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Distant starlight and the biblical timeframe

Answering a most-asked question

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First appeared in CMI Australia Update, May 2021 
Published: 10 May 2022 (GMT+10)
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The Genesis account makes it clear that the creation of the heavenly bodies was just as miraculous as the creation of the first people.

When CMI’s speakers do talks around the world, one of the most-asked questions would have to be, ‘How can you believe in a straightforward biblical time-frame and explain distant starlight?’

The ‘problem’ is formulated thus:

  • The biblical time-frame is about 6,000 years since creation (“In the beginning God created the heavens and the earth”, Genesis 1:1)
  • There are stars that are millions and billions of light years distant that we can see. Travelling at the speed of light, the light from those stars would take millions or billions of years to travel to Earth, depending on the distance, so that we can see them.

Skeptics of the Bible’s history often frame this as a ‘gotcha’ question because they think that there is no satisfactory answer. Theistic evolutionists, who accept the grand evolutionary tale and ‘add God’, often pose this question. Likewise with so-called ‘old earth creationists’ who wish to defer to the secular timeframe but retain other parts of the Bible’s account. They think that such an unanswerable question destroys belief in the Bible’s timeframe—and thus Genesis ‘must’ be poetic, ‘just theology’, or ‘the days are long periods of time’, etc.

The question does not trouble me for three reasons:

1. Creation Week entailed a series of miracles.

Throughout the account in Genesis 1, the Bible says that God spoke things into existence—eight times, “And God said … ”. And after He spoke it is often concluded with, “and it was so”. The New Testament tells us,

“By faith we understand that the universe was created by the word of God, so that what is seen was not made out of things that are visible.” (Hebrews 11:3)

The word of God brought the universe into existence from something that is not visible, something unlike ordinary visible/tangible matter and energy. This is consistent with the scientific conclusion that the matter and energy that comprise the universe cannot be eternal. Thus, the cause of the universe must be supernatural.

And so the Bible describes the Word of God as powerful:

“So shall my word be that goes out from my mouth; it shall not return to me empty, but it shall accomplish that which I purpose, and shall succeed in the thing for which I sent it.” (Isaiah 55:11)

The New Testament tells us that this agency of God, the Word by which He created everything, was none other than the Lord Jesus Christ:

In the beginning was the Word, and the Word was with God, and the Word was God. He was in the beginning with God. All things were made through him, and without him was not anything made that was made. (John 1:1–3)

Genesis 2 tells us that God made the first man and woman. He took dust and made the man, Adam (Genesis 2:7), and took his rib and fashioned the woman, Eve, the mother of all.

I have never had anyone demand that I explain to them how God made a man from dust. And yet there is this demand that we explain how God could have created the stars such that we can see the light from distant stars.

The Genesis account makes it clear that the creation of the heavenly bodies was just as miraculous as the creation of the first people:

And God said, “Let there be lights … And God made the two great lights—the greater light to rule the day and the lesser light to rule the night—and the stars.” (Genesis 1:14–16).

Was this any less a miracle than the creation of the man from dust? And yet there is a demand for a naturalistic explanation for how God did this! This seems to me to be quite inconsistent and unreasonable to demand such a thing as a condition of believing the Bible’s account, especially the timeframe.

It’s also interesting that the timeframe of six days with a seventh day of rest—the basis of our 7-day week (Exodus 20:11)—underlines the miraculous nature of God’s actions. And that is part of the problem for those who don’t or won’t believe the timeframe, such as theistic evolutionists and long age creationists. When they refuse to believe the timeframe, they then tend to think of ‘creation’ in a naturalistic way, over billions of years. And then secular ideas of how things came to be take precedence over the Bible’s clear account. Thus the miraculous nature of Creation Week takes a back seat and so we have this demand for a naturalistic explanation for how we can see distant starlight.

The bottom line: Creation Week involved a series of miracles, one after the other. Thus, these are things for which we can provide no natural explanation. We do not know how God could speak the stars into existence, and thus we cannot know how He created things in such a way that we can see the light from celestial objects millions and billions of light years distant.

In other words, the question tacitly denies the supernatural nature of the Creation Week events. In doing so it robs God of His omnipotence and limits Him to work only in ways that we can understand. This results in a very diminished view of God. In effect, those who do this are constructing a god compatible with their own limited understanding, which is a form of idolatry.

2. There are potential explanations anyway.

Christian astrophysicists have proposed various explanations as to how God might have created things in such a way that even Adam and Eve would have been able to see distant starlight. This section is a bit technical, but we have tried to make it as easy as possible to understand. The ideas are mind-stretching because they seem to conflict with our everyday experience of the world.

Time dilation models

Einstein is famous for discovering that time is not constant but is affected by movement (speed) and gravitational forces. This is known as Special Relativity and General Relativity, respectively. When an object moves very fast, time for that object slows down, or even stops at the speed of light. Also, when an object is in the presence of a massive object, which provides a strong gravitational attraction, time slows down. These effects are measurable and thus have been verified by experiment. They are so real that GPS satellites, which depend on precision clocks for global positioning calculations, must have their on-board clocks adjusted for the lesser gravity (being up in the sky) and for the speed of movement of the satellite.

Now we can try to imagine God creating the universe, “stretching out the heavens” (Psalm 104:2) on Day 4 of Creation Week. This would entail massive gravitational forces and enormous differences in speeds, both of which would change the time ‘out there’ compared to planet Earth. Thus, in one Earth day (Day 4) an enormous amount of time could transpire ‘out there’ allowing ample time for the light to travel to Earth. Various models have been proposed based on these ideas.1

A new kid on the block?

Well, this is not so new; it goes back to Einstein’s era. Einstein’s findings of time changing with motion means that the speed of light (c) cannot be measured in one direction. It can only be measured for the round trip (two-way speed). This gives the average speed, but we cannot know if the speed is the same in both directions.

Einstein assumed that the speed of light in all directions was the same (called the synchrony convention) but he realized that it was an assumption without proof.

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God calls us to humbly submit to Him and His Word.

Physicists have been wracking their brains ever since Einstein to try to figure out how to measure the speed of light in one direction. For example, we might want to fire a laser beam at the moon and measure how long it takes to get there. However, we need to place a clock on the moon that is telling the same time as a clock on Earth. That is a problem, because as we fly the clock to the moon, the time changes on the clock! Putting it another way, the only way the observer on the moon can know when the light beam is sent from Earth is to be sent a message, which then travels at the speed of light. It all becomes totally circular!

There has been quite some discussion about this in recent times, including from secularists—that the speed of light might not be the same in all directions.

So, what if the speed of light towards us was infinite and the speed away from us was c/2? That would give an average speed of c, which we measure. There is no way that we can know that this is not so. And that would mean that light from distant stars would reach Earth the instant that they were created. No problem!

3. Everyone believes in miracles!

Those who demand a naturalistic explanation (no miracles allowed!) for distant starlight from Christians don’t seem to realize that the standard ‘big bang’ secular view of origins entails miracles—but without a miracle worker! The problem is that the distribution of the background radiation in the universe is fairly uniform, but there has not been enough time for radiation (at the speed of light) to disperse over such a large universe. This is called the ‘horizon problem’. It is really the big bang’s very own ‘light time-travel’ problem. To ‘explain’ this, cosmologists invoked a period of super-fast expansion of the universe—much faster than the speed of light—for a brief time just after the ‘bang’. This was dubbed ‘inflation’. What started it, how it could proceed, and what stopped it are all mysteries. These are in effect naturalistic miracles, with no sufficient cause or explanation.2 They are used to prop up a theory that would not work without them.

So, it is not that miracles are not allowed in explaining origins. Ironically, they are only disallowed when it comes to biblical creation, which the Bible says is miraculous!

Bible-believing Christians are ‘streets ahead’ of secularists here because we have an all-powerful God who is able to do things beyond our ken.

Great is our Lord, and abundant in power; his understanding is beyond measure. The Lord lifts up the humble; he casts the wicked to the ground. (Psalm 147:5–6)

God calls us to humbly submit to Him and His Word.

I was encouraged recently by this testimony from someone who changed to believing God’s Word, helped by our ministry:

“My world view of creation by evolution changed to biblical six-day creation through reading creation material about 30 years ago. It changed my unsure belief into a sure faith, trusting God at his Word. I thank God for all the resources Creation Ministries supplies.” (W.J.)

Thanks for standing with us as we endeavour to call people back to the authority of God’s Word.

References

  1. See articles at: creation.com/topics/starlight-and-time. Return to text.
  2. Lisle, J., Light-travel time: a problem for the big bang, Creation 25(4):48–49, 2003; creation.com/lighttravel. Return to text.