Author: Ron Graham
Is Belief in a Flat Earth Biblical?
—No flat earth Cosmology in Bible
Some atheists say the Bible is a “flat earth book”. They say this, without evidence, so as to discredit the Bible. But many professing Christians are also insisting that the Bible teaches a "flat earth cosmology". They say this to discredit modern science! The result is an undermining of people's assurance that the Bible is God’s word.
In this lesson, we will examine the doctrine of a flat earth to see whether the Bible really teaches it. "Do not despise prophecies. Examine everything carefully. Hold fast to what is good. Abstain from all that is evil." (1Thessalonians 5:20-22).
1 A Description of “Flat Earth”
Before we get into the lesson, it might be helpful to briefly describe a typical “flat earth” concept that the Bible is supposed to teach.
According to “flat earth” theory, the earth and seas are laid out on a flat disc circled by a high wall of ice around its edge. Deep beneath the earth there is an underworld. This disc of land and seas, ringed by ice, rests on a foundation with pillars that cannot move. From somewhere beyond the ice wall, there rises a solid dome, with windows in it, and waters above it.
Beneath the dome, and above the earth and seas, two great lights shine and move around so as to provide daylight and moonlight. Also beneath the dome, the stars move in perfect circles, and the planets in perfect patterns, over the earth. Polaris however is stationary, being directly above the centre of the disc, that centre being the North Pole. There is no South Pole.
In order, from bottom to top, this construct has six elements: (1) Pillars and Foundation; (2) Underworld; (3) Earth and Seas (flat disc); (4) Wall of ice around the circumference; (5) Firmament (the dome); (6) Waters above;
Note:— Square flat earth. There is also a “square flat earth” construct which interprets "the four corners of the earth" (Revelation 7:1, 20:8) to mean that the earth is square, not circular. I do not address that version of the “flat earth” although what I say about interpreting Bible verses would still apply.
2 Interpreting Bible Poetry
The assertion that the Bible teaches a “flat earth” has nothing to back it up except false interpretations. For example, Isaiah says, "You forget the LORD your Maker, who stretches out the heavens and who lays the foundations of the earth" (Isaiah 51:13).
This verse is quoted as though it describes a flat earth. However that is the preconceived notion of a commentator reading it into the verse. The verse itself does not say anything about a “flat earth”. The verse could just as well refer to the land and sky on a spinning globe, as could many other verses wrongly interpreted as teaching a “flat earth”.
Nevertheless, we are hearing more and more claims that the Bible is “a flat earth book”. We are told that, in the Bible, the earth and seas and sky are not described as laid out on a spinning globe orbiting the the sun, but on a flat plane.
My subject is that the Bible does not teach any such thing. This does not automatically mean, of course, that the Bible teaches we live on a “spinning globe”, and in this lesson it is not my intention to address that proposition other than to say the Bible does not deny or contradict it.
The Bible’s Focus
The Bible is neither a “flat earth book” nor a “spinning globe book”. The Bible was not written to reveal the shape and nature of the earth. It was written to disclose God's almighty power and glory, and his unfolding plan to save human beings from his wrath by grace, sending his Son Jesus Christ as our Saviour and sacrifice (Ephesians chapter 1). The Bible is an “Eternal Life book.”
The Bible teaches that our LORD Jesus Christ created us, our world, and the cosmos (Colossians 1:15-17, John 1:1-5). We must believe this, but we are not bound to believe a “cosmology” that is not really addressed in the Bible.
To be pleasing to God we need to know Jesus. We don't need to know what shape the world is.
We must "examine carefully" interpretations of Bible verses claiming that they prove ideas about the form and nature of the world. For such things blur the sight of those who are seeking God, leading them to fall into the ditch of pointless distractions.
The proof texts given to support a “flat earth” are often interpreted out of focus. People lose sight of the “big picture” of the Bible with its focus on Christ, and how that focus relates to the setting of a given verse which clarifies the verse’s meaning.
For example, some quote Nebuchadnezzar in the book of Daniel. Nebudchadnezzar says, "The visions of my head as I lay in bed were these: I looked, and behold, a tree in the midst of the earth. Its height was great. This tree grew and became strong, and its top reached to heaven, and it was visible to the end of the whole earth" (Daniel 4:10-11).
This is supposed to show that the earth and seas are spread out over a flat disc rather than being wrapped around a sphere. However Nebuchadnezzar is describing his vision, not the real world. There is no such huge tree in the real world. Nor, in the reality, does one observe the same portion of sky overhead from everywhere on earth.
And we might add that, in any case, Nebuchadnezzar would see very little of the real world lying in his bed! So what is seen in a vision is not what is seen in reality.
The focus of the book of Daniel is the coming kingdom of Christ, eternal and glorious. The visions of Nebuchadnezzar are relevant, because Nebuchadnezzar lost the plot and had his focus on his own glory as king of a great empire. This has nothing to do with the physical shape of the world.
The main thing to remember about “flat earth” proof texts, is that most of them come from poetry in the Bible. If they are mistakenly treated as plain literal statements, their message will be seriously misunderstood.
For example, Hannah’s prophecy has this line: "For the pillars of the earth are the LORD’s, and on them he has set the world" (1Samuel 2:8). It is claimed that if we believe the Bible, we must believe the world we live in is literally supported on gigantic immoveable pillars.
However, this verse is part of a poem or song. Poems use much imagery and figurative language. The verse above is figurative, and in literal language means, "The LORD will give strength to his people" (Psalm 29:11).
Besides, would Hannah not be intelligent enough to enquire what, if anything, these pillars themselves rest upon? The Bible's answer might be, "God spreads out the northern skies over empty space; he suspends the earth over nothing." (Job 26:7). This would seem to make the pillars a matter of poetic licence.
Foundations of the Earth
The Bible often mentions the "foundations of the earth". For example, "You laid the foundations of the earth so it cannot be moved forever" (Psalm 104:5). In this Psalm, the idyllic beauty of creation is pictured as a way of praising God. Among other things God is praised for providing stability in the land we live on, so we can rely on it day after day.
That is not to say there won't be volcanoes, earthquakes, cracks, sinkholes, and landslides. They happen but God is in control. "Therefore we will not fear, though the earth be moved and the mountains crumble into the sea." (Psalm 46:2).
Notice this verse: "They know nothing, understand nothing. They walk around in darkness. All the foundations of the earth are moved." (Psalm 82:5). This is not a literal statement. It means that, figuratively or poetically speaking, the life of the ungodly is a world of darkness and unstable ground. In literal terms, the ungodly are in ignorance; they have no sure foundation of truth.
Mostly, the Bible pictures the world, and its earth, as well founded. As the psalm says, "The world also is firmly established; it shall not be moved" (1Chronicles 16:30). This is said in an attitude of thanksgiving and praise to the LORD.
Land, sea, and sky, can be awesome in their fury at times. At times localities suffer destruction, but God does not let the world at large destroy itself. God is in control as the following statements show...
"Thus far shall you come, and no farther, and here shall your proud waves be stayed" (Job 38:11). "While the earth remains, seedtime and harvest, cold and heat, summer and winter, day and night, shall not cease" (Genesis 8:22). "The heavens and earth are now preserved by the same word [of their Creator]. They are reserved for fire until the Day of Judgment" (2Peter 3:5-9).
Meaning of “Earth”
Even when words are used literally, a word or phrase can have different and distinct meanings. For example in the Bible, the word "earth" refers to the dry land. This is one element of Creation distinct from the seas and the heavens (Genesis 1:9-12).
People use the word “earth” differently, when they speak of a “flat earth” or a "Planet Earth". That use of “earth” refers to a complete construct, the whole system of several elements including sky and sea. A Bible verse that speaks of "earth" is usually about the "dry land" element alone.
If people use the word “earth” to mean the whole system, then impose that meaning upon the word "earth" in the Bible, there will be confusion and false conclusions. For example when Peter speaks of "the earth standing in the water and out of the water" (2Peter 3:5), we would have the whole world, rather than just the dry land, standing in water.
Meaning of “Moved”
The word "moved" is also used in different ways, and the distinctions are sometimes subtle. Some say that the phrase "shall not be moved" disallows a spinning globe orbiting the sun, because those motions constitute movement.
However, the spinning globe, though moving through space, would be in a fixed and stable orbit, and from that it would not be moved. Furthermore, the land on its surface would remain firmly in its position on the globe and not be moved from that position in spite of the spin.
So there is no reason to interpret these "shall not be moved" verses to mean a world stationary in all respects. The world, whatever its form, remains in the place where God set it, and where Christ holds it together (Colossians 1:15-17). This is true, regardless of whether the world is set on pillars, or in fixed orbit.
Earth Founded on Waters
Another verse says, "The earth is the LORD's and all its fullness, the world and all who dwell in it. For he has founded it upon the seas and established it upon the waters" (Psalm 24:1-2).
Some interpret this to mean that the dry land floats on water, and water is the foundation of the world. Keep in mind that the verse is poetry and should not be regarded as a wholly literal description. The verse reflects that in the beginning God established the dry land where the waters prevailed (Genesis 1:9-10).
God commanded the seas to respect the dry land. "Thus far shall you come, and no farther, and here shall your proud waves be stayed" (Job 38:11). And so "the earth [dry land] was standing in the water and out of the water" (2Peter 3:5).
The Bible teaches that the dry land was created by a gathering of the waters with an emerging of land. God called the dry land "Earth" and the gathered waters "Seas" (Genesis 1:9-10).
3 About the Underworld
There are various myths and fantasy tales about a cavernous underworld deep down under the earth. These stories are often associated with a belief that the earth is flat, the so‑called “flat earth cosmology”.
This “cosmology”, including the invention of an underworld, is erroneously attached to the Bible —because in a few places it uses the expression, "under the earth".
One Bible verse says, "At the name of Jesus every knee should bow, in heaven and on earth and under the earth" (Philippians 2:10). The "heaven" in this verse doesn't mean the sky —unless the verse includes birds and bats as well as people. And those "under the earth" cannot be stretched any further than to mean those who are dead and buried until the resurrection (1Corinthians 15).
Another verse says, "Then I heard every creature in heaven and on earth and under the earth and in the sea, and all that is in them..." (Revelation 5:13). There are many creatures that live underground. There is no good reason for reading into that verse any underworld mythology or “flat earth cosmology”.
Sheol or Hades
The Bible does mention a place called "Sheol" or "Hades" (Acts 2:25-32 cf Psalm 16:8-11). But this is simply the realm where the spirits of the dead await the resurrection. It is metaphorically called "the pit". However it is a spiritual or heavenly realm, not part of this world.
The only Biblical description of Hades is our LORD’s parable of the rich man and Lazarus (Luke 16:19-31). We are not meant to learn from the parable what Hades is like. Jesus pictures the three in Hades with living physical bodies, yet really their bodies were dead in the tombs. So the picture is imaginary in order to highlight the lesson —that people need to hear God's word and help the needy while they still live on this earth.
There is nothing said in the Bible that justifies linking to the Bible any fantasies about the underworld. Those myths are not the word of God.
4 About the Firmament
The flat earth system includes a dome, rising from behind a high wall of ice that encircles the land and sea. This dome contains the air. Above the dome there is water.
In some translations of the Bible, the sky or "heaven" is said to be a "firmament" (Genesis 1:6-8 NKJV). Other translations use the word "vault". It is said that "firmament" or "vault" indicates a firm or rigid dome. Other translations use the word "expanse" which does not indicate anything solid.
Some of what the Bible says about the sky is taken to mean that the Bible is “a flat earth book”. For example it speaks of the sun and moon as lights that move in a course across the sky.
The Bible says, "God made two great lights... He made the stars also. God set them in the firmament/expanse of the heavens to give light on the earth..." (Genesis 1:14-19). Another verse says, "The sun rises and the sun goes down, and hastens to the place where it arose" (Ecclesiastes 1:5).
Some scoff at these Bible statements, saying they are unscientific. Well that is so, but even scientists will say things like, “The sun is high in the sky” or “the sun is going down” or “the moon is about to rise.” Certainly this manner of speaking is unscientific, but that doesn't make it false or foolish.
Frames of Reference
To understand the Bible, indeed to understand everyday speech, we must interpret sayings within their “frame of reference”. For example it is true to say “the sun arises and goes down”, because it is the observation of people in most places on land or sea. Within their frame of reference the sun in the sky moves in a set course above a stationery earth. So they speak of it in terms of appearances, which as language goes is just as valid as speaking in scientific terms.
You cannot understand what others say using a frame of reference of your choosing. It's like sitting in a train watching the houses and trees flash by. In another frame of reference, its the train that flashes by, and the houses and trees stand still. Confusion results from interpreting a statement using the wrong frame of reference.
The Waters Above the Firmament
In the creation account, before God established the dry land, he made the "firmament" which he called "heaven", and some of the waters he put above the firmament (Genesis 1:9-8). In another verse we read, "Praise him, you highest heavens and you waters above the heavens" (Psalm 148:4).
In the “flat earth” concept, this equates to water above the dome. However if we regard the sky as an "expanse" we will take "the waters above" to mean the clouds. As another verse says, albeit poetically, "He binds up the water in his thick clouds, yet the clouds do not break under it" (Job 26:8).
So we would understand that for when the clouds did release all their water, the Bible uses a metaphor: "the windows of heaven opened" (Genesis 7:11).
Many other verses are plucked out of the Bible that supposedly teach the “flat earth” idea. They are mistreated the same way as the verses mentioned in this lesson.
- Reading into verses a preconceived notion that is not really in the verses themselves.
- Putting an arbitrary interpretation on verses that disallows the notion of a “spinning globe”.
- Losing the Bible’s focus on Christ and God’s plan of salvation.
- Taking literally the metaphors of poetry and not allowing for poetic licence.
If you correct these errors of interpretation, the notion of a “flat earth” disappears from the Bible. It is not “a flat earth book” after all.