I recently heard some comments by a highly respected Christian philosopher-theologian to the effect that young-earth/universe creationism is “embarrassing.” The claim is rooted in the idea that modern science has drawn conclusions from its observations of the universe to the effect that it could not possibly be less than billions of years old. These conclusions are supposedly so sound and so far beyond any reasonable scientific doubt that even the suggestion of a young universe must be rejected as unmitigated nonsense—hence the description “embarrassing.”
I remain unconvinced. I suppose that makes me as much a neanderthal as the members of team young universe are. Maybe. But there are a number of subtle problems associated with the charge of “embarrassing” hurled toward the young universe view. Not only do subtle problems exist, but they are moreover the product of some covert unsupported philosophical assumptions. These assumptions have a lot to do with the nature of science, the nature of matter, the nature of nature, and the nature of God. I can already sense your heartfelt appreciation for how thoroughly I have narrowed down the categories. You’re welcome.
It isn’t my intention to defend the young universe or young earth view. My interest is confined to whether the charge of “embarrassing” against this view can be justified. I am concerned not with which view is correct, but whether any one of the competing theories are simply impossible and not worthy of consideration. If a view is “embarrassing” then it certainly falls into this category. My contention is that excoriating a scientific view you consider nonsense is a tenuous agenda. It implies you know a whole lot more about the nature of science than you really do.
One of the most common and widely accepted considerations we can find against the young universe view is that of light and distance. We can calculate the distance of various stars or other celestial objects from our home planet. Once the distance of a given celestial object, such as a star, is known, it is a simple matter of calculating the time required for the light it generates to arrive. If a star is 10 million light years away, for example, it takes 10 million years for its light to reach us. It follows from this that when we observe that star through a telescope we are seeing what that star looked like 10 million years ago, not as it appears in the present moment. We won’t know what it looks like now for another 10 million years. In fact, the star we are “seeing” may not even exist anymore. If we can see the light from that star now, we are forced to conclude on the basis of common sense that the star, if it still exists, has been around for at least 10 million years. If the universe is younger than that, we have a problem, for how could the light from a star that far away ever reach us if it took longer for that to happen than the amount of time the universe has even existed in the first place? Therefore it seems the only conclusion we can reasonably accept is that the universe has been around longer than those time measurements indicate. That’s the only way to allow for enough time for the light of that distant star to reach us, because, after all, it has reached us.
At this point, most of us would say “amen” and go home. The matter is settled, right?
Not so fast. Enter the young universe creationists. They shatter our complacency by proposing that the light was created “on the way” from those stars and therefore the age of the universe is only apparent and not real. So the light from all the stars in all the universe was created along with those stars, batteries included. That means the light striking our lowly planet didn’t really come from those stars. Instead, the light that would have reached us had it originated with those stars is created exactly as it would be if it had really come from them. So the light only “looks like” it came from those stars, but in fact it popped into existence like that from the activity of a clever creator of the universe at the same time he created them. For all intents and purposes, that would be God. This idea is usually referred to as “apparent age.” It can be applied to anything you can think of, not just stars. Suppose this clever creator decided to create “fully grown” human beings. They were created five minutes ago, but they look like adults who have grown to that age naturally the way all other adult human beings do. But these “created” adults only appear to be “grown up.”
Not all young universe subscribers explain things this way. There are some fascinating suggestions from theoretical physicists having to do with the bending of time and space, along with several other concepts dealing with a host of constructions and possibilities that don’t necessarily push the limits of conventional scientific thinking. They are certainly worth the read.
But apparent age is still alive and kicking, and believe me, it receives a whipping from the scientific community. Fifty-five gallon drums of vitriol, contempt, and ridicule have been opened and poured all over this idea repeatedly ever since its first redneck fool defender ever tried to defend it. I’m sure glad I don’t subscribe to it. I don’t want a whipping. I bet you don’t either.
But there’s a catch. Some of the scientists who have this unrelenting contempt for the apparent age concept do nevertheless believe in God. They believe in an old universe, but they still believe that God was its ultimate creator. What’s worse is that they often believe in the Bible as God’s Word, and somehow accept that there was a point where God did create some form of matter out of nothing. For you see, the biblical world view does not see the universe as eternal. Only God can wear that label. In light of this, it’s impossible to escape the idea of an ex nihilo creation of matter which happened somewhere in the neighborhood of “in the beginning.”
I would stand with those who accept that the universe is not eternal. An everlasting universe with time stretching out to an infinite past is incoherent. It’s not worthy of credence by a scientist with any self respect. You might even say it’s “embarrassing.”
So in the beginning, what did God create out of nothing? He reportedly thundered the words “let there be light” and poof—no more darkness. At this moment, I want to invite you to think about what light is. But only for a moment. We’ll come back to it later. What is light? I heard a rumor that there are two theories about the nature of light. It is made up of particles (photons) but it also exists as waves. There was a time when those two concepts were in fierce competition with each other, but it seems as though the scientific community called a truce and declared that it’s somehow both matter and energy at the same time. So particles and waves are together living the good life now, free from domestic conflict. It’s always nice to see two warring tribes make peace through intermarriage. So the moment in which we are pondering the nature of light is over. Just remember the word “particle” and stick it in your back pocket for now.
Besides light, there are other objects made of matter God seems to have created, according to some obscure reports. Did he create planets out of nothing? Asteroids? Gases? How about just rocks in space? At the risk of the sin of oversimplification, that’s essentially what an asteroid is. According to the same legends, he also created water in some form. Water is matter too, if I’m not mistaken. It’s not solid, but it’s still matter.
So given the fact that anti-young-universe thinkers refuse to give God permission to create anything that has the slightest hint of apparent age, none of the stuff he created in the beginning can possibly possess that property. I guess God saw a sign floating in space that said, “NO APPARENT AGE” or “APPARENT AGE IS NOT ALLOWED.” The anti-apparent-age team is going to hold God to that standard without compromise, and he had better obey—their very authority and credibility depend on it. Otherwise, they would suffer the dismal consequence of being “embarrassed.” I admire their integrity, don’t you? Just think of how much God could learn from this. It will most certainly teach him the lesson that if he so much as tries to create anything with apparent age, the anti-young-universe posse will consider him a cosmic outlaw.
Here’s the problem: is it even possible for God to create anything at all ex nihilo that doesn’t have the characteristic of apparent age? If God created a rock in space out of nothing, that rock would have a set of physical properties, wouldn’t it? It would have dimensions, size, width, height, mass, density, volume, gravity, color, and so on. It might be radioactive. It might not. It’s going to have a shape, right? Stop me if I’m wrong, but it has to possess those properties to be real. But all those properties imply a process and are not static. If a scientist observes a rock today, he will assume it came from somewhere, that its shape was caused by various processes such as erosion or pressure, that its composition is a result of elements coming together in a certain way to give it its size, its mass, its density, its color. All those characteristics are non-static. They all imply antecedent processes which never in fact took place if it was created in its nascent form out of nothing.
Even if he created single particles which eventually joined together to form more complex objects, those particles still have physical properties, and those physical properties still imply process. We know physical properties imply process because that’s what our empirical observations of them tell us now. There is a history behind all physical objects we observe in our world today, and we never assume when we see a rock on the beach that it popped into existence out of nothing a short time before we got there. Remember what we observed about light? You can take that out of your back pocket now. If light is made partly of particles, and God reportedly said “let there be light” and it rather instantaneously appeared, it was presumably made up of particles (photons) which have physical properties which imply an antecedent process for their formation. But if they are created ex nihilo, there is no such process. They have no history of formation. They just suddenly existed. And if all this is true, they all had apparent age. The only way we can escape this is to deny the idea that God created anything instantly out of nothing. The only alternative to the concept of ex nihilo is an eternal universe, which is embarrassing.
We could postulate that God did not create the light itself out of nothing, but rather that he created a source of light out of nothing. But what would that source of light be? Would it not be a physical object of some kind which had physical properties of some kind which involve no formation for its existence, being created out of nothing? No matter how far back we go, we find the irritating characteristic of apparent age waiting for us. No matter what physical object God might create out of nothing, it must have physical properties in order to be real. If it has physical properties, that implies a formative process which we already know did not really take place and therefore we stand face-to-face with apparent age. If we deny this, then it proves we don’t really believe in fiat creation out of nothing.
It seems we cannot weasel out of the idea of apparent age no matter what we do, no matter what we think, no matter what theories we endorse and what theories we scorn. After considering this, we now return to the Christian philosopher-theologians telling us that young universe ideas are “embarrassing.” All theistic theories of origins have the concept of the supernatural baked into them whether their proponents realize it or not. Those who call young universe teams an embarrassment to reason obviously believe in the supernatural nevertheless. Even worse, those Christian philosopher-theologians who ridicule young universe teams supposedly believe in the resurrection of Christ—an undeniably supernatural event. Why is the clearly supernatural event of the resurrection allowed but a supernatural creation isn’t? I would say that believing God is the creator and that he created something out of nothing is going to involve supernatural events, whether we puny humans give him permission for it or not. And if your theory of origins involves the supernatural, apparent age will be right there beside it, one way or another. Why then does young-ism deserve to be mocked but the old universe theories don’t? At the end of the day, proponents of old universe theories are destined to embrace apparent age on some level if they are going to endorse the concept of fiat creation out of nothing, even if they push the timeframe back billions of years. They are not avoiding the problem, they are simply relocating it. They haven’t canceled their appointment with apparent age, they have only rescheduled it. Shouldn’t the old universe team of Christian philosopher-theologians be just as embarrassed as the young universe proponents they ridicule? You tell me.