Tuesday, June 22, 2010

The Flatness of the Earth

It is claimed the Bible teaches a flat earth, a small universe, and the sun moving around the earth. Is this true?

The Bible speaks of the corners of the earth (Isaiah 11:12; Matthew 24:31). We use the same expression today. The straightforward way to take it is as referring to the four compass points. It also mentions the pillars (Job 9:6; Psalms 75:3) or foundations (Psalms 18:7,15; Isaiah 24:18) of the earth (describing earthquakes). These seem to be basically metaphors. There are references to the circle or roundness of the earth (Isaiah 40:22; Proverbs 8:27) and that God hung the earth on nothing (Job 26:7). But I question whether any of these are meant as strict geological statements.

The Bible says the sun rises and the sun sets; so do we (Genesis 19:23; 2 Samuel 23:4; Psalm 50:1; Luke 4:40). This is because it is what we see when we look up at the sky. We do not say in the morning, "The earth has turned so we can see the sun." This kind of language, based on our perception, explains similar passages (Psalms 19:4,5). Also, the statement that the earth will not be moved (Psalms 93:1; 96:10) is a poor translation. The word "moved" means "totter" (also "founded", not "set on its foundation" is the better translation). The statement means the earth is well put together and not liable to fall apart tomorrow. It says of the righteous man that he will not be moved (Psalms 15:5; 112:5,6); does this mean he will not go on a vacation?

The Bible pictures heaven as up and hell as down (Psalms 139:8; Amos 9:2; Numbers 16:30; Acts 1:11), but we do not know anything about other realms and how they are related to ours. Let's take it in the crudest way possible, though. Down is the center of the earth, and it does not seem impossible that disembodied spirits could exist in solid or, in this case, liquid matter. And upwards we have a multitude of stars and galaxies, and it is even conceivable disembodied spirits and resurrected bodies could exist in airless space. It is thought primitive people saw heaven and hell in simplistic ways and that the Christian view is an extension of this. But if God revealed His truth from the beginning, the later cruder views could be a simplified version of it.

Underlying this criticism, though, is the assumption that the Middle Ages believed these fallacies and got them from the Bible. But in the Middle Ages they knew that the earth was round and that it was tiny in relation to the whole universe. They did believe the earth was stationary and the sun revolved around it. They got this from the same place they got the first two facts, from the Greek philosophers. They then proceeded to read their views into Scripture and defend them from it. The moral of this is that we need to be careful of canonizing any secular theory, as it can easily change on us.

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