How should a Christian approach cosmology, the scientific study of the origin and structure of the universe as a whole?
As in any science, we have to distinguish between what we actually observe—the radiation that reaches our telescopes-- and theories that are constructed to explain those facts.
Since many different theories can explain the same facts, scientists choose theories that best agree with their worldview. Naturalist scientists will limit their theories to purely natural laws and events; most believe in Big Bang Cosmology.
Bible-believing scientists, on the other hand, will insist that theories be consistent with biblical facts. Regarding cosmology, the Bible says little regarding the universe’s present physical structure. What is revealed is that God made the universe from nothing, in six days, and continues to uphold it each instant. In the future, when Christ returns, the universe will be renewed. Also, the Biblical universe is much larger than the 3-dimensional physical world that we see; it includes also a heavenly realm with angels, centered about God’s throne.
Cosmology, as a science, can study only the physical aspect of our universe, in terms of known physical causes. It must thus ignore such things as the unseen realm, angelic and demonic forces, and miraculous events. Hence, our cosmological models may be very inaccurate reflections of reality.
Is it possible - and desirable - to construct cosmological models that are in accord with the Bible?
A. Various Creationist Models
A prime aim is to solve the distant starlight problem: If the universe is only a few thousand years old, how can we see galaxies that seem to be several billion light-years away? A second goal is to explain why stars and galaxies have the particular patterns and structures that we observe. As noted by James Upton (2011), in his article "Beyond Distant Starlight", creationist cosmologies have thus far concentrated on the first goal.
Let’s look at some recent models.
1. Slow Earth Clocks
In general relativity, the rate at which a clock ticks depends on its speed or the local gravitational field. It might thus be possible to construct a cosmological model where, in the past, Earth clocks ticked much slower than those on distant galaxies.
Russell Humphreys (2008)proposes that the earth is near the center of a spherical universe surrounded by an invisible shell (the “waters above the heavens”), much more massive than all the galaxies. The rapid expansion of this shell, accompanied by the creation of galaxies throughout the universe, caused a moving zone of “timelessness”. This allows the earth to experience only a few days while the distant galaxies experience billions of years.
An alternative model by John Hartnett (2007) uses an extension of general relativity—the 5-dimensional cosmology of Moshe Carmeli. Here, too, the Earth is taken to be near the center of a spherical universe that expanded rapidly during the creation week, thereby causing the desired slowing of the earth’s clock.
How well do these models succeed? Both are highly speculative, involving novel physics or peculiar mass distributions. Both have various theoretical difficulties to overcome (e.g., getting sufficient time dilation at the earth, getting the observed red shifts relations, etc.). Further, the special conditions (e.g., sudden acceleration and, later, sudden deceleration) seem to require special supernatural effects.
These models accept that, far from the Earth, at least, the universe is billions of years old, as dated by mainstream methods. A further advantage is that mainstream theories can be applied for the formation of stars, galaxies and other structures.
One challenge, however, is to get strong time dilation only near the solar system. It seems likely that also clocks on nearby stars, and in our own Galaxy, would be significantly slowed down. Hence, there would be insufficient time for these celestial objects to have been formed naturally; they must have been created in “mature” form.
Moreover, if one is to embrace an old age for distant galaxies, it seems much simpler to conjecture that the rotation of the Earth on Day 4 took billions of years. After all, the basic biblical unit of time is the Earth-day—a period of light and darkness. This would avoid the need to postulate mature creation for any celestial object, not even the sun. Of course, this does leave one with the problem of how to preserve the vegetation created on Day 3 during the long night following Day 3. Note that this approach does not facilitate biological evolution, since creation Days 5 and 6—covering the creation of animals—were presumably normal solar days.
Barry Setterfield (2009) proposed that the speed of light c was virtually infinite at Creation, after which it decreased to its present value. Hence, the light from distant galaxies could reach us in a short time. The stability of atoms, as well as the observed constancy of the hydrogen spectrum from distant stars, entail that a change in the speed of light requires corresponding changes also in some other fundamental physical "constants", such as Planck’s constant h and the electron mass m. This, in turn, predicts much larger the decay rates of radio-active substances in the past, thereby accounting for the large apparent radio-dates of many rocks.
Setterfield’s model explains these effects by means of a changing “zero-point energy field” (ZPE), the intrinsic quantum energy inherent in a vacuum. Combining this with plasma physics, he accounts also for the rapid formation of planets, stars and galaxies.
There is some observational evidence that the values of c, h, and m may have varied slightly during the last two centuries. But these historical results are marred by fairly large experimental uncertainties, so that their statistical conclusiveness has been debated. Strangely, over the last few decades—just as more sensitive measuring technology is available—c, h and m seem to be constant. Even if a small, recent change in c were observationally established, this in itself would not confirm that c was virtually infinite only six millennia ago. Nevertheless, such speculations are not easy to disprove.
Other variations on the C-decay theme are possible. For example, perhaps the speed of light varies with position in space, rather than with time, approaching infinity at the edge of the universe. Or perhaps the speed of light depends on gravity—the speed of light being very great in inter-stellar space but slow near stars or planets. No doubt a mathematical formula could be concocted that would yield suitably small light travel times for distant star-light while still satisfying all the observational data.
Such hypotheses would, however, have less explanatory power than Setterfield's theory, because the proposed variations in light speed are not tied to any physical mechanism, nor do they account for radio-dating data.
3. Asymmetric Light-speed
Jason Lisle (2010) suggests that the speed of light c depends on its direction—it is infinitely fast moving towards the earth and c/2 when moving away from the earth. Experimentally, the speed of light in one particular direction can’t be measured directly. All measurements of the speed of light ultimately involve a two-way average speed in two opposite directions. Special relativity assumes that the speed c is the same in all directions. But this is just a convention. One could explain all the observed relativistic effects just as well by adopting Lisle’s convention. This entails revising the relativistic equations but leaves us with exactly the same observational results.
In Lisle’s model we see distant galaxies just as they are right now. It took their light almost no time at all to get here. In this case the universe is young; the stars and galaxies are all created in mature form.
Physically, this seems very counter-intuitive. Why should light—whether a particle or a wave—move at such vastly different speeds in opposite directions? And why should the earth be the point of attraction for light? Yet, observationally and mathematically, it seems impossible to disprove. Indeed, Lisle's convention makes no observational predictions and therefore can’t be tested. Hence, critics object that it falls outside of the realm of science. Of course, an idea that can’t be experimentally tested might nevertheless still be true.
4. Mature Creation
Lisle’s model invokes a high degree of mature creation, the notion that stars and galaxies were created full-blown, along with their light. Don DeYoung (2010) extends mature creation to the entire astronomical universe. The star-light we observe may then not have all originated from actual stars.
A common objection is that the details of starlight seem to refer to specific historical events, such as supernova explosions. If such events never really occurred, does this not make God deceptive?
Yet, how could God could create an entity that did not have an apparent history? Science assumes that the cosmos operates through time by a continuum of physical cause and effect. At creation, we can apply physical laws to calculate not only future states but also apparent past states. Thus, at creation, the universe inevitably appears to have had a previous history.
Moreover, it seems plausible that God created the universe not just mature, but coherently mature, so that apparent histories from different light-rays give consistent results. Since the same physical laws are assumed, the actual future states will appear to be of a very similar nature to the apparent past states. Created stars and galaxies would look as if they had actually formed in space. In particular, if future states include supernovae, so should past states.
In short, mature creation does not involve divine deception. Rather, people deceive themselves by rejecting what God has revealed in the Bible, by their lack of knowledge of God's methods, and by assuming that mature creation is false. (Mature creation is discussed in more detail in my post On Mature Creation).
1. Many creationist models have features that are decidedly ad hoc--invented solely to save the theory from observational disproof. Yet, such ad hoc theorizing is very common in cosmology. Also Big Bang cosmology has many ad hoc concepts--such as inflation, dark matter, dark energy—that were invented to overcome various deficiencies. See my post Deflating Cosmology for some recent problems with Big Bang cosmology. Presumably, further research might well find improvements for both models.
2. Many different creationist cosmologies can be constructed. Which one is correct? We don’t know what the completed universe looked like on Day 7, what methods God used, how universal our physical laws actually are, how the spiritual realm affects the physical world, etc. Thus we should treat any particular cosmology as merely a hypothetical possibility, rather than as the solution. It is prudent not to stake everything on one model but, rather, to be open to various theoretical possibilities.
3. Christian cosmologies may serve to link astronomical observations to biblical truths, thereby supporting the consistency between God’s world and God’s Word. Nevertheless, we must be careful not to base our faith in God’s Word on the apparent plausibility of our human models. After all, the scientific account of universal history is necessarily based on various unverifiable assumptions. Thus, to the extent that biblical truths cannot be explained by scientific models, this merely reflects the inadequacy of our scientific speculations.
●D.B. DeYoung (2010) Mature creation and seeing distant starlight. Journal of Creation 24, no. 3:54–59.
● John Harnett (2007) Starlight, Time and the New Physics. Creation Book Publishers
●D. Russell Humphreys (2008) New time dilation helps creation cosmology, Journal of Creation 22(3):84-92.
●Jason Lisle (2010) Anisotropic Synchrony Convention-A Solution to the Distant Starlight Problem , Answers Research Journal 3:191-207.
●Barry and Helen Setterfield (2009) “Data and Creation: The ZPE-Plasma Model”. https://www.barrysetterfield.org/Data_and_Creation/ZPE-Plasma_model.html
●James Upton (2011) "Beyond Distant Starlight", Answers Research Journal 4: 1-9.