Lighten our Darkness

The Origin of the Very First Light

(Genesis 1:3-5)

The biblical account of the creation of light is remarkable for the way it undercuts ancient religious worship of the celestial bodies and anticipates some of the most remarkable findings of modern science. This message, third in a series on ‘Beginnings’, was preached by Rob Yule, minister of St Albans Presbyterian Church, Palmerston North, New Zealand, on 13 February 2000.

 

Early in the twentieth century, a young man with a moustache, a mane of crispy, frizzled hair, and a preference for old worn-out jerseys, worked out a theory of matter that has become the most famous physics equation in the world. Albert Einstein’s summary of the equivalence of mass and energy,

E=mc2

was formulated when he was working as an examiner at the Swiss Patent Office in Berne. In 1905 he published a series of papers outlining what became known as the Special Theory of Relativity - to distinguish it from his later, more comprehensive theory of the universe, incorporating gravity, which physicists call the General Theory of Relativity.

Einstein would not have approved of the emphasis later given to the term ‘relativity’. It implies that everything is relative, that there is no absolute truth, that he would have endorsed the Postmodern uncertainties of our day. Nothing was further from his mind. Einstein may have had shaggy hair, but he abhorred woolly thinking. He passionately believed in absolute truth, and that it was discoverable by human enquiry. In developing his theory he was much more impressed by the constancy of the speed of light (the c of his famous equation), which nothing in the universe can exceed.

 

Light without Luminaries

The biblical account of creation says that God created light before the sun, stars, and other celestial bodies, and that light-energy is the basic constituent of all reality. These observations, which used to be laughed at by sceptics, are a further indication what a remarkable document Genesis 1 is.

1. Think what this meant, first of all, for when the Bible was written. At that time the worship of the sun, moon and stars was universal in the cultures of the Near East, throughout Mesopotamia and Egypt. People believed that their fates were sealed in the constellations. The Bible, at one stroke, negates worship of the sun and deifying of the stars. It emphasises that light was created before them and can exist without them. They are created entities, creatures like us, and therefore not to be worshipped. We are not beholden to them; they do not control our destiny. The writer could not have told us more clearly, ‘Don’t waste your money on astrology, horoscopes and so-called mystical pathways.’

2. Think what this means, secondly, for our own time. This pre-scientific book anticipates some of the major discoveries of modern physics:

  • that the early universe was dark, and light could only emerge when it had cooled sufficiently, about 300,000 years after the beginning, for electrons to be bound in stable orbits, allowing photons to be emitted. Prior to this, in the enormous heat and density of the early universe, light was literally unable to shine.
  • that the light which shone after proton release, the Cosmic Microwave Background radiation or ‘very first light’ (John Mather and John Boslough, The Very First Light: The True Inside Story of the Journey Back to the Dawn of the Universe [London, Penguin, 1998]), is our very earliest indicator of the developing structure of the universe, and our basic measure of cosmic time.
  • that light came into existence before the emergence of our sun and other burning stars. It was only as the universe cooled to about -200ºC that gravitational forces began to attract gases and dust to form galaxies and burning stars, including our sun.
  • that light or energy is a spectrum (the electro-magnetic spectrum, discovered by Scottish physicist James Clerk Maxwell, a devout Christian, in 1864), and that this light-energy is equivalent to matter and cannot be destroyed. Light-energy (as Einstein showed) can only converted from one form to another, according to the conversion formula E=mc2. We now know that light-energy is the very basis of matter and the material universe.

These discoveries demonstrate that the sequence of creative events and the understanding of the nature of reality as described in the opening verses of Genesis is correct, far in advance of the scientific thinking of its time. This information, I believe, could only have come from the Creator himself, in the form of a divine revelation.

 

The One Constant in the Universe?

Prior to the 17th century it was thought that light travels at an infinite speed. In 1676 the Danish astronomer, Olaf Rømer, first discovered that light travels at a finite speed. By an ingenious method, Rømer measured the time taken for light from eclipses of Jupiter’s moon Io to reach Earth, and found that the times were shorter when Jupiter was closer to Earth and longer when it was further from Earth.

It is remarkable with such primitive measuring instruments that Rømer’s measurements were of the correct order. The speed of light is around 300,000 kilometres (186,000 miles) per second, or about one foot per nanosecond (one thousand millionth of a second), the fastest speed possible for anything in the universe. At this speed light takes 1.3 seconds to reach the moon, 1,000 seconds to cross Earth’s orbit, and 8 minutes for the light of the sun to reach us on Earth.

Einstein’s famous formula, E=mc2, is based on the premise that the speed of light - the c of this formula - is constant. But what if the speed of light is not a constant, c, but a variable, v? Some twenty-four-hour-day creationists, such as Australian physicist Barry Setterfield and mathematician Trevor Norman, claim that the speed of light is slowing down since Rømer’s first observations in the mid-17th century. On the basis of these diminishing figures, a sharply increasing exponential curve is produced which, it is claimed, would imply that the speed of light may have been 10-30% faster two thousand years ago in the time of Jesus, twice as fast three thousand years ago in the time of Solomon, four times as fast four thousand years ago in the time of Abraham, and more than 10 million times faster prior to 3000 BC!

If light is slowing down at this rate of decay, then projections of the age of the universe based on the recession of galaxies using the speed of light would give too great a value, and the universe would be much younger than the 15.3 +/- 1.6 billion years which is the current best estimate. This would make the universe less than 10,000 years old, supporting the views of those who argue for a recent universe based on a claimed literal reading of Genesis 1. (A popular presentation of this viewpoint is Chuck Missler’s Genesis and the Big Bang tape series, Supplemental Study Notes [Koinonia House, 1991], p. 10).

These findings are highly controversial, especially to traditional physicists. Christian astrophysicist Hugh Ross has examined and critiqued them. Firstly, he points out that they are based on a selection of velocity of light measurements designed to give a progressive decrease in value. Ross produces a fuller table of measurements, containing standard error margins for each, which does not show a consistent decrease in velocity, only an increasing accuracy in the measurements. ‘The values and standard errors for all velocity of light measurements give no basis for concluding that the velocity is anything other than constant,’ Ross concludes. ‘The suggested exponential decrease is without factual foundation.’ (‘Making Light of Apologetics,’ Facts and Faith, Vol. 1, No. 2 [Fall 1987]).

More serious still is the failure to consider the destructive physical implications of the hypothesis. Ross points out that any increase in the velocity of light would affect the luminosity of the sun. The sun’s energy comes from nuclear fusion taking place in its core. Since, according to Einstein’s formula, the energy release from nuclear fusion is proportional to the square of the velocity of light, even the slightest increase in its velocity would dramatically increase its temperature, so as to exterminate all life Earth. Even the 3% change represented by the difference between Rømer’s original figure and currently accepted values would be problematic, Ross points out, ‘let alone the factors of several million required by a creation time scale of only six thousand years.’

In short, I am not convinced by young Earth claims, which seem at variance with both physical laws and scientific observation. The variables do not seem to me to be more than one would expect with the improvement in measuring methods and instruments. The destructive implications of even small variations in the velocity of light rule out the decay rates claimed by Setterfield and Norman.

 

Time - Curse or Blessing?

Let us turn from speculation to the biblical text. There is one important implication of the term ‘day’ in Genesis that is often overlooked: a ‘day’ is a specific, concrete, finite amount of time. Time doesn’t come to us in a stream of infinity; it comes to us packaged in discrete units, suited to our creaturely finitude. Imagine what it would be like if we lived in a stream of time, rather than time marked by specific days. How boring, or alternatively, how exhausting, it would be! Time would be a curse, not a blessing.

Imagine what it would be like to live on Jupiter, with each day roaring past every 9 hours 55 minutes 30 seconds - what a frantic life our business executives and stockbrokers would have to lead! Or, conversely, on Mercury, where each day takes two Mercury years, 176 Earth days! What an endurance test, what an exercise in survival each day would be! The blessing of specific days is an example of the anthropic principle, that the Creator has carefully shaped the universe to be a suitable habitat for human life, right down to the time in which we live.

Biblical time goes from evening to morning, the opposite of our way of marking time. ‘There was evening and there was morning, the first day.’ (Genesis 1:5). Why the reverse order here? Clearly, this is the origin of the Jewish method of reckoning time, especially the Sabbath. The Jewish day begins at 6 pm, at evening, around sunset. It begins with evening, then moves to morning.

Nature’s tendency is to move from order to disorder. The Law of Entropy or Second Law of Thermodynamics describes how everything in the universe tends to a state of greater disorder and disintegration. Order out of chaos is so improbable a trend that the opening chapter of the Bible mentions it six times in this repeated formula. The Hebrew word erev, meaning ‘evening’ or ‘twilight’, comes from a root meaning ‘to grow or become dark’, implying what is ‘indistinct’, ‘disordered’ or ‘chaotic’. The Hebrew word for morning is boker, meaning ‘to discern’, implying what is ‘distinct’ or ‘orderly’. ‘In the subtle language of evening and morning, centuries before the Greek words of chaos and cosmos were ever written,’ explains Gerald Schroeder, ‘the Bible described a step-by-step flow from disorder (erev) to order (boker); from the plasma of the Big Bang to the harmony of life.’ (The Science of God: The Convergence of Scientific and Biblical Wisdom [New York, Free Press, 1998] p. 97).

This progression is a source of enormous comfort. For the biblical worldview, day does not begin with light and end in darkness, commence with existence and conclude in oblivion. Rather, it moves from twilight to daylight, from disorder to order, from entropy to harmony, from death to life. The threat of night, darkness, oblivion, is flanked by the hope of the dawning of a new day - of sunrise, the resurrection morning, and eternal life. There are many passages which suggest this in the Bible. I read one this week in my personal devotions:

The path of the righteous is like the first gleam of dawn, 
shining ever brighter till the full light of day.
But the way of the wicked is like deep darkness; 
they do not know what makes them stumble.
(Proverbs 4:18-19)

We forget the dread of night-time before there was electric light. How much greater the dread of a universe without light. The late evening prayer of The Book of Common Prayer expresses our dependence on God to bring us through the darkness of night to each new day: ‘Lighten our darkness we beseech you O God, and by your great mercy defend us from all perils and dangers of this night, for the sake of your only Son our Saviour Jesus Christ, Amen.’