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Has NASA Discovered a “Missing Day”?

Bert Thompson

First published in:
Reason & Revelation
(A Monthly Journal on Christian Evidences)
May 1991, 11(5):17–19

Copyright © Apologetics Press, Inc., All Rights Reserved
Reproduced with the implicit permission below


Q.

There is an account in the book of Joshua which records the Sun as “standing still”. The story often circulates that NASA scientists, using computers to calculate orbits for the Earth and Sun, discovered that there was a “missing day”. Upon further examination, so the story goes, these scientists used their computers to find this missing day, proving the biblical record to be accurate. Is this story true?

A.

From time to time stories such as the one described above appear — usually in church bulletins or religious publications— as factual and true. No doubt those who propagate such information mean well, and have as their ultimate goal a defense of the Bible against the slings and arrows of infidelity. However, the story which claims that scientists have discovered the “long day of Joshua” is untrue. An investigation into such a claim reveals the following interesting details.

Similar stories have been around for more than half-a-century. In his book, The Harmony of Science and Scripture, first published in 1936, Harry Rimmer devoted the entire last chapter to “Modern Science and the Long Day of Joshua.” In his discussion, Rimmer recounts the biblical story of how God made the Sun stand still (Joshua 10), and in so doing makes this statement concerning this miraculous day: “The final testimony of science is that such a day left its record for all time. As long as time shall be, the record of this day must remain. The fact is attested by eminent men of science, two of whom I quote here” (1936, p 280). Dr. Rimmer then mentions two scientists — Sir Edwin Ball, a British astronomer, and C.A. Totten, a Yale professor. He credits Ball with being the first to notice that “twenty-four hours had been lost out of solar time.” Rimmer then asks the questions: “Where did that go, what was the cause of this strange lapse, and how did it happen” (p 280)? In his very next paragraph, he suggests: “There is a place, however, where the answer is found. And this place is attested by a scientist of standing. There is a book by Prof. C.A. Totten of Yale, written in 1890, which establishes the case beyond the shadow of a doubt” (p 281). Rimmer then presents what he calls a “summary” of Totten's book where, he says, information is provided which proves exactly how the “lost” day from the biblical record was discovered. Rimmer even goes so far as to give the exact day and month on which Joshua's battle was supposed to have been fought — Tuesday, July 22 (p 266)!

Before proceeding to respond to the question about modern-day scientists having found the “lost” day of Joshua, let us make several observations about this older story, from which the newer one has obviously been fashioned, albeit with obvious embellishment. First, it is interesting to note that Dr. Rimmer specifically states that he intends to “quote from” Ball and Totten, yet none of the statements he offers is placed in quotation marks. Second, the 1890 book which Totten allegedly wrote is never named by Rimmer, which seems a bit odd, considering the fact that this topic was so important to Rimmer that he devoted an entire chapter to it in his own book. Third, no bibliographic references of any kind are provided by Rimmer to the works of either Ball or Totten — again, quite unusual, seeing as how Rimmer based his whole argument on the validity of their respective cases. Fourth, other writers have made serious efforts to determine the validity of Rimmer's claims, as well as those of Ball and Totten, but with little success. For example, Bernard Ramm, in The Christian View of Science and Scripture, specifically mentions Rimmer's viewpoint and his reference to Totten. Ramm's conclusion concerning the “proof” supposedly provided by Rimmer and Totten was couched in well-chosen terminology. He observed, “This I have not been able to verify to my own satisfaction.... Dr. Kulp has tried to check this theory at Yale [Totten's employer — BT] and in England [Sir Edwin Ball's home — BT], and has found nothing to verify it” (1954, pp 109,117).

No doubt Dr. Rimmer himself believed the story he told to be true. But the documentation which should provide the proof of the story is seriously and obviously lacking. How such stories originate is far more difficult to ascertain than how they circulate. Once a story has been invented, and “corroborated” with what seem to be credible names and relevant facts, well-meaning people often do not think through the story completely, or go to any trouble to investigate it further, and thus accept it as true. Once accepted, it then becomes fair game to be used in what the Bible-believer sees as a reasoned defense of God's Word. From all evidence now available, the story of Ball and Totten is simply not true, and should not be used as a defense of the Bible as the Word of God.

Similarly, the same statement can be made about the story mentioned in the original question above. Once again, some historical background is necessary. When the story, as told by Dr. Rimmer, was first published, it apparently caused a fair amount of excitement, and thus was uncritically accepted by those anxious to show that science “proved” the Bible true. However, after the initial excitement subsided, the story was forgotten, or overlooked, and as such was relegated to the relic heaps of history. Its stay there, however, was not to be permanent. Someone (to this day, no one knows who) rediscovered the story, “dusted it off,” gave it some embellishment (no doubt to make it more appealing to the modern scientific mind), provided names (of individuals, companies, and cities), and then, for good measure, threw in a reference to a popular government agency that was very much in the public eye (the National Aeronautic and Space Administration — NASA). This “remake” of the story now complete, it had built-in credibility that few were able, or ever thought, to doubt.

The story went something like this. Scientists at NASA were plotting the positions of the Sun, Moon, and other planets 100 years from now, and 1,000 years from now, in order to calculate spacecraft trajectories. As the sophisticated government computers worked with the data fed into them, they suddenly and unexpectedly came to a grinding halt. Service technicians were called in, but were unable to find anything mechanically wrong. The computers, so the story goes, had discovered a day missing in time. No one knew why the computers were acting the way they were, or how to fix them. However, one scientist on the team had gone to Sunday school when he was a child, and, from the teaching he had received there, he recalled a story from the Old Testament in which God had made the Sun stand still for a day, or thereabouts. The other NASA engineers — profound disbelievers in God and His Word — ridiculed him for even suggesting that such “information” might provide a solution to their problem. However, the scientist turned to Joshua 10, and read the story. The engineers then reworked the data being fed into the computers, adding in the “lost day” of Joshua, and the computers whirred along perfectly — almost. The computers stopped again because they had not discovered a whole day; something was still missing. Apparently (so the story goes) the computers found only 23 hours and 20 minutes. In other words, 40 minutes were still missing. But, the scientist who had suggested that they look in the Bible for the answer in the first place once again suggested what might be the answer to this conundrum. He remembered something else he had been taught. In II Kings 20, the biblical record says that King Hezekiah, upon being promised a cure from his illness and thus a longer life, had requested a sign from God. The text indicates that God made the Sun move backwards ten degrees. Ten degrees, said the scientist, would be exactly 40 minutes! And that provided the entire 24-hour day the computers needed. The Bible had the answer all along!

The tale told above has been attributed to a variety of sources. For example, in one telling of the story, Mr. Harold Hill, president of the Curtis Engine Company in Baltimore, Maryland (and, conveniently, a consultant to NASA's space program at the time) is the one who knew the facts to be true, and who even provided the name of the city where the NASA laboratory, in which all of this allegedly took place, was located. According to Mr. Hill, it was NASA computers in Greenbelt, Maryland which finally found the missing day. There are other “facts” which could be added, but which, for the sake of space, are not. Interestingly, some accounts have Mr. Hill as being the man who had attended Sunday school as a small child, and who therefore was responsible for helping the NASA computers find the “missing day” of Joshua. In other accounts, Mr. Hill is simply a man who was present as these events unfolded, and as such is the storyteller. To add to the confusion, some stories leave out Mr. Hill's name, and his part in these events, altogether.

Many have tried, and failed, to document this story. After an article on this subject appeared in the Bible-Science Newsletter in April 1970, a number of readers of that publication sent letters to Mr. Harold Hill, care of the Curtis Engine Company in Baltimore, Maryland. Their letters, however, were returned with a notation from the Post Office that no such firm existed in Baltimore. In the July 1989 issue of the Bible-Science Newsletter, there appeared an article which mentions that after the April 1970 publication of the story, some readers finally did receive a form letter from Mr. Hill, in which he stated that he did not write the original article. And, “one reader personally contacted Mr. Hill and reported that Hill disavowed the article as written and that he could not remember where he received the information on which the article was based” (Bartz, 1989, p 12). The 1989 Bible-Science Newsletter article also reports that “Dr. Bolton Davidheiser wrote the NASA office at Greenbelt, Maryland, where all of this was supposed to have happened. They replied that they knew nothing of Mr. Harold Hill and could not corroborate the ‘lost day’ reference. … The concluding paragraph of NASA's letter read, ‘Although we make use of planetary positions as necessary in the determination of space-craft orbits on our computers, I have not found that any “astronauts and space scientists at Greenbelt” were involved in the “lost day” story attributed to Mr. Hill’” (p 12). All efforts to confirm the genuineness of this story have failed. Its origin is dubious; the facts do not fit the actual truth of the matter; and those who were supposedly involved in the finding of the “lost” day of Joshua 10 know nothing about such events. Furthermore, anyone claiming that computers could somehow “find” a lost day fails to understand how computers work. The only conclusion that one can draw, respecting the facts, is that this story is false. That being the case, it should not be repeated. We do a disservice to God's Word when we attempt to “defend” it with stories such as these which, with a bit of common sense and the tiniest bit of in-depth research, are easily shown to be without any factual foundation whatsoever. The Word of God can, and must, be defended. But let us make sure we do not defend it with a “broken sword.”

References

  • Bartz, Paul (1989), “Questions and Answers”, Bible-Science Newsletter, 27(7):12.
  • Ramm, Bernard (1954), The Christian View of Science and Scripture (Grand Rapids, MI: Eerdmans).
  • Rimmer, Harry (1936), The Harmony of Science and Scripture (Grand Rapids, MI: Eerdmans).

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