The Sabbath in a Round World

In Biblical times the Hebrews saw the world as flat. Indeed, this view persisted through New Testament times also, and far beyond chronologically. Thus, the Sabbath commandment was given in this context. There was no difficulty in the areas which provided the context of the Scriptures in knowing which day of the week was the Sabbath.

This discussion was presented at a Sabbath afternoon session of the Metro New York Adventist Forum (MNYAF), 7 May 2016.
Click here for a PDF version: The Sabbath in a Round World

However, when the expeditions of the early ship captains such as Vasco da Gamma and Magellan returned to Spain, having proved that the earth was round, they were perplexed to find that the daily records they had kept very carefully were one day off. It was eventually realized that this was the result of sailing around the world in one direction. This would have become a much greater problem once air travel, and then space travel, occurred.

Eventually, near the end of the nineteenth century, a solution was arrived at: the drawing of the International Date Line. On one side of that line it was agreed, for example, that it was Sunday, while on the other side of the line it was Monday, even though the sun shone on both sides concurrently. The line was set where it did not pass through populated land, and to achieve this purpose, it was a crooked line. It was set on the opposite side of the world from Greenwich, England, the location of “Greenwich mean time,” as much as possible at 180 degrees longitude, passing through the Pacific Ocean, the least populated portion of the globe. Its location was therefore arbitrary. It was not handed down from God, but was a human attempt to solve a practical problem.

I experienced the strange results of the dateline on one of my trips home to Australia during the 1990s. Since the purpose of my trip was to gather data concerning Adventism in different countries, I stopped in American Samoa for interviews en route to Australia, and in Fiji en route back to the USA. On the first trip I boarded a flight in American Samoa on a Friday afternoon. American Samoa was on the Eastern side of the date-line, near the very end of the day that had passed around the earth. It so happened that about sunset we crossed the date-line: it was suddenly Saturday evening, and I realized that I had completely missed out on a Sabbath that week. On my return trip I had three or four days in Fiji, and on Sabbath went to church there. I took a plane from there late that afternoon. Once again we experienced sunset about an hour into the flight. Fiji lies on the western side of the date-line, at the very beginning of the new day that is commencing its journey around the globe. It was again right at sunset that it was announced that we were crossing the date-line. However, because we were now traveling in the opposite direction (East) this meant that it was now suddenly again Friday evening – I was beginning a second Sabbath. I felt very strange about both these experiences, and was left feeling that the placement of the date-line was very arbitrary. After all, the sun sets almost simultaneously on both sides of the date-line, which is an arbitrary line whose position was picked because of its convenience. It has also been moved by governments for reasons of convenience.

This sense of arbitrariness seemed abundantly confirmed when I learned the stories of Adventist decisions about changes in the location of the date-line first in Tonga, then later in Western Samoa, two Island groups in the mid-Pacific Ocean, which chose to move the dateline to the opposite side of their territory so that they would have the same calendar as Fiji, their major trading partner. This meant that at the time both changed their position vis-à-vis the date-line, they scheduled on week of six days in order to accomplish the change. In both instances Adventists responded to these decisions as if the original placement of the date-line had been God-given, arguing that it was essential for Adventists to worship on every seventh day, even though this left them worshipping on what was now called Sunday, and thus on the same day as every other Christian church, in those countries. This left them in a situation where it was difficult for their evangelists to preach on the Mark of the Beast there. In both cases there were objections, where some members argued that it was essential that Adventists worship on a day that was different from that used by the major denominations.

For me there seems to be no “correct” answer. The date line is not holy, was not established during biblical times, but became essential after human beings discovered they lived on a round world and then later began traveling extensively. Given the arbitrary nature of the date-line, how can we insist that any day in the “right” day for worship? How can we make the day of worship a focal decision in the “Great Controversy between Christ and Satan” given these facts?

The Adventist experience has taught us that having a Sabbath, a special day of rest, worship, and fellowship, is important. The Adventist emphasis on this has become more relevant as Sunday observance has become increasingly lax. Having it on a different day makes it easier to emphasize it. However, I do not think that we can be definite about it being THE “right day” given the arbitrary nature of the date-line. You may be aware that Jews in New York observe two days for each “high and holy” celebration, but only one in Israel – their purpose is to make sure that the correct period is covered because of the reality of the date-line and its absence from the Torah. But they do not do this every Sabbath – perhaps because keeping so many holy days would not be practical.

What if the “real” date-line should have been drawn between Europe and America? – that would leave us here in the USA observing the wrong period as the Sabbath.

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