I am often asked this question: Is the Universe expanding?
Previously I have challenged the notion expansion of space or expansion of the Universe as an interpretation of cosmic redshifts. The whole notion is integrally linked with the standard big bang model for the origin and history of the Universe. Also I have written that the interpretation of cosmological redshifts, as resulting from expansion of space, is just another big bang fudge factor. Quite obviously if the Universe is not expanding then there was no big bang. Hence the expanding universe must be vigorously defended by those who hold to such beliefs.
I once wrote a brief summary on this topic, where I listed references1,2,3 to a literature survey I once did on all the evidence at the time, both for and against the expanding universe concept. And I found there was significant evidence inconsistent with cosmological expansion. I did that survey back in 2011 and though much new observational data has been published since then little has changed by way of the conclusion.4
The discussion essentially revolves around cosmic redshifts and how to best interpret them. The concept of redshift is not so simple. Because we have no way to test our theories on the Universe itself5 — quite different to a lab experiment — many different explanations may be presented to explain the same observational evidence.6 Currently Ref. 6 here lists 59 possible mechanisms. Many of those are not related to an expanding universe. The mere existence of other possible explanations throws doubt on the idea of cosmological expansion as the correct explanation. Those that have been verified in the laboratory — e.g. gravitational and Doppler redshifts — do not include cosmological expansion.
For the particular case of cosmological redshift — the systematic trend of an increase of galaxy redshifts with the source galaxy’s distance from us, which, in its simplest form, is called the Hubble law — no lab experiment has ever been done that can locally test for cosmological expansion, nor will it ever be possible, in my opinion. If there was only one possible explanation for galaxy redshifts then you might be more confident that the expanding universe is the correct interpretation, but there are many possible explanations on offer.
I recorded a 3-part video series on cosmic redshifts,7 what we know, and how do we interpret them. From that you really only need to get the take home message, expansion of the Universe from galaxy redshifts is not proven, and, there are lines of evidence that contradict the notion. See in particular the Table at the end of Ref. 2.
Biblical creationists, even myself in the past, have used the argument that there are about 20 Bible verses that seem to support the notion of cosmological expansion. (I quoted many of those texts in support of my cosmology in research papers and in my book Starlight Time and the New Physics.) Hence they have been used to support the idea that God created the Universe with cosmological expansion.
Others, like Hugh Ross of Reasons to Believe ministry, say the big bang history is described in the book of Genesis and other biblical texts and they quote those verses in support. Besides the many problems of trying to make the biblical timeline fit that of the big bang (6000 years compared to 14 billion years), the events of so-called big bang progressive creation are completely out of sequence with the Genesis account.8
But can such a claim of expansion of the Universe really be justified from the scriptures themselves? No, it can’t. The clear plain reading of the Hebrew texts (or their English translations) cannot be construed to mean cosmological expansion.9 Their plain meaning is that God created the starry sky, like putting up a tent or a canopy, not a rubber sheet that gets stretched a thousand times or a million times its size. Tents just don’t stretch that much.10
So to answer the original question: I don’t know. The Hubble law could apply to a static universe, only that the mechanism of the galaxy redshifts is unknown. Quasar redshifts certainly indicate that they do not follow the simple Hubble law trend at higher redshifts.11 Therefore we have another reason to doubt the standard explanation of the expanding Universe.
- J.G. Hartnett, Does observational evidence indicate the universe is expanding?—part 1: the case for time dilation
- J.G. Hartnett, Does observational evidence indicate the universe is expanding?—part 2: the case against expansion
- J.G. Hartnett, Is the Universe really expanding? PDF
- J.G. Hartnett, Is there definitive evidence for an expanding universe?
- That means we cannot interact with the Universe; send in a light signal, for example, and get a reaction, as we might do in a lab experiment.
- L. Marmet, On the Interpretation of Red-Shifts: A Quantitative Comparison of Red-Shift Mechanisms II, 4 December 2014.
- Redshifts and the Universe, Redshifts burst big bang bubble, and Quasar redshifts blast big bang.
- J.G. Hartnett, The big bang is not a Reason to Believe.
- J.G. Hartnett, Does the Bible really describe expansion of the universe?
- J.G. Hartnett, Tension not extension in creation cosmology.
- J.G. Hartnett, What do quasars tell us about the Universe?
8 replies on “Is the Universe expanding?”
Hi John, if I can go on a tangent, your article made me think about the ultimate fate of the universe.
As Christians, we await the second coming of Jesus, but I’m interested to know what you think about the ‘heat death of the universe’, ‘big rip’, and ‘big crunch’ hypotheses.
Would these models depend on an expanding universe?
Those concepts are all particular to an expanding universe. And the ultimate fate in your suggestions are theorised for the big bang universe, that is, without a Creator who is also its caretaker.
Just maybe verses like 2 Peter 3:10:
are about God purging the Universe of sin but also returning it to its perfect original state. I consider the possibility then, with God’s sustaining power, the Universe will continue on forever. I mean in a way where it never “runs down.” The burning bush on Sinai may have been a short glimpse into that sort of thing. I speculate on these ideas in SPECULATION ON REDSHIFT IN A CREATED UNIVERSE.
I have a question re your statement “Those that have been verified in the laboratory — e.g. gravitational and Doppler redshifts — do not include cosmological expansion.”
If we observe Doppler shift of nearly all galaxies toward the red end of the spectrum, no matter the direction, would that not imply that nearly all galaxies are moving away from us, and would that not imply cosmological expansion?
I realize that the “stretching of the fabric of space” is a different mechanism for red shift. But wouldn’t we conclude that the galaxies are moving apart, whether we ascribe it to Doppler shift or expansion of space? Just wondering.
Hubble referred to the redshifts as a Doppler effect in the 1920s–40s but it is not technically a Doppler effect, because the Doppler effect (verified in the lab and every time you get a speeding ticket) is not the same mechanism as cosmological expansion. If you rejected expansion of space and hence cosmological expansion as the cause then you have a different problem if you say it is a genuine Doppler motion of the galaxies moving away from us through space. The problem is why? Where does the energy come from that powers the motion through space (just as you would need in a lab experiment)? The particular general relativistic solution of Einstein’s Field equations, which is used for the standard FLRW model, is quite different. That is why it is called the “ultimate free lunch”! The galaxies are hypothetically stationary in space, and as the space expands the galaxies move apart, but actually they are not moving (cosmologically, but only locally in clusters, superclusters etc). So no energy is needed, but now with the “discovery” of dark energy (a sort of anti-gravity) that is causing them to accelerate apart from each other (allegedly). Hope that help?
I’m not sure I understand. Isn’t the geometry of space linked to the distribution of the mass contained within it? If the galaxies are moving farther apart, doesn’t that equate to an expansion of space? It was my understanding that each planet, star or galaxy has a “gravity well” surrounding it, which can be thought of as a deformation in the geometry of space. If the mass of the universe is finite (as one would expect, based on the thesis that God alone is infinite), then wouldn’t the geometrical extent of the universe be bounded as well–i.e. where space is curved through a 4th spatial dimension to form a hypersphere, and the 3-dimensional space we see is just the surface of this 4-dimensional hypersphere? I realize this implies a positive curvature to hyperspace, which is a matter of some dispute. However, isn’t it true that a finite universe would necessarily require a positive curvature (ellipsoidal), since zero or negative curvature would correspond to infinite geometries (planar or hyperbolic)?
The metrical description of expanding space is related to the geometry of space time, but the question is can you measure that? Does relativity theory allow you to measure expanding space? The answer seems to be, no. See Expansion of space – A dark science. The issues I believe are addressed there. But let me put it this way, how do you know the galaxies are moving farther apart? Redshifts? How do you know redshifts even mean that? It’s an interpretation using GR, but one that has no experimental verification except cosmology, hence really none. So the geometrical notion of galaxies fixed in the space with space expanding is, at best, problematic, and, most likely, impossible to measure or observe.
The gravity well description in GR works well for compact massive objects. So you would think you could extrapolate that to the universe. But SR will not allow you to measure any expansion of space.
There are finite universe topologies that do not have a positive spatial curvature, so depending on the topology you could have anything for a finite unbounded universe. Please don’t forget the measurement of the curvature, or “flatness” of the universe is via a cosmology. But all estimates nevertheless have Euclidean space everywhere, and there is no requirement for a closed unbounded universe. Why can’t the universe be bounded, i.e. with a centre and an edge? The argument that it would be unstable against collapse, is 1) false, as some have found stable solutions, and 2) uniformitarian in nature. The universe could be quasi-static, temporarily stable. See A biblical creationist cosmology.
In a relativistic universe if galaxies are moving from us aren’t we also moving toward or away from them? So are we causing the redshift by our movement while the galaxies remain stationary?
Another question: how can we speak about the size of the universe as being composed of so many atoms when we don’t know how big it is? Isn’t it only as big as the instruments we use to see and sense all forms of energy?
On your first question, the answer is ‘yes’. Because motion can only be measured as a relative quantity whether you say we are moving away or other galaxies are moving away, it is the same thing. So redshift is then only the relative change in wavelength of the light from distant galaxies. What has to be understood, is that the same proportionality of redshift as a function of distance is observed in all directions (outside of the Virgo galaxy cluster to which the Milky Way belongs).
We speak only of the visible universe. I believe the number of galaxies often cited (~ 10^11) is based on the estimated size of visible universe, based on a calculation with an assumed cosmology. If we could see farther with a bigger telescope, what would we see over the current horizon? If you believed in the big bang you would expect to be see back into the big bang fireball, hence looking back in time closer to the beginning, and therefore see less galaxies, not more. If you believed in an infinite steady state universe you would expect to see more galaxies, more of the same, even though looking back in time also. So it critically depends on both cosmology and cosmogony, how you think the Universe began. I believe we should see a mixture, both ‘mature’ galaxies like we see around here and smaller energetic ‘younger’ ones, because we are seeing back closer to the initial Creation.