Building a Biblical Cosmology

COSMOLOGY is the study of the structure of the universe. Particularly it is an attempt to understand how this structure is related to the past history of the universe and possibly to its future. Originally a branch of philosophy, cosmology has during the past century become a vigorous science in the Western world. . .

-professor of physics at Southern Missionary College at the time this article was written

COSMOLOGY is the study of the structure of the universe. Particularly it is an attempt to understand how this structure is related to the past history of the universe and possibly to its future. Originally a branch of philosophy, cosmology has during the past century become a vigorous science in the Western world.

The majority of scientists and writers active in this field at the present time subscribe to a materialistic, naturalistic viewpoint, or perhaps to a deistic one (the principal difference being the recognition of God as the beginning point in the latter case). Among these individuals it is assumed that the laws of nature, as now perceived, acting throughout immense spans of space and time, may be used to explain all physical phenomena observed on the earth and elsewhere in the universe. There exists a minority group of cosmologists, largely made up of Christians who, by reason of their understanding of "Scriptural truths," believe that God was involved in a much more direct way in the preparation of the universe as we now see it, and that some or all of the observed universe was prepared by God in quite recent times. Both groups have within them considerable divergence of opinion.

What About the Observations of Cosmology?

The observations of cosmology range all the way from the most obvious and self-evident to the most imperceptible and indirect. There is a heavy representation of the latter type so much, in fact, that the first type, which we could call "hard facts," are in the minority. In their discussions some cosmologists stress the in direct type of observation while others stress the "hard facts" type. Those who stress the more obvious and self-evident observations tend to say that theories live or die depending on how well they explain these facts. Those who dwell on the imperceptible and indirect observations tend to emphasize the manner in which these observations may be interpreted by the particular theory they have adopted.

What About the Testimony of Scripture?

To the extent that cosmologists are concerned with the testimony of Scripture, they tend to interpret Scripture in accord with their philosophical framework. For in stance, it is appealing to them to interpret the days of Creation as being very long periods of time (day-age theory), or as single "twenty-four-hour" days separated by long periods of time (day-gap theory). It is also attractive to them to consider Genesis as no more than a collection of statements to the effect that God has the power to prepare the world, that He did so and that He deserves the worship of His creatures. The majority among practicing cosmologists have adopted theories concerning the origin of the universe that require very long periods of time.

Cosmologists who have a more conservative Christian viewpoint tend to interpret the Bible more literally. When they look out into the universe they naturally interpret what is seen to blend with their viewpoint. To them it is not at all necessarily obvious that the entire universe is billions of years old. Part or all of it could have been created at a much more re cent time, and could have functioned subsequently in such a manner that no recent observer could tell the "true" age. This is the so-called "mature earth" theory (when applied to our planet). It is scientifically possible to imagine that the universe was created very recently, complete with light beams in space on their way from distant objects to the earth.

Are Science and Religion Unrelated?

Should scientific considerations remain with the "scientists" and spiritual concerns with the "Christians"? That is, should cosmological theories be the domain of the scientist and the interpretation of Scripture be reserved for the Christian, with the two areas maintained distinct and unrelated?

This is one solution, a solution that is elaborated by linguistic analysis. Linguistic analysis is a school of philosophy and psychology that is concerned with the meaning of words. Some students of linguistic analysis say that while "scientists" and "Christians" may talk about the same thing, there is no overlap at all because the "scientist" is speaking about the observable universe as a spectator does, whereas the "Christian" is talking about involvement with the beauties of earth and sky as an actor. The language that is used by the spectator to describe what is going on in a play, and the language that is used by an actor in the play to describe how he feels, may sound as if they are talking of the same thing, but they actually are not. According to some linguistic analysts, the language of Scripture concerning nature is simply intended to evoke reverence and awe. 2

Cosmologists who have a conservative Christian viewpoint find this type of explanation unacceptable. They recognize some texts of Scripture as content statements about scientific areas.

Does the Bible Give Testimony Concerning Cosmology?

The Bible speaks about various aspects of the origin and future of the universe, particularly of the earth (Creation, the Flood, natural disasters, and eschatology). This testimony may seem to make it necessary to (1) adopt the naturalistic philosophy of the majority of modern cosmologists and interpret Genesis as simply being a plea for worship or (2) accept the position of some conservative Christians and interpret the observations of astronomy and geology as being the result of re cent creation and subsequent catastrophes.

The second option suffers from the fault of having been associated in the past with a smug attitude that stifled curiosity and was scientifically unproductive. For this reason it has come to be thought of as "unscientific," and among the majority of educated people has been placed in an unfavorable position with respect to the first option. 3

Could the Earth Have Been Created Recently, and the Rest of the Universe Created Longer Ago?

Yes there is no philosophical reason for not postulating that one part of the universe could have been created recently. The more recently created region could include just the surface of the earth, the entire earth, the entire solar system, or the region out to the nearby stars. Any of these possibilities appears to be consistent with the testimony of Scripture.4

How Does Viewpoint Influence Observation?

So far, the discussion has been simplified to make a point, i.e., that commitment to a philosophy will affect the interpretation of many observations, and also determine some of the observations that will be made. There are other observations of the universe that are sufficiently obvious and self-evident that we know them as "hard facts." A successful theory must account for these facts.

None of the Christian-oriented theories of cosmology mentioned in the previous section contradicts the facts. Actually, some of the facts give us considerable confidence that a short-time history for at least the surface of the earth is the most correct theory. 5 It is best to consider facts and theories as complementary, each contributing to our understanding of the other.

What Is the Scale of Cosmic Distance?

We are familiar with using time of travel to measure distance. For instance, we say that it is "four hours to Atlanta from San Francisco" by jet. In astronomy we can use light as the traveling object. Some distances in terms of travel at the speed of light are as follows (approximately):

Moon ________________________1 second

Sun__________________________8 minutes

"Diameter" of out galaxy ________ 100,000 years

Distance of nearby galaxies _____ millions of years

Distance of galaxies at edge of ___several billions optical visibility of years

Distance of remote quasars ______tens of billions of years

And yet "these are [only] parts of his ways" (Job 26:14)!

The distance to the moon can be known to within a few feet at any time, as is demonstrated by the Apollo landings. This distance can be found by triangulation (surveying techniques), by radar, and by laser beam reflection.

The distance to the sun can be known to within a few thousands of miles. One group of methods for determining this distance is based on Kepler's discovery that the size of a planetary orbit is related to the time of revolution around the sun (it's "year"). Accurate determination of any one interplanetary distance establishes the scale for all of the others, including the distance of the earth from the sun. Such accurate determinations have been made by triangulation, radar ranging, observation of eclipse delay as Jupiter and its moons are at varying distances from us, and by data obtained from spacecraft that have been successfully sent to nearby planets. Another group of methods utilizes data on the speed of the earth in its motion around the sun to compute the dimensions of its orbit. The necessary data on speed are obtained by measuring the shift in direction (aberration) and the shift in spectral color (Doppler effect) of starlight at various points on the earth's orbit.

The nearby stars pose much greater problems. These stars are much too far away for radar reflection, there is no measurable gravitational influence to allow using Kepler's laws as in the solar system, and we do not have the resources to construct a spacecraft with radio equipment adequate to cover such distances. The only method available for determining the distance to these stars is by triangulation using the earth's orbit (twice the distance from earth to sun) as a baseline. Even with this immense baseline the triangulation is difficult, since the angles to be found are less than one second or arc. Consequently, errors of several percent are typical.

From the study of nearby stars we can draw conclusions that we think are valid among stars too distant for triangulation. For instance, absolute brightness is related to the spectral color, and to the flicker rate for certain types of variable stars (particularly Cepheid variables). If we can ascertain the spectral color of some very distant star, or the flicker rate of some far-off Cepheid variable, we think that then we can determine its absolute brightness. The estimated absolute brightness can be compared with apparent brightness, to find out how far away the object is. A star that has a high absolute brightness but appears to be very dim is farther away than a similar star that has a greater apparent brightness. This sort of reasoning has been used to map our galaxy and to determine the distances to the nearby galaxies.

There have been humiliating errors in doing this, however, such as failing to realize that there are two kinds of Cepheid variables, and underestimating the dimming effect of interstellar dust. The distance scale had to be changed by 25 percent at one time, and increased by 100 percent at another time. Perhaps it would be safe to say that we now know the diameter of our galaxy and the actual distances to nearby galaxies to within 25 percent of the actual figure.

From the study of nearby galaxies we can draw conclusions which we think are valid among galaxies that are too distant for us to see individual stars: for instance, that the distance is related to a "red shift" in spectral features, and that the absolute brightness of certain members of clusters of galaxies seems constant. The distances to galaxies at the edge of optical visibility are confidently considered to be known within a factor of two ("true" distance between one half and twice the given distance). The actual distances to remote quasars, for which we have only an unsure application of the "red shift" method, are possibly not known to better than within a factor of four.

What Are the Consequences of Such Large Distances to Creationists?

According to our present understanding that light and other electromagnetic radiation actually requires billions of years to reach the earth from the remote galaxies and quasars, we are not looking at these objects as they now are, but as they were long, long ago. If the entire universe had been created about 6,000 years ago, we would not now see objects more than about 6,000 light-years away, and new objects would constantly be "popping up" on our photographs as the light from them finally reached our earth. Within 6,000 years no other galaxy would become visible, and light from less than 1 percent of the stars in our own Milky Way galaxy would have reached earth. Throughout the entire history of man's astronomical observations there has been no evidence that his observation of the universe is thus limited.

When faced with this evidence, many ask, Could God have created a mature universe about 6,000 years ago, complete with light beams that extended throughout space and are indistinguishable from those that might subsequently be radiated from stars, nebulae, and galaxies? According to our understanding of God and His capabilities, the answer to this question must be Yes. Such an assumption is, in fact, unfalsifiable.

(To be continued)


FOOTNOTES

1. Publications of the Creation-Science Research Center, e.g., Science and Creation, A Handbook for Teachers, by Henry M. Morris, William W. Boardman, Jr., and Robert f. Koontz (San Diego, 1971), cf. p. 23.

2. lan Barbour, Issues In Science and Religion (Englewood Cliffs, N.J.: Prentice-Hall, 1966), chapter 9, part 1, section 2.

3. Berney Neufeld, "Towards the Development of a General Theory of Creation," Origins, vol. 1, no. 1, 1974 (Loma Linda, California: Ceoscience Research Institute).

4. R. H. Brown, "The Creation of Elementary Matter," The Ministry, February, 1958, pp. 11-14.

5. Harold C. Coffin, Creation, Accident or Design? (Washington, D.C.: Review and Herald Publishing Association, 1969).

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-professor of physics at Southern Missionary College at the time this article was written

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