Monday, August 15

Does the Bible Teach a Flat Earth?

Skeptics of the Bible often make the claim that the Bible portrays a flat earth - and not an oblate spheroid as we know it to be. However, this demonstrates that the skeptic has chosen from the beginning to examine the Bible with an outright rejection of its veracity before researching its claims. But does the Bible actually teach a flat earth, or is a more reasonable explanation in order, rather than jumping to conclusions based upon the individual's presuppositions? In his book The Discovers, Daniel J. Boorstin writes, "A Europe-wide phenomenon of scholarly amnesia … afflicted the continent from AD 300 to at least 1300. During those centuries Christian faith and dogma suppressed the useful image of the world that had been so slowly, so painfully, and so scrupulously drawn by ancient geographers."[1] The flat earth position was never a mainstream view held by the church, but by a select few scholars who claimed to represent the whole of the church. African Lactantius, who lived from 245-325 AD, is the earliest recorded flat earth advocate in the Christian church. Lactantius rejected the Greek philosophers, and in turn, a spherical earth. The church considered his work unorthodox, and rejected his idea of a flat earth. Lactantius' work was later revived by a few groups during the Renaissance.[2] (Photo credit: NASA)

Cosmas Indicopleustes, a sixth century Greek Christian, claimed that the Earth was flat and laid beneath the heavens, which consisted of a rectangular vaulted arch. In an attempt to discredit Christianity, many secular historians have cited Indicopleustes view as the mainstream position held by the church - when in fact the opposite is true. The church rejected his ideas, and in fact most church father were either silent on the shape of the earth or held the spherical earth position. Washington Irving, in 1828, wrote The Life and Voyages of Christopher Columbus, and essentially stated that Columbus did not believe in a spherical earth, but that the Council of Salamanca was about the distance between Europe and Japan. However, the work was a mixture of fact and fiction, with Irving admitted that he was "apt to indulge in the imagination."[3]

Credit: NASA
"In 1834, the anti-Christian Letronne falsely claimed that most of the Church Fathers, including Augustine, Ambrose and Basil, held to a flat Earth. His work has been repeatedly cited as ‘reputable’ ever since. In the late nineteenth century, the writings of John William Draper and Andrew Dickson White were responsible for promoting the myth that the church taught a flat Earth. Both had Christian backgrounds, but rejected these early in life. Englishman Draper convinced himself that with the downfall of the Roman Empire the ‘affairs of men fell into the hands of ignorant and infuriated ecclesiastics, parasites, eunuchs and slaves’ — these were the ‘Dark Ages’. Draper’s work, History of the Conflict between Religion and Science (1874), was directed particularly against the Roman Church, and was a best seller. Meanwhile White (who founded Cornell University as the first explicitly secular university in the United States), published the two-volume scholarly work History of the Warfare of Science with Theology in Christendom, in 1896."[4]

Both Draper and White incorrectly portrayed the issue. Concerning Columbus, however, The New Encyclopedia Britannica (1985), Colliers Encyclopedia (1984), The Encyclopedia Americana (1987) and The World Book for Children (1989) now present the correct account of Christopher Columbus.[5] R. Schadewald claimed that "The creationist and flat-earth movements have similar foundations and histories, and both have used similar strategies to propagate their beliefs. Indeed, both believe they are battling the same behind-the-scenes opponent,"[6] further claiming that no "flat-earther" would object to the Creation Research Society's statement of belief - without himself citing any empirical evidence to back up this claim. Contrary to these claims among many others, "supposed Dark and Medieval consensus for a flat earth—is entirely mythological."[7] It is claimed that up until the 1500's, Christians accepted the flat earth view - an unfounded claim not based on facts. By 150 AD, the Greek astronomer Eratosthenes of Alexandria had measured the 25,000-mile circumference of the earth, stating that he had measured "within 50 miles of the present estimate."[8] The ancients were heavily interested in astronomy, as evidenced by the Greeks, Egyptians, and others.

"Although the flat-earth myth was effectively debunked in 1991 by Russell’s scholarly study, the flat-earth myth is still used to claim that Christianity has a long history of persecuting scientists.7 For example, Youngson claimed Bruno was burned at the stake for espousing scientific ideas, including denying the belief espoused by the Church ‘that the earth was flat and was supported on pillars.’ Historian of astronomy John North concluded that the flat-earth still ‘is a common myth—perpetuated, as is seems, by most teachers of young children—that Columbus discovered that the Earth is round.’"[9] The round shape of the earth could be understood by watching ships disappearing over the horizon as well as observing the shadows given by eclipses, information which was likely known to New Testament writers - and evidently by Christopher Columbus.

Revelation 7:1 is often cited by skeptics who claim that the Bible teaches a flat earth. It says, "After this I saw four angels standing at the four corners of the earth, holding back the four winds of the earth to prevent any wind from blowing on the land or on the sea or on any tree." Similar terminology, however, is utilized today when referring to the rising and setting of the sun even though we know it is the earth which orbits around the sun, the stars "coming out," and the like. The "four corners" is not a scientific statement claiming that the earth is flat, but what is called the "language of appearance": it refers to the four cardinal directions of north, south, east and west. What does the Bible actually teach about the shape of the earth?

Job 26:7 says, "He spreads out the northern skies over empty space; He suspends the earth over nothing," with the apparent comparison being the spherical shape of the sun and the moon. Job 26:7 demonstrates that, though it was written in poetic form, it appears to suggest that the earth floats in space, and with today's astronomical knowledge, we know that it indeed floats in space. Pictures from NASA and similar space programs have captured a vast amount of images and footage to show that the earth is spherical - an oblate spheroid - and that it floats in space, or rather that the earth hangs upon nothing just as the Bible suggests. To note, (this is a generalization, evidently not applying to all members) Hindus believe that the earth is supported on the back of four elephants, which in turn stand upon a gigantic tortoise which floats on the surface of the world's waters.[10] The Vedic priests taught that the earth was set upon twelve solid pillars, with the upper portion being the only side that was habitable.[11]

The Altaics from Northern Siberia believe that their Ulgen created the earth on the waters and proceeded to place under it three giant fish to support it, with the Taratrs along with several other Eurasian tribes believing that the earth is supported by a great bull.[12] A literal translation of Job 26:10 says, "He described a circle upon the face of the waters, until the day and night come to an end" (emphasis mine). Isaiah 40:22 conveys, "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" (emphasis mine). Significantly, the Bible declares on sixteen occasions that God "stretches out the heavens," which we now know to be true - the universe is expanding. The Hebrew word used for "circle," חוג—chuwg, can also mean "sphere," or "round."

"The Earth a Sphere—Certain astronomical relations were recognized very early. The stars appear as if attached to a globe rotating round the earth once in 24 hours, and this appearance was clearly familiar to the author of the Book of Job, and indeed long before the time of Abraham, since the formation of the constellations could not have been effected without such recognition. But the spherical form of the heavens almost involves a similar form for the earth, and their apparent diurnal rotation certainly means that they are not rigidly connected with the earth, but surround it on all sides at some distance from it. The earth therefore must be freely suspended in space, and so the Book of Job describes it: ‘He stretcheth out the north over empty space, and hangeth the earth upon nothing’ (Job 26:7)."[13] Psalm 75:3 says, "When the earth and all its people quake, it is I who hold its pillars firm."

"Blue Marble" from NASA
The reference in Psalm 75:3 is written in a poetic form. Instead of referring to literal pillars, this is representative of God holding up the Earth's stability, even in a moral sense: even when it seems as though all of mankind's morals are gone, God will not withdraw his sustaining power over the earth and mankind. It is clear that the Scriptures seem to speak of a spherical earth, not a flat earth. This is significant in that the Hebrew record is the oldest, with many Biblical scholars believing that Job was written by Moses in the 1400's BC, centuries before the Greeks "discovered" the shape of the earth, such as Pythagoras in the sixth century BC who suggested a spherical earth. Greeks identified areas as poles, the equator, and tropics, as well as drawing meridians and parallels. However, the Romans drew the earth as a flat disc with oceans surrounding it.[14]

"This is further supported by Proverbs 8:27 (NKJV), which speaks of God drawing a circle on the face of the deep. From a 'bird’s-eye view' of the ocean, the horizon is seen as a circle. Such an observation indicates that where light terminates, darkness begins, describing the reality of day and night on a spherical earth. The round-earth idea is further supported by Jesus in Luke 17:31, 34: 'In that day, he who is on the housetop, and his goods are in the house, let him not come down to take them away. And likewise the one who is in the field, let him not turn back...I tell you, in that night there will be two people in one bed: the one will be taken and the other will be left.' This would seem to indicate the phenomenon of day on one side of the globe while darkness abides on the other."[15] When Job 26:10 that the where light terminates, darkness begins, the text indicates a spherical earth.

From space, the earth appears as a circle since the earth is round - which certainly agrees with the Bible. The boundary between light and darkness taught in Job is where evening and morning occur - a boundary which is a circle, since the earth is round. It is fallacious to suggest that all Christians in antiquity taught a flat earth due to the passages such as Revelation 7:1, when in fact passages such as Isaiah 40:22, Job 26:7 and 10, as well as Proverbs 8:27 and Luke 17:31 and 34 indicate that the Earth is spherical in shape. Though a minority of Christians may have taught (and may continue to teach) that the earth is flat, this is in opposition to what the mainstream Church has taught, scientific data and what has been seen through human eyes - by those who have traversed to space and back, one of mankind's biggest achievements. The "four corners" are merely the four cardinal directions, and it is evident that Scripture teaches a spherical - not a flat - earth.

Sources:
[1] Boorstin, Daniel. The Discoverers. 1985. Print.
[2] "Who Invented the Flat Earth?." Answers In Genesis. Answers In Genesis, 1 March 1994. Web. 15 Aug 2011. < http://www.answersingenesis.org/articles/cm/v16/n2/flat-earth>.
[3] Irving, Washington. The Life and Voyages of Christopher Columbus. 1828. Print.
[4] Ibid, [2].
[5] Ibid.
[6] Ibid, p.42.
[7] Gould, S., Chapter 4: The late birth of a flat earth in Dinosaur in a Haystack, Harmony Books, New York, p. 41, 1995.
[8] Encyclopedia Brittanica.
[9] Bergman, Jerry. "The flat-earth myth and creationism." CMI. Creation Ministries International, n.d. Web. 15 Aug 2011. .
[10] Lisle, Dr. Jason. The New Answers Book 2. 5th ed. 2. Green Forest, Arkansas: Master Books, 2005. 96. Print.
[11] Ibid.
[12] Ibid.
[13] International Standard Bible Encyclopedia
[14] Dr. Joan Sloat Morton, Ph.D. (Biology and related scientific studies), Science in the Bible (Chicago: Moody Press, 1978), p. 13
[15] "Does the Bible teach that the earth is flat?." Got Questions.org. Got Questions Network, n.d. Web. 15 Aug 2011.

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