The Age of the Stars
This is the second of a series of posts I’m writing about science and Christianity. The first was “How Can A Christian Write Science Fiction?”
The chief source of conflict between Christianity and science in our century is, of course, the Creation vs. Evolution debate. A simple search on the Internet unleashes an avalanche of dialog on the subject. As I wrote in my last post, I think this is simply the latest in a series of conflicts between science and the church that have raged over centuries.
But let’s forget about the theory of evolution for a moment. We have a problem before we ever get there. The problem is that our planet and the universe it’s spinning through appear to be very, very old. Before we dive into the details of biology, we have to address this issue.
How old is the universe? The simplest place to look is the stars. Forget about fossils and radiometric dating techniques. Our own galaxy, the Milky Way, is over 100,000 light years across. That means that the light from the farthest stars in our own galaxy traveled for 100,000 years before it reached Earth. There are, however, billions of other galaxies, some more than 13 billion light-years away. The light we see from those stars left home 13 billion years ago.
This light is not just light: it tells a story. We are witnesses to a dramatic history in which stars are born, age, and then die in spectacular explosions, in which galaxies collide with each other and merge into one, their hundreds of billions of stars flowing through each other, then falling back again, oscillating toward equilibrium. Most of these stars are streaking away from us, their light shifting red as the universe expands.
Of course, there is a classic Christian response to this: the appearance of age. God created the universe less than 10,000 years ago, but he created it as an adult universe with the parts already moving. Just as he made Adam as an adult, with fused skull bones and a belly-button, so he made the universe to look like it had experienced an infancy which, in fact, never happened. God created the stars complete with light already streaming to Earth, ready to strike the retinas of Adam and Eve the first moment they looked up. It answers everything, right? Perhaps. But let’s think about what it means.
It means, for one thing, that many of the stars we see in the sky never existed. Certainly, they were never in the form and appearance and location in which we see them. When we observe a supernova more than 10,000 light-years away, then that star never actually existed at all except as beams of light en route to Earth. In fact, given the mean lifetime of a star, most of the stars in other galaxies whose light we can see through telescopes will have died before the light ever strikes Earth. If God created the universe 10,000 years ago with the appearance of age, that means he never created those stars. Instead of a real universe, we are watching a film reel of distant events that never happened, encoded in beams of light. The complex and consistent story told in that film reel never actually existed.
Could God have done this? Could he make a creation that is much smaller and younger than it looks, just giving the appearance of vast size and age? Could he write a fictional thirteen billion year history and encode it in the light for us to find and watch? Of course he could. Perhaps he even did. What I would argue, however, is that from the perspective of considering science as a valuable and reliable source of knowledge, it doesn’t matter.
If God wrote the story, then it’s a true story. The story is consistent and vast and marvelous. It tells us real things about the world we live in. We can argue about whether it “really” existed or not, but practically, it makes no difference. The history is there. When it comes down to it, God could have created the world ten minutes ago, placing in our minds the memories of everything we had experienced before that time and all the history that came before. If he did, would it matter? Would it make any practical change in your life? The whole meaning of the word “real” starts to lose its meaning.
Some Christians argue that the speed of light has slowed over time, and the light really traveled much faster just after creation. But again, does it matter? If God pulled some tricks and sleight of hand to present to us a ancient universe without actually having that span of time pass by, or if he pressed the fast-forward button to speed billions of years past in a blink of an eye, does it change anything for us?
The fact is, God created a 13+ billion year history for our universe. For a Christian to dedicate his or her life to studying and understanding this history is a noble and God-glorifying pursuit. After all, God wrote the story.
The next post in this series can be found here.