The internet has brought humans and human knowledge together in a way that has in the past been impossible. This certainly has advantages, Christians able to carry out the Great Commission, taking the gospel to any region of the world through a simple, rightly-targeted Facebook Ad which could be the incipient stage of Habakkuk’s prophecy, that “the earth shall be filled with the knowledge of the glory of the Lord as the waters cover the sea.” Yet, such a wonderful tool as the internet has also caused great harm, dividing the body of Christ, many Christians drawn into all sorts of pseudo-scholarship. There are many examples of pseudo-scholarly issues that seem to draw the layman like a fishhook, but perhaps the fastest growing issue in the past few years is the issue of the flat earth.
It is claimed that ancient Hebrew cosmology believed the earth to be a flat circle enclosed underneath a dome, similar to a modern snow-globe. There is even a famous illustration depicting this conception that was created by Faithlife, the makers of Logos Bible Software, and which has been circulating the internet for years. Yet, one must remember that Logos Bible Software is the premiere scholarly software used in biblical scholarship of all stripes, both conservative and liberal; simply because it is available in the Logos Store, that does not make it true. It is the liberal who uses obvious figurative texts to claim that ancient Hebrew cosmology conceived of the creation as being enclosed in a flat snow-globe. Such a conception, however, is a wholly human-centered view of the universe, quite literally placing humans at the center of everything instead of God being at the center and realizing our insignificance compared to his bigness. This issue really comes down to hermeneutics, which is usually defined as “the art and science of interpreting Scripture.”
I am often asked whether or not I take the Bible “literally.” My answer, of course, is yes and no. The Bible is a collection of 66 books with a very wide range in genre. If I am reading historical narrative like Genesis or Exodus, then I generally take it for what it says. Yet, if I am reading the Song of Moses and Miriam in Exodus 15, not everything in that is going to be literal. I don’t read the Bible either literally or figuratively; I read the Bible literarily – what sort of literature is this? Genre is incredibly important; if we read historical narrative figuratively or take poetry and apocalyptic literally then we shall always miss what God is intending to teach us. God’s intent in the classic “flat earth” prooftext is not to teach us a literal cosmology; to understand this, we need to examine the flat-earth prooftexts in context. As Adrian Rogers often said, “A text without a context is a pretext.”
This is perhaps the most famous of the flat-earth prooftexts, two verses ripped from their larger context. God is trying to teach his people something and it is not so they can pass a science exam that he is about to give them. The verses say:
He sits enthroned above the circle of the earth, and its people are like grasshoppers. He stretches out the heavens like a canopy, and spreads them out like a tent to live in. He brings princes to naught and reduces the rulers of this world to nothing.
This verse is packed with figurative language – the people of earth are not literally grasshoppers and the heavens are not literally a canopy nor are they a tent. The word “like” makes that abundantly clear. Yet, flat-earthers latch onto the first phrase in this verse, “He sits enthroned above the circle of the earth” and thereby envision the heavens to be literally stretched out like a canopy atop which is a literal throne. This is bad hermeneutics which ignores the similes of the text. Now, I am sure that a flat-earther would say something along the lines of, “The heavens are literally stretched out. The language of canopy and tent is what is figurative because in reality the firmament is FIRM.” Yet, this is not how language works; similes and metaphors demand likeness to what is being described. If the firmament is actually a solid mass like a glass dome then the language “like a canopy” or “like a tent” is the wrong figurative comparison.
The full passage, Isaiah 40:12-31, reflects the prophet’s disputation with the people regarding God’s complete control over all nations as his people are going into exile. The prophet asks, “Who can… instruct the LORD as his counselor” (Isaiah 40:13) and “Whom did the LORD consult to enlighten him” (Isaiah 40:14a). Very often we tend to think that when God created the universe, he then stepped back and let it go, for the most part just observing and only occasionally interfering through the ministry of the prophets. This conception of God, however, is a deistic conception that has no basis in Scripture. Scripture says, “He is before (Gr. πρό, pro, “in front of,” “at”) all things, and in him all things hold together” (Colossians 1:17). The word translated “before” is not a marker of time, but is spatial, and means that God is “in front of” or “at” all things, the latter part of the verse making it emphatic that he is no mere observer, but actively involved.
When God created the universe, he created every moment in time from the beginning to the end, something that science is only now beginning to understand. Prior to Albert Einstein, time was conceived according to the mathematics of Isaac Newton and aligned with human intuition (i.e., time as we experience it). Einstein, however, in his special theory of relativity, discovered that there is no division between past, present, and future. The past is not gone and the future is not nonexistent; the past, present, and future exist together, and what is past, present, or future is determined by the relation of the observer’s movement through space. For events near in space this effect is microscopic, so on earth we never notice it, though it has been scientifically demonstrated, the most famous experiment being the Hafele-Keating Experiment in 1971 (read encyclopedia article).
Although the difference between the atomic clocks in that experiment was minimal, that difference has radical ramifications. For example, if a man is sitting on a park bench on earth and an alien in a distant galaxy is also sitting on a park bench then they are sharing the same slice of spacetime, stationary in relation to one another. Yet, if the alien hops on his bike and begins moving in the opposite direction of earth, then although the movement would be minimal, over such a large spatial distance, the alien’s spacetime slice will no longer include the man on earth or even the man’s own father being born, but will stretch back to Beethoven finishing his 5th Symphony. In the same way, if the alien were to turn around and begin biking toward earth, then the alien’s spacetime slice would be hundreds or thousands of years into the man’s future, perhaps including the man’s great-great-great-great-great granddaughter teleporting from New York to Paris. The concepts of past, present, and future are not universal demarcations; in fact, Albert Einstein, while trying to console the widow of a close friend of his, famously summarized this by saying, “Past, present, and future is only an illusion, however persistent.” Since God first created the universe, everything that has ever happened or will happen has always been in existence. This of course opens up all kinds of philosophical cans of worms regarding human responsibility, but the prince of preachers Charles Spurgeon gave perhaps the best answer to this problem. When asked how he reconciles God’s complete orchestration of events with human responsibility, Spurgeon said he doesn’t because there is no need to reconcile friends.
Isaiah 40:22-23 connotes a theological truth in a metaphor that is important for faithful believers who are going into exile with unbelievers. Verses 27-28 says, “Why do you complain, Jacob? Why do you say, Israel, ‘My way is hidden from the LORD; my cause is disregarded by my God?’ Do you not know? Have you not heard? The LORD is the everlasting God, the Creator of the ends of the earth.” The word translated “of the ends” is קָצָה, qatsah, and refers to a subject looking out to the distant end of a space or defined area.1 That is, God is the Creator of everything that transpires to the very end of history and beyond, and believers who are entering into hardships can take this to heart. The passage is not meant to teach us about cosmology.
This passage from the book of Job is another classic flat-earth prooftext, which says:
“He obscures the face of the full moon
And spreads His cloud over it.
He has inscribed a circle on the surface of the waters
At the boundary of light and darkness.
The pillars of heaven tremble
And are amazed at His rebuke.”
Here we have an example of Hebrew poetry and poetry should not be read in the same way as an historical narrative. The “circle” on the waters likely refers to the horizon that is observed on the ocean out of sight of land. Furthermore, verse 7 in this passage says that God “hangs the earth on nothing,” a concept at variance with the idea of the flat earth which holds strongly to the idea represented in Psalm 104:5, “He established the earth upon its foundation, so that it will not totter forever and ever.” Is this earth established on a foundation or is it hung on nothing? When one insists on always taking the Bible “literally” rather than in accordance with the particular genre, one encounters all sorts of problems.
In this passage, Job is recounting the greatness of God and how incomprehensible are his ways. This is made clear by the final verse in the chapter, Job saying, “Behold, these are the fringes of His ways; And how faint a word we hear of Him! But His mighty thunder, who can understand?” (Job 26:14). Job plainly says that he does not know how God did anything he has been describing, and therefore, his descriptions from verses 5-13 are based on his perspective, looking up and around himself in awe and wonder. Of course, this is in the larger context of Job’s sufferings, and therefore, the theological truth is that we cannot understand why God brings upon us what he brings upon us, but simply must trust his plan.
Again, we have a text of Hebrew poetry from the book of Job. Here, God is portrayed as creating the earth as one would erect a building. This is an obvious metaphor and should not be taken literally because such an interpretation would suggest that God constructed the universe out of preexisting material which would make the universe itself equal with God who simply fashioned it. A highly literary depiction of creation should not be used to assert as being representational of Hebrew cosmology. We need not look any further than Genesis 1 to see the Hebrew understanding of the universe.
The truth is, those who cling to a so-called “biblical cosmology” ignore the message that God is intending to communicate through the use of figurative language. Instead, they place a spotlight on the minuscule and miss-the-forest-for-the-trees. Of course, they most likely would miss that metaphor as well because they insist on interpreting Scripture in a totally foreign way to how people communicate in daily life.
We use all sorts of different genres of language in our conversations, reading a newspaper one moment then turning to a love letter from our significant other and then a recipe for our supper plans. We have no trouble differentiating between such discourses. Yet, when it comes to Scripture, however, people seem to lose the ability to discern between when to take something literally and when to take something figuratively.
- James Swanson, Dictionary of Biblical Languages with Semantic Domains: Hebrew (Old Testament) (Oak Harbor: Logos Research Systems, Inc., 1997).