The Glory of the Stars: Thoughts on Dreading the New Heaven and the New Earth
Kelsey Lahr

For a long time I lived in Yosemite National Park. Except when it is cloudy or the moon is full, you can see the Milky Way there in the night sky, and usually catch a glimpse of a falling star or two over the course of an evening of stargazing.

 When I was a kid, I only got to see the Milky Way on annual summer camping trips to Yosemite; it was invisible from our home on the coast. Once I began working in the mountains, I was dogged by the feeling that I had to make up for lost time—that I had to gorge myself on the Milky Way now that it was visible so I could save up those views for a time when it might be invisible to me once again.

Photo by Chris NelsonStargazing was usually a solitary activity; I preferred not to fill the space between the universe and myself with the static of another’s presence. I would pile on layers of clothing and take the sturdy woven serape from the end of my bed and head down to the riverbank, clear of trees, to watch the constellations chase themselves in circles across the universe. I spread out the serape on the granite bank as a woolen shield from the ice-cold stone, and arranged myself on top of it to stare up at the dark and wait for night vision to bestow itself. It would come gradually, without my notice, until I could see even the dimmest spattering of stars that forms a dusty backdrop for the brilliance of Scorpio’s tail, the impossibly tangled bodies of the dragon and the little bear, and the Milky Way that runs from horizon to horizon like a loose ribbon twisting in the wind. On those nights it was easy to pray.

I made one exception to my preference for solitary star viewing. When the Perseid Meteor Shower rolled around each August, my friends and I made pilgrimages out to high, dark places to wait for the cascade. We lay shoulder to shoulder under blankets on slabs of granite on the clear riverbank or on a domed mountaintop. We breathed in silence until we saw a streak of light run across the sky; then we gasped, “There!”

The Perseid shower is so named because its meteors appear to spring from the constellation Perseus. Perseus, according to Greek myth, beheaded the gorgon Medusa, who had snakes for hair and turned any mortal who looked at her to stone. Perseus got around Medusa’s power by looking at her reflection in his mirrored shield, avoiding her gaze. After the deed was done, he carried her head around as a weapon, turning his enemies into rocks. In the midst of all this slaying he rescued the princess Andromeda, who had been chained naked to a rock to be sacrificed to a sea monster as punishment for her mother’s boasting. Perseus took Andromeda home to be his wife, and they both ended up as constellations, side by side forever, whether either of them wanted to spend eternity together or not.

This couple looks a bit different today than they did to the ancient Greeks who found their images in the sky. Over just a few thousand years, a mere blip in astronomical time, stars move, dim, and brighten, shifting the patterns that were handed down to us. This shift is nothing, of course, compared to the radical alterations that we humans have made to our own vision of the night sky. The lights of our cities—our skyscrapers, porch lights, neon signs—create a pervasive glow called light pollution, which obscures our vision of the stars dramatically. Eighty percent of the world’s inhabitants live under a night sky illuminated primarily by the collective reflections of all our electric technology instead of by the stars. In the United States, ninety-nine percent of us do. Ninety-nine percent of us cannot see the Milky Way. 

So the night sky you see is a far cry from the sky your great-grandparents saw. As recently as the early twentieth century, the loss of stars to light pollution could not even be imagined. Many cities lacked widespread electrification until roughly World War I, and some even later. My maternal great-grandfather was a lamplighter in a small town on California’s Central Coast in the 1930s, when the streets were still illuminated by gas lamps. He met my great-grandmother on his evening route. She would hang around on the front porch and chat him up as twilight fell, and the lamps after her house were always lit a bit late. I guess family history would have played out differently had the town been electrified earlier.

It is an element of our ancestors’ everyday life we rarely consider. As often as pioneers, cowboys, Indians, medieval rulers, and great-grandparents appear in our contemporary entertainment and discourse, do we ever imagine the simple pleasure those figures may have enjoyed by looking up at night? Or maybe the experience was so utterly quotidian that they took those stars for granted. My paternal great-grandfather crossed the Great Plains in a covered wagon and lived to see humans land on the moon. Do you suppose he noticed the stars fading, missed the Milky Way?

I, for one, miss the Milky Way now that I live in a city. I regret the nights that I failed to look up back when I had a real night sky above me. Now I take my dog for long walks after sunset along the bluffs above the beach, and I look up out of habit. I can almost see the Milky Way. I blink and it’s gone—I probably imagined it. My dog sometimes stops dead in her tracks and stares up over the water, like our city lights don’t get in the way of her view of the ancient night sky, like she can still see the stars her wolf ancestors saw. Maybe she can.

Today there is a growing movement to preserve the precious few places where one can encounter a dark and starry night sky. Government agencies like NASA and the National Park Service advocate for a certain type of porch light with a kind of shade over it to direct the light down and prevent it from pointing directly into the night sky. It’s hard to imagine how effective this campaign might be given the increasing prevalence of illumination, and of Las Vegas, purportedly the brightest spot on earth, which can be seen from space. Imagine that—the stars can see Vegas from their spots in the firmament, but we can’t see the stars.    

A while ago I attended a lecture by a dark night sky advocate, a woman who works with city governments and federal agencies to get people to adopt those covered porch lights. “The problem of light pollution could be fixed like that,” she said, snapping her fingers. “This isn’t some complex, hard-to-solve problem like so many of our environmental challenges. We could all just decide to turn out the lights, or put covers over them, and the stars would be back instantly. They haven’t gone anywhere!” Easier said than done, of course, but I got her point.

If we’re going to get our view of the stars back, we’d better do it soon. The stars might be on their way out, along with the whole of the earth. At the church service I attended today, we heard about the end of all things, when the world will end and we will get a new heaven and a new earth, one where there is no darkness, no cold. “On that day there shall not be either cold or frost,” says the book of Zechariah.  “And there shall be continuous day (it is known to the Lord), not day and not night, for at evening time there shall be light,” (Zech. 14:6-7). One continuous summer afternoon. “And the city has no need of sun or moon to shine on it, for the glory of God is its light, and its lamp is the Lamb,” says John in the book of Revelation, about the new Jerusalem that will be the seat of God’s glory once the world has ended, and with it, the dark night. “There will be no night there,” (Rev. 21:23, 25b).

Then, to drive the sermon home, the pastor quoted from Randy Alcorn, who, according to his website, writes books about investing with an “eternal perspective.”

“Since God, his word, and people are eternal, what will last is what is used wisely for God, his word, and people,” the pastor read from the pulpit, as Alcorn’s words appeared on the screen behind her. “But the day of the Lord will come as a thief in the night, in which the heavens will pass away with a great noise, and the elements will melt with fervent heat, and the earth and the works that are done on it will be burned up,” said Pastor Colleen, quoting from the book of Second Peter.

The point of the sermon is to stay awake, to keep focused on the things of God, on loving God and loving our neighbors, the things that will survive the fire. But I am thinking about granite and stars, the very heavens and elements that will melt with fervent heat.

I am afraid of what it means that I dread this new heaven and new earth. I already miss the stars—I don’t want to live an eternity without them. I love the stars, as I love the changing of seasons, the sea—all of which are on their way out in the life to come. “On that day living waters shall flow out from Jerusalem, half of them to the eastern sea and half of them to the western sea; it shall continue in summer as in winter,” says Zechariah again (Zech. 14:8). No cold, no frost, no shifting in the flow of the river.

“And the sea was no more,” says John, seeing the old heaven and the old earth—the ones we have right now—pass away (Rev. 21:1a). Bam—gone. So long, ocean.

The truth is that I love this earth. I don’t want a new one, I just want this one fixed. I want frosty mornings like I had as a kid, crunching the icy grass on my way to school. It hasn’t gotten that cold around here in years. I want the autumn, the peaks lined in the outrageous yellow I loved so dearly when I lived in the mountains. I want the Milky Way. Summer is great, warmth and daylight are great, but so is the rest. So is the cold, the snow, the sunset, the nighttime.

I’m not the first person to confess that the idea of heaven as a continual harp concert in the clouds sounds boring, monotonous. It’s not very inspiring as a vision of eternity. “You’re leaving out the best part!” said my pastor when I told her I had my doubts about heaven. “Heaven will be the very presence of God!” A look of pure, genuine excitement scrolled across her face, like she honestly couldn’t wait to get there. “Think about the times you’ve experienced God’s presence during times of worship or prayer! That is what heaven will be like, and it will be like that all the time!” I did not admit to her that I have rarely experienced the presence of God during times of worship or prayer, but more often when I’m looking at the stars. I persist in worship and prayer mostly out of habit; I don’t expect to experience God’s presence anymore, because I can’t see the stars from here.

My pastor is not the only person to note that my view of heaven is pretty shallow. Marilynne Robinson addresses the hereafter fairly often in her books. In her novel Gilead, one character says about heaven, “Mainly I just think about the splendors of the world and multiply by two. I’d multiply by ten or twelve if I had the energy.” In Robinson’s books, heaven could not possibly be a lesser place than our present world. I hope she’s right. But I still can’t shake my sense of urgency. I have to look up at the stars now, to feel the cold wind on my cheeks, to put my feet in the ocean, right now, while it all lasts. 

Stars. Seasons. Cold and frost. I love all of them. I miss them now as they recede into the ever-expanding reach of human influence, human damage. This earth, the one that Revelation and Second Peter say will pass away, is already well on its way to being a place of one continuous summer afternoon. Electric lights instead of dark night. Warmer and warmer days, sunshine and drought instead of cold and snow. As we reshape the climate and the very boundaries of day and night, we are already creating the new earth. But instead of the glory of God as the source of light and warmth, it is us and our machines. Either way, I want the old earth, the one with daily and seasonal shifts, the play of light and shadow, a cold wind.

Although I try, I have never loved God with all my heart, with all my soul, with all my mind, and with all my strength, nor do I love my neighbor as myself, as Scripture commands. I confess this aloud along with my fellow congregants before we take Communion. I can only hope that grace will cover this deficit of love. The closest thing I have ever come to loving with all my heart, soul, mind, and strength is this earth, and I mean the literal earth, not money and possessions and all of that, but the actual dirt beneath my feet and the mountains that rise up from that dirt, and the stars overhead. These, we are told in Scripture, are the works of God’s hands, just like you and I are, just like the sparrows and the lions and the lambs. If I’m supposed to believe that God is going to burn it all up when everything is over, I don’t buy it. And if God is going to burn it all up, then he can burn me up with it, because I want no part of any eternity that doesn’t have dirt and mountains and stars.

But if God is planning to burn it all up, well, we’re making his job easy for him, because we’re setting fire to all of it already, and at this rate there will be precious little left to burn by the time the end rolls around. In May, the United Nations released a report showing that “around 1 million animal and plant species are now threatened with extinction, many within decades, more than ever before in human history.” This is over one thousand times higher than the natural rate of extinction, if humans weren’t in the picture. According to the National Academy of Sciences, “as much as 50 percent of the number of animal individuals that once shared Earth with us are already gone, as are billions of populations.” Fifty percent of animals—half! Think of all the creatures you will never get to see because we have pitched them into the fire of our own consumption. Think of all the creatures your children will never get to see, because we aren’t doing anything to put out the fire.

You know what we haven’t destroyed, because we can’t reach them yet? The stars. Sure, we have burned up our view of them—most kids in America today have never seen the Milky Way. But the stars are still there. If we just turned out the damn lights, the Milky Way would be back. We could get off our couches, go outside, and look up. We could see what we’ve been missing this whole time. That’s more than we can say for the millions of species of animals and plants and fish and birds and insects that we’ve burned up. We’re never getting those back. It’s too late to go out and look. It’s probably too late for the millions of other species that are threatened but not gone yet, because you and I both know we’re not going to change our ways in time to stop the massive die-off that’s already underway. Scientists tell us we have just under twelve years to avert the absolute, utter meltdown that’s looming because of climate change, and I don’t think we’re going to do anything about it, not in time anyway. We’re going to kill off every beautiful and strange and mysterious creature and plant on earth that is not of immediate use to us.

But the stars are still there.

We could see them if we just turned out the lights.




Kelsey Lahr has spent her summers working as a park ranger in Yosemite National Park since 2008. Her literary nonfiction has appeared in Saint Katherine Review, Blue Lyra Review, Dark Matter, and elsewhere. Kelsey’s work has been nominated for a Pushcart Prize and publication in the Best American Science and Nature Writing series. Learn more at www.kelseylahr.wordpress.com.


Work Cited

Ceballos, Gerardo, et al. “Biological Annihilation via the Ongoing Sixth Mass Extinction Signaled by Vertebrate Population Losses and Declines.” Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences, vol. 114, no. 30, July 2017, pp. E6089–96. Crossref, doi:10.1073/pnas.1704949114.

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