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The Bible and Cosmology

Bible passages about cosmology

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Overview:

Cosmology relates to the layout, size, shape, origins, functioning, etc. of the earth, moon, sun and the rest of the universe. The Bible -- particularly the Hebrew Scriptures (Old Testament) -- contains many references to cosmology. But there is no consensus on how to interpret the passages.

bulletHistorians, archaeologists, mainline and liberal theologians generally believe that the Bible writers simply accepted their contemporary Pagan beliefs of neighboring countries about the shape of the earth, and the layout of the universe.  More details.

bulletAlmost all  conservative Christians believe that God inspired the authors of the Bible to write inerrant, error-free text. Thus, those biblical passages which describe or imply cosmology must refer to a spherical earth revolving around the sun, which is an average star in an average galaxy. If, when the passages are interpreted literally, they conflict with reality, then they must be interpreted symbolically.
bulletA very few conservative Christians in modern times have believed that the earth is actually flat. "Samuel Birley Rowbotham, founder of the modern flat-earth movement, cited 76 [biblical] scriptures in the last chapter of his monumental second edition of Earth not a Globe. Apostle Anton Darms, assistant to the Reverend Wilbur Glenn Voliva, America's best known flat-earther, compiled 50 questions about the creation and the shape of the earth, bolstering his answers with up to 20 scriptures each." 5

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References to cosmology in the Hebrew Scriptures (Old Testament):

The following quotations are taken from the King James Version of the Bible. It is not the easiest translation to read. However, it does help us avoid copyright problems. We will give only the literal interpretations of these passages.

bulletGenesis 1:6-8: "And God said, Let there be a firmament in the midst of the waters, and let it divide the waters from the waters. And God made the firmament, and divided the waters which were under the firmament from the waters which were above the firmament: and it was so. And God called the firmament Heaven. And the evening and the morning were the second day. And God said, Let the waters under the heaven be gathered together unto one place, and let the dry land appear: and it was so. And God called the dry land Earth; and the gathering together of the waters called he Seas..." We are introduced to the cosmology of the ancient Hebrews only six verses into the beginning of the first book in the Bible, Genesis.

Chapter 1 contains contradictions in terminology:
bulletVerses 6, 14, 20, 24, and 26 imply creation by word -- God spoke the universe into existence. This is a rare concept among the Pagan religions in the area of the Ancient Hebrews. It is similar to the myth of the Egyptian God Ptah who also created by divine command. 1
bulletVerses 7, 16, 21, 25,and 27 imply creation by action -- God physically made the world. This concept is more common among the neighboring Pagan cultures.

This conflict may have been caused by the author(s) of Genesis combining two ancient creation accounts into one document.

One biblical commentary explains that the Hebrew word translated as "firmament" is a beating out of a plate of metal. This formed a vault over the ocean that supported the weight of the water above the vault. 1

According to another biblical commentary: "A translucent dome, like an inverted basin, placed 'in the midst of the waters' defines the spatial boundaries of God's further work...The solid 'hammered-out' firmament restrains 'the waters' of chaos from above and receives its blue color from them. 'Heaven' is therefore the upper protected limit of created order." 2

bulletGenesis 1:9-10: "And God said, Let the waters under the heaven be gathered together unto one place, and let the dry land appear: and it was so. And God called the dry land Earth; and the gathering together of the waters called he Seas..." Here, God is seen as dividing the flat earth under the translucent dome into dry land and oceans -- probably by raising mountains.
bulletGenesis 7:11-12: "...all the fountains of the great deep broken up, and the windows of heaven were opened. And the rain was upon the earth forty days and forty nights." This is a passage from the story of the great flood of Noah. It was derived from an earlier Pagan Babylonian myth of a great flood. The cosmological view of the ancient Hebrews involved a vault or firmament over the earth which contained floodgates. The latter were doors that could be opened from above. Water could be poured through the doors down to the earth as rain or snow. The Babylonian flood myth may well have been based on memories of a a catastrophic deluge when a land bridge was breached and the Mediterranean Sea flooded the Black Sea about 7,500 years ago.
bulletGenesis 8:2: "The fountains also of the deep and the windows of heaven were stopped, and the rain from heaven was restrained." The author(s) of Genesis believed that the floodgates were physically closed, the rain stopped and the flood drained away.
bulletGenesis 11:4-9: "And they said, Go to, let us build us a city and a tower, whose top may reach unto heaven; and let us make us a name, lest we be scattered abroad upon the face of the whole earth. And the LORD came down to see the city and the tower, which the children of men builded. And the LORD said, Behold, the people is one, and they have all one language; and this they begin to do: and now nothing will be restrained from them, which they have imagined to do. Go to, let us go down, and there confound their language, that they may not understand one another's speech. So the LORD scattered them abroad from thence upon the face of all the earth: and they left off to build the city. Therefore is the name of it called Babel; because the LORD did there confound the language of all the earth: and from thence did the LORD scatter them abroad upon the face of all the earth." A later text (3 Baruch 3:7) describes how the Tower was eventually built. The builders reached the underside of the sky and attempted to pierce through the metal surface with an auger. 3 The story appears to have been produced by the merger of two earlier myths: one involved the building of a tower to gain fame; the other involved the building of a city to preserve the unity of humanity.
bulletGenesis 19:24: "Then the LORD rained upon Sodom and upon Gomorrah brimstone and fire from the LORD out of heaven." This is translated in the New International Version of the Bible as "burning sulfur." As noted in our description of Genesis 7:11-12, the Hebrews believed that there were actual floodgates in the solid vault over the earth that supernatural beings could opened so that water could be poured through -- landing in the form of rain or snow. Here, it was brimstone (sulphur) and fire that was believed to have been poured down to the earth over the cities of Sodom and Gomorrah.

This event may well have happened, but perhaps not as the author(s) of Genesis described. The burning sulfur seems to have came from below rather than from above. "Geologists inform us that the southern Dead Sea is a burnt-out oil field....an earthquake caused a section of [the] earth's crust to slip along [two]...fault [lines]. A drop of just one inch would wreck a large city. The tremendous pressure exerted by the dislodged mass forced the underlying oil and gas up along the fault lines into the atmosphere where they ignited to form a continuous liquid fire." Memory of this cataclysmic event may have been preserved for centuries until it eventually made it into the biblical record, after having been associated with acts of immorality.

Religious conservative attribute the destruction to God's anger of homosexual behavior by the citizens of the two cities. See "The story of Sodom and Gomorra." But many references to Sodom in the the Bible refer to other factors as the actual cause of God's hatred. "Among the sins of the Sodomites, Ezekiel lists pride, fullness of bread, abundance of idleness, haughtiness, and being unwilling to strengthen the hand of the poor and needy." 5 Secularists would attribute the event to purely natural causes. 

Was it a random event caused by a random earthquake in an oil and gas rich area, or was it the result of an intentional mass murder created by God's hatred of the moral failures of the inhabitants of Sodom and Gomorrah? The question is unanswerable.
bulletGenesis 28:12-13: "And he dreamed, and behold a ladder set up on the earth, and the top of it reached to heaven: and behold the angels of God ascending and descending on it. And, behold, the LORD stood above it...." This passage describes a dream experienced by Jacob. He had a vision of a ladder whose base was on the earth and whose top reached Heaven. Angels were using the ladder to travel from Heaven to earth and back. God appeared above the top of the ladder, and talked to Joseph. As in the account of the Tower of Babel, heaven is here portrayed as being only a short distance above the earth -- a location reachable by ladder.
bulletJoshua 10:12-13: "Then spake Joshua to the LORD in the day when the LORD delivered up the Amorites before the children of Israel, and he said in the sight of Israel, Sun, stand thou still upon Gibeon; and thou, Moon, in the valley of Ajalon. And the sun stood still, and the moon stayed, until the people had avenged themselves upon their enemies...." Here, the sun was believed to have stopped moving. This speaks again of a stationary earth and moving sun. The moon also stopped moving.
bullet1 Chronicles 16:30: "...the world also shall be stable, that it be not moved." This is one of many passages in the Bible which describe the earth as firm, stable and immovable.
bulletJob 26:7:7 "He stretcheth out the north over the empty place, and hangeth the earth upon nothing." 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.
bulletJob 28:23-24: "God understandeth the way thereof, and he knoweth the place thereof. For he looketh to the ends of the earth, and seeth under the whole heaven." The earth is viewed as having ends, unlike a sphere which has no end and no beginning.
bulletPsalms: The Psalms contain numerous references to:
bulletGod being in heaven.
bulletHeaven being directly above the earth.
bulletGod seeing people below him, and hearing their prayers.
bulletThe earth being fixed, stable and immovable.

Some examples:
bulletPsalms 14:2: "The LORD looked down from heaven upon the children of men, to see if there were any that did understand, and seek God."
bulletPsalms 19:1-6: "The heavens declare the glory of God; and the firmament sheweth his handywork...Their line is gone out through all the earth, and their words to the end of the world. In them hath he set a tabernacle for the sun, Which is as a bridegroom coming out of his chamber, and rejoiceth as a strong man to run a race. His going forth is from the end of the heaven, and his circuit unto the ends of it: and there is nothing hid from the heat thereof." This passage refers to a housing of some type in which the sun rests during the night time. It emerges in the morning and passes each day overhead to the other end of the firmament, heating the entire world. The author is here referring again to the sun moving over a flat earth.
bulletPsalms 20:6: "Now know I that the LORD saveth his anointed; he will hear him from his holy heaven with the saving strength of his right hand."
bulletPsalms 33:13-14: "The LORD looketh from heaven; he beholdeth all the sons of men. From the place of his habitation he looketh upon all the inhabitants of the earth."
bulletPsalms 53:2: "God looked down from heaven upon the children of men, to see if there were any that did understand, that did seek God."
bulletPsalms 78:23-24: "Though he had commanded the clouds from above, and opened the doors of heaven, And had rained down manna upon them to eat, and had given them of the corn of heaven."
bulletPsalms 80:14: "Return, we beseech thee, O God of hosts: look down from heaven, and behold, and visit this vine."
bulletPsalms 85:11: "Truth shall spring out of the earth; and righteousness shall look down from heaven."
bulletPsalms 93:1: "...the world also is stablished, that it cannot be moved."
bulletPsalms 96:10: "...the world also shall be established that it shall not be moved..."
bulletPsalms 102:19: "For he hath looked down from the height of his sanctuary; from heaven did the LORD behold the earth."
bulletPsalms 103:11: "For as the heaven is high above the earth, so great is his mercy toward them that fear him."
bulletPsalms 104:1-2: "Bless the LORD, O my soul. O LORD my God, thou art very great; thou art clothed with honour and majesty. Who coverest thyself with light as with a garment: who stretchest out the heavens like a curtain." Here, the solid vault above the earth is likened to a curtain.
bulletPsalms 104:5: "Who laid the foundations of the earth, that it should not be removed for ever." This implied that the earth is permanently fixed in place, does not move, and is positioned on top of foundations.
bulletPsalms 104:13: "He watereth the hills from his chambers...". Water in the form of rain is seen as being poured from heaven to earth through floodgates in the firmament.
bulletPsalms 139:8: "If I ascend up into heaven, thou art there: if I make my bed in hell, behold, thou art there." Heaven is upwards from earth; Hell (actually a mistranslation of the Hebrew place name Sheol) is downwards from earth.

bulletEcclesiastes: There is allegedly a verse which states: "The earth standeth fast forever". This implies a permanently immovable earth. But we have never been able to locate it.
bulletIsaiah 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 Bible translations use the word "circle" to describe the shape of the earth. A circle is normally considered to be a two-dimensional shape. The earth is not shaped as a circle; it is roughly a sphere. More accurately, it is an oblate spheroid (pear shaped). Many conservative Christians point out that the Hebrew word generally translated as "circle" can also mean a sphere. More details
bulletDaniel 4:10-11: "Thus were the visions of mine head in my bed; I saw, and behold a tree in the midst of the earth, and the height thereof was great. The tree grew, and was strong, and the height thereof reached unto heaven, and the sight thereof to the end of all the earth." Conceivable, with no atmospheric pollution, a flat earth, and a very tall and wide tree, people all over the earth could see it. But with a spherical earth, the tree could not be seen by people on the far side of the world.
bulletDaniel 8:10: "And [a goat]...waxed great, even to the host of heaven; and it cast down some of the host and of the stars to the ground, and stamped upon them." Stars were viewed by ancient people as tiny objects that a goat could stamp upon. In reality, stars are generally many times the size of earth. The world and all of the life on it would be burned to a crisp if a star landed on it.

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References to cosmology in the Christian Scriptures (New Testament):

bulletMatthew 24:29: "Immediately after the tribulation of those days shall the sun be darkened, and the moon shall not give her light, and the stars shall fall from heaven, and the powers of the heavens shall be shaken." See Daniel 8 above.
bulletLuke 17:29: "But the same day that Lot went out of Sodom it rained fire and brimstone from heaven, and destroyed them all." Here we have another picture of those floodgates above Sodom in the firmament of the sky -- the dome over the earth -- being opened. Fire and brimstone were literally dumped down onto the earth.
bulletLuke 17:34-36: "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. Two men shall be in the field; the one shall be taken, and the other left." The passage is ambiguous:
bulletOne interpretation is that people will be taken up to heaven in one instant. Since some are sleeping (presumably at night) and others are working (presumably in the day time), then the passage would imply that there are people on both sides of the earth. Thus, the earth must be two-sided; even spherical in shape.
bulletIt could mean that the process of taking people up to heaven might occupy many hours. Thus it might interrupt some people during the afternoon while they are at work, and others at night time when they were sleeping. That would be compatible with a flat earth.
bulletThe phrase "two men in one bed" might refer to a gay couple engaging in some sexual activity in the afternoon -- or merely enjoying a siesta -- while other people are working in the mill or field. That would also be compatible with a flat earth.
bulletHebrews 8:1-2: "...we have such an high priest, who is set on the right hand of the throne of the Majesty in the heavens; A minister of the sanctuary, and of the true tabernacle, which the Lord pitched, and not man." The author refers to God pitching heaven like a tent over the stationary earth.

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References:

  1. J.D. Douglas, et. al, "Old Testament Volume: New Commentary on the Whole Bible, Tyndale House, (1990), Page 7. This is a conservative commentary.
  2. John Marks, "The Book of Genesis." Part of Charles Laymon, Ed., "The Interpreter's One-Volume Commentary on the Bible," Abingdon Press, (1971), Page 3 & 4. This is a liberal commentary.
  3. Gregory Riley, "The River of God," HarperSanFrancisco, (2001). Page 27-28. Read reviews or order this book safely from Amazon.com online book store
  4. "The true location of the Red Sea crossing," at: http://www.biblebelievers.org.au/bb971126.htm "Sodom and Gomorrah: The Cities of the Plain," PAX Television, 2001-OCT-19, at: http://www.arkdiscovery.com/sodom_&_gomorrah.htm
  5. Robert J. Schadewald, "The Flat-Earth Bible," at: http://www.positiveatheism.org/

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Copyright © 2002 to 2004 by Ontario Consultants on Religious Tolerance
Originally written: 2002-APR-22
Latest update: 2004-OCT-03
Author: B.A. Robinson

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