People who say the Bible is inerrant should be challenged to explain why the Bible depicts Earth as flat. I readily concede that there is no simple declarative statement in the Bible that says “Earth is flat.” Nor does the Bible say, “Earth is an oblate spheroid.” We must decipher what the biblical authors believed from less explicit statements in the Bible.
The good news is that deciphering what the biblical authors believed about Earth’s shape is not difficult. By far the most natural and plausible interpretations of the relevant Bible passages make it quite evident that the biblical authors believed Earth to be a flat circular disk covered by a solid dome, much like a snow globe.
In response to charges that the Bible is a flat Earth book, religious apologists typically seize upon any ambiguity in the biblical passage under discussion that allows them to argue that the author meant something other than what he said. If that fails, they say the passage under consideration is metaphorical. Christians see different concentrations of metaphor in the Bible de-pending on their personal creed or where they fit on the political spectrum.
When I call the Bible a flat Earth book, most Christians leap back as though I threw a homosexual rattlesnake at them. They then sputter passages, such as Job 26:7, that refer to Earth as, according to various bible versions, hanging in a “void” or in “nothing,” which is commonly taken to mean space.
All matter known to science resides in space, so space is hardly a void or nothing, yet if one takes a more parochial perspective and considers only Earth’s immediate vicinity (above Earth’s atmosphere but below the moon’s orbit), then it is accurate to describe Earth as suspended in a relative void. That said, the situation of Earth in space has no bearing on the debate over the shape of Earth. When I tell Christians this, they usually look puzzled. Apparently no one has ever bothered to point this out to them.
In their tireless efforts to deny that the Bible is a flat Earth book, Christians often cite passages such as Isaiah 40:22, which refers to the “circle of the earth.” Note that these passages do not refer to the “sphere of the earth.” People living in biblical times knew the difference between circles and spheres, yet the Bible repeatedly refers to Earth as a circle. As the evangelical Christian Paul H. Seely points out, not once does the Bible refer to Earth as a sphere or dur, the Hebrew word often (though not always) used for “ball,” which we find in Isaiah 22:17 (NRSV): “Behold, the LORD will hurl you away violently, O you strong man. He will seize firm hold on you, and whirl you round and round, and throw you like a ball…”
The Isaiah 40:22 passage, in which Earth is referred to as a circle, continues by telling us, “He stretches out the heavens like a canopy, and spreads them out like a tent to live in.” This reinforces the image of a flat Earth covered by some kind of ceiling or solid enclosure.
Proverbs 8:27 says God “inscribed” the circle of Earth, and since only a circle (in contrast to a sphere) can be inscribed, this passage provides definitive proof that the authors really meant circle, as they explicitly and repeatedly stated. It is beyond reasonable doubt that the biblical authors saw Earth as a flat circular disk. So even if Christian apologists were to find a biblical passage that says Earth is spherical, the Bible would contain contradictory statements about the shape of Earth and therefore cannot be inerrant.
Some Christian apologists cite Luke 17:34–35 (KJV): “I tell you, in that night there shall be two men in one bed; the one shall be taken, and the other shall be left. Two women shall be grinding together; the one shall be taken, and the other left.” The Answers in Genesis Website argues that this passage shows that Earth is a globe that is divided between day and night because the women are awake and the men are in bed.
This is an implausible interpretation. Aside from the fact that women commonly worked in what Genesis 3:8 refers to as “the cool of the evening,” the Luke passage states explicitly that it is nighttime. It says “that night.” The passage provides no hint that it could be simultaneously daytime elsewhere. It assumes that it is nighttime everywhere.
The passages we have just discussed constitute the best evidence that the biblical infallibalists have assembled, yet the “void” passages are irrelevant and the “circle of the earth” and “that night” passages are detrimental to the infallibalist cause. Let us now examine biblical passages that show beyond a reasonable doubt that the biblical authors thought Earth was a flat circular disk covered by a solid dome.
Daniel 4:20 describes a tree so tall that it was visible from everywhere on Earth. It is impossible to see a tree, no matter how tall, from all locations on the surface of a spherical Earth. Therefore the author of Daniel 4:20 could not have believed in a spherical Earth. The passage is, however, perfectly consistent with belief in a flat Earth.
Daniel described the tree as growing from “the center of the earth.” Reading this passage from the perspective of the spherical Earth theory would require us to believe that the tree’s roots extended to Earth’s core. But if the author conceptualized Earth as a flat circular disk rather than an orb, the statement that the tree grew from the center of Earth can be interpreted as showing that the tree was equidistant from all points along the perimeter. That’s the ideal location to make the tree visible from everywhere on a flat Earth.
Daniel’s description of the tree occurs within a dream. That has allowed modern apologists to argue that the flat Earth perspective was not meant to be taken literally. Note that this defense acknowledges that Daniel implies a flat Earth; that’s not in dispute. The defense claims, however, that Daniel’s flat Earth perspective does not count as a mark against the credibility of the Bible because it is expressed within a dream and therefore must be taken symbolically. In favor of the apologists’ argument, we might note that the tree itself does have symbolic meaning within the dream.
But Earth’s flatness is an entirely different matter. Unlike the tree, the shape of Earth is not central to the narrative, which removes the incentive to infuse it with symbolism. If the flat Earth did have any symbolic meaning, I can’t discover it in the passage, nor have I encountered any apologist who has proposed a symbolic meaning.
Part of the challenge for the apologist arises from the fact that the flatness of Earth is not even explicitly stated. It is merely implied, as though it were an uncontroversial geologic fact, common background knowledge. All parties seem to implicitly accept the flat Earth perspective. After the dream ends, during waking hours, they seem to take for granted that a tree, if tall enough, would be visible from everywhere on Earth and would scrape the floor of heaven. Nothing whatsoever is said anywhere in the book of Daniel to discredit the flat Earth perspective or to suggest that it was symbolic. The symbolic dream defense simply doesn’t fit the narrative.
To contend that dream passages don’t count is a desperate tactic. Dreams constitute a familiar biblical motif, appearing in such passages as Genesis 20:6, Genesis 28:12, Job 33:14-18 and Acts 2:17, where the verity of dreams is affirmed, and Numbers 12:6, where God himself gives explicit assurance that he reveals the truth to his prophets through dreams. Biblical historian L. Michael White reports, “Usually the revelations come in the form of visions or dreams that are delivered to a righteous person, typically by an angel.” According to Tony Crisp, there are 121 mentions of revelatory dreams or potential dream states.
Do Christians label as symbolic every prophesy or divine statement in the Bible conveyed through dreams? No. They single out the Daniel dream. Why? There’s nothing structural in the presentation of the Daniel dream that warrants its special treatment. The problem with the Daniel dream, the impetus for its special treatment, is its erroneous depiction of the shape of Earth. Apologists must label the Daniel dream as symbolic to comply with their faith-derived presupposition that the Bible is inerrant.
According to J. P. Holding, “the statements of characters in the Bible are not automatically granted inerrancy unless the speaker is either God or indicated to be inspired of God.” This sounds like a reasonable standard—at least it might if you already believe in a monotheistic god and you accept that he inspired at least some of the Bible and you haven’t read 2 Timothy 3:16, NRSV: “All scripture is inspired by God.”
If you adopt Holding’s standard, two problems may arise in its application to biblical passages. First, it may prove difficult to judge which biblical characters are inspired in any given point in a narrative. Second, Holding’s standard can, and therefore will, be abused by infallibalists, who will say that the falseness of a statement is proof that the character making the statement is not inspired by God. It’s a “get out of jail free” card.
With regard to the Daniel passage, statements by both King Nebuchadnezzar and Daniel depict a flat Earth. Daniel’s prophesy was fulfilled by God with exquisite accuracy. The passage therefore indicates without ambiguity that Daniel was inspired by God. I believe that means I made my case.
But wait. The apologist has one last card up his sleeve, his “get out of jail free” card. Using Holding’s standard, the apologist can point out that Earth is spherical and therefore any biblical text that indicates otherwise was obviously not inspired by God.
Okay. I’m fine with that. If Christian apologists are willing to admit that every scientifically false statement in the Bible was written by uninformed human beings, I am satisfied. I can work with that.
Our next flat Earth passage is Job 38:13 (NASB). This passage refers to God grasping the ends of the earth and shaking it to dislodge wicked people. This is an allusion to the way a housekeeper might grasp the ends of a blanket or rug and shake it to dislodge loose dirt. This passage just screams flat Earth.
In my entire life I have never owned anything but flat rugs—not a spherical rug in the bunch. If I ordered a rug from some online vender and opened the box to find a spherical rug, I would call their complaints department and ask them if they could possibly be any stupider. Job 38:13 definitely counts as a flat Earth passage.
This divine rug-shaking threat is to be heeded because, according to Job 28:24 (NASB), God “looks to the ends of the earth, and sees everything under the heavens.” Presumably God’s magical omni-vision empowers him to see everything, regardless of Earth’s shape. But the reference to the “ends” of the Earth suggests flatness as opposed to sphericity. So does the idea that everything is “under the heavens.”
Job 38:14 (NASB) tells us that Earth takes form like clay under a seal. The form of clay under a seal is distinctly pancake-like, complete with ridges and valleys impressed upon its upper surface.
Numerous passages refer to Earth as resting on pillars. According to the Bible, Earth is fixed in place on these pillars. Psalms 104:5 (NIV) informs us, “He set the earth on its foundations; it can never be moved.”
But God can nevertheless shake these pillars when he gets angry: “He shakes the earth from its place and makes its pillars tremble.” (Job 9:6, NIV) Passages like these make Christian apologists tremble, but, like Earth, they can never be moved.
It’s time for a thought experiment. Suppose you had four concrete cylinders set on end like the four legs of a chair. These could serve as pillars. Suppose you also had a concrete disk and a concrete sphere. Question: which would fit more securely on top of the pillars, the disk or the sphere?
Most toddlers free of mental deficiencies would quickly perceive that the disk-on-pillar design is more stable than the sphere-on-pillar design. The biblical authors surely thought God could design as well as a non-brain-damaged toddler. Job 9:6 therefore not only provides an example of the laughable cosmology of the biblical authors, thinking Earth rests on pillars, but it also strengthens the case that they thought God designed Earth as a flat disk.
Some infallibalists protest that all these passages are simply speaking in poetic language. As far as I can tell, the principal reason to suppose the language is poetic is because it expresses falsehoods.
If all these passages are poetry, then I have a question. Why does the Bible’s poetry always make Earth seem flat? If I were to read poetry someone wrote about me and if, to my dismay, they consistently made it seem as though I had a certain strange attribute that I didn’t have, I would eventually conclude that they really thought I possessed that attribute. That is especially so if their poetry never rhymed and they never claimed or even hinted that what they wrote about my possessing the strange attribute was anything other than literal truth.
As mentioned, the biblical authors believed the disk of Earth was covered by a solid dome (Genesis 1:7, NRSV), like a big upside down cereal bowl. One clue to the solidity of the dome is that the Bible refers to it as a dome, vault, and firmament. It’s hard to get much clearer than that.
The biblical authors do, however, get even clearer. Job 37:18 (NIV) says that God “spread out the skies, hard as a mirror of cast bronze.” (Mirrors used to be made of polished bronze.) This passage contains plain, unambiguous text, and it expresses a viewpoint that differs dramatically from the modern scientific perspective. We now know Earth is not covered by a solid dome or else our astronauts would have terrible headaches.
Job 37:18 suggests that God beat the heavenly firmament into shape much as an artisan hammers out a bronze bowl. The Hebrew word raqiya, used in Job and elsewhere for “firmament,” derives from riqqua (pronounced rik-koo’-ah), which means “beaten out,” as one might beat out a metal plate to thin it and expand it. The same word appears in Jeremiah 10:9, Isaiah 40:19, Exodus 39:3, and Numbers 16:39 in reference to beating out shapes in metals, including gold, silver, and bronze.
The solid nature of the sky is also indicated by Revelation 6:14, according to which the firmament could be peeled away “like a scroll rolling up.” The book of Revelation tells us that God, who lives in heaven, the area above the firmament, will be visible once he peels away the firmament. Heaven is where God sits on his throne (1 Kings 22:19).
Exodus 24:9-10 tells us that the floor of heaven is a pavement of sapphire stone, which geologists suggest was possibly misidentified lapis lazuli. The NIV says it is lapis lazuli, but virtually all other versions say sapphire. It is presumably the bluish color of the stone used to pave heaven that explains why the sky looks blue. Or, rather, it is the bluish color of the sky that suggested to the biblical authors that blue stone was used in its construction.
Additional evidence that the firmament was sturdy is that the stars were attached to the lower surface of the firmament. Genesis 1:14, Isaiah 14:13, and Job 22:12-14 indicate that the stars were attached to the underside of the floor of heaven by observing that God lived above the stars. The order of creation described in Genesis 1 makes more sense when we recognize that the firmament had to be created earlier (day two) than the stars (day four) so that the stars could be attached to the lower surface of the firmament.
Incidentally, Genesis 7:11 tells us that heaven is equipped with windows from which God released water during the flood that occurred when Noah was six years old. I’m just kidding about Noah being six years old. That would be silly. He was six hundred years old.
How high is the solid dome or vault of heaven? Apparently the tower of Babel described in Genesis 11:1-9 was a sufficiently credible attempt to reach the vault of heaven that it had to be destroyed. God, by the way, had to leave heaven and come down to Earth to inspect the tower. Apparently he could not see the tower well enough by simply peering out heaven’s windows, even using his magical omni-vision.
In Genesis 28:10-19 Jacob speaks of a ladder that extends to heaven, from which he sees God looking down. As mentioned earlier, Daniel’s tree touched the floor of heaven. Job 22:14 reminds us that God “walks on the vault of heaven.” Isaiah 40:22 says that God “sits above the circle of the earth” and that from heaven humans look the size of grasshoppers.
Since the stars were attached to the underside of the firmament, they would obviously have to be much smaller than what science teaches. Based on the Isaiah 40:22 scale, in which a human looks the size of a grasshopper, a star would have to be considerably smaller than a human. Otherwise it would be possible to detect the star’s diameter rather than perceiving the star as a dimensionless point of light. To appear as a dimensionless point, a star would have to be smaller than, say, a piece of fruit like an apple or orange.
The smallness of stars is confirmed by Scripture. According to Revelation 6:13 (NIV), God could make the stars drop to Earth “as late figs drop from a fig tree when shaken by a strong wind.” The notion that stars are the size of figs jibes with the story of the Magi who found the baby Jesus because “the star, which they had seen in the east, went on before them until it came and stood over the place where the Child was.” (Matthew 2:9, NASB)
Let’s imaginatively transport ourselves back to a cloudless evening in biblical times. The only major source of light would have been from an isolated fire—a campfire, perhaps, or a torch or tallow candle. If you stepped away from the fire and looked up, you would behold a velvety black sky magnificently studded with three thousand stars. The biblical authors could not have known that there are a septillion stars in the observable universe. Their knowledge was limited to those stars visible to the naked eye. They didn’t know that Earth is spherical, much less that if Earth were scaled down to the size of a pea, a star like our sun would be the size of a large (meter-wide) beach ball. If these stars suddenly dropped to Earth like figs, as the book of Revelation describes, it would be equivalent to thousands of beach ball-sized objects simultaneously falling onto a pea. The mechanics of the situation just don’t work.
What the biblical authors recorded in the Bible is astoundingly remote from the truth. I am not picking on the biblical authors for their lack of astronomical knowledge. My quarrel is with those modern religious zealots who, for ideological reasons, deny inconvenient facts, such as that the Bible is a flat Earth book.