Many Christian denominations have accommodated their theology to some form of theistic evolution. Will Adventists escape this trend, or could evolutionistic viewpoints also creep into their midst?
Atheistic evolution is not a challenge to Seventh-day Adventists; however, certain types of compromise evolutionistic theories that are popular in Christian circles could be. These theories all include the concept of long ages since life was created on earth. One preferred by many Christians today is theistic evolution, the theory that higher forms of life have evolved from lower forms, not as a purely materialistic process, but as God's method of creation. This concept perceives God as directing the evolution process through millions of years.
The writings of Moses clearly indicate that all of the major types of organisms—shrubs, flowers, trees, aquatic creatures, birds, reptiles, mammals, and man—were created within six consecutive literal days. 1 Thus one cannot accept his testimony at face value and also believe in theistic evolution.
Study of the scientific data and of the Scriptures convinces me that theistic evolution is a compromise that is neither required by the scientific data2 nor compatible with a consistent interpretation of the Bible.
Theistic evolution and related theories raise some difficult problems regarding the character of God. For example, many fossil animals show evidence of being predators. Also, the evolutionary process depends partly on destruction of the weak by the strong. Theistic evolution makes God responsible for all of this, whereas the Biblical concept of a perfect creation and a subsequent fall makes Satan responsible for the destructive side of nature. Another question arises from the innumerable extinct fossil species that exist. Why would the God who can heal people instantly and even raise the dead go through such a slow, meaningless process and make millions of mistakes in perfecting His created animals and plants? One could, of course, postulate a God who creates by evolution, but He would not be the same God described in the Bible.
Another approach that is sometimes used to try to harmonize science and the Scriptures maintains that God created at least the major groups of plants and animals, but at an exceedingly remote point in time many millions of years ago. This view considers the Noachian flood as no more than a minor factor in the geologic history of our earth.
Superficially, this theory can be made to appear consistent with the Bible be cause it accepts the Creation account as literal (or partly literal) and considers the Flood account as a description of a real but minor, perhaps local, event in earth history—an event that did not produce significant geological deposits. This theory also allows one to accept current geologic theory and the geologic time scale as essentially accurate. It requires Creation to be fitted into that time scale. One form of this theory, called "progressive creation," suggests that the major groups of organisms were created in a series of creative events scattered through geologic time, with many mil lions of years between successive creations.
However, accepting the geological time scale, with its millions of years, is not simply a matter of pushing the Biblical Creation week farther back in time. Any explanation of earth history must be able to explain a number of important geologic features of our earth. The earth contains a tremendous amount of sedimentary rock that was formed by the hardening of sediments deposited in basins by wind or water. In fact, there is enough sedimentary rock on the continents alone to cover them to an average depth of 1,500 meters.
Many of these sedimentary rocks contain fossils, indicating that they were formed during a time when plants and animals were living on the earth—in other words, since the beginning of Creation week. In places such as Utah, northern Arizona, and the Rocky Mountain region where the sequence of sedimentary rock layers is especially thick, many different sedimentary layers, one on top of the other, can be found. Here the various kinds of fossils are not uniformly spread throughout the sequence of layers. Cambrian rocks (the first rocks that contain abundant fossils) and the next-higher layers contain abundant fossils of invertebrate animals, but amphibians and reptiles cannot be found until a little higher, and evidence of birds and mammals does not appear until more than halfway up the rock sequence. Human fossils have been found only in the uppermost layers. Within the geological column, or sequence of rock layers, are some rocks that can be dated by radioactive dating methods. Rocks that are lower in the sequence generally give older radioactive "ages," and rocks higher in the sequence usually give younger radioactive "ages." Thus the fossils and radioactive minerals are arranged in a relatively orderly and predictable sequence in the geological column, and any valid interpretation of earth history must be able to explain why this is so.
The worldwide flood described in Genesis 6-9 coupled with subsequent geologic activity offers a possible basis for explaining the geologic data. If we accept the Genesis account as literal, the fossil sequences would have to be explained as the result of the pre-Flood ecological distribution of animals and plants, the sorting action of the Flood's waters, and/or other processes related to the Flood. The distribution of radioactive materials also would have to be explained as the result of some process occurring during and after the Flood, and resulting from it. Radioactive "time" data would then indicate some thing other than the amount of absolute time elapsing since the rocks were deposited in their present form.
If we remove the Flood as the cause of the geological column we must find some other explanation for the absence of vertebrate fossils from the lowest rocks, and the absence of birds and mammals from the entire lower half of the geological column above the Cambrian. These facts then require either an evolutionary development (at least of the vertebrates, including man, and some groups of plants) or successive creative events with eons between them.
Accepting the conventional geological theory, with its immense ages for the fossil-bearing sedimentary rocks, does not simply push Creation week farther back in time, but actually calls in question the entire Genesis account of origins. The testimony of the Bible consistently portrays both a literal Creation week and a literal worldwide flood that covered the highest mountains and destroyed the terrestrial animals outside the ark. Furthermore, the Biblical ac count limits the Flood to about a year (see Gen. 7:11-8:14).
Though the Genesis story is considered by many today to be only allegory, it was not so considered by the Bible writers. For example, the reality of Creation was accepted by Isaiah (Isa. 40:28), Jesus (Mark 10:6, 7), Paul (Rom. 1:20-25, Col. 1:16, 17), Peter (2 Peter 3:5), and John (John 1:1-3). It was considered important enough to be a part of the Ten Commandments (Ex. 20:11). The Flood was accepted as a literal event by Paul (Heb. 11:7), Peter (2 Peter 2:5; 3:6), and Jesus (Matt. 24:37-39; Luke 17:26, 27). Two Bible writers describe belief in Creation and the Flood as an important issue in last-day events. The three angels' messages include a call to worship the Creator (Rev. 14:6-12), and Peter says that "in the last days there will come men who scoff at religion and live self-indulgent lives, and they will say: 'Where now is the promise of his coming? Our fathers have been laid to their rest, but still everything continues exactly as it has always been since the world began.' In taking this view they lose sight of the fact that there were heavens and earth long ago, created by God's word out of water and with water; and by water that first world was destroyed, the water of the deluge" (2 Peter 3:3-7, N.E.B.).* Peter's prediction that in the last days people will lose sight of the reality of Creation and of the Flood is certainly being fulfilled.
Ellen G. White directs a number of specific and pointed statements to this issue. Referring to the length of Creation week, she states that she "was then carried back to the Creation and was shown that the first week, in which God per formed the work of creation in six days and rested on the seventh day, was just like every other week. . . . The weekly cycle of seven literal days, six for labor, and the seventh for rest, which has been preserved and brought down through Bible history, originated in the great facts of the first seven days. . . . But the infidel supposition, that the events of the first week required seven vast, indefinite periods for their accomplishment, strikes directly at the foundation of the Sabbath of the fourth commandment. It makes indefinite and obscure that which God has made very plain. It is the worst kind of infidelity; for with many who profess to believe the record of Creation, it is infidelity in disguise. It charges God with commanding men to observe the week of seven literal days in commemoration of seven indefinite periods, which is unlike His dealings with mortals, and is an impeachment of His wisdom." 3
Ellen White indicates that during the Flood the surface of the earth was bro ken up and re-formed, and that the new crust formed at that time contained fossil remains of pre-Flood life, including coal deposits.4 She emphasizes that "the whole surface of the earth was changed at the Flood";5 previously existing mountains and hills disappeared, and new mountain ranges appeared where only plains had existed before. 6 During the Flood the highest mountains were covered by water. 7 While traveling through Colorado, Ellen White stated that these Western mountains "were heaved up by the stormy convulsions of the Flood." 8 Such statements can describe only a flood that was worldwide and that played a significant role in the geologic history of our earth.
In evaluating these issues, it is important to understand the nature of the choices. If we accept theistic evolution or progressive creation, we are saying that God's prophets did not deal in prepositional truth or statements of fact, but were merely influenced by the ideas of their times. But is God so impotent that He stands helpless while His prophets lead their readers astray? Does He not care whether we understand these things? "The sophistry in regard to the world being created in an indefinite period of time is one of Satan's false hoods. God speaks to the human family in language they can comprehend. He does not leave the matter so indefinite that human beings can handle it according to their theories." 9
In addition to questioning the reliability of God's Word, acceptance of the geological time scale introduces serious problems regarding God's character. As noted above, with theistic evolution or progressive creation, both of which are introduced by acceptance of current geological time scales, God is held responsible for evil that the Bible at tributes to Satan's perversion of nature.
On the other hand, if we accept the literalness of the Creation week and the Noachian flood, we are, of course, rejecting many of the conclusions of such sciences as geology, paleontology, and radiometric dating. We cannot pretend that those sciences do not exist; rather, we have a responsibility to challenge current theories adequately. Geology and related sciences have made tremendous progress in understanding the structure and history of our earth, but we need not agree with many current interpretations of the available data. Volumes of additional data are needed before reliable conclusions can be reached.
The answer is not to ignore science nor to explain away Genesis; Christian scientists must accept the challenge of developing a theory of earth history that is in harmony with the available scientific evidence and also with the revealed concepts of creation and the worldwide flood.
* From The New English Bible. © The Delegates of the Oxford University Press and the Syndics of the Cambridge University Press 1961, 1970. Reprinted by permission.
1 This position also is strongly affirmed by Ellen G. White. See Education, pp. 128-130; Spiritual Gifts, vol. 3, pp. 33-35, 90-96; and Patriarchs and Prophets, pp. 44-47, 111-116.
2 See H. G. Coffin, Creation—Accident or Design? (Wash., D.C.: Review and Herald Pub. Assn., 1969); R. M. Ritland, A Search for Meaning in Nature (Mountain View, Calif.: Pacific Press Pub. Assn., 1970); MINISTRY, October, 1976, pp. 13-17; November, 1976, pp. 18-21; January, 1977, pp. 34-37.
3 Spiritual Gifts, vol. 3, pp. 90, 91. See also pp. 92, 93, and Education, pp. 128-130.
4 Education, p. 129.
5 Spiritual Gifts, vol. 3, pp. 76-78.
6 Ibid., pp. 78, 79; Patriarchs and Prophets, pp. 107, 108.
7 Patriarchs and Prophets, p. 100.
8 Review and Herald, Feb. 24, 1885.
9 Ellen G. White letter 31, 1898.