The Distant Starlight Problem

The history of the universe is recorded in the stars. Seriously. By looking into space, we can see events that occurred billions of years ago. Let me explain.

The sun is 8 light minutes from the earth. This means it is far enough away that light from the sun does not reach the earth for 8 minutes. If the sun were to suddenly explode, we wouldn’t even know it until 8 minutes later. By looking at the sun, we are looking 8 minutes into history.

stars in the sky

Stars as seen from Earth

The distances to about 100,000 of the closest stars to earth has been directly measured using basic trigonometry. These stars are distances of 4 to 1600 light years from the earth and represent less than a ten-thousandth of a percent of the stars in our galaxy. Studying these stars reveals a definite, reliable connection between color, brightness, and distance. Because the color and brightness can be observed for stars that are farther away, this connection can be used to calculate the distances to other stars in our galaxy. It turns out that some of the stars visible in the night sky (such as V762 Cas) are up to about 15,000 light years away.

But that is just in our galaxy. There are many other galaxies that are close enough for astronomers to be able to distinguish individual stars. Using the same method, they have determined the distances to these galaxies (such as NGC 7320, at 40 million light years). And this represents only a small percentage of all the galaxies out there. Most of them are much farther than that.

the Andromeda galaxy

The Andromeda galaxy, approximately 2.5 million light years from earth.

So when we look at a galaxy that is 40 million light years from earth, we see it as it was 40 million years ago. This presents a problem for the young-earth model. How can we see a galaxy as it was 40 million years ago if it didn’t exist 40 million years ago?

I have often heard it suggested that God could have made the light in transit so that we could see it immediately. However, this explanation has a very big problem. We do not just see constant streams of light, but we see events being communicated in that light. For example, we have seen stars exploding (such as SN 2008D). If we observe the death of a star in a beam of light created in transit, then we are seeing a star that never really existed, and God had encoded in a beam of light the history of an event that never actually took place.

Over the course of many years, various people have attempted to create scientific models that can explain how we can see these stars without requiring the belief in a universe that is billions of years old. To date, nobody has succeeded in creating such a model that is compatible with the observed properties of the universe.1 In fact, the very proposition of a young universe that obeys general relativity and in which distant starlight is visible can mathematically be proven impossible.2

However, the inflationary big bang model does a very good job at explaining the observed properties of the universe. It is consistent both with general relativity (which has itself withstood rigorous testing for almost a century) and with observational data.3

So what is the most obvious explanation for light being visible from stars billions of light years away? The universe is billions of years old.

[1] Perhaps the most well-known model in the young-earth creationist community is one that has been proposed by Dr. Russell Humphreys and that purports to solve the distant starlight problem in the context of a young universe. However, this model fails on a number of counts, which include misapplication of known laws of physics and lack of conformity with observed properties of the universe. See reference below for details.

[2] Ross, H. (1999). The Unraveling of Starlight and Time. Retrieved from http://www.reasons.org/articles/the-unraveling-of-starlight-and-time

[3] Although there is one discrepancy (the horizon problem) between observation and the original formulation of the big bang model, this problem has been solved by the inclusion of an initial period of rapid expansion (inflation) in the model. This inflationary hypothesis has recently been validated by the discovery of the gravitational waves that it predicted.

The Appearance of Age

I often hear people claim that God created the world with the appearance of age. In a sense, I don’t have a problem with this. In another sense, however, I have a very big problem with it.

God created tigers on the sixth day of creation. I’m thinking he probably didn’t create only baby tigers that would have been dependent on their nonexistent mothers for nourishment. I’m thinking that instead he made tigers as adults. Similarly, I don’t think Adam and Eve were created as babies. I think God made them full-grown. I don’t have a problem with this idea.

What I would have a big problem with would be the notion that God may have created Adam with a scar on his left forearm. A scar is an indication of a historical event. If God made Adam with a scar, he would have been creating a record of an event that never actually took place. Because God does not lie, I cannot believe that he would do this. When talking about the appearance of age, we must be careful to make the distinction between God creating something in a mature state and God creating a false historical record.

volcano erupting

It is easy when confronted with evidence that indicates an old earth to simply claim that the earth was created that way. For example, some may say that God made Antarctica with many of the annual layers of ice already in place. However, some of these layers contain volcanic ash. God creating a layer of ice with trapped volcanic ash would mean God creating a false historical record. (Yes, I know of the other interpretations of these layers, and I will address that at another time.)

The phrase “appearance of age” is something that I have frequently heard. However, we must be very careful with this phrase. If we mean that God created something in a mature state, that is consistent with the character of God. But if we mean that God has created a record of events that did not take place, then we are calling God a liar. Anyone who uses this phrase or who suggests that the earth may have been created with certain characteristics should carefully evaluate the implications of this statement.

Animal Death

I often hear people ask, “How could God have called his creation ‘very good’ if there were millions of years of animal death before the fall?” I, on the other hand, ask the question, “How could God have called his creation ‘very good’ unless there were animal death?”

Just think about what the world would be like without animal death. How long could it have taken before 100% of the planet’s land area was covered with rabbits? (With typical rabbit reproductive rates and zero mortality rate, it would take about 10 years.) I don’t think this would be very good. If flying insects could multiply without limit and never die off, then the air would always be thick with swarms of insects.

Why do lions eat other animals if God has not created them with this instinct? And why do vultures eat nothing but dead animals unless this is the purpose for which they were created? The natural order is totally dependent on animal death. Is it possible that God created the world to support stable populations only if Adam sinned?

If you want to claim that the way the world works is a consequence of the fall, please give me some evidence or explanation. How would this be related to the fall? Our sinful natures are a consequence of the fall, but I’m not sure what that has to do with lions eating zebras.

Does the Bible say that there was no death before the fall? Genesis certainly says that Adam’s death was a result of his sin, but it says nothing about animals dying or not dying. Romans 5 says that just as death came through Adam, life came through Christ. If the reference to death in this passage includes animal death, then it follows that the redemptive work of Christ extends to animals as well. There is no support for this idea elsewhere in scripture, so I have a hard time believing that Romans 5 is talking about animals.

Humans were created in the image of God. Animals were not. I think this alone implies that there is a big difference between the death of a human and the death of an animal.

In short, the Bible never says that there was no animal death before the fall. And a world with no animal death would not remain good for very long. Perhaps the common perception of all death being bad is an artifact of our depraved moral sense—and that is a result of the fall.

Creation and the Sabbath

Those who hold to the calendar-day view of creation frequently use the establishment of the Sabbath day as a defense that the creation periods must have been 24-hour days. God instituted the Sabbath day with the fourth of the Ten Commandments, given in Exodus 20:8–11. “Remember the Sabbath day by keeping it holy. Six days you shall labor and do all your work, but the seventh day is a sabbath to the Lord your God. On it you shall not do any work …. For in six days the Lord made the heavens and the earth, the sea, and all that is in them, but he rested on the seventh day. Therefore the Lord blessed the Sabbath day and made it holy.”

In order to use this passage to interpret the Genesis creation account, we must first try to understand the purpose of the Sabbath day. Is it merely that we must rest on the Sabbath because God rested on the seventh day? God created fish on the fifth day. Does this mean that we should spend one day each week creating fish? There must be more to it than this. Now it is true that at the end of God’s work of creation, he specifically declared the seventh day to be holy. However, this in itself does not establish that God’s holy day of rest is the same in every way as the day of rest that God commanded Israel to observe. More study and analysis are necessary in order to make this connection. There are many perspectives among Christians concerning the purpose of the fourth commandment, and a detailed study of these is beyond the scope of this blog. For my purpose, however, I will divide them into a few broad categories.

One view is that the Sabbath day was established in order to benefit its observers in some tangible way, such as by giving them rest from their work. Assuming this view, must the nature and duration of man’s rest be the same as the nature and duration of God’s rest? I do not thing that is a necessary condition. God’s rest may well serve as an example for man’s rest without being of the same duration, and six periods of work followed by one period of rest can serve equally well as a pattern for both the Sabbath day and the Sabbath year.

Another view is that the Sabbath was established as a memorial of creation. A memorial, however, does not need to be the same in every way as the thing remembered. The Lord’s Supper is, at least in part, a memorial of Christ’s death (Luke 22:19). This does not mean that every time we participate in the Lord’s Supper, we literally die in the same manner as Christ did. (Although there are differing views within Christianity concerning the Lord’s Supper, I think all will agree with this.) In the same way, a Sabbath lasting 24 hours each week as a memorial does not necessarily indicate that God’s rest lasted 24 hours at the end of a single week.

Others argue that the Sabbath was instituted as a sign and seal of the Mosaic Covenant. However, this interpretation bears no direct connection to creation at all. With this understanding of the Sabbath day, the reference to creation in Exodus 20 is not useful in showing that God’s rest must have been of the same duration as the Sabbath rest that God commanded the Israelites to observe.

In short, the fact that Exodus 20 relates God’s day of rest to the Sabbath day does not necessarily mean that these two things must be the same in every way or even that they must be of the same duration. In order to prove on the basis of Exodus 20 that the days of creation were ordinary 24-hour days, first it must be shown clearly from scripture that there is a specific purpose for the Sabbath day that relates directly to creation and that is more substantial than “do this because God did it.” Next, it must be shown that the connection between the Sabbath day and the seventh day of the creation week cannot serve its purpose unless these days are of equal duration. I have never heard this argument specifically made, and I am doubtful that a strong case can be made for it.

The Seventh Day

We often speak of the seven days of creation week. On the seventh day, God rested. But what did he do on the eighth day? Did he get back to his work? Or was he truly done?

God created in six days. Genesis 2:2–3 describes the seventh day: “By the seventh day God had finished the work he had been doing, so on the seventh day he rested from all his work. Then God blessed the seventh day and made it holy, because on it he rested from all the work of creating that he had done.” In this post, I would like to address one question concerning the seventh day: How long was it?

First, let us consider what God did on the seventh day. Verse 2 says that he rested from all his work. Verse 3 clarifies the issue further, stating that he rested from his work of creating. The scripture does not say that he ceased from all activity on the seventh day but only that he ceased from his work of creating. And why did he stop creating? That question is answered in verse 2. God stopped creating because he was finished.

So for how long did God rest from his work of creating? Certainly, God rested for more than a day. He did not take just one day off and then resume creating on day eight. Rather, because God’s work of creation is completed, his rest from this work extends even to the present day. As many others have pointed out, the description of the seventh day does not end with the concluding statement, “And there was evening, and there was morning,” and this could imply (although it does not prove) that the seventh day has not yet come to an end.

I think this is a valid interpretation, but I admit that there may be others. Let us assume for a moment that the creation periods were 24-hour days. Although the Bible says that that God rested on the seventh day, it does not say what God did on the eighth day. That is, saying that on the seventh day God rested from his work of creation does not necessarily imply that God did not also rest on each subsequent day. However, it would seem odd to me that the author would say that God rested for a specific 24-hour period if, in reality, God actually rested from his work for longer than that.

Some may here invoke John 5:17, where Jesus says, “My Father is always at his work.” They may argue that this verse shows that God did indeed resume working after the seventh day. However, the work of which Jesus spoke is not the work of creation, and Genesis 2:2–3 makes it very clear that the work from which God rested was specifically his work of creating, which he had completed.

Because God has not resumed creating, I believe that the day of God’s rest from creation is ongoing. And if the seventh day has lasted thousands of years, I do not find it unreasonable to think that the other creation days could have lasted longer than 24 hours as well. In the next post, I will examine the connection between God’s day of rest and the Sabbath. Make sure you don’t miss it.

A Matter of Perspective

Psalm 19 clearly teaches that the sun revolves around the earth. It says that the sun “rises at one end of the heavens and makes its circuit to the other.” But this is in a book of poetry, so maybe we shouldn’t take it literally. Let’s look at a book of history instead. Genesis 19:23 says, “By the time Lot reached Zoar, the sun had risen over the land.” The Bible clearly teaches that the sun moves around the earth.

Of course, I am being facetious. The Bible in these places is simply using language that accurately expresses the position of the sun as seen from our perspective on earth. We do this every day even though we know that the days are really caused by the rotation of the earth. Just because the Bible at times speaks from a human perspective, that does not make it untrue.

Point of view has a lot to do with one’s interpretation of Genesis 1. The focus of the chapter clearly is the earth. After all, it is the earth that was dark, formless, and empty, and it is the earth to which God brought light, form, and habitation. So let’s see how the chapter reads from the perspective of an observer on the earth.

Titan, the largest moon of Saturn

Scientific models of the early earth describes a dense, opaque atmosphere similar to that found on Titan, shown above.

Before the first day: The early earth was formed without seas and subsequently became covered with water (Gen. 1:2, Job 38:8). The earth was dark, being wrapped in thick, dense clouds (Gen. 1:2, Job 38:9). This is in complete agreement with the prevailing scientific models of the formation of the earth.

Day 1: God said “let there be light,” and there was light (on the earth). This does not mean that light did not previously exist anywhere in the universe, but rather it means that the surface of the earth had been dark. As the atmosphere thinned, sunlight was able to penetrate to the earth’s surface, bringing light to the earth.

Day 2: God separated the waters above from the waters below. There was now a distinct gap of transparent atmosphere between the global ocean and the clouds above.

Day 3: God caused the continents to emerge from the water. (Both the Genesis account and current scientific understanding indicate that the continents emerged from beneath the water.) After this, he caused seed-bearing plants and trees to grow on the land.

Day 4: God caused the sun, moon, and stars to appear in the sky. This does not mean that he actually created them on this day, although it would have looked this way from the earth. The atmosphere thinned to the point where the clouds broke, making the heavens above visible from the earth’s surface.

Day 5: God created advanced (nephesh) sea creatures and birds. (Note that many types of living things we know of today are not mentioned in the chapter. For example, it does not say on what day God created bacteria or plankton.)

Day 6: God created several categories of advanced (nephesh) land animals: mammals that can be domesticated (behemah), small creeping animals (remes), and wild animals (chay). Finally, God created man.

Day 7: God stopped creating. There is no record, either biblical or scientific, of the appearance of any new kind of living thing after the creation of man.

The sequence of events that I have presented is in agreement with the record of nature and with the current scientific understanding of the earth’s history as long as the Hebrew word for “day” is allowed its broader meaning of a span of time. I believe that my explanation represents a straightforward reading of the text of Genesis 1, considered from an earth-centered perspective and avoiding unnecessary speculation (e.g., trying to fit every known life form into one of the categories of living things specifically mentioned). I find it comforting that the record of creation that God has left in scripture agrees with the record that he has left in nature.

Evening and Morning

When Genesis 1 describes each day of creation as evening and morning, does this restrict the interpretation of “day” to a calendar day? Or could it rule out this interpretation?

“And there was evening, and there was morning—the first day.” In the last post, I analyzed the word used for “day” and found that it does not necessarily indicate a 24-hour time period. However, only in a 24-hour period is there a literal evening and a literal morning. Therefore, it seems that the most plausible interpretation of this sentence is that it describes a 24-hour day, defined as one evening and one morning.

crescent earth

Earth as seen from Apollo 11, showing both night and day

But there is more to it than this. We must consider whether a day defined as one evening and one morning is consistent with what the Bible says God did on those days. As the earth spins on its axis, part of the earth is dark while the other part is light. As a result, morning on one side of the earth is evening on the other side. (It may argued that on the first three days, the earth was lit by a light that did not emanate from a particular source and that, as a result, the entire earth may have experienced morning and evening together. However, this argument cannot apply to day 4 and beyond, when the sun was put in the sky for the purpose of marking days. The earth clearly was lit by the sun on days 4, 5, and 6.)

So if we must stick with the interpretation that God created for a 24-hour period and that this period included first evening and then morning, then it follows that God could only have created across a relatively narrow range of longitudes. If he had simultaneously created on the other side of the earth, then morning would have preceded evening for that day. On a different part of the earth, the day would have encompassed part of a morning, then the evening, then another part of a morning. The same 24-hour period cannot generically be described as evening and then morning for the entire world.

Now the scripture does not say, “There was evening and then there was morning.” It only says, “And there was evening, and there was morning.” That is, it does not explicitly say that the evening preceded the morning on each day. However, using this phrase as evidence for 24-hour creation days requires the interpretation that a day is defined as evening and morning. A period of time that encompasses parts of two evenings or parts of two mornings does not fit this definition, and so it follows that the sentence “And there was evening, and there was morning” cannot serve as proof that the creation periods were 24-hour days defined by evening and morning.

Creative Commons Attribution-NonCommercial-ShareAlike 2.0 Generic License by Matt Shalvatis

Ephemeral grasses in the Sinai Desert

So what else could evening and morning possibly mean? Consider Psalm 90:5–6, which says, “Yet you sweep people away in the sleep of death—they are like the new grass of the morning: In the morning it springs up new, but by evening it is dry and withered.” In these verses, Moses speaks of the short lifespans of people, comparing them to grass that springs up and dies shortly afterward.

Although the ground in many climates has grass throughout the year, the ground in the Sinai Desert does not. In this area, rainfall during the winter and early spring produces short-lived grasses. These grasses wither and die during the hot summer season1. In this context, Moses’ analogy makes perfect sense. However, the grass does not literally sprout and then wither within a day. Moses uses the words “morning” and “evening” in a figurative sense to refer to the beginning and ending of the life of the grass. We see, then, that there is precedent in scripture (and even in the writings of Moses) for the figurative use of the words “morning” and “evening.” Now don’t get me wrong; this certainly does not prove that these words should be interpreted figuratively when they appear in Genesis 1. However, it does make it plausible that these words could simply be used to indicate the end and the beginning of the respective periods of creation.

In summary, the words “evening” and “morning” in their context in the first chapter of Genesis do not present a particularly good case for either interpretation of the lengths of the creation days. On the one hand, their most straightforward and literal meaning implies that they describe the actual evening and morning of a single day. On the other hand, given the manner in which we know evening and morning to occur on the earth, it does not make logical sense for God to perform works of creation all around the earth in a 24-hour period that is defined by evening and morning. So we will continue studying the records of scripture and of nature to determine what else they have to say about the issue.

[1] Warner, T. T. (2004). Desert Meterology. Cambridge University Press.