by Jack Hoehn
By Jack Hoehn, April 7, 2014
According to Gerard Damsteegt,i our 19th century Adventist forerunners repeated the error of setting times for the second coming of Christ at least four times before they largely gave up on time-setting.
They studied their Bibles, and they felt they understood it. They were quite certain that Bible prophecies of Daniel 12:12 (1335 Days), Daniel 8:14 (2300 Days), Daniel 9 (70 Weeks), Daniel 7 (the Seven Times), and Leviticus 25 (the Great Jubilee), all pointed to a date around February 1843.
This was then focused down and recalculated, and the fixed date agreed on was March 21, 1844. Many accepted that this time was supported by the Bible, and they were Bible believers. But this time was what they later called “the first disappointment.”
For there was a second imposition of time on the Bible. They found a flaw in their first calculations! They did not yet question the wisdom of applying their human reasoning to the Bible; they just figured they had made a calculation error, so now recalibrating their time setting, they felt it must be accepted that Jesus would return to earth on October 22, 1844. As Damsteegt wrote, “At the sound of the clock at midnight an indescribable feeling of disappointment came over the Advent believers.”
Yet even after this second disappointment, “many of these continued further time setting.” William Miller suggested it could be in April, 1845 at the same time as the Jewish Passover of that year. Sadly again one of them wrote, “Our third disappointment was a trying one.”
But they did not stop trying! The Adventist paper, Day Star, took an editorial position that Christ should return on the 10th or 17th of the 7th month—late in October 1845. So a fourth disappointment.
The temptation to set time for the prophecies and the future events of God was not easily abandoned, as various Adventist articles came suggesting the fall of 1846; others even suggested it would come in 1850!
Setting Time Weakens Faith
About this time a very young prophetic voice offered Adventists advice on setting times to prophecies. Ellen Harmon was the young prophet, and in 1845, while James White (not yet her husband) was preaching yet another of these dates, she had a vision showing “they would be disappointed.”iii She wrote later, “Different times were repeatedly set for the Lord to come and were urged upon the brethren; but the Lord showed me that they would all pass by…and that every time that was set and passed by would only weaken the faith of God’s people.”iv
What about Setting Time for Creation?
Are we perhaps just children of our Adventist ancestors doomed to repeat their same mistakes? Have we not learned from their errors? Is the enthusiasm to decree an interpretation of time on Bible prophecies and to date Christ’s return any different from our enthusiasm to set our interpretation of time on Bible history and to date Christ’s creation?
The Bible does not come with dates. The Bible did not date those prophecies. The Bible does not date the creation. We imposed by our “sanctified reasoning” what we thought the prophetic dates meant and put our own chronology on the Second Advent. We were wrong. Shouldn’t we be careful not to impose our own chronology on the Creation?
The prophecies spoke of Days, we interpreted them as Years. The prophecies spoke of events. We dated them based on “the best authorities” we could find.
It went like this formula:
The Bible history of creation, that geology suggests took many years, speaks of Creation Days, yet we don’t interpret these Days as Years? Oh, you rush to explain, those were Prophecy Days, Genesis is History Days. And I agree with you, but since we now all question the wisdom of imposing on Bible Prophecy our interpretation of time and setting dates, so I still question the “wisdom” of imposing on Bible History our interpretation of times and setting dates for creation.
The idea that creation was 6,000 years or so ago is an imposition of our own reasoning upon Bible texts. We make assumptions, add up the dates we guess for Bible events, suppose the genealogies are complete and error free, and come up with a number. So the Irish Bishop Ussher made his assumptions and did his math, and concluded that creation happened on October 23, 4004 B.C.
Today no Adventist accepts his math. Even Ellen White who in earlier writings wrote of “6,000 years ago” later wrote “about 6,000 years ago” and then even sometimes wrote “Over 6,000 years ago.”v
Rewriting Fundamental Beliefs 6 and 8
So the Young Earth Creation date-setters in the General Conference are requiring the world church to vote on the age of the earth. (Doesn’t that strike anyone else as a little arrogant—that we can vote history?)
Next we are asked to accept only one possible interpretation (Young Earth) of the date of Creation (there are many) as binding on all Adventists. They have suggested instead of our present Fundamental Belief #6 (that simply quotes the Bible and does not “clarify” those ancient words) that we now set an approximate date for the creation, effectively ruling out any other interpretation. Here is how they are doing that:
Firstly, they require that Genesis 1 is not just a creation summary, organization, hymn, poem, or “exalted prose” as Jack Collins suggests, but also “historical.” I don’t know that any Creationist has any question about that. But even if historical, the Genesis account is surely very incomplete, a brief summary, an organization of Creation rather than a news report on the event.
What the fundamental belief revisionists mean by “historical” they clarify next by time-setting the creation! Instead of the very open and very wide “In the beginning” of the Bible, they require all to agree that it was “recent.” True, they don’t say “October 23, 4004 BC on a Sunday morning,” but they are setting their interpretation of time on God’s actions in the past.
Secondly, unlike prophetic “days” where Adventists are encouraged to count Prophetic Days as years of time, they do not wish to leave you the freedom to count Creation Days as years, stages, or eras. Oh no, here they are sure that God’s Creation Days had to be “six literal days…[constitute] a week as we experience it today.”
Thirdly, in their editing of Fundamental Belief #8 they want to impose one view of geology on all Adventists. They are sure, no matter how you read the geologic evidence of a flood or floods, that Noah’s flood was “global in nature.” A local flood for Noah’s world, a flood larger than a dove could fly in one day, is very geologically plausible.vi But a global, worldwide flood seems to be geologically impossible, so again we are being asked again as a church to cancel physics and geology by a church vote!
There Is Nothing Wrong in Being Wrong
There is nothing wrong in being wrong, unless you demand that all agree with your interpretation and forbid any other possible interpretations. As I have written before, I don’t find Young Earth Creationism harmful to young faith. Setting a date for Creation may have some spiritual benefits, just like setting a date for the Second Coming of Jesus appeared to have some spiritual benefits for our early Adventists. They were wrong, but at least doing it once didn’t cause fatal spiritual harm for all of them. However, when proven wrong by the facts, they began to repeat the error of time-setting over and over again. As Ellen Harmon wrote, imposing dates on the Bible subsequently proven wrong “would only weaken the faith of God’s people.”
If the beloved Young Earth interpretation in dating Creation is proven wrong (and much independent evidence from chemistry, nuclear physics, astronomy, genetics, paleontology, and biology suggest a very different chronology),vii then being dogmatic and imposing only one generally discredited chronology on creation in the Bible “would only weaken the faith of God’s people.”
In 1851, regarding time-setting, Ellen, now Mrs. Ellen White, warned Seventh-day Adventists against the “false excitement arising from preaching time.” She said the Lord had shown, “Time will never be a test again.”viii I hope the General Conference realizes this should also be true about being dogmatic about the Biblical time of history as it is about the Biblical time of prophecy. If “Time will never be a test again,” why are we trying to make the time of creation and the age of the earth a test for Adventists?
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iv Ellen G. White, Early Writings, page 22.
v https://www.atsjats.org/publication_file.php?pub_id=44&journal=1&type=pdf. Journal of the Adventist Theological Society, 14/1 (Spring 2003): 176–194. Article copyright © 2003 by Gerhard Pfandl.
vi See my article discussing down-sizing of the flood by Biblical evidence. https://atoday.org/article/1755/opinion/hoehn-jack/2013/does-noah-s-flood-explain-everything
viii Review and Herald, July 17, 1851, Ellen G. White. “The Lord has shown me that the message of the third angel must go, and be proclaimed to the scattered children of the Lord, and that it should not be hung on time; for time never will be a test again.”