05 How Old Is The Universe?
Bible and Science – How Old Is The Universe
Of old hast thou laid the foundation of the earth: and the heavens
are the work of thy hands. [Psalm 102:25]
When was the universe created? Did it happen on Sunday, October 23, 4004 BC at 9 a.m. or did it occur 20 billion years ago, plus or minus 10 billion years? To the average person, either of these scenarios might seem pretty far-fetched. I know I certainly have my qualms when I hear proponents on either side proclaim their particular viewpoint with absolute certainty. Let’s take a closer look at both the literal biblical and current scientific opinions on the age of the universe.
The traditional biblical dating, which for a long time appeared in almost every edition of the Authorized Version of the Bible, was worked out by James Ussher (1581-1656), Archbishop of Armagh, Primate of all Ireland and also Vice-Chancellor of Trinity College, Dublin, based on his interpretation of Biblical genealogy.[i] Although the precise 9 a.m. timing is often attributed to him it does not seem to appear explicitly in Bishop Ussher’s writing, but is probably a detail added by a contemporary, John Lightfoot (1602-1675).[ii]
We can make some allowances for the exact dating, since one cannot be entirely certain of the biblical genealogies. In fact in the New Testament, the Apostle Paul argues against endless debating about genealogies; it is clear that he primarily had in mind specific reference to the pride of some in the early church who could trace their heritage back to their supposedly superior ancestry, nevertheless it is probably well to also heed his advice in trying to figure out exact Biblical dating.[iii] Regardless of how you slice it, the Biblical view considers the present creation on earth to be approximately 6,000 years old.
Leeway allowed by scripture
Detailed consideration of Genesis 1:1 leaves considerable leeway in identifying exactly when the universe and planet earth were first formed. The purpose of this essay is to focus on the scientific and biblical arguments for dating the beginning of creation. It should be obvious that none of the religious arguments preclude that the heavens and the earth could be very old and created at some distant time in the past styled as: in the beginning.
That beginning could have been billions of years ago and still easily fit within the realm of what is said in Genesis 1:1 as we have pointed out earlier. Why the earth was without form and void, when the present dispensation was created, we are not told. Some scientists and a lot of Christians seem to object to the concept of a very old earth (and of course its obvious corollary: an even more ancient universe) and opt for a much more recent specific creation that gave us the present order of things. Why these objections?
Religious people seem to think that if the earth were billions of years old then it would be admitting that enough time had passed for the evolutionist’s arguments that gradual change produced life as we know it. Physicists like to trust in what they can measure and it is precisely from observations of the universe they believe that it must be very old indeed. Let us see why physicists have come to this conclusion.
Assumption of unchanging physical laws
The most direct means of measuring the age of the universe is to observe the stars and galaxies in the night sky. The velocity of light is 186,000 miles/second and is entirely independent of the motion of the observer. This is a basic tenet of the theory of relativity and has been tested by many experiments over the past 80 years, all of which have provided the expected verification. Further, it is accepted by scientists that the laws of physics were created with the universe and it is a basic element of faith among physicists that these laws have remained unchanged ever since. That means that by applying the laws of physics to things we can observe today, we can have confidence that the same laws worked in the same way whether it was yesterday or billions of years ago.
Since it takes time for light to travel when we look at something a mile or two down the road, we are not actually seeing it at that exact instant — there is a small fraction of a second delay. The speed of light is so fast that this is not ordinarily a problem. On earth the time difference is minuscule, because even for the longest distances, say for a light beam to travel all around the earth at the equator, it would only take about a little more than a tenth of a second. This is fortunate and it makes all types of electromagnetic communications, from satellite TV to microwave cell phones, virtually instantaneous.
The further we are from the source of light, however, the bigger the delay becomes. It takes about eight minutes for a light beam to travel from the sun to the earth. If the sun were to completely disappear in an instant, we would still have a whole eight minutes to survive before we knew it!
Applying the laws of physics
Since the velocity of light is the same everywhere in the universe and independent of the motion of the observer, we can use it as a measuring reference. It makes as much sense then to say that the sun is eight light minutes away from earth as it does to express that distance in miles or kilometres. In fact, for far distant objects in the universe, the generally accepted standard of measurement is the light-year, i.e. the distance that light travels in one year. For very distant objects this is much more convenient than writing the super-big numbers with scads of zeros that would be required if we used the usual mileage (or kilometre) units to express the distance. Using light-years as a measuring unit we know that the nearest star is about four light-years from earth and the North Star about 50 light-years away. Distant galaxies are even further and have been measured out to units in the billions of light-years away from earth. This means we compute that the light we saw from them last night left those galaxies several billion years ago. Thus when we look out into the night sky we are seeing the ancient history of the universe.
To measure the enormous distances to stars and galaxies requires only a simple application of the laws of physics. Let us see how this works. For star objects relatively nearby one can use simple geometry. All that is necessary is to sight the object with a telescope and note the angle of inclination. If two telescopes situated at different points on earth measure their inclination angles simultaneously, then if the distance between them on earth is known we have the problem reduced to simple geometry. For distances further away it is necessary to measure the inclination angles at different times of the year and use the orbit diameter of the earth around the sun as the geometric base for the measuring triangle. As the distance gets further still the measurement of the differences in the inclination angle will eventually get so small that they are beyond the sensitivity of the telescope we are using. Once this happens one can use the relative luminosity of the galactic object to assess its distance.
We know that similar objects that are close to us will appear brighter than those further away. We also know that this law is very exact and depends on the inverse square of the separation distance. Hence, a star that is twice as far away from us as another will appear four times less bright and one three times as far will be nine times less bright and so on. We can check our brightness scale against our geometric measured values for nearby stars to assure ourselves that our brightness/distance calibration is correct. In order for us to actually see a star, or galaxy,[iv] in our telescope it must have a measurable brightness — otherwise we wouldn’t observe it in the first place. By doing a thorough cataloguing of the brightness of similar objects in the night sky, we can get a reasonable picture of how long it took for the light to reach us from any particular object and hence at least a minimum estimate of the age of that star. Of course, light could have been coming from it long before we observed it, but at least we know where to start.
Even more sophisticated measurements of luminosity have been made in recent years using certain types of variable stars which appear to have very definite fixed brightness values and hence can be used as so-called standard “candles”[v]. It is like observing a calibrated 60 watt light bulb, which always gives out the same exact light output, in the window of a distant house. No matter how far away the house is from us, and in spite of any other lights that may be on, we can still use the standard light bulb to measure the distance. We would never have any trouble using the inverse square law of physics to determine how far away the light was from us. Whenever one of these types of stars appears in a galaxy, one can check its brightness against a calibration scale and know exactly how far the galaxy is away from earth. It saves us from the problem of comparing different galaxies, which may differ markedly from another in shape and total number of stars.
Vast distances observed
Using the measurements described above and with increasing improvement in instrumentation, astronomers have been able to measure galaxies that are many billion light years away from earth. As each new telescopic instrument was put on line, ranging from the original 100-inch Mt. Wilson scope used by Hubble in the 1920’s to the recent Mt. Keck 400-inch telescope on the isle of Hawaii, more and more galaxies have been observed and scientists have been able to see further and further out into the universe in both time and space. The analogous inverse square law applies to the light-gathering power of telescopes; hence the Mt. Keck scope is not four times more powerful than Mt. Wilson, but rather sixteen times better in light-gathering power. Another method of determining the age of the universe has been developed from the Hubble constant[vi]. It will suffice to say that astronomical observations, based on fundamental laws of physics, have determined that there are stars in the night that have been shining for billions of years.
Objections to a very old universe
A very old universe doesn’t sit very well with creationists, though as I have said, there appears to be no fundamental contradiction with the very first words in Genesis, which puts the original creation of heaven and earth outside the realm of the Adamic order. They have used several arguments to deny the evidence of extremely old age gathered from the astronomical observations. There are basically two major objections, and both involve what I will call the “appearance” of age.
The first argument to counter the astronomical observation is the claim that the velocity of light was different in ages past, and, in fact, was at one time very much faster than we would observe today. If that were true then obviously light reaching us from the furthest galaxies would arrive here in incredibly less time and we might indeed only be observing them as six thousand years old. This argument doesn’t hold water either on scientific or Biblical grounds. It explicitly means that the theories of relativity must be wrong and the basic faith that scientists have in the constancy of the laws of physics is not correct.[vii]
The creationist argument of the variability of physical law fails on their own grounds, namely the words of scripture. Consider the following passages from the prophet Jeremiah:
Thus saith the LORD, which giveth the sun for a light by day, and the ordinances of the moon and of the stars for a light by night, which divideth the sea when the waves thereof roar; The LORD of hosts is his name: If those ordinances (laws)depart from before me, saith the LORD, then the seed of Israel also shall cease from being a nation before me forever, Jer. 31:35-36 (KJV).
Thus saith the LORD; If my covenant be not with day and night, and if I have not appointed the ordinances (laws)of heaven and earth; then will I cast away the seed of Jacob, and David my servant, so that I will not take any of his seed to be rulers over the seed of Abraham, Isaac, and Jacob: for I will cause their captivity to return, and have mercy on them, Jer. 33:25-26 (KJV).
Incredibly, the Lord (as quoted by Jeremiah) says that His words, His promises, are guaranteed by the constancy of the physical laws of the universe. He also clearly states that these ordinances are His laws; therefore the idea that the laws of physics were created simultaneously with the universe has a firm scriptural foundation. This concept is thus an element of faith not only held by scientists, but is one any Bible believer should have no trouble also accepting.
I have also heard people who believe in a young universe claim that it only has the appearance of age. They do not in this case specify any mechanism, but rest their case on the analogy that the first man Adam must have been created as an adult as was Eve, hence the universe could have been created in its maturity. Leaving aside whether or not Adam or Eve were initially created as adults, the idea that the universe was created with the appearance of age almost would have us believe that God deliberately deceives us. If God is the author of the physical laws of the universe, as Jeremiah unambiguously states, then why would He lead us to read a false conclusion by applying His very laws to the observation of the stars and galaxies in the night sky? This is especially true since the scriptures actually encourage us to observe the heavens for they testify of God. The heavens declare the glory of God; and the firmament sheweth his handywork, Psalm 19:1 (KJV).
We are led to the inescapable conclusion that the universe is very old indeed, on the order of billions of years. This should not distress us in the least; obviously the LORD God has been busy with His creation for a long time. The very presence of angelic creatures in the Bible is reasonable evidence that God has been working in the universe in ages past even before the creation of Adam and Eve.
By John C. Bilello, Ann Arbor, Michigan
God willing, next we will look at “Will the Universe last forever?”
[i] James Ussher, The Annals of the World, vol. iv, (1658).
[ii] John Lightfoot was Vice-Chancellor of University of Cambridge and mentions the 9 a.m. timing in his own reckoning of the date of creation. See: Andrew D. White, History of Warfare of Science with Theology in Christendom, pub. D. Appleton and Co., (1897), pg. 9.
[iii] But avoid foolish questions, and genealogies… [Titus 3:9]
[iv] Recall that galaxies are large star clusters that form islands in space. Galaxies have millions of stars and are separated from other galaxies by vast distances. Millions of galaxies have been observed. Our own sun and planet are in the Milky Way cluster of stars and we apparently are near the outer edge of of our own [Milky Way] galaxy.
[v] Such variable stars are called Cepheid variables. They were discovered by Henrietta Leavitt at Harvard Observatory in the early 20th century.
[vi] Hubble discovered that all galaxies are moving away from an observer on earth and the further away a particular galaxy is from us the faster it is moving. In the Theory of Relativity the speed of light is the upper bound of possible velocity of motion in the Universe. Thus the speed of light must be the upper limit of how fast a galaxy can be moving away from us. This in turn puts a limit on the age of the known Universe and that limit appears to be 20 billion years (within a factor of 2).
[vii] There has been some recent scientific discussion about whether or not the speed of light was always exactly the constant 186,000 miles/sec that we observe today, but scientists have not reached any conclusions on the matter.