The Age of the Universe: One Reality Viewed from Two Different Perspectives
Can the universe be young and old simultaneously?
For centuries, science and theology have been locked in an ideological battle as to the ultimate source of truth. And basic to this standoff is the question of the age of our universe. Is it an old universe with a history containing fossils of dinosaurs and cavemen, or young with just a few days passing between the creation of the universe and the creation of Adam, the first human being? And if our universe is young, then the so-called ancient fossils were placed in the ground by God to test our faith in the truth of the Bible.
The old age measure of our universe is based on research by astronomers and cosmologists. These scientists measure how much light waves from distant galaxies are stretched and lengthened due to the stretching of the space of the universe as those light waves travelled over eons of time to reach us here on earth. The data embedded in those stretched rays of light reveal that our magnificent universe was created at just under 14 billion years ago.
The young age measure of our universe is based on data in the Bible. The opening chapter of Genesis states that six days passed between the creation of the universe and the creation of Adam. Then in Genesis, Chapter 4 we read that Adam and Eve had two sons, Cain and Abel. Cain murdered Abel and Cain was exiled by God. The achievements of Cain’s progeny are listed in chapter 4. Then in Chapter 5 we read that 130 years passed before Adam and Eve had their third child who is named Seth, and then 105 years passed before Seth fathered his first child. This pattern of stating the time spans between births is continued with no break until Joseph is sold as a slave into Egypt (Genesis 37:2, 28, 36). We add all those ages plus the years to their exodus from Egyptian slavery and their entering the Promised Land and then their exile from that Land. With the conclusion of the Hebrew Bible we add the ages of the kings, queens, presidents etc. that followed, Summing all those data we reach an age for the universe of a bit less than 6000 years.
There is a crucial difference between the information given in the Bible about of the progeny of Cain and the progeny of Seth. This difference is that although the accomplishments of Cain’s progeny are listed, no ages are given for Cain’s progeny but detailed age data are given for Seth’s. This difference in the age data is the hint that the Bible wants us to develop a calendar. It is through Seth that we reach Abraham, Isaac and Jacob, the lineage that becomes the Israelite nation. The family line of Cain ends in Chapter 4, so it is irrelevant to an on-going calendar. Age data for Cain’s line would be superfluous if we are to build a calendar and there are no superfluous data in the Bible. This is the clue that the Torah wants us to make a calendar: the Torah tells us all the age data that can contribute to the calculation of a biblical calendar and omits age data (i.e., Cain’s) that would be irrelevant to such a calendar. If no age data were given in the Bible for any of the persons, there would be no theological /scientific controversy today over the age of our magnificent universe. Since the data are given, there must be a reason and a resolution that is faithful to these two sources of wisdom – the ancient words of Torah and the modern discoveries of science, especially since the Author for the Torah is also the Creator of nature.
Is it possible that the six days of Genesis are also the 14 billion years of cosmology, even as the six days of Genesis are 24 hours each and the 14 billion of years embrace all our cosmic history without bending either the words of the Torah or the discoveries in science?
We must keep in mind that the major commentators on the words of the Torah, Rashi (ca. 1090) and Nahmonides (ca. 1250), stated explicitly that the six days of Genesis are 24 hours each (Rashi commentary on Talmud Hagigah 12A; Nahmonides commentary on Gen. 1:3). Therefore, an explanation of saying that the days of Genesis One were actually long periods of time could be construed as bending the Bible to match the science. They may have made these comments since the sun is not mentioned in the Bible until fourth day of Genesis.
The key to the resolution of this seeming conflict is the change in perspective of viewing time. Recall that in Psalm 90:4, we read: “For a thousand years in Your sight are like yesterday when it is past, and like a watch in the night.” In this one verse we read about three perspectives of time: 1000 years, a day and a watch in the night. In our universe, perspective is everything when determining the apparent passage of time.
Nahmonides insightful viewpoint on the days of Genesis is so direct that it is hard to believe that we have missed it so often.
First, we must recall that the biblical New Year, Rosh Hashanah, marks the creation of Adam, not the creation of the universe. The six days of Genesis form a separate calendar and stand alone. Therefore, they are described in a unique way. The recurring phrase “and there was evening and there was morning” is unique to Genesis chapter one, the “creation” chapter.
At the end of each Genesis day, the day is numbered: day one; second day; third day; fourth day…. Nahmonides asked almost 800 years ago, long before theologians were worried about ancient fossils of cavemen and dinosaurs, why does the form of the day number change from absolute, “one”, to comparative, second, third…? His answer is brilliant. The Torah writes “day one” on that first day because there was not yet a second day. And to write "first", it must be comparative to a second (commentary on Genesis 1:5). We see this in the naming of the world wars. The “great war” (world war one) only became the “first world war” when the second started.
The biblical perspective of time for the six days of Genesis is from day one, looking forward. If that perspective were from Sinai looking back, the Torah would have written a “first day” since by Sinai that had been over 890,000 “second” days!
We look back in time and measure 14 billion years of cosmic history since the big bang creation of our universe. How would those years be measured from the Bible’s perspective of looking forward from the beginning? This is a totally non-human view of time.
The amazing reality of time in our magnificent universe is that the perspective of the time for a series of events compresses as we project that perspective back in time, and it compresses, contracts, gets shorter, exactly as the “size” of the universe compresses as we go back in time.
Professor Peebles in his book, Principles of Physical Cosmology, states this perfectly but in technical terms:
“The standard interpretation of the redshift (the amount a light wave has been stretched as it travelled to us from a distant place in the universe) as an effect of the expansion of the universe predicts that the same redshift factor applies to observed rates of occurrence of distant events . . . even when the epoch is so early the redshift cannot be observed in detected radiation.”
If we can calculate the magnitude of the expansion of the universe from the start of the biblical calendar’s six days to now, we can calculate how the 14 billion years (dinosaurs and all the rest) would appear from the perspective of the Bible. The key word here is perspective. We are calculating the age of the universe from two vastly different perspectives: the Bible’s perspective looking forward from the beginning when the universe was vastly smaller than now; our perspective looking back with the universe being vastly larger than in the era near the creation. They are two views of one reality.
Again, it is Nahmonides who leads the way. He tells us that time was created at the creation (a brilliant insight mirrored by modern scientific concepts) but that time only “grabs hold” when matter forms (commentary Genesis 1:4,5), and that is scientifically true.
Energy, light beams, are outside of time; they do not measure time. If an ethereal weightless you travelled on a light beam from the sun to the earth, your watch would record zero time. But if I could watch that light beam as it travelled, I would measure that about 8 minutes and a few seconds passed in that identical journey from sun to earth. Two true perspectives of one event.
The first stable matter that formed from the energy of the big bang creation that “ages,” that experiences the passage of time, was protons, the subatomic particles that produce much of the mass of an atom and are theorized to be the product of the decay of neutrons into electrons and protons (free neutrons decay with a half-life of about 10 minutes but are stable when they are within the nucleus of an atom). The Bible views time looking forward into the expanding space of the universe from the moment of the formation of protons, a moment that was a tiny fraction of a second following the big bang creation of the universe, when the universe was vastly smaller than it is today.
Our earth-based scientific measure views time looking back in time from the present perspective of our huge universe toward that moment when protons formed, a tiny fraction of a second following the big bang creation of the universe – a time when the universe was vastly smaller than it is today.
With this combination of ancient wisdom and modern discovery, we can now calculate the age of the universe as measured from these two vastly different perspectives.
The key to the calculation that relates our time perspective looking back into time to that of the Torah which looks forward into the expanding space of the universe is to realize that even if the rate of expansion is approximately constant after the initial fraction of a second, the fractional rate of change (i.e., how much time it takes for the universe to double in size) changes drastically over time. That is because when the universe was smaller it doubled in size more rapidly than when it got bigger. This becomes what is known by scientific jargon as a non-linear relationship.
The most common non-linear relationship in the universe is A = A0e-Lt . This equation defines the decay rate of every atom in the universe. It also can be used to describe the distances from the sun for the seven inner planets except for the earth. With this relationship there should not be an earth where the earth is. And yet this is the only location in the solar system that is suitable for sustaining life.
This equation is also the relationship that describes the link between the earth view of time looking back into the history of the universe from the present and the Biblical view of time looking forward from the beginning for the six days of Genesis.
Recall that the years of the Biblical calendar start with Adam, not with the creation of the universe. The six days of Genesis form a separate calendar and are therefore described in a unique way. The recurring phrase “and there was evening and there was morning” is unique to this chapter. Nowhere else in the entire Hebrew Bible do we read this couplet for the description of the passage of time.
Here comes a bit of math needed to “solve” that equation. Some people run away at the sight of a math equation. If that is you, just skip down to the results, but as the advert tells us, getting there is half the fun.
The fun part of the calculations comes when the equation is evaluated day by day and we can compare the claims of the Bible for each Genesis day with the discoveries in science for those days.
To determine the duration of each of the six 24-hour Genesis days, we evaluate the equation for each day; t (time) goes from 0 to 1 for day one, 1 to 2 for the second day, etc.
With the chronology of the days of Genesis established, it is a simple matter to compare the key events of each day as recorded in Genesis and interpreted by ancient commentaries with the discoveries of modern science. In doing so we must bear in mind that what science presents in literally tens of thousands of publications, Genesis brings in 31 sentences. Don’t expect to find every detail for each period in those few sentences. When seeking a deep meaning of the biblical text, only ancient commentators are used, commentators who read the depth of the Bible’s text centuries and even a millennium before persons knew about fossils and dinosaurs and cavemen. As such there is no bending of the ancient Bible to match the discoveries of modern science.
Day One: 13.8 billion years to 6.8 years before the present (B.P.)
Bible (Gen.1:1-5): God creates the universe and then light separates from dark.
Science: The big bang creation of the universe [Recall that until some 60 years ago, the overwhelming opinion of the scientific community was that the universe was eternal. The Bible was wrong from its first sentence! Then the evidence for the big bang creation was observed and overnight the world learned that the Bible got it right!];
Immediately following the big bang creation of the universe, as the universe expanded from its initial miniscule point at creation, the energy of the universe became increasingly more dilute in the increasing volume of space. At the lowered energy level, electrons were able to bond to atomic nuclei, and light was able to separate from the initial plasma. First stars and galaxies form approximately 13 billion years ago (Bromm, V., The First Stars, Google Books).
Second day: 6.8 to 3.3 billion years B.P.
Bible (Gen. 1:6-8): The heavenly firmament forms. Notice that the text does not sate “and it was good” on this day apparently because the processes that were started on this day had not yet reached their “intended” forms.
Science: Approximately 4.6 billion years ago, the Sun, a main sequence star, and the planets including the earth formed from the star dust of previous supernovae.
Third day: 3.3 to 1.5 billion years B.P.
Bible (Gen. 1:9-13): The oceans and dry land appear, followed by the first life, plants. This marked the start of plant life with the plants mentioned in the text developing over the following Genesis days (Nahmonides, ca 1250, commentary on Gen. 1:12).
Science: By 3.8 billion years ago, the initially molten earth had cooled sufficiently from its initial molten state to allow liquid water to form (Cloud, P., Oasis In Space; W. W. Norton). A crust of solid rock formed on the surface of the earth that gradually broke into continent-sized blocks. As these blocks of crust moved over the surface of the earth at about a centimeter a year, rock piled up at the leading edge forming mountain ranges. The Rocky Mountains on the west coast of North America and the Andes on the west coast of South America are the result of this motion. As these mountains weathered and eroded, they raised the surfaces of the continents above sea level. If this would not have happened, the entire surface of the earth today would be totally covered by approximately 2 km deep water.
Perhaps the most famous evidence for this mountain-forming phenomenon of continental drift are the fossils found in the Burgess Pass of the Canadian Rocky Mountains. Approximately 10,000 years ago, toward the end of the last ice age, glaciers originating in the Artic had skimmed the top off a mountain and formed the Burgess Pass. This exposed shale filled with fossils that had been buried for over half a billion years. The fossils, now known as the Burgess Shale fossils, are fossils of aquatic animals, but the Pass is 8,000 feet above sea level! What today are the shales and rocks of the Rocky Mountains, approximately 560 million years ago were the mud and slime of a shallow tropical sea bed teaming with aquatic life. Life that became trapped in the mud and slime over millennia became the Burgess shale fossils and the slow drift of the continents moved and raised what was once a tropical sea bed to the dizzying heights of the Burgess Pass. It is these fossils and the explosion of animal life that is alluded to in the opening sentences of the fifth day (Genesis 1:20). The event and the date are a spot-on match with the Biblical account of the fifth day.
The original theory of the origin of life had in error predicted that billions of years must have passed between the appearance of liquid water on earth and the appearance of life. Discoveries of microfossils of bacteria and of the first “plant” life in the form of photosynthetic algae reveal that life on earth appeared at approximately 3.6 billion years ago, that is, much more rapidly that originally theorized (DeDuve, C., Blueprint for a Cell: The Nature and Origin of Life; Neil Paterson Publishers).
Fourth Day: 1.5 to 0.6 billion years B.P.
Bible (Gen. 1:14-19): The Sun, moon and stars become visible in the heavens (Talmud Hagigah 12a). The Hebrew now states me’or’ot which means the actual bodies that emit light are visible. Previously the text stated or’ot which means light but not the actual luminaries that give the light.
The text here describes a view looking upward from the earth’s surface since the sun and moon are described as “two great bodies.” The only location in the entire universe where both the sun and the moon each appear as a great body is from the earth. Although the diameter of the sun is 400 times greater than the moon’s diameter, the moon is 400 times closer to the earth than is the sun. Hence, they both appear as the same size.
Science: During the period of the fourth day, the Earth cooled sufficiently for the moisture in the previously cloud-covered earth to condense. As a result, the atmosphere cleared and the sun, moon, and stars became visible. Prior to this period, although the sun’s light could reach the earth, the actual body of the sun was not visible from the earth due to the heavy cloud cover. I personally have measured the photosynthetic production of oxygen on days that were so heavily overcast that although there was light penetrating the cluds, there was no indication of the glow of the sun behind the clouds.
Fifth Day: 0.6 to 0.2 billion years B.P.
Bible (Gen. 1:20-23): The first multicellular animal life flourishes abundantly in the waters, followed by large reptiles and winged animals.
Science: With no forewarning by the underlying fossil record of the large animals and their extreme abundance about to appear, the Cambrian explosion of life, 530 years ago, produced every basic animal body plan extant today as the waters swarmed with life (Levinton, J., The Big Bang of Animal Evolution; Sci. Am.; Bowring, S., et al., Calibrating rates of early Cambrian evolution; Science 261:1293; Kerr, R., Did Darwin get it all right? Science 267:1421). Winged insects appeared 340,000,000 years ago with no hint found in older fossils of their impending arrival (Marden, J., and Kramer, M., Surface skimming stone flies, a possible intermediate stage in flight evolution; Science 266:427; Kaiser, J., A new theory of insect wing origin, Science 266:363).
Sixth Day: 200 million to 5779 years before the present
Bible (Gen. 1:24-31): The land is populated by animals. Mammals and then humans appear.
Science: 250 million years ago, a massive extinction decimated life and 90% of animals disappeared from the fossil record (Erwin, D., The mother of mass extinctions, Sci. Am.). The land was then repopulated. What intrigues persons who study the fossil record is why, when the earth was re-populated and many ecological niches were opened due to the massive extinction, no basically new body types evolved. It may be that only those that preceded the extinction were suitable for the earth. Scientific American asked the question: “Has the mechanism of evolution altered in ways that prevent fundamental changes in the body plans of animals?” (Levinton, J., The big bang of animal evolution; Sci. Am.). It is not that the mechanism of evolution has changed. What has changed is that we now realize that only certain types of life fit the earth’s conditions, varied as they are (Gould, S.J., The evolution of life on Earth, Sci. Am.).
In 31 sentences the Bible describes the flow of existence from the creation of our magnificent life-supporting universe to the appearance of humanity. The scientific community’s study of the secrets of nature provides literally millions of bits of data for these same ages. The agreement between these two sources of knowledge, one ancient, one modern, is not surprising since there is one Author for both the ancient wisdom of the Bible and the secrets of nature so recently discovered by scientists.