Appendix 5: The “open space in Orion”?

The first of the three articles deals with these concepts:
1. The constellation of Orion marks the center of the universe and is the gateway to heaven.
2. The “open space” in Orion and the Great Nebula in Orion are one and the same.
3. Astronomers have discovered in the Orion Nebula a vast lighted corridor leading to heaven. Its dimensions are sometimes stated.
4. The light emanating from the Orion Nebula is the glory of God’s throne shining around an obscuring cloud.
5. The Holy City will descend through the central star in the sword of Orion.
Those who express these concepts seek to support them by Scripture, by the writings of Ellen G. White, and by numerous Christian astronomers.

The second article informs:
1. Since the 1920s we have learned that the center of our galaxy, the Milky Way is directly opposite Orion
2. The Orion Nebula, for reasons explained in the article, is hardly a candidate for the center  of the universe.
3. What appeared to be “openings” are really dark regions that hide more distant stars from our view.

The third article informs:
1. In 1910 it was reported that the great nebula in Orion’s sword was the “mouth of a great cavern”.
2. In 1922 and 1947 two SDA authors in their publications referred to “the open space of Orion” and “the corridor of light”.
3. Today there is “no specific open space in Orion visible today.
4. One brief mention of Orion by Ellen White, in her book Early Writings, has been substantially magnified and embellished by later Adventist authors and spokesmen.

The 3 articles can be accessed by clicking on the underlined hyperlinks below.

Orion Revisited
by Merton E. Sprengel and Dowell E. Martz
Two Seventh-day Adventist scientists discuss “the open space in Orion”
to which Ellen White referred in an 1848 vision.

At the time of writing Dowell E. Martz, Ph.D., was professor of physics
at Pacific Union College, Angwin, California.
Merton E. Sprengei, M.S., was assistant professor of chemistry
at Union College, Lincoln, Nebraska, and chairman of the physical science department.
Adventist Review, March 25, 1976 (Pages 4-7)

WITHIN AN Adventist group interested in astronomy, there is one recurrent topic that is certain to elicit a number of questions and comments. This subject is the concept of an “open space” in Orion and its implications in Adventist theology.

There are a variety of beliefs widely held among Seventh-day Adventists concerning the Great Nebula in Orion. Typical of the concepts we have heard expressed at various times are the following:

1. The constellation of Orion marks the center of the universe and is the gateway to heaven.

2. The “open space” in Orion and the Great Nebula in Orion are one and the same.

3. Astronomers have discovered in the Orion Nebula a vast lighted corridor leading to heaven. Its dimensions are sometimes stated.

4. The light emanating from the Orion Nebula is the glory of God’s throne shining around an obscuring cloud.

5. The Holy City will descend through the central star in the sword of Orion.

Those who express these concepts seek to support them by Scripture, by the writings of Ellen G. White, and by numerous Christian astronomers.

Each of us has done independent study of both the inspired sources and the relevant secular literature in an attempt to sort truth from speculation in these concepts. The series of articles beginning in this issue represents a collaboration of our efforts. We have endeavored to be thorough and sincere in our investigation of the material available to us.

The term “Orion” occurs in the published writings of Ellen White only once, in a passage in which the term “open space” occurs twice. This is in connection with a vision given December 16, 1848, concerning the shaking of the powers of heaven. Apparently at that time some Adventists had been teaching that the “shaking of the powers of heaven” referred to the shaking of the nations of Europe. In her statement correcting this view, Ellen White wrote: “Dark, heavy clouds came up and clashed against each other. The atmosphere parted and rolled back; then we could look up through the open space in Orion, whence came the voice of God. The Holy City will come down through that open space.” 1

It will be our attempt to place Ellen White’s statement in the historical context of the time (1848), in the theological context of the specific message, and in the physical context of the then-known and present-day scientific knowledge.

A Historical Survey

A large and brilliant constellation of the winter sky, Orion has been pictorially represented since antiquity as a mighty hunter, girded with a belt from which hangs a sword, holding a curved shield in his left hand, while his right hand holds an upraised club ready to strike at the charging Taurus the bull. Dangling from Orion’s belt, represented by three prominent white stars, is the sword of Orion, composed of a row of lesser stars, of which the middle one appears even to the naked eye as a hazy nebulosity. Through binoculars or a small telescope, the Great Nebula takes on the appearance of a gleaming cloud of gas in which are enmeshed many smaller stars, which the unaided eye cannot distinguish. With large telescopes the nebulosity is revealed as a fluorescent, semicircular crescent surrounding the multiple star Theta-Orionis, also known as the Trapezium from its distinct trapezoidal configuration. The nebula definitely contains darker regions, which contrast markedly with the bright nebulosity and which, since they are devoid of stars in a region extremely rich in stars, are particularly conspicuous to the visual observer. When photographed with cameras attached to large telescopes, the Orion Nebula takes on the appearance of a nearly circular cavern, with wisps of nebulosity forming the intricate patterns. As the length of time exposure is increased, the Trapezium disappears, owing to the overexposure of the plate by the bright nebulosity or by the Trapezium stars themselves.

The Great Nebula in Orion was first noticed with telescopic aid early in the seventeenth century. Later, Christian Huygens gave the first recorded description: “In the sword of Orion are three stars quite close together. In 1656, as I chanced to be viewing the middle one of these with the telescope, instead of a single star twelve showed themselves (a not uncommon occurrence). Three of these almost touched each other, and with four others shone through a nebula, so that the space around them seemed far brighter than the rest of the heavens, which was entirely clear and appeared quite black, the effect being that of an opening in the sky through which a brighter region was visible.” 2

The nineteenth-century astronomy historian Agnes M. Clerke quotes Huygens as referring to the Orion Nebula in slightly different words: “As it were, an hyatus in the sky, affording a glimpse of a more luminous region beyond.” 3 Throughout the literature, many slightly variant forms of the last sentence of Huygens’ description occur. All, apparently, are translations of his original work Systema Saturnium, published in 1659.

In this photograph of the belt and sword region of Orion, the Great Nebula is the brightly lighted region near the bottom. The Great Nebula consists mostly of glowing hydrogen gas stimulated to fluorescence by the ultraviolet light of hot stars embedded in it. The nebula is some 1,400 light years from earth and approximately 20 light years across.

Huygens’ view of the Orion Nebula was made with a very small telescope, with which he apparently could distinguish only three of the four Trapezium stars. By today’s, or even by nineteenth-century, standards, Huygens’ instrument would not be adequate for making the serious observations required to determine the nature and form of a low-intensity object such as the Orion Nebula. While his observations were significant at the time, we must be cautious in using them as scientific evidence for an “open space in Orion.”

Significant advances in the study of nebulae had to await the much greater telescopic power available to William Herschel (1738-1822), his son, John Herschel (1792-1871), and Lord William Parsons (1800-1867), the third Earl of Rosse. These men made pioneering studies of the structure of the universe and discovered and catalogued thousands of nebulae. Their efforts in determining the nature of nebulae were only partially successful, even though they had the largest and best telescopes in the world at the time. William Parsons, observing with his 72-inch telescope, believed the Orion Nebula to consist of stars so closely packed that small instruments could not resolve them as individual points of light.

Spectroscopy was not applied to the study of the Orion Nebula until 1867, and this was followed by photographic studies in the 1880’s. The spectroscope determined that the Orion Nebula was gaseous in nature and did not consist of stars as Parsons had believed. 4

An account published in the Illustrated London News, April 19, 1845, reports early observations of the Orion Nebula with William Parsons’ newly erected 72-inch instrument. This article5  caught the attention of Joseph Bates, a retired sea captain with an abiding interest in and intimate knowledge of astronomy and celestial navigation.

On May 8, 1846, Bates published at his own expense a pamphlet entitled, The Opening Heavens, or a Connected View of the Testimony of the Prophets and Apostles Concerning the Opening Heavens Compared With Astronomical Observations and of the Present and Future Location of the New Jerusalem, the Paradise of God.

As stated by Joseph Bates in the preface, the principal reason for his publication was “to correct, or rebuke, the spiritual views . . . in respect to the appearing and kingdom of our Lord and Saviour Jesus Christ.” 6 In particular he was rebuking the editor of the Day Star, a publication that taught a spiritual Second Advent instead of a literal, personal coming.

The Literal View

Recalling that following the disappointment of 1844 the Advent believers were in substantial disarray, with numerous spokesmen offering variant and discordant views concerning the meaning of the scriptural passages relating to the sanctuary, the New Jerusalem, and the Second Advent, it is not surprising that Joseph Bates was earnestly searching for evidence that would support the literal view of the Second Advent and related events. He says in his pamphlet:

“Then this ‘Holy City, new Jerusalem, the Zion of God, the Tabernacle of God, the Bride the Lamb’s Wife, the Mother of us all,’ is a City, enclosed with a wall one hundred and forty-four cubits high, which embraces the ‘garden of Eden, the Paradise of God.’ And God calls it his ‘SANCTUARY.’ I suppose that it will be conceded by all, that the Garden of Eden at the time of the fall, was a literal place, and was planted eastward.” 7

The major stars of Orion and Taurus are diagrammed with sketches of the legendary figures.
In illustrations Orion is depicted as holding various items in his left hand, but this diagram shows a carcass.

After noting that the Garden, with the cherubims and flaming sword that guarded the tree of life, had been removed from the earth, Bates goes on to say:

“From what part of Heaven will this glorious city appear? We answer, from where the flaming sword is ‘guarding the way of the tree of life,’ and the Cherubims are stationed. John 1:51. Furgerson, the celebrated astronomer of the last century, in describing some of the many wonders in the Heavens, says ‘that the two bright clouds in the heavens at the south pole, called by mariners the clouds of Magelen, are by astronomers called cloudy stars, but the most remarkable of all the cloudy stars is that in the middle of Orion’s Sword, where seven stars (of which three are very close together) seem to shine through a cloud, very lucid in the middle, but faint and ill defined about the edges. It looks like a GAP in the sky, through which one may see (as it were) part of a much brighter region.’ ” 8

Bates goes on to quote Huygens’ description of the Orion Nebula, the reputed observations with the Earl of Rosse’s six-foot telescope as described in the Illustrated London News article, and speaks of his own observations with a small telescope.

Bates continues his thesis, “So in this morning watch God will not only look through this mighty space, (black on one side with the stormy cloud,) but . . . in the same direction the world will soon see what the Second Advent believer has long and anxiously been waiting for: viz. the ‘glorious appearing of the great God and our Saviour Jesus Christ.’ ” 9

In the context, identification is made of the “stormy cloud”: “A Western view . . . gives it [the Orion Nebula] the appearance of a stormy dark cloud, with a full moon just shut in behind it, and three bright stars looking through the cloud. This dark looking cloud is called the gap in the sky.” 10

Six months later, in November, 1846, Joseph Bates was present at a conference of Advent believers in Topsham, Maine, at the home of a Mr. Curtiss, where Ellen White was given a vision. Prior to this meeting he had observed Ellen White’s visions several times, but remained skeptical of their divine origin. Concerning this vision Ellen White wrote: “The spirit of God rested upon me; I was wrapped in a vision of God’s glory, and for the first time had a view of other planets. After I came out of vision, I related what I had seen. Elder Bates then asked if I had studied astronomy. I told him I had no recollection of ever looking into an astronomy [book]. Said he: `this is of the Lord.’ ” 11

Evidently no more detailed record of the content of this vision was written by Ellen White. At least none exists today.

In 1892, J. N. Loughborough published an account of this vision as told to him by Joseph Bates: “Mrs. White, while in vision, began to talk about the stars [and certain planets.] . . . Next came a wonderful description of the ‘opening heavens,’ with its glory, calling it an opening into a region more enlightened. Elder Bates said that her description far surpassed any account of the opening heavens he had ever read from any author. While she was talking, and still in vision, he arose to his feet, and exclaimed, ‘I wish he [Lord William Parsons] was here tonight. I wish he was here to hear that woman talk astronomy, and to hear that description of the “opening heavens.” It is ahead of anything I ever read on the subject.’ ” 12

James White wrote a brief account in May, 1847, stating: “Ellen had a vision of the handy works of God.” 13 Another eyewitness, Mrs. M. C. Truesdale, in 1891, wrote out her reminiscences of this astronomy vision, 14 which she had observed as a girl of about 16.

Neither her report nor the brief recorded testimonies of the other three persons present, when taken in context, refer specifically to Orion. One, that of Joseph Bates as recorded by Loughborough more than 40 years later, mentions the term the “opening heavens,” enclosed in quotation marks.

What Were the Opening Heavens?

The term “opening heavens” is a term evidently coined by Joseph Bates and used by him in the previously mentioned pamphlet. A search of indexed references to the Orion Nebula in many major nineteenthcentury works on astronomy shows no evidence of this or any similar term being used. Bates also made the association of the direction from which Christ will come with the dark Huygenian region of the Orion Nebula prior to Ellen White’s first astronomy vision of 1846 and more than two years before the 1848 vision, in the record of which she identifies Orion.

In the 1846 vision at Topsham, was Ellen White shown the Orion Nebula? She does not say so, but evidently Joseph Bates thought that she saw it. The account of the vision that Loughborough obtained from Joseph Bates reads, “a wonderful description of the ‘opening heavens,’ with its glory, calling it an opening into a region more enlightened.” 15 The latter part of this sentence is similar to the wording of a translation of Huygens’ description of the Orion Nebula used by Bates: “a free view into another region more enlightened.” 16

Loughborough’s account concludes by giving five quotations describing the Orion Nebula, including one from Joseph Bates, leaving little doubt that Joseph Bates believed Ellen White was given a view of the Orion Nebula. If God used this experience to impress Joseph Bates of the divine origin of the visions, it could have been most effectively done by giving Mrs. White views of astronomical phenomena with which he was familiar.

On the other hand, it is also apparent from Bates’s publication that he was preconditioned to interpret any words of Ellen White remotely similar to the “opening heavens” as referring to the Orion Nebula and to associate this with the direction from which Christ will return.

During this 1846 vision, Joseph Bates made a number of interpretive remarks in which he evidently supplied specific names to a number of celestial objects, unnamed by Ellen White, but which he thought she was viewing. 17 The use of the term “opening heavens” may be only an interpretation of Joseph Bates, and may not have been a reference to Orion.

A Recent Interpretation

In 1949 the Adventist historian, A. W. Spalding, recording the account of the November, 1846, vision of Ellen White, wrote: “In the presence of Elder Bates she was taken into vision, and soon began to give a vivid description of ‘the opening heavens,’ with a luminous corridor leading to regions of glory beyond.

“Elder Bates rose to his feet and paced the room. ‘That description,’ said he, ‘far surpasses any account of the open space in Orion I have ever read.’ ” 18

In his version of the comments attributed to Bates, Spalding has in one instance introduced the specific, interpretive meaning “open space in Orion” (Ellen White’s words from the vision of 1848) in place of the more elusive “opening heavens” used by Loughborough, who received his account directly from Joseph Bates. “An opening into a region more enlightened” has become “a luminous corridor leading to regions of glory beyond.”

It is important to notice that there is nothing in the records of the 1846 vision that suggests that Ellen White was then viewing scenes in any way related to what she later saw in the 1848 vision of “the open space in Orion.” This association was made, however, by Spalding, a century after the visions. Reference to the Orion Nebula relative to the 1846 vision has been made at least in part on the basis of Joseph Bates’s interpretation.

In her records of these two visions, Ellen White does not identify the Orion Nebula. While the Great Nebula is an outstanding feature of Orion, she could have been referring to some other region of the constellation or to some phenomenon not visible without divine aid. The context indicates that the “open space in Orion” to which she refers in vision will play a role in connection with end events.

Next week we will examine other interpretations of the “open space in Orion” in the light of the records of nineteenth-century astronomy and recent photographic evidence.

Continued next week


1. Early Writings, p. 41

2 Hector Macpherson, Makers of Astronomy, p. 51.

3 Agnes M. Clerke, A Popular History of Astronomy During the 19th Century, p. 22.

4. Charles Parsons, The Scientific Papers of William Parsons, p. 203.

5. J. N. Loughborough, Rise and Progress of the Seventh-day Adventists, pp. 125-127.

6. Joseph Bates, The Opening Heavens, p. 2.

7. Ibid., pp. 4, 5.

8. Ibid., p. 6.

9. Ibid., pp. 9-12.

10. Ibid., p. 9.

11. Testimonies, vol. 1, pp. 79, 80.

12 J. N. Loughborough, The Great Second Advent Movement, p. 258.

13. Francis D. Nichol, Ellen G. White and Her Critics, p. 93.

14. Loughborough, The Great Second Advent Movement. p. 259.

15. _________, Rise and Progress of the Seventh-day Adventists, p. 126.

16. _________, The Great Second Advent Movement, p. 260.

17. Nichol, op. cit., p. 95.

18. Arthur W. Spalding, Captains of the Host, p. 132.


How Open Is Orion’s Open Space?
by Merton E. Sprengel and Dowell E. Martz
It appears that from observations made by nineteenth century astronomers,
no definitive conclusion may be possible regarding
an opening in the trapezium region of the Orion Nebula.
Adventist Review, April 1, 1976 (Pages 9-11)

IN OUR ARTICLE LAST WEEK WE EXAMINED some of the traditional views held by many Seventh-day Adventists concerning the “open space” in Orion, in the light of the historical documents of the 1840’s. Joseph Bates was the first to associate the Orion Nebula with the return of the Holy City. This was in 1846, two years before Ellen White had her vision concerning Orion, reported in Early Writings. Other Adventist authors, including J. N. Loughborough, provided additional details concerning the vision and its interpretation.

In this article, we wish to examine what Adventists said later on this and related concepts.

In 1910 Lucas A. Reed published a number of articles in the monthly Signs of the Times.

In 1919, several of these articles, together with other material, were published in book form.

One thrust of this book is suggested in the following excerpts: “Since God, then, has a definite dwelling place, though present everywhere by His Spirit and power, it is but natural that one should wonder where that place may be. We would naturally conclude that God’s abode is at the center of His universe. . . . Every analogy teaches that creation is centered; and to think that there can be other center than the Creator Himself, is irrational. . . . The conclusion is irresistible that there is such a center for the universe, and that there God controls and guides all things.

“We now raise the question, Is there any portion of  the heavens discovered by astronomers, that in any sense suggests a fitness to be the dwelling place of Deity? We answer that there is one, and only one which at all meets the conditions, and this is the constellation Orion.” 1

When these statements were written astronomers believed our own galaxy, the Milky Way, to be the entire universe. 2 Because methods were not then available to measure remote stellar distances, galaxies external to our own were unknown.

Maedler, an early nineteenth century astronomer in Russia, referred to by Mr. Reed, had decided that the center of the universe was in the Pleiades, just a few degrees away from Orion. 3 It is not surprising, then, that Orion was suggested as the center of the universe. However, a completely different conclusion may have been arrived at had Mr. Reed been writing 20 years later.

Investigations since the 1920s have revealed that the center of the Milky Way Galaxy, as viewed from the earth, is in a direction almost directly opposite that of Orion. 4 Astronomers today have no definitive knowledge concerning a center for the system of an estimated one billion galaxies that make up the known universe.

Ellen White suggests the concept of a center of the universe at which God resides, but gives no hint as to its site or proximity. “With undimmed vision they gaze upon the glory of creation—suns and stars and systems, all in their appointed order circling the throne of Deity.” 5

While it is perhaps not inconceivable that God’s center of government is hidden by a dark cloud in the Orion region, there is no basis in either astronomy or Inspiration for such a site, which, considering the vast size of the universe, would make it practically next door to our solar system. There is no suggestion in the inspired writings that would limit heaven’s site to the Milky Way Galaxy, only one of millions within the range of the largest telescopes available today.

From an analysis of stellar radial velocities determined by the Doppler shift of spectral lines, and from the radio emissions of interstellar gases, the structure of our Milky Way Galaxy has been determined to be a flat, spiral pinwheel of stars similar to the spiral structure of several nearby galaxies, of which the Andromeda Galaxy is an excellent example. Our sun, with its orbiting planets, is believed to be situated within one of the spiral arms, two thirds of the distance from the central nucleus to the rim. The Orion Nebula, one of several bright diffuse nebulae situated in the same spiral arm of the galaxy as our solar system, is actually some 1,400 light years farther away from the galactic center than the earth, and, as such, is hardly a suitable candidate for the ultimate center of the universe.

But what of that open space in Orion?

Lucas Reed devotes a whole chapter of his book to supporting his theory that the “open space in Orion” is visible with telescopic aid. He asks the question: “What is ‘the open space in Orion’? Is it that which was suggested by Huyghens of the seventeenth century? . . . Huyghens’ own words . . . were ‘a curtain opening, through which one had a free view into another region, which was more enlightened.’ But this is not the idea to be conveyed by the expression, ‘the open space in Orion.’ . . . There is a deeper meaning.” 6

He then proceeds to show from various nineteenth-century works on astronomy that William and John Herschel had discovered numerous “openings in the heavens.” Thus, seeking to establish the fact that this terminology was familiar to astronomers of the period when Mrs. White wrote, he asserts:

“[Some] nebulae have the peculiarity of an open space in them; and Orion is one of these. But the open space in Orion has a significance of its own. Thus these men of science have used expressions that debar any adverse criticism of Mrs. White’s term ‘the open space in Orion.’ As has been explained by these astronomers, we may speak of an opening in the nebula of Orion.”7

The Herschels’ “openings” were regions of the sky which were observed to be completely devoid of stars. These gaps in the star fields were interpreted to be holes out through the Milky Way. Most nineteenth-century astronomers believed as Humbolt did: “These starless regions . . . may, I think, be regarded as tubes through which we may look into the remotest depths of space.” 8

Reed apparently was not aware that in 1877 astronomers, after almost a century, began to question their earlier interpretation 9 of these star voids. By 1919 they had shown by photographic evidence that the observations indeed had been misinterpreted. 10 These blank areas in the sky were discovered to be opaque clouds of dust and gas situated between the earth and the most distant stars. Thus, instead of openings, these dark regions are in reality like curtains that hide more distant stars from our view.

Scientific Conclusions Often Transitory

This reinterpretation, of course, does not disprove the existence of an open space in Orion, but it does illustrate the hazard of attempting to verify inspired writings with reasoning based on transitory interpretations of scientific observations.

Returning to Reed’s analysis, he maintains: “It [the opening in the Nebula of Orion] is situated just where one might least expect to find it; namely, in the middle and brightest part of the nebula. This portion contains . . . [the] trapezium. . . . The nebula in Orion is like a huge funnel, so to speak, with the larger opening toward us, and the tube-like portions terminating in the region of the trapezium.” 11


This highly magnified view of the central region of the Great Nebula shows the trapezium stars near the end of the dark, intruding cloud.

The evidence presented, upon which these assertions regarding a visible open space are based, essentially consists of three statements:

“Sir John Herschel has said, ‘It is remarkable, however, that within the area of the trapezium, no nebula exists.’ . . .

“ ‘The whole fabric of the nebula is concave towards an axis passing the trapezium in a northeasterly and southwesterly direction.’ . . .

“Ball . . . admits that ‘there seems to be an empty space in the nebula surrounding the multiple star.’ ” 12

John Herschel’s statement was made as a result of his observations with an 18-inch reflector at the Cape of Good Hope in 1834-1837. William C. Bond, a contemporary of John Herschel and William Parsons, using a 14-inch refractor made a similar report: “There is a great diminution of light in the interior of the trapezium.” 13 Lord William Parsons, in 1850, with a 36-inch reflector, speaks of “the opening within the bright stars of the trapezium of Orion.” 14

Eighteen years later he reported: “The interior of the trapezium has not been examined recently with the view to the question whether it is absolutely dark. With the  6-feet instrument the eye is so dazzled by the light of the four stars that it is difficult to form an accurate opinion. . . I am not certain that any part of the nebula is absolutely free from nebulosity.” 15

Further commenting on the observation of nebulae with his large telescope, Lord William Parsons in 1850 said: “When certain phenomena can only be seen with great difficulty, the eye may imperceptibly be in some degree influenced by the mind; therefore a preconceived theory may mislead, and speculations are not without danger.” 16

From his 1893 work on the history of astronomy, Sir Robert Ball, a fellow of the Royal Society of London, is quoted by Reed as noted above. Let us look at his statement in context: “There seems to be an empty space in the nebula immediately surrounding the multiple star, but it is not unlikely that this is merely an illusion, produced by the contrast of the brilliant light of the stars. At all events, the spectroscopic examination of the nebula seems to show that the nebulous matter is continuous over the stars.” 17

This larger statement suggests that by 1893 the idea of an opening in the trapezium area of the Orion Nebula was somewhat uncertain.

Agnes M. Clerke also notes the uncertainty: “This gaseous stuff, although it pervades the trapezium, seems less luminous there than elsewhere. The space about the stars usually forms a sort of oasis of comparative darkness in the midst of a wilderness of piled up flakes of light. Usually, not always. D’Arrest, it is true, invariably saw the stellar group on an almost black ground; but O. Struve several times, and especially in 1861, found the trapezium as densely nebulous as the contiguous tracts; and the same was noted by both Schroter and Lamont.” 18

It appears, then, that from the direct observation made by nineteenth-century astronomers, no definitive conclusion was warranted regarding an opening in the trapezium region of the Orion Nebula.

Further problems arise in any effort to build a theology of “the open space in Orion” on nineteenth-century observations, when we notice from William Parsons’ 1867 paper 19 that he had discovered at least five other “openings” around stars in the central region of the nebula. This would make Reed’s selection even more doubtful.

If direct observation of this phenomenon leaves certain questions unanswered, what then does photography reveal? This we shall examine next week.

Concluded next week


1. Lucas A. Reed, Astronomy and the Bible, pp. 227-231.

2. George O. Abell, “Beyond the Milky Way,” Astronomy 3, No. I, p. 13.

3. Reed, op. cit., pp. 227, 228.

4. Bart J. and Priscilla Bok, The Milky Way, p. 18.

5. The Great Controversy, pp. 677, 678.

6. Reed, op. cit., pp. 237, 238.

7. Ibid., p. 241.

8. Alexander von Humbolt, Cosmos: A Sketch or Physical Description of the Universe, vol. 1, p. 152.

9. Peter Doig, A Concise History of Astronomy, pp. 297, 298.

10. Charles Parsons, The Scientific Papers of William Parsons, pp. 118, 206, 113.

11. Reed, op. cit., pp. 241-243.

12 Ibid., pp. 242, 243.

13. Humbolt, op. cit.

14. Ibid.

15. Parsons, op. cit.

16. Ibid.

17. Sir Robert Stawell Ball, Story of the Heavens, pp. 455, 456.

18. Agnes M. Clerke, System of the Stars, p. 277.

19. Parsons, op. cit.

Does the “Open Space” Exist Today?
by Merton E. Sprengel and Dowell E. Martz
The authors probe astronomical data, including recent photographs,
to ascertain how much can be known about
Orion’s “open space.”
Adventist Review, April 8, 1976 (Pages 6-8)

THE FIRST PHOTOGRAPHS OF THE ORION nebula were obtained in the 1880s, 1 more than 30 years after Ellen White’s vision. For photographic evidence of an “open space in Orion,” several Seventh-day Adventist authors quote from a California astronomer, Edgar Lucien Larkin, director of the Mount Lowe Observatory. Professor Larkin, in 1910, wrote a glowing description of the Orion nebula in the San Francisco Examiner and later wrote an article for the Signs of the Times, apparently at the request of the associate editor, Lucas A. Reed. In his book, Reed quotes extensively from this article in support of his theory that the open space is in the Trapezium region of the nebula.

The essence of Larkin’s statement is contained in the following excerpts: “Recent photographic transparencies made . . . at the Mount Wilson Observatory reveal the optical property of perspective. What has all along appeared to be flat surface of nebulous matter . . . in the great nebula in the sword of Orion, is shown, in the central regions of these negatives, to be the mouth of a cavern, a deep opening receding into the mighty distance beyond.

“These large negatives . . . actually show depths below the shining surface of the nebula, the effect being that the eye looks into the opening and along the apparent sides to the rear. . . . [Imagine] that the central region of the nebula is really the gigantic opening of a cavern leading into inconceivable depths. . . . The opening of this recess is at least fifteen minutes of arc in diameter.” 2

The “opening,” which Mr. Larkin observes as 15 minutes of arc wide, is the large, brightly lighted central  portion of the nebula, an area about 40 times as wide as the Trapezium region, whose diagonal is approximately 22 seconds of arc. Evidently Mr. Reed did not realize this when he concluded:

“The nebula of Orion has been described by Professor Larkin as funnel-shaped, with the opening at the smaller end. This opening is marked by a multiple star; and around it the nebula seems to be formed. . . . Theta Orionis is in the open space of Orion.” 3

From the dimensions given, it is evident that Mr. Larkin is referring to the opening at the “larger end” of the nebula. He does not mention a “smaller end,” or the Trapezium region. Further, in his article, he does not refer to the nebula as being funnel shaped. This term is evidently supplied by Mr. Reed in an attempt to harmonize Larkin’s recognition of the concavity of the nebulous region with Herschel’s statement regarding the lack of nebulosity in the Trapezium.

The same misunderstanding of dimensions has been repeated by two other authors. Fannie Dickerson Chase in 1922 wrote:

“In ordinary telescopes, the nebula seems to be a flat surface; but photographs reveal the central region of the space within the quadrilateral to be the mouth of a colossal cave—`the open space of Orion.’ This yawning abyss is thought to have a diameter of sixteen trillion and seven-hundred fifty billion miles. If so . . ninety thousand of these orbits, side by side, forming one straight line of rings, could enter the appalling chasm.” 4

More than 25 years later, A. W. Spalding records a similar concept in his work on the history of Adventism:

“This corridor of light, delimited by four great stars,     not even a pin point to the naked eye [the Trapezium] but in reality so broad that ninety thousand earth-orbits could march abreast into it.” 5

This photograph of the Great Nebula in Orion is similar to those in which Edgar Larkin, a California astronomer, observed its three-dimensional structure, which suggested to him the opening of a vast cavern.

Chase and Spalding borrowed the size “ninety thousand earth-orbits” from Larkin, who calculates it from the “fifteen minutes of arc” dimension rather than from the “twenty-two seconds of arc” subtended by the Trapezium itself.

From Professor Larkin’s statement we can conclude that the general form of the lighted region of the Orion nebula is concave. This is also evident from the high-quality color photographs available today.

In studying the photographs just mentioned, one must be careful about attaching significance to the color of the nebulous region. Extremely variant color renditions are possible, owing to film type, temperature during exposure, filters used, and processing techniques. Through large telescopes the nebula appears essentially black and white to the human eye, with a greenish tinge under favorable visual conditions.

Photographs of the Trapezium region are difficult to obtain owing to the high intensity of light from the surrounding nebula, and from the Trapezium stars themselves. With special filtering and processing techniques, Lick Observatory has produced a photograph of the central region of the nebula. In this photograph the nebulosity appears continuous over and around the area of the Trapezium stars, which are visible close to the tip of the dark projection.

Thus far, we have discussed several theories regarding an open space in Orion.

Huygens’ first description of the Orion nebula suggested an apparent opening. He was perhaps referring to the dark cloud protruding toward the Trapezium from the northeast, since this is the most conspicuous dark feature to the visual observer. Joseph Bates, before Ellen White’s visions, held this view of Huygens’ description.

Lucas Reed believed that the open space was the small region immediately surrounding the Trapezium. Edgar Lucien Larkin observed that the whole configuration of the lighted nebulous cloud appeared as a cavern. This view is not the same as that of Reed, since it refers to a region 40 times larger. Some Adventists have suggested that the entire nebula is the open space, perhaps following Larkin’s observation that the lighted region appeared concave.


On the basis of astronomical literature and photographic evidence, several points can be made:

1. No specific open space in Orion is visible today. This does not preclude the fact that in vision, when describing events still future, Ellen White saw an open space.

2. The dark areas within the Orion nebula, which early astronomers and Joseph Bates had termed “open space” or the “gap in the sky,” have since been identified as opaque gas and dust clouds.

3. “Open space,” defined as the absence of matter, exists in all regions in the Orion constellation not covered by bright nebulosity, by dark opaque clouds, or by stars.

4. Ellen White did not identify the specific site within the constellation of Orion of “the open space,” nor did she describe its nature. It was Seventh-day Adventist writers other than Ellen White who equated “the open space” with the Great Nebula or a part thereof.

5. Many of the details given by those writers relative to “the open space in Orion” are based on speculation and on obsolete interpretations of astronomical observations.

In conclusion, let us re-examine Ellen White’s description of the scenes in question given to her by divine inspiration.

In the 1848 vision, reference to Orion is made within a brief description of a number of cataclysmic events that will occur just prior to Christ’s second coming. “The powers of heaven will be shaken at the voice of God. Then the sun, moon, and stars will be moved out of their places. They will not pass away, but be shaken by the voice of God.

“Dark, heavy clouds came up, and clashed against each other. The atmosphere parted and rolled back; then we could look up through the open space in Orion, whence came the voice of God. The Holy City will come down through that open space.” 6

It is interesting to compare this statement with similar statements describing last-day events:

1. In an 1847 vision one year prior to the view recorded above: “Dark, heavy clouds came up and clashed against each other. But there was one clear place of settled glory, whence came the voice of God . . ., which shook the heavens and the earth. The sky opened and shut and was in commotion.” 7

2. “In the midst of the angry heavens is one clear space of indescribable glory, whence comes the voice of God. . . . The firmament appears to open and shut. The glory from the throne of God seems flashing through.” 8

These three statements all seem to be describing the same event, one to occur just prior to the appearance of the Son of man. When the three statements are compared, the reference to the Holy City appears somewhat parenthetical. The second and third statements seem to suggest an open space in the atmospheric firmament surrounding the earth, which, of course, could provide a view beyond to the constellation of Orion.

Furthermore, there is nothing in these statements to suggest that the “open space” or the “clear space” will exist or be visible prior to the events described. For example, the Orion nebula is barely visible to the naked eye and was unrecognized for more than 5,000 years.

Our research has convinced us that the one brief mention of Orion in Early Writings has been substantially magnified and embellished by later Adventist authors and spokesmen, leading to the traditional viewpoints now held by many Adventists. We would like to suggest that since there is only a single reference to this topic in the many volumes penned by Ellen White over a 70-year ministry to the Adventist Church, the matter must be one of relative unimportance. We may rest assured that our understanding of this subject is hardly essential to our eternal salvation.



1. Agnes M. Clerke, History of Astronomy During the Nineteenth Century, pp. 407, 408.

2. Edgar Lucien Larkin, quoted in Lucas A. Reed, Astronomy and the Bible, pp. 250, 251.

3. Reed, Astronomy and the Bible, p. 256.

4. Fannie Dickerson Chase, In Starland, pp. 202, 203.

5. Arthur W. Spalding, Captains of the Host, p. 132.

6. Early Writings, p. 41.

7. Ibid., p. 34.

8. The Great Controversy, pp. 636, 637.

Illustrations as in original articles