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There is a point in the future when the earth will be devastated by objects from space. I have used the rather generic phrase “cosmic disturbance” as a label for that event. There is evidence in scripture and elsewhere that other cosmic disturbances have occurred. In this brief article, we won’t examine the many biblical descriptions of historical cosmic disturbances; only the future event the Bible describes very clearly.
We are familiar with the planets in our solar system that revolve around the sun and many of us are also familiar with the asteroid belt between Mars and Jupiter. The asteroids in this belt actually form four narrower belts separated by three zones called Kirkwood Gaps. As asteroids bump into each other or are affected by the gravitational attractions of larger bodies such as planets and comets, some of them move out of their standard orbit into a Kirkwood Gap. Due to principles beyond the scope of this study, any asteroid that enters a Kirkwood Gap quickly leaves it on an orbit that may carry it into the inner solar system near the earth. The Kirkwood Gaps then may be a key to how asteroids from the asteroid belt reach the earth.
Asteroids in orbit move in the same direction as the planets. In size, asteroids may be microscopic and detectable only with sensitive equipment, or they may be as large as Ceres, the largest known asteroid at 623 miles in diameter.
What most of us don’t realize is there are two other groups of asteroids with entirely different orbits. The Amor asteroids are in an orbit which regularly brings them near the earth’s orbit. For those interested in such things, their period is 2.66 years and their perihelion (closest approach to the sun) is about 100 million miles. These asteroids only come close to earth’s orbit, however gravitational attraction could draw them out of their standard orbit toward our planet.
The Apollo asteroids form another group, possibly more significant to us than the others. Their orbit actually crosses the earth’s, so they are an excellent source of meteorites, which means they can enter the atmosphere and strike the earth.
In this group there are asteroids of all sizes up to 0.6 miles (1.0 km) in diameter that have had close approaches to the earth in recent decades: Hermes (0.3 miles diameter) came within 550,000 miles on October 30, 1937; Adonis (0.2 miles diameter) within 1.4 million miles on February 7, 1936; Icarus (0.6 miles diameter) within 3.7 million miles on June 14, 1967; Apollo (0.6 miles diameter) within 6.5 million miles on May 25, 1932. There are about 1000 earth- crossing asteroids with diameters of at least 0.6 miles (1.0 km). The largest earth-crossing asteroid is about 25 miles across, although none of these larger ones is known to have approached the earth.
Other asteroids have approached the earth even more recently. For example, in March 1989 an asteroid about 0.5 miles in diameter passed within about 400,000 miles. In January 1992, a 30- foot wide asteroid came as close as 106,000 miles, less than half the distance to the moon.
Any object entering the earth’s atmosphere and producing a visible glow or streak is called a meteor. Any object that strikes the earth intact is a meteorite. Asteroids and debris from comets are typical sources of meteors.
Meteorites are very common on earth, especially if we include micrometeorites as small as dust particles. Debris from space constantly bombards the earth. Most of the large meteors disintegrate and burn up in the atmosphere, never reaching the surface, but the atmosphere slows most of the micrometeorites so they don’t burn up. Micrometeorites have been found in ocean sediments and in high-altitude dust. The Earth may acquire more than 100,000 metric tons of meteoric material every year, but most of this consists of meteorites weighing less than a few grams. This cosmic dust rains continuously on the earth, passing through the atmosphere almost unchanged.
A meteor falling through the atmosphere may produce a fireball and a luminous streak across the sky. It can generate rumblings like thunder or even explosions if it disintegrates in flight. Most meteorites are stony and therefore brittle, so they break up in the atmosphere and land as many small fragments. The large meteorites which cause craters on earth consist mostly of metallic iron, but these are far less common than stony meteorites. A crater-forming meteorite will strike the earth (land, not ocean) about every sixteen years. Since most of the earth is uninhabited, this poses no danger to populations.
Certain types of meteors are more likely to explode in the atmosphere, rather than burn up or strike the surface. For example, one blew up over Siberia in 1908, leveling hundreds of square miles of forest and scorching a twenty-mile area. Scientists estimate that it was 0.1 miles in diameter and its explosion created a blast equal to 1000 Hiroshima bombs. People saw the meteorite 450 miles away in broad daylight and felt its explosion fifty miles away.
In the 1980’s, petroleum geologists discovered a large crater, 111 miles wide, on the Yucatan peninsula of Mexico. Scientists believe it was created about the same time 70% of the animal species on earth perished. Whether the meteorite was responsible for killing the dinosaurs is a topic of scientific debate. The main point, however, is that major meteorites do occasionally strike the earth. There are large meteorite craters various places around the globe.
Scientists have developed the following impact scenario based on observed craters, layers of debris, observed meteorite impacts and computer modeling. There are many variables involved, such as the size and speed of the impacting body, its composition, its impact site, and whether it breaks up.
If a major body impacted on land, it would make a crater about ten times its diameter in size and eject about twice as much debris into the atmosphere as the meteorite contained. A dust cloud from the impact would darken the sky. A meteorite six miles in diameter could cause total darkness for up to a year. With total darkness of just a few months, temperatures on the surface would be below freezing and snowfalls of ten to twenty feet would result. If smaller bodies impacted instead of a single large one, they could start immense fires and smoke would darken the skies.
If a major body hit in an ocean, it would throw much more material into the atmosphere (salt steam, pulverized and melted rock). It also would create tsunamis thousands of feet high that would flood entire coastal areas. By comparison, the explosion of Krakatoa created a tidal wave 125 feet high. A major meteorite impact would be much more severe.
Any major meteorite would cause chemical changes in the atmosphere. The one that exploded over Siberia in 1908 produced nitrous oxides that destroyed as much as 40% of the ozone layer. Even a small asteroid would form nitric acid, which would rain down on the oceans, poisoning the water and killing marine life near the surface. The extent of the damage would depend on such factors as the meteorite’s speed and distance traveled in the atmosphere.
We all know that scientific estimates can be way off, partly because man can’t account for all the variables. So an actual event could be less severe than what I have described, or it could be exactly as I have described or even worse. My intent, however, is to draw attention to Bible prophecies that are similar to the scenario we developed and to actual recorded incidents.
Cosmic disturbances have historically played key roles in God’s plan. There is enough scriptural and historical evidence of previous disasters to give credibility to prophesies of similar events in the future. Let us turn our attention now to the end times.
Jesus gave us a sequence of events in Matthew 24, which we examined in the first chapter of this book. He described a period of great distress which we call the Great Tribulation.
Then he said that something would immediately follow that period: “Immediately after the distress of those days ‘the sun will be darkened, and the moon will not give its light; the stars will fall from the sky, and the heavenly bodies will be shaken'” (Matt. 24:29, NIV). The “falling stars” probably are meteors and a cloud of dust could darken the sun and moon, either cosmic dust accompanying the meteors or ejected into the air by meteorite impacts.
There is a curious phrase at the end of that verse: “the heavenly bodies will be shaken.” The Greek text literally says “the powers of the heavens will be shaken.” The key words are power (dynamis; power, especially inherent power), heavens (anything above the earth’s surface, such as the atmosphere, sky, or God’s dwelling) and shake (agitate, physical shaking; being insecure or unsettled).
The time frame of this verse is the short period immediately after the Great Tribulation, and before the Lord’s arrival to claim possession of the earth and catch the church away. Satan is about to lose control of his kingdom — it becomes Jesus’ possession — including the physical universe and the lower spiritual realm, where Satan is lord or prince. His powers over these areas will definitely be insecure. Therefore, we could interpret the verse figuratively.
It is also possible to interpret the verse literally, by allowing “the powers of the heavens” to refer to the laws of creation, those inherent abilities possessed by an object in the universe. Specifically, we are aware of four basic powers in the universe: gravity, electromagnetism, strong and weak nuclear forces. It would be possible for any or all of these forces to lose their effect in the presence of a stronger force, such as the power of Jesus’ presence.
In particular, we know the power of death will lose its control over the dead in Christ when he resurrects them, and the power of gravity will no longer hold them to the earth when they rise to meet the Lord in the air (1 Cor. 15:52 1 Thess. 4:16-17). The power that binds us to our physical bodies won’t prevent us from changing to eternal bodies (1 Cor. 15:51, 53).
Bible prophecy describes a period of widespread devastation after “the beginning of birth pains” and “the great tribulation”, in the opening moments of the “day of the Lord.” Historic biblical accounts include similar descriptions of sun darkening, meteorite storms, oceans roaring, tidal waves and cosmic fire.