Omphalos Hypothesis

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The Omphalos [om-fuh-luhs] 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 six to 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 due to the creator introducing false evidence that makes the universe appear significantly older.

The idea was named after the title of an 1857 book, ‘Omphalos’ by English naturalist Philip Henry Gosse, in which he 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 fully grown hair, fingernails, and navels (‘omphalos’ is Greek for ‘navel’), and all living creatures with fully formed evolutionary features 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 aforementioned 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. This is also proposed as a solution to the Starlight problem (there are observable galaxies billions of light-years away; it took billions of years for the light from them to get to Earth; therefore the universe must be billions of years old).

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 French historian François-René de Chateaubriand. Chateaubriand said in 1802 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.

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, saying that: ‘…what [God] created was functionally complete right from the start—able to fulfill the purpose for which it was created.’ 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 biblical literalist chronologist 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.’

Although Gosse’s original 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.’ Scientifically, the concept is both unverifiable and unfalsifiable through any conceivable scientific study—in other words, it is impossible to conclude the truth of the hypothesis, since it requires the empirical data itself to have been arbitrarily created to look the way it does at every observable level of detail.

From a religious viewpoint, it can be interpreted as God having created a ‘fake’ universe, such as illusions of light emitted from supernovae that never really happened, or volcanic mountains that were never really volcanoes in the first place and that never actually experienced erosion. 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?’

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