Science in Christian Perspective
A Young Versus an Old Creation: A Reconciliation?
Department of Biochemistry School of Medicine
The University of Virginia
Charlottesville, Virginia 22908
From: JASA 31 (March 1979): 60-61
who adhere to a literal six days for the Creation and those who accept the many
evidences for a very long prehistory, continues to divide Christians long after
the limitations of classical physics were recognized. In Genesis 1, the prophet
presented what seems to have become a paradox to modern man. He used a physical
clock to gauge the duration of the creative stages, yet this clock
(our sun) was
not even in existence during most of those stages. In effect, the
of the time span for the Creation was one of comparing the pace of a vast array
of prehistoric events with a later clock known to all mankind. That
events transpired with extreme swiftness when compared to this clock
of the historical
period poses no paradox in 20thcentury physics. A difference in speeds during
the two eras relative to a reference position or a difference in gravitational
fields gives rise to clocks which run differently in the different
(the slower clocks exhibiting "time dilation").
Time to mankind is essentially the apprehension of successive events (i.e., an irreversible sequence called "time's arrow"), and we use physical clocks whose events seem the most periodic by which to gauge the pace of other events (the periods, of course, are not precisely identical because all clocks wear out). We can discern no underlying and uniform time which is independent of physical events-as Einstein and others pointed out when classical physics, embracing an absolute time, seemed to be falling apart. The Genesis account likewise does not imply an absolute time dissociated from physical events. Time in Genesis was clearly and repeatedly described as the disappearance and re-appearance of the sun. Moreover, the account does not speak of disjointed, a instantaneous appearances of created things; rather, it speaks of a progression with an implied order and synchrony (e.g., "Let the earth bring forth ). The Creation account reads as if the laws
governing the whole of Creation until now were installed and upheld by the Word of God since the beginning.
For over fifty years there has been a succession of evidences pointing to a beginning for this universe (although the adherents of an eternal universe have not really given up). Light is now believed to have been a first event in the switching on of these beginnings. Also, our sun is now believed to have appeared during the last third or so of cosmic history (firm evidences on whether the earth preceded the sun, or vice versa, are not in hand). These findings are quite in accord with the prophet's assertions some thousands of years ago. Hence, we ought to display some confidence in the Genesis account by looking into time dilation in the light of astrophysical evidences; such dilation, as physicists understand the term, seems to be precisely what the prophet was so insistent about. We need not look far for significant clues and plausible mechanisms.
The popular interpretation of the observed red shift from radiations emitted in the universe during prehistory asserts that the universe has been expanding (reminiscent of Isaiah 42:5 "Thus saith God, the Lord, who created the heavens and stretched them out"). It is now widely held that we are retreating from an early stage of the developing universe at virtually the speed of light. That is, the cosmic background or black-body radiation now seen is related to that emitted long ago at the decoupling stage of matter and radiation, and in our frame of reference, we are departing from that era so fast that the wavelength of that radiation is red shifted or stretched very far as it slowly catches up to us. The universe is presumed to have been expanding before that era; thus, we could be extremely close to the limiting speed of light relative to time zero. By this picture, time (i.e., events) could be greatly dilated (slowed) in the historical period (or the beginning of it) when compared to the pace of events during prehistory. (This follows because dilation amounts to very little until the speed of light is closely approached and provided also that we assume the expansion of matter achieved such close approach at about the dawn of man.) Even if a slowdown in the expansion has occurred, as some theories require, it may have taken place after mankind appeared. Alternatively, if we assume with Fred Hoyle that the red shift refers to an increase in mass with time (events) since the beginning when mass may have been zero, a gravitational stretching of time becomes plausible.
Any such scenario, however, is worth very little, being no less optional than are cosmological theories generally. The important point, aside from the fact that observations have been becoming more and more compatible to dilation schemes, is that the six-day time span can no longer be said to be disproved. It is highly unlikely that clear proof, one way or the other, will ever appear. Although the prophet's comparison of prehistoric clocks with the later clock would seem to be potentially testable, the increasing opaqueness of the universe with look-back time into prehistory ultimately becomes insurmountable (owing in part to the finite speed of light). Even the expansion itself is merely a useful paradigm and not at all proved. In a word, physical absolutes are unattainable to physical observers.
The time problem found with Genesis after the scientific revolution got underway need not have divided us beyond the point when Newton's assumption of an infinite speed for light was disproved almost a century ago. Indeed, the nearly concurrent discovery of radioactivity, which was used immediately to settle the great time debate of the 19th century in favor of a very old Creation, was not applied equally the other way. These same discoveries ushered in the measurements which demonstrated that time to us is not uniform under different conditions and, therefore, we ought not continue to suppose that all of prehistory remains precisely in the same frame of reference to any observer in any era. We now realize, given the prophet's clock comparison, that an observer living during prehistory would have noted no speed up of events; all things, including his own reactions, would have been proceeding normally and in synchrony just as they do today. But, if the same kind of clocks from these two eras (e.g., atomic or radioactive ones) could be compared side by side, the later ones should be running extremely slowly compared to the prehistoric ones according to Genesis I. Thus, radioactive clocks and other kinds of evidences supporting a vast history for the universe in terms of sequential events are fully compatible with the six literal (sun-to-sun) days in Genesis for the total span of prehistory. Those arguing for a young Creation, then, need not feel threatened as evidences continue to mount which point to billions of years worth of events during prehistory (according to our slow clocks), nor need they embrace such extensions to Scripture as created oldness, instant vegetation etc. On the other side, there is no need for those eschewing the literal six days to supply various ad hoc explanations such as long gaps between the days, revelatory time, poetic time or equating the "days" with eons of time. These, understandably, were designed to preserve the Bible's credibility in the fate of overwhelming evidences against the 6 days on the basis of Newton's uniform time postulate - a postulate which, somehow, remains a mindset to the large majority of the intellectual community, scientists included. It is really those on the outside who fan this and other controversies among us by applying the 19thcentury view of absolute space, time, matter and motion.
The theologian and historian might help us to understand the purpose of including in Genesis this strange time span - a seemingly unnecessary message which has so bedeviled the contemporary community of believers. As scientists, however, we might dwell on how astonishing it is that an author several thousand years ago should have compared the pact of physical events with a clock which ran differently - a property of nature which awaited discovery until the 20th century.