God’s Promises Are Clearest When We Turn Out the Lights
It’s hard not to be sentimental about a Northern Hemisphere December, with its snow (or in the American South, where I live, its relative cool), its coziness, and of course, the Christmas decorations. Twinkling lights transform city streets into galaxies, and an ornamented Christmas tree fills my living room with the scent of pine needles.
On top of that tree rests a star. Some people cap their trees with an angel, but for as long as I can remember, I’ve gravitated toward the star, which represents one of the more enigmatic elements of the already peculiar narratives about Jesus’ birth.
Matthew’s gospel tells us that after Jesus was born, wise men from the East traveled to Bethlehem to worship him. Unlike the shepherds, who received a divine birth announcement from a company of angels, the wise men identified a single star rising in the sky as the impetus for their pilgrimage: “We saw his star when it rose and have come to worship him” (2:2).
It’s a detail that raises far more questions than it answers. Theologians and astronomers alike continue to contemplate Yuletide mysteries like the star of Bethlehem, but a different question is at the forefront of my mind this Christmas season: If that same star appeared in the night sky today, would we even be able to see it?
I first began to think about stars and their place in our modern world while studying another passage of Scripture in which celestial bodies play a prominent role. In Genesis 12, God makes a covenant with a man named Abram.
God promises to make Abram into a great nation, a promise that seems improbable since Abram has no children and his wife is barren.
Years pass, and Abram’s nomadic household has yet to resemble anything like a nation, let alone a great one. He still has no heir and no land to call his own, so he asks God for a sign to assure him that he hasn’t believed these promises in vain.
God instructs Abram to step outside his tent and gaze into the heavens. “Look up at the sky and count the stars—if indeed you can count them,” God says. “So shall your offspring be” (15:5).
While looking up at the stars, “Abram believed the Lord, and he credited it to him as righteousness” (v. 6).
I read this passage together with members of the church I pastor, and I pictured Abram standing in the silent wilderness, craning his neck toward the vast night sky dotted with an endless sea of stars and believing in his heart that God’s promises would come to pass.
So I gave the group a homework assignment: Take a few moments out of your busy night to go outside, look up, and marvel at the glory and goodness of our Creator. One participant joked he would attempt to count the stars and report back his findings.
When I stepped outside to do some stargazing of my own, though, what I saw was less than awe-inspiring. Despite it being a clear night and close to a new moon (the darkest of the moon’s phases), I actually could count the stars. There were 12.
Where did they all go? I wondered.
The answer, of course, is they’re still up there. We just can’t see them anymore.
For almost all of human history, people lived, worked, and worshiped under a sky nearly identical to the one Abram saw thousands of years ago. As the sun disappeared below the horizon, a dazzling blanket of stars, planets, and other celestial bodies would emerge from the darkness of night.
But all that has changed in the past hundred years or so. Today, light pollution, a catchall term for the negative effects of excessive (and often unregulated) use of artificial lights at night, has rendered many of the stars overhead invisible, drastically altering how humans experience the night sky.
Few people are unaffected. In 2016, physicist Fabio Falchi and his collaborators released the report “The new world atlas of artificial night sky brightness,” which found that 83 percent of the world’s population and 99 percent of Americans and Europeans live under a night sky partially obscured by light pollution. The Milky Way, that cloudy band of stars and gas that is our galaxy, is now hidden from one-third of the world’s population. People living in Singapore, the Middle East, and South Korea are least likely to see the night sky.
And the world is only getting brighter. In a 2023 study, physicist Christopher Kyba and his colleagues found that, on average, the night sky’s brightness (measured from the perspective of Earth, illuminated by any nearby artificial lighting such as streetlights) increased by nearly 10 percent each year from 2011 to 2022.
Most of us don’t realize how bright our nights actually are because we’ve never, or rarely, experienced a truly natural night, one unaffected by artificial light.
The star-spangled firmament, once an aspect of creation easily accessible to all, has become such a rare commodity that dark sky tourism is now a big business, with people traveling to national parks and other remote areas solely to catch an unadulterated glimpse of the stars. (As I write this, my wife and I are planning a trip to Zion National Park, a certified International Dark Sky Park. We’ve booked a clear-roofed glamping tent called the “Stargazer” just outside its border.)
When it comes to environmental issues, climate change tends to dominate the conversation because the stakes are so high. But there’s a growing interest in the destructive effects of light pollution, which are numerous and well documented.
For example, Swedish scientist Johan Eklöf, in his 2023 book The Darkness Manifesto, explores the evidence that our artificially lit world is harming all manner of flora and fauna, including human beings, whose health depends on a regular cycle of exposure to both light and dark. If you feel tired all the time, the reason may be related to the amount—and the type—of artificial light you’re subjecting yourself to at night.
The Smithsonian Museum of Natural History also is turning its attention to light pollution and the loss of the night sky. From now until December 2025, an exhibit titled Lights Out is asking the question “How much light at night is enough?”
Various advocates tend to focus on different consequences of light pollution when arguing against excessive illumination. Some, like Eklöf, raise the alarm about artificial light’s disastrous, and often fatal, impact on wildlife, such as migrating birds or nesting sea turtles.
Others lament the loss of a universal experience—the shimmering night sky—that has inspired countless philosophers, scientists, artists, and writers for thousands of years. Would Vincent van Gogh still paint The Starry Night if he observed the sky over Saint-Rémy, France, today? Probably not.
I share these concerns. As a pastor, however, I’m most alarmed by the profound spiritual implications of a sky without stars. I’m convinced Christians have strong, biblical reasons to see preserving the night sky as a crucial aspect of both creation care and our own connection to God and his promises.
Turning out the lights is more than an eco-friendly habit—it’s a spiritual discipline.
From Genesis to Revelation, stars appear throughout the pages of
Scripture. They play a subtle yet significant role in the Bible, calling us to direct our physical gaze toward the heavens and our spiritual gaze toward the God who made the “starry host by the breath of his mouth” (Ps. 33:6).
In Genesis 1, God creates the stars, along with the sun and the moon, to “serve as signs to mark sacred times” and “to give light on the earth” (vv. 14–15).
From the very beginning of the biblical story, the stars served as a declaration that God—and God alone—is the transcendent Creator of all things. But the stars also teach us that he’s not a just a creator who sets his universe in motion and then steps away. As Abram’s story reminds us, he’s a creator who wants to be in relationship with his creatures.
The God of Israel is so powerful that he speaks the stars into existence, and he’s so personal that he speaks promises to his people. The story of those promises is written in the stars.
In the Book of Numbers, as the Israelites are making their way to the Promised Land, a Moabite king hires a prophet named Balaam to curse God’s people (22:4–6). Instead, God speaks through Balaam to deliver a messianic prophecy about a coming king: “A star will come out of Jacob; a scepter will rise out of Israel” (24:17).
Hundreds of years later, that long-awaited King was born, and the aforementioned star—the one our Christmas tree toppers commemorate—led the Magi to Jesus.
Revelation 22 tells us that at the end of all things, in the New Jerusalem, we “will not need the light of a lamp or the light of the sun” (or an LED, for that matter) because Jesus, the “bright Morning Star,” will be our perfect and eternal source of light (vv. 5, 16).
Until that day, the stars above us point us toward the Star who saves us. They’re a cosmic call to worship.
The Psalms in particular contain numerous references to the stars. Psalm 19 describes celestial bodies in the night sky as declaring and proclaiming the glory of God (v. 1). The stars “reveal knowledge,” and though they do not speak, “their voice goes out into all the earth” (vv. 2–4). Creation is God’s sanctuary, and the stars participate in nature’s chorus of praise.
In Psalm 8, David engages in doxological stargazing. While surveying the sky, he contemplates the grandeur of all God has made, and it leads him to marvel, “What is mankind that you are mindful of them, human beings that you care for them?” (vv. 3–4).
For David—and for us—the stars provide perspective. They humble us by highlighting our finitude. Yet they also lift up our heads by reminding us of our infinite worth in the eyes of the Creator.
Similar to how stars help orient ships navigating at sea, they orient us spiritually and existentially in the tossing waves of life. It’s as if they’re saying, Look up—you are but one tiny speck in this vast universe, and soon you will be forgotten. But look up—the same God who created and named each star in the sky knows you, loves you, and died for you.
The stars are an example of what theologians call “general revelation”—the truths about God and his character revealed through nature. Light pollution threatens to drown out this revelation, in effect muting these divinely appointed worship leaders embedded in the fabric of creation.
Not every mention of stars in the Bible is positive, however. Because of the Fall, we’re prone to worship “created things rather than the Creator” (Rom. 1:25).
In Deuteronomy, Moses warns the Israelites, “When you look up to the sky and see the sun, the moon and the stars—all the heavenly array—do not be enticed into bowing down to them” (4:19). Stars, for all their beauty, are meant to arouse worship of another, not to become the object of worship themselves.
When King Josiah sought to rid Judah of idolatry, he cast out priests who burned incense “to the constellations and to all the starry hosts” (2 Kings 23:5).
And through the prophet Isaiah, God condemns astrology, the practice of observing the movements of stars and planets to understand or predict events (47:13–14).
Prohibitions against astrology may seem like outdated warnings from a pagan past, but the practice is seeing a resurgence as part of a larger trend of Americans embracing alternative forms of spirituality. Horoscopes, once primarily found in the pages of newspapers, are now reaching massive audiences through astrology influencers on platforms like Instagram and TikTok.
Even Christians are consulting the skies for guidance. A 2018 Pew Research Center report found that more than a quarter of self-identified Christians in the United States believe in astrology, including nearly one in five evangelicals. It’s not uncommon for church members to inquire about my zodiac sign (something seminary didn’t prepare me for!).
The human tendency to look to creation rather than to the Creator for knowledge is not easily dispelled.
I recognize that a Christian appeal for a darker world may seem incongruous, given Scripture’s apparently unfavorable view of darkness. The Bible contains around 200 references to darkness (depending on the translation), most of which are negative. It also says that the Father “rescued us from the dominion of darkness” (Col. 1:13) and that “God is light; in him there is no darkness at all” (1 John 1:5).
Those are spiritual metaphors, and we must carefully learn from them in the circumscribed way the Bible presents them. Some Christians throughout history have used the Bible’s symbolic treatment of darkness as justification for prejudice against people with dark skin, a leap that not only finds no support in the text but also contradicts the message of the gospel.
Similarly, it would be misguided to assume the literal darkness of night is a result of the Fall that should therefore be overcome. The natural rhythm of day and night existed in the Garden of Eden before the fateful encounter with the Serpent—and “God saw that it was good” (Gen. 1:14–18).
The story of how we conquered the dark but lost the stars sounds a lot like a quip from Ernest Hemingway’s The Sun Also Rises about how one goes bankrupt: “gradually and then suddenly.”
People have always sought to illuminate the darkness, out of both necessity and fear. For most of human history, we’ve used incandescence after the sun went down to carry out tasks and to ward off dangers.
In the 17th and 18th centuries, European cities and American colonies began implementing basic forms of public lighting, primarily using oil lamps. The push to illuminate streets stemmed from the idea that more light would result in less crime. In a letter to John Jay, Founding Father John Adams describes darkness as a haven for “robberies, burglaries, and murders” and suggests that light from streetlamps would “chase away … all the villains” and prevent the need for hiring more police officers.
The belief that darkness equals danger and light equals safety is deeply ingrained in the human psyche, although the evidence is mixed that light stops crime.
In 1807, London’s Pall Mall became one of the first streets to be lit with gas-powered lights, which, by some measures, burned ten times brighter than their oil predecessors. Within a few years, other major cities on both sides of the pond followed suit, and the darkness in urban areas began to fade. The race to illuminate public spaces was on.
In the late 1800s, the sudden change agent that fundamentally reshaped the way people lived is something we now take for granted: commercially viable electric lighting.
These electric lights and streetlamps were more efficient, safer (with no flame), and, most importantly, brighter. Much, much brighter.
Electricity became commonplace in cities, but in the early 20th century, many Americans still lived in relative darkness. In 1936, President Franklin Roosevelt signed the Rural Electrification Act as part of the New Deal. The act provided low-interest loans to bring electricity to farms and rural towns. Within two decades, the vast majority of American homes—rural and urban—could access electricity.
America flipped the light switch on, and the night has been getting brighter ever since.
There were early warning signs that overillumination would bring unintended consequences. In the 1930s, Pope Pius XI moved the Vatican Observatory 15 miles outside of Rome to avoid the Eternal City’s increasingly bright skyglow. A few decades later, further light pollution forced the Vatican to find another place to conduct its astronomical research. The pope’s telescope eventually found a home under the dark skies of southeast Arizona, where it remains active today.
Light pollution isn’t just a problem for the pope, of course, but that story is a microcosm of the challenge astronomers, amateur stargazers, and casual observers have faced for years: There are simply fewer and fewer places on this planet to encounter the breathtaking beauty of the stars.
This is both a scientific and a spiritual crisis. We’re not just missing out on a captivating sight; we’re losing an opportunity to experience awe.
Dacher Keltner, a professor of psychology at the University of California, Berkeley, and social psychologist Jonathan Haidt define awe as “the feeling of being in the presence of something vast that transcends your current understanding of the world.”
We tend to feel awe when we’re confronted by great beauty combined with great power or mystery. And as Keltner argues in his 2023 book Awe: The New Science of Everyday Wonder and How It Can Transform Your Life, awe is good for us. Awe hits us in all sorts of ways. Standing on the rim of the Grand Canyon; being surrounded by towering mountains; or experiencing more intimate moments, like holding a newborn or sitting in the presence of a loved one close to death, can elicit awe.
Awe drives us to contemplate the big questions of life, the ones so easily drowned out by the humdrum of our everyday routines.
Keltner connects awe to wonder, a closely related yet distinct “mental state of openness, questioning, curiosity, and embracing mystery.” Wonder, he says, flows out of awe.
We see this dynamic play out in Isaiah 40:26. Speaking through the prophet, God instructs his people to look toward the heavens. Then awe excites wonder: “Who created all these?” The wonder culminates in worship, as we contemplate “he who brings out the starry host one by one and calls forth each of them by name.”
For Christians, awe leads to wonder, which leads to worship. Awe has a decentering effect that directs our attention away from the self, which is no small thing in a world awash with algorithms that cater to our every preference. When we experience awe, Keltner writes, “regions of the brain that are associated with the excesses of the ego, including self-criticism, anxiety, and even depression, quiet down.” Philosopher Iris Murdoch called this effect “unselfing”—a particularly apt term in our #selfie world.
The mental and social benefits of awe are impressive, but I’m most intrigued by awe’s ability to open us up to the possibility of believing in God. Piercarlo Valdesolo, a professor at Claremont McKenna College, and Jesse Graham, a professor at the University of Utah, found in a 2014 study that “participants’ belief in supernatural control was significantly greater” for those who experienced awe compared to those who didn’t. To put it in theological terms, awe stimulates what John Calvin called the sensus divinitatis in his Institutes—the innate sense of God deep within the heart of every person.
When we allow our artificial lights to block out God’s light, we rob the world of a source of awe. That awe has the power to draw people to Christ—or at least to inspire conversations that may allow us to share the gospel. We need such a shared sense of awe as Christianity continues to decline in the US. Unlike the Grand Canyon or an impressive mountain range, the stars are with all of us, offering the possibility for wonder and worship regardless of where we are on the planet.
It’s fitting that the development and proliferation of artificial illumination tracks closely with the spread of the Enlightenment. As human reason and scientific progress supposedly did away with the need for religious “superstition,” human technology steadily blotted out the astral reminders of our creaturely limitations.
That’s the irony of our modern moment: Remarkable technological developments allow us to peer deeper into space than ever before, yet the developments that make marvels like the James Webb Space Telescope possible also contribute to eliminating the visibility of the stars directly above us.
Many of us spend our nights inside, surrounded by light, staring at glowing rectangles that serve as portals to galaxies of information and entertainment. We’re too distracted to look up, and even if we do, we’re likely to see reminders of human achievement—airplanes and satellites—rather than an awe-inspiring canopy of stars that humbles us before God. The heavens, it turns out, can end up declaring the glory of man if we’re not careful.
So what should we do with this artificial light of ours? Hide it under a bushel?
Well, sort of.
When lamenting the artificially bright night sky, it’s easy to romanticize pre-electric life. But I have no interest in flipping off the switch to the power grid. The ability to illuminate and darken my home, without the risk of an overlooked candle burning it to the ground, is not one I want to live without. In addition to the obvious conveniences that electricity provides, artificial light has been linked to wide-ranging benefits, including lower infant mortality and higher literacy rates.
The question isn’t whether we should use artificial lights, but rather how we can use them more responsibly. How can we prevent wasting energy and limit unnecessary light pollution? What would it look like to illuminate our homes, properties, and cities to the glory of God (and our increased ability to recognize it)?
In one sense, of all the ecological and environmental problems facing our planet, light pollution has the simplest solution: fewer, dimmer lights and more-targeted use of lighting. Unlike cleaning up after an oceanic oil spill or attempting to reverse global warming, changing our lighting habits would have almost immediate results.
Christians can do some things on their own, especially if they are homeowners. The International Dark-Sky Association recommends turning off unnecessary lights, using motion sensors or timers for lights that are only sometimes needed, pointing the lights downward, and using warm-colored bulbs.
These are good and important steps, but the major sources of light pollution exist outside the home. Streetlights, overly lit commercial buildings, illuminated billboards, and other external lights that shine upward all brighten our night sky.
To address this, Christians can advocate for more restrictive lighting laws and make recommendations to their churches for buildings, grounds, and parking lots. They can also participate in public programs to regain the night sky.
Some larger cities, like Chicago, have created a Lights Out program, encouraging building owners to turn off superfluous lights that inhibit the migration patterns of birds. Christians and churches (especially ones with brightly lit steeples) could also participate in Earth Hour, an annual movement to switch off lights for one hour.
The desires for safety, modern comforts, and a glittering night sky don’t have to be in competition. We can retain the artificial lighting we need while revealing the stars overhead, so that future generations will be able to receive their faithful testimony with awe, wonder, and worship.
And as we do so, we can seek out the darkness in order to better see the light. We can look up into the night sky, remembering the power and promises of God and awaiting the dawn of the bright Morning Star.
Cort Gatliff is a pastor at South Highland Presbyterian Church in Birmingham.
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God’s Promises Are Clearest When We Turn Out the Lights