Given the biblical timescale, that God created the universe roughly 6000 years ago, how are we able to see stars and galaxies that are billions of light years away? If light takes one year to traverse a distance of one light year (about 5.88 trillion miles), shouldn’t light from a galaxy that is ten billion light years away take ten billion years to reach us? And we can see such galaxies, implying that the light has arrived. Does this imply that the universe is at least 10 billion years old?
This issue is often called the distant starlight problem. Critics of creation often present this issue as evidence against biblical creation, or at least against the biblical timescale. The seductive nature of this argument is in its apparent simplicity. Namely, we know the speed of light (this has been measured in many different experiments), and we know the (approximate) distance to galaxies. The distance a particle can travel is simply its (average) speed multiplied by the time of its journey. So by solving for time, we find that light takes one year to travel a distance of one light year; and thus, light takes ten billion years to cross a distance of ten billion light years. That light has indeed crossed this distance is evident since we can see these galaxies in telescopes; we could not see them if the light had not yet arrived.
But, as is often the case with physics, our intuitive expectations are dashed by reality. Albert Einstein discovered that the relationship between space, time, and the speed of light is far stranger and more interesting than anyone had ever imagined. Indeed, God upholds His creation in a way that is wonderful and contrary to our expectations. When we understand the true nature of space, time, and velocity, we will find that distant starlight is perfectly compatible with the biblical timescale.
Previous Attempts at a Solution
Since the distant starlight problem can be stated so succinctly, people often expect a very succinct solution. Non-scientists are naturally attracted to such “solutions” because they are so easily comprehended. But, of course, that doesn’t mean that such proposals are actually right. We will find upon examination that these simpler proposals do not stand up to rational scrutiny. Yet, it is necessary to discuss such proposals and why they fail because they are so enticing due to their apparent simplicity.
First, we begin by introducing some important terminology. We have already used the term “light year” and we must here emphasize that a light year is a measure of distance, not time. People hear the word “year” in “light year” and often mistakenly think of time, as in 365 days. But a light year is a distance of approximately 5.88 trillion miles.
Why then does the term have the word “year” in it? To answer this, consider how we often describe distances on earth. For example, Denver is about 70 miles north of Colorado Springs. But sometimes, people will describe this distance with an expression that sounds like a unit of time. They might say, “Denver is about an hour and 10 minutes away from Colorado Springs.” By this, they mean “an hour and 10 minutes by car.” In other words, the distance between Denver and Colorado Springs is that which a car could traverse in a time of 1 hour, 10 minutes.
Distance and time are related by speed. Speed is defined as distance divided by time. Therefore, units of speed will always be given as a unit of distance divided by a unit of time. For example, in the United States we often measure speed in miles per hour. Miles are a unit of distance, hours are a unit of time, and “per” means “divided by.” Given the speed limits and typical traffic, a car traveling from Colorado Springs to Denver will have an average speed of 60 miles per hour. And given a distance of 70 miles between these two cities, it will take such a car one hour and 10 minutes to traverse that distance at a speed of 60 miles per hour.
Light in vacuum always travels at the amazing speed of 186,282.3974 miles per second. Given the enormous distances typical in the cosmos, astronomers find it convenient to define distances in terms of that which light could traverse in a given time. A light year is defined to be the distance light can travel in a time of one year. Just as the distance between Denver and Colorado Springs can be expressed as “an hour and ten minutes by car,” the distance of one light year can be expressed as a distance of “one year by light” – the distance light will traverse in one year. This is a very convenient unit of distance because light travels at a speed of exactly one light year per year. The nearest star system to the sun is Alpha Centauri which is at a distance of 4.3 light years, or about 25 trillion miles. The most distant galaxies we have observed are over 10 billion light years away.
Are Cosmic Distances Real?
We begin by examining the proposal that distant galaxies are not nearly as distant as astronomers claim. Under this proposal, light is able to reach us because the distance between the farthest galaxy and earth is actually less than 6000 light years. Hence, light is able to travel this relatively short distance within 6000 years, enabling us to see the farthest galaxies. This proposal is not the most commonly accepted position, but we start our analysis here because the concepts addressed in discussing the problems with this view will aid us in discussing other proposed solutions.
Perhaps some of the motivation for this solution comes from the belief that distance measurements presuppose the same secular, naturalistic, and uniformitarian assumptions as secular age estimates. After all, the age estimates of rocks based on radiometric dating methods are often inflated from the true age by a factor of thousands or even millions. This is because secularists have falsely assumed that the rate of radioactive decay has been constant over time, despite good evidence to the contrary. Furthermore, such methods have been shown to give vastly inflated ages on rocks of known age (known because the formation of the rock was observed).
Are astronomical distance estimates similarly biased by secular assumptions? No. The methods by which we estimate distances in space are not based on secular assumptions. Instead, they are based on principles of geometry, logic, and physics, all of which can be verified in the present in a laboratory. For example, the distance to nearby stars can be determined geometrically by parallax.
Parallax is the same method your brain uses to determine the distance to nearby objects based on the slightly different perspectives of your two eyes. If you hold up your index finger at arm’s length, and close one eye, then open it and close the other eye, you will notice that your finger seems to shift position relative to the background. Similarly, nearby stars seem to shift their position relative to background stars as the earth orbits the sun. This shift in angular position is very small because even the nearest stars are quite distant. But we can indeed observe this shift in position using powerful telescopes. The greater the parallax, the closer the star. We can use trigonometry to compute the distance from the angular shift in position. By the way, this annual shift in the position of stars is confirmation that indeed the earth orbits the sun; if it did not, there would be no parallax.
The parallax method works very well for relatively nearby stars. But the range of this method is limited because the apparent shift in position of distant stars is too small to be measured by ground-based telescopes. Nevertheless, the Hipparcos spacecraft was able to measure parallax in stars as distant as 2000 light years. The Gaia spacecraft, now in operation, is able to measure parallax smaller than 0.1 milliarcseconds, which means it can measure distances in excess of 30,000 light years. And it has done so for stars in our galaxy.
So, this disproves the claim that all stars and galaxies are closer than 6000 light years. We can directly measure by parallax stars in our own galaxy near the core at a distance of 30,000 light years. So even just our galaxy will not fit within 6000 light years, to say nothing of the other hundreds of billions of more distant galaxies.
There are many other ways of measuring cosmic distances. Most of these methods work over some limited range with a minimum and maximum distance. But the ranges of different methods overlap. So we can check one method against another. This combination of different methods to measure different ranges of distances and checking them relative to each other is called the cosmic distance ladder. All these methods are good and reliable, and consistent with each other, though some are more precise than others. In any case, even direct parallax measurements are now sufficient to rule out the claim that all galaxies are closer than 6000 light years. Even our own galaxy extends far beyond this range.
Light Created in Transit
Of the “simple but almost certainly wrong” proposed solutions to distant starlight, the proposal that God created beams of light connecting each star to earth is probably the most popular. Advocates of this position claim that when (or perhaps before) God spoke the stars into existence, He also created the light in between those stars and the earth, so that we could see the stars immediately. People sometimes confuse this with the “mature creation” view, but they are not the same, as we will explore below.
In some versions of this proposal, God is said to have created the beams of light before He created the stars. They take this light to be that which was created on day 1, when God said, “Let there be light.” In other words, if a person on earth on day 1 would have looked up, he would have seen images of stars at night, even though the actual stars were not created until day 4.
However, the text of Scripture does not imply that the light God provided for the first three days formed any kind of images of the (not yet created) celestial objects. Rather, God provided light for the first three days for the purpose of dividing the day from the night. Hence, a person would have seen a bright blue sky during the day, but no sun. And the night sky would have been dark with no stars.
Alternatively, in other versions of this proposal, when God spoke the stars into existence on day 4, He also created beams of light connecting each star to the earth at that time. So, if a person were standing on the night side of earth on day 4, he would immediately see images of all the stars blink on.
But, would he actually be seeing the stars themselves, or fictional representations of those stars? After all, according to this view, the light that our hypothetical observer would see was not actually produced by any stars, but was created in space by God, such that it is coming from the direction of the star. In this proposal, we have not yet seen the light that was produced by any star farther than 6000 light years (which is the overwhelming majority of them). In such a case, the bulk of the stars in the universe have not yet fulfilled their God-ordained role to “give light upon the earth” (Genesis 1:15).
One difficulty in this proposal concerns the fact that we observe events in space: changes in conditions, sometimes subtle and other times drastic. Many of these events occur at distances beyond 6000 light years. So, we must ask the question, “Did these events actually occur?” By the light in transit proposal, any image we see of any object beyond 6000 light years was not actually produced by the object. Rather, these images were made by God during the creation week. And therefore, any event we observe at a distance beyond 6000 light years never actually happened. Rather, such an event was merely a series of images God placed in a beam of light about 6000 light years out that is finally reaching earth only now.
Let me provide a classic example of this issue. In 1987, astronomers observed a supernova (an exploding star) in the Large Magellanic Cloud – a nearby galaxy. This galaxy is 168,000 light years away, which may seem like a lot, but is practically “next door” by galaxy standards. So, when did this explosion actually happen? In the standard secular view, the event really happened about 168,000 years ago, and the images of that explosion traveling at the speed of light took 168,000 years to arrive at earth in the year 1987.
But, in the light created in transit view, when did that supernova actually happen? The only possible answer is: it didn’t! We have images of the beautiful blue supergiant star before it exploded. But since this star lies at a distance of 168,000 light years, how were we able to see it? The light created in transit advocates would say that God created a beam of light between that star and the earth, a beam which contained images of the star. This beam would also contain images of the explosion. God would have to have created the explosion images about 6000 light years away from earth so that they would arrive in 1987. But that means (1) the explosion never actually occurred, and (2) the star never actually existed. The star and its explosion were merely images that God placed in a beam of light.
In fact, virtually all exploding stars witnessed by man have been more distant that 6000 light years. And so, if the way we are able to see the light from these events is because God created the light and images of the events, then we have never actually seen a real supernova. Rather, we are seeing pictures of fictional exploding stars that never actually existed, pictures placed in beams of light by God.
There can be no doubt that God has the power to do such things. He has the power to create light (Genesis 1:3). And He could, if He wanted to, create light beams in such a configuration that when they enter the human eye, they form an image of something that never existed. But has God done this? Would God do this? God created our senses (Proverbs 20:12) to probe a real universe that He also created. So it seems inconsistent for God to create our eyes and then also create fictional “movies” in beams of light to mislead us about the real universe. If God created beams of light containing images of stars (some of which never existed), then we know nothing about the real universe at distances beyond 6000 light years; everything we see beyond that is fiction. And if the entire universe that we see beyond 6000 light years (which is over 99.99999% of the universe) is fictional images that God created, why trust that the remaining less than a fraction of 1% is real?
Did God create our senses to reliably inform us about the external universe, or didn’t He? Granted, we can often draw incorrect conclusions based on what we see. But is what we see also fiction? So, the light created in transit view seems inconsistent with the nature of God as revealed in Scripture. Indeed, if such a position were true, we could not even trust our eyes to reliably inform us about what we read in Scripture, since (in that view) God is not above creating fictional images for our eyes to observe.
Moreover, in Genesis 1:15, we learn that God created the heavenly lights (the sun, moon, and stars) to “give light on the earth.” That is their purpose. The last phrase in Genesis 1:15 (“and it was so”) suggests that the stars did indeed begin to fulfill their God-ordained role to give light upon the earth. That is, the stars actually produced light which actually traveled through space and actually reached earth, perhaps instantly. But this would not be the case if God created beams of light connecting each star to the earth. In the light created in transit view, the light we think we see from any star beyond 6000 light years does not actually come from that star at all, but was supernaturally created in the intervening space. It is hard to reconcile that with the statement in Genesis 1:15 (“and it was so”) which suggests that the stars themselves have produced the light which falls upon earth.
Clarification on the Meaning of Mature Creation
Sometimes people confuse the light created in transit proposal with mature creation. These are two separate issues. Mature creation is the term we use to describe the fact that when God finished creating everything, the universe was fully operational. The universe did not need any further time or development to function in the way God decreed. We see this in the fact that Adam and Eve were both created as adults. They did not need time to develop the abilities to walk and talk. This stands in contrast to the way new people come into the world today; babies are helpless and could not survive on their own. They require time to develop to the point where they can fulfill God’s decree, for example, to care for the earth (Genesis 1:28).
Likewise, the first animals were created as adults and required no time to develop to where they could survive on their own. The first trees were created already bearing fruit, so they too were created as “adults” (Genesis 1:11-12). The idea of a mature creation extends this thinking to all of God’s creation. The earth, the sun, the planets and stars, were all created as “adults” in the sense that they needed no “time of development” to begin doing what God ordained them to do.
Mature creation is a true principle, one that is illustrated in Genesis in that the original organisms were created as adults, and all creation was functional by the end of the creation week. As far as I know, all biblical creationists embrace this principle. But mature creation is not a specific model of how God arranged for light from the stars to reach earth quickly. Rather, it is simply a conviction that He did so. Those who embrace mature creation believe that the universe was made functional at its creation by the end of day 6. So, creationists can all agree that the universe was made mature, while disagreeing on the exact mechanism God used to accomplish this for (as one example) distant starlight.
So, at best, the light created in transit position may be compatible with mature creation (as are many other positions), but they are not the same thing. At worst, the light created in transit position may subtly contradict the principle of mature creation. Recall, mature creation teaches that the universe was doing what God created it to do by the end of day 6. This includes the decree for celestial objects “to give light on the earth.” (Genesis 1:15). But in the “light created in transit” view, the stars beyond 6000 light years are not yet doing that; the light they are emitting has not yet reached earth and we only think we see them because God created beams of light with images of those stars. So, the overwhelming majority of stars in the universe would not yet be doing what God commanded them to do, which seems inconsistent with mature creation.
In the next article, we will continue to discuss some of the proposed solutions to the distant starlight problem along with their strengths and weaknesses.