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BIBLE PASSAGES ON COSMOLOGY:

INTERPRETATIONS BY CONSERVATIVE AND LIBERAL CHRISTIANS

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"Cosmology" means the study of the origin and structure of earth, the rest of the solar system and the rest of the universe.

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Conflict in Bible interpretations:

Some observers have suggested that Christianity in the West really consists of two separate religions -- one liberal and the other conservative. The religions share the name "Christian" and the text of the Bible. However, they differ on almost every theological and moral issue. Most of these differences in beliefs can be traced to the two groups' fundamental beliefs about the Bible itself:

bulletConservative Christians: Most believe that the Bible not only contains the Word of God, but is the Word of God. They believe that God inspired the authors of the Bible so that their writings were free of error; i.e. inerrant. Religious conservatives generally interpret bible passages literally. This produces a conflict with those verses which deal with cosmology:
bulletThey believe that the entire Bible was without error, in its original autograph form. It remains without error today, except for minor mistakes by copyists. Thus, those passages that deal with cosmology must be accurate and correct.
bulletAlmost all religious conservatives accept the modern view of cosmology: that the earth is more or less spherical, that the Earth revolves around the Sun, and that the stars are distant from the earth by enormous distances that cannot be easily understood.
bulletWhen interpreted literally, many biblical passages clearly describe an ancient, Pagan, view of the earth, heaven and the rest of the cosmos. For example:
bulletGenesis 1 discusses a rigid firmament dividing the waters below on earth from the waters above in heaven. It further describes the earthen waters as being moved aside to expose the land.
bulletGenesis 7 discusses the windows of heaven as being opened so that the water of the world-wide flood could be poured onto the earth.
bulletGenesis 11 describes the efforts of humanity to build the Tower of Babel which would reach to the firmament and thus penetrate into heaven.
bulletExodus 20:4 describes the universe as consisting of three levels -- much like a hamburger. Above is heaven; the Earth is below; under the earth is a deep sea of water: It reads: "Thou shalt not make unto thee any graven image, or any likeness of any thing that is in heaven above, or that is in the earth beneath, or that is in the water under the earth.
bulletJoshua 10 discusses how the sun, which was believed to move across the sky every day, stopped in its tracks.
bulletVerses in the Psalms mention repeatedly that God is above the earth, looking down on humans.
bulletMany passages in the Hebrew Scriptures deal with the ritual sacrifice of animals and describe how the sweet odor of cooking flesh can be smelled by God who is in Heaven above.

Most conservative Christians isolate any biblical cosmological verses which are literally untrue, and either:
bulletInterpret them symbolically or
bulletAssign alternative English translations to the original Hebrew words. It is important to realize that conservative Christians do not generally believe that English translations of the Bible are inerrant; only the original Hebrew and Greek have that status.

They also point out that the ancient Hebrews "lacked the scientific terminology [that] we use to describe things today. we should not expect descriptions of 'tectonic plates' or of 'molten lava.'...the Hebrews lacked key words which would have been most useful in describing cosmological phenomena."

bulletLiberal Christians: Most believe that the biblical authors picked up primitive, pre-scientific ideas about the nature of the universe from their surrounding Pagan cultures and incorporated them into their writings. Many archaeologists and religious historians believe that the story of the Hebrew's slavery in Egypt the Exodus, and the genocide against the Canaanites are actually myths with little or no historical foundation. They believe that the Hebrews originally developed as a subculture within Canaan. Thus, the biblical references to cosmology would have been derived directly from the Canaanite's primitive and pre-scientific view of the universe, and indirectly from other, more remote Pagan cultures. These beliefs included:
bulletA more or less flat earth.
bulletA firmament (a rigid dome) many hundreds of feet above the earth.
bulletThe sun, moon, planets and stars being pushed along the underside of the dome by supernatural beings,
bulletUnderworld caverns where people go at death to lead a shadowy, energy-less existence.
bullet Heaven, where God resides, seated on a gigantic throne above the firmament - dome.
bulletAs mentioned in Genesis 1, "The waters which were above the firmament" were separated from the waters below (the seas and oceans).
bulletTogether the universe formed an object similar in shape to the Skydome in Toronto, ON, the Carrier Dome in Syracuse, NY, and UNI-Dome at the University of Northern Iowa, with a sea of water underneath.

Nothing more could be expected from the authors of the Bible, since they lived in an age long before the scientific method, advanced mathematics and non-earth centered theories of the universe were developed.

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Interpretations of specific biblical passages:

bullet Job 26:7:7 "He stretcheth out the north over the empty place, and hangeth the earth upon nothing."
bulletReligious liberals believe that In the Hebrew cosmology, the earth is supported by columns. The next logical question is what bears the weight of the column, earth and firmament? Job seems to imply that there is nothing to support the earth. God hung the world, its columns, the firmament and heaven on nothing.
bulletReligious conservatives point out that this passage accurately describes the actual universe: the earth does, in fact, not lie on a foundation. It floats through space unsupported except by gravitational forces which keep it suspended in its proper location. This interpretation supports the inerrancy and uniqueness of the Bible, because no other ancient document describes an earth floating on nothing.
bullet Isaiah 40:22: "It is he that sitteth upon the circle of the earth, and the inhabitants thereof are as grasshoppers; that stretcheth out the heavens as a curtain, and spreadeth them out as a tent to dwell in." (KJV).

Most biblical translations, including the American Translation, Amplified Bible, Jerusalem Bible, Living Bible, New Century Version, New International Version, New Revised Standard Version, Revised Standard Version, and Young's Literal Translation refer to God being enthroned over "the circle of the earth." Today's English Version and the Contemporary English Version delete any reference to circle. Moffatt uses "over the round earth." The New American Bible, New American Standard Bible, and the Revised English Bible (REB) replace "circle" with "vault." The Duoay translation refers to "the globe of the earth."
bulletReligious liberals would group Isaiah 40:22 together with Job 22:14 "circle of the heaven" and Proverbs 8:27 "circle of the deep" to refer to the earth having a two dimensional circular form -- in the shape of a flat disk. According to Webster's dictionary, a circle is "a closed plane curve every point of which is equidistant from an fixed point within the curve." 1 It is a two-dimensional geometrical figure that one can draw with a compass. The earth is actually shaped like a sphere. More precisely, it is an oblate spheroid (pear shaped).

This was also the general belief among Near Eastern Pagan religions which were adjacent to the Hebrews. They believed that the sky was in the form of a rigid vault, supported by pillars at the edge of the earth. The Revised English Bible refers to "the vaulted roof of the world," which creates the image of a domed heavens over a flat earth. The reference to the "stretching out the heavens as a curtain" and "as a tent" reinforces these beliefs. Tents are typically stretched over a horizontal piece of ground.
bulletMany conservative Christians point out that the Hebrew word generally translated as "circle" can also refer to a sphere. They believe that this was the meaning intended by Isaiah, although it has been misinterpreted by almost all Bible translators, with the exception of the Duoay-Rheims version. Again, they believe that this interpretation supports the Bible's inspiration by God, its inerrancy and its uniqueness.
bulletDeuteronomy 28:64, Psalms 22:27, Psalms 59:13, Psalms 19:4, and Isaiah 11:12 all refer to "the end(s) of the earth," the "ends of the world, or "the four corners of the earth." Job 11:9 describes a dimension that is "longer than the earth."
bulletReligious liberals interpret such passages as referring to a flat earth with clearly defined boundaries.
bulletMany religious conservatives deny that the Bible refers to a flat earth. They might point out that the Hebrew words 'erets and tebel can be interpreted as referring to either the entire earth, or a much smaller area, like a land or country.
bullet2 Samuel 22:16, Psalms 104:5, Job 38:4 and Zechariah 12:1 all refers to the "foundation(s) of the earth" or "foundations of the world."
bulletReligious liberals typically interpret these passages as referring to a rigidly mounted, stationary, unmovable earth. If the earth moved, it would break its foundations asunder.
bulletMany religious conservatives point that we cannot "assume the idea of an earth with unmoving roots" 2 from these passages. It is generally the Hebrew words "'erets," and "tebel" -- referred to above -- which are translated here as "earth" or "world." Also, the words rendered as foundations -- "makown," "mowcadah," and "yacad" -- have alternative meanings, such as "place," or the date of founding of a country.
bulletJob 9:6, Job 26:11 refer to the "pillars" of heaven and of earth trembling. 1 Samuel 2:8 states explicitly that the "pillars of the earth are the Lord's, and he hath set the world upon them."
bulletReligious liberals generally interpret these as identical to the pillars that the surrounding Pagan nations believed supported the earth.
bulletReligious conservatives might point out that Job 26:11 refers to the pillars being astonished. Obviously, this text does not refer to real pillars, which cannot experience emotion; the passage is poetry and should be interpreted as such. The Hebrew word used in 1 Samuel is "matsuwq" which can mean either "pillar" or "situate."
bulletMatthew 4:8 and Luke 4:5 describe how Satan took Jesus up to the top of a very high mountain and showed him "...all the kingdoms of the world..."
bulletReligious liberals might point out that it is quite impossible to stand on any point of the earth and to see countries on the opposite side of the globe. These passages support the belief by ancient Pagans and Hebrews that the earth was flat with borders.
bulletReligious conservatives might offer alternative suggestions to these verses which are compatible with a spherical earth. For example:
bulletSatan may have showed Jesus a PowerPoint-type presentation at the top of the mountain which involved displaying images of the world's kingdoms on a computer or projection screen of some type.
bulletThe authors of the Gospels of Matthew and Luke obviously did not mean that a mountain existed that was so high that a person could see the entire earth from its top. If that were true, then the mountain would be visible from every location on earth. There is no mountain that can be seen from every place in the world. Thus, Matthew and Luke must have had a symbolic meaning in mind when they wrote these passages.
bulletMatthew 24:30 and Revelation 1:7 state that ever person on Earth will be able to see Jesus approaching the Earth, presumably at Jerusalem, at the time of his second coming.
bulletReligious liberals might mention that it would not be possible for people in South America to see Jesus "coming in the clouds of heaven" towards Jerusalem, since they are on the opposite side of the world.
bulletReligious conservatives might offer alternative suggestions:
bulletAt the time of the second coming, people all over the world would tune their television sets to CNN, and be able to view a live picture of Jesus' return. In fact, the 21st century is the first time when this would be possible.
bulletJesus might approach Earth at a speed -- and from a distance -- similar to that of a comet. He might be visible by people around the earth for many days as he approached closer and closer to the earth. Of course, as he came in for a landing -- presumably at Jerusalem -- fewer and fewer people would be able to observe him directly.

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References:

  1. "Mirriam-Webster's Collegiate Dictionary, Tenth Edition," Page 207.
  2. J.P. Holding, "What shape is the Earth in: An evaluation of Biblical cosmology," Tekton, at: http://www.tektonics.org/tekton_03_03_01.html

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Site navigation:

 Home page >  Christianity > Bible & the world > Cosmology > here

 Home page >  Religion & science > Cosmology > here

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Copyright 2003 to 2005 by Ontario Consultants on Religious Tolerance
Originally written: 2003-FEB-10
Latest update: 2005-AUG-17
Author: B.A. Robinson

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