In response to sketchy reports about the major faith and science conference held in Utah this past August, several of my church members, non-scientists, asked me about the current state of Adventist belief regarding creation. This article is a revised version of a column I wrote for our church newsletter. -John McLarty
Adventists are creationists. Every Sabbath our worship and our rest from the pressures to work and achieve echo the first Sabbath when God rested, marking the end of his making of “the heavens and the earth and everything in them.” The first two chapters of Genesis inform our understanding of the Trinity, environmental ethics, gender roles, marriage, and the “Book of Nature.” Genesis also shapes our interpretation of more mundane stuff like the salt beds and mastodons of Michigan, the moraines in North Dakota, the aquifers beneath Memphis, coal and basalt flows in Washington, and fossils everywhere.
When I was growing up (graduated from high school in 1970), one could summarize mainstream Adventist creationism with the aphorism 6 days/6000 years. God created everything in one week, about six thousand years ago. Coupled with this 6 days/6000 years was the belief that all the fossils were formed during Noah’s Flood about 4000 years ago. The details of this view had been worked out by Adventist George McCready Price in the early 1900s. Price is still widely regarded as the father of modern Creation Science, but Adventist creationism is no longer a mere elaboration of Price’s views. Speaking very broadly, contemporary Adventist views on creation can be grouped into three categories: 1. The universe is 6000 years old. 2. The universe (including the solar system) is billions of years old; life is thousands of years old. 3. The universe and life itself are billions of years old. Each of these views of the date(s) of creation has a commonly associated interpretation of fossils.1
One: The universe is 6000 years old. The fossils were formed during Noah’s Flood.
The simplest, cleanest interpretation of Genesis One is that in six days God created the universe—light and darkness on Day One, the clouds and sea on Day Two, dry land and plants on Day Three, the sun, moon, and stars on Day Four, sea creatures and flying things on Day Five, earth-bound creatures and human beings on Day Six. Then God rested—Day Seven, the Sabbath. God started with nothing and ended up with the heavens and the earth and all that is in them. This is creation ex nihilo. Generally, when Adventists say that God created everything in 6 days, 6000 years ago, they don’t mean God created the entire universe from nothing during creation week. Rather they mean God created a fraction of the universe that could be appropriately described as “sun, moon and stars.” This could be our galaxy or perhaps just the solar system, if you interpret “the stars” as the planets.
Problems with this interpretation:
1. The reference in verse 2, to “the deep” and “the waters.” What was this “deep?” Was it nothingness or was it “something?” Even if it was just a watery blob, if something was here before Day One, then creation week did not include the creation of everything.
2. There are other Bible passages classically interpreted by Adventists as referring to sentient beings who existed before the creation of the earth such as Job 38:7 and Isaiah 14:12.
3. Ellen White wrote of beings on other worlds who were witnesses of creation. She doesn’t specify what galaxy contained these other worlds, so perhaps her remarks don’t rule out the creation of the Milky Way Galaxy ex nihilo during creation week.
4. Taking Genesis One as a comprehensive historical record of creation is problematic because it does not neatly mesh with the order of Genesis Two, forcing the interpreter to privilege one over the other.
5. Squeezing the creation of everything observed by astronomers into a few days 6000 years ago is a bit difficult.
The fossils are 4000 years old and were formed during the one year of Noah’s Flood.
Like the interpretation of Genesis One above, this interpretation of Genesis 6-9 is the simplest. It regards the Bible as both accurate and sufficient as a guide to understanding earth history.
Two: The universe (including the solar system and the basic matter of earth) is billions of years old; life on earth is thousands of years old. Fossils are somehow connected with Noah’s Flood.
According to this view, there is no theological or biblical basis for objecting to the chronology of conventional astronomy. Advocates of this view do not attempt to derive any dates from the Bible for the origin of the universe, our galaxy or solar system. They tacitly agree with a 14-billion-year age for the universe and a 4.5-billion-year age for the basic matter of earth. But while they have no argument with ages assigned by astronomers, proponents of this view draw a sharp line when it comes to the ages of the fossils. Life first appeared on earth a few thousand years ago, during creation week. In six days, God reordered the surface of the earth and populated the earth with living things. Since fossils are the remains of living things, fossils cannot be older than a few thousand years.
The Bible interpretation associated with this view is complicated. Genesis One begins with a declaration of God as Creator: “In the beginning, God created the heavens and the earth.” This opening statement does not refer only to God’s work during Creation Week. It includes God’s creative work across all the eons of time. It is a theological summary similar in meaning to the opening verses of John’s Gospel. It has no chronological/historical connection with the rest of Genesis One. It is a prologue.
The straightforward, historical record of the 6 days/6000 years ago begins in verse 3 with the creation of light on Day One. Days Two and Three continue this straightforward historical account. But making sense of Day Four in verses 14-20 is a bit tricky. This view argues the sun, moon and stars had already been created billions of years earlier. The “creation” on Day Four did not cause the heavenly luminaries to come into existence, rather God “unveiled” them. Verse 21 (Day Five) returns to regular history. On Days Five and Six God created all the animals, climaxing with the creation of Adam and Eve. Then came Sabbath, Day Seven.
An additional feature in this interpretation of Genesis is the disappearance of “6000 years.” Several of the main presenters at the Utah conference have published papers pointedly arguing that the genealogies of Genesis cannot be regarded as reliable chronologies. This view appeared to go mainstream at the Utah conference. In the transcripts of speeches by prominent church officials at the conference, there were repeated references to 6 days, but never once did anyone say “6,000 years.” There were references to a “recent creation,” but no one offered a numerical estimate of what “recent” means.
Problems with this interpretation:
1. It violates the “plain reading” of the text in Genesis. The words at the end of Day Six, “Thus the heavens and the earth were finished, and all the host of them” are a clear echo of Genesis 1:1. This linkage is acknowledged by most scholars. Separating out verses 1-2 and 14-20 as uniquely non-historical elements violates the theology and literary structure of the passage. The point of Genesis One is that God created everything in one magnificent week. God is God of ALL because in six days, God made ALL.
2. The Adventist linkage of Sabbath and creation is strongly shaped by the Sabbath commandment in Exodus where Sabbath is specifically linked to the creation of “the heavens and the earth, the sea, and all that is in them.”
3. Historically, Adventists have insisted that our doctrines flow so naturally from the words of Scripture that a devout, intelligent lay person could derive our doctrines simply by comparing scripture with scripture. The complicated interpretation of Genesis One outlined above could not be derived by devout attention to the plain reading of the Bible text. It relies on specialized knowledge of ancient Hebrew, knowledge which is itself controversial in scholarly circles. Rather than being the straightforward read out of the plain meaning of the text, this interpretation is a unique Adventist fusion of the Bible scholarship and scientific expertise, a fusion that cannot be readily comprehended by ordinary people.
4. The movement away from 6000 years is an accommodation to science—in this case the sciences of history and archeology. If we use the Bible and Bible Only as our authority for the date for creation, we will come up with something close to 6000 years (The differences in ancient manuscripts can add only one or two thousand to this number.). If we use Ellen White as a source for geochronology, we are back again to something close to 6000 years. But many Adventist Old Testament professors push back the date of creation week to 10,000 or 20,000 years ago.
5. This view avoids conflict with the dates of conventional astronomy and much of archeology, but in the process arbitrarily privileges astronomy and archeology over geology and paleontology.
6. Some people think the idea of an “old earth” might help solve the problems posed by the great ages of radiometric dating. But I have not heard any specialist argue in favor of this “solution.” The material that is dated into the hundreds of millions of years by radiometry interleaves with material containing fossils of creatures who were once alive.
The fossils and Noah’s Flood.
When I was in college in the 1970s, Adventists explained the order in the fossil record using the Ecological Zonation Theory. In this theory, the fossils were created during the year of the Flood. The order in the fossil record was a consequence of different fauna and flora existing at different altitudes or in different regions that were affected sequentially by the waters of the Flood. This theory died a slow death. At the August conference, one of the featured non-Adventist lecturers was Kurt Wise. His view is that the older fossils (Paleozoic and Mesozoic, using conventional geological categories) were formed during Noah’s Flood. More recent fossils (Cenozoic) were created during massive upheavals that presumably continued to convulse the earth for several hundred years following the Flood. I have heard this idea supported and contradicted by Adventist scientists. As far as I know there is no generally-agreed on model for how to correlate Noah’s Flood and the fossils.
3. The universe, solar system and life are billions of years old. The fossil record was created over eons of time.
Advocates of this view regard Genesis One as a theological statement quite apart from any particular historicity. They regard the Book of Nature as more reliable than the words of the prophets when it comes to making scientific sense of the rocks. (I am using rocks broadly to refer to the stuff of the universe—fossils, lava flows, asteroids, gamma rays, planets, suns, quasars.)
These Adventists believe God is the Creator. They have a high regard for the Bible. They find in the Bible treasures completely unavailable in the realm of science—a revelation of the character of God and wisdom for living. As much as they prize science, they know science does not say all that needs to be said. It cannot address all the concerns that make us fully human. Science cannot even ask everything that needs to be asked. Ultimately, science cannot speak of God, and these Adventist creationists believe in God.
They disagree with classic Adventist creationism regarding the date(s) of Creation. Specifically, this view agrees (tacitly or explicitly) with conventional paleontology that life originated billions of years ago and that humans originated much later. It is important to note this view is not the same thing as “naturalistic evolution” or “atheism.” There is a variety of theories about how God was involved in this long history, but however and whenever stuff and life came into existence, God was and is the creator.
Problems with this view:
1. The historicity of Genesis is assumed elsewhere in the Bible.
2. Classic Christian theology regards death as an alien intruder into a deathless creation. Death came as a consequence of human sin. If conventional geology is correct—if the fossils are hundreds of millions of years older than humans—then creatures were dying long before humans sinned.
3. This view gives new force to the old questions about the character of God. People have long been troubled by the Bible stories of God-direct genocide by the Hebrews. Justifications of this horror usually focus on the depraved culture of the Canaanites and the brokenness of Hebrew culture resulting from centuries of brutal slavery. God was constrained by these tragic human realities. The fossil record (conventionally interpreted), however, shows mass extinctions occurring even before humans sinned, before there could have been any defect in human society that constrained God’s freedom. This understanding makes it appear that God freely chose a creation process that included pain and dying as essential elements.
4. If Adam and Eve did not begin life in a world that was “very good” (without death), what hope do we have of entering at last a world where there will no more tears or death?
5. There is some physical evidence that supports a relatively recent origin for life on earth. There are “impossible” features in the conventional geological account of earth history. It is not only the Bible that argues against the billions of years of conventional geology and paleontology. One the other hand, even many scientists committed to a recent creation acknowledge the quantity of physical evidence supporting a recent creation is minuscule compared to the weight of evidence in favor of the antiquity of life.
When Adventists (and other Christians) argue about the exact relationship of the Bible text to the evidence of astronomy and geology, things get really complicated. The first view described above appears elegantly simple. It takes the Bible and Bible Only as an accurate, completely sufficient description of earth history. The middle position is extremely complex because it rejects the Bible and Bible Only as our sole guide to understanding the rocks. It maintains the primacy of the Bible’s authority while ascribes significant authority to physical evidence. Proponents of this middle position argue we are more likely to misinterpret the rocks than we are to misinterpret the words of the Bible. The third view takes geology as a reliable and sufficient explanation of the history of rocks and looks to the Bible for guidance in theology, morality and spiritual life. The push and pull of the Word and the rocks as independent authorities lies at the heart of Adventist struggles over creationism.
The science is complex. The nuances of Hebrew syntax are opaque to most of us. Systematic theology is notoriously subject to the influences of culture and temperament. Scholars and scientists—devout and brilliant as they may be—vigorously disagree with one another. There is enough ambiguity and complication to keep us arguing for a few centuries. We would do better if, instead of arguing about geology and Genesis, we focused on the theological/spiritual message of Genesis. When we do this, we will find great confluence of thought.
Genesis paints a striking picture of God—one who took pleasure in creating the world and who desires the well-being of all creation. In Genesis One we see that community is part of the very essence of God (Let us make . . . so God made them). Hence, we conclude that the highest, richest expression of humanity will be in community. In Genesis One, man and woman together are designated as sovereigns and servants of creation. The grand climax of Genesis One is not a statement about geology, but a statement about Sabbath which points straight at the God of Sabbath. The Six Days honor the value of productivity and success and authority and control. Then Sabbath points beyond all of these to the sweetness of communal relationships—human with God and human with human, and even, human with all the cosmos.
In Genesis Two, the goal of creation is the perfect communion of a perfect marriage. They were naked and unashamed. No secrets. No fear of future discovery about the other. No ambition to control. A union so sweet and deep there is no need for authority. The ideal marriage is presented as the model of God’s desire for humanity: perfect communion.
The moral of Genesis One and Two is not some astronomical or geological or paleontological theory, but a call to worship and service, love and communion. Valid creationist credentials arise not from the size of the numbers we write on an exam about the age of the earth, but from our participation with the Creator in loving and caring for one another and God’s world—the heavens, the earth, the sea and all that is in them.
Adventism is a global denomination. I am knowledgeable about only the tiny fraction of world membership that resides in the United States and Canada. So the title should be Problems With North American Adventist Creationism.
In describing the “three views” of Adventist creationism, I am necessarily slighting all sorts of intermediary and creative views which attempt to reconcile the Bible story with conventional geology. Three ideas that have been advocated by members in my congregations are: Apparent Age: God created everything 6000 years ago but created the universe (or our galaxy) with the apparent ages assigned by conventional science. In this view, God created the fossils to look like they had been living things millions or billions of years ago. God created space with the streams of light that reach us from stars millions of light years away already in place. Two Creations: There was creation or bio-engineering experiment by Lucifer prior to the events of Genesis One. This Luciferian experiment extended over eons of time and produced the living things that ended up as fossils. The six days of Genesis One occurred after that devilish experiment was finished. Creation of Humanity: There was an actual Creation Week, but the actual events of the week were the localized creation of an ideal environment for the birth of distinctly human culture, i.e. the Garden of Eden. The events of Creation Week gave birth to humanity as we know it—a society of language, religion, and agriculture.
You can read McLarty’s report on the International Faith and Science Conference here: http://atoday.org/curious-conference.html.
John McLarty is the senior pastor of the Green Lake Church of Seventh-day Adventists in Seattle, Washington . He authors the Liberal Adventist Pastor blog. A version of this article originally appeared in the September 2014 issue of the Green Lake Church’s newsletter, the Green Lake Gazette.