Does Distant Starlight Prove an Old Universe?
The Bible indicates that the Universe is roughly 6,000 to 10,000 years old.1 The speed of light is 186,282 miles per second. A light year is the distance light travels in one year—5.88 trillion miles. If we can see light from stars that are over 13 billion light years away, doesn’t that imply that those stars have to be at least that old in order for their light to have time to reach the Earth? Does distant starlight disprove the Bible?
As with any technique that is used by old-Universe advocates, the use of distant starlight to prove an old Universe relies on a uniformitarian-based assumption. Uniformitarianism is the belief that processes and rates that are occurring today (in geology, for instance) have always occurred in the same manner and intensity throughout time—the present is the key to understanding the past. In this case, an assumption is made that the light from distant stars has always traveled at the same rate and in the same manner that we observe in nature today, and that it traveled the full distance from star to Earth naturally. If the biblical model is true, however, that assumption would most certainly not be valid.
At least four possible explanations have been advanced by Creation scientists in response to the supposed “starlight travel time dilemma”:
Inconstant speed of light: While modern physics assumes that the speed of light is a constant, various scientists have discovered compelling evidence that suggests the speed of light is not constant under certain circumstances (especially circumstances of the past).2 While the research on this possibility is too new to boldly proclaim as the ultimate answer to the problem, the fact that legitimate evidence exists to support an inconstant speed of light is significant. If it could change a little, who’s to say it couldn’t change a lot under the right circumstances? Could light have traveled faster in the past, allowing distant starlight to reach us quicker?
Anisotropic Synchrony Convention:3 When developing his famous relativity physics, Einstein showed that objectively measuring the speed of light in one direction is not possible. Calculating the roundtrip speed of light is possible, but it is an assumption to say that light traveled at the same speed the first half of the trip as it did the second half. Einstein, there-fore, noted that the one-way speed of light is actually a convention that can be chosen at will. Physicists today merely assume that the speed of light is the same in any direction—forward and backwards (to make things simpler)—but it is an assumption to do so. According to Einstein’s work, one could just as easily decide that light does not travel the same in all directions, as long as the roundtrip average of the speed of light equals 186,282 miles per second. Thus, according to the actual evidence, the movement of the light from a distant star to Earth could be chosen to be instantaneous without contradicting the evidence, as long as it travels at 186,282 miles per second on the way back to the star. The implication would be that, when looking at the light from a distant star, we are not seeing things from millions or billions of years ago, but rather, we are seeing the star and its behavior at present, in real time.
Mature light: It is clear that God created a miraculously mature Universe.4 Adam and Eve were not zygotes when formed, but individuals who were “old” enough from the beginning to tend the Garden (Genesis 2:15), understand God’s prohibition about eating from the forbidden tree (Genesis 2:17), carry out biological classification (Genesis 2:19-20), and even procreate as God commanded (Genesis 1:28). Trees were already bearing fruit, since Adam and Eve needed to eat them to survive. Similarly, it is possible that God simply created the stars with their light already in place from the beginning so that they could be used for the purpose God intended for them—for light and for humans to use to reckon time (Genesis 1:14-16). It is likely that the stars, when created, would have been created in different states of growth in order to (1) teach humans about how the Universe works (Psalm 111:2; 19:1; Genesis 15:5; Romans 1:20),5 and (2) to allow the Universe to function fully as the machine God intended it to be, with all of its interworking parts functioning in sync from the beginning.
Rapid creative process: In describing the miraculous creation of the plants on day three of Creation week, God said, “Let the earth bring forth” the plants, and “the earth brought forth” the plants. Some creationists have suggested that such terminology might imply the use of a process with regard to the creation of the plants (albeit a rapid one), rather than an immediate creation of the plants—similar to what a time lapse video would look like. It is possible that a similar accelerated process was used in the creation of the stars, allowing a rapid “aging” of stars and the movement of their light.6 It is true that such a process would require miraculous activity on God’s part, and too quickly appealing to the possibility of miraculous activity as an explanation for unexplained phenomena can lead to false conclusions, scientific laziness, and a lack of valuable knowledge about the natural realm and God’s amazing glory as reflected therein. It is also true in this case, however, that the scriptural context not only allows for such miraculous activity regarding the stars’ creation, but possibly even implies it. After all, the entirety of Genesis one is Moses’ description of the many supernatural creative acts that God engaged in during the Creation week. To suggest that the creation of the stars and their light was not supernatural would seem to be more farfetched than to suggest that they were.7
Regardless of the details of how it was done, Scripture is clear that God created the stars on the fourth literal day of Creation week a few thousand years ago and humans could immediately use their light for the purposes God intended. Science does not disprove that contention since there are several reasonable explanations that could explain how distant starlight could have been in place on Earth in literally no time at all.
1 Jeff Miller (2019), “21 Reasons to Believe the Earth is Young,” Reason & Revelation, 39:2-11.
2 João Magueijo (2003), Faster Than the Speed of Light (New York: Perseus); Jesse Emspak (2013), “Speed of Light May Not Be Constant, Physicists Say,” LiveScience, April 27, https://www.livescience.com/29111-speed-of-light-not-constant.html; Andrew Grant (2015), “Speed of Light Not So Constant After All,” ScienceNews, 187:7, February 21, https://www.sciencenews.org/article/speed-light-not-so-constant-after-all; Stuart Clark (2017), “Cosmic Uncertainty: Is the Speed of Light Really Constant?” New Scientist, March 1, https://www.newscientist.com/article/mg23331150-200-cosmic-uncertainty-is-the-speed-of-light-really-constant/; P.C.W. Davies, T.M. Davis, and C.H. Lineweaver (2002), “Black Holes Constrain Varying Con-stants,” Nature, 418:602-603, August 8.
3 Jason Lisle (2010), “Anisotropic Synchrony Convention—A Solution to the Distant Starlight Problem,” Answers Research Journal, 3:191-207, https://assets.answersingenesis.org/doc/articles/pdf-versions/arj/v3/anisotropic-synchrony-convention.pdf.
4 Eric Lyons (2011), “Common Sense, Miracles, and the Apparent Age of the Earth,” Reason & Revelation, 3177-80.
5 In 1987, a supernova (an exploding star) occurred at a location believed to be some 200,000 light years away, implying that the explosion happened 200,000 years ago (assuming the constant speed of light). If Earth is less than 10,000 years old, however, that means the supernova never actually happened—i.e., scientists observed the light from an event that never happened—giving many honest individuals pause. In order for God to teach humans about the “life” and “death” of a star, however, God would have to create stars (and star light) in different stages of their “life” (or travel) from the beginning, since humans would not have enough time on Earth to see the full life cycle of a star in a natural way.
6 Danny Faulkner (2013), “A Proposal for a New Solution to the Light Travel Time Problem,” Answers Research Journal, 6:279-284, https://assets.answersingenesis.org/doc/articles/pdf-versions/arj/v6/light-travel-time-problem.pdf.
7 Other theories have been proposed by Creation scientists to explain distant starlight which are currently being researched, including gravitational time dilation models [e.g., D. Russell Humphreys (1994), Starlight and Time (Colorado Springs, CO: Master Books); John Hartnett (2015), “A Biblical Creationist Cosmogony,” Answers Research Journal, 8:13-20, http://www.answersingenesis.org/arj/v8/creationist-cosmogony.pdf.].