Look out, folks. Scientists may be on the verge of discovering another planet in our solar system, a hypothetical “Planet Nine” that could end up replacing that slot left by Pluto in the planetary pantheon.
No, it’s not named Nibiru, and it’s not coming for Earth. That’s a silly tale started in the 1990’s by someone claiming to talk to aliens, and it gets recycled every couple years by conspiracy theorists who attach it to whatever is the latest real dwarf planet or comet or other far-away object that NASA has discovered.
But there really might be another planet orbiting our Sun at the far reaches of the Solar System, so far away that all our telescopes and probes have never seen it.
There’s a bunch of stuff orbiting the sun way beyond Neptune in a region called the Kuiper belt, but most of the objects are too small and far away for us to know much about them yet. We knew about one – Pluto – and we used to call it a planet, until we realized there were a bunch of other objects like it out there, so we demoted it to “dwarf planet.” Outer space is huge, and even our best telescopes can only zoom in on so much of it at a time to hunt down these dim KBO’s (Kuiper belt objects). Thanks to improving technology, including larger and larger ground-based telescopes and the orbiting Hubble Space Telescope, we’re starting to learn more and more about these other objects. (We’re up to five official dwarf planets – and counting – including one called Haumea that we just learned has its own ring!)
In 2014 some scientists noticed that several of these KBO’s all had a “coincidental” alignment in their orbits that looked just like you might have expected them to look, if, say, a planet the size of Neptune had flown past them. But, of course, they were all too far away for Neptune to have had this effect on them. So began the hunt for “Planet Nine.” Since then, we’ve been finding more and more signs of the gravitational effects of this mysterious hypothetical celestial body. They’ve slowly been narrowing the range of its potential location, and now they think they’ve got a specific orbit figured out to carry out a final search by telescope. It may take a few years, or only a few weeks, but sometime in the near future, this “Planet Nine” will either be found, or confirmed not to exist at all.
This could be a very exciting discovery in the history of space exploration, but there’s one interesting little detail. Neptune goes around the sun every 164 years. Pluto’s orbital period is 248 years. Even though we’ve known about Pluto for less than 100 years, we can calculate its orbital period from Kepler’s laws of planetary motion. But “Planet Nine” is so far away that it has a potential orbital period of…
10,000 to 20,000 years!
This could present an interesting little problem for young-earth creationists, especially those who believe the solar system is only 6,000 years old.
The Potential Conclusions
There are three potential kinds of conclusions, and we are hurtling rather quickly toward one of them.
- Scientists may confirm that Planet Nine may not exist. The odds of its existence seem to be increasing with further scientific discoveries, but it still hasn’t been discovered and there could always be alternate explanations for the evidence it has allegedly left behind. This result would present no problems for young-earth creationists.
- Scientists may confirm that Planet Nine exists, but its orbit could actually lead to problems with old-earth models. It’s possible that the planet could be discovered, but in such an orbit where calculations showed an apparent impossibility of going back millions of years, due to instabilities it would have caused in the solar system. This result would present no problems for young-earth creationists, and would even bolster their confidence.
- Scientists may confirm that Planet Nine exists, with an orbital period of over 10,000 years, and clear evidence in the orientations of other objects that it has completed its orbit at least once. While anything could happen, this currently seems like the most likely option, so it’s worth exploring the potential reactions and repercussions.
The Potential Reactions
If the third option happens, this could be one of the strongest challenges ever to young-earth creationism. Christians who believe in deep time say the universe has not just the “appearance of age” but the “appearance of story,” that is, of specific events occurring in sequence and setting the stage for other events according to God’s perfect plan. A long-orbiting planet that was discovered by the effects of traveling that long orbit would be a clear demonstration of both age and story.
Deep time Christians may believe there is already plenty of evidence for such history, which young-earth creationists have not found convincing, and thus they may be skeptical that a new discovery would be interpreted any differently. But our solar system and its planets are much more familiar to the average person than other more distant and exotic objects, and unlike supernovas or fast radio bursts or even gravitational waves, everyone will hear about this planet and understand its significance very intuitively. If scientific materials start including a ninth planet after Neptune with an explicit number in the orbital column of, say, “14,000 years,” that would lead to obvious questions from Christians who have been taught that such lengths of time are incompatible with a sacred Scripture.
So how might young-earth creationist organizations respond? I can think of a few potential reactions.
- Some might question the orbital period, since it would be a calculation that has not been empirically verified. However, this skepticism would come at a cost. Johannes Kepler was a devout Christian of the seventeenth century. His laws of planetary motion have long been seen by Christians as one of many evidences of an orderly universe established by an orderly God with intelligence and purpose. Even secular scientists marvel that the universe has this kind of reliability that lets us discover the way it works. It seems risky to try to save a favored Biblical interpretation by undermining the fundamental laws we believe God established.
- Some might question whether the planet has completed an orbit around the sun since creation. If the planet is found from predictions based on its nudging effects on other planets from multiple paths around its orbit, this may not be a very compelling explanation. However, that may depend on how obvious or complicated such effects are, and how much room there is to reasonably doubt that scientists really know what they are talking about regarding such effects. Some may suggest God simply set the objects in “balance” around the sun and it’s only an assumption that they have affected each other. (In my opinion, this may be a likely response by some official organizations like AIG or CMI.)
- Some might suggest that within the vastness of space and time, and the mystery of God, and the limited understanding of man, that there is some other way, inexplicable as it may seem, to reconcile these things that scientists focused on the conventional mindset just aren’t making the effort to consider. After all, we cannot be certain that time in the Kuiper belt passes the same way as it does on Earth, or that general relativity or black holes or some other as-yet-undiscovered celestial object or principle might play into this somehow, or that some critical mistake made by the scientists involved will later be discovered. (In my opinion, this may be a likely response by some unofficial groups or laypersons.)
There are many intelligent and creative young-earth creationists, and there may be other responses I cannot anticipate. Much will depend on the specifics of the discovery.
It is also important to recognize that there are many different flavors of young-earth creationism. While there is a general unity about the history of biology, there is a little more variation about geology. “Young Life Creationists” allow for an old earth, interpreting Genesis 1:1 to occur at an indeterminate period before the six days started in verse 3. There is even more flexibility when it comes to cosmology and the history of far-away objects that are not really mentioned in Scripture.
However, most tend to insist on the sun’s appearance on the fourth day of creation, and a long-orbiting Ninth Planet would suggest not just a universe but planets orbiting the sun for at least tens of thousands of years before the creation events described in Genesis. Some followers might be convinced by the above potential explanations, or others that may appear, but some may not be satisfied, and may experience a crisis of faith, or at least embark on some curious searching. It is important for Christians of all beliefs to be prepared for this.
Christians who accept deep time – whether evolutionary creationists or old-earth creationists – may be tempted to mock young-earth creationists in these situations, but I believe such disrespect is unwarranted and unhelpful. Young-earth creationists get enough mockery from atheists. They are sincerely committed to what they see as the only viable option for devoted Christians believing in the divine authority of Scripture, and thus diatribes about scientific evidence will not be compelling without a matching offer of plausible Biblical interpretation. The metaphorical interpretations and theological challenges of evolutionary theology are not likely to seem any more appealing to these Christians, but this situation could provide an opening for many for old-earth creationism, which tends to reject biological evolution but has few qualms with the long ages of cosmology. (I’m working on related resources at my Creation Explore site here.)
Many young-earth creationists may not be aware that old-earth creationists fully affirm Scriptural inerrancy, or that such a position was extremely common in the United States about a hundred years ago, and that many prominent Christians today have thoughtfully considered such positions and found them convincing, including Dr. William Lane Craig, a philosopher famous for defending the historicity of Jesus’ Resurrection, and “Bible Answer Man” Hank Hanegraaf. Some may find this comforting. As such I would recommend even evolutionary creationists to suggest such a path for any brothers and sisters who might have such questions, especially if they still find evolution fundamentally untenable.
The simplest starting point is the difference between two small Hebrew words: bara and asah. Bara is a powerful active verb usually rendered “create” in English, suggesting, for instance, a deliberate creation out of nothing. Asah is somewhat more passive, often rendered “make” and subject to a variety of possible meanings, including the arrangement or organization of pre-existing materials. The first verse of Genesis barks forth with bara: “God created the heavens and the earth.” Some of the other parts of the story use the more passive asah, including the passage about God “making” the sun, moon, and stars, on the fourth day.
It is on this basis that many Christians have suggested that the light on the first day really came from the sun, created by God at the beginning (Even the ancient father Origen thought something like this made more sense, long before geologists started pushing back the timeline). In this view the fourth day still depicts God’s assignment of the celestial bodies as time-keepers for humanity, but it potentially represents their first appearance in the sky after the clearing of a dim watery haze, and with no less of a reality than the daily “appearance” that the sun “rises” and “sets.”
If this interpretation is viable, it neatly allows for years and years of orbiting planets, including our new potential Planet Nine. We don’t even have to get into animal death before the Fall – though deep time Christians have interpretations for that, too. But that may be a satisfying starting point.
Thus I would encourage young-earth creationists to keep an open mind about all of this. We don’t yet know what we’ll find out there. But we can all rejoice in the wonder of the universe God created and the way he set it up for us to explore it and discover it. In this way, each new discovery further reveals both the “infinite” majesty of God’s creation, as expressed in Genesis 1, and the “intimate” connection of God’s creation to humanity, as expressed in Genesis 2. Whatever we find, God is still Creator. And we are still his children.