God, the expanding universe, and dark energy

J asks:

1.  Could you convert the rate of expansion of the universe in everyday terms?  As an automotive engineer, I am very comfortable with units of ft or miles per second squared

2.  How much energy from God is infused into the universe every second in order to maintain the space energy density.

When I initially set out to answer J’s questions, I was just going to write a line or two giving the numerical answer for each one. But what fun is that? Instead, I decided to take you all down the rabbit hole with me, and get into the details of each of these questions. But if you just want to skip ahead to the answers, they’re highlighted at the end of each discussion.

Here we go…

1. First, a bit of context. In 1929, American astronomer Edwin Hubble presented evidence that galaxies are rushing away from one another, and that the speed with which they are rushing away is proportional to their redshift. This is interpreted to mean that the further away galaxies are, the faster they appear to be moving away, and this was the first physical evidence that our universe was not static and eternal, but dynamic and finite in time. The average rate at which galaxies are moving away from each other — called the Hubble constant — is a reasonable measure of the expansion rate of the universe, so we’ll use that to answer J’s question. The Hubble constant is about 70 km/s per megaparsec of space.

Now, I could just throw that number at you and convert the units to something more relatable and be done with it, but why do that when we have an opportunity to go into some nifty astronomical stuff? For instance, did you know astronomers don’t use light-years in their work? Light-years are used more for relating astronomical stuff to the general public. Instead, astronomers use parsecs, where one parsec equals 3.26 light-years. It may seem arbitrary, but there’s a sensible reason astronomers use this seemingly weird unit for distance. The answer lies in the definition of the word ‘parsec,’ which comes from ‘parallax’ and ‘arcsecond.’ Parallax is the apparent shifting of something in the foreground with respect to a very distant background. You can observe parallax by holding out your thumb and then observing it shift relative to stuff further away as you close one eye and then the other. This happens because your eyes are separated by a short distance. If you were able to adjust the distance between your eyes, you would notice more parallax the further apart you moved your eyes.


Based on the same principle, we observe parallax of nearby stars relative to much further stars as the Earth orbits around the Sun. When the Earth is on one side of the Sun, we can observe a nearby star relative to a particular background of stars. Six months later, when the Earth is on the other side of the Sun, we observe the same star relative to a different background of stars. This is rather useful in terms of measuring distances, because the further away something is, the less parallax you observe. And that leads to the definition of parsec: a parsec is the distance at which you would observe exactly 1 arcsecond of parallax as the Earth goes around the Sun.


And now I’ve introduced another term that needs to be explained. An arcsecond is a unit of angular size. When we look at objects and assess how large they are, we aren’t actually measuring linear sizes, but rather how big of an angle they subtend. The Moon in the sky, for instance, subtends a half a degree of ‘arc.’ That’s its size as far as our eyes and brains can measure it. If we have some idea of how far away it is, then our brains can translate that to a linear size. (Angular size + knowledge of distance + a bit of cogitation = “Wow, half a degree of arc and that thing is 240,000 miles away? It must be big!”) So then, what’s an arcsecond? Well, one degree of arc is divided up into 60 arcminutes, and each arcminute is divided up into 60 arcseconds. So, an arcsecond is 1/3600th of a degree, which seems awfully small until you realize that the smallest angle we can measure in astronomy is about one thousandth of that.

Let’s return to J’s question. We know the Hubble constant is about 70 km/s per megaparsec of space. Mega means million, so for every million parsecs of distance away from the Milky Way, space is observed to be expanding at a rate of 70 km/s. In more relatable terms, that translates to about 157,000 mph per 3.26 million light-years of space. More distant galaxies are seen to move faster simply because of their distance. I have my students do a little experiment to help visualize this. Take a thick rubber band, cut it and lay it out flat, and then draw some dots on it: one dot in the middle to represent the Milky Way, and then dots on the other side at various distances to represent other galaxies. As you stretch out the rubber band, the “rate” at which the other dots move from the MW dot depends on how far away they are, and the more distant ones do indeed expand faster than the closer ones.

A better way to get an idea of how fast the universe is expanding is to think of scale instead of proper distances. The scale is a rough guide to the distances between galaxies, which grows as the universe expands, but we don’t attach any units to it. Instead, we think about how long it takes the scale to double or triple or increase by a factor of 100 or whatever. Billions of years ago, when the universe was small in scale, it was doubling in scale very rapidly, but as the scale got much larger, it took longer and longer to double. The last time the universe doubled in scale, it took about 7 billion years. The next doubling will take much longer. Incidentally, this is the basis for reconciling a literal interpretation of Genesis 1 with a very old universe, as shown here. This is complicated a bit by the observation that the universe is accelerating in its expansion, and this leads to J’s next question.

Summary: The universe is expanding at a rate of about 157,000 mph per 3.26 million light-years of space.

2. Astrophysicists have proposed the existence of some mysterious, unseen form of energy in the universe to account for the speeding up of its expansion. They call this energy “dark energy,” and it has the peculiar property that its space density stays constant. Density is the amount of something per volume, so this means the amount of dark energy per volume of space never changes, even though the amount of space in the universe is increasing every moment. Think about how weird that is. That means the extra dark energy needed to keep the dark energy per volume constant as the universe expands has to come from somewhere. But where? I recently lectured about this to a group of Christians who were keen on science, and explained that this is consistent with scripture in which we are told that God sustains the universe (Heb 1:3, Col 1:17). When J heard this, he wanted to know how much energy per second God is injecting into the universe to maintain the constant dark energy density. So, let’s try to figure it out.

Even though dark energy is the dominant “stuff” of the universe, it’s extremely rarefied. It makes up 68% of the total of everything that’s in the universe, and yet its energy density is a paltry 10-9 joules for every cubic meter of space. The reason dark energy dominates the universe in spite of its low energy density is that space is HUGE — there’s an astronomical amount of cubic meters in space, so that paltry energy adds up to something big over large distances.

It turns out, we can’t answer J’s question directly, since we don’t know the total size of the universe. The universe could be finitely huge or infinitely huge; we simply don’t know. But we can estimate the amount of extra energy needed per second per megaparsec of space and use that to estimate how much extra energy is needed for the amount of the universe we can observe.

Remember that the Hubble constant, 70 km/s per megaparsec, tells us the rate of expansion. So, let’s first imagine a cubic chunk of space that’s a million parsecs on each side. Converting to more convenient units, this cosmic cube is 3.09 x 1022 meters on each side. This chunk of space is expanding at a rate of 70 km/s, which is 70,000 meters every second; this means every second, the chunk of space is gaining (3.09 x 1022 m + 70,000 m)3 – (3.09 x 1022 m)3, or 2 x 1050 cubic meters, in volume. If the space density of dark energy is 10-9 joules for every cubic meter, then each cubic megaparsec chunk of space is gaining an extra 2 x 1041 joules per second.

Let’s put that in relatable terms. One joule per second is known as a watt, a common household unit of power that you probably recognize from lightbulbs. So, let’s think of the extra energy injected into space every second in terms of watts. The Palo Verde nuclear power plant in Arizona has three reactors with a total power output of about 4,000 megawatts. If we take 2 x 1041 watts and divide by that, we get 5 x 1031 nuclear power plants-worth of power for each of these million-parsec chunks of space. That’s a 5 with 31 zeroes after it. Sounds impressive, doesn’t it? Well, consider that the size of the observable universe is much larger than this hypothetical chunk of space, about 30 gigaparsecs in any direction, which means that that the total amount of energy per second added to the observable universe is equivalent to 1045 nuclear power plants. To complicate things a bit, this is the momentary increase in energy per second of the observable universe, since the universe is expanding every moment. And, oddly, this is kind of wimpy when you consider that the theoretical prediction for the space density of dark energy is about 30 orders of magnitude higher than what’s been measured, a mismatch that so far no one knows how to resolve.

Summary: The amount of energy that’s currently added to the observable universe per second to maintain a constant space density of dark energy is the equivalent output of 5 x 1045 nuclear power plants. That’s a billion-trillion-trillion-trillion nuclear plants.

I know I skipped over some stuff that probably has you scratching your head, like the idea that some mysterious form of unseen energy is pouring into our universe every second from who-knows-where and that God has something to do with it. This dark side of the universe, which includes another substance called dark matter, is a fascinating topic that, believe it or not, relates to Christian scripture. If this interests you, stay tuned. I’m in the process of writing a booklet on the topic, and plan to host an online seminar through my publisher sometime in the next year.

Creatio ex logos


Dave writes:

Sarah, I appreciate your ministry and read your testimony. I came to God initially as a searcher and made a leap of faith from what seemed to me logical eclecticism i.e. all religions lead to or at least can lead to God. The only conflict with that belief is the Bible! I accepted Christ by “coming through the gate” of John 10. I since have come through the Cross as a major sinner – yuch, but praise the Lord for His forgiveness. I love Him much more now – through the Cross. So, moving on to my question: Panentheism- what do you know or think about it. I do not believe in “Process Theology ” which Panentheism (not pantheism) is associated with (ex. Whitehead). Why I entertain Panentheism is that I have trouble with “creatio ex nihilo” as being Biblical (and obviously does not fit into the 1st Law of thermodynamics). I would much prefer orthodoxy to state “creatio ex logos”. I do not believe God made creation from absolutely nothing. I believe it is from His Word… His breath… ex logos is substantial not nothing. God created the universe from His own substance – by speaking. Our own words are not “out of thin air” but have a source of energy behind their creation… it is a source of energy that is both “imminent (our breath, sound vibrations and physical shaping of words with our mouths) and “transcendent” (our mind and thoughts). There is obviously much more to this topic, and it is not without it problematic issues, but what do you think – about Panentheism – biblically and scientifically?” P.S. Pantheism also seems to fit nicely into the Kalam cosmological argument and it counter argument (God vs Nothing as the first cause).

In order to understand the true meaning of creatio ex nihilo, it will be helpful for us to revisit Aristotle, who described four different types of causes to answer the “why” of things; that is, he came up with reasons for why there would be any sort of change or movement. In the case of the universe, we can consider two of those causes: a material cause and an efficient cause. A material cause is something that is determined by the material of the thing being changed or moved. For instance, paper would be the material cause of a book. An efficient cause, on the other hand, is external to whatever it is that’s being changed or moved and is the agent of that change or movement. For instance, the efficient cause of a book would be a writer. Creatio ex nihilo, the idea that God created the universe from nothing, means that: a) God is the efficient cause of the universe; and b) there is no material cause of the universe.

From a theological point of view, creatio ex nihilo stands in opposition to the idea that God established the universe by making it from eternally existing matter (a material cause). Traditional Christian theology rejects the latter. Christian philosopher William Lane Craig, who has written deeply on this topic, points to Augustine who says that God, as the ultimate Being, “did not work as a human craftsman does, making one thing out of something else as his mind directs…. [his] Word alone created [heaven and earth]” [John 1:1-5]. This is supported by the distinction between the Hebrew words for “create” and “make” in Genesis. The word for make, asah, means to refashion from previously existing material, and it is used to describe the emergence of structure in the universe following its creation, things like the galaxy, stars, planets, and so on. The word for create, bara, refers to something that is an utterly new creation. Bara appears only three times in Genesis: once for the creation of the universe, once for the creation of the nephesh, or animal soul, and once for the creation of the human spirit, the neshama.

What all of this suggests is that creatio ex nihilo is synonymous with creatio ex logos. The universe was an entirely new creation, not something that was made out of pre-existing stuff. Now, while I’m not aware of any reason that the physical conservation laws must apply to the creation of the universe, I think you’re right that it violates some sense of conservation to have a universe appear out of absolute nothing. So, while creatio ex nihilo rejects the idea of eternally existing matter from which God shapes the universe, it does embrace the idea that God’s Word is the something from which the universe was created. This is entirely consistent with what’s been observed in physics.

Fire Back: Where the Readers Respond

In which we discuss the specific ‘scientific’ reason for my conversion to Christianity.

LC writes:

Thank you for making the story of your conversion to Christianity public.  I am a Christian apologist who is using your story as a discussion point in a meetup I am holding.  One of the atheists that is attending is asking what specific scientific reasons (not philosophical or theological) you found most compelling in your conversion.  The article mentions your work on deuterium abundances as well as your amazement that the universe is comprehensible.  Do you have any other scientific reasons that I could share with the group that you find compelling?

My conversion was a two-step process that took place over many years. I first went from atheism to theism, and then after a few years, I went from theism to Christianity. The former was completely unexpected; the latter was a very deliberate process.

You will have to explain to your atheist attendee that you cannot separate science from philosophy, so there was no ‘purely scientific’ reason for my conversion. What specifically led me to believe in God was the idea best expressed by Einstein when he said, “The most incomprehensible thing about the universe is that it is comprehensible.”

Through my research in cosmology, I got an overwhelming sense of a universe that is so rational that it’s as though it wanted to be understood. I had a specific question I was trying to answer with my research — how much of the universe is comprised of ordinary matter* — and it shocked me when I realized not only how answerable the question was, but that there was no reason it had to be this way. How is it even possible to have a rational universe without some kind of rational cause? I realized that by far the best explanation for the existence of the universe is that it was caused by a personal, rational, transcendent being of some kind. At that time, I called this personal cause “God,” but didn’t have any specific religious beliefs beyond God as the Creator.

Note that this is not a God of the gaps argument or an argument from incredulity, which is how atheists often try to spin it. It’s simply the most rational explanation, and I had no choice but to accept it on that basis. If you want to understand this explanation in greater depth, William Lane Craig has some good articles and videos on the philosophical argument that the cause of the universe has to be a personal being.

It was that realization that took me from atheism to theism. What took me from theism to Christianity was mostly Gerald Schroeder’s book, The Science of God, which I highly recommend. After reading the first four chapters in particular, I reasoned that the odds of Genesis not being divinely inspired were so low as to be effectively impossible. Once I realized that Genesis was, contra the odds, rather scientifically accurate for a thousands year-old document, I began investigating the rest of the Bible and specifically the evidence for the gospels. I came to the conclusion that the best explanation, given the evidence, is that the gospels were true, so I accepted Jesus on that basis.

* One of these days I’m going to write a post about the details of the research project and how it ultimately led to my conversion.

The uniqueness of Genesis — short version

The following is a handy distillation of yesterday’s post, which refuted the claim that Genesis is just borrowed mythology from earlier traditions. I know some of you don’t have the time to read through articles like that in all their glorious wordage, so this is for you. It’s also intended for those of you who did read the article and need help remembering the key points.

The Claim

  • Atheists claim that Genesis is not unique, but merely borrowed pagan mythology.
  • This is based on the opinions of theological liberals who find parallels between the Genesis creation story and pagan creation myths like the Babylonian Enuma Elish.
  • The Enuma Elish was discovered in the 19th century as part of an archeological dig in the ancient city of Nineveh, where it was found recorded on clay tablets.
  • This written account of the Enuma Elish predates the earliest written account of Genesis*.
  • Together, the timing and the parallels lead some theologically liberal scholars to conclude that Genesis is not unique, but a plagiarism of pagan myth.

The Parallels

  • Themes of darkness and chaos preceding order
  • Appearance of light before the Sun, the Moon, and the stars
  • Development of the world progressing in stages that culminates in the appearance of humankind
  • God/gods resting once the work is complete.

The Differences

Genesis claims:

  • The universe was created from absolute nothing
  • Only God existed prior to the creation of the universe
  • There is only one God
  • God is greater than and transcends the universe
  • Humans are deliberate creations made in the image of their Creator.

Babylonian claims:

  • The universe is eternal; the world was made from pre-existing matter
  • Personified natural forces (gods) existed prior to the making of the world
  • There are many gods
  • The gods inhabit the universe; the main god (Marduk) is located in the city of Babylon
  • Humans are incidental creations, made from the blood of the slain monster Kingu.

Genesis narrative style:

  • God-centered
  • Not interested in human personalities
  • Generally flat in tone
  • Austere in prose
  • Thirty-one verses in length.

Babylonian narrative style:

  • Decidedly not God-centered
  • Focused on the passions of the warring gods
  • Animated in tone
  • Extravagant in prose
  • Nine hundred lines in length.

The Conclusion

There are parallels between Genesis and pagan creation myths such as the Babylonian Enuma Elish, but the differences are far greater. The key difference, which cannot be overstated, is the Genesis claim that God is the sovereign creator of the universe, from which all other things are made. No pagan myth makes this claim. Furthermore, the Genesis claim of a universe created from nothing is alone among all creation stories as being consistent with modern science. Genesis is therefore unique.

A response to a critic

A friend recently sent me a critique of my testimony by someone named James of “Reasonably Faithless.” After I read James’ response to my testimony about how I made the journey from hostile atheism to a belief in Jesus, I was at first inclined to ignore it. Christians should generally resist the temptation to allow themselves to be sucked into the black hole of atheist discourse by feeling the need to respond directly to every attack on Christian belief. However, I think readers of this blog can benefit from what follows.

As I read James’ critique of my testimony, I marveled at how much misrepresentation, hypocrisy, nit-picking, taking things out of context, incoherent philosophy, and false science he packed into a few paragraphs. If you’re ever faced with such a response, you may feel the temptation to respond to each and every point, but I’m here to tell you that’s a waste of time. Instead, focus your efforts on helping other Christians withstand such assaults on reasonable belief.

To that end, there are two criticisms of my testimony, one logical and the other scientific, that can serve as useful exercises in how to refute atheist nonsense masquerading as legitimate criticism, logical thinking, and genuine science.

First, the logical argument James raises in his concern about the pain of human existence:

She also reveals some extremely offensive views about suffering:  essentially, people are “made to suffer for the bad things [they’ve] done”, and there is always “a reason for suffering”.  This seems especially insensitive to the people who have lived a life of terrible suffering merely because of the place and/or time of their birth, and who never experience a silver lining of any kind.

The basic atheist argument about the human condition is that all the pain people experience in this world is proof that there cannot be a God, because a loving God would not allow people to experience so much suffering. In the secular humanist protests against the unfairness of pain you can hear the voices of children furious at their parents for imposing consequences for bad behavior. C. S. Lewis answers this as well as anyone can in The Problem of Pain. James demonstrates his foolishness when he says that it is “extremely offensive” to point out the obvious truth Lewis demonstrated in his book about human suffering, which is that most of the pain people experience in life is the result of the bad choices they freely make.

James, however, makes one claim that deserves serious consideration — some people experience terrible suffering simply because of the place or time of their birth. There is some truth to this; a significant amount of pain that some people experience cannot be easily explained as the consequence of their actions. But, even when atheists manage to raise a valid point like this, they immediate veer off into incoherence.

As dedicated secular humanists, atheists are essentially children in their understanding of human existence. Most of them don’t so much disbelieve in God, but resent or feel anger towards God for being ‘mean.’ Those of you who are parents will recognize in the atheist mindset the child-like determination to avoid all discomfort and unpleasant consequences. The reason for this is that atheists need to believe in the possibility of ‘paradise’ on earth. As a result, they also need to believe that no one should ever have to feel bad and there should never be negative consequences for anything people do.

As long as we exist in this world, people will never fully understand their place in the grand scheme of things. But if you give some thought to James’s claim of my insensitivity about the mystery of human pain and suffering, you realize his logic is not only backwards, but leads to a conclusion that is fundamentally quite vile. It reminds me of something Richard Dawkins wrote in The God Delusion. He quotes the famous geneticist, James Watson, who said in response to a question about the purpose of life:

“Well, I don’t think we’re for anything. We’re just products of evolution. You can say, ‘Gee, your life must be pretty bleak if you don’t think there’s a purpose.’ But I’m anticipating having a good lunch.” 

To which Dawkins adds, “We did have a good lunch, too.”

When I read that I thought, “What a couple of jerks.” What kind of people can look at life as meaningless and bleak and then distract and comfort themselves with food? A ‘good’ meal or any other kind of material pleasure is small comfort to those who live a life of terrible suffering merely because of the place or time of their birth, and who never experience a silver lining of any kind. Atheists take away all hope for those who suffer. So, who is being insensitive?

Every time I hear nonsense like this, I wonder whether humanists ever bother to work through to the logical conclusions of their beliefs. If they did, they would realize it is vastly more insensitive to tell people who suffer terribly through no apparent fault of their own that there is no reason for it. It is cruel to tell people that this one life of misery is all they get until they are annihilated by a cold and indifferent universe.

Then there is the scientific criticism of my testimony:

After reading Gerald Schroeder’s book, The Science of God, Sarah became convinced that the book of “Genesis is literally true”.  (The word “literally” is used in a pretty non-literal sense here, since Schroeder’s theory is that the first “day” of creation was 8 billion years long, the second day was 4 billion years long, etc – the thesis of Schroeder’s book is really that Genesis can be squared with our modern scientific understanding of the universe, apart from a few teeny little details like evolution.)

If I was the type of person inclined to dictatorship (which I am not), the first thing I would do is make it a state crime to comment knowingly on a book you have not actually read. I mean, I’m assuming he hasn’t read Schroeder’s book, because he’s made two very basic blunders about Schroeder’s model that could’ve been rectified by reading the chapters on the age of the universe and evolution. It’s possible James has actually read the book, in which case he is either deliberately misrepresenting Schroeder’s argument or has failed to comprehend it.

In any case, I used “literal” in a very literal sense in my testimony. Schroeder makes a compelling case for reconciling actual 24-hour Genesis days with a billions year-old universe. It works because, as every good physicist knows, you have to specify from whose frame of reference those 24 hours elapse. You can read Schroeder’s book to see how this works or go through my slide show presentation for an explanation.

James goes on to demonstrate that he is unaware of the science behind Schroeder’s explanation:

So, does Schroeder’s book constitute a good reason to think that “Genesis is literally true”? Most definitely not.  Here are several scholarly reviews of the book…

Whereupon he cites a few critical “scholarly” reviews of Schroeder’s book, including one by historian, Richard Carrier, a man who is best described as the court jester of the New Atheist movement and an utter embarrassment to intellectuals everywhere.

When I first read Schroeder’s book, I spent a lot of time verifying its claims. Contrary to James’ assumption, that meant investigating criticisms of Schroeder’s model — the very ones James cites — which I found to be not only wrong, but surprisingly inept. For ostensibly smart people (most of them, anyway), these critics failed to understand the basics of Schroeder’s argument. I was especially taken aback that someone with credentials like those of the late mathematician, Mark Perakh, could fail to understand the straightforward physical argument laid out by Schroeder. I will write a separate post about this, because it deserves serious attention.

But James’s criticism of my testimony gets worse from there:

… Sarah came to believe (for whatever reason) in the truth of Genesis, and then deduced that the gospels were true.  Think again about her words: “I knew the Bible was reliable because of Genesis.

This is a lie. He conveniently omits the statement in my testimony just before this one — “I knew of the historical evidence for [the Gospels’] truth” — which clearly implies I investigated the truth of the Gospels independent of Genesis.

However, Christians do have reason to believe in the general reliability of the Bible based on Genesis. It was chosen as the first book of the Bible for a reason. Among other things, it immediately establishes the reliability of the Bible in general because Genesis 1 performs a miracle right in front of our eyes – it gives a scientifically accurate account of the creation of the universe and life on earth over 2500 years ago when no person could have possibly known how the universe formed and life came to be. At the very least, this miracle of information that anticipated so many modern scientific discoveries should lead one to consider the truth of the other parts of the Bible.

James concludes with a common bit of atheist dogma about the Bible:

The book of Genesis was composed by unknown authors.  It’s a mash-up of numerous sources from a number of different traditions.

Having once been an atheist, myself, and now observing them from a Christian vantage point for a number of years, I’ve noticed patterns in their behavior. James presents us with a perfect example. What happens is this: one atheist will come up with an idea — say, that Genesis is just a mash-up of numerous sources from a number of different traditions — and then others pick it up, repeat it (often verbatim), and the idea gets passed around and around, and meanwhile nobody bothers to investigate whether the claim is actually true. They just repeat it mindlessly and accept its truth blindly, because they are emotionally invested in it being true.

If any of them bothered to check, they would discover that the idea that Genesis is just a mish-mash of other faith traditions is provably false. One of my colleagues, who is deeply informed on the topic, refers to this claim as “traditional [theologically] liberal blather” dating back to the 1800s and based on little more than pure imagination. All you have to do is compare Genesis with one of these alleged sources, the Babylonian Enuma Elish, to see that they could hardly differ more. This is another topic I will address in more depth in a separate post, because it’s an intensely stupid notion that needs to die a horrible death. [Update: Uniqueness of Genesis is discussed here.]

To my Christian readers, here is what you should take away from all this. Do not waste time trying to convince atheists of the foolishness of their arguments. They make these arguments for highly emotional reasons and will not part with them on account of either reason or science. Atheist emotions are in turn rooted in a deep desire for self-indulgence, which is in eternal conflict with God’s intention that we overcome earthly desires. Instead, spend time becoming totally familiar with atheist assaults on Christian beliefs and faith so that you can help shield yourselves and others, especially children, from the deceit and temptations of atheism.

Fire Back: Where the Readers Respond


In which we try to clear up some confusion about Genesis and time dilation.

EC writes:

With regard to your time dilation theory… How would the mechanics of this work on a local level? With the expansion and the moving away from the rest of the mass, time slows down is the basics of it, right?

If time is slowing down, are other “constants” changing at the same rate? For example, would gravity be affected differently? What I am wondering is, how to reconcile the needed days in this time if its simply apparent time with the motion of the planets themselves. If time was moving faster due to greater mass, but the planets were not moving faster, then days would be much much longer. If planets were moving faster, then gravity would have to be stronger in relation to the dilation or the planets and other bodies would leave each other, which obviously hasn’t happened.

Perhaps I am missing something, but I seem to be stuck here.

Schroeder’s time dilation reconciliation of Genesis 1 with modern science seems to confuse a lot of people. Part of the problem is that relativity is weird, non-intuitive, and confuses just about everyone. I can say to you in words that time dilation is just the stretching of the flow of time in one frame of reference relative to another, but it’s not very relatable in terms of everyday experiences. The best I could do is to say something like this: what is an hour for you is really two hours for me. Or if you’ve seen the movie Contact, you might remember that time dilation was used to explain how Dr. Arroway could experience several hours on another planet while the observers back on Earth experienced only a few seconds.

Besides the fact that it’s just weird, probably the most confusing thing about time dilation is that it can arise from three different things:

  • relative velocity
  • relative gravity
  • stretching of space as the universe expands.

Even though it confuses some people, Schroeder and I both like to use practical examples of relativity that have nothing to do with Genesis, because it demonstrates that time dilation is a real thing and not just some wacky mathematical idea. For instance, time dilation due to relative velocity explains how particles called muons can be produced in the Earth’s upper atmosphere, and time dilation due to relative gravity explains the very slight difference in the flow of time on board global positioning satellites compared with the surface of the Earth. When I tell audiences in my lectures that without accounting for differences in the flow of time due to gravity, GPS would be useless, it impresses on them that relativity is real.

However, the cost of this is that these examples seem to stick in people’s minds once we switch over to discussing the flow of time and Genesis. So, what I want you to do is this. Remember from those examples that relativity is real, and then forget the rest. Then, when anyone talks about using time dilation to reconcile Genesis 1 and modern science, remember that it is solely due to the fact that the universe is expanding. It doesn’t have anything to do with relative speed or gravity.

The way it works is that we use the wave nature of light as the beat of the cosmic clock. Since light waves traveling through space get stretched out as the universe expands, that shows us how the flow of cosmic time is stretched out compared with earlier times in the universe’s history. Every time the universe doubles in scale as it’s expanding — that is, every time the distance between very far away galaxies doubles in size — the flow of time is stretched out by a factor of two compared with when the universe was half its present scale. This means, as the universe gets more and more stretched out, the flow of time gets slower and slower compared with earlier times. This is how you reconcile six Genesis days with 14 billion years.

Fire Back: Where the Readers Respond

In which we discuss the timeline of Genesis events and why so many Christians believe in a young universe.

JY writes to ask:

When you say that for God the Gen. 1 events unfold over six literal days, does this mean six twenty-four hour periods? If the earth is 4.5 billion years old (which I accept because I don’t think the Bible tells us so we should instead look to those with expertise in the field) how long should we envisage humans as occupying the planet? Were there epochs of other animal life prior to humans? Do you believe God used the evolutionary process or created humans like we now see them? Finally, why do so many Christians believe and argue so adamantly that the universe is 6,000 years old?

Gerald Schroeder, in his book The Science of God, elegantly makes the case for a 14 billion year-old universe that is developed over the course of six literal 24-hour periods. Genesis 1 does not explicitly state that the six days of Genesis are literal 24-hour periods, but it can be inferred from other passages in scripture that make reference to Genesis 1. Schroeder admits that this assumption is the one part of his argument that is subjective, but since the great Genesis commentator, Nahmanides, inferred it that way, this is what Schroeder chooses.

Biology is not my area of expertise, but I’m reasonably confident of the following. Homo sapiens has been around for about 200,000 years. Bacteria first appeared on Earth almost immediately (in geological terms) after the appearance of liquid water, a few billion years ago; animal life exploded well before humans appeared, about 500 million years ago in what’s aptly called the Cambrian explosion.

There is little doubt in my mind that what eventually became human lifeforms — I’ll refer to them as hominids — arose through some natural, but God-designed, process. Darwinian evolution has effectively been ruled out as the process, and nobody really knows what the actual process of the development of life is, but there are some interesting hints from a field of biology called “evo devo.” Anyway, the great biblical commentators, Maimonides and Nahmanides, had no problem accepting the idea that hominids predated Adam. These hominids were physically identical to Adam in terms of physiology, but lacked the neshama, the human soul. Schroeder talks about the process whereby God took a preexisting hominid and breathed the neshama into it to create Adam. In my mind, this is the most reasonable inference from scripture, and resolves some major problems with the young earth creationist view.

As for why so many Christians insist on a young universe, I am still trying to figure that out. Some of my Christian colleagues say it is because young earth creationism is primarily what’s taught in seminary, and it gets passed down to church members. I don’t know how much truth there is in that. I sense that a lot of it is pushback against atheist misuse of science, which is really unfortunate and completely unnecessary.

Science is a guide to understanding scripture

Reader xdpaul makes the following observation in the comments to the article on pre-Adam hominids:

One of the problems with relying on surviving Christian texts only is that even the most learned of them were a) not native masters of Hebrew b) reliant in the primary on Greek translations of Hebrew and c) not typically focused on man’s origins.

Thus, if you only rely on the very occasional Christian theologian viewpoint on origins, you may very end up short of even the limits of Ussher.

I get emails and comments from people criticizing Schroeder’s interpretation of scripture by insisting that he does not faithfully follow a literal interpretation of scripture, and furthermore we shouldn’t bother trying to “shoehorn” science into scripture. What they mean is that Schroeder doesn’t follow their literal interpretation of scripture. These critics almost always assume that the particular interpretation they personally favor is the only legitimate one, and fail to realize (or acknowledge) that there are significant translation issues with even some of the most widely accepted interpretations.

In any attempt to understand Genesis, we have to account for the fact that it was translated from ancient Hebrew to seventeenth century English and then interpreted according to modern Western, English-speaking sensibilities. This modern, Western point of view not only misses important subtleties in the Hebrew language, but often neglects subtleties in scriptural and historical context. As xdpaul points out, the problem is that the English translators were not native masters of Hebrew, nor were they focused on the deeper scientific meaning of Genesis. Schroeder, however, is, and he relies heavily on commentaries from the three most highly-regarded Jewish scholars — Rashi, Nahmanides, and Maimonides — all of whom were masters in Hebrew and spent decades intensely studying the Torah to discover its meaning. In my opinion, it’s foolishness to disregard these commentaries.

Even then, armed with insights from deep scholarship about the Torah, how do we know we’re on the right track when interpreting Genesis? We can gain some assurance through God’s revelation in the natural world he created. We were given a written account of this creation, but along with that came the admonishment to look for evidence of God’s character within it (Psalm 19; Romans 1:20). For this reason, it bothers me deeply that many well-meaning Christians insist on pitting God’s written record against God’s record in nature. They are complementary, and we are told as much in scripture. These two records should agree; they must agree. And where there is ostensible disagreement, that is the opportunity to gain a deeper understanding of both.


Fire Back: Where the Readers Respond

In which we discuss the ensoulment of a pre-existing hominid with the creation of Adam.

Andrew enjoyed my Six Day slideshow, but took issue with the claim that God chose a pre-existing hominid and breathed a soul into it to create Adam:

Genesis 2 describes a created man formed from dust that God subsequently breathed into his nostrils the breath of life and the man became a living creature. As I read that, I understand that to say there was a man formed out of dust in order to be created for the specific purpose of making us in His image. I agree that our spiritual identity is truly what defines us as in His image, but I stop at the notion that there were physical human beings identical to Adam beforehand that he simply ‘utilized’. As Genesis 2 documents the account, God didn’t go looking around to select some pre-soul ‘animalized’ version of a man that had already been created and arbitrarily deemed him fit to put a soul (the image of God) into him.

For those who haven’t gone through it, my slideshow is based on Gerald Schroeder’s bestselling book, The Science of God. Schroeder does not claim that a man was ‘animalized’; that’s a misleading term. Animal is the initial state of man, followed by ensoulment, and it is ensoulment that transforms him from animal to human being.

Now, do we know for certain from the Genesis 2 account that God didn’t select a pre-soul version of a man for Adam? Schroeder explains that, according to the great Torah commentators and some leading Jewish theologians, there is room for that interpretation. It hinges on two things:

1. The distinction between “making” and “creating” in Genesis. The former means to form something out of preexisting material; the latter means to bring something into existence that did not exist before. From Chapter 9 of Schroeder’s The Science of God:

The fact that Adam was first “made” (Gen. 1:26) and only later “created” (Gen. 1:27) informs us unequivocally that some amount of time passed during which Adam was fashioned. The neshama was implanted only after that vessel was complete. Whether that time was measured in microseconds or millions of earth years is not certain from the text. What is certain is that the making of Adam’s body was not instantaneous and that its making preceded the introduction of the neshama. Making takes time. The ultimate change from the final form into human was instantaneous, the creation of the neshama.

2. A subtlety in the text that is overlooked in English translations of the Bible. From the same chapter:

The closing of Genesis 2:7 has a subtlety lost in the English. It is usually translated as: “… and [God] breathed into his nostrils the neshama of life and the adam became a living soul” (Gen. 2:7). The Hebrew text actually states “… and the adam became to a living soul.” Nahmanides, seven hundred years ago, wrote that the “to” (the Hebrew letter lamed prefixed to the word “soul” in the verse) is superfluous from a grammatical stance and so must be there to teach something. … He concludes his extensive commentary on the implications of this lamed as: “Or it may be that the verse is stating that [prior to receiving the neshama] it was transformed into another man.”

Another man! According to Nahmanides, who is the major kabalistic commentator on the Bible, the biblical text has told us that before the neshama there was something like a man that was not quite a human.

Maimonides also comments on the soulless man. In Part I, Chapter VII of his book, The Guide for the Perplexed — written over 800 years ago, long before he could have been influenced by modern science — he describes the sons of Adam who came after Cain and Abel, but before Seth:

Those sons of Adam who were born before that time were not human in the true sense of the word, they had not “the form of man.” With reference to Seth who had been instructed, enlightened and brought to human perfection, it could rightly be said, “he (adam) begat a son in his likeness, in his form.” It is acknowledged that a man who does not possess this “form” (the nature of which has just been explained*) is not human, but a mere animal in human shape and form.

* In Chapter I, Maimonides explains that “form” means “essence.” Adam’s essence was that which made him distinctly human — the neshama. In other words, the pre-Seth sons lacked a soul. These are the sorts of “mere animals” that would have preceded Adam, and into which God breathed a human soul to create the first human.

Fire Back: Where the Readers Respond

In which a reader asks about death before sin.

PH writes:

You say in your FAQ that both Genesis and the NT are clear that homo sapiens existed before the creation of Adam. Yet Genesis and Romans are both very clear that death came about as the result of sin. How do you reconcile these two statements?

I believe Gerald Schroeder is correct that it was spiritual death, not physical death, that resulted from sin. After being told, “on the day that you eat [the forbidden fruit] you shall surely die,” (emphasis added) and then eating the fruit, Adam lives for another 930 years. Instead of being physically killed as a punishment, he and Eve are thrown out of Eden, and God never addresses them again. In God According to God, Schroeder explains why this is a far worse punishment:

The Bible does not imply that eating of the forbidden fruit brought physical death for the first time into the world. The death that this first of human couples experienced was the death of their unbounded spirituality. Loss of spirituality for one who had conversed with the Creator, a separation from that infinite light, would be far more devastating than actual physical death. For this unfortunate couple of the Bible, only the physical remained.

Cain suffered similarly. At Cain’s exile, following his murdering Abel, he pleaded: “My punishment is greater than I can bear… From Your Presence I shall be hidden” (Gen. 4:13-14).

Hugh Ross points out that we have a tendency to forget the first fall was Satan’s, not man’s. I suppose God knew Satan would corrupt the world, so he mercifully built physical decay and death into this fallen world so that neither would it last forever nor would we even have enough time to grow more corrupt than we already are.

Scripturally, there is no problem whatsoever with physical death preceding Adam. In fact, as strange as it sounds, we should be grateful to God for it.