Why The Biblical Flat Earth Model Doesn’t Flatten Christian Theology

There is a concept among travelers known as culture shock. If a thoroughly westernized tourist visits a third-world country, they sometimes feel completely disconnected from this new world. The architecture, customs and people are genuinely disorienting. It would not surprise us if literature coming out of this culture were difficult to understand. That is essentially why the biblical flat earth model doesn’t flatten Christian theology.

While modern technology can deliver satellite imagery of the spherical earth, the ancients had no such luxury. This biblical flat earth model does not come down to one or two isolated verses that can be interpreted differently. It is the entire scientific paradigm descending from Ancient Near Eastern cosmology.

There is a flat earth, held up by pillars with a firmament overhead. There are waters in the heavens and waters on the earth (which is a bottomless sea). In the waters of the earth, there is the leviathan. The presence of these features in the biblical model provides strong evidence that the authors adhered the cosmology of the culture, which included a flat earth. Yet since the earth is not flat, it can be difficult to make sense of the biblical flat earth model. But I do not think it flattens our theology or even our inerrancy as much as some may think.

It Is A Basic Anthropomorphism

The biblical flat earth model should not be surprising to Christians who are familiar with the theological concept of an anthropomorphism. This occurs when God condescends down to our level to make a substantive theological point. Leviticus 20:6 refer to God having a “face.” Moses could only see God’s backside. Throughout the Bible, we see references to God’s right hand. Christ is sitting at the right hand of the Father. Yet Isaiah tells us, “‘For my thoughts are not your thoughts, neither are your ways my ways,’ declares the LORD. ‘For as the heavens are higher than the earth, so are my ways higher than your ways and my thoughts than your thoughts.'”

Something similar can be said about the biblical flat earth model. If the ancients truly believed that the earth was flat, then for God to overthrow it would be to introduce too many concepts and convolute the message. So he comes down to our level and speaks our language to convey who he is and what our duties to him are. For example, the Jews feared this mythical creature known as the Leviathan. According to pages 512–14 of Dictionary of deities and demons in the Bible the Leviathan was a prominent figure in Ancient Near Eastern literature. It appeared in Sumerian iconography. The ancients believed there is currently a cosmic battle and the Leviathan was one of the chaos creatures leading the dark forces.

God did not tell the ancients that the Leviathan did not exist. He said that he has slain the Leviathan. Psalm 74:14 reads, “You crushed the heads of Leviathan.” Interestingly, Psalm 74 is a creation psalm, which means that God accomplished this before the creation of man. In reality, though, there is no such creature. There is no multi-headed sea monster leading the dark forces. It is an anthropomorphism. God is communicating to his audience the most repeated theme in the Bible: “Do not fear; I am YHWH.”

Science Was Not An Important Theme

One of the first things a theology student learns is what she brings to the text. Our cultural background very much impacts our interpretation. But the prevailing method of biblical interpretation is known as the historical-grammatical method. This entails that it is our duty to learn about the culture in which the text was written. Discoveries about the Leviathan are relevant to this. When we cross-reference ancient literature with the biblical data, we can discern what the authors are talking about.

As children of Descartes, we bring a scientific mindset to the Scripture. When reading Genesis 1, we are looking for a chronological scientific treatise because that is what we would expect and how we would write about the creation of the world. But when we put on our Ancient Near Eastern glasses, that scientific mentality fades into irrelevancy. As Dr. John Walton pointed out on this publication on the Houston Baptist University website, “What we have learned about science in our cultural river cannot be factored into the interpretation of biblical communication because, in doing so, we would be imposing something foreign on the text.”

In fact, in Dr. Walton’s excellent book The Lost World of Genesis One, he made the argument that Genesis One is not even talking about the material creation of the world. It was about the function of the world and humanity taking its place as stewards. If we look at Genesis looking for modern science, we are going to find all of the features of Ancient Near Eastern cosmology, including a biblical flat earth, a young earth, a Leviathan and a solid dome covering the earth. But if we try to read the Bible from an Ancient Near Eastern context, we come to realize that they are not answering the same questions as we are. A scientific inaccuracy, such as a biblical flat earth, does not matter. It is not the point.

What Would You Do?

Let’s do a thought experiment. Imagine that you had access to a time machine and could communicate with an ancient culture. Your task is a communicate a specific message about the future in a way that they would understand. If you introduce too much modern science, you will completely isolate the audience. You are not there to be a scientific revolutionary. You are there to relay a message. So you will accommodate as much as you can so long as it does not distort your message.

If God’s message is that he is the Lord and it is our duty to put our trust in him, then correcting the nuances of the cosmology of the day will not be important to him. When I pointed this out to an atheist, he replied that God did sometimes overthrow their entire paradigm. In the Ten Commandments, he declared that he alone is God and the worship of other deities is impermissible. But I told him that this accommodation would compromise God’s message. God will accommodate as much as he can so long as his message gets through. Other issues are just not important. The Bible teaches theology.

God Is Creating A Polemic Against Other Gods

Anybody who has read the story of the Exodus knows that the Bible is replete with polemics against other gods. But they are more subtle than modern readers would know. Many scholars interpret Genesis One within that framework. While the myths of the culture would personalize the natural order, the Bible portrays the sun, moon and stars as inanimate objects under the sovereignty of YHWH. Similarly, Dr. Michael Heiser pointed out in this Logos publication that Baal was the original cloud rider and king of the gods. YHWH appropriated that title for himself and said that he was the true cloud rider. This would also be why Jesus said that he is coming on the clouds.

Many concordists would argue that this is compatible with their theology. While that is certainly true, my main point is that the premise of these texts is not to teach scientific truths. It is to glorify YHWH by giving him his rightful position as the true cloud rider. The scientific details are not related to the author’s intention. God could have contradicted the biblical flat earth model, but it was not his intention.

Why The Biblical Flat Earth Doesn’t Flatten Christian Theology

The authors of the Bible could presuppose a flat earth in their writing and the Bible would still be inerrant. Christians do not needs to struggle with flat earth passages. It is not as simple as looking at a singular text that refers to the “four corners” of the earth and wrangling them. I agree that they could be interpreted as metaphors. But if you look at the broader usage of imagery, the authors clearly adhered to Ancient Near Eastern cosmology. The best approach is to ask how we should understand that. When we realize [1] this is an anthropomorphism and [2] we are thinking differently than the ancients, that should shed some light on this issue.

Recommended Reading:
How The King James Version Teaches Evolutionary Biology
How The Ancient Near East Deluges Us With Evidence For A Local Flood