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That heavenly stretching business

A discussion of cosmological expansion, inflation, and Bible interpretation, plus accelerated nuclear decay


Prompted by the following question, Keaton Halley of CMI–US offers some thoughts below about the Bible and various ideas in physics and cosmology, including the expansion of the universe and creationist proposals about episodes of sped-up nuclear decay.

Dear Sirs,

I have been interested in, and defending, creation for some time. Recently the Big Bang idea of “inflation” has become of interest to me. Basically, they claim the early universe, space, expanded exponentially in a tiny fraction of a second. Of course to me this fits with God spreading out the heavens. If it is theoretically possible at the supposed very beginning, why not any time God decides. Now I know God does not have to follow physics as He created it. But He does tend to use the physical to fulfill His plan. So, in my simple thinking, God spreading out the universe after He set the stars and such, makes sense. It could explain the stretched light, as most think expansion is the main cause of the red shift.

A recent thought I have had, is it possible that this rapid “spreading out” might have something to do with the apparent rapid nuclear decay in rocks? I do not understand theoretical physics or nuclear physics, but it just seems like the two phenomena are related.

Anyway, I am retired and spend a lot of time in Christian apologetics. These supposed problems with creation, and the flood, interest me. I just wanted to bounce this off of someone who knows more about it. I would appreciate a response, just to help my education.

Thanks, and keep up the good work. Blessing.


Hi D.I.,

I’ll try to answer your question in part by pointing you to other writings, since, like you, physics is not my field of expertise.

But we should distinguish between two types of expansion in the big bang model. It sounds like you may possibly be conflating these ideas. First, there is the cosmological expansion of space that is suggested by general relativity. This is probably the main cause of the redshift, as you say, including the pattern we observe that the further away a galaxy is from us, the more it is redshifted. Since there is good operational science behind the conclusion that space is expanding in this way, this expansion is not only a feature of the big bang model, but various creationist cosmological models as well. Some creationists do dispute it, however.

Second, the idea of inflation is a brief pulse of accelerated expansion which suddenly speeds up (faster than ordinary expansion and faster than light) and then dramatically slows down again, all within the first tiny fraction of a second in the big bang model, as you mentioned. This ‘inflation’ concept was proposed to save the original big bang theory from a number of difficulties, like the ‘horizon problem’. We have written about this in several articles, such as Light-travel time: a problem for the big bang. But a similar inflationary period could be a part of some creation models too, since it’s one way God might have evened out the temperature of the cosmic microwave background radiation (CMB)—the very reason inflation is invoked in big bang models. You can read about this in an excerpt from Dr Jonathan Sarfati’s The Genesis Account: Divine expansion vs evolutionary inflation. The full book is available from our webstore.

Now, many creationists have previously or continue to associate biblical references to God’s stretching of the heavens (e.g., Isaiah 44:24) with one or both of these cosmological concepts. I certainly think it is appropriate to incorporate these ideas into creationist cosmologies if there are good observational or theoretical reasons to postulate them.

But I personally think it is unlikely that this is what the biblical language is describing. The Bible was not written to disclose scientific mysteries about the universe that would only be discovered in the 20th or 21st century. Scripture may include scientific insights since it gives us accurate truth about the natural world, but it does not seem likely that God intended to reveal secrets of post-Einsteinian theoretical physics there, because the Bible was written to be understood by people who lived long ago, before modern telescopes and so forth.

Several of the passages that speak of the heavens being stretched compare them to a tent (Psalm 104:2; Isaiah 40:22), so the likely analogy is that the heavens look to an observer to be spread out widely overhead (from horizon to horizon), just as a tent curtain would be visibly stretched out over one’s head if one is inside the tent. This is a phenomenological description of the heavens which doesn’t make any cosmological commitments.

I don’t think these verses are suggesting either that the heavens are a solid substance erected above a flat earth like a tent curtain erected above the ground (as some argue), or (as others argue) that space itself has been stretched in a modern cosmological sense—growing like a piece of rubber being pulled in all directions. Rather, the verses just mean the heavens were created to be a widespread spacious region, high above us and extending over all the earth, in a similar way to how a large tent-ceiling might look extensive and spread out when stretched overhead. I also briefly discussed this subject in one of my lectures in The Genesis Academy series.

Some creationist cosmologists have revised their earlier opinions and likewise argued against taking the ‘stretching of the heavens’ language as a reference to an elastic type of cosmological stretching. See Hartnett’s Does the Bible really describe the expansion of the universe? and Humphreys’ New view of gravity explains cosmic microwave background radiation. Yet I think there is still a tendency in Humphreys’ piece at least to read too much modern science into the biblical language. You can judge for yourself, but I maintain that these poetic references were not intended to divulge insights into modern physics. Rather, they use imagery that is equivocal about the structure and nature of the heavens.

But all this is preliminary to your main question, which was about how accelerated nuclear decay might relate to cosmological expansion. I don’t recall reading any creationist writings that claim accelerated decay could be caused by the expansion of space, if that’s what you mean. If you search on creation.com for articles about accelerated nuclear decay, there are just a few possible mechanisms discussed that are related to solar activity, chemical environment, changes to force strengths, and other circumstances. But, the book Thousands … Not Billions (p. 152) does mention a “tentative, rather novel proposal” by Russell Humphreys that cosmological expansion could be a mechanism God used to take care of the excess heat that would be generated by a pulse of rapid nuclear decay. Humphreys lays out this idea in chapter 7 of the RATE (Radioisotopes and the Age of the Earth) book (volume 1).

Keep in mind also that the various creationist proposals related to cosmological expansion would be connected to different events in biblical history. An inflationary period invoked to explain the smoothness of the CMB might relate to God’s initial creation of the heavens—perhaps on days 1 or 2 of Creation Week. But if a creationist model wishes to explain the redshift of starlight by this means, it would invoke cosmological expansion on or after Day 4 of Creation Week, when God made the stars. And if one wants to connect expansion to accelerated nuclear decay, whether to deal with the heat problem or for any other reason, the expansion would have to take place during Noah’s Flood, since that’s when the geological strata were being laid down and the rapid decay (or at least some of it) was allegedly taking place.

So, there is some food for thought as well as some additional reading material if you care to chase any of those rabbits. I hope that’s helped to clarify things.

Best wishes,
Keaton Halley

Published: 31 December 2022