Science & Religion #14: Earth, In The Beginning…By: Mike S
In the beginning God created the heaven and the earth. And the earth was without form, and void; and darkness was upon the face of the deep. And the Spirit of God moved upon the face of the waters. (Genesis 1:1-2)
So begins the Old Testament. So begins the next section of this series.
How was the earth created? When was the earth created? Why was the earth created? These questions have been asked for thousands of years. And for thousands of years, the only answers have been passed down through religious texts or myths or propositions. Every culture has its creation story about how the earth came to be.
Over the past few hundred years, as people have started looking at the world around them, they have tried to see what the earth itself has had to say about the process. While this knowledge is still developing, there is a lot that has been discovered about how and when this all occurred.
So for this post, as per the underlying philosophy behind this series, we will look at what science has to say about how the earth was created, what religion has to say about how the earth was created, and how these two may or may not agree or disagree.
There have been many theories of planetary formation. And we have lately discovered that there are A LOT of planets. The Kepler telescope was specifically designed to look for extrasolar planets. Looking at its initial data (which is still being analyzed), it is estimated that there are at least 50 BILLION planets in just the Milky Way galaxy, with other estimates as high as 100 billion terrestrial planets alone. So, planets form. How?
In the universe, and particularly in galaxies, there are clouds of dust. Some may be left over from the Big Bang, consisting of primarily hydrogen and helium. Some is left over material from exploded stars, which accounts for higher numbered elements. Since we have these higher elements all around us (including in our bodies), we know the earth formed from at least some material from stars that have died and exploded.
Because of random fluctuations, perhaps because of a nearby shock wave, some area of this cloud of material started to coalesce. As an area became more dense, its increased gravity attracted more material and things started to clump together. A flattened disk of material formed around the center. The bulk of the mass eventually formed the Sun in the center of the system. Other material coalesced into the planets orbiting the sun. And here we are, on a speck of rock orbiting the sun. We have comets periodically visiting us from the outer reaches of the solar system. We have Jupiter helping to protect the inner planets. We have visited these worlds with spacecraft. We have landed on some of them, including their moons.
In the past decade, we have also seen these same processes at work in the universe around us. We have seen stars forming in stellar nurseries. We have seen accretion disks around protostars. We have pictures of planets around other stars (the gray picture below actually shows 3 planets around a nearby star). It is absolutely fascinating to me.
So, what does religion have to say about this? There are the myths about turtles and such, which I won’t really go into here. In the Judeo-Christian tradition to which we belong, religion actually says very little. In Genesis, we really have just what is given above – God created the heavens and the earth. Some readings suggest that he “organized” the materials, implying that the earth was made of preexisting material as opposed to being created out of nothing. From a very SMALL amount of canonized material, however, things have been speculated upon quite a bit.
Based upon some teachings attributed to Joseph Smith, a number of early LDS Church leaders proposed many theories. For example, consider this quote by President Brigham Young:
When the earth was framed and brought into existence and man was placedupon it, it was near the throne of our Father in Heaven. And when man fell . .. the earth fell into space, and took up its abode in this planetary system, andthe sun became our light . . . This is the glory the earth came from, and whenit is glorified it will return again unto the presence of the Father.
President John Taylor also taught that earth was created near Kolob over a 6000 year time period, then “flung” to it’s present place in the solar system after the fall of Adam. This was also taught by Charles Evans and many others. This theory is still advanced today. For example, you can download a 98-page PDF copy of “The Kolob Theorem” by Lynn Hilton that proposes to incorporate these teachings into findings from modern astronomy. As per many of these teachings, there are many people who teach that after the Millennium that the earth will return to its original orbit around Kolob.
There are all sorts of other theories. Some people teach, for example, that comets were created during the Flood when the “fountains of the great deep and the sustained power of an ‘ocean’ of high-pressure, supercritical water jetted into the vacuum of space launching comets into the solar system“. There are theories that the earth was created around 4525 BC (instead of 4+ billion years ago) because the speed of light used to be “6 x 1011 times its current speed” but has dropped exponentially. There are a number of other theories as well.
So how can we resolve these different viewpoints? I suppose it comes down to whether you tend to believe in an Inside-Out or and Outside-In way of looking at the world. Do you believe that we should read the Bible, for example, and determine what we should see in the world around us based on that? Or do we look at the world around us and see how this relates to the Bible? How do we reconcile the Religious Search for Truth and the Scientific Search for Truth?
I obviously ascribe most to the Outside-In viewpoint. Several comments based on this:
- The current model of planetary formation is perfectly compatible with the few verses of canonized scripture we have regarding the creation. All the scriptures really say is that God created the heavens and the earth. They don’t tell us HOW God created the earth, but suggest WHY we are here. This contrasts with science, which doesn’t really suggest WHY we are here, but focuses on the HOW. In my mind, there are no religious problems with the current models.
- Many LDS people bring up teachings of early Church leaders to propose fairly outlandish theories, about the earth being “born” underwater and budding off, about the earth being formed near Kolob and somehow traveling through space to the Sun (where it settled into a stable orbit and didn’t freeze solid during the trip), etc. But these same early Church leaders also talked about the inhabitants of the Sun (scroll to page 273), or what the inhabitants of the moon would look like when we sent missionaries there. They were certainly entitled to their opinions on these things. But, if someone is basing an entire model for formation of the earth near Kolob on a few sayings of early Church leaders, then they need to account for why the Apollo astronauts didn’t see any of the people on the moon we are supposed to be sharing the gospel with.
- Joseph Smith DID teach that there are countless other worlds in the universe around us in the Book of Abraham, for example. As above, recent discoveries suggest that there are literally BILLIONS of planets just in our galaxy, let alone the billions of galaxies in the universe. This is cool.
- Perhaps there is nothing special about the earth other than the fact that we live here. Perhaps God “created” everything in the sense that He started this whole process. There are tens of billions of planets everywhere we look. Perhaps He looks at the billions of planets forming and finds one suitable for Man. Perhaps He says, “There is space here. Let’s go down and get things ready for man.”
- So, perhaps the Earth really is just a speck of rock orbiting an average star, meaningless in the eternal scheme of things, except for the fact that WE are here. It’s useful for now, but that’s about it. This doesn’t bother me at all, but instead makes it more magnificent. If finding a planet that is “just right” is as rare as a blind turtle surfacing in the middle of an ocean and finding himself in the middle of a single floating ring, it makes me want to take care of the planet even more. It makes me want to take care of my brothers and sisters on this little speck of rock even more – as we’re all in this together. It makes all of us being here a profoundly beautiful thing.
In our next post, we are going to talk about WHEN all this happened. Is it measured in thousands of years? Is it measured in billions of years? How does radiometric dating work? How do we know WHEN things happened?
- Do you think the earth formed around the Sun or were was the earth created somewhere else and transported here as some people suggest?
- Do you think the earth was specifically created for man, or did it just form randomly and, because it COULD support man, God put man here?
- If this is “just” a speck of rock that serves a purpose for a while, what do you make of the teachings that the earth will be “Celestialized”? Will earth return to Kolob in a physical sense? What does that mean?
- Were the people on the moon hiding from the astronauts, or were many of the teachings of the early church leaders just their own personal opinions reflecting thoughts of the society around them? And if they were just their own personal opinions accepted by many at the time as something more, does the same thing happen today?