The Seventh-day Adventist Church is currently engaged with a number of big issues. We all know what they are: women’s ordination, sexuality, and origins. While in recent months the first two in this list have taken the limelight, the third has not gone away and has come back into some focus following a recent General Conference-sponsored International Conference on the Bible and Science: Affirming Creation.
It makes sense that the Adventist church should be concerned about affirming creation. Creation is a doctrine central to the identity of the Seventh-day Adventist church. The first half of our name refers to the Sabbath, a memorial of creation; the second half refers to the second coming of Christ, a re-creation. So it is understandable that when creation, as it is commonly understood within the church, is called into question, many become defensive.
In the midst of these debates, another issue is gaining the attention of the church: the increasing loss of membership, particularly the youth, out the back door of the church. This was the subject of a recent General Conference Summit on Nurture and Retention, and has been part of informal discussion for as long as I can remember. Many theories exist as to why most people leave the church: Is it theological disagreement or a lack of warmth and friendliness in the church? Regardless, it is clear that the back door of the church is just as important as the front door.
I have been personally concerned about both of these issues — the loss of our youth and the origin of life — for many years. They are both intricately entwined with who I am: a Seventh-day Adventist Christian and a biologist. I believe the issues of the loss of our youth and origins are in many cases intricately entwined with each other. Youth who are educated well see the disagreements between what the Bible appears to say and what science appears to say and are frustrated, often with the anti-science sentiment that is sometimes manifested in church. When science has done so much good in our world — good that has been embraced by our church particularly in the medical realm — how could we turn our backs on it when the facts don’t seem to add up?
My concern is magnified because, as Ellen G. White so clearly stated, “nature and revelation alike testify of God’s love.”1 She says: “The book of nature and the written word do not disagree; each sheds light on the other. Rightly understood, they make us acquainted with God and His character by teaching us something of the wise and beneficent laws through which He works. We are thus led to adore His holy name, and to have an intelligent trust in His word.”2
When we state that these two books are in disagreement, it must be because our understanding of one or the other is in error. Regarding the issue of biological origins, many in the church would say the science is in error. The Bible is very clear: the earth and the sea and all that in them is were made in six days in the relatively recent past. It is only when we come to the text with presuppositions that don’t allow for a supernatural God that we ignore, or liberally interpret, the clearly stated words of the Bible.
This interpretation of Genesis is fine for those who are not scientists. Many theologians have concluded that the Biblical authors, and God himself, clearly intended the text of Genesis 1 to refer to a short time period in the recent past. There is no problem with this conclusion… unless, of course, you are also a scientist or someone who is interested in how “nature and the written word… each sheds light on the other.” The problem lies at the interface between the Bible and the relatively recent scientific data suggesting long time periods infused with much death and decay. With a multidisciplinary problem we need a multidisciplinary approach.
In recent years, a number of conservative Christians have made the attempt to integrate their faith with current science. These have included John Walton, Francis Collins, Richard Colling, Denis Lamoureux, and many others. These authors have presented ways of connecting the dots, of possibly coming to some peace with the information both in the Bible and in science. I am personally thankful that I have found them. I certainly would not have found them in my church. But they have presented possibilities that have kept me in my church.
You see, at times in the past I have thought it easier to simply leave the church. Not for another denomination, mind you, but simply to leave and give up on the dead-end arguments; to be one of the statistics of a GC nurture and retention summit. The debates get tiresome. There are plenty of reasons to believe that God does not exist. How wonderful it would be to never listen to another Sabbath School lesson where evolutionists are the enemy.
However, there are also plenty of reasons to believe that God does exist. And these have kept me searching for resolution. I am both a lifelong Adventist and a practicing biologist. Both mean a lot to me. I am very comfortable in the Adventist church. The Sabbath is a joy, the fellowship rewarding, and the hope of a soon-coming Savior exciting.
I have gone through many stages in my understanding of origins, from traditional creationist viewpoints, believing (for good reasons) that a big God can do anything in as short a time as he wishes. But over the last 10 to 15 years I have found the scientific data for gradual creation over extended time periods piling up. Multiple independent analyses, from radiometric dating of many kinds, to ecological and physiological observations across continents, to genome sequencing pointing to huge similarities in genetic blueprints and a mechanism to provide for change, all point to gradual change over long time periods.
Yes, some say that mutation cannot account for the huge biological variation that we see, but those same individuals call for massive evolution on a short 6,000-year time scale. Others, as proof that scientists are all wrong and cannot be trusted, point to one anomalous observation that supports a short history, among a thousand others that support long term changes. However, this is simply bad scholarship; similar tricks can be used to support your favorite theology using the Bible as your source, but ignoring the larger picture.
So is it possible to integrate recent science with current Adventist theology? Below are some thoughts of mine, in which my approach is an honest reading of both science and scripture. (Some might criticize me for not being so honest to scripture. So be it for now; my thoughts are evolving.) These thoughts are of an untrained theological sort and a trained biological sort. I wish I could be trained in both, but alas, I am not. Few of these thoughts are my own, but are the product of many influences over the years. I have found many of them recently expressed in similar, although more eloquent, form in Ronald Osborn’s book, Death before the Fall.
- Is a long time period consistent with the Bible? Yes. This is not so controversial among many these days, as a reasonable interpretation of Genesis 1 is that “In the beginning God created the heavens and the earth,” maybe at the Big Bang, and then there was a long gap where the stars and planets formed, and then 6,000 to 10,000 years ago God created life. Note that this view is consistent with the physical sciences but does not match well with what we observe of biological history. (Yes, Ken Hamm would say “we weren’t there to observe” but I would like to assume that the record that we are able to read has some accuracy and that God gave us a mind with which to reason.)
- Are the Genesis accounts really describing a literal seven-day period? Yes. It is most likely that the original hearers of the Genesis accounts thought as much. Could it be that what the original hearers took to be literal, we can take to be figurative? One example of this could be our understanding of sunrise and sunset. The ancients certainly believed the sun rose and the sun set. We understand this terminology in a figurative sense now.
- Is it practical for life to be created without death? No. Not based on what we know of life now. Within a very short time without death we would be skyscraper-deep in organisms (do the math yourself, if you are good with exponents). Two scenarios would allow for life without death: a) sterilization of all life at some predetermined time, or b) transplantation of life to other planets, at which point the same problem of skyscraper-deep organisms arises again.
- Does Genesis require that there was no death in the beginning? No. It is implied that life was maintained by the Tree of Life, and that upon the fall of Adam and Eve, access to this tree was prohibited. It also seems likely that plants, or at least plant cells, died in the Garden of Eden – Adam and Eve ate fruit, right? Did all animals and plants require eating of the Tree of Life as well? This seems unlikely, especially since I’m not sure how plants could physically do this. While the possibility remains that humans were unique in the necessity to eat from the Tree of Life, and other organisms could live forever without eating of this Tree, the vast similarities between life forms as we know them today suggests that our physiology is really not that different from that of animals.
- Did Jesus come to save the animals? There is no evidence for this. Most assume that our cat will not meet us in heaven. In fact, there is no evidence to suggest that animals are able to “sin.” They are likely amoral beings – neither a heaven nor a hell for them.
- Is life without death possible? The Bible is pretty clear that immortality is planned for us in heaven. And the skyscraper-deep organism problem might be solved, since Jesus suggested that there will be no marriage in heaven; hence, no reproduction is implied. Since the geological record is only a record of the past, there is no reason to deny possibilities that God has in store for us in the future. In fact, science even suggests that immortality is possible – immortal cells, telomerase, etc. However, in our world, this kind of cellular immortality is not desired, as it often leads to organismal death through cancer.
- If death was part of God’s plan, then was pain also? Yes. While pain is not pleasant, it is very useful to alert us of a problem. Of course, one might ask, why would there be problems in a perfect world. Well, it could be that problems are not sinful. A world without problems seems a bit like sitting on a cloud playing a harp. Did Adam and Eve seriously have no chance of stubbing their toe or tripping on a branch?
- If death did not originate with original sin, did Jesus have to die to eradicate sin? I have heard it suggested that Jesus did not have to die, but that he did so because this is a major part of what it is to be human, and Jesus came to identify with us and to show us how to live in relationship.
- If this is the case, what do we make of Paul’s writings? The only answer that I have heard for this one is that when Paul stated “The wages of sin is death” he was not speaking of physical death, but rather spiritual death. I will admit that I’m not entirely comfortable with this position, and I’m not sure it is well supported theologically.
- Finally, a couple of comments:
- Why is it more degrading to have evolved from the ancestors of a monkey than to be formed from dirt? Clearly the key issue here is not the starting materials (which are often the focus of discussion) but rather the person responsible.
- In the same vein, we often hear the randomness and chance of evolution as a reason to not “believe,” because randomness implies lack of direction and guidance and being made by an orderly, purposeful, guiding force provides meaning to our existence. But what if what appears to be random in nature is simply an indication of our lack of understanding of the guiding principles. What if random really means “I don’t know”?
I write this to convince no one. Rather, I seek to present some ways in which I have made peace with faith and science. There remains one fly in the ointment as I see it: suffering. Death is necessary. Pain is useful. But suffering seems to be neither necessary nor useful. My answer to this one is not satisfactory, but puts me no farther behind than where I was before. This is because suffering is the fly in the ointment of all Christians, short-term, long-term, gradual, and special – we all must rationalize why God allows suffering. There is no good answer for either a traditional or a gradual creationist.
To conclude, let me state some things I have come to believe:
- that a long-term evolutionary interpretation of modern scientific data makes the most sense.
- that a Seventh-day Adventist interpretation of the Bible makes the most sense.
- that the central message of the Bible is not creation in six days, 6,000 years ago, but rather that humanity has fallen out of relationship with God (ie. is sinful) and needs help in restoring that relationship with God, as well as with fellow humanity and with all the organisms we share this globe with, through the example of the earthly life of Jesus.
Does this make me not an Adventist? I’ll let you decide. However, I think that many of our young people have decided on item 1, and have felt the necessary outcome of this decision to abandon items 2 and 3. I hope I can show them that this is not necessary. But considering common sentiment in our church today, particularly with item 1, I know I have a hard sell.
The author grew up in an Adventist home and is currently an active Adventist church member. He holds a PhD in the biological sciences and has worked actively in biological research for over 10 years. Currently, he holds a position at an Adventist institution, which causes him to seek anonymity in discussing these topics.
Image: Earth Goddess at the Atlanta Botanical Gardens.
1. Steps to Christ, page 1.
2. Signs of the Times, March 20, 1884.