Ages of the Earth and Mankind, Part 1: No Answers in Genesis or Ellen White
by Ervin Taylor, May 2, 2016: Dr. Jack Hoehn recently posted a series of highly informative commentaries on the Adventist Today website. His discussions reviewed multiple lines of scientific evidence that taken together strongly support the conclusion that living creatures have been present on this planet for far longer than traditional Adventist believers currently seem to be able to accept.
As noted by Dr. Hoehn, and well-known to most members of the Adventist faith who read the pages of the Adventist Review and/or Adventist Today, the corporate Seventh-day Adventist Church in 2015 adopted a “fundamental” position concerning this topic. It declared that Seventh-day Adventists are supposed to believe that a massive corpus of evidence from many scientific disciplines that all tell us the same thing–that many forms of living organisms have existed on this planet for billions and hundreds of millions of years–must be rejected. As a consequence, the Adventist denomination in the 21st Century is now officially on record as advocating that the creation of life on this planet occurred “recently,” that it was accomplished in six, literal, 24-hour days, and that a recent, literal, world-wide flood occurred. On what basis does the institutional Adventist denomination know that this point of view is correct?
What those who support the change in the wording of the Adventist understanding of when and how God created have seemingly forgotten is that just as the ancient Hebrews and early Christians had no understanding of the physical nature of the universe, they also had no conception of how ancient the earth was and how long life and humankind had been on our planet. Fortunately, that lack of knowledge of these physical facts was totally irrelevant to the theological purpose for which the book of Genesis was constructed.
Historic Christianity, which, in this case, includes Adventist Christians, confesses that Jesus was both fully God and fully human. If he was fully human, his comments cited in the New Testament relating to this topic reflected the same lack of accurate information that his Jewish contemporaries and all other humans possessed concerning this matter.
A scientifically accurate understanding of the age of the earth and the human species began to be understood only with the rise of geology and paleontology as scientific disciplines beginning in the 19th century. Major advances were made in the middle of the 20th century with the development of the many scientific dating methods that Dr. Hoehn mentioned. In recent decades, even more precise chronologies have been developed in response to the introduction of a variety of new methods and data sets, such as that derived from marine and ice cores.
Nineteenth-century geologists and paleontologists determined that “Deep Time” was a characteristic of the geological and fossil record. Archaeologists determined that the record of human activity represented a very long prehistoric period measured in an unknown number of millennia that had occurred prior to the development of historic records. These two discoveries represent two segments of one of the great revolutions in modern Western understandings of the history of the natural and human world. That revolution in chronological understanding is fully comparable to the development of evolutionary biology, in terms of its impact on modern scientific understandings of the history of our planet and life upon it.
One point about the relationship of these two developments needs to be emphasized. On one hand, there is the scientific basis upon which current understanding of evolutionary biology rests; on the other, the scientific basis for current understandings of the time scale of the earth and its living forms, employing not only vastly different and distinct data sets and conceptual frameworks but also involving scientists from very distinct academic specializations. Biological evolutionary studies are conducted primarily by biologists, biochemists and paleontologists. The development of methods of dating geological and archaeological materials is primarily due to the research efforts of a diverse group of chemists and physicists.
Many religiously inclined critics of evolution and “Deep Time” might find it hard to believe that geochronologists rarely, if ever, discuss evolutionary biology since this is not their area of scientific specialization. There are those who find it amusing that critics are so misinformed that they talk about a “time scale developed by evolutionists” when addressing the results of isotopic dating methods such as potassium-argon and radiocarbon.
With all this as background, let us examine the historical contexts to help explain why the corporate Adventist denomination and thus many contemporary Adventists object to biological evolution and the reality of the existence of “Deep Time.”
In the middle- to late-19th Century, while some Protestant Christian church officials in prominent positions rejected various aspects of both biological evolution and the reality of long geological ages, many other mainline European and American Protestant Christian scholars and churchmen were favorably inclined to accept both evolutionary ideas and the understanding of the great ages represented in the geological and fossil record. In their view, evolution was God’s way of creating. Reservations were largely focused on the elements involved in the development of humankind. As for the Genesis “days,” they were understood to be symbolic representations of long geological periods. If they were concerned with explaining Noah’s Flood, it was viewed as only the most recent of many major regional floods that had occurred in the Near East.
The acceptance of these ideas within most mainline Christian bodies was directly challenged with the emergence of a major reactionary religious movement which arose initially in the United States at the end of the 19th Century. This movement within American Protestantism became known as Fundamentalism, based on the title of a 12-volume work which appeared between 1917 and 1919. In the 90 essays that make up these volumes, opposition was expressed to a variety of topics, including higher biblical criticism and liberal theology, as well as biological evolution.
Fundamentalism arose in opposition to what were referred to as “Modernists” within the liberal wings of several American Protestant denominations. One of the elements of this reactionary development which was particularly highlighted was the Fundamentalist view which posited that all statements in the Bible should be regarded as inerrant, i.e., not communicating any factual errors even in the areas of history or science.
During the middle- to late-19th century, while the developments we have been reviewing were occurring, the Sabbatarian Adventist movement was coalescing into yet another American Protestant denomination, the Seventh-day Adventist Church. Although the majority of the doctrinal positions that it adopted had been held by one or more existing Christian bodies, the initial formulations of several of its unique doctrines and doctrinal emphases were profoundly influenced by the views of one of its co-founders, Ellen Gould Harmon-White.
White was an emotionally highly-sensitive, 19th-century American charismatic mystic possessing a vivid and highly creative religious imagination. At various locations in the northeastern United States during the early- to middle-19th century, historians and sociologists have uncovered the existence of a number of individuals who reported having what they viewed as supernatural visionary experiences in which they were in contact with the divine. Most of these visionaries left no lasting record and attracted no followers. However, a few subsequently founded single-generation American religious communities, and some helped found sects and denominations that survived into a second and third generation. One of the best known of these charismatics was Joseph Smith, Jr., who reported several visionary experiences, and whose religious views and writings became the basis of the creation of a new American religious tradition, the Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints, or Mormons.
In the case of White, she was reared within the Holiness and Pietistic traditions of a radical form of Methodism. Most of her early visionary or out-of-body experiences reported by her tended to be focused on issues of her own personal holiness, or lack thereof, as well the religious condition of selected contemporaries, all of which were situated within the context of a belief in an imminent Second Coming.
White and all of the other individuals who were involved in the formation of the Sabbatarian Adventist movement and later denomination experienced the “Great Disappointment” concerning a specific date that had been predicted for the Second Coming. One would normally assume that people living through such a failed prophecy would quietly distance themselves from the failed event. However, that was not the way that White and the other individuals who were responsible for organizing the Seventh-day Adventist movement, and ultimately a denomination, reacted to this failure.
An analysis of the coping process that they and other members of such groups going through similar events employ was the topic of a classic work in the social psychology of religion: When Prophecy Fails: A Social and Psychological Study of Modern Group that Predicted the Destruction of the World (Festinger, Riecken and Schachter 1956).
The subject of the Festinger study was not Post-Millerite Adventism but a small UFO religion in Chicago who predicted the end of the world on December 21, 1954. When the predicted end did not occur, the UFO cult adherents, like the founders of the Sabbatarian Adventist denomination, reacted by not dispersing. Rather, the group sought reassurance by not abandoning their basic belief in an imminent Second Coming but actively seeking to convert others to their core belief. In the Adventist case, they insisted that the prophecy itself was correct, but the event to which it referred needed to be “adjusted.”
While there was an understandable hesitation to commit to any specific date for the Second Coming, White continued to insist that it was a very near event, “even at the door,” throughout the rest of her long life. Because of this, the Seventh-day Adventist denomination which White was instrumental in founding has, throughout its history, focused much of its attention on sometimes esoteric eschatological and millenarian topics.
The views that she included in her early writings concerning what we would today refer to as earth and early human history were taken largely from conventional understandings of her conservative religious environment. These views were supplemented in some cases by imagery and details that she obtained from her own vivid out-of body experiences most often referred to as visions which she believe came directly from God, some of which, she said, were mediated by angels. In reporting the substance of these visions in writing, she often employed the phrase “I was shown . . .”
For example, in one of her visions, she stated that she was taken back to the Creation described in Genesis and was able to witness what had occurred at that time. In writing about her visionary experiences and in other more general discussions, she, on a number of occasions, referred to “about 6000 years” to designate the time she believed that had elapsed since the time of the Genesis Creation. Presumably, that figure was derived from the margins of the King James version of the Bible. It is possible that, at least in her early experiences, she was not aware that these figures were not part of the biblical text, but that they had been added during the last quarter of the 17th Century.
It is important to note that how she interpreted the opening chapters of Genesis was a very minor element that became embedded as part of a background treatment into the fabric of her master Adventist narrative or religious world view: “The Great Controversy.” This theme was reworked several times over three decades in her writings before being assembled into a single treatment by her and her collaborators/editors.
White died in 1915, and between that event and the late 1940s, classical Adventism solidified into a tightly integrated, interlocking theological system. Meanwhile, schisms within several major Protestant churches had created separate Liberal and Fundamentalist branches of these denominations. Several Adventist church leaders proclaimed that Adventism clearly belonged in the Fundamentalist camp and, with few exceptions, that aspect of Adventism has continued to be emphasized in the traditional versions of its public evangelism and official pronouncements well into the 1960s after which, for a time, it declined.
That approach has been revived by the current president of the Adventist General Conference and organizations and individuals supporting his traditional Adventist theology and ecclesiastical politics. These organizations currently include such apologetic groups and websites as Adventist Affirm, the Adventist Theological Society (ATS), Educate Truth (sic), and the Adventist General Conference-sponsored Geoscience Research Institute (GRI).
In the interest of accuracy, it should be noted that the GRI supports Young Life Creationism but not Young Earth Creationism. This means that the fossils of living creatures cannot be older than 10,000 years and are probably 6,000 years old. However, the GRI seems to have no problem with the belief that our planet, our solar system, and the universe are billions of years old. However, like other Young Earth Creationists, the GRI continues to advocate the reality of a recent, world-wide Flood.
Also, in the interest of fairness, the current traditional Adventist understandings concerning Young Life Creationism plus the advocating a Young Earth Creationism and the reality of a recent worldwide flood can also be found on the web sites of other Fundamentalist organizations such as Answers in Genesis, which maintains a relatively sophisticated Young Earth/Young Life Creationist media operation and is even currently building a replica of that mythological structure known as Noah’s Ark.
In Part II, we will consider the effects that the need to accredit Adventist colleges, so that the accreditation of the Adventist medical school at Loma Linda could be accomplished, had on the vitality and credibility of the Adventist Fundamentalist ethos especially as its officially proclaimed views on earth and human history. This will provide the background to a discussion of the current theological polarization within First World Adventism concerning the nature of the Genesis creation narratives and how they should be interpreted. The principal elements of this debate concern the validity of biological evolution, objections to a belief in a recent worldwide flood, and the length of time that all living forms, including mankind, have existed on Earth.