How can light get to us from stars which are millions of light-years away in a universe which the Bible claims is only thousands of years old?
Some stars are millions of light-years away. Since a light-year is the distance traveled by light in one year, does this mean that the universe is very old?
Despite all the biblical and scientific evidence for a young Earth/universe, this has long been a problem. However, any scientific understanding of origins will always have opportunities for research—problems that need to be solved. We can never have complete knowledge and so there will always be things to learn.
One explanation used in the past was rather complex, involving light traveling along Riemannian surfaces (an abstract mathematical form of space). Apart from being hard to understand, it appears that such an explanation is not valid, since it would mean that we should see duplicates of everything.
Perhaps the most commonly used explanation is that God created light “on its way,” so that Adam could see the stars immediately without having to wait years for the light from even the closest ones to reach the Earth. While we should not limit the power of God, this has some rather immense difficulties.
It would mean that whenever we look at the behavior of a very distant object, what we see happening never happened at all. For instance, say we see an object a million light-years away which appears to be rotating; that is, the light we receive in our telescopes carries this information “recording” this behavior. However, according to this explanation, the light we are now receiving did not come from the star, but was created “en route,” so to speak.
This would mean that for a 10,000-year-old universe, that anything we see happening beyond about 10,000 light-years away is actually part of a gigantic picture show of things that have not actually happened, showing us objects which may not even exist.
To explain this problem further, consider an exploding star (supernova) at, say, an accurately measured 100,000 light-years away. Remember we are using this explanation in a 10,000-year-old universe. As the astronomer on Earth watches this exploding star, he is not just receiving a beam of light. If that were all, then it would be no problem at all to say that God could have created a whole chain of photons (light particles/waves) already on their way.
However, what the astronomer receives is also a particular, very specific pattern of variation within the light, showing him/her the changes that one would expect to accompany such an explosion—a predictable sequence of events involving neutrinos, visible light, X-rays and gamma-rays. The light carries information recording an apparently real event. The astronomer is perfectly justified in interpreting this “message” as representing an actual reality—that there really was such an object, which exploded according to the laws of physics, brightened, emitted X-rays, dimmed, and so on, all in accord with those same physical laws.
Everything he sees is consistent with this, including the spectral patterns in the light from the star giving us a “chemical signature” of the elements contained in it. Yet the “light created en route” explanation means that this recorded message of events, transmitted through space, had to be contained within the light beam from the moment of its creation, or planted into the light beam at a later date, without ever having originated from that distant point. (If it had started from the star—assuming that there really was such a star—it would still be 90,000 light years away from Earth.)
To create such a detailed series of signals in light beams reaching Earth, signals which seem to have come from a series of real events but in fact did not, has no conceivable purpose. Worse, it is like saying that God created fossils in rocks to fool us, or even test our faith, and that they don’t represent anything real (a real animal or plant that lived and died in the past). This would be a strange deception.
Did light always travel at the same speed?
An obvious solution would be a higher speed of light in the past, allowing the light to cover the same distance more quickly. This seemed at first glance a too-convenient ad hoc explanation. Then some years ago, Australian Barry Setterfield raised the possibility to a high profile by showing that there seemed to be a decreasing trend in the historical observations of the speed of light (c) over the past 300 years or so. Setterfield (and his later co-author Trevor Norman) produced much evidence in favor of this theory. They believed that it would have affected radiometric dating results, and even have caused the red-shifting of light from distant galaxies, although this idea was later overturned, and other modifications were also made.
Much debate has raged to and fro among equally capable people within creationist circles about whether the statistical evidence really supports c decay (“cdk”) or not.
The biggest difficulty, however, is with certain physical consequences of the theory. If c has declined the way Setterfield proposed, these consequences should still be discernible in the light from distant galaxies but they are apparently not. In short, none of the theory’s defenders have been able to answer all the questions raised.
A new Creationist cosmology
Nevertheless, the c-decay theory stimulated much thinking about the issues. Creationist physicist Dr. Russell Humphreys says that he spent a year on and off trying to get the declining c theory to work, but without success. However, in the process, he was inspired to develop a new creationist cosmology which appears to solve the problem of the apparent conflict with the Bible’s clear, authoritative teaching of a recent creation.
This new cosmology is proposed as a creationist alternative to the “big bang” theory. It passed peer review, by qualifying reviewers, for the 1994 Pittsburgh International Conference on creationism. Young-Earth creationists have been cautious about the model, which is not surprising with such an apparently radical departure from orthodoxy, but Humphreys has addressed the problems raised. Believers in an old universe and the “big bang” have vigorously opposed the new cosmology and claim to have found flaws in it. However, Humphreys has been able to defend his model, as well as develop it further. The debate will no doubt continue.
This sort of development, in which one creationist theory, c-decay, is overtaken by another, is a healthy aspect of science. The basic biblical framework is non-negotiable, as opposed to the changing views and models of fallible people seeking to understand the data within that framework (evolutionists also often change their ideas on exactly how things have made themselves, but never whether they did).
Let us briefly give a hint as to how the new cosmology seems to solve the starlight problem before explaining some preliminary items in a little more detail. Consider that the time taken for something to travel a given distance is the distance divided by the speed it is traveling. That is:
Time = Distance (divided by) Speed
When this is applied to light from distant stars, the time calculates out to be millions of years. Some have sought to challenge the distances, but this is a very unlikely answer.
Astronomers use many different methods to measure the distances, and no informed creationist astronomer would claim that any errors would be so vast that billions of light-years could be reduced to thousands, for example. There is good evidence that our own Milky Way galaxy is 100,000 light years across!
If the speed of light (c) has not changed, the only thing left untouched in the equation is time itself. In fact, Einstein’s relativity theories have been telling the world for decades that time is not a constant.
Two things are believed (with experimental support) to distort time in relativity theory—one is speed and the other is gravity. Einstein’s general theory of relativity, the best theory of gravity we have at present, indicates that gravity distorts time.
This effect has been measured experimentally, many times. Clocks at the top of tall buildings, where gravity is slightly less, run faster than those at the bottom, just as predicted by the equations of general relativity (GR).
When a concentration of matter is very large (dense enough), the gravitational distortion can also be so immense that any light rays trying to escape the enormous pull of gravity bend back on themselves. This lack of escaping light rays forms an invisible boundary called the “event horizon” around the matter. At the event horizon, time literally stands still.
Using different assumptions…
Dr. Humphreys’ new creationist cosmology literally “falls out” of the equations of GR, so long as one assumes that the universe has a boundary. In other words, that it has a center and an edge—that if you were to travel off into space, you would eventually come to a place beyond which there was no more matter. In this cosmology, the Earth is near the center .
This might sound like common sense, as indeed it is, but all modern secular (“big bang”) cosmologies deny this. That is, they make arbitrary assumption (without any scientific necessity) that the universe has no boundaries—no edge and no center. In this assumed universe, every galaxy would be surrounded by galaxies spread evenly in all directions (on a large enough scale), and so, therefore, all the net gravitational forces cancel out.
However, if the universe has boundaries, then there is a net gravitational effect toward the center. Clocks at the edge would be running at different rates to clocks on the Earth. In other words, it is no longer enough to say God made the universe in six days. He certainly did, but six days by which clock? (If we say “God’s time” we miss the point that He is outside of time, seeing the end from the beginning.)
There appears to be observational evidence that the universe has expanded in the past, supported by the many phrases God uses in the Bible to tell us that at creation he “stretched out” (other verses say “spread out”) the heavens.
If the universe is not much bigger than we can observe, and if it was only 50 times smaller in the past than it is now, then scientific deduction based on GR means it has to have expanded out of a previous state in which it was surrounded by an event horizon (a condition known technically as a “white hole”—a black hole running in reverse, something permitted by the equations of GR).
As matter passed out of this event horizon, the horizon itself had to shrink—eventually to nothing. Therefore, at one point this Earth (relative to a point far away from it) would have been virtually frozen in time. An observer on Earth would not in any way “feel different.” “Billions of years” would be available (in the frame of reference within which it is traveling in deep space) for light to reach the Earth, for stars to age, etc.—while less than one ordinary day is passing on Earth. This massive gravitational time dilation would seem to be a scientific inevitability if a bounded universe expanded significantly.
In one sense, if observers on Earth at that particular time could have looked out and “seen” the speed with which light was moving toward them out in space, it would have appeared as if it were traveling many times faster than c. (Galaxies would also appear to be rotating faster.) However, if an observer in deep space was out there measuring the speed of light, to him it would still only be traveling at c.
It is fortunate that creationists did not invent such concepts such as gravitational time dilation, black and white holes, event horizons and so on, or we would likely be accused of manipulating the data to solve the problem. The interesting thing about this cosmology is that it is based upon mathematics and physics totally accepted by all cosmologists (general relativity), and it accepts (along with virtually all physicists) that there has been expansion in the past (though not from some imaginary tiny point). It requires no “massaging”—the results “fall out” so long as one abandons the arbitrary starting point which the big bangers use (the unbounded cosmos idea, which could be called “what the experts don’t tell you about the ‘big bang’”).
This new cosmology seems to explain in one swoop all of the observations used to support the “big bang,” including progressive red-shift and the cosmic microwave background radiation, without compromising the data or the biblical record of a young Earth.
While this is exciting news, all theories of fallible men, no matter how well they seem to fit the data, are subject to revision or abandonment in the light of future discoveries. What we can say is that at this point a plausible mechanism has been demonstrated, with considerable observational and theoretical support.
What if no one had ever thought of the possibility of gravitational time dilation? Many might have felt forced to agree with those scientists (including some Christians) that there was no possible solution—the vast ages are fact, and the Bible must be “reinterpreted” (massaged) or increasingly rejected. Many have in fact been urging Christians to abandon the Bible’s clear teaching of a recent creation because of these “undeniable facts.” This reinterpretation also means having to accept that there were billions of years of death, disease, and bloodshed before Adam, thus eroding the creation/Fall/restoration framework within which the gospel is presented in the Bible.
However, even without this new idea, such an approach would still have been wrong-headed. The authority of the Bible should never be compromised as mankind’s “scientific” proposals. One little previously unknown fact, or one change in a starting assumption, can drastically alter the whole picture so that what was “fact” is no longer so.
This is worth remembering when dealing with those other areas of difficulty which, despite the substantial evidence for Genesis creation, still remain. Only God possesses infinite knowledge. By basing our scientific research on the assumption that His Word is true (instead of the assumption that it is wrong or irrelevant) our scientific theories are much more likely, in the long run, to come to accurately represent reality.
Recommended for further reading
Edited by Don Batten, Ph.D. / Authors: Ken Ham, Jonathan Sarfati, and Carl Wieland, adapted from The Revised & Expanded Answers Book (Master Books, 2000). (With minor editing for ChristianAnswers.Net publication by Paul S. Taylor.) / Supplied by Creation Ministries International
Copyright © 1996, 2002, Creation Ministries International, All Rights Reserved—except as noted on attached “Usage and Copyright” page that grants ChristianAnswers.Net users generous rights for putting this page to work in their homes, personal witnessing, churches and schools. Illustrations and layout copyright, 1999, Films for Christ