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’
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.
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.
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.
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.)