
XIII. Be Ready.
As you come upon this year's crop of suggested naturalistic explanations for the Christmas Star, you should now be ready. Just remember exactly what is said in the Scriptures (Matthew 2:9) how the star went before them, guiding them, and then stood over where the young child was. You might also remember Matthew 2:10, "When they saw the star, they rejoiced with exceeding great joy." Let us also likewise rejoice greatly.
For the creator became our savior, and we are privileged to know Him. May your Christmas be one of true joy, being in His presence, and may you trust in the Word of God, and not the fables of materialists and astronomers.
Ref. 1. Nee, Watchman, Aids to Revelation (New York, 1983), p9.