Why Don't Christians Who Take the Bible Literally Also Think the Earth Is Flat?
A man reads the Bible on April 25, 2012 in Phoenix, Arizona
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The creationist crowd is in a tithy lately. First there was “Cosmos” — on Fox, no less! — giving short shrift to everything they hold dear. Then, adding insult to injury, for those paying close attention, long-awaited evidence of the Big Bang arrived. It’s been a rough few weeks.
But really, if you’re a biblical literalist, it’s been a rough few centuries, or millennia, actually. You see, according to the Bible, the earth is both stationary and flat. Most pointedly, there are at least two passages in which a single point is visible to the whole world (Daniel 4:10-11 and Revelation 1:7), and one (Matthew 4:8) in which the whole world can be seen from a single point — an obvious impossibility unless the earth is flat.
Although the Catholic Church had forced Galileo to recant his work questioning the immobile earth in 1632 — and only pardoned him in 1992 — they did so in part because they were certain the earth was a globe: a globe around which the sun, moon and all other heavenly bodies revolved. Such was the Ptolemaic system, which had dominated Western views for more than a millennium. And yet, the Bible itself reflects a radically different view of the cosmos, one shared by the ancient Egyptians and Babylonians, in which the earth is both stationary and flat. And there is a wide range of scriptural passages to prove it.
The late Robert Schadewald made this point conclusively in “The Flat-Earth Bible,” an article posted on the Web back in 1995. Schadewald was a former board member and president of the National Center for Science Education, a leader in the fight against creationism and other forms of pseudo-science being pushed into schools. But he was as much an enthusiastic student of fringe or “alternative” science as a source of endless fascination as he was a critic of swallowing it whole.
“When I first became interested in the flat-earthers in the early 1970s, I was surprised to learn that flat-earthism in the English-speaking world is and always has been entirely based upon the Bible,” Schadewald begins his piece. Easily the most influential work is “Zetetic Astronomy, Earth Not a Globe,” by Samuel Birley Rowbotham. Its first, 16-page pamphlet edition, in 1849, predated Darwin’s “On the Origin of Species” by a decade.
1 Chronicles 16:30: “He has fixed the earth firm, immovable.”
Psalm 93:1: “Thou hast fixed the earth immovable and firm …”
Psalm 96:10: “He has fixed the earth firm, immovable …”
Psalm 104:5: “Thou didst fix the earth on its foundation so that it never can be shaken.”
Isaiah 45:18: “…who made the earth and fashioned it, and himself fixed it fast …”
It’s remarkable enough that most of today’s creationists, wedded to biblical literalism andinerrancy, rarely mention such passages, particularly given the history of Copernicus, Kepler and Galileo. But then there are these, as well:
Daniel 4:10-11: [Nebuchadnezzar] “saw a tree of great height at the centre of the earth … reaching with its top to the sky and visible to the earth’s farthest bounds.”
Matthew 4:8: “Once again, the devil took him to a very high mountain, and showed him all the kingdoms of the world [cosmos] in their glory.”
Revelation 1:7: “Behold, he is coming with the clouds! Every eye shall see him …”
A single point cannot see to or be seen from everywhere on a globe at once. For these words to be literally true, the earth must be flat, end of story.
These are only a few passages, of course. To really comprehend the Bible’s flat-earth cosmology, you have to know what you’re looking for — the other elements of the flat-earth world. That’s why Schadewald noted, “As neighbors, the ancient Hebrews had the Egyptians to the southwest and the Babylonians to the northeast. Both civilizations had flat-earth cosmologies. The Biblical cosmology closely parallels the Sumero-Babylonian cosmology, and it may also draw upon Egyptian cosmology.” He went on to document what he meant. In addition to the passages above, he cited passages concerning the nature of the heavens, the order of creation, and the diminutive nature of the sun, moon and stars. All are relevant to the claim of a flat earth, because all are parts of a coherent flat-earth worldview similar to that of Egypt and Babylon’s: The earth is flat; the heavens are a solid dome, fashioned of metal; the sun, moon and stars are relatively small object inside the dome of heaven. As for the order of creation, Schadewald wrote:
The Genesis creation story provides the first key to the Hebrew cosmology. The orderof creation makes no sense from a conventional perspective but is perfectly logical from a flat-earth viewpoint. The earth was created on the first day, and it was “without form and void (Genesis 1:2).” On the second day, a vault the “firmament” of the King James version was created to divide the waters, some being above and some below the vault. Only on the fourth day were the sun, moon, and stars created, and they were placed “in” (not “above”) the vault.
Regarding the heavens, he noted that the word “firmament” is translated from the Hebrew word raqiya, meaning the “visible vault of the sky,” and coming from riqqua, “beaten out.” “A good craftsman could beat a lump of cast brass into a thin bowl,” Schadewald pointed out. “Thus, Elihu asks Job, ‘Can you beat out [raqa] the vault of the skies, as he does, hard as a mirror of cast metal (Job 37:18)?’” He went on to cite a number of passages supporting the view that the vault of heaven is “a solid, physical object” and thus “a tremendous feat of engineering,” as well as passages from Isaiah [40:22], Job [22:12, 14], and Ezekiel [1:22-26, 10:1], which “complete the picture of the sky as a lofty, physical dome,” not merely an illusion that looks like a dome.
Regarding celestial bodies, Schadewald first noted, “They had to be small to fit inside the vault of heaven,” but added, “Small size is also implied by Joshua 10:12, which says that the sun stood still ‘in Gibeon’ and the moon ‘in the Vale of Aijalon.’” He then cited a number of passages presenting celestial bodies as “exotic living beings,” somewhat similar to how various polytheist religions represent them. And, of course, stars can fall from the skies (Daniel 8:10, Matthew 24:29, Revelation 6:13-16).
While the Bible itself contains no explicit cosmological description, the Book of Enoch, a highly regarded source that influenced the Bible, does. Schadewald pointed out that Jude 14- 15 quotes 1 Enoch 1:9, attributes prophecy to Enoch, and thus “confers inspired status upon the book.” He went on to say:
Unlike the canonical books of the Bible, which (in my view) were never meant to teach science, sections of 1 Enoch were intended to describe the natural world. The narrator sometimes sounds like a 2nd century B.C. Carl Sagan explaining the heavens and earth to the admiring masses. The Enochian cosmology is precisely the flat-earth cosmology previously derived from the canonical books.
This includes trips to the ends of the earth, a detailed description of solar and lunar motion, including six openings in heaven for them to emerge from when they rise and another six to pass into when they set, according to the season, and more information about stars, including their punishment for transgressions.
Some might be inclined to think that Schadewald was overstating his case. That’s understandable. Skepticism is good. So they should consider what a true believer had to say. In “Earth Not a Globe,” Rowbotham first presented a series of secular arguments on a wide range of specific issues, but in the end he resorted to wide-ranging, detailed arguments from scripture, in which moral, religious and physical arguments were all jumbled together with extensive quotations from the Bible.
At one point, for example, Rowbotham cited more than two dozen passages, such asPsalm 103, 11, “For as the Heaven is high above the Earth,” to argue that “If the Earth is a globe revolving at the rate above a thousand miles an hour all this language of scripture is necessarily fallacious.” “Up” and “down” are meaningless, he argued, if the place you point to as “up above” you is millions of miles away by the time you’re finished speaking. This may seem like a bizarre position, but it actually accurately reflects a consistent, literal-minded, stationary geocentric worldview — if not an exclusively flat-earth perspective. It simply shows how much scriptural evidence one can find, depending on the set of assumptions one begins with — which in turn shows just how difficult, if not impossible, it is to change the minds of true believers.
In another passage, Rowbotham argued about the nature of celestial bodies, further illustrating how his viewpoint produces a proliferation of scriptural support. First, he rejected the notion that the moon shines with reflected light, quoting Genesis 1, 16-17,“He made the Stars also; and God set them in the firmament to give light upon the earth,”and 10 other passages, before concluding, “Nothing is here said, nor is it said in any other part of Scripture, that the sun only is a great light, and that the moon only shines by reflection.” Then he argued that stars are not sunlike objects vast distances away, but rather are lights in the sky created to give light to the earth at night. These clearly mattered to him because of the entire worldview they are part of — precisely the point that Schadewald made.
Not incidentally, in making his point about the stars, Rowbotham misrepresented the scientific view by claiming, for example, “[T]he modern system of astronomy teaches that this earth cannot possibly receive light from the Stars, because of their supposed great distance from it.” Here, and throughout his argument, he confuses the matter of starlightreaching the earth, so that we can see the stars, with the matter of starlight illuminatingthe earth, so that we can see other objects by the light of the stars. The two are entirely different matters, but Rowbotham, for all his careful attention to words when it suits him, never seems to notice. In the end, however, he makes a claim so wild, it seems to make everything else irrelevant. He says that travelers report that in many other parts of the world, starlight is “sufficiently intense to enable them to read and write.” Yet, the confusion of terms in his argument is vital to setting the tone for this final, preposterous assertion — all of it, firmly rooted in scripture as he reads it.
Again, this may seem far removed from the idea of a flat earth. But for Rowbotham, our inability to see the connection is but further proof of how little we understand. And he had a point. The world as he envisions it is so radically different than our own that we find it difficult, if not impossible, to imagine what he takes for granted. But if the earth is flat, covered by a physical dome that contains the stars, then the descriptions he offers do make sense — and for Rowbotham, reading the Bible as he did, it’s impossible to separate one part of that cosmology from any of the others.
Rowbotham also made a further argument about the stars that goes to the subject of moral confusion and relativism — neatly anticipating the anti-Darwinians who would follow him. If, he argued, the stars are “not simply lights, as the scriptures affirm them to be, but magnificent worlds,” then there arise all sorts of theological conundrums — Are the worlds inhabited? If so, have the first parents be tempted? Have they fallen? Been redeemed? Does each world have a separate redeemer? Or is Christ the redeemer for every world? If so, was his suffering on earth sufficient for all the other worlds? And what of Adam’s fall? Did it implicate the inhabitants of all other worlds? “The Christian philosopher must be confounded!” Rowbotham exclaimed. “If his religion be to him a living reality, he will turn with loathing or spurn with indignation and disgust, as he would a poisonous reptile, a system of astronomy which creates in his mind so much confusion and uncertainty!” What a relief, then, to know that it’s all garbage, that earth is the only world ever created! How strikingly similar, then, his rejection of secular astronomy was to the creationists’ rejection of secular biology.
This is but part of a larger family resemblance, as Schadewald explains in “The Evolution of Bible-Science,” a chapter he contributed to the 1984 volume, “Scientists Confront Creationism“ (adapted version here). In his introduction, Schadewald wrote:
“For two thousand years, various groups of dogmatists have tried to force the universe to fit their interpretation of Scripture. They have judged and rejected evidence and explanations according to the standard of their own religious beliefs. On scriptural grounds, some have rejected (and continue to reject) the sphericity of the earth, the Copernican system, and the evolution of life on earth. In the last two centuries, flat-earthers, geocentrists, and creationists have adopted a label for their dogmas: Bible-science.”
It’s obvious why creationists would not want to be associated with flat-earthers, but it’s not at all obvious why we should let them get away with it, given how similar their arguments, assumptions and purposes are. In discussing the internal divisions of Bible science, Shadewald wrote:
“Though flat-earthism is as well-supported scripturally and scientifically as creationism, the creationists plainly do not want to be associated with flat-earthers….
“[Y]oung-earth creationism closely resembles the flat-earth movement. In fact, young-earth creationism, geocentrism, and flat-earthism are respectively the liberal, moderate, and conservative branches of the Bible-science tree. The intense hostility expressed by the scientific creationists toward the flat-earthers does not extend to modern geocentrists, who hover on the edge of respectability among creationists. Indeed, though the Bible is, from Genesis to Revelation, a flat-earth book, the geocentrists have combined forces with liberal creationists to cast the flat-earthers into outer darkness.”
And, indeed, the similarities are much more basic than the differences, as he quickly went on to note. In an earlier, 1981 article, he explained more fully:
“Despite their internecine warfare, Bible-Scientists are in broad agreement on a number of issues. They agree on the usefulness of the Bible as a scientific text, the weakness of mere theories, the duplicity of conventional scientists, and the impossibility of reconciling conventional science with the Bible. The creation 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.”
Today, more than 30 years after Shadewald wrote those words, belief in the “weakness of mere theories” and “the duplicity of conventional scientists” now extend well beyond Bible science, into the far reaches of the culture war as conservatives see it, including the field of global warming, where conservatives openly parade their contempt for scientific theories, and their suspicion (if not conviction) that scientists are involved in an elaborate deception (“climategate,” anyone?). In this same article, Shadewald quoted Rowbotham:
“Let the practise of theorising be abandoned as one oppressive to the reasoning powers, fatal to the full development of truth, and, in every sense, inimical to the solid progress of sound philosophy.”
And he went on to say:
Charles K. Johnson, president of the Flat Earth Society, is absolutely vehement about scientific dishonesty. He regularly calls scientists “liars” and “demented dope fiends” and claims that the entire space program is a “carnie game.”
With these sorts of venomous sentiments now infusing not just Bible scientists, but the wider conservative audience for global warming denialism, birtherism, groundless claims of “death panels” and massive voter fraud, etc., it seems high time that progressives stop playing defense and start going on offense. Asking Christian conservatives to defend flat-earthism any time they open their mouths would be an excellent place to start. The Bible, after all, is far, far clearer in supporting a flat earth than it is in opposing abortion, much less birth control.