If you are like me, you are eagerly checking the news each week to see what kind of new wondrous images or research results are being released by astronomers and astrophysicists working on data collected by the James Webb Space Telescope (JWST). What is the reason for this thrilling anticipation? Why are our minds so fascinated with learning more about the vast universe we are part of?
I believe that God has placed in our hearts an intrinsic desire for contemplation of what is at the limit of our knowledge (cf. Eccl. 3:11). However, we are also in awe because the JWST images reveal pristine realms, untouched and far removed from the worldly affairs of human dominions. They convey a sense of the overwhelming immensity of the universe and of the grandeur of its Creator, a God who is truly worthy of our worship. Finally, we are also interested in framing this wealth of new data within our biblical understanding of origins and creation.
In this issue of the Adventist Review several Seventh-day Adventist scientists share their thoughts on subjects at the interface of faith and science, related to the discoveries made through the James Webb Space Telescope. Their articles acknowledge the limitations of human understanding while relying on the trustworthiness of God’s Word. Together they aim to provide a starting platform for further reflection with an approach that is: (1) educational, seeking to familiarize readers with the basics of the most important objects of study and open questions being explored in this astrophysical pursuit; (2) expository, offering an overview of the standard cosmological model, its philosophical and theological implications, and ways that have been suggested to interface it with the biblical text; and (3) devotional, conveying the wonder and satisfaction derived from the God-given gift of being able to study and explore the cosmos.
Together with my colleagues at the Geoscience Research Institute (GRI) and the editors of Adventist Review, we hope that these articles may bring you closer to the One in whom “all things were created: things in heaven and on earth, visible and invisible” (Col. 1:16, NIV).
Seventh-day Adventists embrace the foundational belief in a Creator God. Fundamental Belief 6 is explicit: “In a recent six-day creation the Lord made ‘the heavens and the earth, the sea, and all that is in them’ and rested on the seventh day. Thus He established the Sabbath as a perpetual memorial of the work He performed and completed during six literal days that together with the Sabbath constituted the same unit of time that we call a week today.”*
Beyond the belief that God created our world, this statement conveys that He did it recently, in six literal days, followed by the first Sabbath. Some disagree, contending that God created during long ages and through a process of biological evolution. It is legitimate, then, to ask why the church affirms this particular understanding of creation. What difference does it make if God created us and our world in six days, or over millions of years? Should we even care about this issue?
Here are a half dozen exciting reasons I believe we should.
The most striking aspect of creating over a literal week is that it seems impossible. Long time and gradual evolution smooths things out in little steps, making the big picture of creation more acceptable and less of a “miracle.”
Should we really believe that God can create ex nihilo (out of nothing) and simply by fiat (by the power of His word)? For me, this is exactly why I worship only Him, and none of His creatures. The power expressed in the literal creation week epitomizes the boundary between God and all creation: on one side lies the whole universe, enclosed and subjected to given laws; on the other, the only One who transcends creation, who not only can set laws but use them in ways we can’t.
The sheer power required by creation in a brief sequence of six days leaves us astonished.The same astonishment prompted those who witnessed God acting in human form on this earth to say: “Who is this? Even the wind and the waves obey Him!” (Mark 4:41). Spreading God’s creative action in imperceptible and undetectable increments over billions of years leaves me wondering if this hidden Creator is there at all.
God is the protagonist of the literal creation week, performing actions with direct effects. In Genesis 1 He expresses His initiative and volition by verbs such as “created,” “said,” “divided,” “called,” “made,” “blessed.” Yet He also cherishes proximity with His creation: witness the closeness of breathing life into Adam (Gen. 2:7). I find this combination of omnipotence and proximity to be the same thrilling and central theme of God’s life-restoration program, the wonderful love He “has lavished on us, that we should be called children of God!” (1 John 3:1).
The days of creation proceed in a structured order, providing the prerequisites for a habitable planet (energy source, liquid water, atmosphere, rocky surface, orbital parameters) and filling habitats with teeming biodiversity. God affirms the value and function of the different components of the creation by introducing them separately. Individual elements, as well as the whole integrated system, are reviewed and approved (“it was good” [Gen. 1:4]; everything “was very good” [verse 31]). The daily progress through the creation week marks the implementation of a definite master plan, completed at the end of the week (Gen. 2:1).
Such intentionality of design signifies that the physical entities that make up the world all originated in the Creator’s mind. Today’s familiar categories—male and female genders, different animal or plant groups, etc.—trace back to a specific expression of God’s will. From the beginning, a plurality of organisms, plants, and animals was brought to existence, each with their own distinctive characteristics (Gen. 1:11, 12, 21, 24, 25), all planned and executed according to God’s will. Therefore, in spite of millennia of evil and degeneration, I still feel the touch of God when I look at the design of my hand, the flight of a hummingbird, or the veins of a leaf. God’s meticulous investment in His creation is reflected in His concern for the seemingly unimportant sparrows, five of which may be sold “for two pennies” (Luke 12:6).
Special acts of creation during a literal week lay a magnificent foundation for valuing and caring for the earth and its inhabitants. For the Seventh-day Adventist Church, this foundation has resulted in a beautiful and proactive sensitivity in the exploration and study of nature, exemplified by the millions of Adventurers and Pathfinders, kids 6 to 15 years old, who joyfully learn the integration of nature, service, and witnessing. It has also motivated many Adventist scientists to eagerly follow in the footsteps of Kepler and Newton to discover traces of design, divine wisdom, and biblical history in the study of the physical world.
The literal creation week also helps us correctly understand the present and future trajectory of our history. What God made in that week of creation was “very good” (Gen. 1:31), but it was followed by disruption and degeneration. Jesus affirms this discontinuity between present and past in stating that “it was not this way from the beginning” (Matt. 19:8). No hint of such important discontinuity is found in the account of biological evolution over billions of years. I reject any model of origins that sees the death scythe of natural selection as a necessary aspect of creation, joining the cohesive biblical denunciation of evil as an intruder, an enemy with whom we coexist but whom we are called to resist.
“All revolves around you” was the disturbingly self-centered tagline of an ad campaign for an Italian mobile phone company run in the early 2000s, and one that captures the human longing to understand our meaning and role in the big picture of existence. The literal creation week provides a balanced perspective on who we are: made in the image of God, given dominion over creation, and representing the climactic act of creation.
Yet we were also the last on stage, experiencing the creation drama as a fully formed gift whose origin we did not witness. We perceive with wonder how well integrated we are with our world, our special ability to understand and interact with it. But we also sense our finitude, the ways in which the world is bigger than any one of us.
The seventh day of creation week, the Sabbath, blends these two perspectives harmoniously. If we believe, as Jesus said, that “the Sabbath was made for man” (Mark 2:27), we can read even in the daily rhythm, paced by our planet’s rotation around its axis, a sign of God’s anticipation to masterfully integrate us into His beautiful creation. At the same time, the Sabbath rest from the beginning acknowledges God’s sovereignty, protecting us from the delusion of thinking we need no God. Every Sabbath is part of a thread in time established by God that links the days of my life and my place in the world back to that original week.
Ultimately, accepting a literal creation week is an indicator of the trust we place in the Word of God and of the way we read it. Is the biblical account of creation week the first of a series of astonishing interactions in history between a real God and a tiny corner of the universe He made? Or is it an ancient myth, a venerable and inspiring religious tradition devoid of factuality?
Some suggest that placing historical value on the biblical narrative of creation week is a methodological mistake, because we shouldn’t ask the biblical text the questions of “how” and “when” that are typical of a modern scientific mind-set. Paradoxically, some reject a literal creation week f
or a similar methodological mistake, by attempting to bend and mold a cohesive biblical narrative around the “how” and “when” of naturalistic origins explanations. Undeniably, every human will confront some tension in trying to put together information from the Bible and the natural world. We may wonder at times what should give: evolution’s millions of years that crowd the pages of scientific papers, or creation’s literal days as numbered in the pages of Scripture?
When we are faced with doubt, Jesus’ challenge is worth our contemplation: “If I have spoken to you of earthly things and you do not believe, how then will you believe if I speak of heavenly things?” (John 3:12). God’s Word is trustworthy, and in the physical world we find elements that confirm the account of a literal creation week and a subsequent Fall, including evidence for power, purpose, structure, meaning, and a struggle between good and evil. Recognizing these factors inspires us to share passionately about the Creator to whose amazing character they testify.
* Fundamental Belief number 6, accessed on October 28, 2019, at www.adventist.org/fileadmin/adventist.org/files/articles/official-statements/28Beliefs-Web.pdf
Ronny Nalin is a scientist at the Geoscience Research Institute, and adjunct professor in the geology program at Loma Linda University, in California.