Star wars: Attempts to explain distant starlight are a shot in the dark

An ultra-deep space image taken by the Hubble Space Telescope, in which we can see billions of years into a past young-earthers claim never happened. An ultra-deep space image taken by the Hubble Space Telescope, in which we can see billions of years into a past young-earthers claim never happened.

One of my favorite arguments to present in opposition to the young-earth view is the issue of distant starlight, often called the “starlight problem.” I like it because it is so simple, and yet, so utterly devastating to the unbiblical idea that the universe is just a few thousand years old.

Young-earth proponents have come up with all sorts of desperate pseudoscientific and quasi-biblical ways of trying to explaining this gaping hole in their understanding of the cosmos. This week, I have been engaging with a young-earther who used several in his own attempt to pretend this problem does not exist.

I’d like to share part of our discussion with you, because I think it demonstrates quite clearly how many trillions of light-years young-earthers still are from any kind of meaningful, real answer to this enormous problem.

In simple terms, the starlight problem refers to the fact that, from earth, we can see light from galaxies that are billions of light-years away. A light-year is a unit of length defined by the distance light travels in a vacuum in one year, so from an object that is billions of light-years away, it would take billions of years for that light to reach us.

If the universe were only a few thousand years old, that light would not have reached earth, and we would not be able to see those objects. But we can. Hence, the problem.

Here are my friend’s attempted explanations.

‘Appearance of age’

The “appearance of age” is a favorite, hand-wavy explanation of young-earthers (sort of like “begin to die”), which they use to try and tape up the many cracks in their worldview, not just this one.

My friend used the example of Adam, whom — if we interpret Genesis 2 literally and make an extrabiblical assumption or two — was created in adult form within a short period of time, which would cause him to appear to our naked eye as much older than he really was.

They grow up so fast, don't they?

They grow up so fast, don’t they?

However, there is no logical or theological reason to believe this would hold up under close scrutiny.

Adam would not, for example, have acne scars, as a souvenir from a puberty he did not experience, or scars of any other kind, which normal people pick up through the course of life.

His hands would not be bruised and calloused from work he had never performed. His face would not be creased with laugh lines from laughs he had never actually enjoyed, or stress lines from stress he had never really felt.

His cells and internal organs, his eyes and ears, would not show the expected decay and breakdown that are common to a fully grown adult male. For all intents and purposes, they would appear brand-new. Which, in fact, they were.

His mind would also be brand-new; it would not be full of memories of a past that never existed. His teeth would be perfectly formed, not showing any of the tiny cracks and dimples any other man his “age” would have. His bones would not display any tell-tale growth lines or marks from growth that he had never undergone.

His blood would carry no immunities to childhood diseases he had never contracted. His DNA would carry no genetic record of ancestors he never had.

In short, he would be a startling anomaly, and it would be rather obvious to any scientist that he was a new creation.

Unless, of course, God sought to deliberately hide and obfuscate that fact. But why would he?

One (tree) ring to confuse them all…

Continuing this same line of thought, my friend tried an interesting thought experiment, in which he asked me if God can make a mature tree instantly, and when I responded in the affirmative, he asked how many tree rings it would have.

I said zero, because tree rings are a mark of age and a past history, and for God to give a tree marks of age and a past history when it — in fact — has no age or past history, would be a lie, and God does not lie. He did not like this answer, of course, arguing that a mature tree without rings would be an imperfect tree, and that instantly creating a new tree with growth rings is no different than instantly creating a new tree with bark and leaves and fruit.

But this breaks down the same way as the earlier “appearance of age” argument, and for similar reasons. It’s one thing to suggest God would make a tree instantly with bark and leaves and fruit — all of these things serve a purpose. Growth rings do not. They are simply an inherent consequence of a tree getting older and enduring the regular cycles of the seasons — and in our hypothetical, this tree has endured no years, no cycles, no seasons.

It breaks down further when you consider there is an entire field of science devoted to tree rings. Not every tree ring is created equal. They vary in color, shade and thickness, based on climate changes in those years and seasons.

If a summer is hotter than usual, or a winter colder, or if there is a drought, or excessive flooding, a dendrochronologist can tell from looking at the tree rings. And if a tree endures some trauma, like a forest fire, or a disease or lightning strike, a scientist can tell that as well.

So you see that instantly creating a tree with tree rings is a bit more complicated that magicking some circles to appear inside the trunk. It really requires nothing less than deliberate, willful deception: the meticulous, careful creation of a fictional record of a past that never really happened.

OK, either this tree is really old, or that's just what God wants me to think.

OK, either this tree was super old, or that’s just what God wants me to think.

A bit of a stretch

My friend’s argument eventually led him to and concluded with another old YEC saw, that God “stretched out” the heavens as he was making them, essentially that the light we see from these distant galaxies was created in transit.

Unfortunately for him, the flaw in this claim is really no different than the previous two.

Because, it is not generic “light” that we are talking about. These are images, and they carry information. Light does not reach our eyes instantly — it takes time. So when we do view an object in space, we are not seeing the object as it is presently, but as it was in the moment that particular light left its source.

Light from the sun, for example, close as it is, does not reach us instantly. It takes about 8.3 minutes. So when we look at the sun (which I do not recommend), you are not seeing the sun as it is, but rather as it was 8.3 minutes ago. In other words, if the sun spontaneously cease to exist, we would still have light for 8.3 minutes.

This effect is exaggerated the farther away an object is. When astronomers look at the closest star to Earth (Alpha Centauri), which is about four light-years away, they are seeing the star as it looked roughly four years ago. If it suddenly disappeared, we wouldn’t know about it until almost 2020.

You get the point. Now, we run into problems when we consider that we can see galaxies that are billions of light-years away, sometimes well over 10 billion. When astronomers look at these objects, they are quite literally looking billions of years into the past. And, if the young-earth view is correct, it is a past that never existed.

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There may possibly be a way to explain that without God being a deceptive charlatan, but I certainly can’t conceive of one.

Of course, the interpretation of the spreading out the heavens verses is a bit of a stretch (I’m sorry — I can’t help myself) to begin with. Let’s look at the two competing views of how these Bible passages should be understood.

The young-earth interpretation is that it vaguely refers to a time in history in which God completely disregarded the fundamental laws of nature (which he kinda set up in the first place) in order to literally move photons of light across billions of light-years of space, knowing that it would deceive and confuse millions of people.

Mine is that it’s a beautiful poetic expression of God’s omnipotence and sovereignty over his creation, such that he can unfurl the heavens in its vast array as easily as a man unrolls a tent (the Hebrew natah is often used in the OT to refer to tents being pitched).

Each person must decide for themselves which interpretation makes more sense, but when seen in a vacuum (I know, I know, I need help), I do believe most theologians would side with mine.

So it is with all of the young-earth proponents’ attempts to evade this problem. They all fail, not only and not even primarily on scientific grounds, but on theological ones. There is simply no way to wave the issue aside without making God a liar, and placing a massive act of deception at the very heart of his initial creative act.

And, for anyone who claims to truly care about God and what the Bible says about him, that has got to be a nonstarter. (OK, I have a serious problem — help me.)

Tyler Francke is founder of God of Evolution and author of Reoriented. He can be reached at tyler@godofevolution.com.

  • I’ve noticed I’m not as famous as I might like, so I’m going to put a new entry into the Creationism debate: Youngest Earth Creationism.

    The idea here is that God created the universe one second ago with the appearance of age, including everyone’s memories. Sure, you could argue that means nothing in the Bible ever happened, but sure it did. *waves hands around* Appearance of age! *drops smoke bomb and escapes*

    • Like Last Thursdayism, except you have even more faith than that! You’ve got to be, like, the most Bible-believingest creationist ever!

      • I’m working on a philosophical treatise that God can only create the youngest of all possible Earths, no matter how it might appear in our estimation.

        • You should send it to AiG. They’ll publish it for you, and probably pay you an exorbitant amount of money they’ve conned out of their followers.

  • Greg Carlet

    Good stuff! I found your site and Twitter a few months ago, and have continually enjoyed your content, which goes along with my thinking on the subject, just articulated better than I can, so thank you!

    • Hey, thanks, Greg! Glad to hear it. And I appreciate the comment! Don’t be shy about chiming in 🙂

      • Greg Carlet

        Will do. Don’t know how much I have to add. I am more a cheerleader on the sidelines cheering on the team. 😉

    • I, too, found this site on Twitter, only a few hours ago. Glad I did.

  • “Appearance of age” isn’t even a new article. It is a rehash (most creocrap is rehash) of Gosse’s sad Omphalos argument of 1857 (Note the date: an ancient earth was already generally accepted, even or perhaps especially by clergy, before Darwin and Wallace published on evolution)

    • You’re right, of course. I just didn’t want to get into all that. Figured this one was long enough as it was.

      • Seth

        I was going to bring up Omphalos also, was beaten to it.
        I always heard that it is considered theologically suspect and am surprised to see it still getting traction.

        https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Omphalos_hypothesis#Criticisms

        • It’s theological nonsense. The fact that it is still being used only goes to show how desperate the young-earth proponents are to come up with some sort of explanation for this problem (which makes sense, since it completely demolishes the basis for their entire worldview). More troubling, though, it also demonstrates what little regard these chuckleheads really have for scripture and its teachings of God.

          • avirod2012

            The bible does not speak politely about name calling. And when I see it happen, it reminds that someone is not being led by the Spirit. Maybe you feel people are calling you names and feel justified, but name calling is usually more of a reflection on the character of the name caller.

        • Headless Unicorn Guy

          According to Gould, Gosse proposed Omphalos (also the title of his tome) in an honest attempt to reconcile Genesis 1 with the appearance of an Old Earth — and got piled on from both sides. HARD.
          After this reception, he ended up writing Tabloid True Crime instead. Less hassle.

          • Probably a better use of his obviously ample imagination. Not as much money there though.

  • Warren Collier

    Tyler. There was an excellent and article the other week about the famous Pillars of Creation (in the Crab Nebula) and how it likely doesn’t exist anymore because a supernova wiped out it out 6,000 years ago (coincidentally!) but we haven’t seen it yet because the Pillars are 7,000 light-years away. I just love the irony that a stellar formation called the PILLARS OF CREATION were destroyed SIX THOUSAND YEARS AGO. I will tag you in it in CvE. You should totally add it to this blog post. lol.

    • I just read it, Warren, and don’t know if I can re-post it. It has made me almost inconsolably depressed. I love those pillars…

      Thanks a ton for ruining my day! 😉

      • Warren Collier

        Oops sorry. At least you can still see them for now! Unless you somehow live for another thousand years?

  • You have no problem.

    Continue your raving.

    It pleases me to see the YECs float and sputter. (Props to those who get the reference)

    • I think I’m going to go out on a limb and guess video game?

      • Chris Mason

        Yep. Halo.

        • Figured. Christopher’s a gamer. 😉 Can you share what the original quote or context was? Just curious.

          • Chris Mason

            The game’s story involves humanity in the year 2552 A.D. and we are at war with the Covenant, a collective of several alien races that fanatically adhere to a religion that’s centered around the technology of an ancient alien race that disappeared a long time ago, known as “the Forerunners.” The first game involves a human vessel discovering some of the Forerunner’s technology, an artificial planet in the shape of a ring, known as “Halo.” The humans discover that the “ringworld” (the game’s concept was inspired by a 1970 novel by that name written sci-fi author Larry Niven) is actually a weapon and, at first, they try to find a way to use it against the Covenant so that they can win the war. They discover the control center for Halo but are interrupted by an outbreak of a parasitic life form known as “The Flood.” The player is in the shoes of Spartan-117, Master Chief Petty Officer John (last name unknown, he’s the guy in the green armor) usually referred to as simply “Master Chief,” and he is accompanied by an AI named “Cortana.” He goes on a brief journey with a different AI (this AI was created by the Forerunners and his job is to monitor Halo) to find the activation Index so that they can fire Halo’s main weapon, but when they try to do so after they return to the control room, Cortana stops it and informs the Master Chief of what was going to happen if he did so. The main weapon wouldn’t actually kill the Flood, but kill all other life that would act as a potential host (including humans). Because of this, Cortana and the other AI get into an argument and she tells him to “float and sputter.” You can see their conversation in this video.

            In case it wasn’t obvious, Halo has a lot of biblical references (the Covenant, the Flood, and several others that weren’t covered here).

    • Seems like there’s a Flood joke in there, somewhere.

    • Chris Mason

      Halo reference.

  • SpyPlus

    The argument that has been going around my circles is that the speed of light is decaying. So 6k years ago it was much faster. There are also a few books written awhile back that attempt to take measurements of the speed of light historically and plot them over time to demonstrate this.

    • Well, it’s getting old, so it can’t move around as well as it used to. You’ll slow down when you’re 6000 years old, too.

      • summers-lad

        When I studied first year geology at university, my lecturer, Dr Fraser, said “The earth is 4500 million years old. Now when I sat in these benches, I was told it was 400 million years old, from which you can deduce one of two things. Either we’ve changed our ideas about the age of the earth, or I’m even older than you thought I was.”

    • Headless Unicorn Guy

      Problem is, lightspeed is a fundamental constant of the physical universe; if it changes, it affects most everything else in physics (including whether the Cosmos can even exist) down to the subatomic level and things get very hairy very fast.

  • Fundamentalist Pickup Line #14: I’m actually 23. I was just created with an appearance of age.

    • Wonderful, and I’m only a day old, with only the illusion of 65 years’ experience.

      Despite the humor, I grieve at their arrogance (hardened hearts) and laziness (need for easy-reading scripture). Jesus said there would be wolves in sheep’s clothing, leading people astray. I suppose this is one sort. But we have to give them our love and compassion. They are taking the broad path that leads to destruction.

      I discuss some of the ways they go astray in my book, “Watered Down Christianity.”

  • archaeologist

    there is no starlight problem. evolutionists, any variety, do not understand what went on at creation.

    “There is simply no way to wave the issue aside without making God a liar, and placing a massive act of deception at the very heart of his initial creative act.”

    what deception? God did not say to use starlight as evidence for anything.it is the evolutionist who is making all the deceptive remarks concerning starlight.

  • Headless Unicorn Guy

    My fave is a comment JMJ over at Christian Monist made some years ago.
    About “Where did God put the projector that’s projecting all these stars & galaxies on the screen 6000 light-years away?”

  • D. Humeston

    While I too am amused by the young earth group, I also feel compassion for them. Their faith is built out of a deck of cards, and something as clear as the age of the earth can implode their entire faith. It is thus fear that propels them forward with their silly theories I believe. Fear that if they toss out a young earth they might be tossing out God too. Fear that if they toss out their crazy interpretation of Genesis they are tossing the entire bible out. Fear of facing this world without any faith at all.

    As more and more Christians acknowledge reality and still manage to hold tight to their faith in God and Jesus Christ, hopefully others will see that yes, you can have a powerful faith while accepting basic science.

  • Beautiful article. I wrote one of my own using not light speed, but the speed of galaxies in collision. The effects we see could only have happened over millions of years, unless God created the aftermaths of collisions which had never occurred.

    http://the-love-of-god.com/galaxies.php

    The problem with the YEC crowd and their “ownership” of “creation,” is that they read the Bible literally — the lazy, arrogant way. It takes work and humility to read the Bible with a spiritual eye.

    Another analogy I like to use is that of a log burning on a fire. A log will not burn out in a tenth of a second, but that is what YEC’ers are demanding of stars, using up their fuel in only 6,000 years.. Yikes! If they used up their fuel that fast, they’d explode bright enough to be seen several hundred galaxies away.

    The Bible was meant to be difficult, like the parables of Jesus — causing the listener or reader to think deeply. Only by thinking deeply and working for the meaning can anyone understand the spiritual Truth behind the literal words.

    In my book, “The Bible’s Hidden Wisdom: God’s Reason for Noah’s Flood,” I offer several new viewpoints on scripture that cause the reader to think. Are they Truth? Absolutely not. Literal words can never be Truth. But hopefully my book can help others find the proper humility to approach Truth.

    There are clues in Genesis that lead to a biblical timeline compatible with those of science. Amazing? It shouldn’t be. God created physical reality; scientists do a great job of studying this reality; and biblical literalists reject that reality, risking delusion.

    • Great write-up on galaxy collisions, Rod. Thanks so much for sharing! And thanks for the comment as well.

  • Reuben H

    Splendid, you showed that straw man of scientific creation who’s boss. Now move on to rebutting modern arguments like in the book “starlight, time, and the new physics”.

    • Being easy to mock does not mean it’s a strawman. To be a strawman, it has to present an inaccurate picture of the views discussed, and this does not. The view presented here is that the universe appears billions of years old, but is in fact only thousands of years old. Which is pretty much a textbook, John Hartnett-approved definition of young-earth creationism.

      It’s hardly my fault that that view carries with it a number of absurd and ridiculous logical and theological consequences. Did you ever consider that maybe young-earth creationism is easy to mock because … it’s just really easy to mock?

      Finally, I don’t have to critique a scientific argument if it’s DOA by virtue of being based on a view of God that is theologically incompatible with the one the Bible presents.

      • Reuben H

        It’s inaccurate to present it as something that might be construed by creationists in general as rational or scientific. Chances are I can find an individual who believes a crazy unscientific view of evolution, but stomping his argument would hardly be more satisfying than stomping a straw man of my own creation.

        Whether you want to call it a straw man or not, it’s not an accurate representation of scientific creation, and isn’t representative of how “easy to mock” creationism is.

        As for the suggestion the universe “appears old”, I don’t recall that part of Hartnetts book. Mostly he does away with the problem of dark matter being something that, appears, to not be part of the universe at all.

        There are plenty of examples of things that “appear” to be young enough to contradict an old earth view. The question is which interpretation you use to dismiss or dub ” in actuality contrary to appearances” things that appear to contradict what you believe, or better yet – which interpretation has fewer such problems.

        • Whether you want to call it a straw man or not, it’s not an accurate representation of [young-earth creationism]*, and isn’t representative of how “easy to mock” creationism is.

          Again, here is the view of young-earth creationism that is presented in this article, and to which it responds: “The view presented here is that the universe appears billions of years old, but is in fact only thousands of years old.”

          Are you really saying that is not an accurate description of young-earth creationism? Because that is a core tenet of every iteration of young-earth creationism I’ve ever encountered, and if you remove that tenet, I’m really not sure what you would have left that would be recognizable as young-earth creationism in any sense of the term.

          * [“Scientific creation” is a hilarious oxymoron, so I altered your quote to make it appear that you were talking about something that actually exists.]

          • Reuben H

            If anything could be considered a tenet, it would be “the earth is only thousands of years old”. If you want to add something about billions of years, it would be “contrary to the current mainstream acceptance of billions of years” which says nothing of appearances, and rightly so. I could easily say evolution is similar to “The belief the earth is billions of years old, contrary to the appearance of only thousands of years”, which you would presumably dispute as absurd and false.

            Your saying scientific creation does not exist is telling as to why you believe creationism is easy to mock in general. If you are convinced such a thing is fictitious, then by all means don’t let any arguments to the contrary get in your way – mock, mock like the wind.

          • If you want to add something about billions of years, it would be “contrary to the current mainstream acceptance of billions of years” which says nothing of appearances, and rightly so.

            “The current mainstream acceptance of billions of years” … which is based on the universe appearing to be billions of years old. Where else would the consensus have come from? Oh, right — it’s a vast Satanic conspiracy to disprove God … with a precept that, if true, does absolutely nothing to disprove God.

            Dude, you can believe whatever you like, but there is literally no way a sane person can describe the fact that we can see light from objects billions of light years away other than “The universe appears to be billions of years old.”

            I could easily say evolution is similar to “The belief the earth is billions of years old, contrary to the appearance of only thousands of years”, which you would presumably dispute as absurd and false.

            Yeah, I’d dispute that because it’s a completely inaccurate and, frankly, really stupid way to define evolution.

            Here’s a tip: When attempting to describe a biological theory, it’s probably a good idea to refer to something that is even tangentially related to the study of biology. If your definition revolves entirely around a question of geology, then you’re probably not on the right track.

            Your saying scientific creation does not exist is telling as to why you believe creationism is easy to mock in general.

            That is correct: My clear view of what young-earth creation is and is not does make it a lot easier for me to mock it with all the mockery that it so richly and rightfully deserves.

            If you are convinced such a thing is fictitious, then by all means don’t let any arguments to the contrary get in your way – mock, mock like the wind.

            It’s not just fictitious, it’s an actual oxymoron: two diametrically opposed things being paraded together as though they are or even could be a single harmonious concept. The term’s reason for existing is entirely rhetorical: to lend perceived legitimacy to an idea that does not deserve it, among those who do not understand the subject well enough to know otherwise.

          • Reuben H

            So, for example, the mainstream acceptance of dark matter and dark energy is based on… The universe appearing to have it? The mainstream belief that the big bang occurred is because people have seen macroscopic objects appear from empty space, the mainstream belief in abiogenesis is because molecules appear to have the innate ability to spontaneously organise themselves into life, and the mainstream belief that fish turn into philosophers is because of appearances? No. Those things are a necessary result of a belief in a universe without a Creator, or at least one who is inactive in creation. They are not due to how things appear. I’m surprised I had to specify this, I thought it was implied.

            Like I said before, if we are talking about appearances, there are more things with appear to support a young earth rather than an old one. You can take one morsel of information and say: “Look! In this particular case, barring any creationist theory which may dispute it, the universe appears to be old!” Which is fine, if you are the type who holds onto morsels and calls them meals. But don’t criticize people who hold onto specific things and tell you the universe looks like it’s young in spite of your proselytizing.

            Disproving God is impossible, as any atheist with shame will tell you. All Darwinian evolution does is make God irrelevant, and using Occams razor should be eliminated, as God is unnecessarily complicated with no explanatory or predictive power contained therein. Or perhaps you reject Darwinism in spite of mainstream science?

            If you describe creation in terms of time, I can describe evolutionism in terms of time, which is what I did, so you’re really criticizing yourself. When you assume I really don’t know what evolution means you make yourself look foolish, which is why I didn’t assume you don’t know what creation means in spite of your false definition. Tasty morsel though I admit.

            I should try to avoid repeating myself here, but it’s inspiring that you are not letting any arguments stop you on the path to glorious mockery of things your philosophy disagrees with. Blast through scientific arguments with dogma like any brave troglodyte creationist would do!

          • Hey Reuben. This article itself, and all of my responses to you, have made it pretty clear the subject I am discussing, and the basis for my saying the universe appears old: distant starlight. You ignoring that point and trying to bring up other disconnected and/or irrelevant matters (now I understand why you’re so familiar with the concept of strawmen) just demonstrates that your reading comprehension is as poor as your grasp of science.

            And no, Reuben, there is absolutely no way to justify defining the theory of evolution as the age of the earth. If you really think it does, then yeah, you don’t understand science or evolution at all. But you already demonstrated that by believing the universe was created more recently than the invention of beer by the Mesopotamians.

            You’re also very confused about what an “argument” is. Claiming the earth appears to be young is not an argument. It’s a claim. The claim of someone who either doesn’t know what they’re talking about or thinks lying is a great way to serve Jesus. Which, if you think about it, is actually a pretty good definition for “young-earth creationist.”