We Were Wrong for So Long…Cosmologically Speaking

This is actually from an email I wrote to a good friend of mine, but I wanted to share it here as well. As always, I love hearing your thoughts, here or on my Facebook page.

Let me start by saying that I do not believe that the earth is the center of the universe. I also don’t believe that the Bible is wrong in its statements about the earth, sky, water, etc. But almost everyone for the majority of human history believed that the Bible taught geocentrism, the belief that the earth is the center of the universe. It’s because of our scientific understanding that we now know that the verses that follow are figurative or descriptive from a certain point of view, usually observational. Natural revelation (science) can help us, and has helped us, interpret special revelation (the Bible).

These are verses in the Bible that use geocentric language. Without the scientific understanding that we have now, it’s easy to see why people believed that the earth was flat and the center of the universe. They are loosely separated by category, and obviously there’s some overlap.

The mobility of the sun:

Jos 10:12-13
“O sun, stand still over Gibeon!” The sun stood still while the nation took vengeance on its enemies. The sun stood motionless in the middle of the sky and did not set for about a full day.

Hab 3:11
The sun and moon stand still in their courses

Ps 19:4-6
In the sky he has pitched a tent for the sun. Like a bridegroom it emerges from its chamber; like a strong man it enjoys running its course. It emerges from the distant horizon, and goes from one end of the sky to the other.

Ecc 1:5
The sun rises and the sun sets; it hurries away to a place from which it rises again.

The stability of the earth:

1Chr 16:30
The world is established, it cannot be moved.

Ps 93:1
Indeed, the world is established, it cannot be moved.

Ps 96:10
The world is established, it cannot be moved.

The earth has a foundation and pillars upon which it rests:

2Sam 22:16
The depths of the sea were exposed; the foundations of the world were uncovered by the Lord’s battle cry.

Ps 18:15
The foundations of the world were laid bare, at your rebuke, O Lord.

Ps 102:25
Of old you laid the foundation of the earth.

Pr 8:27-29
When he established the heavens, I was there, when he drew a circle on the face of the deep, when he made firm the skies above, when he established the fountains of the deep, when he assigned to the sea its limit, so that the waters might not transgress his command, when he marked out the foundations of the earth…

Isa 48:13
My hand laid out the foundation of the earth, and my right hand spread out the heavens.

Jn 17:24
Father, I desire that they also may be with me where I am, to behold my glory which you have given me in your love for me before the foundation of the world.

Ps 104:5
You set the earth on its foundations, so that it should never be shaken.

Job 9:6
…who shakes the earth from its place, and its pillars tremble.

Isa 24:18
The windows of heaven are opened, and the foundations of the earth tremble.

1Sam 2:8
The pillars of the earth are the Lord’s, and on them he has set the world.

Job 38:4-6
Where were you when I laid the foundation of the earth? Tell me, if you have understanding…. Who laid its cornerstone?

One can surmise by taking the Bible literally that the earth is flat and circular, rather than spherical. Seeing all of the earth from one spot is not possible on a spherical earth.

Ps 19:6 (about the sun)
There is nothing hid from its heat.

Dan 4:10-11
I saw, and behold, a tree in the midst of the earth…and it was visible to the end of the whole earth.

Mt 4:8
The devil took him to a very high mountain, and showed him all the kingdoms of the world.

Isa 40:22
It is he who sits above the circle of the earth.

Ps 136:6
…to him who spread out the earth upon the waters…

Isa 44:24
I am the Lord, who made all things, who stretched out the heavens alone, who spread out the earth.
(One would not “spread out” substance to make a sphere. That’s like saying you “spread out” meat to make a meatball.)

The Bible also seems to indicate that there is a limit to how far one could travel if headed in any particular direction. On a sphere, there is no such limitation. There are tons of such verses; I’ll just list a few.

Dt 28:64
The Lord will scatter you among all peoples, from one end of the earth to the other.

Dt 33:17
He shall push the peoples, all of them, to the ends of the earth.

Ps 19:4
Their voice goes out through all the earth, and their words to the end of the world.

Isa 41:9
…you whom I took from the ends of the earth, and called from its farthest corners.

Jer 51:16
God makes the mist rise from the ends of the earth.

Mk 13:27
They will send out the angels, and gather his elect from the four winds, from the ends of the earth to the ends of heaven.

Several places in the Bible talk about the corners of the earth.

Isa 11:12
He will gather Israel’s dispersed people and assemble Judah’s scattered people from the four corners of the earth.

Rev 7:1
I saw four angels standing at the four corners of the earth, holding back the four winds of the earth so no wind could blow on the earth, on the sea, or on any tree.

Rev 20:7
Satan will go out to deceive the nations at the four corners of the earth.

The Bible says nothing about an atmosphere. It seems to indicate that the sky is a tent and we live under it. In the Bible, the sky is solid, like a firmament.

Job 22:14
Thick clouds enwrap him, so that he does not see, and he walks on the vault of heaven.

Job 37:18
Can you, like him, spread out the skies, hard as a molten mirror?

Pr 8:27-29
When he established the heavens, I was there, when he drew a circle on the face of the deep, when he made firm the skies above, when he established the fountains of the deep, when he assigned to the sea its limit, so that the waters might not transgress his command, when he marked out the foundations of the earth,

Isa 40:22
It is he who sits above the circle of the earth, and its inhabitants are like grasshoppers; who stretches out the heavens like a curtain, and spreads them like a tent to dwell in;

Ps 19:4-6
In the sky he has pitched a tent for the sun. Like a bridegroom it emerges from its chamber; like a strong man it enjoys running its course. It emerges from the distant horizon, and goes from one end of the sky to the other.

The stars are exactly as they appear — mere points of light fastened to the sky that would fall to earth were they ever dislodged. Distant suns, far larger than the earth could not fall to earth but small points of light could.

Dan 8:10
It grew great, even to the host of heaven; and some of the host of the stars it cast down to the ground and trampled upon them.

Mt 24:29 (also Mk 13:25)
The stars will fall from heaven, and the powers of the heavens will be shaken;

Rev 6:13
and the stars of the sky fell to earth as the fig tree sheds its winter fruit when shaken by a gale;

Rev 12:4
His tail swept down a third of the stars of heaven, and cast them to the earth.

Paul says in 1Cor 15 that the sun and the stars are different. We know from our understanding of science that the sun is a star.

There are also some references in the Bible to there being waters above the heavens and beneath the earth. These references seem to promote the idea that the firmament of the heavens are holding back some unbelievably large reservoir and that the solid earth is floating in the ocean below. There are windows in this firmament that that can be opened and closed by God.

Gen 1:6-9
And God said, “Let there be a firmament in the midst of the waters, and let it separate the waters from the waters.” And God made the firmament and separated the waters which were under the firmament from the waters which were above the firmament. And it was so.

Ps 136:6
to him who spread out the earth upon the waters

Gen 7:11
On that day all the fountains of the great deep burst forth and the windows of the heavens were opened.

Gen 8:2
the fountains of the deep and the windows of the heavens were closed, the rain from the heavens was restrained,

Isa 24:18
The windows of heaven are opened, and the foundations of the earth tremble.

There is also an underground ocean, according to the Bible:

Ex 20:4
You shall not make for yourself a graven image, or any likeness of anything that is in heaven above, or that is in the earth beneath, or that is in the water under the earth;

Dt 4:16-18
Beware lest you act corruptly by making a graven image for yourselves, in the form of any figures, the likeness of male or female…the likeness of any fish that is in the water under the earth.

Dt 5:8
You shall not make for yourself a graven image, or any likeness of anything that is in heaven above, or that is in the water under the earth;

As I mentioned earlier, most of the human race for most of human history believed that the universe was geocentric, that the earth was flat, and that it either floated on water or was held up by pillars or some sort of pedestal.

These conclusions were perfectly logical given the language used in the Bible. They had no reason to believe otherwise. Also, the Bible writers (and ultimately God) had no interest in correcting faulty cosmology; it just wasn’t important at the time.

Since then, however, science has helped us to better understand these passages. We have a much better grasp of cosmology and we use that scientific understanding to better interpret the verses given above. We know the earth is a sphere because we’ve seen it from a distance. We know that the earth revolves around the sun. We know that there is no firm tent-like boundary above the earth where the stars are affixed and where the sun rides. That terminology in the Bible must be symbolic, hyperbolic, or referential.

This may all be very underwhelming to you, and that’s OK. But, given the fact that natural revelation (science) can help us to interpret the Bible—and I think that’s been well established—I see no reason that it can’t help us still. If we (the human race) were mistaken for so long about our cosmological understanding in the Bible, isn’t it possible that we still are, to some degree?

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5 thoughts on “We Were Wrong for So Long…Cosmologically Speaking

  1. It’s also possible that the bible does teach geocentrism and is meant to be taken literally and is simply wrong. I can’t claim to know the intent of the authors though since they are long dead and wrote the texts in dead languages. Modern translations/interpretations of texts written 1500 years before the invention of the dictionary are always going to be pretty sketchy in my opinion.

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    • Hi agnophilo – Thanks for your comment.

      First off, allow me to say that in no way do I think of myself as infallible, so I’m not going to throw the possibility off the table that I could be mistaken in my views about the Bible. Perhaps it is wrong. I don’t think it is, but I could be mistaken.

      I also want to say I appreciate that, in your comment anyway, you are not saying that you know that the Bible is teaching geocentrism and that it’s wrong. I appreciate your fairness there.

      I will say that just because these verses appear in the Bible, and just because they appear to teach geocentrism, doesn’t mean it is teaching geocentrism. We use geocentric language today in everyday conversation. We teach our kids that the sun rises in the east and sets in the west. By teaching our kids that, we’re not teaching them that the sun revolves around the earth; we’re speaking in terms that are observational. From our vantage point, the sun rises and sets.

      You know all this already. My point in the article was in response to a conversation I had with a friend of mine about how we read the Bible and how it’s not always as easy to determine the meaning of a passage as it seems on first glance.

      Most Christians today believe in a universe that’s 6,000 to 10,000 years old based on their understanding of the Genesis account. I take Genesis differently, especially chapter 1. I believe that the original audience was a group of people that had just come out of 400 years of being taught the ancient Egyptian creation story. Genesis 1 was written to disabuse them of that belief, informing them that the land, sky, sun, moon, etc. are not gods that created mankind to serve them (that was the belief of the ancient Egyptians), but rather they were created by God to serve mankind.

      I have no problem believing that the earth is 4.5 billion years old. I believe that because science has all but proven it, and the Bible doesn’t speak to the age of the earth at all, in my view.

      But let me also be clear that since the universe had a beginning, something else had to have caused it to come into being. Pardon my Latin if I’m a bit off with this, but I believe it goes “Ex nihilo, nihil fit”, meaning “Out of nothing, nothing comes.” The universe could not have created itself, regardless of what Hawking and others have said.

      If Christianity was ever proven to be wrong, I’d still be a theist based on logic, reason, and the natural record.

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      • “Hi agnophilo – Thanks for your comment. First off, allow me to say that in no way do I think of myself as infallible, so I’m not going to throw the possibility off the table that I could be mistaken in my views about the Bible. Perhaps it is wrong. I don’t think it is, but I could be mistaken.”

        I appreciate that. Bear in mind while I do think you are probably wrong I too do not discount the possibility that I could be mistaken and I always appreciate it when other people do likewise. You cannot seek truth honestly if you can’t set aside what you want to be true or hope is true or fear might be true and just try to understand.

        “I also want to say I appreciate that, in your comment anyway, you are not saying that you know that the Bible is teaching geocentrism and that it’s wrong. I appreciate your fairness there.”

        I don’t presume to know what the authors meant when they penned genesis, I don’t even know who they were. It makes sense that, from a theist perspective it might be dumbed down for illiterate peasants or metaphorical in nature, but it also makes sense that it could be outright mythology that we’ve just been reading things into for centuries creating our own meaning the way we do with songs. Many times I’ve heard a song and thought it was profound, then discovered that I was mishearing the lyrics or that the author had a totally different meaning in mind. I know people have done that with the bible, in many directions. Maybe there is nothing left of the original meaning after centuries of changing languages and cultures and translation and politics. Who knows.

        “I will say that just because these verses appear in the Bible, and just because they appear to teach geocentrism, doesn’t mean it is teaching geocentrism. We use geocentric language today in everyday conversation. We teach our kids that the sun rises in the east and sets in the west. By teaching our kids that, we’re not teaching them that the sun revolves around the earth; we’re speaking in terms that are observational. From our vantage point, the sun rises and sets.”

        I agree (and actually I had a priest who used to begin every religion lesson with this exact speech growing up, lol). I was just saying that we shouldn’t discount any possibility. For years after I stopped believing in god I assumed that jesus was this really great guy, but the more I was exposed to other christians the more I realized that they do the same, only their idea of an ideal person is very different. So “WWJD?” means to say someone in the KKK something very different than it probably means to you or I. Whenever I found a passage about jesus that sounded irratic or morally questionable I always assumed it must be that that passage is just mistranslated or something and that people like neo-nazis who see jesus as a hard-ass racist must be distorting the bible or fooling themselves . But eventually I realized that I might be doing the same, just in the opposite direction. So I forced myself to consider that maybe jesus was not so nice a guy, maybe the nice passages are the distortions and the not so nice ones are original. Again I’m not saying that is true, I have no idea, but it’s important to force ourselves to consider the reverse and not just be lead by our assumptions and biases.

        “You know all this already. My point in the article was in response to a conversation I had with a friend of mine about how we read the Bible and how it’s not always as easy to determine the meaning of a passage as it seems on first glance.”

        I don’t know that it’s even possible at all. A sentence written 1500 years before the first dictionary in a dead language is probably going to lose a little more in translation than ikea instructions.

        “Most Christians today believe in a universe that’s 6,000 to 10,000 years old based on their understanding of the Genesis account. I take Genesis differently, especially chapter 1. I believe that the original audience was a group of people that had just come out of 400 years of being taught the ancient Egyptian creation story. Genesis 1 was written to disabuse them of that belief, informing them that the land, sky, sun, moon, etc. are not gods that created mankind to serve them (that was the belief of the ancient Egyptians), but rather they were created by God to serve mankind.”

        Ironically that is kind of like geocentrism. The reason we inaccurately thought that the earth was at the center of the universe is that we thought we were at the center of the universe, because that is how we perceive reality, as a set of eyes looking out from the center of everything. We are all at the center of our own universe. So we see the sun and the moon in relation to ourselves, not realizing there is a more objective perspective. Similarly if I feel a cold wind I am not thinking about meteorological patterns in this or that hemisphere, I am thinking “damn that’s cold”. We perceive reality in terms of how it effects us. In reality the land, sky, moon etc do not appear to be put there specifically for us. If the sky were put there for us it would shield us from UV radiation so the sun doesn’t burn us when we go outside, don’t you think? We are not the central purpose of the universe – that is the lesson of galileo. One that darwin brought home and many theists still haven’t forgiven him for doing it.

        “I have no problem believing that the earth is 4.5 billion years old. I believe that because science has all but proven it, and the Bible doesn’t speak to the age of the earth at all, in my view.”

        It does if you take it literally. But that leads to so many problems and absurdities. Which as I said, doesn’t mean it’s not the right interpretation.

        “But let me also be clear that since the universe had a beginning, something else had to have caused it to come into being. Pardon my Latin if I’m a bit off with this, but I believe it goes “Ex nihilo, nihil fit”, meaning “Out of nothing, nothing comes.” The universe could not have created itself, regardless of what Hawking and others have said.”

        I have no experience with gods creating things, or un-created gods or gods or things existing eternally. I have no understanding of how the universe began or even if it began. If nothing can come from nothing then why is there anything at all? If a god made everything where did that god come from and what did it make things out of? It’s not as though we know that gods can make things out of nothing but natural processes can’t, or visa versa.

        “If Christianity was ever proven to be wrong, I’d still be a theist based on logic, reason, and the natural record.”

        Do you mean deist? If christianity were proven wrong what form of theism would you subscribe to?

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  2. “You cannot seek truth honestly if you can’t set aside what you want to be true or hope is true or fear might be true and just try to understand.”

    Wow! How much better the entire world would be if that was everyone’s attitude. I believe truth does exist (I mean objective truth) and can be known.

    “Maybe there is nothing left of the original meaning after centuries of changing languages and cultures and translation and politics. Who knows.”

    Bibliology is not my strongest area of study, so I can’t answer all of your statements of whether or not the languages used are dead, or even what exactly a dead language is. If “dead” means unknown, I don’t believe that’s true. If it simply means that it’s a language that’s no longer in common use, that I can agree with.

    The issue of translations, however, I slightly more familiar with. It’s a common misconception that the Bible was translated and then translated again into another language, and then that was translated into another language, and so on like the kindergarten telephone game. The major translations we have today have been translated from the original Hebrew. So instead of the long chain of translations, there’s just one step. As far as the translation is concerned, I believe we have a very accurate rendering of the original. This one-step translation also removes issues of political bias, in my opinion. If there was only one or two people or organizations that had the Hebrew text (in the case of Genesis), there might be reason to doubt, but the Hebrew is available to anyone who knows ancient Hebrew, which includes more and more people nowadays.

    “I have no experience with gods creating things, or un-created gods or gods or things existing eternally. I have no understanding of how the universe began or even if it began. If nothing can come from nothing then why is there anything at all? If a god made everything where did that god come from and what did it make things out of? It’s not as though we know that gods can make things out of nothing but natural processes can’t, or visa versa.”

    I agree that we have no experience with things being created out of nothing. But logic and reason tell us that something has an eternal existence: either the universe or something that caused the universe to come into being. As I said before, science has all but proven that the universe had a beginning. So, if the universe had a beginning, something had to have caused it to come into being. Since ‘nothing’ cannot turn itself into everything, something had to have caused it. In order to avoid the logical problem of infinite regress, the only option left is that there is one thing that exists eternally that caused the universe to come into being.

    The evidence for design in the universe is overwhelming; this points to a being who’s intelligent. The universe is massive in size and includes extremely powerful forces (from our perspective); this points to a being who’s unimaginably powerful. This description is shaping up a lot like a god, in my opinion.

    “Do you mean deist? If christianity were proven wrong what form of theism would you subscribe to?”

    All I meant was that if Christianity were proven wrong, I’d still believe that God exists. I think that logic, reason, and the natural record all point to the existence of God. Whether or not that’s the God of the Bible is another subject.

    (Updated 19-Oct-13, 10:00pm)

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