Young earth creationists are a subset of evangelical Christians who believe that the earth is about 6000 years old based on a particular interpretation of Genesis. A part of that belief is that the universe is also that age, and this document discusses the light travel time from distant astronomical objects. I show through scientific, theological and epistemological arguments that a 6000 year old universe is in complete error with the objective evidence, and undermines both Christianity and science education.
Light travels at the velocity of 300,000 kilometers per second or 186,000 miles per second. Although this is very fast by everyday standards, it is glacially slow when considering the vast distances in the universe. The Achilles Heal of young earth creationism is a satisfactory explanation of why we can see light from distant stars, galaxies and quasars if the universe is only about 6000 years old. Denying the great age of the earth and the universe in spite of the overwhelming evidence, is exactly the same as both the Catholic and early Protestant churches denying heliocentricism. In both cases a misapplication of the dogma Sola Scriptura and Hebrews 11:1 is used. At least Martin Luther and the Pope had the excuses that modern science was only just starting, and the evidence for heliocentricism was not overwhelming at the time. Young earth creationists do not have such excuses today, and in fact a belief that the whole universe is only about 6000 years old, or 10,000 years old at the most, is largely a modern post-war revival in the USA strongly influenced by some writings of the Seventh Day Adventist Church in the 19th and early 20th centuries.
Young earth creationists claim that the earth is only about 6000 years old, and most of them also claim that the universe is the same age, or perhaps four days younger. The issue being considered here is the light travel time and other evidence for the great age of the universe, rather than specifically the age of the earth, which follows from other arguments. For the record, the age of the earth and the universe are about 4.5 and 13.7 billion years respectively. These figures are so enormously different from the “biblical” age of 6000 years that any uncertainties either by scientists or creationists are irrelevant to the argument. Some creationists will even stretch the timescale out to 20,000 years, but this still falls so short of the scientific figures as not to alter the argument.
Most young earth creationists use arguments typically found in Answers in Genesis (http://www.answersingenesis.org) that the Bible is God’s infallible word, Who was there at creation, against man’s materialistic speculations who was not there. The Bible is thus absolutely true, and anything that contradicts it, regardless of the evidence, is wrong by definition. By implication it is thus a sin to question the Bible and use your own understanding. These are of course very similar to the arguments used by the church against Copernicus and Galileo.
In reality creationists misunderstand the Bible, whose eternal truths deals with meaning and purpose and not science, other than it was written within the context of the very limited science of the day, nor do they understand the operation of modern science, whose task is neither to prove nor disprove the Bible, but to understand the physical evidence. It is not the business of science to pass teleological opinions, though some scientists do, such as the atheistic evolutionary biologist Richard Dawkins of Oxford University, but when they do, they are stepping outside science into philosophy.
Creationists give the impression that the argument about the age of the universe is Christianity, which is absolutely true by definition, against supposedly atheistic science, which is absolutely false by definition. They also misrepresent Christianity by implying that they are the only true and “good” Christians. However, when they make a claim about the age of the universe, that is a scientifically testable claim. Many scientists are Christians or Jews, and agree with the creationists that God created the universe. The issue is not who created the universe or why, but when and how.
We can summarize as follows ten arguments made by creationists to explain the distant starlight problem:
What I find in dealing with creationists is that they make one or several of these claims, imply that I am not a proper Christian, if one at all, because I do not agree with them, then express disinterest when I bring up one or more counter arguments. Either they are interested or they are not. They cannot express interest, then become disinterest when confronted with refuting evidence. The above ten arguments are now discussed in detail.
Distances in the universe are truly enormous. Our Milky Way is about 100,000 light years in diameter, and we lie about 27,000 light years from the center. The nearest large external galaxy is M31 in Andromeda about 2.5 million light years away, yet it is right on our doorstep, as we can see galaxies and quasars (exceptionally luminous nuclei of galaxies) out to billions of light years away.
Currently we can only use direct trigonometric parallax out to a few thousand light years, but the technology is constantly improving. Although various indirect methods have to be used for larger distances, when several independent methods broadly agree, we can sure that we have approximately the correct distance. However, the determined distances to even the nearest galaxies are so enormous compared to the “biblical” 6000 light years, that even big errors of a factor of two, or even ten, do not alter the argument. Most creationists in fact agree that the distances are real, so this argument does not usually crop up.
In the 1980s Barry Setterfield of http://www.setterfield.org came up with the idea that at the time of creation about 6000 years ago, the velocity of light was infinite or at least millions of times faster than it is now, then slowed down and conveniently stabilized at the current value at about the same time it could accurately be measured in the 1960s and 70s. His argument was that if the velocity of light was much higher in the past, it could get to us from distant objects millions or billions of light years away in less than 6000 years. Here a light year refers to the time it takes light to travel if it is traveling at the modern velocity.
There are a number of serious problems with this argument, the three most important are:
This is Russell Humphreys’ argument from his book Starlight and Time2. In it he proposes a relativistic white hole cosmology currently favored by creationists, which also claims that the Milky Way is near the center of the universe and has an edge. He claims that the universe was created about 6000 years ago as a ball of water a few light years in diameter with the earth at or near the center. This turned into a white hole (the reverse of a black hole), and whilst processes in the rest of the universe took billions of years to unfold, because the earth is close to the event horizon, time stood nearly still here whilst the creation week took place. Indeed, because of strong gravitational forces this could be possible if there were such a thing as a white hole, some other serious errors were not present, and there was some evidence.
There are a number of serious problems with it as follows:
However, in spite of these arguments, errors are still propagated in the creationist movement. See for example the extract from van Bebber and Taylor: New scientific theories exist which explain the size of the universe in agreement with the biblical timescale3. “One example is the young-earth relativistic cosmology formulated by physicist Dr. Russell Humphreys based on Einstein’s general theory of relativity. We are told that this alternative to the ‘Big Bang’ has been well-received by scientists trained in relativity.” The text in red is manifestly false.
The claim that God created the universe with an appearance of age with light already in transit to the earth from distant stars cannot technically be proved or disproved, so it is not scientific. However, it has some serious theological problems. Although God being omnipotent could conjure up a giant hoax to fool us all, including creating light from stars that appear to have exploded, but in fact never existed, and superimposed the signature of the absorption due to gas and dust on the starlight in the space between the distant stars and us to make it look as if the light really passed through the intervening space, when in fact the beams were created 6000 light years away. This is a god of deception, and contradicts Romans 1:20. If God is a god of truth, then the creation should reflect this in some way. Why would God lie?
In a number of cases we can see light from very distant quasars and galaxies affected by gravitational bending after passing an intervening galaxy, exactly as predicted by general relativity. This proves beyond all reasonable doubt that the light really passed the intervening galaxy, and the laws of physics, including the velocity of light, have not changed.
In agreement with this we have this extract from Jonathan Safarti: “What about Distant Starlight? Fallacious Distant Starlight Solution: ‘Light Created in Transit’ After presenting an alternative cosmology that provides a plausible solution to the ‘distant starlight’ problem, it is worth showing why another idea is unsound. Some older creationist works propose that God may have created the light in transit, and Ross harps on at this as if it is still mainstream creationist thinking (for example C&T:96-97). But AiG long ago pointed out the problems with this idea. It would entail that we would be seeing light from heavenly bodies that don’t really exist; and even light that seems to indicate precise sequences of events predicable by the laws of physics, but which never actually happened. This, in effect, suggests that God is a deceiver.”4 The text in red indicates emphasis.
However, Duane Gish writes this: “How, then, could the stars serve as signs and seasons on the earth if these stars were created on the fourth day of creation and man created on the sixth day? Would man have to wait many millions of years before he could see the stars? When God created the stars, He also could easily have created the stream of light between the stars and the earth.”5 The text in red contradicts the text from Jonathan Safarti. Even though creationists claim they have the truth, they contradict each other as well as science.
The idea that somehow Satan is deceiving all astronomers, is similar to the argument in the 19th century when dinosaur fossils were first being dug up, namely that either Satan is deceiving all paleontologists by having planted the fossils, or God is somehow testing faith. Like the previous argument, this is a theological not a scientific argument, so cannot technically be proved or disproved.
However, the idea that all astronomers of many faiths, including Christians, and no faiths, are all deceived, except for a few creation astronomers who interpret the Bible in a particular way is totally preposterous. People have claimed that to me in person. Not only is that a personal insult, they have provided not a shred of evidence, except quoting the Bible.
A final cop-out many creationists give when all other arguments fail is epistemological nihilism. Namely, because we do not know everything about the universe, what knowledge we do have is completely useless, and perhaps in 100 years in the future what we know now may be completely wrong. Indeed much of our knowledge may need major revisions in a 100 years, but that cannot be used as an argument against what we know now. Moreover, some areas of knowledge are so well established, such as the velocity of light, that they are unlikely to change.
It is true that we are seriously lacking in some areas of knowledge. Amongst the biggest unsolved problems are the nature of dark matter in the universe, and the nature of the mysterious vacuum energy causing the universe to expand at an accelerating rate. It is likely that these will eventually be solved, but they do not affect our knowledge of the velocity of light in any way that affects the arguments here. If epistemological nihilism were practiced in everyday life, most people would not drive a car, as most people do not know the details of the chemical reactions taking place in the car’s cylinders. But such details are not necessary to know in order to drive to a store and buy the groceries.
Not only can we see light from very distant galaxies, right at the limits of our observations with the Hubble Space Telescope, we are looking so far back in time that we can see galaxies that were forming when the universe was very young, and look quite different from galaxies we see nearby. There is no doubt that the light really has traveled enormous distances over larges expanses of time.
For various reasons some stars explode at the end of their lives, known as supernova explosions, when they can be as bright as a whole galaxy containing several hundred billion stars. Fortunately our sun is unlikely to do that. Every year many explosions are seen in distant galaxies, more rarely in nearer galaxies, and even more rarely in our own Milky Way. The last such explosion was seen in the Milky Way was in 1604.
To expand on point (6) above, if a supernova went off more than 6000 light years away, as all of them in other galaxies do, why would God create light beams from an exploding star that in fact never existed? In 1987 a star was seen to explode in the Large Magellanic Cloud, which is a satellite galaxy of the Milky Way, and is very close by cosmic standards. Nevertheless, it was still about 169,000 light years away. This puts it well outside the “biblical” distance of 6000 light years, but so close by cosmic standards that arguments about the Big Bang and the expansion of the universe are irrelevant.
The beauty with SN 1987A, as it is called, is that before the explosion the star was identified, and the distance to the star was determined by several independent methods that all broadly agreed to observational uncertainty. Moreover, after the explosion we could see the light echo being reflected off the surrounding dust and gas, and from the expansion of the light echo, the distance to the star could be determined directly by geometry completely independent of the other methods, and yielded a figure in broad agreement with the other measurements.
The picture on the right was made by taking one picture after the star had faded after the explosion, and subtracting from it another picture taken before the explosion. The two rings are caused by light reflected off two sheets of interstellar dust at different distances, and are seen to expand with time.
Not only that, but we could see the decay of radioactive isotopes produced in the explosion, whose decay rates matched exactly those seen in the lab. This refutes by direct observation claims that some creationists make that decay rates were much higher in the past to make the isotopic abundances of a 6000 year old earth look as if the earth were 4.5 billion years old. Not only do the creationists have no evidence that the decay rates were much higher in the past, they apparently have no theory to explain this, other than invoking miracles, but these are miracles of deception. According to Humphreys: “If God weakened the strong nuclear force (greatly speeding up alpha decay), the nucleus would increase in size and restructure itself. The lower the decay constant (that is, the higher the half-life), the more the decay rate would be accelerated.”6 The text in red is my emphasis. If you are going to throw miracles into any scientific argument, you explain anything and everything you like, thus you explain nothing.
Neutrinos are ghostlike particles related to electrons, but carry no electric charge, have a very small mass, and travel at almost the speed of light, but they are very difficult to detect. Theory predicted that the kind of explosion seen with SN 1987A should produce a large number of neutrinos, and indeed for the first time ever such particles were detected from a supernova. Not only do creationists have to explain how light traveled 169,000 light years in a 6000 year old universe, they also have to explain how neutrinos also crossed the same expanse of space in about the same time.
Christianity is about a personal relationship with God through His Son Jesus Christ who died for our sins. It is a biblical worldview where one conducts oneself in an appropriate Christian manner with Christ and with other people according to the guidance in the Bible. It is where life and existence have meaning and purpose. For a scientist, a biblical worldview is exactly just that, as it is for everybody. For a scientist a biblical worldview does not mean running to the Bible every time an observation or experiment is conducted, or a theory is put together, to see if it agrees with a particular interpretation of the Bible. Modern science cannot be held hostage to a particular religious belief. This is one reason why science in the Islamic world withered away just as it was taking off in Europe, as it was forced to conform to specific interpretations of the Koran. Western science has its roots in a combination of Christianity and Greek philosophy. Quite rightly, many Christians, including creationists, state that western science was founded on Judeo-Christian principles, with the idea being that God created a universe which man could understand through rational inquiry with the brains He gave us, yet now creationists want to undermine this.
Science should be taught in science classes in education, based on the best science available consistent with the grade being taught, not religion, nor any other beliefs, even if they are in the majority. Teaching science, or any other subject, is not a democratic process based on what the students believe or would like. Teaching a 6000 year old universe for a “balanced” view to placate some people who believe it, is no more valid than teaching a flat earth. Indeed, if a “balanced” view is taught, then presumably a “balanced” view for Navajo or Hopi creationism should also be included when students from those tribes are present in the class. However, at the beginning of a course in, say, astronomy, it may be useful to mention what some people believe, and point out the differences between science and pseudo-science, where creationism is one of many pseudo-sciences.
In addition to creationism undermining science education, it undermines Christianity by putting it into the ghetto of deliberate ignorance and anti-knowledge. People who are science educated but are not Christians, will be put off Christianity by the claims made by creationists, and will find such arguments a good excuse to reject Christianity altogether. They will associate Christianity with naïvité and ignorance. Leading Christians complain that Christianity has a diminishing influence in society today, but even unwittingly, many creationists are contributing exactly to that. Young earth creationism sells God short and denigrates the reason and intelligence God gave humans, which sets us apart from the animals. Young earth creationism puts God in a box, where our understanding of the universe is limited to what the ancient Hebrews knew, rather than letting the evidence speak to us through science of the 21st century.
Christianity and science are two totally different fields of epistemology. Christianity deals with meaning and purpose, who created the universe and why, whereas science deals only with the physical universe, and how and when creation was effected, and makes no assumptions about the supernatural. The scientific method excludes the supernatural as an explanation for any phenomena simply because science only deals with the physical universe.
Christians have no business telling teachers or scientists what science they should teach or what research they should conduct, except when moral issues such as human cloning are involved. Likewise teachers and scientists have no business telling Christians what they should believe personally. However, it is the duty of a Christian, including a Christian who is a scientist, to point out the errors other Christians propagate in their apologetics when witnessing.
Amongst the worse sources of errors are those due to John Morris and his father Henry Morris of the Institute for Creation Research (http://www.icr.org). For example we have from John Morris: “With the exception of an occasional explosive destruction of a star, these points of light are not seen to change or move with respect to one another. Their present state is not questioned. Their past may be theorized, but there will be more than one legitimate view of their unobserved history.”7 The text in red is contradicted by the discovery in 1638 of the first non-exploding variable star, and in 1718 by the discovery that stars move with respect to each other. One wonders where John Morris has been for the last 300 years or so! The same can be said for his father Henry Morris: "As long as people have been observing the stars, no one has ever seen a star evolve from anything. The stars have always looked exactly as they do now, except for the occasional nova or supernova, which are stars disintegrating - not evolving. Yet these modern miracle workers [astrophysicists] have developed an extremely complex scheme of nuclear and cosmic evolution comprehensive only to specialists but imposed on the intimidated public as "scientific fact"."8 A lot of science today is highly specialized and requires many years of training. Does a doctor impose his knowledge on an intimidated patient who does not have a medical degree?
Finally, there is overwhelming observational evidence, in addition to the light travel time, that the Big Bang took place about 13.7 billion years ago. It is highly ironic that creationists are on the same side of the fence as many atheists in denying the Big Bang, but for different reasons. In science the ultimate arbiter of the physical truth is the empirical evidence, not what people believe, not what people say, nor what is written in any book, holy or otherwise.
1) Parry Moon and Domina Eberle Spencer, J. Optical Society of America, v.33, pp.635-641 (1953).
2) D.Russell Humphreys, Starlight and Time – Solving the Puzzle of Distant Starlight in a Young Universe, Master Books (2003), ISBN: 0-89051-202-7.
3) Mark Van Bebber and Paul S. Taylor: Creation and Time – A Report on the Progressive Creationist Book by Hugh Ross, page 40, Eden Communications, 2nd Edition (1996), ISBN: 1-87777-02-9.
4) Jonathan Safarti: Refuting Compromise – A Biblical and Scientific Refutation of Progressive Creationism (Billions of Years), As Popularized by Astronomer Hugh Ross, page 189, Master Books, Inc., P.O. Box 726, Green Forest, AR 72639 (2004), ISBN: 0-89051-411-9.
5) Duane T. Gish: The Amazing Story of Creation from Science and the Bible, page 13, ICR Publications (1990), ISBN: 0-89051-120-9.
6) Page 382 of Refuting Compromise, see (4) above.
7) John Morris: Is the Big Bang Biblical?, page 136, ICR publications (2003), ISBN: 0-98051-391-0.
8) Henry Morris: The Long War Against God, page 30, Master Books (2000), ISBN: 0-89051-291-4.
Just after posting the above material, on July 21, 2005 Answers in Genesis posted an article on their web site by Edmond W. Holroyd. Below is an extract from the article, with text put in red for emphasis. Here and elsewhere in the article the appearance of age argument is used, as is addressed in point (6) above. Presumably God also arranged that the beam of neutrinos from the explosion was created in transit along with the light, then made sure that it arrived at the earth at about the same time as the light.
"Over a decade ago, there was a supernova in the Magellanic Clouds, small satellite galaxies to our own at an apparent distance of about 150,000 light years. Did that star actually explode that many years ago? Or did God, only a few thousand years ago, make a self-consistent field of electromagnetic waves (including light) that has only recently given us the appearance of an exploding star? Here is another example in which there is an appearance of age. Scientifically it appears that the star was that old when it exploded, just as Adam looked as if he were many years old on the seventh day. To be biblical, we have to be in awe of our God, who can orchestrate the entire heavens in such great detail!"
354 - 386 AD – St.Augustine of Hippo:
"Usually, even a non-Christian knows something about the earth, the heavens, and the other elements of this world, about the motion and orbit of the stars and even their size and relative positions, about the predictable eclipses of the sun and moon, the cycles of the years and the seasons, about the kinds of animals, shrubs, stones, and so forth, and this knowledge he holds to as being certain from reason and experience. Now, it is a disgraceful and dangerous thing for an infidel to hear a Christian, presumably giving the meaning of Holy Scripture, talking nonsense on these topics; and we should take all means to prevent such an embarrassing situation, in which people show up vast ignorance in a Christian and laugh it to scorn. The shame is not so much that an ignorant individual is derided, but that people outside the household of faith think our sacred writers held such opinions, and, to the great loss of those for whose salvation we toil, the writers of our Scripture are criticized and rejected as unlearned men. If they find a Christian mistaken in a field which they themselves know well and hear him maintaining his foolish opinions about our books, how are they going to believe those books in matters concerning the resurrection of the dead, the hope of eternal life, and the kingdom of heaven, when they think their pages are full of falsehoods and on facts which they themselves have learnt from experience and the light of reason? Reckless and incompetent expounders of Holy Scripture bring untold trouble and sorrow on their wiser brethren when they are caught in one of their mischievous false opinions and are taken to task by those who are not bound by the authority of our sacred books. For then, to defend their utterly foolish and obviously untrue statements, they will try to call upon Holy Scripture for proof and even recite from memory many passages which they think support their position, although _they understand neither what they say nor the things about which they make assertion_. [1 Timothy 1.7]”
De Genesi ad litteram libri duodecim.