Dr. Jud Lake explains the role of "unfallen worlds" in Ellen White's thought.
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Note: Transcript has been edited for clarity and readability, not for typos or grammar.
The topic I want to jump into first is a relevant one that is on the minds of many people. Extraterrestrials, that's a hot topic, especially in light of the government's release of documents relating to identified unidentified flying objects. So it's a topic on many people's minds. And Ellen White said some very interesting things about extra terrestrials.
What did she say?
This is your host, Judd Lake, and I'm a professor in the School of Religion at Southern Adventist University, where I've taught for the last 25 years. This podcast is about all things related to Ellen White, her. Her prophetic ministry, her personality, her theology, her writings, her critics, and most importantly, her relevance.
A George Barna study in what ministers read in 2004 found that Ellen White was one of the most read authors by pastors under the age of 40, and a recent Smithsonian collector's edition recognized Ellen White as one of the 100 most significant Americans of all time. So this podcast is dealing with a significant person who has left us with a wealth of counsel on many theological topics, and due to the nature of her calling, sometimes she's controversial.
Ellen G. White was a major religious figure in the 19th century. A prolific author who wrote more than 50,000 pages of manuscripts, about 4,600 periodical articles, and published 40 books in her lifetime with an additional 100 titles in English and other languages compiled from her writings after her death. She co-founded the Seventh-day Adventist Church and is the most translated woman author in the entire history of serious literature.
First, let's talk about the historical context in which Ellen White wrote about extraterrestrials and then get into her specific theological understanding. "Plurality of worlds" - known also as cosmic pluralism - is the historical term that describes the belief that the universe is permeated with worlds circling their respective suns and that they are populated with sentient intelligent beings.
"Plurality of worlds" - known also as cosmic pluralism - is the historical term that describes the belief that the universe is permeated with worlds circling their respective suns and that they are populated with sentient intelligent beings.
It is the term from which derives the 20th century concept of extraterrestrial life and is a long and rich history that began in ancient Greece and reached its zenith in the 19th century. One scholar dubbed the latter half of the 19th century as the golden age of the idea of plurality. Thus, Ellen White's lifetime was one in which plurality of worlds was a pervasive theme in the writings of scientists, philosophers, preachers, and theologians.
Her comments about inhabitants from other worlds are most interesting when read in this historical context. Now, it's important to point out that, that when we talk about science fiction and a very hostile universe with fighting, warring alien races - such as in Star Wars and Star Trek - that really began with H.G. Wells' classic book, War of the Worlds. After that science fiction took off with a violent universe, but in the 19th century it was different. They were focused on the idea of intelligent life out there, and there were many interesting theories. White's frequent references in her writings to innumerable unfallen worlds throughout the universe has captured the attention of those who write about the extraterrestrial life debate.
Historian Michael Crowe, for example, mentions Ellen White in his comprehensive, The Extraterrestrial Life Debate: 1750 to 1900. He says she is one who "provided her church with what few congregations can claim a theology incorporating extraterrestrial beings." He is correct for this is precisely what she did over a period of 60 years from her first view of another world and its inhabitants published in 1849, to her more theologically sophisticated references to the unfallen worlds in later years, she remained consistent in her doctrine of pluralism.
Theologian Olli-Pekka Vainio in his book Cosmology and Theological Perspective aptly summarizes the contemporary theological views on extraterrestrials and multiple incarnations. (I should say that this has become a very hot topic. In fact, theologians are really pondering what will happen when we do connect with extraterrestrials. Will they be sinful? Will they be holy? What will they be like? In fact, this whole enterprise is known as exotheology: the theological reflection of Extraterrestrial Life.) So Vainio gives several different views about extraterrestrials and multiple incarnations. The first vie: We are alone and there is no need for other divine economies. That's become a view that scientists embrace now for various reasons, and I've read many Christians, many evangelicals who take this position as well, that intelligent life is wonly on this world and the divine economy of salvation is focused only on this one planet with life throughout the universe.
The second view he said is, we are not. One or more extraterrestrial races exist, and in the second category, he sees four sub-views. The first sub view, "A," E.T.s are not fallen and they have no need for redemption. The "B" view is this: E.T.s are fallen and they have their own way to God, which is different from ours. "C," E.T.s are fallen, but included in Christ redemptive work on. And "D", E.T.s are fallen, but their nature is assumed by God in an act of incarnation on their own worlds. In other words, there would be multiple incarnations of Christ and obviously multiple deaths for the salvation of E.T.
Ellen White's position and a number of others during her day would be view, sub view number "A": E.T.s are not fallen and they have no need for redemption. That is her view.
Let's continue with the historical background: In 1794, the English-born American Revolutionary in avowed deist, Thomas Payne, published his book The Age of Reason and sent shockwaves through the Christian community. As a deist, he rejected the Christianity of the Bible - that there was a personal savior and that God had revealed himself in the Bible -
He rejected all of those things and in The Age of Reason, there is several places where he discussed life on other planets. He very much believed in intelligent life populating the universe, but he rejected Christianity, and here's what he wrote (and this would shock many Christians):
"From whence from once could arise the solitary and strange conceit that the Almighty who had millions of worlds equally dependent upon his protection, should quit the care of all the rest and come to die on our world? Because they say one man and one woman had eaten an apple? And, on the other hand, are we to suppose that every world in the boundless creation had an Eve, an apple, a serpent, and a redeemer? In this case, the person who is irreverently called the son of God, and sometimes God himself, would have nothing else to do than the travel from world to world, in an endless succession of deaths, with scarcely a momentary interval of life." [p. 49]
RESPONSES TO THOMAS PAINE
Well, The Age of Reason sold well in Britain, and especially in America, and it drew a multitude of strong responses from Christian thinkers, because there was a number of Christian thinkers who believed in life out in the universe and did not like Payne's perspective.
One was the Baptist theologian and missionary advocate, Andrew Fuller - still very popular in Baptist circles today. He published his book, The Gospel in its Own Witness in 1799, as an immediate and direct response to Paine, and he argued that, Listen, there is intelligent life out there, but they are all loyal to God and unfallen. Therefore, there's no need for multiple incarnations, multiple deaths.' So that's one way among others that he attempted to refute Thomas Payne.
Timothy Dwight, president of Yale University from 1795 to 1817, and a key agent in The Great Awakening preached a series of 173 sermons covering the logical order of systematic theology, in which he incorporated numerous references to inhabitants of other worlds and much of his rhetoric about other inhabitants of other worlds was responding to Paine.
The next most important response to Paine was the Scottish church statesman and preacher Thomas Chalmers, who in 1817, published a series of seven sermons, later published as A Series of Discourses on the Christian Revelation Viewed in Connection with the Modern Astronomy. This is a beautiful book to read. He describes, in the most vivid terms, the beauty and creative power of God in the universe. He clearly acknowledges that there is intelligent life out there and, in general, he seems to indicate that it loyal to God - but he vacillates on a few places and conjectures if maybe their parts of the universe is fallen.
Another evangelical pluralist and fellow Scottsman of Chalmers was Thomas Dick, who rather than focus on Paine, took it a step further and built his career on writing about inhabitants in other worlds. And Thomas Dick's writings are most interesting when you read them. He spoke of different kinds of beings on Jupiter and on Saturn, and even speaks of life on the sun.
This group are comprised of Calvinist Evangelicals. Ellen White would fit in that group because she was more evangelical in terms of her faith with regard to the Bible. But outside of the evangelical community, the Swedish natural philosopher in Mystic theologian Emmanuel Swedenborg published his book, The Earths in Our Solar System, in 1758. This was a compilation of 11 conversations he had with extraterrestrial spirits from each planet in our solar system in five more planets in other systems. So here we have spiritualism and pluralism, or extraterrestrial life.
During the 1840s in America, Andrew Jackson Davis received several visions and became the philosophical founder of American spiritualism, and he had extensive communion with beans on other worlds as well. Thomas Lake Harris, Baptist-turned-Universalist-turned-spiritualist claimed the direct visionary blessing of Swedenborg, and spoke with spirits on other worlds and some of the interesting details of what these characters said about their encounters with alien beings. I will share with you in part two of this episode next month.
One who claimed visions and founded a major religious movement that continues strong today with Joseph Smith, the founder of Mormonism. Joseph Smith created his own cosmology with life populating the universe. It was very unique from all the others. In fact, the two most unique writers on pluralism, in the the religious context, were Joseph Smith and Ellen White. They were the ones who established their own unique systems, but their theology was radically different.
ELLEN WHITE AND THE PRINCIPLE OF PLENTITUDE
Such was the pluralist milieu or background for Ellen White's visions of Intelligent Life and other worlds and plurality statements. There were, of course, many other writers than the ones mentioned above, but this sampling provides the necessary context for an analysis of White's plurality of unfallen worlds. Now, it's important to point out that Ellen White never formally set out to prove the existence of extraterrestrial intelligence on other the planets from Scripture or science. She assumed from her visions a universe that expressed the principle of plentitude and the principle of plentitude is something most of those writers espoused, which means that in the vast universe, God wouldn't just create it as empty space. He would fill the the universe with worlds and populate those worlds with people. He wouldn't create it just to waste - it would all sit out there empty. He would, through the principle of plentitude, fill it with life. That's the idea.
So Ellen White took the principle of plentitude and plugged this idea of inhabited worlds into her larger theme of what we call "the great controversy" or "cosmic conflict." Plurality of worlds was thus not a major theme in her writings, but rather an important supporting theme. Mention about 1700 times throughout her writings, the inhabitants of other worlds occurred strategically as an important connecting link in her system of thought.
Now, I should point out here in terms of scripture itself, the Bible's focus is obviously not on life in the universe. The Bible's focus is on planet Earth: the redemption and the work of Christ on this planet. However, there are several passages in scripture that allude to life in the universe. In other words, it alludes to the idea that there's more than just angels up there. For example, you've got Job 38:7 - the sons of God saying at the creation of the earth. Nehemiah 9:6, Hebrews 1:2, Revelation 12:12, several places in the Psalms that that clearly allude to heavenly beings in the universe; more than just angels. That, of course, is another topic which we're not going to get into.
The majority of Ellen White's writings are about salvation for human beings: What God is doing in Christ on this planet for the salvation of the human race. Her teaching on plurality of worlds is related to that, but it's simply painting the larger picture of how the universe is relating to what's happening on this.
THE GREAT CONTROVERSY FRAMEWORK
The great controversy or cosmic conflict concept is the organizing theme in Ellen White's writings the metanarrative arc over all of her literary corpus. Her most intentional and consistent expression of this theme occurs in her classic Conflict of the Ages series, which involved five books: Patriarchs and Prophets, Prophets and Kings, The Desire of Ages, The Acts of the Apostles, and The Great Controversy. I'll say much more about the series and the theme of the cosmic conflict in later episode. Written during the last two decades of her life. These five books cover the story of the great controversy over God's character as expressed in his law, from Lucifer's Rebellion in Heaven to the Earth, made new and all things restored in Christ. They function as the theological framework for everything else she wrote, including her 'plurality of inhabited worlds' statements. The other pluralist statements outside of the series spread throughout her writings and plug into this theological framework. The purpose of her statements on plurality of worlds was to help her readers understand the cosmic issues at stake in the great controversy to enlarge their view of Christ atonement and to show the great interest and investment of all the unfallen worlds in the outcome of Christ redemptive work on this planet.
The pluralist terms White used most are "universe" and "worlds." Universe occurs about 1300 times in various pluralist contexts. (That is when she's speaking about the unfallen worlds). Such as "all the universe," for example. "Entire universe," "Whole universe," etc. She's speaking of the unfallen universe collectively. The term "worlds" occurs about 400 times in the following combinations: "Other worlds," "unfallen worlds," "worlds unfallen," "all of the worlds" or just "worlds" in a pluralist context.
She also used the term intelligences in the following ways: "Intelligencies of other worlds," "sinless intelligencies," "created intelligencies." These pluralist terms form the backdrop for the interconnected themes in her overarching great controversy worldview: God's government, his law, character, love, justice, mercy, freedom, wisdom, and the redemptive work of Christ. Also, her use of these terms consistently depicted numberless unfallen intelligent beings that inhabit the worlds throughout the universe.
[NOTE: The material is quite extensive, and I'm only giving a concise summary here. I have actually published an academic paper where I go into a lot of this deep more detail than here and that will be published in a journal next year, and once it's published, I'll give you more details.]
In White's understanding, God created the universe before the creation of the earth and all was perfect harmony until Lucifer's rebellion, which occurred over a protracted period of time. So now I'm just summarizing the great controversy scenario and where plurality plugs into it. I'm going to use a lot of Ellen White's words, but I'm not going to do a "quote-unquote" - so much of what I'm saying will have my transitional statements, but it'll mainly be her words.
She said God's government included not only the inhabitants of heaven, but of all the worlds that he had created. And Satan thought that if he could carry the angels of heaven with him in rebellion, he could also carry the other worlds. Now, keep in mind, Satan or Lucifer was created as a perfect angel and, apparently, the highest angel of all the angelic host and a leader who eventually rebelled. This is that story.
This statement occurring twice in the Conflict of the Ages series, set forth the constituents of God's government and takes the reader back to the beginning of Satan's strategy. And the great controversy, God's law, his character is justice, is the foundation of his government, and Satan focused his energies on discrediting God's way of dealing with the universe. He misrepresented his plan of government before the angels claiming that God was not just inlaying laws and rules upon the inhabitants of heaven, that in requiring submission and obedience from his creatures, he was seeking merely the exaltation of himself.
These, of course, were Satan's accusations against God. This is what he used to deceive the angels. Thus, it must be demonstrated before the inhabitants of heaven, as well as all the worlds that God's government was just, his law perfect. Satan made it appear that he himself was seeking to promote the good of the universe. The true character of the usurper and his real object must be understood by all, but he must have time to manifest himself by his wicked works. It was necessary that his charges against the divine administration be a demonstrated as false. The whole universe must see the deceiver unmasked. So God, in his infinite wisdom, did not destroy Satan, the inhabitants of heaven and of other worlds, she wrote, being unprepared to comprehend the nature or consequences of sin could not then have seen the justice and mercy of God in the destruction of Satan. Had he been immediately blotted from existence, they would've served God from fear. Thus for the good of the entire universe, Satan must more fully develop his principles that his charges against the divine government might be seen in their true light by all created beings that the justice and mercy of God and the immutability of his law might be forever be placed beyond all question.
God's justice is the central to the great controversy meta-narrative. Why was the great controversy permitted to continue throughout the ages? Why was it that Satan's existence was not cut short at the outset of his rebellion? Ellen White answers: It was that the universe might be convinced of God's justice in his dealing with evil, that sin might receive eternal condemnation. At the creation of the earth, with its new and distinct order of beings, she said the entire universe took a deep and joyful interest studying the new race of human beings. Satan brought his rebellion down to this earth, deceived Adam and Eve, and plunged the human race into sin and degradation. The entire universe was filled with sorrow, but the promise of Genesis 3:15 gave hope and the great controversy begun in heaven was to be decided in the very world, on the very same field that Satan claimed as his.
White is careful to inform her readers that the other world's watch the controversy with great interest. It was the marvel of all the universe, she wrote, that Christ should humble himself to save fallen men. That he who had passed from star to star, from world to world superintendent, all by his providence, supplying the needs of every order of being in his vast creation; that he should consent to leave his glory and take upon himself human nature was a mystery, which the sinless intelligences of other worlds desired to understand. In this sense, the plan of redemption, she said, had yet a broader and deeper purpose than the salvation of man. It was to vindicate the character of God before the universe. Hence all the universe watch with intense interest as Christ took on humanity and traverse the blood-stain path from manger to Calvary.
In this sense, the plan of redemption, she said, had yet a broader and deeper purpose than the salvation of man. It was to vindicate the character of God before the universe.
As witnesses to the controversy, the unfallen worlds especially followed the closing scenes of the conflict. They viewed, with grief and amazement, Christ hanging up on the cross, and thus the character Satan was clearly revealed both to the angels and to the unfallen worlds.
The aspect of the other worlds watching the controversy transpire on this planet is a significant part of White's pluralist thought. The themes of the great controversy, atonement, and other worlds tend to converge in her thought. Why did the inhabitants of the unfallen worlds watch with such intense interest, the struggle between the Prince of Life and the Prince of Darkness? Because, she said, of the issues at stake: such as God's character, as ruler of the universe and his law, his justice, his love, his self-sacrificing spirit, his way of dealing with sin and Satan. The result of the conflict had a bearing in all future of the worlds, and every step that Christ took in the path of humiliation was watched by them with the deepest interest. Christ's death on the cross became the turning point for the angels and unfallen worlds.
In the following broad, sweeping statement, White sets forth the impact of the cross on the universe and the great controversy:
"When Christ died on the cross, Satan's death-knell was sounded. His deceptions were narrowly watched by the inhabitants of the unfallen worlds, as he, in disguise, worked in such a way that he thought he could not possibly be detected. But he was left to follow his own course, to condemn himself by his own deeds. And before the cross of Calvary he stood revealed in his true character. When Christ cried out, 'It is finished,' the unfallen worlds were made secure. For them the battle was fought and the victory won. Henceforth Satan had no place in the affections of the universe. The argument he had brought forward, that self-denial was impossible with God, and therefore unjustly required from His created intelligences, was forever answered. Satan's claims were forever set aside. The heavenly universe was secured in eternal allegiance." [RH March 12, 1901]
In White's mind, the cross was a close of probation for Satan's influence throughout the universe. He was proven a liar and thus the last link of sympathy between Satan and the heavenly world was broken. Christ had vindicated the character of God in his life and death before the universe, and in doing so, had preserved the allegiance of the universe.
"The arm that raised the human family from the ruin which Satan had brought upon the race through his temptations, is the arm which has preserved the inhabitants of other worlds from sin." [RH January 11, 1881]
Because of Christ's redemptive work for this world, the angels and the unfallen worlds have decided in favor of God's government. And that they will remain loyal to him forever. White asserts:
"Christ is mediating in behalf of man and the order of unseen worlds is preserved by his mediatorial work." [RH January 11, 1881]
So she puts into cosmic perspective the redemptive work of Christ on this earth. There's an inter-connected system of thought here and we've only scratched the surface. First, her focus is that Christ saved human beings by his work. But then, secondly, she pulls the curtain back and shows us the broader universal perspective in which Christ secures the unfallen universe from rebellion ever happening again.
We could summarize in several points:
One, the great controversy meta-narrative. Is the framework for her under her understanding of the unfallen worlds in the universe.
Two, God did not destroy Satan at the beginning of his rebellion, but allowed him to reveal to the universe his true character.
Three, the plan of redemption involved not only this fallen world, but all the unfallen worlds throughout the universe.
Four, the unfallen worlds are watching, with the greatest interest, the great controversy transpiring on this world.
Five, the unfallen worlds watched with intense interest the events in the life of Christ, and especially his death on the cross.
Six, through Christ's sacrifice on the cross, the unfallen worlds discovered Satan's true character.
Seven, Satan lost all sympathy in the universe and all. His influence with the un fallen worlds after the cross and
Eight, Christ vindicated the character of God in his death on the cross and showed that the foundation of God's government is love, mercy, and justice.
Nine, the resolution of the great controversy brings a fresh, new understanding of God's character and his government to the entire universe, and rebellion will never rise again.
These points collectively represent the pluralist picture in Ellen White's mind. The other pluralist writers, who shared similar ideas, presented only part of the picture. Their reflection on the starry heavens above inspired them with various theological applications (and I'm speaking of the evangelicals). They attempted to present, as best they could, pieces here and there of a theological pluralist puzzle. But it's Ellen White who put it together in a complete package. She's the one who put the pieces of the puzzle together in her own mind and gave a full picture of plurality of worlds as she understood it.
Her purpose was to set forth for her readers the issues in the cosmic conflict between Christ and Satan, to clarify the cosmic impact of Christ redeeming work on Earth, and to show how the entire unfallen universe is invested in the outcome of the controversy. Although White's pluralism had several similarities with the Calvinist theological pluralists of the day, she nevertheless set forth an original and innovative pluralism in the framework of her cosmic conflict theme.
The distinguishing feature of this theme was the vindication of the character of God through the work of Christ before all the universe: angels, humankind, and the myriads of unfallen worlds.
Next month, in episode two, I will continue this discussion and focus on Ellen White's encounter with an extraterrestrial being in a vision.
Until then, remember, always test a prophet by the biblical prophets. Thanks so much for listening. See you next time.