Modern science in creationist thinking
NASA, ESA, and M. Livio and the Hubble Heritage Team (STScI/AURA)
Galaxy Triplet ARP 274.
As six-day creationists, can we know what God did when he created this vast universe? If we agree that God created the universe, and it was created in a form that is essentially like we observe today—a mature creation—very large, tens of billions of light-years across—very old in appearance, in terms of processes we observe—then we have two possibilities within the creationist worldview:
- God created everything 6,000 years ago and we cannot know how He did it in Creation Week but somehow we can see the whole visible universe, including “ … events which lie entirely beyond our limited understanding of nature”1; or,
- God created everything 6,000 years ago and we can (in principle) know how He did it in Creation Week as much as we are able to see the whole visible universe.
We can take the position that we cannot know how God did it because it was supernatural and beyond our understanding. However, we should not make untenable claims such as that supernovae (exploding stars) represent death and hence must have occurred after the Fall. (A supernova is a light show resulting from exploding gas. It cannot be construed as death in the biblical sense.2) Or even the claim that modern physics (that developed post-1905, starting with Einstein’s three papers published in Annalen der Physik, which dealt with the photoelectric effect (quantum theory), special relativity and Brownian motion) is all wrong. One idea that has developed is that modern quantum theory, modern special and general relativity and hence modern astrophysics and cosmology, which include both of the latter, are wrong. Some creationists even reject these modern ideas, preferring only classical physics, while others claim we cannot even know the physics of this universe.
Operational or historical science
But there is a big difference between repeatable, operational science and something that is extrapolated back into the unknown unobservable past, what has been called in creationist circles ‘historical science’. The science done in the lab, which includes modern-clock tests of special relativity, hence of modern physics, yields reliable repeatable results that are consistent with that theory. It was because of the very notion that the Bible promoted a consistent reliable creation, hence consistent laws of nature, that modern science developed in the first place. It is because those laws are stationary that we can know anything at all about the universe by our own observations.
Figure 1. While working in the Swiss patent office in Bern in 1905, Albert Einstein developed and published his ideas on special relativity, the photoelectric effect (for which he won the Nobel Prize in 1921) and Brownian motion.
If we are to make the assumption that we cannot know, or that the laws of nature we test in the laboratory are not the same as those we observe elsewhere in the cosmos (excluding the idea that what we do know is incomplete), then we have no basis to test any hypothesis about the universe. Taking that idea further, since we cannot travel to the nearest star, why not suppose that the laws of nature and the structure of the universe are such that all stars lie within a four-light-year radius of Earth? That idea could never be disproved because it is always possible to say the laws and structure of the universe are consistent with this notion. And we would not have a light-travel-time problem.3
At the 6th International Conference on Creationism in Pittsburgh, 2008, there were presentations revolving around the rejection of most of modern physics, e.g. trying to find a model for the simplest atomic species without quantum theory. This does not seem to be appropriate as it ignores the last one hundred years of research.
If position number 2) above is taken, a straight-forward reading of Genesis as true history, we would not need to say that everything in the universe must be 6,000 years old, as measured by processes in their own frame of reference. That is not contradictory of the creation timeline. But those processes measured by Earth clocks must have taken less than 6,000 years to happen. God’s creation is knowable and understandable (at least those aspects limited to the physics we know today) to us as humans. He made the universe in a way that is rational and reasonable, and the efforts since the development of modern science, say, over the last thousand years, have revealed a lot of truth. (Of course along the way we have had to throw out a lot of error.)
Modern science is reliable
Modern physics, by and large, is reliable; we can test relativity with GPS satellites and even with Earth-bound modern atomic clocks. Every time we use a device with a laser, we are using something developed from quantum theory. But that is not the same thing as understanding what happened in the cosmos, in the past, billions of years ago, based on the assumption of the constant speed of light and the size of the universe. It is not so clear, and we cannot interact with the universe like we can with our experiments in the lab.4 The former is not really repeatable science and hence it is very weak in its predictive power.
But position number 2) above is another way of saying that we can trust the Lord, we can trust modern science, where it is testable, and we can, in principle, know what God did. One of the reasons is that the laws of nature are God’s Laws; He created them. Although the idea of many biblical miracles is that they involve highly unusual rates of change (changing water into wine, calming a storm, etc.), these miracles are the exception, not the rule.
So this is not about the rejection of ‘millions or billions of years’ per se; it is really about the truthfulness of God’s Word. We really should not even use terms like ‘young-earth creationism’ (YEC) or ‘old-earth creationism’ (OEC); we could instead adopt ‘biblical creationism’, or to be clearer ‘straight-forward history in Genesis biblical creationism’ (SHGBC).5 Because surely it is about bringing people back to a clear understanding of the veracity of the Word of God, from Genesis all the way through. ‘Young earth’, meanwhile, implies its age is young compared to the supposed long geologic ages, which are contrary to the Genesis timeline. And so often arguments from the other side are a caricature of the creationist position, or a straw man argument, but some may have been once held by creationists. We should hold ourselves to a higher standard. We will never satisfy the sceptics who reject the idea that God’s Word can be relied upon, but we must challenge those who ‘put their heads in the sand’ over the last hundred years of modern science.
Starlight travel time problem
If we accept all observations about the universe, realizing they are tainted with certain assumptions, which may be wrong, then creationists have a starlight-travel-time problem. This is true if we believe only 6,000 years have passed since the creation of the most distant light sources, and that they were all created at that time, as measured by normal Earth clocks, and we hold to the convention that the timer was started when the star was created. But if the timer was started when the light first arrived on Earth, when someone first saw the event, then this is the Anisotropic Time Convention,6 and there is no light-travel-time problem. There is nothing to answer. Or if Earth clocks ran slow during Creation Week compared to all other clocks in the cosmos, there would be billions of years of process going on out there, and plenty of time for light to get here in the past 6,000 years. This is a relativistic effect and relates to both Humphreys’ model and mine.7,8 In all cases the universe is large, and normal, testable physics applies. It also allows for a certain starting point we could call ‘mature creation’, as the place where God started. The only difference is we do not know which is the correct model or time convention. Maybe none of them are, but we should keep looking within the realms of modern testable physics.
- Hartnett, J.G. and DeYoung, D.B., Mature creation and seeing distant starlight, J. Creation 25(1):46–47, 2011. Return to text.
- Death only applies to nephesh chayyāh, translated ‘living soul’ or ‘living creature’ with the breath of life; see Sarfati, J., The Fall: a cosmic catastrophe, 21 February 2005. Return to text.
- There are notions that the universe must be no more than 6,000 light-years in radius, to the most distant galaxy, because the universe is only 6,000 years old, and even that all stars must not be more than a few light-days away, because Adam was created only two days after the stars were, and he could see stars. The problem with these ideas is that we have a repeatable method of measuring parallax of about a thousand stars from the earth as it traverses the sun, and we can measure those distances by that method, which you could say is a direct method, based on what we know of reliable science on Earth. The ESA satellite Hipparcos mapped a hundred thousand stars in the galaxy, all of which were more distant than two light-days. Hipparcos also confirmed Einstein’s prediction of the effect of gravity on starlight. Return to text.
- Hartnett, J., ‘Cosmology is not even astrophysics’, 3 December 2008. Return to text.
- But doesn’t quite roll off the tongue like ‘YEC’ does. Return to text.
- Lisle, J.P., Anisotropic Synchrony Convention—A Solution to the Distant Starlight Problem, Answers Research Journal 2:191–207, 2010; answersingenesis.org/articles/arj/v3/n1/anisotropic-synchrony-convention. Return to text.
- Humphreys, D.R., Starlight and Time, Master Books, Colorado Springs, CO, 1994; Humphreys, D.R., New time dilation helps creation cosmology, J. Creation 22(3):84–92, 2008. Return to text.
- Hartnett, J.G., A new cosmology: solution to the starlight travel time problem, J. Creation 17(2):98–102, 2003; Hartnett, J.G., Starlight, Time and the New Physics, Creation Book Publishers, Brisbane, 2007; Hartnett, J.G., A 5D spherically symmetric expanding universe is young, J. Creation 21(1):69–74, 2006; I recommend the second edition of the book, where a misinterpretation of the type of time dilation the model involves has been corrected. Return to text.
God created the moon and the stars on the 4th day for the purpose of providing light upon the Earth (at night) (according to Genesis). Thus the light from the most distant stars were upon the Earth on the fourth day - not that much of a problem for God. Plus God created a mature universe - not one that needed to evolve. Thus it is very likely that supernovas existed on the 4th day of creation - not millions of years later.
We are told that the universe is 100 billion years across but only 14 billion years old. How to solve this conundrum? Apparently by the expansion of the universe. Can we not also invoke expansion (God stretched out the Heavens...) to account for the starlight travel time problem?
I think this was a great article for the Christian thinker. I think the keypoint when considering the "age" of the universe is "...there is a big difference between repeatable, operational science and something that is extrapolated back into the unknown unobservable past..." I doubt when God created Adam, that he took nine months to do it as there was no man and woman by which He could use the normal naturalist process to create Adam. Similarly, if the universe and its laws were not yet in existence, how could He use natural means to create the universe.
I get the gist of what you are saying, but the implication is that God has created this vast illusion, making the universe 'appear' to be a lot older than it really is. So God is dishonest?
A better more honest solution to the problem is that the six day creation in Genesis 1 is an ancient allegory which was sufficient for the day and the people when it was written. If God had told Moses, 'Well Moses, you know that sun up there, it is actually 2 million times the volume of the Earth, and the moon is is multiplied millions of times smaller than the sun. And those twinkling stars, there are some which are so huge that they make the sun a dwarf in comparison. And by the way, the Earth isn't flat with four corners as you think, but its actually a big round globe'. Back then, for what we now know as reality would seem ludicrous.
You also don't like to be known as Young Earth Creationists, yet there are multitudes of believers like myself who are staunchly creationists, but who accept the modern astronomical view that the Earth and universe are billions of years old. This makes us Old Earth Creationists. We view the Genesis creation story as allegorical or analogical rather than literal, as allegories appear throughout the Bible and Jesus Himself often spoke in allegories.
You say you understand, but then say this article implies the exact opposite of what it actually implies. The billions of years’ worth of physical processes really happened during one real day on Earth in time dilation cosmologies. The appearance of age is what you’d find in Adam; the reality of physical process is what you’ll find in the sky. Lisle’s Anisotropic Time Convention posits a practically infinite one-way speed of light such that the universe would only look 6,000 years old regardless of the size. In both types of cosmologies the distant starlight obeys the known laws of physics and it comes from real objects with real histories.
Concerning allegorical interpretations of Genesis 1, we’ve refuted them many times before. For a small selection, see:
- Is the raqiya‘ (‘firmament’) a solid dome?
- Is the ’erets (earth) flat?
- History and pseudo-history
- Is Genesis poetry / figurative, a theological argument (polemic) and thus not history?
- Problems in interpreting Genesis: Part 1
- Problems in methods of interpretation—Genesis 1–11: Part 2
- On literary theorists’ approach to Genesis 1: Part 1
- On literary theorists’ approach to Genesis 1: Part 2
And the notion that an allegorical interpretation is “more honest” than the historical week interpretation of Genesis 1 is as insulting as it is ludicrous. Most of the church throughout history “honestly” interpreted Genesis 1 as a historical week without help from the modern biblical creation movement. And it just so happens deep time interpretations surfaced just as deep time geology was becoming mainstream. Coincidence? I think not. Calling the allegorical interpretation “more honest” as well as “better” is well-poisoning. It goes beyond a statement about the merits of the interpretation to the motives of the interpreters. Let me be honest—we honestly believe that Genesis 1 honestly reports honest factual history.
We prefer the term ‘biblical creationists’ because it better reflects what we hold to. ‘Young-earth’ is a relative term, and it doesn’t explain why we hold the position we do. Even ‘old-earth creationists’ (OECs) would be ‘young-earthers’ to people who believed the Earth was a trillion years old. That the Bible presents a reliable chronology of the universe is our starting point, so the epithet ‘biblical’ better explains both the content and basis how we understand history. Who knows, perhaps a more helpful term for OECs would be ‘prehistory creationists’ because a defining premise about the past for OECs is that prehistory is real.
Finally, not all OECs believe Genesis 1 is allegorical. Various day-age and gap theories still attempt to understand Genesis 1 as factual history. They reject any correspondence between Genesis 1 and Jesus’ parables as much as we do.
If “The heavens declare the glory of God; the skies proclaim the work of his hands,” then a time-dilated universe says the skies are proclaiming billions of years, not 6000. As a physicist/cosmologist, your job is hard enough. Add the label of ‘creationist’ and you have greatly increased your load. Can we find a way to do it in 6 days – everywhere? What’s so undesirable about a ‘mature creation’? Why don’t we adopt that for now and see where it leads.
All attempts to explain what happened in Creation Week adopt notions of mature creation to some extent. The fundamental issue for mature creation with respect to distant starlight is whether it can avoid the implication of starlight created in transit, which entails not just a 'false' implied history (like we could conclude with any miracle, e.g. Jesus turning water into wine), but also that we would be seeing light from celestial bodies that don’t really exist.
There are no oxymorons in God's kingdom.
Properly understood, our universe can be both young and old. God can be alpha and omega at the same time.
The article lists two possibilities within the creationist worldview, but these are not the only possibilities. We can explore an infinitesimally small region of creation. We have been observing it and experimenting in it for an infinitesimally small time compared to the scale of it. We have minds that still struggle with the flesh as Paul described so aptly. Hence, we may be unable to fully grasp either the scope of the Lord's supernatural acts or the principles on which his creation operates locally or universally. Seeing the whole visible universe hardly overcomes all questions such as of dark energy, dark matter, etc.
Dr. Einstein's theory of relativity is supported by experimental results. But unfortunately the theory has been used as the premise for unscientific moral and philosophical relativism.
Quantum theory on the other hand starts with philosophical presuppositions. These are coupled with hijacked science such as statics, wave equations, and probability to create the illusion that the philosophy of quantum mechanics has displaced God.
Some self-identified Christians are very comfortable with evolution. Some are very comfortable with a Big Bang, so long as God started it. And some are comfortable with quantum mechanics. Nonetheless, quantum mechanics is not compatible with biblical Christianity.
Christians dedicated to upholding the original manuscripts of the bible as God inspired and thus infallible, good for all instruction and edification, are working toward a good end. However, if they don't have the resources or inclination to support investigation into the truth claims of every topic, such as quantum mechanics, it seems to me that at least they shouldn't undermine the Christians who do investigate those topics.
It might be that physics is not my strongest field; it is not easy to understand all the relativistic concepts - or visualize the in my mind. They seem mind-bending og -boggling. Still I wonder how much of the starlight and spacetime problem is somehow contained in the very scriptural fact, that God first created light (in space with matter), and then separated this light from darkness. Was it this act that began time? Another question is how it would be described in physics, this separation of light from darkness. And then - first on the fourth day the heavenly bodies were created; and then from the light that had been already created. One wonders what that process "looked liked"; light being used for raw material to make up the stars? And if such a special formation would have radically altered the state of being of the light that became stars versus the light that were "left" throughout space. And if the heavens, or the expanse of the the sky, were stretched out, at least initially; could that expansion have also influenced the nature of light as withinin the space-time fabric (itself)?
Well, that was some thoughts... Thanks for keeping up the good work.
Thank you for another great article, putting so clearly the issues involved in this question. I am no cosmologist, but recently tried to explain to a friend who is tempted to favour “long ages”, why, according to Einstein’s theory, 6,000 earth years don’t necessarily mean 6,000 “cosmic years”. So that the light-time travel problem need not be a problem after all. It was a relief to have it confirmed here that the explanation was reasonably accurate, if much simplified.
I like the thought that scientific discoveries could throw light on “How God did it”, so it’s OK to study science from that viewpoint.
…This is of course mere speculation, but perhaps an atypical kind of quantum physics could explain how the risen Christ seemed to be able to appear in two places at once?
Also, the fact that He could pass through the grave clothes leaving them undisturbed in situ, and later through locked doors, was due not to attenuation (He took pains to show the disciples that He was not a ghost), but because this new body was more “solid” or more “energetic” than the doors! Normal atoms are mostly empty space, and particles such as neutrinos can pass through matter as if it wasn’t there, so I think it makes sense as a possibility.
On what we know of His usual way of operating, it also seems more likely that the Lord would (as with the miracle of turning water into wine) simply “tweak” the laws of physics that He Himself had set in place, than do something totally against those laws.
I am grateful that CMI does have an interest in this problem. It remains a sticking point for thinking people who work in the varying fields of astronomy, astorphysics, etc. I find that this issue still puzzles me. I have 'read' Starlight, Time and the New Physics. I put 'read' in quotations because usually the term 'read' implicitly means 'understood' as well. Perhaps I should say the words have passed before my eyes. It would be helpful to me if it were further 'dumbed down'...if that is possible! What I do find encouraging, nonetheless, is that there are reputable scientists who can do the math who have exciting possible solutions to this and other intractable problems. I note that, as I understand it, the whole idea of 'dark matter and energy' is one such problem which standard cosmologies must have included or their model does not work and yet some creationist (SHGBC) scientists' have models that eliminate our era's fudge factors. Now I have read through various sections of the website, AND you have kindly provided suggested articles to read on similar topics, so I guess my next best bet is to go back and make my meninges work a little harder.
It appears you are making a case for billions of years of creation; at least for the first 4 days -- slow earth clock, etc.
If we believe that God created, from nothing, why is there an issue with starlight? Cannot God bring the light from these distance stars to earth using the same divine fiat that brought them into existence? All of creation week was supernatural; why try to find a natural explanation for the so-called starlight problem?
If we say the first 4 days were billions of years with a slow earth clock, then how do we then say the other days were normal 24 hour days of real minutes and real seconds (not slow time). Thus, the animals could have been created over millions of years (slow clock).
I admit to not being a scientist, nor even close to knowledgeable. If God used a slow clock on earth, then He didn't create everything in 6 days, but 6 periods of time. Slow clock has to be relative to something, and that something would be the "real" time it took; again not 6 real days.
I believe the plain reading of Genesis 1 is a literal 6 days. How He did it is beyond our comprehension. It is better to leave it there than to try to remove the problem (starlight or some other) by various methods of redefining "time".
Please see How can we see distant stars in a young Universe? and Einstein, the universe, and God. Relativity allows for time to pass at different rates at different places. In fact, it has been demonstrated numerous times experimentally. Dr Hartnett's cosmology is one of a few that exploit this phenomenon in favour of the Bible. In these cosmologies, as one day really passed on Earth, billions of years really passed elsewhere in the cosmos. Relativity theory implies there is no contradiction.
There is no logical fault in saying Creation Week is beyond our ability to comprehend, but saying that comes with a reasonably large price: we are left unable to do anything with most astronomical data we have collected. The constancy of nature assumption we have to explain it with, and this need not contradict a miracle explanation. The way nature behaves may not have changed during Creation Week, but God may have manipulated the conditions (i.e. the arrangement of matter and energy) after the initial creation event in ways impossible for anyone else.
It's also a reasonable assumption. Nature's constancy reflects God's faithfulness (2 Timothy 2:13), so is there reason why God would keep nature's fundamental behaviour constant even during Creation Week. Genesis 1 is also understandable as a pattern of initial creation of the raw materials followed by the rearrangement of those materials over the following six days. God didn't have to create like this, but there are legitimate reasons for thinking He did.
God gave us the abilities to search out His creation. And He keeps the 'findings' to digestible sizes so we can follow.
Now, I assume that every Christian trusts God with his life and is confident that there is an after life with the Lord, because He said so.
But what He said about creation through the Bible is not so trust worthy?
And when somebody calls from the roof top:"God is wrong, God is wrong"! what does it do? We are trapped on this planet and within our time to live, after this we have no influence anymore.
I always feel somewhat wary when we, as Biblical Creationists, try to fathom the 'How did God...'. especially when it comes to trying to understand and explain the starlight problem. Why not try to explain and come up with a theory of how Jesus walked on water, or how did he turn the water into wine? I think if we did try to explain how Jesus did these things, that would be tantamount to the erudite asking Jesus for a sign (Matt12:8).
In Psalm 19:1 we read that the heavens declare/proclaim His Glory. Imagine if God sent an Angel to explain to a top physicist precisely how He did create the heavens, and he then in turn revealed all. Would that not somehow lessen the wonder and awe of looking at the constellations above?
As we know there are some 11 occasions in the Bible where the term 'stretched' occurs, and we haven't a clue what that means. As has been said before 'someone has monkeyed around with the physics'. God has allowed us build electron microscopes and the equipment to help us understand and examine things like the blood clotting cascade, the workings of the eukaryotic cell, and the design of birds etc, but just maybe understanding how the universe was put together has, and always will be, 'out of bounds' for everyone, so that it will always declare His Glory.
Dr Hartnett suggests asking the question of how in the context of accepting the Bible's account. There is no asking for a sign, or anything like that, because there is no demand for evidence. And the truth is that increased knowledge properly applied leads to greater glory for God, not less.
For instance, Hebrews is one sustained argument that the new covenant in Christ is superior to the old covenant. One reason given is that in Christ God revealed himself more fully than ever before (Hebrews 1). Christ's revelation of God brings us more knowledge about God, and brings more glory to God, than any other previous revelation did.
With regard to science, the same applies. One only need to quote Johannes Kepler: science is "thinking God's thoughts after him". In science we try to imitate God's thoughts, and (at our best) apply them as He would have us do. Knowledge of how God acted and how God acts in creation should inspire more awe at the His magnificent wisdom and power and so cause us to worship; not boast in our own knowledge. It all belongs to God and He alone gives us eyes to see, so He remains our only boast, no matter how much we understand.
None of this destroys the unfathomableness of God because science is not the study of God himself, but the study of God's sustaining work in creation. God remains mysterious and transcendent. For instance, the Trinity and the Incarnation remain deep mysteries.
I don't understand this comment: "But if the timer was started when the light first arrived on Earth, when someone first saw the event, then this is the Anisotropic Time Convention, and there is no light-travel-time problem."
Surely the timer started on the 1st day, otherwise how could God count the days?
Yet the stars were created on the 4th day.
Dr Hartnett is referring to the timer on the light travelling from any given star.
Some very awkward thinking here!
Alternatively, the idea that the speed of light has been slowing (exponentially) since Creation, and was initially billions of times faster, answers the questions of 1. How can we see stars millions of light years away with the universe being only 6,000 years old [A: light travelled much, much faster initially], and 2. Why does radioactive dating give such long ages? [A: the rate of nuclear decay is tied to the speed of light] (Ref. Setterfield, Humphreys)
Dr Hartnett has considered this option (please see A new cosmology: solution to the starlight travel time problem) and he has rejected the idea that the speed of light has been slowing (please see Is there any evidence for a change in c?).