The American Vision: A Biblical Worldview Ministry

Letting the Bible Speak for Itself

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In response to an article I had written some time ago, I received the following email:

I am 46 years old and I was raised as a Christian and never doubted that the Bible was the true word of God. . . . Please read the following passage and tell me how the statement could possibly be true if the writers of the Bible knew the Earth was round: “The tree grew, and was strong, and the height thereof reached unto heaven, and the sight thereof to the end of all the Earth” (Dan. 4:11). The Bible also clearly says the Sun rotates around the Earth: “The sun also ariseth, and the sun goeth down, and hasteth to his place where he arose” (Eccl. 1:5). If the Bible is the true Word of God, then God believes the Sun rotates around a flat Earth.

The Bible states that trees (Isa. 55:12) and rivers (Ps. 98:8) have hands, hearts have highways (84:5), and stars sing (Job 38:7 ) . It’s obvious that the Bible is using poetic and symbolic language in these cases. Only a die-hard skeptic with an ax to grind and an out of touch literalist would read the Bible in a different way. These non-literal examples could be multiplied.[1]

In several places the Bible uses the phrase “four corners of the earth” (Isa. 11:12; Ezek. 7:2; Rev. 7:1; 20:8) and “four winds” (Jer. 49:36; Ezek. 37:9; Dan. 7:2; 8:8; Zech. 2:6; Matt. 24:31). From these examples, skeptics maintain that the Bible teaches that the Earth is flat. This is nonsense. The phrase appears in poetic sections of Scripture and is no more literal than the Bible’s description of trees with hands.

The flat-earth charge is odd considering that we live, talk, and write as if the Earth is flat. In fact, most of the Earth (land) is observationally flat. I doubt that a survey crew takes into account the curvature of the Earth on most of its jobs. Every survey map is flat with elevations marked, but there is no indication of an Earth curve. Families don’t take globes with them when they travel, and yet there is no claim that Rand/McNally believes in a flat Earth because the maps its sells for trips are flat representations of the terrain with four corners. All maps are flat and have four corners, and they work well enough to get us around the world. Airplane pilots carry flat maps into the cockpit even though they are flying around the globe.

No one should expect the Bible to read like a science journal. The fact that some read it this way is not the Bible’s fault. Our everyday speech is peppered with easily understood metaphors. How should we understand the use of “four corner of the earth” in the following editorial?

In the 2,000 years since the destruction of the second Holy Temple that scattered Jews to the four corners of the Earth, there have been few times that Jews have been able to live in the land of Israel.[2]

Are we to assume that this letter writer believes the Earth is shaped like a shoe box because he writes that the Earth has four corners? Describing a four-cornered Earth is obviously metaphorical, and no one considers it otherwise when we moderns use the phrase.

Let's suppose that 500 years from now, archaeologists dig up the Library of Congress from under 100 feet of rubble and dust and find the map room. Will they conclude that we believed the Earth was flat after studying thousands of flat maps of the world? If a time capsule that included an atlas of our world as it exists today were unearthed two thousand years from now, would these future earthlings suppose that we believed in a flat E arth? Would they think we believed that the Sun revolves around the Earth if they found a daily newspaper that reported when the Sun “rose” and “set”? How unscientific! Didn’t these editors ever hear of the Copernican Revolution? A more nuanced approach would be scientifically accurate but awkward and unnecessary:

Consider. If I say, “The sun rose at 6:01 this morning,” that statement is perfectly true and communicates perfectly what is meant. I can also say something more precise, like: “At exactly 6:01:49 A.M., Greenwich Mean Time, the horizon of the earth dropped to reveal the upper tip of the sun as observed from 41° 14'22.18" latitude and 55° 21'45.44" longitude.” This second statement is more precise, but not more true than the previous one. We understand the first statement perfectly well.[3]

Knowing the scientific description and being able to articulate it does not make us any more capable to live in this world. When scientists calculate what it takes to put the Space Shuttle into orbit, they use the Earth as a fixed reference point as if it’s the fixed center of the solar system.

Copernicus himself was not opposed to using metaphors to describe the cosmos:

In the very centre of all the Sun resides. For who would place this lamp in another or better place within this most beautiful temple, than where it can illuminate the whole at once? Even so, not inaptly, some have called it the light, mind, or the ruler of the universe. Thus indeed, as though seated on a throne, the Sun governs the circumgyrating family of planets.[4]

The sun is not the center “of all.” It’s more than a “lamp.” It’s not a “temple,” and it’s not “seated on a throne.” Copernicus uses language that sounds very much like the Bible. Apparently he saw no conflict with the use of metaphors and his more precise scientific terminology, and neither should we.


[1] Leland Ryken, James C. Wilhoit, and Tremper Longman III, gen. eds., Dictionary of Biblical Imagery (Downers Grove, IL: InterVarsity Press, 1998).
[2] Moshe R. Manheim, “Faith, conviction give father strength to send son to Israel,” Atlanta Journal-Constitution (August 12, 2002), A8.
[3] James B. Jordan, Creation in Six Days: A Defense of the Traditional Reading of Genesis One (Moscow, ID: Canon Press, 1999), 109.
[4] Quoted in A. R. Hall, The Scientific Revolution, 1500–1800: The Formation of the Modern Scientific Attitude (London: Longmans, Green and Co., 1954), 67.

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