July 8, 2019

It's About Time: Creation and the Theory of Relativity

We know that 60 seconds make up a minute, 60 minutes make up an hour, there are 24 hours in a day, seven days in a week, and so on. Humans are obsessed with time. We celebrate the passage of it with anniversaries and birthdays, we plan our waking activities around it, and we build clocks of all different shapes and sizes, from Stonehenge to cuckoo clocks to building sized monuments like Big Ben, to smart watches synchronized automatically by your cellular network to super-precise atomic clocks.

Peter Cetera, in a song by his band, Chicago, famously asked, Does Anyone Really Know What Time It Is? As it turns out, that question may be a lot harder to answer than you think.

Keeping track of time is far more complicated than simply reading the clock on your wall or looking at your smart phone screen. In part, you can blame Dr. Albert Einstein and his theory of relativity.

We’re all familiar with the idea that time flies when you’re having fun, and that it drags by at a snail’s pace when you’re in line at the DMV. But the truth is, time passes at the same rate whether it’s the weekend or Monday morning.

Or… does it? It really all depends on your point of view. Literally.

Albert Einstein first began describing conditions which could change the rate at which time passes as early as 1905. There are two ways this happens. One of them is related to how quickly an object is traveling through spacetime. The other is related to gravity, such as how close an object is to something like a planet or a black hole.

Let’s talk about speed first: when you travel at extremely high speeds, your clock ticks more slowly than my clock if I am standing still. Now if you like to drive really fast, you might be thinking hey, this is great news! If I drive super fast all the time, I’ll stay younger and live longer compared to everybody else! Sorry, but aside from the obvious safety concerns - and speeding tickets - your automobile can’t move quickly enough to cause any measurable time dilation effects. You have to be moving much, much faster before time starts to get all wibbly-wobbly. But driving your car can still be affected by relativity in a slightly different way…

If you use GPS navigation, then you need to thank Dr. Einstein for figuring out this whole relativity and time dilation thing, because without his theories, GPS just wouldn’t be possible. The satellites that make up the Global Positioning System are orbiting the earth at about 14,000 km/hr (8700 mph), circling our planet twice every day. That’s really fast - fast enough to see some time dilation, but not much! Even at that ridiculous speed, their clocks are only slowed down by about 7 microseconds (that’s 7 millionths of a second) every day. 

But wait! There’s more!

Remember, gravity has a role to play, as well. Humans and cars on the surface of the earth experience time differently than satellites in orbit - due not only to differences in speed, but also because of the effects of gravity. As it turns out, the closer you get to a strong source of gravity, the slower your clock will tick compared to an object farther away. GPS satellites orbit the Earth at a distance of over 20,000 km (12,500 miles). The Earth’s gravity has considerably less effect on them, which speeds up their clocks, relative to ours.

The difference in gravity causes clocks in GPS orbit to run at a rate 45 microseconds per day faster than what we experience on Earth’s surface. So if you take away the 7 microsecond “slowdown” caused by the speed of the satellites, the net effect is an increase of 38 microseconds per day.

Now you might be thinking that doesn’t sound like very much (and it would take over 72 years for the system to drift by as much as one second), but if this tiny difference in the measurement of time was left uncorrected, your GPS would start to seriously lose accuracy after only 2 minutes. By the end of the day, you would find yourself more than 10 km (6 miles) off-course!

Time is weird.

Now you might be saying at this point, hey man, that’s all really cool and interesting, but isn’t this a religion blog? What does all this wibbly-wobbly timey-wimey stuff have to do with the Bible?

I’m glad you asked.

The Bible actually describes time in much the same way as Einstein’s theory of relativity. The passage of time depends upon your frame of reference, or point of view. Not opinions ObiWan, but the actual physical location of the point from which you are viewing the passage of time. I have previously written about causality, and how scientists can use math and physics to trace cause and effect back to the point of the beginning of spacetime - but no further. Science has no way of explaining the cosmic situation before the beginning of the universe. I also pointed out that God, as the creator of the universe, indeed, as the creator of spacetime itself, must exist independently, outside of our spacetime. Because of this, He doesn’t measure time in the same way that we do.

He literally sees time from a different point of view.

…with the Lord one day is as a thousand years, and a thousand years as one day.
~ 2 Peter 3:8 (NKJV)

Now first of all, let me make it clear that Peter is not giving us a mathematical formula to interpret Biblical numerology. The context of the passage has to do with questions some people were asking about why Jesus seems to be taking so long to make his promised return. Peter uses a little fancy language here to point out that the Lord doesn’t operate according to insignificant human timetables.

One of the most controversial passages in the Bible is found in the very first chapter of Genesis, where God is said to have created the world, all kinds of life, and pretty much everything in 6 days. Then, on the 7th day, He rested.

Let me be Captain Obvious for just a moment. If the Bible says creation happened in a week, but science says the universe was billions of years old before the earth even formed…

Houston, we have a problem.

My purpose in writing articles such as this is to establish some common ground where Christians and non-Christians can find some mutual understanding. I’m not trying to prove or disprove either side. So, keeping that in mind, let’s see what both sides can agree on.

Regarding time: Both science and the Bible indicate that the passage of time is variable. Both indicate that time depends upon reference frames, or point of view. Given that point of agreement, what implications can be drawn regarding the obvious points of conflict?


If you are an atheist and believe that science has all the answers, you have to agree that science can only trace causality back to the beginning of time, and the big bang (so far, at least) seems to be the best scientific explanation for the beginning of life, the universe, and everything. But before that, science can’t provide anything definitive, and therefore, can’t disprove the existence of some kind of intelligent creator, whether it’s the Christian God or a hyperdimensional quantum AI running a universe simulator.

Whatever caused the universe to begin to exist is, scientifically speaking, an unknown - and it might, in fact, be unknowable. It is vital for science to set aside supernatural explanations in order to understand natural processes, but the assumption that there can be no God is simply that - an assumption. Conveniently (or perhaps inconveniently, depending on your point of view), that assumption can be neither proven nor disproven by the scientific method, because if God does exist, He exists outside of spacetime, and is beyond the reach of scientific observation and experimentation.

Furthermore, questions about God and spirituality are not the point of science at all. Science is about explaining how the universe functions, and that requires information. Scientists are always on the lookout for new information to work out problems like the origin of the universe or how to reconcile the conflicts between relativity and quantum physics when it comes to the nature of gravity. Any good scientist will freely admit that we don’t have all the answers yet, but their job is to come up with explanations that make sense of the data we do already have, even though finding one new piece of information tomorrow could potentially disprove a lifetime (or more) of scientific study.


Now, if you are a Christian creationist and you’re getting ready to make a victory lap based on the last three paragraphs… hold up. Let’s consider what 2 Peter 3:8 implies for you.

Remember: God doesn’t view time the same way that we do. The seven days mentioned in Genesis 1 from God’s reference frame could very well be a symbolic representation of some unspecified amount of time from our point of view. This possibility does not make the account of creation any less true; rather, it shifts the focus of the passage away from a mere physical explanation of God’s process of creation to the far more important matter of spiritual truth.

There is a lot of figurative language used throughout the Bible, and Jesus actually taught in parables quite often. The account of the creation week in Genesis may well be a parable of sorts. If that is the case, this means that while the creation of the universe didn’t literally happen in seven 24 hour days as we currently measure them, God chose to present it to us that way in order to teach us something deeper, which is an idea I look forward to exploring in future posts. (Not enough time to do it in this one!)

I know that right now there are Bible absolutists who are pulling their hair out and screaming at me that if I don’t believe in the literal seven day creation story then I’m not a Christian and I will burn in hell for it.

Let’s look back at something I said earlier: questions about God and spirituality are not the point of science at all. The second half of that thought is that the Bible was not written to give us a science lesson. The whole point of the Bible is to look beyond the mask of the physical world we see and reveal to us a far more important spiritual realm. Yes, there are a great number of factual things recorded in the Bible (real people, real places, real events, etc.), but they are of little importance compared to the spiritual lessons which they always represent.

But to be fair, I must also say that God is God, and God can do whatever God wants to do, however God wants to do it. If the Almighty actually did all of the sewing and stitching together of the fabric of the universe in 144 hours and then took a 24 hour break, who am I to argue with that?


It seems to me that God, as presented in the Bible, places a great deal of value on truth - especially hidden truths that you have to search for…

 It is the glory of God to conceal a thing: but the honour of kings is to search out a matter.
~ Proverbs 25:2 (KJV)

…and He doesn’t much care for lies. Given that the evidence which scientists have gathered so far seems to indicate a universe which is billions of years old, and given that I don’t see any reason presented in scripture for God to plant false evidence (that’s totally contrary to His nature), I believe it is reasonable to at least consider the idea that the seven day creation story may be a parable, rather than a literal physical description of the events that took place.

More to the point: if we, as Christians, expect to reach out to the world and share the gospel, the good news, the story of God’s love and humanity’s redemption through Christ, then we seriously need to focus on spiritual matters: things like love, joy, peace, patience, kindness, goodness, faithfulness, gentleness, and self-control (Galatians 5:22-23). The primary lesson of Genesis 1 is that God is the creator. Any other details which we have been given are there to teach us the things of God, the things of the spirit - not the things of the physical world.

…whatever was written in former days was written for our instruction, that through endurance and through the encouragement of the Scriptures we might have hope.
~ Romans 15:4 (ESV)

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