The Bible speaks of earthly hills and mountains as “everlasting” and “perpetual” (see Genesis 49:26, Deuteronomy 33:15, Habakkuk 3:6), for so they seem to mortal humans. Since the time of geologists James Hutton (d. 1797) and Sir Charles Lyell (d. 1875), however, we’ve understood they’re perpetually growing or being worn down — or both.
Nowhere is this more evident than in Hawaii. As the Pacific Plate moves relentlessly northwest, the “hot spot” beneath it appears to shift to the southeast. Accordingly, while Kauai and Oahu have ceased to grow, Hawaii’s Big Island is still actively forming — particularly at Kilauea Volcano on its southeast side. And, roughly 18 miles off its coast, the underwater volcano Lo’ihi is slowly climbing toward the surface of the sea.
Meanwhile, other islands, eroded by waves and pulled down by sheer weight, have disappeared. To the distant northwest of the familiar Hawaiian Islands is Necker Island, or Mokumanamana, only about 45 acres today but once as large as Molokai.
Hutton’s and Lyall’s geological theories prepared the way for the earth-shattering proposal, by Charles Darwin and Alfred Russel Wallace, of organic evolution. Among the richest concepts in human history, evolution is now applied not only to mountains and finches but also to chemical elements, stars and galaxies. Even our bodies change over time, and not merely in the sense that hair turns gray. Our cells are continually replaced, so our bodies at 60 are, not merely metaphorically but literally, not the bodies we had at 30.
In all this, it’s difficult to find stable footing, firm ground on which to stand. Everything is in flux. What, if anything, is permanent? What lasts? What is of lasting value? We’re disoriented. Are we merely eddies in the meaningless stream of time? Mere flotsam and jetsam coughed up by the cosmos but swept away, again, at the next tide? For many, in the 1800s and since, evolution has resembled an earthquake in which even “solid land” seems to liquefy and move like the surface of the ocean.
The outspokenly atheistic philosopher Bertrand Russell put it bluntly in his 1903 essay “A Free Man’s Worship”: “That Man is the product of causes which had no prevision of the end they were achieving; that his origin, his growth, his hopes and fears, his loves and his beliefs, are but the outcome of accidental collocations of atoms; that no fire, no heroism, no intensity of thought and feeling, can preserve an individual life beyond the grave; that all the labours of the ages, all the devotion, all the inspiration, all the noonday brightness of human genius, are destined to extinction in the vast death of the solar system, and that the whole temple of Man’s achievement must inevitably be buried beneath the débris of a universe in ruins — all these things, if not quite beyond dispute, are yet so nearly certain, that no philosophy which rejects them can hope to stand. Only within the scaffolding of these truths, only on the firm foundation of unyielding despair, can the soul’s habitation henceforth be safely built.”
Ancient observers were already aware of mortality’s impermanence. Ancient philosophers routinely distinguished our mutable “sublunary world” of coming-to-be and ceasing-to-be from the serenely changeless world beyond the moon. That’s why the telescope’s revelation of transient sunspots so shocked scientists, educated to believe astronomical objects were composed of a fifth element — literally, the “quintessence” — immune to generation and corruption.
“Panta rhei,” declared Heraclitus of Ephesus (d. ca 475 B.C.). "Everything flows."
“Everything changes and nothing remains still,” Plato quotes him as saying, and “you cannot step into the same stream twice.” Omar Khayyam’s fatalistic verses about death and change saw our world without illusion.
Book of Mormon prophet Nephi counseled against relying upon the arm of flesh (2 Nephi 4:34). “Lo,” says Isaiah 36:6, warning that Egypt’s seemingly ageless stability was illusion, “thou trustest in the staff of this broken reed, on Egypt; whereon if a man lean, it will go into his hand, and pierce it: so is Pharaoh king of Egypt to all that trust in him.”
Victims of seasickness are often counseled to focus on something in the distance that doesn’t move.
“Change and decay in all around I see,” says Henry Francis Lyte’s classic hymn. “O thou who changest not, abide with me!”
Faithful intuition declares there is, indeed, something constant, someone who doesn’t move, and that what matters most will ultimately outlast what matters least.
Daniel Peterson teaches Arabic studies, founded BYU’s Middle Eastern Texts Initiative, directs MormonScholarsTestify.org, chairs mormoninterpreter.com, blogs daily at patheos.com/blogs/danpeterson, and speaks only for himself.