How can we see distant starlight in a 6000 year old universe?

By Philip Robinson

In the Genesis creation account just two Hebrew words are used to describe God making all the stars in our universe. Composed mainly of hydrogen and helium, stars are fairly simple in structure. It has been estimated that 70 sextillion (seven followed by 22 zeros) stars are visible from Earth using a telescope. What an amazingly powerful God we worship! Yet, the stars, created to declare the glory of God (Psalm 19:1), often raise one of the most frequently raised objections to biblical creationism: How can we see distant starlight in a universe which is only 6000 years old?

This is a perfectly good and valid question, and one with which Christians should not be afraid to engage. The distances of the stars from Earth (and from each other) should not be disputed; the measurements are worked out on sound physical principles and have given, for example, the distance of the star closest to Earth (after the Sun), Proxima Centauri, as approximately 4.2 light years. A light year is a measurement of distance and not time – it is the distance a beam of light will travel in one year, namely 5,878,630,000,000 miles. However, when distances are given in terms of light years, they also tell us how much time a beam of light (travelling at constant speed) will take to reach us. So the beam of light from Proxima Centauri takes 4.2 years to travel to the Earth. Now, we know that there are galaxies billions of light years away from Earth. So how can we see them in a universe that is not billions of years old? On the face of it, there isn’t sufficient time for their light to travel to Earth. This seems like a conundrum that biblical creationists have to explain.

However as John McArthur reminds us, “Scripture, not science, is the ultimate test of all truth. And the further evangelicalism gets from that conviction, the less evangelical and more humanistic it becomes.” For example, science says that the present is the key to the past, that things have always been the way they are now. Not according to the Bible. At the present time we directly observe (general revelation) that every human being dies. This is an accurate scientific observation; but does it imply that men always died and always will die? We know from the Bible (special revelation) that the answer on both accounts is “no”. The Bible explains that it was through the fall of Adam that death entered the world (Romans 5:12), and goes on to explain that there will be a future state in which there will be no more death (Revelation 21:4). This principle of building knowledge on Scripture also applies to the question of how we can see distant starlight in a universe which is only 6000 years old. It is Scripture which gives us the age of the world, and using this as a framework assists in creating biblical cosmologies which can help us to answer the distant starlight question. (In a similar fashion, we use the worldwide flood described in Genesis 6 as an explanatory framework for certain geological formations.)

There have been various attempts to answer the starlight question. Some have suggested that the light was created in transit. However, the light which we observe today carries information about what has happened in distant parts of the universe, e.g. a supernova 100,000 light years away. However in a universe which is 6000 years old we should not be able to see anything further than 6000 light years away. Yet when an astronomer observes a supernova 100,000 light years away he sees a light pattern which indicates that a real supernova took place. The God of the Bible is not a deceptive God, so it would be against his character to put information into the light coming to Earth which would tell a story about things which never actually happened, in effect just to put on a light show for us. Others have suggested that the speed of light was millions of time faster in the creation week, allowing light from the most distant stars to reach us, but slowing down after Day 4 to its current speed. While this initially may sound attractive, it has a major pitfall – changing the speed of light would require adverse adjustments to other physical constants that are entailed in the stability of the universe.

Current creation cosmologies which attempt to answer our question use the principle discussed above: that things in the past may have been different from the present. Although we think we know what time is, and we can beat out its passing with tremendous accuracy, it is incredibly hard to define what time actually is. What we can say about time is that it is not a constant, that it does not flow at the same rate everywhere in the universe, or even on our own planet. For example, if we were to set one atomic clock on a beach to measure the flow of time at sea level, and another at the top of a very high mountain, we would find that the clock at sea level runs fractionally slower than the one at altitude. The reason that the atomic clock at sea level runs slower is the effect of gravity acting upon it: the stronger the gravitational force, the slower time runs. This principle is well known and has been taken into account in the design of the satellite navigation system in your car. Time for the satellite in orbit travels slow relative to the flow of time in your car, and the system has to take this into consideration if the sat nav is to give you an accurate position.

Two current creationist models work along this line – that time is not a constant and has run at different rates in the universe at different periods. The first, developed by Dr. Russell Humphreys, has Earth near the centre of the universe with an initially high gravitational concentration during the creation week. Time on Earth would have run very slowly relative to the rest of the universe. During the creation week, while an observer on the Earth watched the passage of ordinary days, billions of years would have passed in the outer reaches of the universe, allowing for the development of stars and the transmission of light. (Humphreys suggests that this state of affairs ceased at the end of Day 4.) So in principle there would have been sufficient time for the light from distant stars to reach the Earth. The second model, developed by Prof. John Hartnett, is also developed along the lines that time is not a constant, but it employs motion (the velocity of the expansion of the cosmos), the stretching of the fabric of space (Psalm 104:2), to produce the time dilation needed for the distant starlight to reach Earth.


Further information, and the technicalities of these working models can be found at While some of this may sound like the kind of jargon used in an episode of Star Trek, we should be encouraged that God has raised men like them who are able to give Biblically sound and credible answers. However we should remember that while there are viable answers to the question of the age of the universe which help us to answer the question of how we can see distant starlight in a young universe, that though the detail of the models may be consistent with the nature of the universe, that the models may change with future knowledge, but that the Word of God does not stand or fall by their models. There may still be many facts that the models have not taken into consideration. But ultimately, “The grass withers, the flower fades, but the word of our God will stand forever” (Isa. 40:8).