My previous post in the Friend Requests series offered my thoughts on the Flat Earth theories that exist. I didn’t argue my position from a scientific standpoint because, honestly, I’m not a scientist. I am however theologically educated, so I offered my thoughts on Flat Earth from a theological perspective. I won’t rehash that here. If you want to know what I said, read the previous post.
Shortly after I let that post loose into the wild, I received some messages from my Flat Earth friend, challenging me to take a serious look at the evidence. We have had multiple friendly discussions about this – although I’m sure that if a bystander heard us they might interpret the conversation as something other than friendly. We do get loud at times, but all in good fun between us. I’ve never been angry, and to my knowledge, neither has my friend.
In the course of our conversation, I offered this. I told him that I would study the evidence, and even post an article arguing for the existence of a flat earth. Did any of you ever take a formal debate class? One of the concepts I’ve always been taught about good debate is that you should know your opponent’s position well enough to defend it yourself. In that spirit, this is what I’m about to do: defend flat earth. And just so you know, my friend and I agreed that if after examining the evidence, regardless of which model I embrace, we would agree that I had made that decision after a fair examination of both sides.
To be consistent, since my first article did not address actual scientific arguments, this article will do the same. I am not qualified to argue either position effectively from a scientific point of view – and let’s be honest… most people aren’t. Most of us know enough science to bluff for about three minutes, then it quickly slides either into bluster and bravado, or into regret of starting the conversation and finding a quick exit. I will leave the sciences of flat earth versus sphere earth to the people who’ve studied the earth sciences more thoroughly. This will be a theological argument, with one diversion into a philosophical point.
I stated in my previous post that Flat Earth theology comes from a purely literal interpretation of the Bible. The reason for that is because the men who wrote the Bible themselves believed the earth was flat. In fact, nearly all ancient near east cultures held to a similar cosmology. You can click the image to the left to see an enlarged view of how the Hebrews of the Bible understood the cosmos to be structured. There is nearly no debate at all among experts, be they religious or secular, that this is the way ancients of the middle-east thought of the universe.
So, from that position, why would God perpetuate a cosmology that isn’t true? Wouldn’t he be lying in a passive sense, by allowing the Hebrews to continue in their belief of a flat earth with a large dome over it that contains the sun, moon, and stars if it indeed isn’t true? There is no denying that while the Bible contains no direct teaching that the earth is flat, it does contain thoughts and concepts that support the cosmology of a flat earth. If the earth is a sphere, why continue to let the Hebrews believe it is flat? Why mention a vaulted dome being put in place over the earth in Genesis 1:6? In truth, this dives at the core of what you believe about the inspiration of God’s Word.
Here’s a small (incomplete) list of terms from the Bible that demonstrate how God was complicit to allow the Hebrews to keep believing in a flat earth.
- Vaulted dome/firmament/expanse that separated the waters above the heavens from the waters below the heavens – Genesis 1:6, Job 22:14, Amos 9:6
- Foundations of the earth – multiple references throughout the Scriptures in the Old and New Testaments.
- Foundations of the heavens – the foundations which the dome of heaven rested upon – 2 Samuel 22:8
- Windows of the heavens – openings in the firmament – Genesis 7:11
You need to ask yourself: did God inspire his Word without error? If you believe that the original inspiration of the Scriptures came to men without error and has been faithfully transcribed through the centuries, translated into other languages by faithful men, and preserved by God through that process so that today we can know him, then how can you say that this part of the Scripture isn’t true, but this part is? Here I must admit that a discussion about the inspiration of God’s Word deserves it’s own blog post, but for the purposes of this post, I’m leaning on the belief that what was inspired should inform 100% of our worldview, which includes our thoughts about science.
That leads to another question. Did God inspire a complete repository of all truth that can be known? The answer to that is clearly, no. However, when the inspired Word of God speaks to something of a scientific nature, we can be sure that it is truthful, and it’s incumbent upon us to adjust our understanding of reality to conform, not the other way around. Therefore, you need to ask yourself: has God revealed to us the nature of the universe in the cosmology of the ancient Hebrews? Since he apparently supported their understanding of the heavens and earth, does that mean we too should embrace what they believed as well? The theological argument for flat earth is strongest here. Did God mean what he said when he inspired the Scripture? Can we trust God’s Word to be true in every way?
So, let’s hear a few objections.
Objection #1 – God Wasn’t Inspiring a Science Text
There are merits to this objection. Its merit lies partially in what we can also say about God’s Word in other areas of study. God’s Word is not a comprehensive study of world history. Basically, the story of Scripture traces the lineage of a single family, starting from the line of Seth, Adam and Eve’s third son. There’s no mention of Chinese history, or Viking history, or honestly, it’s not even a detailed retelling of Hebrew history. Of all the people born in Israel, we only know about a few of them in detail. Most of the Biblical characters we encounter in the narrative are in the line that starts from Seth and leads to Jesus Christ.
So the argument goes that since we cannot rely on the Bible for a complete history, it would be foolish to rely on the Bible for a complete understanding of science, or a complete understanding of human physiology, or psychology, or whatever. God inspired the Scriptures to tell us what we need to know about him, his plan to redeem for himself a people, how to become one of his redeemed people in Christ, and how it’s all going to turn out in the end. Anything beyond that is peripheral.
That’s a valid position. It should be clear to any reader that God didn’t give the Hebrews a science book. But it still doesn’t deal with why would God perpetuate an idea that doesn’t line up with reality. To have a coherent understanding of God’s character, you’d need a sufficient explanation of why he’s apparently purposely allowing the Hebrews to continue in ignorance about their understanding of the cosmos by giving them inspired Scripture that speaks as if the earth is flat and that they are correct.
Objection #2 – The Conspiracy Is Too Large
There are also merits to this objection. Most of it’s merit lies in the idea that to cover up the reality of a flat earth, you’d need unanimous multi-national (I almost said global) cooperation amongst nations who have established space agencies. The cover up would also include unanimous cooperation among scientists worldwide, academic institutions worldwide, and when you start to consider how large this is, it starts to buckle underneath it’s own weight. With corporations getting into the space race now, they’d have to be brought into the fold of the cover-up, I mean it just gets so large that it seems not just improbable, but nearly impossible to pull off. And that doesn’t even take into account that some of the nations involved in this conspiracy want to destroy each other, so why would they cooperate on anything?
If you don’t take into account the supernatural forces of darkness, this indeed is improbably, if not impossible. But the Word is full of references to how the nations conspire agains the Lord and his people, and in Revelation we see clearly that what appears to us in the natural as nations conspiring is backed fully by all the powers of darkness. If Satan and the powers of darkness want to deceive the nations to turn away from God, what better way than to convince the world that the earth is one sphere of a planet among potentially billions of planets in a galaxy that is one among billions of galaxies in a universe that sprung into existence through natural quantum processes in a Big Bang? That point of view, not only does damage to the special status of the earth and humanity as God’s unique and treasured creations, but it actually adds to the idea of our existence having no meaning at all, except random, evolutionary chance.
Conspiracy is a tool of Satan and his forces; the Word of God says as much. Therefore we shouldn’t underestimate his ability to blind people to the truth, nor the scope of how pervasive his lies can become.
Objection #3 – You’re Taking the Scripture Out of Context
Like the two before, this objection also has merit. Grammatical experts will tell you that the Word of God has different kinds of literature. For instance, Psalms, Proverbs, and Ecclesiastes are usually lumped into a category called wisdom literature. Isaiah, Jeremiah, Ezekiel, are prophetic literature. The Samuels, the Kings, and the Chronicles would be historical. Genesis through Deuteronomy are law. But even in each of those categories, within individual books, you can have different sections. Genesis is part of the Law – the Torah – but it contains both poetic and historical literature. The Prophet Isaiah contains historical and prophetic. To keep things in context, you have to understand what kind of literature you’re reading.
This is true. So opponents of Flat Earth will say that when you encounter phrase like foundations of the earth you are reading a poetic or a metaphorical kind of literature. In fairness, those kinds of things are all through the Scripture. But that does not really answer the question fully. Why must a metaphor like foundations of the earth be taken less truthfully than a metaphor like I am crucified with Christ. We believe we’ve been crucified with Christ – even if it physically didn’t happen. Why then would we say that the foundations of the earth don’t really exist because we can’t physically verify them? Adherents to Flat Earth are simply making an interpretive choice to give 100% of God’s word complete real world validity and belief.
Objection #4 – The Skeptical Context
At the risk of sounding like a broken record, this has some merit. This is more philosophical than theological, but it’s important. There is a method of argument called the skeptical context. Basically, the way this works is you move your opponent into an arena of thought where nothing can be proven absolutely. Here’s a simplified explanation of how the skeptical context works.
- Joe: So you believe in a spherical earth?
- Sam: Yep.
- Joe: Prove it.
So what happens next is Joe starts pointing out photos from N.A.S.A. and the Hubble Space Telescope, but then he’s interrupted…
- Joe: N.A.S.A. is part of a conspiracy to cover up the truth about the earth being flat.
- Sam: No they’re not.
- Joe: Prove they’re not.
With evidence like photos from space taken out of the picture, Sam moves on to talk about what little science he can remember from physics, like orbits of planets, the force of gravity, the speed of light, the distance of the sun… but he’s interrupted again.
- Joe: How do you know that the sun is 93 million miles away?
- Sam: Scientists have estimated its distance based on the speed of light and …
- Joe: How has any scientist empirically proven what the speed of light is?
- Sam: I’m not sure…
- Joe: How can you experimentally prove the sun is 93 million miles away?
- Sam: I can’t.
- Joe: So how can you know for sure?
Joe continues to move Sam into a skeptical context, where unless you can verify it for yourself, you can’t trust it. This context works for the flat earth argument because they’re right. Sam can’t prove it. In fact, if you press it to it’s extreme conclusion, Sam can’t prove anything, therefore he can’t trust anything. But let’s say that Sam attempts to prove something.
- Sam: I bought a telescope, and took a picture of Venus transiting the Sun. See, the planets do revolve around the sun.
- Joe: How do you know that little dot in front of the sun is a planet?
- Sam: …
The skeptical context is virtually inexhaustible until Sam can document for himself by building his own rocket, launching, entering space far enough out that he can take a picture of the entire globe of the earth, or the entire flat surface of the earth as it may be, to prove one or the other. The skeptical context is also helped by belief in a worldwide conspiracy to suppress the truth about a flat earth. If there’s a conspiracy, you can’t trust the people who say the world is a sphere, nor can you trust any photographic or video evidence they produce because it has been faked. You alone must prove spherical earth (or flat earth) for yourself before you can believe it… and most people cannot.
The inherent weakness of employing the skeptical context is this. Whatever you’re trying to promote as truth must be believable outside of a skeptical context. If belief in a flat earth requires a skeptical context to sustain the belief, then it doesn’t have a leg to stand on. Flat earth belief stakes much of its foundation on empirical proof, but paradoxically everything in a skeptical context is based on conjecture that casts doubt. So let’s turn it around: can a Flat Earther prove definitively the existence of a conspiracy? They can give you evidence to cast doubt, but until something concrete is discovered – like the aforementioned picture from a privately built rocket – they are in the same boat of personal unprovability as spherical earth people. To make it simple, in this day a flat earth advocate can fake videos and audio and pictures to bolster their position just as well as the people they claim are a part of the globe earth conspiracy. To become believable – apart from a theological reason which is faith based – flat earth proponents will need to escape the need for skeptical context to cause people to question the accepted model.
However… even if the skeptical context cannot forever sustain their position, its use does not make belief in a flat earth less plausible. Consider this. Every milestone advancement in any field of study begins with a skeptical context. Somebody challenges the accepted models and beliefs, even if it’s just an incremental step. If we don’t question things, if we simply become satisfied with what works or with what we’ve always been taught, then we will never progress. How will we progress by questioning the spherical model of the earth, especially when we’ve been basing six hundred years or more of scientific advancement on that belief? I can’t really answer that because we won’t know until humanity makes at least a modest effort to press into this question. It has to start somewhere, and it starts with reasonable people challenging the status quo.
There you have it: a theological (and maybe a little philosophical) defense of Flat Earth that respects the literal interpretation of Scripture. This can definitely be taken deeper, but I’m not writing a novel, just a lengthy blog post. I’ve done more reading on this in the past little while than I ever have in my life. Some of it delved into the sciences, some into the theological side of the issue. I want to make an important statement here. Of all the people that I read, none of them were blatantly unintelligent. I think the knee jerk reaction that most people have to Flat Earthers is that they’re uneducated on the matter. I don’t find that to be true at all. To the contrary, everyone who undergoes a public education in this nation should be well versed on the heliocentric model of our solar system and a spherical earth (despite what Jay Leno showed us in his Jaywalking segment). In fact, to intelligently question the established and accepted model of a spherical earth, and a heliocentric placement of the earth, you have to have be smart enough to know which questions are good and which ones are folly.
But this article isn’t about the science. Theologically speaking Flat Earth proponents shed light on some good questions that deserve thoughtful answers. What should we believe about the inspiration of Scripture if the earth is a sphere that orbits the sun? That may be the most important question of all in this whole discussion. What you believe about the inspiration of the Scriptures will point you in the direction of what you must believe about the shape and cosmology of the Earth in order to maintain a coherent worldview. Don’t underestimate this. If you’re off in your understanding of inspiration, you won’t have a coherent understanding of the Scriptures, and therefore you won’t have a coherent understand of God. That doesn’t mean you’ll miss the Gospel and miss salvation in Christ alone, but without a coherent narrative of Scripture you can run into difficulty when challenged by skeptics and people who doubt what the Bible says about God.
You are probably rightly wondering what I believe now. My final thought is this. I suppose I haven’t been shaken from my belief in a spherical earth. But I’ve also learned to leave room in my heart for questions that challenge what I’ve always been taught. So for now Flat Earth is comfortably in a category of curious thought experiments. But beyond thought experiments, here’s what this journey has done. It has inspired me to keep learning. Scientifically, it has made me think. It has made me wonder. It has made me consider what I thought to be impossible. And not to sound too much like a motivational poster, but when we no longer have any wonder, we’ve lost maybe one of the most human things about us. Theologically, it has challenged me to take a closer look at my understanding of the inspiration of the Scriptures. That may well be my next post for you: what is the inspiration of the Word of God?
We’ll see. Keep sending in your requests, friends.