“I have set my rainbow in the clouds, and it will be the sign of the covenant between me and the earth. Whenever I bring clouds over the earth and the rainbow appears in the clouds, I will remember my covenant between me and you and all living creatures of every kind.” (Genesis 9:13-15)
Science can explain quite a lot about the physics of a rainbow. When sunlight enters a drop of water in the air, it is bent slightly, a phenomenon known as refraction. Sunlight is made up of many different wavelengths (colors), which bend at slightly different angles when refracted. So when sunlight enters a drop of water and is refracted, colors are separated. Some of this refracted light is reflected off of the back wall of the water drop, and then bent a little more when it exits the front of the drop causing the colors to separate even farther. The following drawing is illustrative.
When we look upon a rainbow we are seeing the aggregate interaction of sunlight with billions of water droplets. The atmospheric conditions must of course be just right. There need to be plenty of water drops in the air, which is why most often we see a rainbow after a storm. In addition, the sun must be out and positioned behind our back because it is the refracted light reflecting off the raindrops that we perceive as a rainbow.
While science can accurately describe what is happening when a rainbow appears in the sky, it struggles to explain foundational issues, such as, why does light exist and why is all not simply darkness? To say that light comes from stars, such as our sun, only pushes the question back one level – where did the stars come from? This is not a criticism of science, rather a recognition that science has its limits. And it is not only foundational issues of reality that science struggles to explain, but the metaphysical issues of everyday life. For example, what scientific instrument can record the transcendent beauty of a rainbow? Or decipher its meaning? For, while science is really good at measuring and explaining the physical attributes of a rainbow such as refraction, reflection and wavelength, it cannot interpret or predict our response. Rather, it is our soul that understands the aesthetic and spiritual meaning of the natural world, and perceives and responds when God supernaturally reveals himself through natural events such as rainbows.
The Biblical record tells us that God created the heavens and the earth, that He created light, and that He created life. Indeed, all of creation is itself a significant way that God makes himself known to people. As the author of Psalm 19 puts it, “The heavens show the work of God, His glory they proclaim; the skies disclose His handiwork through starry host aflame. From day to day they make God known to those who dwell below; while night to night revealing Him so all the world can know. Although no speech or words are used to spread this through the land, there is no nation, tribe, or soul that does not understand. Their message goes to all the world, it’s seen by everyone; the heavens are God’s handiwork, it’s there He placed the sun.”(Psalm 19:1-4) The natural world all around us – the stars, the sun, even rainbows – are part of God’s general revelation to all people.
Rainbows command a storied position in time and legend because of their beautiful but ephemeral nature. In many ways rainbows are a bridge between the secular and sacred, which is reflected in a song such as, “Somewhere Over The Rainbow.” Although the scientist doesn’t believe in a mythical land beyond a rainbow, and the Christian doesn’t believe in wishing upon a star, yet the song inspires believer and non-believer alike because it speaks to the universal longing in the human heart for a special place of completeness and joy. [The following is worth viewing https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=nflIf8BhMVs] Still, skeptic or believer, reality keeps us grounded in the moment unable to fly with bluebirds over a rainbow. Indeed, the term “chasing rainbows” has come to mean pursuing things that are unrealistic or unlikely to happen. While some people chase storms to experience tornados close-up, no one thinks seriously about pursuing rainbows. But what about God using rainbows to pursue us? Seem impossible? Well, maybe not. I believe the Lord has done precisely that three times in my life.
The first was on August 17, 1989, more than a decade before I committed my life to Christ. I was on a business trip to Colorado Springs, CO, and after a day in the office, I decided to explore the area by heading west out of town on Route 24. This is the main east-west road, which winds its way up and into the Rocky Mountains. As the car climbed into the hills, clouds gathered over the top of the mountains darkening the sky. Minutes later a thunderstorm struck with a ferocity that is common in the Rockies, with lightening strikes bouncing horizontally between the higher peaks. The rain passed as quickly as it came, and a few minutes later I turned the rental car back toward the city. Now with a sweeping vista over the eastern plains, a magnificent rainbow appeared in the sky. Perhaps it was the clean air, or possibly the altitude, but the overall effect was stunning. At the time I was an avowed skeptic with no belief, let alone interest, in God. And yet, I remember something quickening in my spirit as the extreme beauty touched a place deep in my soul. Years later I would recall this as one of several small turning points in my spiritual life. It was God in pursuit of me – reaching out with this glorious rainbow, as he has no doubt done for millions of others throughout history. “For since the creation of the world God’s invisible qualities – his eternal power and divine nature – have been clearly seen, being understood from what has been made, so that people are without excuse.” (Romans 1:20) The covenant that God made with Noah and sealed with the rainbow was an affirmation that God cares about people – all people, even me. God made his covenant even though “every inclination of the human heart is evil from childhood.” (Genesis 8:21) And so, despite the fact that I was a functional atheist with an unredeemed heart, God was in pursuit.
The second and arguably most supernatural appearance was more than a decade later on September 18, 2002, just two years after I had placed my faith in Jesus. It was late afternoon, the end of the workday, and I was walking out of my office in Dayton, OH after a rainstorm had passed. I don’t recall the reason that I was feeling spiritually low that afternoon, but I distinctly remember crossing the parking lot and thinking about rainbows and how the Bible teaches that God put the rainbow in the sky as a promise. But I also knew that science pretty well explains how rainbows are formed. I could not reconcile the two thoughts, but honestly leaned more toward a purely scientific explanation. As I started the drive home, I turned onto South Patterson Boulevard, which twists and turns south and east as it rises into Hills and Dales Park. The visibility was low with a bit of ground fog, when suddenly as I rounded a bend, a rainbow appeared out of the fog in front of the car and landed on the right hand side of the road. And there it was – the end of the rainbow! Yes, I saw the actual end of a rainbow where it sparkled on the ground next to my slow moving car. It was only a few seconds, but I had no doubt about what I had seen.
I barely had time to absorb all of this, when a second rainbow appeared – again out of the fog in front of the car. This one “landed” on the hood, directly in front of my windshield. Once again, I saw the end of a rainbow, which lingered for several seconds before disappearing. I was stunned by these two appearances without any sense of an appropriate response. I had twice seen the end of a rainbow! Over the years I have done some research but never have I found an account similar to this. To the contrary, what I read is that it is impossible to reach the end of a rainbow. I believe God provided this double miracle to encourage me in my faith and breakup lingering doubts about the reality of the supernatural. It was of course not just the fact of the miracle itself, but the timing of when it occurred. One moment I was doubting that God controls rainbows and minutes later he gives me a demonstration of his power over them.
The third was yet a decade later on December 30, 2011. The backstory is that I had experienced more than a dozen nosebleeds over a four day period before finally seeking medical help. The doctor diagnosed a bleeding blood vessel inside my nose, which he cauterized by activating a caustic chemical on the end of a long stick and then touching it to the site. No doubt it was the right treatment, but I discovered afterwards that he should have anesthetized the site first. Basically the procedure was just as barbaric it sounds – getting a hot poker rammed up the nose. The only good news was that it did stop the bleeding. At least until later that afternoon at home when I bent down and my nose started to bleed again. The fear of potentially needing a second procedure was overwhelming. Less than an hour later a rain squall passed over our house and a rainbow appeared. Pat immediately recognized the significance – that God sent that rainbow to encourage me. Rainbows in December are very rare in Dayton, and it appeared only for a minute or so – I could have easily have missed it. Oh yes, the bleeding from my nose finally stopped.
An interesting scientific fact is that no two people ever see exactly the same rainbow. The light that one person sees bouncing off of distant raindrops is bouncing off at a completely different angle for someone else, which means the rainbow they are seeing is light reflecting off of different raindrops. Because no two people can stand at the same spot at the same time, everyone who sees a rainbow is in a sense having a unique experience. This is equally true for our spiritual journeys. Since no two faith walks are exactly the same, God reaches out uniquely to every individual. Perhaps through rainbows, perhaps not. But one thing is certain – God is forever the pursuer of us – He is forever the Hound of Heaven. And because God pursues us, we are enabled to pursue love, which is the pursuit of virtue. As the apostle John put it, “We love because he first loved us.”(1 John 4:19)
Is there a place that I can go where You won’t follow me?
Can I escape Your Spirit, Lord, or from Your presence flee?
If I climb to the heavens, Lord, upon the highest stair,
Or if I plunge the lowest depths, I know that You are there.
If I should rise on wings of dawn to find a place to dwell,
And settle down across the sea, I’ll find You there as well.
For even there Your hand will guide and show me how to grow;
And with Your right hand holding fast, You will not let me go.
O I could say, “I’ll hide from You when darkness fills the night,
When all that shines has left the sky and blackness veils the light.
But there’s no darkness dark enough, no night where You can’t see,
No blackness that’s so black, O Lord, where You can’t follow me.