BY HUGH ROSS – MAY 1, 2020
Question of the week: How can one refute the claim made by atheists, skeptics, and even some Christians that the Bible is a flat-earth book?
My answer: First of all, the idea that the Bible promotes a flat-earth doctrine presupposes that people living 2–3 thousand years ago lacked the capacity to determine the true shape of Earth. That presupposition is incorrect. The fact that at different locations on Earth different stellar constellations are seen and they are seen at different orientations was sufficient to persuade ancient peoples that they were living on a spherical body. Aristotle writing in the 4th century BC cited this evidence as proof that Earth is spherical. However, documented mentions of a spherical Earth by Greek philosophers date back to the 6th century BC. Eratosthenes in the 3rd century BC used the sunlight lines at summer solstice in wells at different latitudes to determine the diameter of Earth to 1% precision. Both ancient Greek and Egyptian astronomers pointed to the semi-circular shadow of Earth on the Moon during lunar eclipses as evidence for the sphericity of Earth.
The biblical texts most often cited in the claim that the Bible teaches a flat Earth are Job 38:5, 12-14, Isaiah 11:12, 40:22, and Revelation 7:1, 20:7. Of these passages, the most cited is Isaiah 40:22. The relevant part of Isaiah 40:22, referring to God, states, “He sits enthroned above the circle of the earth, and its people are like grasshoppers.” Whether the “circle of the earth” refers to a human on Earth or God looking down on Earth from above, in both cases the phrase would be consistent with a spherically shaped Earth. It is worth noting that only a sphere always looks like a circle when seen from above.
The Isaiah 11:12 and Revelation 7:1, 20:7 verses all refer to the “four corners of the earth.” However, even today, astronomers, physicists, and educated people around the world recognize and use the “four corners of the earth” as phenomenalogical language referring to the most distant parts of Earth from the standpoint of an observer at a specific location on Earth. It is clear from an examination of the context for all three of these passages that the most distant parts of Earth is the intent implied by the use of the idiom, the four corners of the earth. As the Theological Wordbook of the Old Testament points out, the Hebrew word for “corners” used in Isaiah 11:12, kanap, in most of its appearances in the Old Testament is used figuratively.
The passage in Job 38:5 referring to Earth states, “Who fixed its dimensions? Certainly you know! Who stretched a measuring line across it?” The inference made by those claiming that the Bible is a flat-earth book is that the “measuring line” is a straight line which would be suitable for measuring a flat disk but not a sphere. This is an overinterpretation. Lines can be straight or curved. Also, it is customary to measure the diameter of a sphere with a straightedge ruler.
Job 38:12-14 refers to the dawn seizing “the edges [or ends] of the earth” and Earth taking “shape like clay under a seal.” What is interesting here is that for a spherical
Earth the arrival of dawn first shows up at the most distant horizon, end, or edge of the point of view of a human at a fixed point upon Earth’s surface. The taking shape like clay under a seal would apply to either a disk or a sphere and may be saying more about Earth’s rotation or its manufacture than its actual shape.
The irony of choosing Job 38:5, 12-14, Isaiah 11:12, 40:22, and Revelation 7:1, 20:7 to sustain the claim that the Bible is a flat-earth book is that these biblical texts better fit a spherical Earth than they do a flat Earth. While it would be an overinterpretation to conclude that these texts explicitly teach that Earth is a sphere, nowhere in the Bible do we find any text saying that Earth is flat. The Bible remains the only holy book for which we can say that it contains no provable errors or contradictions.
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