Unless otherwise indicated, all Scripture quotations come from The Holy Bible, New King James Version®. Copyright © 1982 by Thomas Nelson, Inc. All rights reserved.
Oh man, I’m gonna get a lot of heat for even asking this question. The obvious answer should be, “No! Of course not! If it did, the Bible wouldn’t be inerrant!” But in my estimation, the answer isn’t quite that simple. In fact, the answer is closer to “yes and no.” Hopefully I’ll be able to succinctly lay out my thoughts for you.
No, the Bible does not “teach” a flat earth. Nowhere does the Bible explicitly teach us about the shape of the cosmos; such was not God’s goal, nor should we assume it to be so. God’s goal, instead, was to reveal Himself and to impart to His creatures knowledge concerning His actions in the world. In other words, in a saying popularized by Galileo, “The intention of the Holy Ghost is to teach us how one goes to heaven, not how heaven goes.”
Speaking of Galileo, I encourage you all to read his letter to Madame Christina Lorraine concerning his assertion that the earth orbited the sun rather than the other way around. It certainly sheds some light on our modern day controversies and the tension between modern science and the Bible. While a Catholic, and though he was primarily a scientist, Galileo can tell us much.
So, in short, no, the Bible does not didactically teach that the earth is flat; such was not the intention of the Spirit. Thus, the Bible is still entirely inerrant in all that it affirms.
But why on earth is the answer “yes and no”? Because while the Bible does not explicitly teach that the earth is flat, there is no denying the fact that the verses that give us hints at what the Israelites believed about the shape of the universe (which was almost certainly the same conception of the cosmos that the ancient Egyptians and Babylonians had, and those are well documented) are certainly consistent with a flat earth. In other words, the Bible does not explicitly affirm that the earth is flat, but its statements often do imply an ancient cosmology.
Here is an image of the cosmology of ancient Near Eastern cultures (which would have included the Israelites):
This is referred to by many as the Three Tier Universe, because there are three main components: heaven, earth, and under the earth (or the underworld). We see Paul using this language in Philippians 2:10-11, “so that at the name of Jesus EVERY KNEE WILL BOW, of those who are in heaven and on earth and under the earth, and that every tongue will confess that Jesus Christ is Lord, to the glory of God the Father” (NASB; emphasis mine). Even though Paul uses the language of the three tier universe, we get his point: throughout the entire created order, all people will worship Christ as God.
I want to look at certain aspects of this drawing, showing you where the Bible uses language that, if taken completely at face value, as many biblical literalists want us to do, imply that the Israelites did indeed believe in the three tier universe.
The firmament or vault of heaven (Heb. raqiya) was seen as a hard, dome-like structure held up by pillars (likely thought to be the mountains). Job 26:11 refers to these pillars: “The pillars of heaven tremble and are astounded at his rebuke.” In Genesis 1:6-8, God creates the firmament to separate the “primordial waters” to create an air space (the heavens, Heb. shamayim), so that there would be waters above the firmament and waters below it. He sets the sun, moon, and stars in the “firmament of the heavens” (vv. 14-15), the same place where birds fly (v. 20). The divine dwelling place sat atop the dome, as implied by Psalm 104:3: “He lays the beams of His upper chambers in the waters, Who makes the clouds His chariot, Who walks on the wings of the wind” and by Ezekiel in his first vision (Ezekiel 1:22-26; if the firmament is not solid, many of these descriptions do not make sense). Perhaps the clearest testimony to the solidity of the firmament is in Job 37:18: “Can you, like him, spread out the skies, hard as a cast metal mirror?” (ESV).
The firmament contained windows and doors to allow rain to fall and for other such functions. One example is Psalm 78:23: “Yet He had commanded the clouds above, And opened the doors of heaven.” Another, more obvious place is Genesis 7:11: “…on that day all the fountains of the great deep were broken up, and the windows of heaven were opened” (see also Genesis 8:2, Isaiah 24:18-19, Jeremiah 51:15-16, and Malachi 3:10).
The sun, moon, and stars, as I said, were placed in the firmament of the heavens, the same place where birds fly. They must have been relatively small in order for this to happen. Indeed, Joshua 10:12-13 implies that they are small enough to stop over certain areas of the earth: “Then Joshua spoke 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 still over Gibeon; And Moon, in the Valley of Aijalon.” So the sun stood still, And the moon stopped, Till the people had revenge Upon their enemies. Is this not written in the Book of Jasher? So the sun stood still in the midst of heaven, and did not hasten to go down for about a whole day” (emphasis mine). From the ancient perspective, the sun and moon “appeared” to stand still (though we know that, in fact, it was the earth that stopped rotating). The stars were also small enough to be able to fall to earth (see Daniel 8:10, Matthew 24:29, Revelation 6:13-16).
The Bible is clear elsewhere that the sun is that which moves, not the earth. Consider Ecclesiastes 1:5, “The sun also rises, and the sun goes down, And hastens to the place where it arose.” Psalm 19:6, “Its rising is from one end of heaven, And its circuit to the other end; And there is nothing hidden from its heat.”
Why would they have thought this? Think about it for just a second. Ancient people didn’t have the advantage of modern day scientific instruments. If one were to stand outside and gaze up at the sky, it would certainly appear to be a dome; and the fact that it’s blue implies that there’s water up there. Even today, when you ask a child, “Where’s God?”, he or she will inevitably point up toward the sky and say, “Up there.” This is called the ancient phenomenological perspective, meaning that the ancient people described the world as they saw it with their own two eyes, according to the way it appeared (phenomenological comes from the Greek word phenomai, which means “to appear”).
2) Flat, Circular Earth
The earth beneath the firmament was thought of as a circle surrounded by seas. This was a common sense explanation, because an ancient Near Easterner traveling in any direction would eventually come to a body of water; north were the Black and Caspian Seas, west was the Mediterranean, east was the Persian Gulf, and south was the Red Sea and the Indian Ocean. Its circularity is implied by passages like Isaiah 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 out like a tent to dwell in.” Here again, we see the likening of the firmament to a tent over the earth, implying solidity.
Consider Job 26:10, “He has inscribed a circle on the face of the waters at the boundary between light and darkness.” What is the boundary between light and darkness? The horizon, of course. The circle that God drew in the beginning on the face of the waters showed where the horizon was. Again, a common sense explanation; it appeared to the Israelites as though the earth ended where the horizon was, because that’s where the firmament comes down and meets the earth. There are numerous other passages which describe God creating the earth as a circle; for example, Proverbs 8:22-31 describes the creation in great detail, and all of those details are consistent with a flat earth cosmology.
The earth must be flat in order for certain passages to make sense. In Daniel 4, King Nebuchadnezzar describes a tree growing out of the “midst of the earth,” so tall that it could be seen from the “ends of the earth” (another phrase that doesn’t make literal sense unless the earth literally ends somewhere). This doesn’t make sense if the earth is a globe, because no matter how tall the tree is, people on the other side of the world aren’t going to be able to see it. The same goes for Matthew 4:8, where Satan takes Jesus up to a high mountain and shows him “all the kingdoms of the earth.” That can’t happen unless the earth is flat. So too with Jesus’ second coming, when it says that every eye shall see him when he returns (Revelation 1:7).
This flat earth rested on foundations, rendering it immovable. There is no shortage of passages that contain the phrase “foundations of the earth.” Here are a few examples:
Indeed My hand has laid the foundation of the earth, And My right hand has stretched out the heavens. (Isaiah 48:13)
“Where were you when I laid the foundations of the earth? Tell Me, if you have understanding.” (Job 38:4)
“To what were its foundations fastened? Or who laid its cornerstone?” (Job 38:6)
You who laid the foundations of the earth, So that it should not be moved forever. (Psalm 104:5)
Sometimes these foundations are referred to as pillars:
The earth and all its inhabitants are dissolved; I set up its pillars firmly. (Psalm 75:3)
“For the pillars of the earth are the LORD’s, And He has set the world upon them.” (1 Samuel 2:8)
The earth’s immovability is further attested to here:
The LORD reigns, He is clothed with majesty; The LORD is clothed, He has girded Himself with strength. Surely the world is established, so that it cannot be moved. (Psalm 93:1)
Again, none of these passages “prove” that the earth is flat or that the writers believed that it was; but the language used is certainly consistent with a flat earth.
Let me reiterate, the Bible does not explicitly teach us about the shape of the cosmos. If we want to learn about how the world works, we should go out and do good science. The Bible, however, while it does not explicitly teach us that the earth is flat, certainly gives us the impression that its writers believed that it was, and that’s totally fine. God wasn’t interested in updating the Israelites’ science when He spoke to them; His express purpose was to set them apart as His covenant people, and that didn’t necessarily require a change of cosmology. God accommodated Himself so that when He spoke, the Israelites knew what He was talking about.
Each of the Scriptures that I listed above contains a theological truth. God’s might and power are the focus of many of the passages. The concept here is called the “message-incident principle” (so called by Denis Lamoureux); within these Scriptural statements, there appears a theological message (the point of the passage) and an incidental (unimportant, or irrelevant) vessel used by God to carry that message. In the case of the last passage I posted above, Psalm 93:1, the message is that God is the King of the universe and is sovereign over the earth; the incidental vessel is the “ancient science,” namely, that the earth is immovable (though we know through observation that the earth orbits the sun).
While conceptions of the universe have come and gone over the past few millennia, the central theme of the Bible remains unchanged throughout the generations: Christ Jesus, God incarnate, lived, died and was resurrected so that by believing in him, we might have eternal life.
As always, feel free to comment and join the chat channel. I’d like to have more healthy conversation about this.