In elementary school I learned that Columbus sailed the ocean blue against the advice of all contemporary sages. Would he fall off the ends of the earth? His men and my classroom waited with bated breath on the edge of mutiny as the ships approached the edges of the known world.
I was taught that everyone in the early church and the Middle Ages unreservedly believed that the earth was flat, but that myth has been busted. In fact, the flat earth theory had largely been abandoned for centuries (if it ever really reigned at all) prior to Columbus. But you know “chronological snobbery” cultivates a fantastic story, and who wants the bland truth when the fiction is so much more fun?
Somewhere along the way, I was also told that Scripture itself testifies to a flat earth, which would obviously be disturbing if true.
Yet behind this wall of anachronistic propaganda festers something foul. Listen carefully, and you’ll hear familiar serpentine voices questioning the sufficiency and authority of the Word of God.
Considering the Case
Skeptics know that an assault on Christianity begins with an incursion against the Word of God. If the Scriptures are wrong about this one particular topic, then inerrancy and inspiration fall. With no foundation to support it, the entire faith subsequently falters and crumbles.
It is claimed that the Scriptures teach that the earth is flat. Though no single passage in the Bible actually says “the earth is flat” or “the earth is not spherical,” certain texts are skewed to evidence this flat earth cosmology.
Consider the following claims of Scripture:
- The earth is fixed and immovable (1 Chron. 16:30; Ps. 93:1, 104:5).
- The earth has corners and ends (Jer. 16:19; Rev. 7:1).
- The sun rises and sets (Ps. 50:1).
- The entire world can be seen at once (Dan. 4:10-11; Matt. 4:8).
The case is made. But is there not a more intellectually, linguistically and historically satisfying way to interpret such passages?
Upon Closer Examination
Every single day learned meteorologists and astronomers speak about sunrises and corners of the universe. If we are going to claim that passages mentioning a rising and setting sun or corners and ends of the earth indicate a clear belief in a flat cosmology, let’s be prepared to level the same charge against the leading scientists of our day. Or are our best and brightest privy to the figurative language we deny the biblical poets?
To properly interpret the Scriptures, we must consider authorial intent. The purpose of passages affirming an immovable earth, for example, is to commend the steadfast love of God. It powerfully proclaims, “the love of the LORD is as solid and dependable and firm and constant as the ground upon which you stand and sleep and walk.”
As far as the east is from the west, so far does he remove our transgressions from us. Psalm 103:12
So what if the earth is round and eventually east meets west? Does that make this psalm any less beautiful? Stand on the highest building or mountain around and locate an object at the very edges of your sight to the east. Now look as far to the west as you can and do the same. Is there a great distance between the two or not?
When you get beyond the use of figurative and didactic language, there is absolutely no evidence to suggest that the authors intended to portray a flat earth. Their intent in such passages is ultimately theological, much more than cosmological.
God’s Redemptive Purposes
When you carefully consider the full counsel of Scripture, there are intellectually satisfying responses to every charge of contradiction, inconsistency and error. Obviously, if you approach the text from a posture of skepticism, you will be suspicious. However, such thinking is in many ways intellectually slothful. Rather than putting in the time and effort to understand what the passage is actually saying by means of analyzing genre, language, context, etc. (i.e. proper hermeneutics), many readers assume it says what they want it to say (or what others have told them that it says) and thus reject the Word as antiquated and irrational.
At least a few persons have used the Scriptures to support a flat earth over the centuries, but what does this prove except that it is possible to misinterpret and misapply the text? Do the Scriptures themselves not tell us as much (Mark 12:24; John 5:39-40; 2 Pet. 3:16)?
Maybe we will get a chance to one day ask Moses, David, Jeremiah and John whether they were surprised to learn the shape of the earth. Until then, I think it’s fair to conclude that they had far more important things to consider as they proclaimed the redemptive purposes of our great God and the atoning death and resurrection of His blessed Son.