This past Friday, I found myself listening to NPR’s Talk of the Nation–Science Friday, and I was struck by a throw-away comment by one of the guests. The subject was the Messenger fly-by of the planet Mercury; a caller asked something about the effects of the sun’s expansion on the atmospheres of the planets. The expert noted that, although he was not an expert on stars, he knew that the sun would eventually expand to the point where it would likely engulf the inner planets. Of course, this would happen billions of years from now, so it is nothing to lose sleep over. It’s not as if the world is going to be transformed tonight into a lake of fire.
No, that view was on the other radio station.
I was driving along, with the radio tuned
To the lowermost end of the dial;
Through the static, two stations were both coming in
So I listened to both for a while.
First one, then the other, would drift into range
As the road, through the hills, wound around;
And I gradually noticed, the speakers on both
Were discussing the same common ground.
The topic today was the end of the world,
And both stations had stories to tell;
The first speaker told how the sun would expand
But the second was speaking of Hell.
The first station spoke of the Messenger mission
And NASA’s new triumph in space
With instruments measuring surface and core
And cameras detailing its face.
The craters and faults look a lot like our moon
But the temperature there can melt lead!
As the speaker continued, I found myself shocked
By the very next thing that he said:
He noted “of course, in a few billion years,
We know that the sun will expand,
And the Earth will be hotter than Mercury now—
We’ll be long gone by then, understand.”
Now, I know that our species is really quite young
When compared to the age of the Earth
And the odds of survival are frankly quite small,
So today is of infinite worth.
But to hear this astronomer matter-of-factly
Discuss how our planet would die
Was a sobering thing—even more so because
Of the evidence none could deny.
Now, the funny thing is that the alternate station
Was speaking of fire as well
And the punishment meeting each ignorant sinner
Eternally sentenced to Hell.
The end is not coming in billions of years
But when God calls us back to his side.
It could happen tomorrow, so live your life right
With the Bible alone as your guide.
Today’s not important; the whole of your life
Is just prelude to life after death
In Heaven or Hell, so your choice must be made–
It’s too late once you draw your last breath.
He was blatantly trying to frighten his listeners
But strangely, I wasn’t afraid.
A Bronze-age mythology doesn’t stand up
When there’s evidence there to be weighed.
It’s funny—the world-view that talks about Heaven
And promises souls will survive
Has to stoop to extortion and threats, like I heard
As I motored along on my drive.
The so-called “dispassionate world-view of science”
Has beauty, and greater appeal—
What’s more, in a contrast from mythical Hell
What is studied in science is real.
No threats of damnation, just projects like Messenger
Quietly getting it done—
Enjoy your Earth—only a few billion years
Till the whole thing’s engulfed by the Sun.