“If the Universe was created thousands of years ago, why do we see distant stars and galaxies?”
This is one of the most common questions about the creationary viewpoint. Some people see this as the strongest challenge to believing in a young Earth.
The basic issue is this: When we look out into space, most of the objects that we see are at vast distances from us. In fact, many are so far away that it seems their light would need millions or even billions of years to get here.
But we see the light from these objects today. Doesn’t this prove that the cosmos is billions of years old?
No, it doesn’t. Here’s why.
Not so straightforward
Consider this statement: “Light from those objects needs millions (or even billions) of years to get here.”
This statement sounds quite straightforward. But it isn’t.
In fact, there are multiple assumptions hidden within it. Some of them are quite subtle—so subtle that many people don’t even realize that they’re there.
But if one or more of the assumptions are false, then the statement above isn’t necessarily true. And it turns out that several of the assumptions can be questioned.
So let’s examine them, and see how well they withstand scrutiny.
Below, we’ll discuss seven assumptions that are built into the ‘Light Travel Time’ issue (which I’ll abbreviate as “LTT”). Each assumption provides an opportunity for a possible LTT solution.
The point of this article is not for me to discuss my preferred LTT solution. Instead, we’ll talk about the most popular solutions, with a short summary of their pros and cons.
The overall goal here is twofold:
- To show the importance of the assumptions behind LTT, because they’re rarely if ever discussed.
- To show that this issue has many potential solutions and avenues of exploration within a Creationary viewpoint.
Assumption #1: The speed of light has been constant throughout history.
If light used to travel more quickly in the past, then a calculation based on today’s speed of light would be incorrect.
Moreover, if the speed of light were high enough in the past, then the time required for light to arrive from distant objects could be much less than it would seem today.
Among Biblical creationists, there was once a fair amount of interest in the idea that the speed of light used to be higher in the past. Some argued that there was good scientific evidence for this.
Although this idea still has some adherents, many people think that the evidence that was offered to support it no longer seems compelling. So, for the most part, this idea no longer enjoys the support that it once did among creation-minded scientists.
I’m mentioning it here because many people have heard of it. It’s also an easily-understood example of how LTT is built upon assumptions.
Assumption #2: The speed of light is constant throughout space.
Albert Einstein predicted, and subsequent observations have confirmed, that light gets ‘bent’ when it passes close to a massive object.
In a sense, the light is affected by the object’s gravity. (A more accurate explanation is that the object’s mass curves spacetime, which affects the path of the light beam.)
But what if gravity affected more than the light’s direction? What if it also affected the light’s speed?
More specifically, what if light travelled more slowly when moving through a strong gravitational field?
If this were true, then light would move more quickly when traveling between stars, and (especially) galaxies. This would obviously reduce the time required for starlight to travel through space and arrive at Earth.
Some Biblical creationists have proposed this as the solution to the distant starlight issue. They point out that all of our measurements of the speed of light have been done within our Solar System, within the gravitational influence of our Sun.
Therefore, it might be possible that the speed of light is different in deep space, because we’ve never measured it out there.
As potential solutions go, this proposal is still fairly new. Its proponents still need to work out the full implications of their ideas, so that testable models can be created. Obviously, if this idea were to receive some observational support, it would have far-reaching consequences.
Assumption #3: The speed of light is constant in all directions.
If light travels more quickly in some directions than in others, this would have some interesting implications. Specifically, if starlight could travel toward us at a much higher speed than we otherwise would expect, then this could solve the distant starlight issue.
As Dr. Jason Lisle has pointed out, Einstein’s Relativity allows us to model the Universe in just this way. We’re free to stipulate that light is arriving from distant stars at very high speeds. According to Einstein, that works just fine—as long as we also postulate that light must travel more slowly when going the opposite direction, so that the overall average is the ‘standard’ speed of light. This makes the mathematics a bit more complicated in some ways, but it is still valid physics.
Obviously, if we can model the Universe in this way, then the LTT problem can be eliminated.
If you haven’t heard Dr. Lisle’s proposal before, this suggestion probably sounds crazy. But he’s correct—according to relativity, this approach is quite permissible.
Within the creation community, this proposal has stimulated some discussion—but perhaps not as much as you would expect, given its fairly radical nature. Many of us would like to see more discussion than what has occurred so far. Whether or not you agree with Dr. Lisle’s conclusions, he still brings up some important issues that have received insufficient attention in creationist cosmologies.
Assumption #4: The light traveled through space, in the way we see it doing today.
Dr. Danny Faulkner has recently proposed an interesting solution to the LTT issue.
In a way, this is a variation of the earlier “light used to travel more quickly” proposal. However, that idea was based on scientific measurements of light speeds in the past. Dr. Faulkner bases his proposal purely on the Biblical text.
Here’s a short summary. Although many interpret the entire creation account in Genesis to be purely ex nihilo (“from nothing”), this isn’t necessarily true. There are places where the text allows for God creating something in a form that didn’t necessarily fulfill its ultimate purpose. Then, God completed it rapidly.
For example, plants were created in Day Three. Obviously, they needed to be mature within a few days at most, to provide food for the animals, birds, insects, and Adam and Eve.
But did God create fully mature plants on Day Three? Or did He instead create seeds, which then grew and matured via a miraculous process, near-instantaneously?
Dr. Faulkner argues for the latter possibility, based on the Hebrew text. He then extends this reasoning to starlight.
Since stars were created on Day Four, and they needed to be visible to Adam and Eve just a few days later, perhaps God extended (via a miraculous process) the starlight to Earth near-instantaneously.
Unlike the other ideas being discussed in this article, this one is not trying to account for distant starlight with a scientific explanation. Dr. Faulkner isn’t proposing a physical mechanism for this rapid-light-extension process.
In fact, he says that trying to explain this event using physics would be beside the point.
Reactions to Dr. Faulkner’s proposal have varied. On the one hand, it’s true that the Creation of the Universe was miraculous. Therefore, at some point, our scientific explanations must break down as we look farther back in time. At some point, we have to acknowledge events and/or processes that are beyond scientific explanation.
On the other hand, some people feel that this proposal is too close to a “God of the gaps” way of thinking. They would prefer to seek a scientific explanation for issues such as LTT.
Assumption #5: The light needed to travel the entire distance through space.
The LTT issue arises from our observations of how starlight travels through space today.
But perhaps in the past, the light beam didn’t have to travel the entire way. If that were true, then obviously its travel time would be less.
And what if the light beams didn’t have to travel at all? What if they were created in place, as part of the initial Creation? Then obviously, there would be no distant starlight problem.
This proposal is known as “Mature Creation.” Basically, it says that the cosmos was created mature, complete with light beams from distant objects.
Mature Creation has many points in its favor. First, it explains LTT quite easily. It also explains most any other observation you could throw at it.
Also, there’s no dispute that much of the Creation had to be created mature. Adam and Eve were created as adults, not as babies (or zygotes). Adam awoke next to mature fruit trees, not a pile of seeds and fruit pits. At least some of the animals in the Garden were fully grown. And so on.
Also, there is at least one place where starlight had to be created mature. That’s right here within our own Solar System. Our best understanding of solar physics tells us that photons generated inside the Sun take (many) thousands of years to move outwards to the surface, before they escape into space and become sunlight.
So, since Adam and Eve could see sunlight right away, the photons within it had to be created ‘mature’. They were created just inside the Sun’s surface, along with all the rest of the sunlight that has shined onto the Earth since then.
Proponents of Mature Creation argue that this sort of reasoning can, and should, be extended outward into the entire cosmos.
Nevertheless, there are many who object to this idea. Perhaps the most prominent objection is that according to Mature Creation, we have observed many things in the cosmos that apparently never existed. And this would make God deceitful.
For instance, we have observed certain stars, which later exploded violently as supernovae. (A prominent example is the blue supergiant star Sanduleak −69° 202, which in 1987 was observed to go supernova. The photo above shows the aftermath of this event.)
Mature Creation would imply that God created a light beam which showed a star at one end (the end that reaches Earth), and then an explosion in the middle of the beam. But the only ‘real’ object He created (at the far end of the light beam) was an expanding cloud of gas, just like the aftermath of a supernova.
In other words, we saw a star which never existed, and then watched an explosion which never happened. So what did God actually create? Merely a cloud of gas, and a beam of light that contained deceptive information.
This seems like a serious objection. But some Mature Creation proponents refute it with this question: Was it deceptive when Adam woke up under mature fruit trees?
The obvious answer is no. Even though the trees looked like they were at least several years old, Adam wasn’t deceived. God told him how old they actually were, and so Adam knew the truth.
Similarly, Mature Creation proponents argue that we shouldn’t claim to be deceived by objects or events in space which don’t really have the history that they might seem. Since our Creator told us how He created everything, then we know the truth.
Whether or not you agree with the idea of Mature Creation, it raises important issues which are worth thinking about. I recommend this article (written by Dr. Don DeYoung, a scientist who endorses the idea):
Assumption #6: That time has always flowed at a uniform rate throughout the cosmos.
Einstein’s Relativity makes a lot of predictions that are outside of our everyday experience. One of these is that the ‘flow’ of time can be affected by gravity.
Specifically, time flows more slowly in regions of higher gravitational potential.
If this statement bothers you, here’s another way to look at it. Any possible clock you could build—whether it’s based on a mechanical process, or a chemical process, or an atomic processe, etc.—will ‘tick’ more slowly, if it’s in a region of higher gravitational potential.
This prediction seems weird, but it’s been verified many times. In fact, some of our technology is affected by it.
For example, GPS satellites need to keep very accurate time, synchronized with receivers on Earth. However, the receivers are farther down inside Earth’s gravitational well. Therefore, time flows slightly more slowly for the receivers than it does for the satellites. (And this difference matches Relativity’s predictions very well.) In order to work accurately, the GPS system must compensate for this.
So what does this have to do with distant starlight? Simply this: if the cosmos used to have its mass arranged differently, gravitational potential could have been different throughout the early Universe. And that means time would have flowed more slowly in some places than in others.
This basic idea is often called “gravitational time dilation.”
Let’s consider a simple version of this scenario. Perhaps in the beginning, God created the Universe with all of its matter in a very small volume. And the matter that would soon become the Earth was close to the center.
Then He began to stretch it out.
As the Universe expanded, the mass in the outer regions would have been in areas of lower gravitational potential, compared to the more central regions. This means that time would have flowed more slowly—perhaps much more slowly—in the middle (where the Earth was formed), compared to its outer regions (where faraway galaxies were formed).
As the Lord formed the Universe, the gravitational potential in different regions changed. Eventually, gravitational time dilation ceased. Since then, time across the Universe has been flowing at more or less the same rate everywhere (except for local differences due to local concentrations of mass). And that’s the situation today.
But what happened during that initial period of expansion? Millions, or even billions, of years of time flowed ‘out there’, where the distant galaxies are. Meanwhile, here on Earth, only six days passed.
Thus, there was plenty of time for distant starlight to arrive here, even though the Earth was created in six 24-hour days, just 6,000 years ago.
The scenario above is an oversimplification, but it illustrates the basic idea. If you want more information, here’s a short video from the physicist (Dr. Russell Humphreys) who first came up with it:
But you might not want to watch it just yet. Check out the next assumption first.
Assumption #7: That time has always flowed for all regions throughout the cosmos.
Dr. Humphreys, the physicist mentioned above, has since developed the idea of gravitational time dilation further. His most recent cosmology is a bit different than the one described above.
Dr. Humphreys considered the gravitational influence of the ‘waters above’, and several other factors that were present in the early cosmos. As a result, he believes that during the earliest stages of Creation, the Earth might have been in a timeless region. His model shows that Relativity could explain how time could have stopped completely, as measured by a clock on the Earth.
Obviously, this condition wasn’t permanent. As the Lord populated the heavens, conditions changed, and eventually our region of the cosmos emerged from its timelessness. Today, time flows normally here.
But before it did, lots of time passed ‘out there’, while none passed here. This would allow starlight to travel vast distances through space. However, Earth only experienced a very short period of time while this was happening.
This cosmology is one of the most complicated ideas I’m discussing here. If you want more information, here’s a video of Dr. Humphreys explaining it:
Summary: Distant Starlight Doesn’t Disprove Creation.
Atheists sometimes say that LTT clearly disproves Biblical creation.
As this article has shown, their claim is invalid. There are multiple ways to address this issue within a Biblical worldview.
In fact, there are more possibilities than I’ve been able to discuss here. (But since this article is already quite long, I’ll reserve an in-depth discussion for the future.)
Meanwhile, I hope it’s clear that this issue is not what the atheists claim it to be.
In fact, LTT isn’t merely an example of an incorrect claim by atheists.
It’s actually a solid example of atheist hypocrisy.
Most atheists today believe in the Big Bang model. But the Big Bang model has its own LTT problem. (Cosmologists call it the “horizon problem.”)
According to the Big Bang model, light has never been able to travel across the entire cosmos. There simply hasn’t been enough time for it to do so.
And since light cannot have done so, then neither can anything else—such as heat.
But the Big Bang model says that different regions of the Universe started at different temperatures. And so, since there hasn’t been enough time for heat to travel across the entire Universe, then overall temperatures cannot have equalized yet.
Therefore, the model says that we should see some differences in temperature across the cosmos.
These predictions do not match our Universe. The entire cosmos (all of it that we can see) has an even temperature. (The maximum temperature difference from one point to another is less than a thousandth of a degree.)
Secular cosmologists have tried to ‘solve’ this problem by claiming that early in the Big Bang, there was a period of inflation. Supposedly, for a short time, the Universe exploded in size at many times the speed of light. For various reasons, this solves the LTT problem for the Big Bang model.
But, as many cosmologists admit, inflation is a purely ad hoc explanation. It has absolutely no basis in physics. Furthermore, as I discussed in my third DVD, it has multiple implications that violate known physics.
So, atheists often claim that LTT disproves a supernatural Creation. At the same time, they have their own LTT problem, which they ‘solve’ by invoking a supernatural process. The hypocrisy here is obvious.
We see then that, despite claims to the contrary, LTT is not a problem for Biblical Creation.
It’s only a problem for those who want to deny Biblical Creation.
Image credit: ESA/Hubble & NASA