What Does The Bible Say About The Flat Earth Theory?

During the past few years, a bizarre conspiracy theory has been spreading around the globe (pun very much intended). As CNN reports, believing that the Earth is flat, and that the mountains of incontrovertible evidence to the contrary (such as photos taken from orbit) are manufactured for some nefarious purpose, has become a thing of late. Further still, the internet and its younger grandchild, social media, have given everyone in the world a voice. And tens of millions of people are using that voice to proclaim that the Earth is flat. Why? The reasons for that likely have to do with something that takes place at the intersection of psychology and social media, if we were to put the two issues on a Venn Diagram.

You may be compelled to think that the idea of a flat Earth comes from a misreading of the Bible, but in fact, you'd only be partially right. Certainly over the centuries, certain Bible believers have concluded that the Earth is flat, including one guy who turned an Illinois city into his own flat-Earth theocracy. However, the modern iteration of the flat-Earth movement, with few exceptions, comes not from Biblical literalism but from a mindset that is generally anti-science and anti-authority, the Bible's ambiguity about the topic notwithstanding.

Which brings us to the heart of the matter: Does the Bible teach that the Earth is flat? The answer is probably "no" (it doesn't teach that the Earth is round, either), although there's a tiny amount of wiggle room.

Literal vs. Figurative

When interpreting the Bible, a number of factors have to be considered, including the differences between the cultures of the writers and readers, the historical context of the passages being studied, the differences between the languages of the writers and readers, and so on, as the Geoscience Research Institute notes. One particularly thorny issue when it comes to Biblical interpretation is the line between figures of speech and things that are to be taken literally.

This comes up in the Bible a surprising number of times. For example, consider Psalm 17:18 "Keep me as the apple of the eye, hide me under the shadow of thy wings." Are we to conclude that God is a bird? Of course not; the Psalmist was using a figure of speech.

The dispute between whether an idea presented in the Bible is a figure of speech or is to be taken literally has caused more than one theological controversy. Look no further than the Creationist movement, which takes the Genesis 1 account of a six-day creation literally and holds that the Earth is not billions of years old, and that humans didn't evolve from a common ancestor shared with apes, but rather that the Earth is a few thousand years old and that Adam and Eve were the first humans.

Pillars and Foundations and Corners

So in the context of the fact that certain Biblical passages may or may not be figures of speech, we come to the few passages that could be interpreted, by those who don't understand or acknowledge the difference, to suggest that the Earth is flat.

Christian question-and-answer website Got Questions lays out what some of those passages are and, more to the point, why they're not to be taken literally. The site points, for example, to Revelation 7:1, which reads, "...I saw four angels standing on the four corners of the earth, holding the four winds of the earth." If this is true, then the Earth is a four-cornered, flat plane with only two dimensions, else it would have eight corners, as in a cube or a box. Obviously the passage was poetry, not science. Similarly, Deuteronomy 13:7, and multiple other passages, speak of the "ends" of the Earth. If taken literally, then these passages mean that the Earth has finite distances from one "end" to the other, as opposed to a sphere, which has no beginning and end. But again, they are not and were not to be taken literally.

Other passages speak of "pillars" of the Earth, the "firmament" and "dome" of the sky, and so on. The Geoscience Research Institute does a good job of identifying and explaining them and why they're not to be taken literally.

The Flat Eart Was Never Church Dogma

You may have, at some point in your life, thought that everyone believed that the Earth was flat until Columbus, against all wisdom and sanity, tried to sail around it to reach India (and got lost in the process). Jon Sorenson, writing in Catholic Online, certainly admits that he once thought so. That is not true, however. The ancient Greeks had figured out that the Earth is round (or perhaps more accurately, had written it down) a few centuries before Jesus of Nazareth was born. Just about anybody who lived near the ocean or who had ever set foot on a sailing vessel would have known this. This would include the early Christians and, later, the Catholic Church's leadership.

The Catholic Church, which dominated Western thought and philosophy for over a millennium, has certainly had its moments when its dogma conflicted with science. Perhaps most famously, the Church persecuted Galileo and Copernicus (albeit posthumously in Copernicus' case) for suggesting that the Earth and other planets revolved around the Sun, as Inquiries Journal reports. But the Church never held that the Earth is flat, and it certainly didn't try to talk Columbus out of his journey, as a few sources have (falsely) suggested. "Certainly belief in a flat Earth was never a test of Christian orthodoxy, and definitely not a doctrine of the Church at large," notes Sorenson.