Did Jesus lie about the age of the universe?

My friend from christiannews.net, Reason2012, crafted a very thorough and carefully reasoned response to one of my posts. Much of it concerns what Jesus Himself believed about Creation since, as the Bible clearly states, He was present at the creation of the world. And he makes a very valid point that we shouldn’t distort Scripture because it makes us uncomfortable by not comporting with our scientific point of view. Given the absolute sovereignty of God, there is every reason to assume that He may create His universe in whatever form He pleases and I can’t refute that. Omnipotence pretty much trumps everything.

However, I want to lay out some additional thoughts in relation to his response that clarifies my point of view. He begins by quoting part of my response.

“And what we know for certain about light makes it impossible for the universe to be much less than 13 BILLION years old.”
No, all we “know” on this topic are assumptions
– we ASSUME light traveled the same speed since light first existed
– we ASSUME God cannot change that speed
– we ASSUME God cannot create other things, heavenly bodies, in mature form where we assume they went through other processes before their current state when God could have easily created them in mature form skipping previous ‘states’ as well.

Following that logic, it would also be possible to say that God created the entire universe ten seconds ago with you having a memory of your entire life even though it didn’t “really” happen. That is PROBABLY absurd. (And not exactly Scriptural) But it leaves us with a quandary.

We know from Scripture that God’s nature is clearly evident in His creation.

For since the creation of the world God’s invisible qualities—his eternal power and divine nature—have been clearly seen, being understood from what has been made, so that people are without excuse. – Romans 1:20 NIV [emphasis mine]

The crux of the problem is this: when what we can “clearly see” does not jibe with what we understand from God’s Word, it seems as if we have to make a choice. Do we believe the Bible or do we believe the evidence of our senses (science)? Since both reflect the truth of God’s nature they can’t disagree. Do we distort the Word to make it conform to science, or do we distort science to make it conform to the Word? Or is it possible that we can believe that both are true but the reconciliation of the two exceeds our present understanding?

Before I delve into this, let’s first consider for a moment language in the context of culture. As I mentioned before, I was at one time an anthropology major concentrating in linguistics. The study of contemporary cultures from a socio-linguistic context shows that language and culture are so inextricably intertwined that it may be said that they are each an expression of the same thing. And language operates at multiple levels. At the lowest levels, it exists as unarticulated concepts. The process of translating from one language to another is, at its root, the reduction of one language to its conceptual level and the re-articulation of these concepts back into the target language. And since language and culture are so intertwined, a culture that lacks a particular concept will not have the means of expressing it. We see this in modern day translation when one language “borrows” from another because it is better expressed that way. For example, there is a word in German, schadenfreude that expresses the idea of deriving  pleasure from another’s misfortune. There is no succinct way of expressing that concept in English so it was borrowed and is now a legitimate English word.There are many words borrowed from English that appear in other languages albeit in their phonology. For example, the word “steak” (or beef steak) appears in French as biftec, in Spanish as bistec, in Japanese as suteki.

In observing language development in children, we see that their use of language reflects their level of conceptual ability. If a five-year-old asks his father “what makes the car go,” he will probably be able to grasp the concept that the big thing under the hood “eats” gas and pushes the car. Dad will probably not get into the details of the internal combustion engine. And it is much the same with cultures. Human beings can only understand language in the context of their existing categories. And while they are certainly capable of learning new concepts, attempting to convey information information radically beyond their understanding is not likely to be fruitful.

So now let us now consider the Holy Spirit inspiring the writer of Genesis. There’s a pretty good chance that the Biblical story of creation existed in oral form long before it was written down, but for the sake of argument let’s assume that Moses sat down with pen and papyrus and under the guidance of the Holy Spirit began to recount the story of creation.  Keep in mind that this is God the Holy Spirit who knows all of nature down to the tiniest details. And again for the sake of argument, let us assume that the universe was created 13 billion years ago, that the stars are distributed in three-dimensional space and not attached to the inside of a solid sphere (or “firmament”), and that the Earth is not its center, that matter is not composed of uniform substances but is composed of indescribably tiny particles. How could this information be conveyed in a true sense but still be comprehensible to Moses? In my opinion it was God’s intended purpose to convey the parts of the message that were essential for the spiritual life of the Jews in categories that were comprehensible in their culture. Did God lie? Is the withholding of unnecessary details dishonest or is it expedient?

So when Jesus spoke to His disciples, he spoke to them as the first-century Palestinians they were. Did he lie because He omitted the details of the Higgs boson? He had a very few years in which to convey the vitally important details of God’s plan of salvation. (Even then they didn’t understand Him a lot of the time). So he used terms with which they were already familiar. In their minds the world was the center of the universe and was recent in origin. Would it have served any purpose for Him to expound on the fact that when he said “from the beginning” he was referring to a time less than 13 billion years ago but more than several thousand?

In the intervening two thousand years we have learned a lot more about God’s creation and it continues to astound us how infinitely beautiful, complex and massive it really is. If Jesus were speaking to us today, would it make sense for Him to speak to us as first-century Palestininans, or would He have the ability to offer us even deeper understandings of the creation? (I picture him at CERN explaining to the particle physicists how to improve their experiments.) Why, then, do we insist on reading the Bible as if we were Palestinian fisherman?

By approaching it this way there is no need to distort Scripture, nor to reject our scientific understanding of the universe. Why, after all, did God give us such powerful brains? As our understanding increases we usually find that it conforms to the Scriptures in a way we could never have imagined. Who would have thought that the discovery of the background microwave radiation would settle the dispute among astronomers and cosmologists as to whether the universe had a beginning or had always existed. When the truth was finally determined, it turns out that Genesis was right, that everything that exists was brought into being all at once out of nothing.

We will not always be able to harmonize what we can discover through our senses with what the Holy Spirit teaches us, but when there are apparent conflicts we can say that we’re still very young and continue to learn at the feet of our Father.

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