This is a common question in youth groups across America, where about half of us still believe the Universe was created fewer than 10,000 years ago.
The problem is that light waves/photons travel at a known rate of 186,282 miles per second. At that rate, it takes light from our sun 8 minutes to reach earth. It takes 4 years from the nearest star, and 100,000 years to cross our galaxy. And that’s just the local stuff. It takes 25 million years for light to reach us from the nearby Andromeda galaxy, and 13.5 billion years from the furthest observed galaxy.
But if the Universe is only 6,000 years old, we shouldn’t be able to see anything beyond 6,000 light years.
As a young Christian, the explanation I heard most often was that “God wanted us to be able to enjoy the stars, so when he created the earth and the stars, he also created the light waves in-between.” I later realized this view led to some pretty strange conclusions.
See that star? It doesn’t exist.
I first realized there was a problem with this view while learning about one method astronomers use to measure large distances. The method works by observing a star that has recently gone supernova. When it does, it can emit as much energy as it did over its entire lifetime, resulting in a tremendous burst of light. Scientists figured out that if they multiplied the speed of light by how long it takes this burst to illuminate nearby objects, they could calculate the distance between those objects. They could also triangulate the distance from earth.
The closest supernova we’ve observed in this way is in a nearby dwarf galaxy 168,000 light years away (left). It took the light several months to reach some surrounding gas and dust, proving that the distances were ginormous.
But, according to my Creationist view, the event you see to the left never actually happened. There was no supernova, no illumination of gases, not even the original star! It was all just a back-story that God weaved into the light waves between us and the star.
The problem with this view is that it implies the entire history of our Universe is a total charade. We might as well accuse God of faking all the fossil evidence to make the earth look older, or because he thought we might enjoy looking at old bones.
Additionally, if these light waves are only for our benefit, why even bother creating the Universe at all? All God really needs is a few thousand years of light waves to convince us the Universe exists.
In recent years, Young Earth Creationists (YECs) have backed away from this explanation. ChristianAnswers.net admits that forging an entire universe “would be a strange deception,” and AnswersInGenesis.org agrees that “It seems uncharacteristic of God to make illusions like this.”
So… how did the light get here?
Distance = Velocity x Time (D = vt)
If questioning the Bible’s accuracy is off limits, we must seriously tweak either the Distance, Velocity, and/or Time involved in this simple equation.
AnswersInGenesis.org says that the distances astronomers are coming up with are “logical and scientifically sound,” and ChristianAnswers.net agrees that ”There is good evidence that our own Milky Way galaxy is 100,000 light years across.” So there’s no disagreement here.
Velocity (The Speed of Light)
The idea that the speed of light once traveled much, much faster fell out of favor as creationists realized the speed of light is involved with every physical processes. AnswersInGenesis.org puts it this way: “The speed of light is not an ‘arbitrary’ parameter… changing the speed of light would cause other things to change as well.”
General relativity does allow objects that are closer to a source of gravity to move slower through time than objects that are further away. However, it would take an insane amount of gravity around the earth to cram 13.7 billion years into just 6 earth days. Luckily, Creationists are
insane willing to try.
Creationist and physicist Dr. John Hartnett suggests “universal time” sped up on the 4th day of creation, due to some 5th dimension caused by God stretching out the universe. (Hartnett says it took him a few years to fully understand it, but I just don’t have that much time.)
D.R. Humphreys shares a similar view, which employs a finite gravitational well “near critical density.” He believes our entire universe is surrounded by water (based on Psalm 148:4) and that the earth is near the center. He also believes that Earth’s time slowed to a crawl on the 4th day as God stretched out the Universe, allowing billions of cosmic years to pass in a mere 24 earth hours.
(You can watch Dr. John Hartnett and Dr. Russell Humphreys discuss their Bible-based views here.)
But if both theories rely on God miraculously stretching out the universe, it seems that we’ve only exchanged one miraculous explanation for another.
Other variations on the time theme include:
1) A gravitational well that allows the cosmos to age millions of years for each earth year,
2) Very liberal interpretations of the word “day” in Genesis, and
3) Possible rifts in the space-time continuum caused by Dr. Emmett Brown’s time travel experiments in the 1980s.
The real heart of the matter
There’s really no good reason to go challenging the speed of distant starlight… unless you’re trying to make the Universe fit a preconceived notion.
AnswersInGenesis.org admits that creation scientists are still researching solutions to the distant starlight problem, but nevertheless concludes: “The only way to know about the past for certain is to have a reliable historic record written by an eyewitness. That is exactly what we have in the Bible.”
CA.net echos this sentiment, saying “By basing our scientific research on the assumption that His Word is true… our scientific theories are much more likely… to accurately represent reality.”
So, while I hate to go off-topic, we can’t really address these Creationist views without backing up a bit and examining the underlying assumption that the Bible is a reliable source of scientific information. So let’s take a quick look…
Science and the Bible
As far as I can tell, the Bible establishes its scientific authority without actually demonstrating any advanced scientific knowledge.
If the Bible said “And God set the earth spinning on its side to the number 23, and then sent it circling around the sun every 365 days and 1 part of 4″ we’d have a pretty dang good reason for considering the Bible’s views over our own observations. But it doesn’t.
Instead, the Bible establishes its scientific credibility by demonstrating strength in other areas, namely prophecy and miracles (and possibly personal revelation). So the YEC is actually extrapolating that things like the 6 day creation are true because God has scored well in other areas.
And I can actually see the logic to this. After all, if the Bible can consistently make detailed predictions, or show evidence by miracles, then maybe it’s not unreasonable to assume it’s coming from a higher source. But we must be very careful here, because these same abilities have been claimed by many others, and God no longer provides such clear demonstrations today. Also, if God can predict the future and perform miracles, it’s very suspicious that he’s unable to detail His own creation.
So, if the Bible is true, it is extremely unfortunate that God should choose to establish His authority through such questionable proofs (I’ll dwell more on these proofs later).
Faith bias vs. Naturalist bias
Most Creationist freely admit their Biblical bias. If evidence runs contrary to the Bible, it is the evidence that must be reinterpreted (not the Bible).
We see a similar problem with Mormons and their “Book of Mormon bias,” which tells them to believe that Native Americans are Jewish descendants. When modern DNA evidence proved that Native Americans were of Asian ancestry (and they hadn’t so much as licked a Jew), Mormons insisted the evidence was wrong and must be reinterpreted. Their religious bias prevented them from seeing the obvious truth. (The LDS church later settled on changing the Book of Mormon to suggest that only some Native Americans were of Jewish decent, though no Jewish DNA has ever been found).
So you can see the pattern here: Creationists see nothing wrong with having a Biblical bias, because they know it’s true; and Mormons see nothing wrong with having a Book of Mormon bias, because they know it’s true; and Muslims see nothing wrong with having a Qur’an bias, because they know it’s true, and Scientologists see nothing wrong with having a Dianetics bias, because they know it’s true, and so on. But are these religious biases actually leading everyone to truth? Or just an illusion of having truth?
AnswersInGenesis.org points out that scientists are also biased by “naturalist assumptions.” Scientists too see nothing wrong with their naturalist bias, because they know it’s true. I think the key distinction here is that scientists are letting the evidence lead the story, rather than letting the story lead the evidence. And the evidence suggests that we live in a natural world ruled by natural laws.
“The very powerful and the very stupid have one thing in common, they don’t alter their views to fit the facts, they alter the facts to fit their views.” ~Dr. Who
What I love about Young Earth Creationism is that there is such a huge difference between the amount of time Scientists and Creationists allow. Surely there lmust be some good evidence to support one extreme over the other. I believe distant starlight is just one such piece of evidence.
If the Bible is true, we might expect to see new stars coming into view each night, as their 6,000 year-old light finally touches earth. This is how science should be confirming the Biblical story. But when evidence demonstrates otherwise, rather than accept the evidence, many Christians prefer to believe the Universe is an elaborate illusion, or they question the rigidity of time itself, or rely on other miraculous explanations.
If science is right, we see distant objects because they exist, and have existed for a long time.
I’d have to conclude that our ability to view distant starlight strongly suggests the universe is very old. If it is not old, then God has deceived us with an elaborate and contrary illusion. And why would God lie?