This article contains too many or overly lengthy quotations for an encyclopedic entry. (January 2016)
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The omphalos hypothesis is one attempt to reconcile the scientific evidence that the universe is billions of years old with a literal interpretation of the Genesis creation narrative, which implies that the Earth is only a few thousand years old. It is based on the religious belief that the universe was created by a divine being, within the past ten thousand years (in keeping with flood geology), and that the presence of objective, verifiable evidence that the universe is older than approximately ten millennia is entirely due to the creator introducing false evidence that makes the universe appear much, much older.
The idea was named after the title of an 1857 book, Omphalos by Philip Henry Gosse, in which Gosse argued that in order for the world to be "functional", God must have created the Earth with mountains and canyons, trees with growth rings, Adam and Eve with hair, fingernails, and navels (ὀμφαλός omphalos is Greek for "navel"), and that therefore no empirical evidence about the age of the Earth or universe can be taken as reliable.
Various supporters of Young Earth creationism have given different explanations for their belief that the universe is filled with false evidence of the universe's age, including a belief that some things needed to be created at a certain age for the ecosystems to function, or their belief that the creator was deliberately planting deceptive evidence.
The idea was widely rejected in the 19th century, when Gosse published his book. It saw some revival in the 20th century by some Young Earth creationists, who extended the argument to include visible light that appears to originate in far-off stars and galaxies.
Development of the idea
Stories of the beginning of human life based on the creation story in Genesis have been published for centuries. The 4th-century theologian Ephrem the Syrian described a world in which divine creation instantly produced fully grown organisms:
Although the grasses were only a moment old at their creation, they appeared as if they were months old. Likewise, the trees, although only a day old when they sprouted forth, were nevertheless like ... years old as they were fully grown and fruits were already budding on their branches.
By the 19th century, scientific evidence of the Earth's age had been collected, and it disagreed with a literal reading of the biblical accounts. This evidence was rejected by some writers at the time, such as François-René de Chateaubriand. Chateaubriand wrote in his 1802 book, Génie du christianisme (Part I Book IV Chapter V) that "God might have created, and doubtless did create, the world with all the marks of antiquity and completeness which it now exhibits." In modern times, Rabbi Dovid Gottlieb supported a similar position, saying that the objective scientific evidence for an old universe is strong, but wrong, and that the traditional Jewish calendar is correct.
In the middle of the 19th century, the disagreement between scientific evidence about the age of the Earth and the Western religious traditions was a significant debate among intellectuals. Gosse published Omphalos in 1857 to explain his answer to this question. He concluded that the religious tradition was correct. Gosse began with the earlier idea that the Earth contained mature organisms at the instant they were created, and that these organisms had false signs of their development, such as hair on mammals, which grows over time. He extended this idea of creating a single mature organism to creating mature systems, and concluded that fossils were an artifact of the creation process and merely part of what was necessary to make creation work. Therefore, he reasoned, fossils and other signs of the Earth's age could not be used to prove the age. His book sold poorly and was widely rejected.
Other contemporary proposals for reconciling the stories of creation in Genesis with the scientific evidence included the interval theory or gap theory of creation, in which a large interval of time passed in between the initial creation of the universe and the beginning of the six days of creation. This idea was put forward by Archbishop John Bird Sumner of Canterbury in Treatise on the Records of Creation. Another popular idea, promoted by the English theologian John Pye Smith, was that the Garden of Eden described the events of only one small location. A third proposal, by French naturalist Georges-Louis Leclerc, Comte de Buffon, held that the six "days" of the creation story were arbitrary and large ages rather than 24-hour periods.
Theologians rejected Gosse's proposal on the grounds that it seemed to make the divine creator tell lies – either lying in the scriptures, or lying in nature. Scientists rejected it on the grounds that it disagreed with uniformitarianism, an explanation of geology that was widely supported at the time, and the impossibility of testing or falsifying the idea.
Some modern creationists still argue against scientific evidence in the same way. For instance, John D. Morris, president of the Institute for Creation Research wrote in 1990 about the "appearance of age":
When Adam was created, he no doubt looked like a mature adult, fully able to walk, talk, care for the garden, etc. When God created fruit trees, they were already bearing fruit. In each case, what He created was functionally complete right from the start—able to fulfill the purpose for which it was created. Stars, created on Day Four, had to be seen to perform their purpose of usefulness in telling time; therefore, their light had to be visible on Earth right from the start.
He does not extend this idea to the geological record, preferring to believe that it was all created in the Flood, but others such as Gerald E. Aardsma go further, with his idea of "virtual history". This appears to suggest that events after the creation have changed the "virtual history" we now see, including the fossils:
This raises one more major point of difference, the handling of the Fall. Briefly, Creation with Appearance of Age runs into a theological snag with things like fossils of fish with other smaller fish in their stomachs: "Do you mean that God chose to paint, of all things, a facade of SUFFERING and DEATH onto the creation when He gave it this arbitrary appearance of age at the time of creation?" The virtual history paradigm recognizes simply that all creation type miracles entail a virtual history, so the Fall, with its creation type miracles (by which the nature of the creation was changed—"subjected to futility") carried with it its own (fallen) virtual history, which is the virtual history we now see. We do not see the original utopian pre-Fall creation with its (presumably utopian) virtual history.
The past president of the Missouri Association for Creation has said:
The appearance of age in the things which God created is a much-debated issue in contemporary Christian scientific circles. Can God—or more accurately—would God create something which at the very moment of its creation has the appearance of age? The short answer to this question may be: How Else? How, indeed, could God create anything that did not appear to us to be aged (like a fine wine) at the moment of its creation ... Maybe you thought of a visible star—depending on its distance from the earth, its light might appear to have been traveling for over a billion years to reach your eyes. All of these things would have the appearance of age and an ongoing process at the very moment of their creation.
When did false history begin?
Though Gosse's original omphalos hypothesis specifies a popular creation story, others have proposed that the idea does not preclude creation as recently as five minutes ago, including memories of times before this created in situ. This idea is sometimes called Last Thursdayism by its opponents, as in "the world might as well have been created last Thursday."
The concept is both unverifiable and unfalsifiable through any conceivable scientific study—in other words, it is impossible even in principle to subject it to any form of test, by reference to any empirical data, because the empirical data themselves are considered to have been arbitrarily created to look the way they do at every observable level of detail.
From a religious viewpoint, it can be interpreted as God having "created a fake", such as illusions of light in space of stellar explosions (supernovae) that never really happened, or volcanic mountains that were never really volcanoes in the first place and that never actually experienced erosion.
Bertrand Russell wrote, in The Analysis of Mind: "There is no logical impossibility in the hypothesis that the world sprang into being five minutes ago, exactly as it then was, with a population that 'remembered' a wholly unreal past."
The basis for Hebblethwaite's objection, however, is the presumption of a God that would not deceive people about their very humanity—an unprovable presumption that the omphalos hypothesis rejects at the outset. Hebblethwaite also suggests that God necessarily had to create certain elements of the Universe in combination with the creation of man:
To be an adult human being, we have to have gone through a real process of growth and nurture and a real history of interpersonal relation in a real and specific culture. One can even suggest that it is necessary for the Creator to have fashioned us in and through a whole evolving physical universe. As, again, Austin Farrer put it, "if God wished to make no more than any single one of us, he would need to make half a universe. And why? Because no one of us would be the creature he is, if a thousand thousand lines of converging history, both physical and personal, had not met in him. Your life or mine is but a half-sentence in the book of the world. Tear it from its place, and it cannot be read; or if it can be read, it signifies nothing".
In a rebuttal of the claim that God might have implanted a false history of the age of the Universe in order to test our faith in the truth of the Torah, Rabbi Natan Slifkin, an author whose works have been banned by several Haredi rabbis for going against the tenets of the Talmud, writes:
God essentially created two conflicting accounts of Creation: one in nature, and one in the Torah. How can it be determined which is the real story, and which is the fake designed to mislead us? One could equally propose that it is nature which presents the real story, and that the Torah was devised by God to test us with a fake history! One has to be able to rely on God's truthfulness if religion is to function. Or, to put it another way—if God went to enormous lengths to convince us that the world is billions of years old, who are we to disagree?
Red Shift Challenge
The Red Shift refers to the change in the wavelength of light that is received from objects moving away from us (thereby lengthening wavelengths, producing a red shift). Scientists interpret the red shift in light received from other galaxies as evidence that the galaxies are moving away from our own, that some galaxies are billions of light years distant from the Milky Way, and that therefore the light has been traveling for billions of years, requiring a universe billions of years in age.
According to the Omphalos Theory view, God created the red shift in light received from other galaxies in order to fool humans (beginning in the 20th century, but not before that time) into thinking that the universe is billions of years old. Among the many problems with this theory (including lack of any evidence and lack of reference to the phenomenon in the bible) is that it would require that God adjusted the shift in exquisitely precise ways for each of the billions of individual galaxies, and did so to fool humans about the age of the universe in a way that was not detectable by humans until the 20th century.
The five-minute hypothesis is a skeptical hypothesis put forth by the philosopher Bertrand Russell that proposes that the universe sprang into existence five minutes ago from nothing, with human memory and all other signs of history included. It is a commonly used example of how one may maintain extreme philosophical skepticism with regard to memory.
Borges's Tlön, Uqbar, Orbis Tertius
Jorge Luis Borges, in his 1940 work, Tlön, Uqbar, Orbis Tertius, describes a fictional world in which some essentially follow as a religious belief a philosophy much like Russell's discussion on the logical extreme of Gosse's theory:
One of the schools of Tlön goes so far as to negate time: it reasons that the present is indefinite, that the future has no reality other than as a present hope, the past none other than present memory.
Borges had earlier written a short essay, "The Creation and P. H. Gosse" that explored the rejection of Gosse's Omphalos. Borges argued that its unpopularity stemmed from Gosse's explicit (if inadvertent) outlining of what Borges characterized as absurdities in the Genesis story.
- Age of the universe
- "A Clockwork Origin", an episode of the animated sitcom Futurama
- Dark City (1998 film) is a movie that explores this theme
- Conflict thesis
- Christian mythology
- Kabbalah, on the conceived need for constant sustainment of the universe; see Tzimtzum#Inherent paradox
- Russell's Teapot, an analogy coined by philosopher Bertrand Russell that counters Omphalist claims
- Roizen, Ron (1982). "The rejection of Omphalos: a note on shifts in the intellectual hierarchy of mid-nineteenth century Britain". Journal for the Scientific Study of Religion. 21 (4): 365–369. doi:10.2307/1385525. JSTOR 1385525. Archived from the original on 2007-02-19.
- Gardner, Martin (2000). Did Adam and Eve Have Navels?: Debunking Pseudoscience. New York: W. W. Norton & Company. pp. 7–14. ISBN 9780393322385.
- Rice, Stanley (2019). "Creationist funhouse, episode one: The red shift". Skeptical Inquirer. 43 (3): 57–59.
- Kathleen McVey, ed. (1994). "Commentary on Genesis. Section I.22". St. Ephrem the Syrian: Selected Prose Works. The Fathers of the Church. 91. Washington: Catholic University of America. p. 90. ISBN 978-0-8132-1421-4. See also Louth, Andrew, ed. (2001). Genesis 1-11. Ancient Christian Commentary on Scripture. 1. Downers Grove, Illinois: InterVarsity Press. p. 15. ISBN 978-0--8308-1471-8.
- Rabbi Dovid Gottlieb, "The Age of the Universe". "The solution to the contradiction between the age of the earth and the universe according to science and the Jewish date of 5755 years since Creation is this: the real age of the universe is 5755 years, but it has misleading evidence of greater age."
- Morris, John D. (1990). "Did God Create with Appearance of Age?". Acts & Facts. 19 (9). Retrieved 14 Feb 2013.
- Aardsma, Gerald E. "Correspondence: Virtual History". Retrieved 13 Feb 2013.
- Menton, David N. (August 1995). "Creation and the Appearance of Age". St. Louis MetroVoice. Vol. 5, No. 8. Missouri Association for Creation. Retrieved 13 Feb 2013.
- David L. Wilcox, God and Evolution:A Faith-Based Understanding, Valley Forge, PA: Judson Press, 2004, 30,
- Isaac, Mark (2007). The Counter-creationism Handbook. University of California Press. p. 9. ISBN 9780520249264.
- Reverend Canon Brian Hebblethwaite Archived 2008-03-16 at the Wayback Machine, biography online at www.GiffordLectures.org
- Russell, Bertrand (1921). Analysis of Mind. G. Allen & Unwin.
- Bertrand Russell, Analysis of Mind, London, (1924), p. 159
- Reverend Canon Brian Hebblethwaite Archived 2012-10-02 at the Wayback Machine, In Defence of Christianity March 6, 2005, p. 4-5
- G. Safran, "Gedolei Yisroel Condemn Rabbi Nosson Slifkin's Books" Archived 2007-12-29 at the Wayback Machine. Dei'ah veDibur, January 12, 2005.
- Slifkin, p167
- Are we only five minutes old? Acock on the age of the universe J.W.Smith and S.Ward Philosophy of Science, vol.51, no.3, September 1984, p.511-513
- "Borges - Tlön, Uqbar, Orbis Tertius". interglacial.com.
- Borges, Jorge Luis (1964). "The Creation and P.H. Gosse". Other Inquisitions, 1937–1952. translated by Ruth L. C. Simms. University of Texas Press. pp. 22–25. ISBN 978-0-292-71549-3. Retrieved 2008-02-27.
- Ron Roizen, "The rejection of Omphalos: a note on shifts in the intellectual hierarchy of mid-nineteenth century Britain," Journal for the Scientific Study of Religion, 21:365-369, 1982.
- Mirror of the defunct "The Church Of Last Thursdayism" webpage (stored at www.archive.org)
- Archived Usenet Post containing the FAQ of "The Church of Last Thursdayism" (stored by Google.com)
- "The Church of Last Thursday" home