Interpretations by both
conservative and liberal Christians
"Cosmology" refers to the study of the origin and
structure of the
Earth, the rest of the solar system and the rest of the universe.
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:
Conservative Christians: Many 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:
They 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 in a literal manner must be
accurate and correct.
Almost 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 comprehended.
When interpreted literally, many biblical passages clearly describe an
ancient, Pagan, view of the earth, heaven and the rest of the cosmos. For
Genesis 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.
Genesis 7 discusses the windows of heaven as being opened so that the
water of the world-wide flood could be poured onto the earth.
Genesis 11 describes the efforts of humanity to build the Tower of
Babel which would reach to the firmament and thus penetrate into
Exodus 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.
Joshua 10 discusses how the sun, which was believed to move across the
sky every day, stopped in its tracks.
Verses in the Psalms mention repeatedly that God is above the earth,
looking down on humans.
Many 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:
Interpret them symbolically, or
Assign 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 autograph copies in Hebrew, Greek, or Aramaic 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
Liberal 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:
A more or less flat earth.
A firmament (a rigid dome) many hundreds of feet above the earth.
The sun, moon, planets and stars being pushed along the underside of
the dome by supernatural beings,
Underworld caverns where people go at death to lead a shadowy,
Heaven, where God resides, seated on a gigantic
throne above the firmament - dome.
As mentioned in Genesis 1, "The waters which were above the
firmament" were separated from the waters below (the seas and oceans).
Together 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, but 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
Interpretations of specific biblical passages:
Job 26:7:7 "He stretcheth out the
north over the empty place, and hangeth the earth upon nothing."
Religious 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.
Religious 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.
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."
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.
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.
Deuteronomy 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."
Religious liberals interpret such passages as referring to a flat
earth with clearly defined boundaries.
Many 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.
2 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."
Religious liberals typically interpret these passages as referring
to a rigidly mounted, stationary, unmovable earth. If the earth moved,
it would break its foundations asunder.
Many 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.
Job 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."
Religious liberals generally interpret these as identical to the
pillars that the surrounding Pagan nations believed supported the
Religious 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."
Matthew 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..."
Religious 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.
Religious conservatives might offer alternative suggestions to these
verses which are compatible with a spherical earth. For example:
Satan 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
The 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.
Matthew 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.
Religious 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
Religious conservatives might offer alternative suggestions:
At 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.
Jesus 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.