Isaac Watts, Extraterrestrials and Isaiah 45:18

Dr. Danny Faulkner has written a post in which he takes issue with the pro-extraterrestrial opinion of Isaac Watts, the “Godfather of English Hymnody.”

In his lifetime, Watts composed around 750 hymns, including “Joy to the World,” “Alas! and Did My Saviour Bleed,” “When I Survey the Wondrous Cross,” and “I Sing The Mighty Power of God.”

He also wrote some books with some rather long winded titles. One of these was The Knowledge of the HEAVENS and the EARTH Made Easy: or, the First Principles of Astronomy and Geography Explain’d by the Use of Globes and Maps: With a Solution of the common Problems by a plain Scale and Compasses as well as by the Globe. Written Several Years Since for the Use of Learners.

Apparently, Stuart Burgess loaned Faulkner a copy.

In Section XVIII of his book, Isaac Watts writes:

“It may be manifested here also that several of the Planets have their Revolutions round their own Axis in certain Periods of Time, as the Earth has in 24 hours; and that they are vast bulky dark Bodies, some of them much bigger than our Earth, and consequently fitted for the dwelling of some Creatures; so that ‘tis probable they are all Habitable Worlds furnished with rich Variety of Inhabitants to the Praise of their great Creator. Nor is there wanting some Proof of this from the Scripture it self. For when the Prophet Isaiah tells us, that God who formed the Earth created it not in vain because he formed it to be inhabited, Isa. XLV.18. He thereby insinuates that had such a Globe as the Earth never been inhabited, it had been created in vain. Now the same Way of Reasoning may be applyed to the other Planetary Worlds, some of which are so much bigger than the Earth is, and their Situations and Motions seem to render them as convenient Dwellings for Creatures of some Animal and Intellectual Kind.”

Faulkner takes issue with Watts’ use of Isaiah 45:18 as a support for his position:

“Wow! Isaiah 45:18 is a key verse that we who think life is unique to the earth use, so how did Watts reach precisely the opposite conclusion with this verse?” (emphasis in original)

To call this a “key verse” for the position that the Bible does not allow for the possibility of extraterrestrial life is to admit that Biblical support for the anti-alien position is incredibly weak. The verse itself says nothing regarding extraterrestrial life. It merely says:

“For thus said the LORD that created the heavens; God himself that formed the earth and made it; he has established it, he created it not in vain, he formed it to be inhabited: I am the LORD; and there is none else.”

As I noted in a post on the subject of Isaiah 45:18 and alien life:

“To say that Isaiah 45:18 precludes the possibility of alien life is simply overstatement, because in order to do so one has to force a contrast that doesn’t really exist in the text. The verse says that God created the earth to be inhabited; it does not say He created the heavens to be uninhabited.”

Faulkner does believe that this forced contrast is the very point. He notes that Watts seems to take a more common understanding of the phrase “in vain” as being “without success or without result,” rather than the English Standard Version’s “empty” or the American Standard Version’s “without form.”

“If we take this normal understanding of the phrase “in vain,” then it leads to the conclusion that if the earth were uninhabited, it would have been in vain. Watts then applied this reasoning to other planets, suggesting that if they weren’t inhabited, then God would have created them in vain.”

In Watts’ defense, it is clear from the context of his comments on the other heavenly bodies (elsewhere in that same section if his book) that he supposed that they were very similar to the Earth. This is no different from our suppositions about the possibility of extraterrestrial life on Earth-like exoplanets.

Faulkner’s next comment is telling:

“However, other planets are not the emphasis here—the earth is. God specifically spent six days shaping the earth, preparing it for habitation.” (emphasis mine)

Here he admits that other planets are not the emphasis; this is misleading because other planets aren’t even a subject of discussion here! The idea that Isaiah is discussing other planets or declaring that the Earth is exclusively inhabited is found nowhere in the original text nor any biblical translation.

“God made the other planets on Day Four, but there is no indication that God spent any time preparing them for life. That is, the earth is a special case. It would undermine the point of this verse if other worlds like earth existed.”

The point of this verse is not that life unique to the Earth but simply that God made the Earth with the intent of it being inhabited which paralleled His promise to Israel. Again, other planets aren’t even being discussed.

As Faulkner well knows, the Bible mentions the creation of all heavenly bodies apart from specific references to the Sun and Moon by the passing reference that “He made the stars also.” Faulkner relies on a standard argument from silence, implying that God would have told us about aliens and how He created them if alien life existed. I’ve answered this objection in a post on that specific subject:

God does not have to tell us about the existence of extraterrestrial life. Nothing compels Him to do so. The Bible never claims to be an Encyclopedia Galactica containing everything there is to know. It doesn’t mention microbes and they certainly exist.

Faulkner asserts that the translation of the Hebrew word “tohu” as “in vain” in the King James causes a misunderstanding of the word’s actual meaning:

“But is this what the phrase “in vain” mean in Isaiah 45:18? The Hebrew word here is to’-hoo, the same word translated as “without form” in Genesis 1:2. So, initially, God did create the earth “in vain.” However, this second verse of the creation account sets the stage for the care God took in fashioning the earth into a suitable habitat for man over the remainder of Creation Week. More modern translations of Isaiah 45:18 read a bit differently. For instance, the English Standard Version and the New International Version use the word “empty” rather than “in vain,” while the New American Standard Bible uses “a waste place.” Therefore, rather than meaning “without success,” the meaning more likely contrasts with the next phrase, “the earth being filled, or inhabited.” This is an allusion to the creation account, with emphasis on earth—not other planets—being specially designed for man. Therefore, I must respectfully disagree with my favorite hymn writer on his understanding of Isaiah 45:18.”

I would not dispute Faulkner’s proposal that the earth was specifically designed for man, but this verse doesn’t mention man specifically. It only says that God made the Earth to be inhabited. Point in fact, we aren’t the only life forms inhabiting it. Faulkner is imposing meaning upon the text rather than drawing it out here. What he’s doing is no different than those who found proof texts they misinterpreted to give alleged Scriptural support to geocentrism, a practice that made that whole Galileo debacle all the more embarrassing.

Likewise, Faulkner has no way of knowing whether God made other worlds upon which humanity could exist. If we discover a bona fide Earth-like planet, he might be prepared to ammend his position; however, the world will recall that he made dogmatic statements on the subject even though the Bible is actually silent on the issue.

Ironically, his position on the meaning of the word rendered “in vain” in this verse places him in direct contradiction to Dr. Henry Morris, who wrote in Biblical Creationism (Master Books edition, 2000):

“First, note that everything about the earth is due to God alone. He “created it,” He “formed it,” He “made it,” He “established it.” God is not capricious; He did not do all this “in vain.” He formed the earth to be inhabited!
The argument of those who promote the gap theory, however, is that the Hebrew word for “in vain” is tohu, the same word as that used in Genesis 1:12, where it says that, initially, “the earth was tohu” (i.e., without form). They maintain, then, that since God did not create the earth tohu, it must later have “become” tohu, after the supposed pre-Adamic cataclysm.
It should be realized, however, that tohu has many different meanings, depending upon context. It is best translated “unformed” in the context of Genesis 1:2 but is better rendered “in vain” in Isaiah 45:18. The point of the latter verse is that God does nothing that is pointless or capricious — all of this in the broader context of assurance of His purposes for His people Israel. He did not create the earth to no purpose; it was formed to be inhabited, and it was inhabited, just a few days afterward when it had been fully prepared for its inhabitants.
The earth was called into existence — created — in basic elemental character, with no particular form, but this was not the result of some imaginary cataclysm.
It was created perfect for its immediate purpose, but it was not complete, until God said it was “finished” at the end of the six days, by which time it was “inhabited.” It only remained very briefly in the tohu state, unformed, and this certainly does not contradict Isaiah when he says it was not created (to be) tohu “in vain.”
The very next verse, Isaiah 45:19, uses the same word: “I said not unto the seed of Jacob, Seek ye me in vain” (i.e., tohu). There is no possibility of translating the word by “waste” or “desolation” or something of the sort here, as the gap theory promoters want to do with Genesis 1:2. The context determines the meaning, and there is certainly nothing in the context, either here or in Genesis 1:2, to justify the notion of long ages after creation followed by a global cataclysm that left the earth tohu. Yet this is the strongest “proof text” for the gap theory, which ought therefore to be abandoned by all serious expositors of the text.” (emphasis mine)

Faulkner ends the main thrust of his article (the article does continue under the subheading “Why I Don’t Believe God Created Intelligent Life Elsewhere” but this is just a rehash of tired and oft-refuted canards about the “implications of the Gospel” and the fact that we haven’t found life in space yet) by writing:

In the 18th century, it was commonly believed that all the planets harbored life, as well as the moon and even the sun and other stars. Today we understand the folly of this, but in the 18th century, no one understood any of the reasons why. Still, had Christians had the proper understanding of Isaiah 45:18, they might have avoided the wrong conclusion about extraterrestrial life (and a few did).

While it is true that Watts and his contemporaries perhaps believed perhaps too much in the probability of extraterrestrial life, Faulkner oversimplifies history.

It wasn’t merely a matter of an incorrect interpretation of Scripture; in fact, we have demonstrated that it is those who try to use Isaiah 45:18 as a “key verse” against the possibility of extraterrestrial life who are incorrect precisely because they impose their opinions upon the text rather than drawing out its natural meaning.

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