I received a message this evening from a friend who was concerned about this week’s Sabbath School lesson. In the lesson, the author proposes that Genesis implies that the earth could have been in existence for some time before God actually started His special work of creation on it.
My friend quoted Ellen White, where she says, “The theory that God did not create matter when He brought the world into existence is without foundation. In the formation of our world, God was not indebted to pre-existing matter. On the contrary, all things, material or spiritual, stood up before the Lord Jehovah at His voice and were created for His own purpose. The heavens and all the host of them, the earth and all things therein, are not only the work of His hand; they came into existence by the breath of His mouth” (8T 258.4). This quote, at least to my friend’s mind, seems to imply that the earth could not have been in existence prior to God’s special act of biological creation on it.
Below is my brief response to him. (Ironically, I have been reading – and was planning to read tonight – a book by Jon D. Levenson, professor of Jewish Studies at Harvard University, called Creation and the Persistence of Evil: The Jewish Drama of Divine Omnipotence – a book that, while certainly not completely in line with our Adventist understanding of creation or God, has some very interesting insights on both.)
Thank you very much for the question! I think it is an important and relevant one. My simple answer is that I think the Sabbath School lesson is spot-on and I do not believe Ellen White would have any qualms with it. In the 8T quote she does not speak anything about the “time” in which these various things were created but merely says they were created “ex nihilo.” Based on Gen 1:1-3, as the lesson points out, the Bible does not say when this earth was actually created – other than it was “in the beginning.” It does not say when that beginning was however.
This is not to say that life on this earth was created billions of years ago, or that any evolutionary mechanism was at all used in creating this world. It is simply to say that the text of Genesis definitely allows for the idea that the earth itself could have been around for a while before life on this earth was created.
Furthermore, Genesis 1:1 could simply be speaking about when the universe was created – which could very well have been thousands or millions of years ago. This does not at all deny the idea of a recent seven-day creation week (less than 10,000 years ago) when it comes to biological life on this earth.
Actually, Seventh-day Adventists are some of the only Bible-believing Christians that would accept this idea since we understand the “great controversy” theme and that there was life and activity in this universe prior to biological creation on this earth. We believe there are other planets with other life and that Satan rebelled in heaven before the creation of this earth. Thus, Genesis 1:1 could very well be describing the very beginning of all life in the universe, and then Genesis 1:3 could then be describing the biological creation on this earth.
Most Adventist Old Testament scholars would propose this idea. One such person, who has been one of my mentors, is Dr. Richard Davidson, who teaches in our seminary. He is a very conservative, Bible-believing Christian who is one of the finest Christians I have met. I would encourage you to read his paper (which I am linking to) called “The Biblical Accounts of Origins” in which he talks, among other things, about this idea in Genesis. Among interpreters of Genesis, there is something called the “gap theory” in relation to Genesis 1:1-3. There are different versions of this “gap theory” but the one he subscribes to, which I would also subscribe to, is that Gen 1:1 talks about the creation of the universe (including this planet) “ex nihilo,” and then Gen 1:2 describes the conditions of this earth (tohu vabohu – “void and without form”) after God initially created it, and then Gen 1:3 then moves on to talk about God’s special act of biological creation on this earth after a “gap” of time between 1:1 and 1:3 (a time, the length thereof, is unknown).
I would strongly urge you to read the paper. The part I am talking about starts on p. 19 under the subheading “C. Multiple or Single Beginning?”
Subscribing to this idea does nothing at all to undermine our belief in a seven-day creation week, the Sabbath, or God’s creative power and Word.
Let me know if you have any other questions!!