One of the arguments evolutionists and old earth “creationists” use against those who believe God’s Word is that light travels too slowly for us to see distant stars and galaxies if the universe is only about six thousand years old. But is that argument valid?
In 1676, Olaf Roemer made the first known quantitative estimate of the speed of light. His measurement was based on the time between eclipses of the moon Io as it circles Jupiter. Since then, many experiments have been performed to measure the speed of light with increasing accuracy. The currently accepted speed of light is 299,792,458 meters per second (about 186,000 miles per second or 700 million MPH).
Based on the measured speed of light and our current understanding of the laws of physics, secular “science” teaches that the universe is billions of years old because we can see stars and other objects in space that are billions of light-years away. The argument is that if the universe is only thousands of years old, the light from these distant objects should not have reached us yet.
We finite human beings do not understand how the all-powerful, infinite God did it
This may seem like a strong argument, and creationists do not have a proven scientific answer for it. But that does not mean that secular science has proven the Bible wrong. It just means we finite human beings do not understand how the all-powerful, infinite God did it.
There is a very uniform background radiation (Cosmic Microwave Background) that has been measured in every direction in the universe, but a big bang would be lumpy. It would not have exploded with uniform heat. Energy would have to be exchanged back and forth across the universe many times to reach a uniform temperature. But based on the speed of light, the universe is too big for that to have happened.
Ad-hock theories like “inflation” have been proposed to rescue the big bang theory. The “inflation” theory says that shortly after the big bang, the universe expanded at speeds faster than the speed of light. This, of course, cannot be proved and would be a supernatural event that violates the principles of naturalism, which require all explanations to be based on physical laws as they are observed today. “Inflation” creates more problems for big bang cosmology than it solves.
Since secular explanations for the origin of the universe also have problems with the speed of light, Christians should not let the speed-of-light question undermine their faith.
In a 1983 article in Acts & Facts 12 (7), “Starlight and the Age of the Universe,” Richard Niessen suggested:
• The distances may not be as large as estimated
• Light may travel through a “Short-cut” by means of non-Euclidean curved space
• The speed of light may have been faster in the past
However, these explanations have their own problems. For instance, while there may be some error in distance estimates, our instruments and methods have increased in accuracy. There is not enough error to solve the problem. In fact, the enormous size of the universe just heightens the glory of God!
Many other explanations have been suggested based on Einstein’s theory of Relativity, in which time is not the same for all observers. As a result of differences in velocity, position, or gravity, time may have moved slower on earth relative to outer space. For instance, if the earth is at the center of the universe, it may be in a “gravitational well,” which could make observed time move slower on earth than for light traveling toward the earth. (For more information, please refer to the additional resources suggested below)
An intriguing idea was proposed by Jason Lisle in the Answers Research Journal 3 (2010): 191-207, “Anisotropic Synchrony Convention—A Solution to the Distant Starlight Problem.” In this technical article, Dr. Lisle presents an argument for a position based relativity convention in which the speed of light toward the earth is instantaneous. Our measurements of the speed of light involve bouncing light off something, measuring how long the round trip took, and then dividing by two. This is based on the assumption that the speed of light is always constant. But because it is not possible to accurately measure the one way speed of light, this assumption cannot be proven.
It is non-intuitive to think about the speed of light changing based on which direction it is traveling. However, it is equally non-intuitive for the speed of light to always be the same relative to any observer regardless of how fast that observer may be moving, or that the passage of time should change based on one’s velocity (as taught by Einstein’s velocity based relativity convention).
The Anisotropic Synchrony Convention explanation would mean that light from distant stars and galaxies would arrive at earth instantaneously. This would mean that we see heavenly objects in real-time as things happen rather than billions of years later, and the starlight and time “problem” would vanish.
This explanation fits well with a plain reading of Genesis 1:14-19, which tells of the creation of the sun, moon, and stars on the fourth day.
Then God said, “Let there be lights in the expanse of the heavens to separate the day from the night, and let them be for signs and for seasons and for days and years; and let them be for lights in the expanse of the heavens to give light on the earth”; and it was so. (Gen 1:14-15 / ESV)
This explanation fits God’s purpose of using those heavenly objects to give light on the earth, and for signs and seasons, days and years. The stars could only fulfill their purpose if their light reached earth quickly enough to be seen.
If the Bible is accurate and light from stars arrives at earth instantly, then everything we observe is young, only about 6,000 years old. If this is true, then we would expect heavenly objects to be similar in appearance.
If big-bang cosmology were correct, then most of what we see would be billions of years old, and the more distant objects would be significantly younger relative to the time of the supposed big-bang than those that are nearer. Therefore the more distant objects (say 13 billion light years away) should look different than those that are closer (e.g.: only 1 billion light years away). Yet everywhere we look, the stars and galaxies look about the same. There is no apparent difference in age.
Blue stars are the hottest and brightest stars we see. Even though they are more massive, they burn through their fuel faster than other (yellow and red) stars because they are so bright. As a result, even secular astronomers would not expect blue stars to last much more than about a million years.
No evidence of star formation has been observed, and there are no viable theories for how stars could form. So if the universe is billions of years old, the blue stars should have all burned themselves out. There should be no blue stars to see. Yet there are blue stars, near and far, all over the universe. The existence of all these blue stars is consistent with a young, created universe, but not with a big-bang cosmos that is billions of years old.
Spiral galaxies rotate, but the inner regions rotate faster than the regions farther from the center of rotation. If these galaxies were billions of years old, then they should have wound themselves up so tight that they would no longer look like spirals. Yet regardless of how near or far galaxies are, their spiral structure is clearly seen when viewed “face-on.” The evidence again supports a recent creation rather than a universe that is 14-billion years old.
Perhaps the Anisotropic Synchrony Convention is accurate; maybe it is not. But just because we do not understand how God got light to the earth from distant objects in the heavens in so little time does not mean it did not happen. God created the stars for signs and seasons (Gen. 1:14-19), and to manifest His glory (Ps. 8:4; Ps. 19:1). There would have been no point in creating the stars if mankind could not see their light on earth.
When Darwin wrote “Origin of Species,” DNA had not been discovered yet. DNA was unknown. Scientific knowledge about DNA grew during the 1900s. The double helix geometry of DNA was proposed and experimentally confirmed in the 1950s by Watson, Crick and others. Since then the human genome has been sequenced. Scientific knowledge and understanding about DNA has exploded over the past 10 – 15 years. Yet we are still just scratching the surface of this amazing molecule that contains the immense information that holds the program of life.
DNA was discovered less than 150 years ago. We still do not fully understand it. And it is becoming increasingly clear that the extreme complexity of this exquisitely designed molecule could not have originated by chance. Yet DNA has been working inside every living cell since God created life according to their kinds.
Just because people did not know about DNA or understand how it worked, did not keep it from being true and functioning as designed. Likewise, just because we do not understand how God got light from distant stars to the earth so quickly, does not make it false.
Ultimately, there may not be a natural explanation for how light got to earth from distant stars in only thousands of years.
During the first six days, while He was creating the material universe, life, and mankind, God used supernatural means that defy natural explanation. God created the earth, moon and stars out of nothing. He created plants and animals fully mature. It is entirely possible that the explanation for how starlight got to the earth is miraculous as well.
“The secret things belong unto the LORD our God: but those things which are revealed belong unto us and to our children forever, that we may do all the words of this law” (Dt. 29:29 – KJV). God has not revealed everything to us. Faith would not be required if we had all the answers. Our responsibility is to trust God, believe His Word, and glorify Him as the Creator.
It is entirely possible that the explanation for how starlight got to the earth is miraculous
When we behold the vastness of the universe, instead of doubting the Bible, we should worship and praise God like David. “When I consider Thy heavens, the work of Thy fingers, the moon and the stars, which Thou hast ordained; What is man, that Thou art mindful of him? and the son of man, that Thou visitest him? . . . O LORD our Lord, how excellent is thy name in all the earth!” (Ps. 8:3-4, 9 – KJV).
Creation Ministries International has a number of resources available on this topic as well.