Steven Barto, B.S. Psy., M.A. Theology
“[The sun’s] rising is from the end of the heavens, and its circuit to the end of them, and there is nothing hidden from its heat” (Psa. 19:6, ESV).
WHAT IS OUR SUN made of and what keeps it burning? How hot is it and will it ever burn out? What is the distance from Earth to the Sun? Gazing at the stars at night, it is exhilarating to see a shooting star or recognize a constellation. Seldom, however, do we glance at the Sun during the day and marvel at its properties and its place in our existence. Yet, we know from the pain of sunburn and the many occurrences of skin cancer that the Sun contains damaging rays in addition to beneficial ones. What are these rays made of and how do they travel millions of miles to earth?
Set me where as the sun doth parch the green,
Or where his beams do not dissolve the ice;
In temperate heat where he is felt and seen;
With proud people, in presence sad and wise;
Set me in base, or yet in high degree,
In the long night, or in the shortest day,
In clear weather, or where mists thickest be,
In lost youth, or when my hairs be grey;
Set me in earth, in heaven, or yet in hell,
In hill, in dale, or in the foaming flood;
Thrall, or at large, alive where so I dwell,
Sick, or in health, in ill fame or good:
Yours will I be, and with that only thought
Comfort myself when that my hope is nought.
The Sun is a hot ball of glowing gases whose gravity holds the entire solar system together, keeping everything—from the biggest planets to the smallest particles of debris—in proper orbit. The connection and interactions between the Sun and Earth drive the seasons, ocean currents, weather, climate, radiation belts, and auroras. It is fascinating that our Sun, with a radius of 432,168.6 miles (695,508 kilometers), is not an especially large star—many are much bigger. But it is still far more massive than Earth. It would take 332,946 Earths to match the mass of the Sun. The Sun is 93 million miles (150 million kilometers) from Earth and yet its energy travels this distance in approximately eight minutes.
Orbit and Rotation
The Sun and everything in its orbit is located in the Milky Way galaxy. Amazingly, the Milky Way is so expansive we can see it even though we are part of it. Our Sun is located in a spiral arm called the Orion Spur that extends outward from the arm of Sagittarius (see illustration below). From there, it orbits the center of the Milky Way galaxy, bringing the planets, asteroids, comets, and other objects along with it. Our solar system moves at an average velocity of 450,000 mph (720,000 kph). Even at this speed, it takes about 230 million years to make one complete orbit around the Milky Way. Its nearest stellar neighbor is Alpha Centauri.
The Sun rotates at an axial tilt of 7.25 degree as it orbits the center of the Milky Way. Because it is not a solid body, different parts of the Sun rotate at different rates. At its equator, it spins around once about every 25 Earth days, while at its poles it makes one full rotation every 36 Earth days. Astrophysicists and cosmologists believe the Sun formed from a giant rotating cloud of gas and dust called a solar nebula. As the nebula collapsed—due to its overwhelming gravitational pull—it began to spin faster and flattened into a disk. Genesis 1:2 states, “The earth was without form and void, and darkness was over the face of the deep. And the Spirit of God was hovering over the face of the waters.” As the cloud collapsed, most of its material was pulled toward the center to form our Sun, accounting for 99.8% of the mass of the entire solar system. “And God said, ‘Let there be light, and there was light. And God saw that the light was good. And God separated the light from the darkness. God called the light Day, and the darkness he called Night. And there was evening and there was morning, the first day” (Gen. 1:3-5).
“The sun shall be turned to darkness, and the moon to blood, before the great and awesome day of the LORD comes” (Joel 2:31).
Like all stars, the Sun will someday run out of energy. When it starts to die, it will swell so big that it will engulf Mercury and Venus and most likely Earth. Scientists predict the Sun is a little less than halfway through its lifetime. Although most scientists believe the Sun will last another 6.5 billion years before it shrinks down to a white dwarf, exactly how far the dying Sun will expand, and how conditions will change, aren’t yet clear. Its enormous mass is held together by gravitational attraction, which generates immense pressure and temperature at its core. The Sun is already growing brighter. In any event, Sun’s radiation will become too much for life on Earth to handle. As we will explore in the Section “Biblical Concepts of the Sun,” God will destroy the Earth with fire.
“Waiting for and hastening the coming of the day of God, because of which the heavens will be set on fire and dissolved, and the heavenly bodies will melt as they burn” (2 Pet. 3:12).
The core of our Sun is approximately 27 million degrees Fahrenheit (15 million degrees Celsius), creating conditions that sustain thermonuclear fusion. Atoms combine to form larger atoms, which ultimately causes the release of a staggering amount of energy. The surface of the Sun, called the photosphere, is 300 miles thick (500 kilometers), and is not a solid surface like the surface of planets. The temperature of the photosphere is about 10,000 degrees Fahrenheit (5,500 degrees Celsius). Above the Sun’s photosphere are the chromosphere and the corona, which comprise a rather thin solar atmosphere. Solar flares and sun spots occur in this area above the surface. Visible light from these top regions of the Sun is usually too weak to be seen against the brighter photosphere, but it is observable during total solar eclipses as a red rim around the Sun. Strangely, the temperature in the Sun’s atmosphere increases the farther it rises above the surface, reaching as much as 3.5 million degrees Fahrenheit (2 million degrees Celsius).
Biblical Concepts of the Sun
“Sun” (Heb. shemesh) is first mentioned along with the moon as the two great luminaries of heaven (see Gen. 1:14-18). Shemesh is translated as “sun” 119 times and “sun rising” 9 times. The Sun and the Moon are referenced in the Old Testament as “deciding the seasons,” for agriculture and for religious festivals. The lunar and solar year was used to determine the length and subdivisions of the years subsequent to the Mosaic period. Sunrise and sunset were the only non-artificial means for telling the hour of the day. The Jews recognized three periods of time throughout the day: when the Sun became hot, about 9:00 AM (see 1 Sam. 11:9; Neh. 7:3); the “double light” or noon (see Gen. 43:16; 2 Sam. 4:5); and “the cool of the day” shortly before sunset (See Gen. 3:9).
Worship of the Sun is one of the oldest forms of false religion (see Job 31:26, 31:27), common among the Egyptians, Chaldeans, and other pagan nations. Israel was warned against this form of idolatry (see Duet. 4:19, 17:3; 2 Kings 23:11; Jeremiah 19:13). Native religions find their inspiration in the natural world. From early times the Sun has been recognized as an important source of life. Many myths describe the chaos that would ensue if the Sun were to disappear. Followers of Shintoism believe Amaterasu is the sun goddess. Worshiping the Sun as the most prominent and powerful agent in the kingdom of nature was widely diffused throughout the countries adjacent to Palestine. The Arabs paid direct worship to the Sun, but did not erect any statue or symbol (see Job 31:26; 31:27).
“He is the radiance of the glory of God and the exact imprint of his nature, and he upholds the universe by the word of his power” (Heb. 1:3).
The Sun is often mentioned in Scripture in connection with the common cycle, routines, and activities of life (see Eccl. 1:3-5, 6:5, 12:2). “Under the Sun” or “under the heavens” refers to the universality of human experiences everywhere in the world. The Sun is critical for sustaining life on Earth. It is also a source of blessing. God causes the Sun to rise on the righteous and on the unrighteous (see Matt. 5:45). Jeremiah 31:35 says the Sun provides light by day and the fixed order of the moon and the stars for light by night. The Sun is also said to carry a negative force. In most cases it is the absence of sunshine that is noted in connection with God’s judgment: “The sun shall be turned to darkness, and the moon to blood, before the great and awesome day of the LORD comes” (Joel 2:31). Thus Joel prophesies that in connection with the coming Day of the Lord, “I will display wonders in the heavens and on earth; blood, fire, and columns of smoke. The sun will be turned to darkness and the moon to blood before the great and inspiring Day of the LORD comes” (Joel 2:31).
“And this is the judgment: the light has come into the world, and people loved the darkness rather than the light because their works were evil. For everyone who does wicked things hates the light and does not come to the light, lest his works should be exposed. But whoever does what is true comes to the light, so that it may be clearly seen that his works have been carried out in God” (John 3:19-21).
The ultimate result of God’s plan for redemption will restore man’s relationship with God for those who believe in the atoning death and resurrection of Jesus Christ. Restoration applies also to all of creation. Peter tells us the heavens will pass away with a roar, and the heavenly bodies will be burned up and dissolved (2 Pet. 3:10). Isaiah writes, “All the host of heaven shall rot away, and the skies roll up like a scroll. All their host shall fall, as leaves fall from the vine, like leaves falling from the fig tree” (Isa. 34:4). Johnathan Merritt writes, “[W]e note that the picture of fire in the Scripture is most often something that purifies rather than destroys. The presence of God and the Holy Spirit are associated with fire, for example, but this doesn’t mean that coming into contact with God will destroy you. Rather, It transforms you. It burns away the old creation to reveal the new creation in Christ.”
Henry writes, “That day will come, when men are secure, and have no expectation of the day of the Lord [that] the stately palaces, and all the desirable things wherein worldly-minded men seek and place their happiness, shall be burned up; all sorts of creatures God has made, and all the works of men, must pass through the fire, which shall be a consuming fire to all that sin has brought into the world, though a refining fire to the works of God’s hand.” This fits hand in hand with what will become of us if we set our affections on Earth and all it has to offer, seeing all these things shall be burned up. God’s righteous fire both purifies and destroys. God’s plan for redemption provides for our salvation and for purifying the Earth for the coming of a new heaven and a new Earth.
- John Bowker, World Religions: The Great Faiths Explored & Explained (New York, NY: DK Publishing), 2003.
- Johnathan Merritt, “Is God Going to Incinerate the Earth? And Does it Matter?” Religious News Service (May 21, 2013). URL: https://religionnews.com/2013/05/21/is-god-going-to-incinerate-the-earth-and-does-it-matter/
- Matthew Henry, Matthew Henry’s Concise Commentary on the Whole Bible (Nashville, TN: Thomas Nelson, Inc.), 1997.