By Zalman Friedman
How old is the world? It depends who you ask.
By the Torah’s account, the world is no older than 6,000 years. Scientists, however, are certain that the world is billions of years old. Quite the discrepancy.
Some religious advocates dismiss the findings of science outright. They argue that the Torah is the absolute truth, and the Torah says the world is 5,776 years old, so the world must be 5,776 years old. The scientists, they say, must be wrong.
But the scientists are quite sure that they’ve got it right. They point to the fossil record, for example, which features specimens from creatures who lived long before 6,000 years ago. They date these fossils in many different ways, one being layers of rock. Simply stated, as time passes, rocks, soil, and all manner of items are compressed by intense and consistent water pressure, ultimately becoming a layer of rock. As time passes, layers upon layers of rock form, until the present day, when one can easily make out these rock layers in the side of a canyon, witnessing years and years of history all the way down. Scientists can calculate how old a particular layer is, and consequently how old the fossils in that layer (and other layers) are. And they are quite certain that the vast majority of those layers are greater than 6,000 years old.
But, the religious advocates argue (and this idea is actually mentioned by the Rebbe), how could the scientists possibly know the conditions of the world thousands of years ago? Maybe atmospheric conditions back then were such that they would cause items to age (or appear to age) at a much quicker rate, making them seem much more ancient than they actually are. This is especially true when one considers that the Flood as described in the Torah must have had quite a significant effect on the physics of the world in general, and particularly under water.
However, there are some indicators that are impossible to explain in this away. Take the stars, for example. Through variations in light’s properties and other factors, scientists are able to calculate the distance that light has traveled, and consequently the distance of any given star. There is little doubt that the vast majority of stars in our galaxy are much further than 6,000 light years away, let alone the stars beyond our galaxy. Astronomical distances are measured by the amount of time it takes light to travel a given distance, which means that if we see a star 10,000 light years away, its light must have begun traveling at least 10,000 years ago. And we can see stars that are millions of light years away!
But it gets better! Not only do we witness stars that are millions of light years away, we can and do witness some of those stars collapse. Being that the star is millions of light years away, we are actually witnessing the collapse of the star from millions of years ago.
Taking this into account, it’s quite difficult indeed to maintain that the world is less than 6,000 years old.
The classic Orthodox resolution to this seemingly major conflict, is to reexamine the account of Creation. Based on accepted sources which define the days of Creation as eras, it has been suggested (most prominently by the Tiferes Yisroel) that Creation can be understood to describe the entirety of history from the Big Bang up until the creation of Adam 5,776 years ago. This approach neatly aligns Torah’s account with that of the scientists for a peaceful resolution.
This solution, however, is not without critique. In particular, the Rebbe argued that it messes with basic tenets of Judaism, most notably that we observe Shabbos weekly to commemorate the six days of Creation. What happens to Shabbos if “days” doesn’t actually mean “days”? But more importantly, this willingness to reinterpret the most basic of all Torah accounts sets a dangerous precedent for resolving similar conflicts in the future.
The Rebbe advocated for a different approach to this conflict (originally conceived in the 19th century), namely that Hashem created an old world. Adam, for example, was certainly created as a mature adult, not a one-day-old baby. When the Torah describes the creation of trees and plants, it is evident that these were created fully grown on day one. In the same vein, the Rebbe says, Hashem created a world in six days that appears to be billions of years old.
The immediate rebuttal that is inevitably argued when presenting this solution is: What would be the purpose of this? Why would Hashem trick us into thinking that the world is older than it actually is? Why would He deliberately falsify the physical record by planting misleading evidence in the form of fossils and distant stars? Is He trying to confuse us?
The answer to this question comes in multiple stages. First, we need to recognize that Hashem didn’t deliberately plant or falsify anything. We need to think of this differently. Hashem created a theoretical timeline of all of existence, starting from the Big Bang and spanning billions of years. In this theoretical timeline, stars are born and die, dinosaurs roam the earth, and men fight grand wars. Then, at a very specific point in this timeline, Hashem took a snapshot of the entire universe, exactly as it would look at that moment, and that’s what He created. In other words, Hashem brought a billions-year-old world into existence, with all its wrinkles and wisdom, with all its history and memories.
But why did Hashem create the world in this way? It is because He wanted a completely natural world, one that doesn’t trace itself back to a Creator, one from which Hashem can remain obscured. A world whose history begins abruptly proves the existence of its Creator. But one that has a complete history on its own just demonstrates its own existence. Hashem wants us to find and serve Him using our own good will, not influenced by dry evidence pulled out of the ground. So He hides behind a fully-formed world with a complete, comprehensive history.
And this brings us to our final question. Why didn’t Hashem create the world billions of years ago, the natural point at which it came into existence? That way, there wouldn’t be any trickery at all! The reason for this is plain, too: it all comes down to purpose: For what purpose did Hashem create the world? It is so that people can invite Him inside it, thereby making the world better. That purpose can only be fulfilled once people are around. So, if He would have created the world from the beginning, He would have had to wait billions of years before anything interesting happened! Why would He do that? Instead, He chose the moment in time which (even by scientific consensus) marks the relative beginning of civilization, so that His plan for the world could immediately be put into action.
The details of the Torah’s account of Creation teach us the powerful lesson of who we are and what we can accomplish. Hashem created the world for one reason: so that self-motivated people, not coerced by external influences, can improve the world by helping one another and connecting to Hashem. Let’s commit ourselves to do just that.
15 thoughts on “The Age of the Universe”
Fascinating insight. Thank you.
Did I understand you correctly in that the big bang theory is actually conceptually true according to the Rebbe?
The Rebbe clearly rejected the theory of evolution as incompatible with Torah’s understanding of life, and expressed significant skepticism on the ability of scientists to accurately determine what happened in the distant past. Besides for that, I have not seen anything in particular that would question the compatibility of the big bang theory (on its own) with Torah.
What part of Torah ?
It may be more accurate to say that the Rebbe rejected Darwin’s theory of evolution (that we came from monkeys etc). Evolution certainly exists and life evolves – just Darwin’s “theory” is not consistent with our belief in creation of the world.
Carbon dating is a common argument against creationism – the Rebbe has a great letter explaining how carbon dating is not consistent with the scientific method and therefore not a sound scientific proof that the world or rocks/fossils are billions of years old. The argument that the world was created as a mature world would certainly coincide with this argument if it were to be true. The letter is worth finding…
Very nice point, however carbon dating has nothing to do with the consistency of Darwin’s theory of evolution which has been proven through genetics. With regards to figuring out how old fossils and ancient rock are, there are several methods. Carbon dating is simply one of the methods. We now have radioactive dating which is far more accurate, as it peers into the micro realm, which has a consistent aging process that we can see. There is also molecular dating, which is the process of certain molecules decaying into other forms of the same molecule over time. For example, carbon 13 decays into carbon 14 at a steady and consistent bases which tells us how long ago the organism was alive. While this may be a form of carbon dating, there are other elements that have the same processes.
The Rebbe seems to reject evolution between the “Kingdoms” (inanimate, vegetation, animal, human) — see Mind Over Matter p. 44.
The letter you mention is linked to in the article.
Phenomenal Sefer, in English even!
The explanation that the stars seem to be older than they actually are only explains why the universe isn’t necessarily as old as the evidence suggests it is. But that doesn’t explain away the age of life on earth, let alone the age of the planet itself.
He cruises right over the fact that if the flood were to occur at the time the Torah places it, than we should expect to find at least 11 new species every single day.
4,000 years since flood
Estimated 7,000 ‘kinds’ (of animals Noah brought onto the ark)
16,000,000 species alive today (likely 50-100 million including bacteria etc)
16,000,000 new species, minus 7,000 kinds on the ark.
= 15,993,000 species
Divided by 4,000 years (365 1/4 days/year)
= 11 new species /day
According to the math we should expect to find at least 11 new species every single day. And that’s just counting species alive today! If you factor in extinct species that daily average only gets higher.
To quote Bill Nye ‘that would mean that you would go out to your yard and find not just another bird, a whole nother kind of bird. It looks different, it’s a whole new species. And the same thing with fish and other animals etc. Every single day!’
This is a very interesting argument. Where does the estimate of animals on the ark come from?
And, your argument assumes a constant rate of speciation. There is no indication, by any measure, that species evolve at a constant rate.
Great article. Just want to point out that the Rebbe was also always emphatic that Torah has no need to bend or apologize to science. The truth of Torah is absolute and it is science that must “figure out” how to become compatible with Torah. Even if science today contradicts some truths of Torah, eventually they will come around, as science is anyways a constantly evolving and changing set of “truths
That is an inaccurate statement.
Science should be categorized as follows; we see an event in the universe and create a theory based on said event, this theory remains a theory until it has evidence to back it. ONLY then does it become factual science and a theory no more.
In other words, science poses a question, than attempts to answer the question. And we only consider the answer a valid answer to the question once we’ve questioned and re-questioned that answer, and confirm via fact based evidence that the answer is a true answer.
Whereas religion (and philosophy) try to answer a question that they don’t bother asking.
Science relies on evidence based facts that are testable and replicable in the lab. Religion relies on ‘facts’ that are based on a book written thirty centuries ago, likely in the chambers of Dovid Hamelech.
So the answer is no, science doesn’t have constantly evolving ‘truths’. Rather it is only science if it can be considered physically true (testable) and yes after much discussion, questioning, and twisting the theory in each possible way, do we consider this the likely outcome. Science doesn’t change its mind, rather the more mystery of the universe we uncover the clearer and more solidified those theories become. A successful theory is one which can withstand the test of time.
Einstein predicted black holes and much more in his 1915 Theory of General Relativity. This was only confirmed much later (I think in 2015!).
Charles Darwin published The Origins of Species in 1859. We have successfully sequenced the human genome for the first time in 2003, confirming Darwin’s predictions of the inner and essential workings of evolution.
And the list goes on.
“וואס איז ווערט די גאנצע השכלה”
א איד האט א נשמה און ער האט אמונה פשוטה אין הקב”ה און אין תורה, און די איינציקע נויטיקע זאך איז לערנען תורה און היטן מצות מיט יראת שמים און א הרגש אלקי”
I just came across this article and I am rather shocked by it. It presents a sophomoric understanding of G-d at best and borderline if not outright kefirah.
1) Evolution is a ‘theory’ not a reality. To date, every genetic mutation we know of in humans, the very foundation of the theory of evolution, has brought about weakness, illness or premature death in humans, not an enhancement to the ‘next level’. Yes, there is the general concept of slight genetic evolution, but that is within the species in benign matters. Nothing of the sort needed to create the world as we know it today.
2) The big bang theory (with the exception of a few apologists) is accepted as kefirah. Nothing creates itself, no matter how much time you give it. Even science says that energy cannot be created or destroyed. It just changes forms. It is intellectually dishonest to accept the big bang theory. If you saw a toy lego castle and were told that someone took all the 1000 lego pieces, put them in a bag and shook it for 10 years and all the pieces just fell together, you would not believe him. you wouldn’t believe him if he told you it was shaken for 1 billion years. Reason being: when it comes to random matters, they do not go with a steady march forward with improvements. Some pieces will fall together and then with the next shake others will fall together while those first ones fall apart. It’s a logical absurdity. The same standard you would apply to a lego castle, you should intellectually apply to the infinitely more complicated human body and the world at large. Bear in mind that with the lego castle, I am also providing you with a bunch of ready made parts that just have to fall together. Let alone when the parts have to made from scratch.
3) To say that Hashem would have had to wait billions of years, is absurd and wrong. G-d is above time. A billion years is like a fraction of a second to G-d. There is no ‘waiting around’ when it comes to G-d! 5776 years and 1 billion years is the same to Him.
4) Hashem did create the world abruptly (well 6 days) and it does track back to a creator. Adam and Eve did not question the existence of G-d nor did the early generations (though they mistakenly attributed sub-powers to things such as the sun and moon etc.). But G-d created man with an evil inclination and the ability to make mistakes. As time went on, those mistakes increased.
5) You state in your article that: why would Hashem create a world that looks old which would be false and misleading? Then later you hypothesize that Hashem did not create a world abruptly so as to not make the concept of a creator obvious, presumably thereby giving people the ability to mistakenly believe there is no G-d. Which one is it? Is he trying to trick us or not?
6) The truth of the matter is, G-d created a ready made world. Adam was created a man of 30 years old. Had you tested his DNA it would say that he was 30. But in reality he was 1 day old. If you cut down a tree, the rings would show that it was 100’s of years old when in reality it was only 1 day old.
Why would Hashem allow such a seemingly tricky and potentially misleading scenario to exist? The answer lies in Deuteronomy 14:4. Those verses discuss about a false prophet that does a miracle or a sign and it comes to be. Then he tells you to go against the Torah. You need to put him to death. But he just pulled off a miracle? Surely G-d must have helped him! Says the verse: “…for the Lord, your God, is testing you, to know whether you really love the Lord, your God, with all your heart and with all your soul.” It’s that simple. G-d created the world and also the ability for man to make a mistake as to His existence thereby.
7) The reality is, that this is all an exercise in futility. It has no practical bearing in our day to day life at all. We believe in the Torah as a result of the historical event that took place at Har Sinai that the entire nation witnessed. That gave us our directives going forward. Based on that same Torah, we say the world is 5776 years old. Science disagrees? We have ways (as stated above) of how to explain that. But in reality…who cares? Are there mitzvos that fall away because of the age of the world? Once we have a historically established fact of the giving of the Torah, once we accept G-d as the creator of the world, why is it so hard to believe He created a ready made one 5776 years ago that looks a lot older than it is? The rest is a distraction, an excuse for some to avoid their G-d given responsibilities. Its a slippery ride down the atheist/agnostic rabbit hole from which no good can come out.
This was a great article that I will share with people. I would add that the appearance of a conflict between a very old and very young universe contributes to free will on this particular point. If it was blatantly obvious that the universe was young, we would be compelled to honor God. If it was blatantly obvious that it was old, we would be compelled to believe that God does not exist. That we are left with palpable evidence to each position allows us to exercise our free will.