Seven Thousand Years of the Earth's Continuance

In trying to reconcile the findings of science with LDS theology, one of the more difficult scriptures to deal with is D&C 77:6-7.
Q. What are we to understand by the book which John saw, which was sealed on the back with seven seals?

A. We are to understand that it contains the revealed will, mysteries, and the works of God; the hidden things of his economy concerning this earth during the seven thousand years of its continuance, or its temporal existence.

Q. What are we to understand by the seven seals with which it was sealed?

A. We are to understand that the first seal contains the things of the first thousand years, and the second also of the second thousand years, and so on until the seventh.

Jeff has discussed this scripture before. I want to supplement his discussion with some further information and analysis.

I think there are 3 basic ways to approach this scripture, not all of which are mutually exclusive.

1. Traditional: The traditional straight-forward approach is that the fall of Adam and Eve occured ~4,000 B.C., which began the temporal (mortal) condition of the earth. The seventh thousand-year period will be the millenium and is expected to begin soon. This approach is supported by biblical chronology as well as D&C 88, which uses the seven thousand-year framework.

This general view of earth history is also held by some other Christian denominations, so it is not unique to LDS theology or modern revelation. Of course the problem in relating this to science is that it is contradicted by a number of scientific disciplines.

2. Literal, With Modification: This approach gives literal meaning to the seven thousand years, but modifies it a bit. Jeff Lindsay describes this approach as suggested by Sterling Talmage, son of James E. Talmage. Sterling Talmage examined the meaning of the words "continuance," "economy", and "temporal."
The three terms that Talmage analyzes harmonize with each other and all point to the conclusions that D&C 77 refers to God's dealing with man under the present time period (the collection of dispensations of the past several thousand years), and does not say anything about the time of the Creation or age of the earth, or even the antiquity of other humans or humanoids.

3. Developmental: Michael Quinn's biography of J. Reuben Clark says that Clark had some different views on science and scripture than Joseph Fielding Smith. Presidents Clark and Smith corresponded about a speech that Clark intended to give. Clark wrote in a letter,
You quote from Section 77 of the Doctrine and Covenants. I do not get from that section the meaning you give it.

Apparently the basic difference between us is this: you do not accept the scriptural record as given in historical sequence; I do.
It is not clear to me exactly how Section 77 was used in the correspondence[1], but the final sentence quoted is interesting. It suggests to me that while Joseph Fielding Smith tended to view the scriptures as an integrated whole, J. Reuben Clark viewed the scriptures as coming line upon line and reflecting historical context.

I think this second view is worth considering in connection with Section 77. Later in the same section, verse 12 refers to the seven days of creation. Unlike some other Christian denominations, Latter-day Saints, including such commentators as Elder Bruce R. McConkie, have felt free to view the days of creation as representing longer periods of time ranging from one thousand years for each "day" to unspecified lengths of time. The basis of this freedom is derived from the Book of Abraham which describes one of God's days as one thousand of our years (this is also suggested in the New Testament) and uses the vague term "time" instead of "day" in describing the creation.

The information that became D&C 77 was written in 1832, and D&C 88 was given at the boundary of 1832/1833. Joseph Smith obtained the papyri from which he translated (whatever is meant by "translated") the Book of Abraham in mid-1835. It is easy to retroactively apply the insights gained from the Book of Abraham concerning the "times" of creation to D&C 77:12, but at the time it was given we would likely have held a literal view of the "days" of creation.

Perhaps we can see Section 77 as an example of the Lord speaking according to Joseph's understanding--not bothering to correct traditional interpretations or incorrect information of the time. The meaning of the "days" of creation has been re-interpreted in the light of further revelation; perhaps the seven thousand-year timeline will be also.

Meridian of Time: Finally, I want to discuss a potential objection--that any alternative reading is contradicted by the scriptures that refer to Jesus as being born in the "meridian of time." Joseph Fielding Smith's explanation for "meridian of time" was that Jesus was born about 4,000 years after Adam and 2,000 years before us. The future millenium and the "little season" (D&C 88:111) following it complete the balance, putting the birth of Jesus approximately in the middle. (Doctrines of Salvation Vol I p.81. Orson F. Whitney also expressed this view.)

I see several possible weaknesses with this explanation:

1. Stretching the "little season" into almost one thousand years seems ad hoc to me. Why is this period of time lightly passed over when it would seem to be equivalent, or nearly so, to all of the other divisions of time?

2. The exact chronology of future events is somewhat uncertain, but the declaration of D&C 88:110 that "time is no longer" (whatever that means) could easily be understood to occur at the beginning of the millenium, since it is immediately followed by a statement about the binding of Satan. If the beginning--or even the end--of the millenium marks the end of time, the scheme laid out by Joseph Fielding Smith is disrupted.

3. It has been traditionally understood that during the millenium the earth is to be returned to a "terrestrial" condition, as it was before the fall of Adam. If such is the case, why is the millenium, but not the time before the Fall, included in figuring the meridian of time? Again, this seems ad hoc to me.

4. Although "meridian" can have the conotation of "middle" or "dividing symetrically," it also means "high point" or "zenith." Jesus' life and atonement is legitimately described as the "meridian of time" whether or not it divides time in two equal portions.

1. My inference from the information provided is that Joseph Fielding Smith was reading Abraham's equation of one of the Lord's days for one thousand of our years into D&C 77:12, thus concluding that the creation of the earth took seven thousand years. J. Reuben Clark was comfortable with millions of years.