And God made two great lights; the greater light to rule the day, and the lesser light to rule the night: he made the stars also. And God set them in the firmament of the heaven to give light upon the earth, And to rule over the day and over the night, and to divide the light from the darkness: and God saw that it was good. And the evening and the morning were the fourth day.
These few verses are among the most problematic when trying to find the middle ground between science and religion. If read literally, it seems as though God made the Moon and the stars after he created the Earth, oceans, land, and plant matter. For people who read these verses literally, this directly disqualifies some of the most important discoveries of science. However, with a little bit of scientific knowledge and a more liberal reading of these verses we are able to discern exactly what the Bible is trying to convey.
Let us look at the stars first. The oldest star that we have observed is HD 140283 (colloquially known as Methuselah) which is nearly as old as the universe itself. Scientists are able to measure stars using what we theoretically know about the life cycle of stars fed into complex computer models. Usually this is done by looking at star clusters and determining how long a star has been around based off of its energy output, size and other factors. Coupled with the Hubble data on the background radiation of the universe, it has been shown that many stars existed far before the Earth was formed.
Another problem is the Moon. The formation of the Moon has long since vexed astronomers because it is such an odd object in our solar system. Although our Moon is not the largest moon in our solar system it is the largest in relation to the planet that it orbits. In fact the Moon is so big compared to us that the barycenter (the gravitational center of mass for bodies in orbit) is not actually in the center of the Earth, it is 4,641 km away from the Earth’s core. This means that the Moon does not actually orbit the Earth in the traditional way that we picture it, but orbits a point within the Earth’s mantle. If that was not weird enough, Moon rock bears a strong resemblance to Earth rock, especially when considering the oxygen content of the rock samples that we brought back. So how did it get there?
Astronomers still do not have a solid answer. What they do know for sure is that the moon is around 4.5 billion years old, barely younger than the Earth. The current best theory is that when the Earth was newly formed and still rather molten, a giant Mars sized protoplanet (named Theia) collided with the Earth. In the aftermath, two bodies were formed, the Earth and our Moon. This hypothesis explains the similarity between the oxygen content of the Earth and Moon as well as other properties that have long baffled scientists. At this point we cannot be certain, but the dating of Moon rocks is consistent with an age of 4.5 billion years.
Thus it seems that stars were created before the Earth and the Moon immediately afterwards. This seemingly puts science at odds with the Bible, unless we look at another interpretation of events. We know that certain planets and moons in our solar system have atmospheres that are loaded with greenhouse gases. A perfect example is Venus. If a theoretical civilization where to live on Venus, they would never be aware of the stars and other planets due to the thickness of the atmosphere. They would have a good reason to believe that they were alone in the universe.
Similar conditions probably existed on early Earth. As we know, plants are able to convert carbon dioxide to oxygen, otherwise we would all die. Before plant life began to grow on Earth, any released gases would have remained in the atmosphere. As plant life was introduced to Earth excess carbon dioxide would start being converted into oxygen. Without any industrial era humans to pollute the atmosphere, this process would have had great effect. After a few millions of years, the skies of Earth would begin to clear with the side benefit of making the air on Earth breathable for animal life.
The Bible does say that God made the stars in this step, but it does not specify when exactly. We can agree that God made the stars, but before the Earth was created. This Biblical verse is not meant to say that the stars and moon did not exist before this point, merely that this is when they would have become visible for anybody living on Earth’s surface. The demands of science and religion are both fulfilled.