Apologists for the South Pacific Division have suggested that the 180th Meridian, as we know it, was God-ordained to be the one place on earth where each day begins, regardless of any local reckoning. (See Samoa and the International Date Line III.) The present SPD argument for Sunday observance on South Pacific islands east of the 180th Meridian are solidly based on this concept. It is therefore important to examine whether or not this concept is correct.
If there is one practice that is of paramount significance to our prophetic understanding – and to our very identity as a people – it would seem to be our observance of the seventh-day Sabbath. This, in turn, depends on our concepts of time. It is therefore important that we understand which of our time concepts are God-ordained and biblical and which are mere human theories and constructs. Genesis 1:1-2:3 tells us how God, in the beginning, created the earth in six literal days of creation, followed by the first Sabbath. Thus we read about the first 7-day week. God placed us on a round planet which rotates on its axis once each day. Clearly, the day and the week are God-ordained.
Where did we get 24 hours & 360 degrees?
Interestingly, we read nothing in the Genesis creation account, regarding either 24 hours in the day or 360 degrees in a circle. According to Wikipedia, the earliest known use of the hour was by the ancient Egyptians. (See History of the Hour.) While we find no evidence of instruction from God, leading us to use the hour as a unit of time, it has proven to be a very useful and convenient tool. Jesus Himself evidently accepted and used this convention. For example, in John 11:9, He asked, “Are there not twelve hours in the day?” (Note that the society in which Jesus lived divided the 24 hours into 12 hours of “day” and 12 hours of “night.”) Evidently, while there is nothing mandatory in a human concept or convention, neither is there anything inherently evil in it.
The degree appears to have been invented by the Greeks. Perhaps it was based on the fact that many ancient calendars showed 360 days in a year. (See History of the Degree.) When the time came for the meridian concept to be used, it turned out that 360 is evenly divisible by 24. Thus the rotation of the earth, for each hour is equivalent to 15 degrees. Every 15 degrees around the globe, the longitude is now called a “meridian.” This forms the conceptual basis for the world’s time zones. Though entirely man-made, the meridian idea has proven to be a useful tool.
Since God gave man the intelligence to devise tools – both physical and conceptual – there is nothing inherently wrong with their invention or use, provided we do not construe any of them into a divine imperative. Man is therefore free to use or ignore the established meridians. We see this in the world’s time zones, which frequently ignore the meridians – sometimes blatantly, as in the cases of China (which spans 75 degrees of longitude but observes only a single time zone) and Malaysia (observing a single time zone both on the Malay Peninsula and on Borneo, which lies one normal time zone to the east). Similarly, we often see the civil authorities of various island groups ignoring the 180-degree Meridian in their choices relative to the IDL. (It seems obvious that the date line is just another time zone change, except that in this case, a difference of one hour also means a difference of a day.)
As far as we know, no one has ever suggested that our Seventh-day Adventist members must reckon time in strict accordance with the meridians/lines of longitude, rather than use the generally accepted government-decreed time zones. However, the Southern Pacific Division administrators seem to suggest that we must oppose any time zone decisions of the civil authorities, when they mean that a portion of the date line diverges from the 180-degree meridian. This implies that the 180-degree meridian is ordained by God. It is therefor important to examine whether this is so.
Where did our 180-degree Meridian and IDL originate?
What is the origin of the meridians that we see drawn on every globe?1
The concept, of course, has existed in principle for as long as we have had 24 hours in a day, 360 degrees in a circle, on a round earth. However, a prime meridian must be located, in order to mark one at every 15 degrees on a globe or world map. In other words, we must have a beginning point to start numbering the meridians, also called lines of longitude.
Naturally, this prime meridian could have been placed at any longitude on earth. The human race was scattered over the face of the earth from the Tower of Babel (see Genesis 11:1-9), so the longitude of ancient Babylon might well have been used. Similarly, a date line could easily have been placed down the middle of the Atlantic Ocean, rather than the Pacific – better reflecting the paths of the original migration from the Tower of Babel. (See Settlement of the Americas.) As it was, various countries originally claimed a prime meridian running through their favored locations.2
However in 1884, representatives of 25 countries met in a conference and voted for a Prime Meridian running through Greenwich, England,3 reflecting Great Britain’s international influence at the time.
The vote to measure longitude both eastward and westward from Greenwich led to the suggestion of a “date line” halfway around the world for the place where one day would change to the next. The term “International Date Line” was coined to describe this. However, the 180th Meridian, as created by the conference, crosses several bodies of land. So the participants agreed to leave the course of the so-called “International Date Line” (IDL) to the collective decisions of the affected societies and their ruling authorities.4
Thus, no international body has ever agreed upon an International Date Line. To the present day, local government decisions carry the weight of international consensus.5 And thus the resulting “IDL” is a matter of international bodies respecting the decisions of individual countries. The IDL thus does not really follow the 180th Meridian. Neither is there any particular reason for us to say it must. The 180th Meridian, man-made from the start, was never even recommended as a functional date line.
Where did we get our “Eastern & Western Hemispheres?”
It is easy to see how we get our Northern and Southern Hemispheres. The earth rotates on a certain axis, once each day. Using this axis, we can locate two “poles.” Then, we can draw an “equator” around the circumference of the earth, equidistant from the poles, dividing the earth into two halves. Thus, our Southern and Northern Hemispheres are based on a natural phenomenon. They are a way of describing how God made our world.
In sharp contrast, there is no natural phenomenon by which to divide the earth into Eastern and Western “hemispheres.” These are entirely artificial. The arbitrary choice of a Prime Meridian, as well as a 180th Meridian, conceptually divided the world in half. This division could very well have been made in some other way, or not at all! (See Rotating Earth for a picture of how the world turns, with day and night continuously moving westward without any natural breaks.) Therefore it matters not, with respect to our Sabbath observance, if New Zealand is said to be in the Eastern Hemisphere and Tonga in the Western. After all, both nearby countries have chosen to use the same reckoning for their days. Who are we to tell them they are “wrong?” In practice, when we refer to “Eastern” and “Western” nations, no one really follows the maps of the supposed two “hemispheres.” For instance, France is largely located in the geographical “eastern hemisphere” but is generally considered a “Western” nation. And just try telling the Dutch, the Germans and all Scandinavians, whose countries are wholly located in the “Eastern Hemisphere” that they are “Eastern” countries! So the terminology of “Eastern” and “Western Hemisphere” is essentially meaningless, except for cartographers.
Was the 180-degree Meridian “Providential?”
Like many time zones of the world, the “International Date Line” follows an odd and potentially changeable line. Unlike the time zones themselves, however, the IDL has a direct bearing on our Sabbath observance. Many would prefer to base Sabbath keeping on something more absolute, permanent and theoretically pure than the existing line. For the SPD, the fictional date line of the 180th Meridian seems to be the most easily accessible “standard.” Thus, we hear it suggested that, while the 180th Meridian is obviously of human devising, God’s hand still must have been guiding, in order to lead to such an “ideal” result! As we have seen, however, the 180th Meridian actually crosses several land areas, potentially placing a date line between next-door neighbours! This hardly seems to fit what one might imagine as God’s perfect ideal.
Do sunsets travel around the earth in a straight north/south line?
Sunsets rarely line up with any meridian or line of longitude, since the earth’s axis of rotation does not usually place the poles equidistant from the sun. The earth is “tilted on its axis.” So, the sunset line actually passes around the earth at a continuously changing angle. (See Solar Terminator for a seasonal animation of the sunset line over central Europe. Perhaps even clearer is this Sunset Animation.) This means that the sun nearly always sets somewhere in the “Eastern Hemisphere” at the same time as it sets somewhere else in the “Western Hemisphere.” This would make it impossible to devise a perfect date line, even if an ideal longitude could be found. Only twice each year – at the spring and fall equinoxes – do sunsets actually occur on a north/south line. Even then, does anything special really happen at the moment when sunset arrives at the 180-degree meridian of our own devising?
The Sabbath arrives, everywhere on earth, at a time determined not only by the sun, but also by the local government’s choice of an eastward or westward orientation in relation to our common place of origin. With nothing in nature, nor in revelation, to tell any country or island group which reckoning God wishes them to use, shall we not respect the God-given authority of each country’s civil rulers to make that decision? Does it say, anywhere in the Scriptures, that our Sabbath observance must not be affected in any way by human decisions? Again, let us be careful to distinguish between God’s revealed will, and our own tastes and opinions!
Isn’t the Sabbath “absolute?”
Why might one try to insist on a perfect, ideal, and changeless date line for use in our Sabbath observance? Why do some say that the Sabbath is “absolute,” and that no changeable government decisions can therefore be tolerated? Interestingly, the Pharisees of old manifested a similar mind-set. It seems they reasoned that, the Sabbath being a command from God, it must be “absolute.” And, since work is forbidden during its holy hours, absolutely no work must be done. (See Mark 2:23-24 NKJV.) Jesus, for His part, found this idea potentially fatal to the Sabbath’s true, God-ordained purpose. (See See Mark 2:27 and John 5:16-18 NKJV.) He indicated clearly that the Sabbath was made for humanity. The implication is that it is made for society and tied to the calendars of society, rather than to a particular location.
The desire for a straight north/south date line, laudable as it may be, should not lead us to ignore or defy the governmental decisions that determine the date line’s actual course. We must especially guard against the “sanctification” of Sunday, the first day of the week, calling it the 7th-day Sabbath on the theory that the date line is not where it ought to be. No matter how strong our opinions, in regard to the proper place for a date line, and no matter how well-founded these opinions may be, they remain just that – opinions. What right do we have to observe God’s holy Sabbath according to our own opinions, especially when this aligns us with those who do not recognize the seventh-day Sabbath as God’s holy day? To the society around us it looks absurd at best to keep Sunday and say that “it is really the seventh-day Sabbath.” And, at worst, it seems self-serving – a matter of avoiding the inconvenience that comes with keeping the societal seventh-day holy.
The Testimony of Jesus For Today
Is it possible we could be guilty of an error similar to that of the ancient Pharisees? The seventh-day Sabbath is a sign between God and His people (See Ezekiel 20:12 for instance), and we believe that there will be a test of loyalty for the whole world – whether to follow the authority of God or the authority of man. And while the seventh-day Sabbath is a sign of the authority of God, embedded in the center of the Ten Commandments, Sunday sacredness has been claimed by an earthly power as the sign of its authority. To whose authority will professed Sabbath keepers bow?
Shall we ever allow our ideas of theoretical purity to lead us into the observance of something other than the seventh day (i.e. Saturday), as reckoned by the society around us? Ellen White clearly didn’t think so, based on her reaction to the Eden day line theory. She made no objection to the details of the theory itself, but rather to the implication that Sunday would thus be deemed the true seventh day Sabbath, in parts of the world. (See The Samoan Sabbath Dilemma Revisited.) Yet, the 180th Meridian Sabbath-keeping theory proposed by the SPD, is directly parallel to the Eden Day-Line Theory that Ellen White condemned in the strongest of terms.
The seventh-day Sabbath is in no uncertainty. It is God’s memorial of his work of creation. It is set up as a heaven-given memorial, to be observed as a sign of obedience. God wrote the whole law with his finger on two tables of stone….
Now, my sister, … I write … to tell you that we are not to give the least credence to the day line theory. It is a snare of Satan brought in by his own agents to confuse minds. You see how utterly impossible for this thing to be, that the world is all right observing Sunday, and God’s remnant people are all wrong. This theory of the day line would make all our history for the past fifty-five years a complete fallacy. But we know where we stand…. (Ellen White, Selected Messages, Vol. 3, p. 318)
Its elevation of the 180th Meridian to the level of a “providential” ideal, or absolute God-given standard, seems to be a device of Satan to play upon our natural legalistic tendencies, and to lead Seventh-day Adventist people into Sunday observance, as promoted by a human religious power.
It seems to be a clear choice: Either Seventh-day Adventists have been correct in their history to insist on teaching that the Lord’s Sabbath falls the seventh day on what the world calls Saturday, or they have been wrong, and it really doesn’t matter.
Because of the official confusion regarding the Sabbath in Samoa, thousands have come to the conclusion that it doesn’t really matter. Many other thousands have concluded that, since the local calendar is not reliable for Sabbath-keeping purposes, it is necessary for Sabbath keepers to adopt a lunar calendar which results in the Sabbath wandering through the days of the week.
The Lord has provided freedom of choice for humanity, and He has also provided the intellectual ability to reason through the foundation and consequences of our choices. We trust that our readers will make wise choices – choices that depend on God and not human leadership.