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THE YOUNG UNIVERSE REEXAMINED
the possible exception of the book of Revelations, no part of the Bible is as
controversial as the first chapter of the book of Genesis. Among Christians,
it is usually considered the blueprint in terms of how life appeared on this
planet, and as such a source of tremendous dispute between the forces of religion
and sciencea point I find interesting, for the book of Genesis is not
about how the universe was created or the mechanics of the processes by which
life came into being on earth. Instead, its primary emphasis is in demonstrating
how man fell from grace with God and his struggles to reestablish that link
with his Creator. In fact, Genesis treats the whole issue of how life came about
in an almost superficial manner, giving a minimum of details and very little
explanation of the processes involved. It's almost as if God is eager to get
the preliminary facts of creation out of the way and get onto the "juicy"
This is as you would expect, for the bible isn't about science and nature, but about man and God. However, since it does briefly touch upon the subject of how God created life on Earth, the first chapter of Genesis has become the centerpiece for creationist thought, with all its various interpretations and ideas fighting amongst themselves to be heard. While most of the battle appears to be raging in the arena of Darwinian evolution versus divine creation, a smaller side battle is being fought within the ranks of Christendom itself. It is a battle between young universe and old universe proponentsan area of study known as macrocreationism. Macrocreationism asks the question of how didor, more correctly, when didthe universe come into being, and what process did God use to produce it? In other words, just when did God create the stars and planets, and the galaxies in general, and why is there such a conflict between science and fundamentalist creationism (as well among creationists themselves) in this area?
The literalist approach suggests that God's creation of the earth predates His creation of the remainder of the universe, an idea taken from a straightforward reading of Genesis chapter 1. In this famous book, the author (usually ascribed to be Moses of Exodus fame) recounts that God "made the stars", and the "greater and lesser lights, one for day and one for the night," on the fourth day of creation, neatly sandwiched between the emergence of land masses and the first vegetation and the appearance of sea and air creatures. As such, among creationists who interpret the first chapter of Genesis in its most literal context, God first created the earth, and then later (on the fourth day of creation, thought to be approximately some 6,000 years ago), He created the stars and the planets, along with our sun and moon, all instantaneously as a spontaneous act of His will, each without any preliminary process of formation. They argue that since God spontaneously created man and woman as mature adults and apparently created all other life as fully developed, mature species, then it stands to reason He must have created the universe in much the same way, fully developed and in a mature state of being.
But is this so? Is that really what these brief scraps of information are really telling us?
The problem with this idea is that unlike the theory of evolution with its assumptions of great amounts of time, evidence for a very ancient universe is far more convincing and less prone to conjecture. Astronomers can see, for example, stars being formed and others winking out, and watch whole galaxies in the process of coalescing into maturity. Additionally, using the empirical evidence of mathematics and physics, astronomers are able to gauge the speed of light and so measure with some degree of exactitude the distance of astronomical features, even those visible only through the most sensitive equipment, to arrive at an approximate age for the universe. Utilizing centuries of scientific research (some of it done by scientists who were theists themselves), we are starting to get a pretty good idea of what is out there. Modern technology is even permitting us to discover such anomalies such as quasars and pulsars and black holes deep in space, all of which were undreamed of just a few decades ago.
Unfortunately, creationist "purists" tend to dismiss the discoveries of sciencenot the hypothesis or theories of it, but the cold hard data of itas the feeble attempts of unrepentant sinners blinded by the prince of this world into believing a lie. They have a faith which no amount of scientific data can shake, no matter how unassailable and dispassionate it might be; a faith that stands firm against the great bulwark of science to the end, ignoring or ridiculing every argument, even very good ones, that don't agree with it.
I wonder if this is the best way. As Christiansand specifically as believers in a God of creationshould we disregard all measurable scientific data and blindly hold to dogmatic tradition, even if it seems so discredited by the evidence? Is that truly using our intelligence (God-given, I presume) to its best advantage? After all, if Genesis is true, it will withstand the assaults of science. In fact, honest science should confirm what the Bible has been saying all along: that the universe is a result of intelligent design as opposed to the fortunate consequences of random chance. As such, if we really are interested in the truth, be it philosophical, historical or scientific truth, we must be willing to look at the data in an honest and open-minded manner.
Big Bang Revisited
One idea that many young universe adherents have problems with is that of the Big Bang. To many, it is imagined that to even consider the idea is to embrace Darwinian evolution and, with it, deny the existence of God. Yet this belief poses a number of problems.
First, in dealing with the formation of the universe we are not dealing with evolution per se, but with a process or mechanism of creation. In other words, if solar systems form from the gradual coalescence of dust and gases, it is no different a process than a human fetus being formed from a coalescence of cells and membranes within a woman's womb. In fact, cosmology may be significantly simpler a process, more along the lines of raindrops forming or ice crystals organizing themselves into intricate snowflakes, except, of course, on much larger scale. The solar system, then, is not "evolving", that is, turning from one thing into something else different from itself; it is simply forming into what it will be: a network of planets, moons, asteroids, comets and dust all circling a massive hydrogen furnace. The process was invented and implemented by the master builder who's ordained laws of physics make it work. Considering the vastness and complexity of the universe, with its billions of galaxies and multi-trillions of stars, is it any less miraculous if it were "formed" over billions of years than if it was brought it into being instantaneously, and if it is, why?
We must recognize that attempting to determine how the universe was formed (and when) has very little bearing on how life appeared or developed on this planet. In other words, the paleontologist or anthropologist and the astronomer are not looking at the same questions except in the most general way. Therefore, a belief in an ancient universe and the formation of solar systems from stellar dust and gases is not the same thing as believing man evolved from an ape. One can then be free, once they understand this, to embrace the evidence of astronomy without having to accept evolution as a proven fact as well. Though most scientists insist on marrying the two ideas, they are not complementary ideas at all, but two entirely different thrusts. In fact, even the belief in the "big bang" theory does not preclude a belief in the existence of God, for I doubt that very many astronomers have not asked themselves at some point where the material for the big bang came from and who put the whole affair into motion in the first place.
Afraid of The Facts?
Young universe creationist generally maintain that when God created the stars and the planets, He constructed them with their light trains intact. In other words, though a galaxy may be in reality two million light years distant, the light from that galaxy did not have to travel that distance at all, but simply was constructed with that distance already covered. Additionally, it makes no difference how far away an object may be; its light train was as fully intact and completeand visible from earththe moment it was created
The Bible does not specifically say this, of course; it is assumed from a literalist interpretation of Genesis for otherwise the creationist has no other way to account for why we see the stars in Genesis chapter one in place and the heavens complete. The problem for the creationist is that if the stars and planets were indeed created only 6,000 years ago and the speed of light has been roughly constant since then, the first man, Adam, should not have seen the first star (not planets, for they would have winked on within minutes in any case), for some four years (the time it would have taken light to travel from the nearest star, Alpha Centauri, to our own). It also means then that if light has been traveling at its pokey 186,000 miles per second all this time, astronomers today should not be able to see distant galaxies even at this point, for their light would not have yet arrived this far. In fact, science should be taking note of the appearance of new stars winking on each day as their light trains finally complete the journey to earth (which would, incidentally, constitute excellent confirmation for the idea of a young universe). Unfortunately for the creationist, since we don't see this happening, they are forced to conclude the light trains had to be installed at the moment of creation.
What's wrong with this conclusion, and I think is a major point that many fundamentalist Christians miss, is that God, as the creator, is not afraid of science. We must assume that as the One who articulated the natural laws which govern our universe and who defined the parameters of time and space by a mere thought invented them for a purpose, and as such we should not be surprised then when He utilizes them in His creation. We should also assume that God is not trying to "trick" us by secretly altering or overriding those laws and limits, thus giving us false premises from which to study His creation. Therefore, when astronomers measure a distant galaxy as being fifteen billion light years away, we should assume that it is accurate in so far as the natural lawsthat is, the speed that light travels in a single yearare presently understood. After all, it was God who decided how fast light was to travel, not science, and so we must recognize and respect the divine hand in that as well. We must deal with the data on its own terms and not explain it away with simple answers and fantastic speculation unsupported by evidence. The data, its results and their effects, is also the work of God, and should be treated as such.
To treat it otherwise makes God devious, for no sooner does He invent a natural law which gives light its speed limit, but then He immediately breaks that law by installing intact light trains. Of course, being God, He can do anything He wishes, but then why does He take the trouble to invent natural laws at all? At a minimum, why couldn't He have at least seen to it that the author of Genesis make it clear that is precisely what He did? Why give us this contradiction between science and faith right off the bat? Surely He would have known what a source of difficulty this would later prove to be?
Fortunately, we can let God off the hook (for which I imagine He's greatly relieved) if we acknowledge that perhaps the fault lies not with the Creator at all, but with the created's ability to interpret the information correctly.
This whole argument hinges on the idea that the stars and planets (as well as our own sun and moon) were actually created some 6,000 literal years ago, and not much earlier as modern astronomy demands. That being the case, the question then arises: what does Genesis 1:14-19 really mean when it says God "made" the stars and the lesser and greater lights on the fourth day of creation? Is it talking about the creation of the universe or is it really intimating something else? In other words, are we interpreting it correctly, or are we off somewhere in left field?
To discern the answer to this, I believe we need to start at the beginning, which is where, I believe, God started. Genesis 1:1 states: "In the beginning, God created the heavens and the earth." Just when that was is not said. Just some time before the formation of life on earth (the six days of creation). Also, what does it mean that He created "the heavens" as well as the earth?
The word used here for "heavens" is the Hebrew word "shamayim" or "shameh", both of which may be interpreted as either "sky" or "space" (or, more precisely, the starry mantle over us). If it means simply "sky", then we are left with a physical earth afloat in nothingness, a physical reality existing on a purely spiritual level without even an empty universe around it; its temporal, physical existence at war with its non-temporal environment. If, however, it means "space", that is, the universe, then we have a rogue planet drifting alone in the cold vastness of a dark, vacant universe.
I suspect most creationists would opt for the latter, though that then leads to the next question. Genesis 1:2 continues: "The earth was formless and empty, darkness was over the surface of the deep, and the Spirit of God was hovering over the waters." Obviously, this is a description of a planet significantly different from the Earth we know today. Here we see a planet apparently entirely covered in water and lacking any land masses whatsoever, and engulfed entirely in an all pervasive, eternal darkness. Notice, though, that despite its apparent uninhabitability, some sort of atmosphere is suggested and the water is in liquid form, both points of great significance.
One of the most elementary facts of natural science is that water in liquid form can only exist in a temperature range of 1 to 99 degrees Celsius, and that it cannot exist in that form in a vacuum. Since science tells us that the temperature of the universe when out of range of the heat generated by stars is close to absolute zero (that is the temperature at which molecules cease movement and all elements become solids), the sunless planet being described in Genesis 1:2 should have been little more than a frigid ball of ice. The assumption, then, can be made that the earth possessed at that point enough heat to maintain water in a liquid state, which would only be possible if it was in proximity to some heat source (like the sun?)
The "purist" may argue that God simply maintained the Earth at a constant temperature but that only produces more questions than it answers. Aside from the fact that such an idea is purely speculative, we must again ask why does God transcend His own natural laws? Stellar furnaces provide heat for solar systems, so why is God hesitant to install one? Why perform a function supernaturally when all the elements to do it naturally are available to Him? Does He have such contempt for them that He Himself voids them of their own meaning?
Obviously, then, I'm suggesting that the sun was already present and that was the source of heat that kept the water on the face of the earth in liquid form.
However, no sooner do we solve that problem when the young universe enthusiast asks: "Ah, but where is the light from that sun? Surely, if the heat source I allude to is our own sun, the earth would not be shrouded in darkness, would it?"
The answer to that would depend on where one was standing.
Matter of Perspective
First, notice that the earth is apparently encased in water. In fact, in the second day of creation God divides the waters from each other, creating an expanse to separate the waters from the surface from those in the sky. This suggests that the planet was shrouded in dense clouds of water vapor, perhaps tens of thousands of feet thick, extending from the surface to the highest reaches of the stratosphere. Since we can easily observe the fact that light is able to penetrate only the upper levels of the ocean (below 200 feet or so all is inky blackness on even the brightest, clearest day), the idea that light could have a similar inability to penetrate thick cloud cover should come as no surprise. (Admittedly clouds are not as dense as liquid water, but that is not the obstacle it may appear to be. It takes less than 200 feet for light particles to be absorbed in liquid water; clouds, being less dense, would only require greater depth to do the same trick. A thick, cloud layer 40,000 feet thick should be more than sufficient to mask any ambient light from an observer standing on the planet's surface below. From the perspective of someone standing on the surface it would appear completely black. You would still have enough heat to keep the water in liquid form, but you would have no light.)
This idea seems to find support in the narrative associated with the first day of creation. "Let their be light" may be no more miraculous than a simple dissipation of the cloud cover (an idea further buttressed in the second day of creation). A fifty or sixty percent thinning would be sufficient to at least permit light (albeit greatly diffused) to reach the surface, while the earth's already inherent orbit would give the effect of night and day. Additionally, if the light in Genesis 1:3 is not the sun, what then is the source? Answering that it is the light of God's glory sounds very spiritual and pious, but it means nothing. Are we to assume that God is a super nova or that He emits light within the context of the temporal world when He has already provided a stellar furnace to perform that function? Is He again tricking us by circumventing His own laws, or are we looking for supernatural solutions where the answer may be more obvious and natural: namely, that the sun was there the whole time, providing first heat, and then light to our planet?
Notice also that Genesis 1:4 does not say that God created light, but simply quotes Him as proclaiming"Let there be light." Could not this be interpreted to mean that He was simply allowing something to be seen that wasn't formerly visible, even though it may have been present all along? Just as furniture may be present in a darkened room but doesn't become apparent until you hit the light switchor trip over itso too is the sun present, but not visible until the watery mantle enshrouding the Earth thins.
In the end, it doesn't appear that God really created or made anything on the first day at all, but rather that He simply pointed out things and named them (calling the light "day" and the darkness "night"). Also notice that God finishes each day's work with the pronouncement that what He had made "was good", something He does not say in either the first or second days of creation. Are we to assume then that either what He made was not good or, more likely, that He simply hadn't created anything yet?
"But what of the fourth day?" the literalist asks? "It says that's when God created the sun and moon (the greater and lesser lights) as well as all the stars!"
But does it say "create"? I'm afraid it says no such thing.
In a Name?
Genesis 1:16 says: "Let there be lights in the expanse of the sky to separate the day from the night, and let them serve as signs to mark seasons and days and years..." (notice the similarities to the "let there be light" statement of Genesis 1:3). In verse 16, however, when God does get around to saying that He produced the stars, it is interesting to note that He doesn't use the word "create" as He did in Genesis 1:1, but the word "made" (He "made" the greater and lesser lights and, in verse 16, that "He also made the stars.")
The difference in choice of words may seem trivial at first, but this is largely because of the limitations imposed on us by the English language, which has a tendency to use various words interchangeably. In the original language of the Old Testament, however, Hebrew, this is not the case. The Hebrew authors were careful about what words they choose and did their best to make the meaning of a passage as precise as possible. As such, a closer examination of the text is in order.
The word for "create" as used in Genesis 1:1 and elsewhere in chapter one (i.e. He "created man", etc.) is "bara", which, though it can have several definitions, is here generally understood to mean bringing into existence something from nothing. The Hebrew word translated as "made", however, is different; it is the word "asah", which, depending on its context, can mean anything from "accomplish" and "advance" to "yield" or "use". Generally, it is thought to mean, in the context of Genesis, "to bring forth" or "to show". What's most significant about this is that while it is true that the English words "make" and "create" can be used interchangeably, it is not so with the Hebrew terms "bara" and "asah"; each of which have very specific meanings. It is significant, for example, that while the word "asah" has many potential translations or applications, "to create" is NOT one of them. Even more significant is the fact that the Hebrew word for create, "bara", is not used in the context of the planets or stars (except, by implication, in Genesis 1:1). Also, when "asah" (make) is used in the context of creation (such as Genesis 1:26: "Let us make man in our image..." or as in Genesis 1:25: "God made the wild animals..."), it seems to always be in the context that an act of creation has already been accomplished or is anticipated. In other words, it is used more generally, while specific acts of spontaneous creation always uses the term "bara" (create): "God created man in his own image...", "God created the great creatures of the sea...". While the young universe proponent may be willing to ignore this point as mere semantics, but that does nothing to answer the question: If the two different words are intended to mean the same thing-spontaneous creationthen why not simply use the same word (bara) throughout the Genesis account? Obviously, that would have been the easiest solution, if, indeed, that is what the author intended. The fact that the two terms are consistently used to differentiate between "made" and "create" is significant, and must not be ignored.
There is a reason, I believe, for the use of different words in describing creation. In the case of the stars and the planets God was referring to something that had already been made "In the beginning..." and was simply being made apparent to anyone standing on the surface. As alluded to earlier with the appearance of light on the first day, this would have been done by simply allowing the cloud cover to dissipate completely, thus completing the process begun on the first day. This is, in fact, precisely the effect one would expect to see if indeed a complete, intact, and very old universe was already in existence (since "In the beginning...") when the interminable cloud cover embracing the planet's surface finally broke. Notice, too, that Genesis 1:1 could be taken to imply that the heavens were created before the earth: "In the beginning God created the heavens and the earth...", which is consistent with the modern astronomical belief in an ancient universe and a more recently formed earth. It would be precisely the opposite order if the fourth day of creation is to be taken literally, in which case Genesis 1:1 would more properly be rendered: "In the beginning, God created the earth and the heavens...". As such, the idea of a fifteen billion year old universe (or one even older) and a five billion year old earth is not at all inconsistent with the book of Genesis and has the added advantage in that it eliminates the battle between science and faith at least in so far as astronomy is concerned (and, in fact, brings peace to some elements of geology as well in regards to earth dating techniques, etc.). While the war continues to rage between the evolutionists and creationist on other fronts, Genesis corresponds with astronomy perfectly, allowing both the Christian and the secular astronomer to explore the universe in perfect accord and harmony.
the Dogma Dragon
With these points in consideration, I continue to wonder why the creationist continues to insist so dogmatically that God didn't get around to creating anything until a mere 6,000 years ago, and why He felt it necessary to set His own natural laws of physics on their head to perform His act. God does not strike me as one in a hurry to get things done. It was four thousand years between the flood of Noah and the appearance of the Messiah, Jesus Christ. It has been two thousand years since then. Does God strike you as being rushed?
As such, why do we demand immediacy in His creation? Why must everything be instantaneous and miraculous? On a more basic level, why not a fifteen billion year old universe? Would it be any less amazing than a 6,000 year old universe would be? It almost seems at times as if we insist that God to be more amazing and miraculous than He already is. The natural laws that He created seem rather ordinary and dull; we want excitement. In other words, we want a God with all the special effects. A naturally forming universe taking billions of years to form isn't wondrous enough in itself, so we demand a God that consistently supersedes His preordained natural laws instead of simply waiting for the processes He designed to work their miracles naturally. I think part of the problem, too, is our arrogant insistence that the universe was built specifically for our benefit. Now while it is true that God put the lights in the sky to mark the seasons and the years, can we really be so convinced of our uniqueness among all the universe that we couldn't allow for the stars being put in place to mark the times and the seasons for other civilizations as well? Perhaps there are other sentient beings on other planets revolving around other suns that look upon our sun as nothing more than a rather ordinary dot of light in their sky; a humbling thought, is it not?
A few centuries ago, Galileo was almost killed as a heretic because he had the audacity to suggest that the earth revolved around the sun, thus diminishing us in our own eyes. But we got over it.
Then we began to discover that our universe is much larger than we ever imagined, and filled with wonders we could not have begun to imagine only a few short decades ago, and again it diminished us in our own eyes. But we got over it.
Now finally, perhaps we will realize that we are but one of His flocks among many, adrift in a vast vacuum, dependent upon the Creator for our existence and sustenance, and again we may be diminished in our own eyes. Hopefully, we will get over that too.
But don't count on it.
Since writing this article several years ago I have long-since abandoned the
idea of a literal six-day creation as recorded in Genesis and have come to accept
it as a metaphor for the Divine process of evolution. However, I offer this
interpretation as a evangelical approach to answering the problems posed by
a rigidly fundamentalist interpretation of scripture in the hopes that free-thinking
Christians might find something of value here. Of course, you are free to interpret
Genesis any way you wish; I only ask that you not demand that others interpret
it the same way you do in order to be considered "true" brothers and
sisters in Christ.)
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