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.