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 in a nutshell is that light waves/photons travel at a known rate of 186,282 miles per second, and at that rate, it would take much longer than 6,000 years for much of the light we observe to reach earth. Light from our sun takes eight minutes to reach earth, and light from the nearest star takes about four years. It would take light from one side of our galaxy about 100,000 years to cross to the other side, and that’s just the local stuff. It takes 2.5 million years for light to reach us from the nearby Andromeda galaxy, and 13.5 billion years from the furthest observed galaxy.
If the Universe is only 6,000 years old, we shouldn’t be able to see anything beyond 6,000 light years… so why do we?
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 accept this explanation, but later realized that accepting this view also means accepting some pretty strange conclusions about our universe.
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 took this burst to illuminate nearby objects, they could calculate the distance between those objects, and 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. 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 here never actually took place. That’s right, 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 a star that never really was.
The problem with this view is that it implies that the entire history of our Universe is just a charade. The objects we observe within 6,000 light years are all real (their light had enough time to reach earth), but any images beyond that must be invented by God, to prevent us from just seeing empty space. But inventing stories about galaxies and exploding stars is akin to planting fossil evidence to make the earth look older than it is.
And if these light waves are solely for our benefit, then technically God doesn’t need to create the Universe at all. God only needs to create a few thousand years worth of light waves to create an illusion that it 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 would be “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 is an idea that has fallen out of favor with creationists, after realizing 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 of history into just 6 earth days. But since that’s our only hope, creationists are willing to give it a 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 admits that it took him several years to fully comprehend it, but I just don’t have that kind of 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 its 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.)
Either way, it would take a lot of gravity to make billions of years pass in just a few days.
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 left by Dr. Emmett Brown’s time travel experiments performed the mid 1980s.
The real heart of the matter
There’s really no reason to challenge the speed at which distant starlight travels, unless you’re trying to force the Universe to fit into a preconceived notion, and that’s what’s happening in this case.
AnswersInGenesis.org admits that creation scientists are still “researching solutions” to the distant starlight problem, but nevertheless they conclude, “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.”
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
The Bible appears to be establishing its scientific authority without demonstrating any truly advanced scientific insight.
For example, if the Bible stated, “And God set the earth spinning on its side, and sent it circling around the sun every 365 days and one part of four,” we may have good reason for considering the Bible’s views on science, but it doesn’t even come close.
Instead, the Bible demands faith, and believers establish God’s credibility not through scientific prowess, but through things like prophecy, miracles, and personal revelations. So the YEC extrapolates from these other proofs that the six day creation must be true, because God has scored well in these other areas (or, at least, the YEC believes God has scored well).
While I can see the logic in this, we mustn’t jump to conclusions. We didn’t personally witness the miracles mentioned in the Bible, and is God is no longer parting seas or sending fire down from heaven. (But we can witness starlight, and measure the distance that it has traveled!) And prophecy is a very complicated issue, because there are many ways in which a prophecy can be made to appear impressive, sans miracles (such as being purposefully vague, or predicting an event after the fact). If God really can perform miracles and predict the future, then he should have no problem revealing scientific details about his creation.
Faith bias vs. Naturalist bias
Most creationists freely admit their Biblical bias. If evidence runs contrary to the Bible, it is always the evidence that must be reinterpreted (never the Bible).
We see a similar problem with Mormons and their “Book of Mormon bias,” which tells them that Native Americans are descendants of the Jews. Even 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 now suggests that only some Native Americans were of Jewish decent, even though no Jewish DNA has ever been found.)
Creationists see nothing wrong with having a Biblical bias, because they know the Bible is true, just like Mormons see nothing wrong with their Book of Mormon bias, because they know it’s true. Likewise, Muslims see nothing wrong with their 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. But do all these biases lead us to the truth? Obviously not, these religious biases are only fostering an illusion of having the truth.
AnswersInGenesis.org points out that scientists can also become biased by “naturalist assumptions.” It’s true that we are all biased, but the key difference between religion and science is that scientists attempt to arrive at conclusions by letting the evidence lead the story, rather than letting the story lead the evidence. And that story is never sacred, but is allowed to change as new information become available.
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
With the huge difference between the amount of time scientists and creationists allow for the formation of earth, there must exist some good evidence to support one extreme or the other. I believe that distant starlight is just one such piece of evidence. We can observe the light now arriving from a distant galaxy, and know that it has taken more than 6,000 years to get here.
If the Bible were true, we might expect to see new stars coming into view each night, as their 6,000 year-old light finally reached earth. This is how science should be confirming the Biblical story. But when the evidence demonstrates otherwise, most scientists are not so stubborn that they would rather beat the evidence into Biblical submission rather than accept the obvious truth.
I 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?