According to Biblical scholar and church administrator James Ussher (1581-1656), the universe began 6015 years ago—today. Ussher's chronology, which dominated Christian theology for centuries, stated that God began the creation week on Sunday, October 23, 4004 BC.
Seventh-day Adventists will be especially celebratory today because Ussher so closely connects with our own history. It doesn't take a math whiz to notice that William Miller based some of his own chronology on Ussher's, predicting that Jesus would return on October 22, 1844, neatly finishing off the earth's history to the day. Truly, what's past is prologue.
Although most Adventists haven't studied Ussher's discredited chronology for themselves, they repeatedly employ it (1). Ronald Numbers' classic on the history of creationism, The Creationists, recently republished by Harvard University Press, mentions James Ussher six times and how various fundamentalist theologians and scientists—including ur-Creationist Adventist George McCready Price—made great efforts to prove short chronologies.
More recently, a book, Sunday's Coming! Eye-opening evidence that these are THE VERY LAST DAYS (1994) relied on Ussher's chronology, particularly his 4-year offset, to predict that Jesus would return by 1997. This was not published by some fringe Adventist, but by G. Edward Reid, then the stewardship director of the North American Division. And just a few weeks ago, in his message to church leaders at Annual Council, president Ted Wilson employed the 6000-year chronology in the first sentence of his sermon. (Just last month, Reid shared a stage with Ted Wilson at an ASI-sponsored event.)
Of couse Ellen White relied on Ussher as well. In an incredible 1984 article in Ministry, Warren Johns defends Ellen White's use of Ussher's chronology.
Of particular interest are the Ellen G. White statements that have a bearing on the age of the earth. Thanks to the assistance of the laser-disc concordance, we now have located a total of forty-two 6,000-year statements published by her in primary sources before her death in 1915.
Having recently completed an examination of all 2,500 references to Biblical chronology made by Ellen White, I can state unequivocally that her chronology matches that of Archbishop Ussher more closely than perhaps any other of the dozens of chronologies in use in the nineteenth century. Ussher's chronology so dominated that era that his dates were printed in the margins of most Bibles. Ellen White must have been aware of at least a few chronologies other than Ussher's. Of the 1,200 books by non-SDA authors in her library as of 1915, several were devoted entirely to chronology, and others contained discussions of chronology.
Johns concludes his article:
. . .Ellen White, I believe, was divinely guided to choose the best available to her. Ussher's chronology needed less revision because of his meticulous fidelity to the scriptural data and his refusal to interject conjectures and suppositions. If Ellen White were alive today, she would no doubt advocate that chronology that holds the closest fidelity to the scriptural record.
In the article Johns carefully tries to separate Adventists from Ussher's chronology, despite Ellen White's obvious use of his both wildly speculative and literal dating conclusions(2). There is no serious scholar—including Adventist—who would defend Ussher's work.
As has been noted by Ron Osborn, despite the fact that Ellen White relied on Ussher, increasing numbers of Young Earth Creationist Adventists now refer to about 10,000 years when discussing the age of the earth. In a conversation, I once pushed a major Adventist opinion writer on this question of the earth's age. He kept saying, "about ten thousand years ago." I asked him where he got that number, rather than employing the traditional Adventist and more Biblical accurate 6000-year model. He couldn't actually cite a single reason for referencing 10,000 years. It appears that even the creationists are evolving, although they might not admit it.
Being and Time
Seventh-day Adventists care about time—the eschaton and a weekly rest are in our name. But many of us increasingly recognize the End and the Sabbath not as mere markers of theological assent, but as timely habits for ethical action. The Sabbath functioned just as much as a memorial to Liberation as Creation. The Advent is not merely a future moment, but a present state of Being. This connects with two ways to thinking about time: Chronos and Kairos. The first concerns our chronological understanding of time, focused on separating the passage of life into years, days, hours, and seconds. According to the Greek philosophers, Kairos defines our sense of great times—the Now of existence. Being Present.
Unfortunately, our current Adventist church leaders—elected and financially supported by us—are attempting to change the official Seventh-day Adventist belief on Creation. The current belief relies on the words of Scripture and thus avoids the mistakes of humans—Ussher and White—in trying to divine the literal days and times of God's work in the past. But now—30 years after it was voted—they want to tighten our belief.
It appears that we Adventists have not learned our lesson about date setting. We were born out of disappointment when trying to connect the future movement of the divine with human mathematical ability. Now our church leadership seems to be leading us toward disappointment again as they try to officially make us all connect human days and times to the past acts of God.
Increasingly, the average educated Adventist views date setting for the Second Coming with suspicion—we all know that Jesus said that no one knows that day nor the hour. Can we apply that to the past as well? After all, as the recent past of human history shows us—from Ussher to White—humans make mistakes when trying to divine the divine.
Today, as one birthday of the universe passes, let us celebrate that another day comes. Rather than fighting ad infinitum over the Chronos of the past, today, let us remember to usher in the Kairos—and experience the present of Being.
1. I understand that some Adventists, including Ellen White, believed that the universe pre-existed the creation of life on earth. It is not clear to me how the Solar System connected and how much this distinction between universe and earth was made in sermons, popular discussion, and church publishing.
2. According to Craig, G. Y. and E. J. Jones. A Geological Miscellany. Princeton University Press, 1982, "Ussher calculated the dates of other biblical events, concluding, for example, that Adam and Eve were driven from Paradise on Monday 10 November 4004 BC, and that the ark touched down on Mt Ararat on 5 May 2348 BC `on a Wednesday'."
Image: Salvador Dalí, La desintegración de la persistencia de la memoria, (1954).