A resurgent flat-earth movement claims we need to get back to what the Bible says—but what does God’s Word really say about the earth’s shape?
Everyone thought the earth was flat until Christopher Columbus set people straight. “We know better now.” You’ve probably heard this before, perhaps even from a teacher. It may come as a shock then to hear that, at least in the West, most people knew the earth is spherical over 2,000 years ago.
More shockingly, the view that everyone once believed in a flat earth is itself a myth, invented in the 1880s to discredit the Middle Ages, Christianity, and the Bible. That’s why it’s especially distressing to see a new movement gaining traction in Christian circles, asserting that the image of earth as a globe is a modern falsehood and we need to get back to what the Bible teaches.
Looking closer at the issue can teach us some valuable lessons. Not only will we better appreciate the wonder of God’s round earth and realize that even ancient humans could correctly understand many of its traits without the benefits of “modern science,” we can also better understand Bible references that might puzzle us at first. This topic also serves as an object lesson about the dangers of reading into the Bible our own man-made interpretations and then spreading falsehoods that undermine our testimony and bring the Bible into disrepute.
A little background. Just one example of someone who thought that the earth is a globe was the Greek mathematician Pythagoras (sixth century BC), though we don’t have a record of his reasons. Another example is Aristotle, who lived in the fourth century BC and gave several sound reasons, based on observation, why the earth must be a sphere. Ditto for Ptolemy, who wrote in the early second century AD. Between them, another famous Greek, Eratosthenes, accurately measured the earth’s circumference around 200 BC.
All these sources were known and often referenced in antiquity and throughout the Middle Ages, at least in the West and in the Middle East.
None other than Washington Irving, the famous American author of “Rip Van Winkle,” invented the flat-earth myth in his popular biography of Columbus (1828), where he felt it necessary to embellish the facts to make the story more interesting. Along the way, he took a jab at the church and the supposed errors in the Bible. Others took up his story with gusto to bolster their own attacks on Christianity’s supposed war against science, such as John Draper’s History of the Conflict Between Religion and Science (1874).
Sadly, some Christians in the 1800s chose to adopt the flat-earth myth and push it as truth. The primary instigator in the flat-earth movement was Samuel Rowbotham (1816–1884).
What convinced Rowbotham that the earth was flat? Rowbotham watched a small boat depart along the Bedford Level, a six-mile straight strip of water in England. He could see the boat the entire six miles, though he calculated that if the earth were a globe, the boat ought to have completely disappeared over the earth’s curvature.
Rowbotham then combined this argument with his own hyper-literal interpretations of certain biblical passages. He lectured and even wrote a book promoting his ideas. His work sparked so much interest that by the time of his death in 1884, he had quite a following with flat-earth organizations around the globe.
Other authors wrote their own books in defense of a flat earth, and the movement reached a peak in the late 1800s before it waned. By the late 1900s, few people believed that the earth was flat, and flat earth became a byword for scientific ignorance.
All this has changed in the last decade. Around 2012, videos promoting the notion that the earth is flat began appearing on the internet. The revival of the flat-earth movement seems to have been rekindled by Eric Dubay, a somewhat mysterious American yoga instructor living in Thailand. Apparently, Dubay encountered the century-old writings of Rowbotham and others, reintroducing their ideas to a new generation. While Dubay is not a Christian, some Christians, apparently impressed with the supposed biblical arguments for the flat earth, took up the mantle. YouTube and social media proved to be ideal media for promulgating this belief.
What is the flat-earth model? In the flat-earth model, the earth is a flat disk, with the North Pole at its center. The earth is bounded by an ice wall that we call Antarctica. The ice wall keeps the oceans’ water contained on earth.
Somewhere beyond the ice wall, a dome rests over the earth. This dome contains the stars. The dome turns each day, producing the motion of stars that we see each night.
The sun and moon orbit under the dome, circling the axis of the North Pole. This produces the daily motion of the sun and moon. The sun and moon don’t actually rise and set; they merely appear to do so. We only experience darkness because the sun has moved so far away that its spotlight doesn’t shine on our location.
This all may sound like some sort of joke, but the proponents of a flat earth are very serious. And this belief is making inroads into the church.
This all may sound like some sort of joke, but the proponents of a flat earth are very serious. And this belief is making inroads into the church. Chances are, you know somebody who has bought into this, though you may not be aware of it. The flat-earth movement threatens to marginalize the church and ultimately undermine the reliability of Scripture.
How do we know that the earth is really a globe? Don’t try appealing to photographs from space showing a spherical earth. If the earth is a disk with an impenetrable dome over top, obviously no satellites or space stations can be orbiting the earth. Nor could astronauts have landed on the moon. So flat-earthers believe that NASA has lied about nearly everything it claims, and those photos are faked.
How can we show that the earth is a globe without pointing to photos? After all, belief that the earth is spherical goes back much earlier than satellites and NASA.
One of the best arguments, used by both Aristotle and Ptolemy, is something people can see for themselves. Consider what the earth’s shadow looks like during a lunar eclipse. It is always circular! A flat object would cast a circular shadow only with a certain orientation, such as occurs when the sun is directly behind the earth at midnight. But what about all the other circumstances? A disk would cast many different strange shapes, especially obvious at sunrise or sunset. Only a sphere will cast a circular shadow regardless of orientation.
How do flat-earthers respond to this argument? They deny that lunar eclipses are caused by the earth’s shadow. Then what causes lunar eclipses? I’ve asked them this question many times, but they can’t quite decide what it is (or even seem to care).
Does the Bible teach anything about a flat earth? Flat-earthers think so. They are pretty emphatic that many biblical passages support their model. In fact, they often say the Bible’s authority is at stake and we need to reject man’s lies. Would you be able to answer them?
The number of verses they cite is extensive, more than 200 by some counts. There’s just one problem. Almost nobody else in church history held this view. If the flat-earth meaning is so obvious, why did nearly every Christian in the past miss that meaning? Let’s examine a few of these passages.
Revelation 7:1 and 20:7–8 mention that the earth has four corners. So it’s obviously not a sphere because a sphere doesn’t have corners, right?
Most people recognize that the earth’s four corners is an idiomatic expression referring to the remotest parts of the earth. That’s how believers have always understood the words, and it is the correct understanding.
If the flat-earth interpretation were correct, it wouldn’t help them anyway. A square earth might have four corners, but in the flat-earth model the earth is round! How can a round earth have four corners?
What about the phrase “ends of the earth,” which appears 28 times in the Bible? Surely, flat-earthers reason, a globe earth has no ends, but a flat earth does.
Here again, words have more than literal, spatial meanings. In several instances, the phrase “ends of the earth” refers not to geography, but to people scattered across the earth (Psalm 67:7, 98:3; Isaiah 45:22). Clearly, these uses do not refer to a physical edge of the earth. That’s how the church has always read these passages (and what the original authors meant).
Another verse that flat-earthers use is Daniel 4:11. The prophet describes a tree that grew so tall that it could be seen from all over the earth. Flat-earthers point out that this would be impossible if the earth were a globe, but quite feasible if the earth were flat.
What flat-earthers fail to mention is that this tree appeared in a dream of the pagan king Nebuchadnezzar. If it isn’t clear enough that this is not a literal tree, in Daniel’s interpretation of the dream (Daniel 4:17–27), Nebuchadnezzar was identified as that tree. How can anyone take a tree in a dream—with a metaphorical meaning about a king’s power and fame—to indicate that the earth is flat?
Flat-earthers similarly point to the temptation of Jesus found in Matthew 4:1–11, where Satan took Jesus to a high mountain and showed him all the kingdoms of the world. Flat-earthers then reason again that this is possible only if the earth is flat.
If this is to be taken so literally, where is that mountain? They have no candidates because even on the flat-earth model, there are no mountains from which such a literal view is feasible.
Moreover, flat-earthers generally don’t mention the other accounts of the temptation of Jesus (Mark 1:12–13; Luke 4:1–13). There is good reason for their silence. The earliest manuscripts of Luke’s account don’t mention a mountain at all, but merely state that Satan took Jesus “up” to show him the kingdoms of the world. It’s not clear what this up means. It’s likely that the temptation took place in the wilderness where Jesus had been for 40 days and nights. It’s also likely that this was a vision, not a vista.
Many other verses that flat-earthers cite refer to the earth having pillars, such as Job 9:6 (though flat-earthers never seem to address what the pillars are resting on). Other verses say that the earth does not move, such as Psalm 93:1. Of course, none of these verses make statements about the earth’s shape, so you must read a flat-earth interpretation into them without even a hint from the biblical text. Never mind that most of these verses are found in the poetic books, which use much imagery and other nonliteral language.
What about the dome that sits over the earth, according to their model? Flat-earthers claim that the dome is the firmament described in the day-two account of Genesis 1:6–8. They claim that this is what the original Hebrew word rāqîa‘, translated “firmament” in early English translations, means.
However, the noun rāqîa‘ comes from the verb rāqa, meaning “to stamp, beat, or spread out.” That is, the rāqîa‘ is something that was spread out. So most modern English translations render this Hebrew word as “expanse.” That is the most natural and clear meaning of the word and what most people have understood over the centuries.
It is true that some people came to view the rāqîa‘ as a hard surface, either a sphere around the earth or possibly a dome over the earth, but that is not necessarily what the rāqîa‘ originally meant or actually is.
What is the rāqîa‘? The day four account (Genesis 1:14–19) places the sun, moon, and other astronomical bodies in the rāqîa‘, and Genesis 1:20 described the birds flying across the face of the rāqîa‘. So in today’s terminology we might call the rāqîa‘ “space and the earth’s atmosphere,” or more simply “sky.”
What is the motivation behind Christians today who believe that the earth is flat? They often claim high motives, that they want to remain faithful to God’s Word. But in fact they are going outside the Bible to promote their own peculiar view that runs contrary to what godly Christians have understood over the millennia.
One attraction may be similar to the allure of an ancient philosophy called Gnosticism, which infiltrated the early church. One of the tenets of Gnosticism is that special knowledge leads one either to salvation or to a higher spiritual level. Christian flat-earthers seem to believe that they have learned some important teaching about cosmology that has been hidden from most Christians.
They speak of having a much deeper appreciation of God since coming to believe that the earth is flat. In fact, they often claim that many atheists were born again after coming to believe that the earth is flat. (One must wonder what will happen to either group if they ever come to realize that they’ve been duped.)
This is deadly stuff. Gnosticism was one of the first great heresies to challenge the early church. It challenges the simplicity of the gospel, available to everyone (2 Corinthians 4:3). We don’t need to depend on the extrabiblical wisdom of the special few.
Flat-earthers totally believe their myth about the ignorance of past generations. They say that until five centuries ago nearly everyone, especially those in the church, thought that the earth is flat. Going one step further, they conclude the church should repent of spreading a supposedly false teaching. Imagine. All the great saints of church history, and virtually every church and church leader, have been in grave error all these years.
Belief that the earth is a sphere was well-established prior to the church’s existence. And every thing in God’s Word is consistent with that view.
No need to worry. The facts of history, science, and church history are on your side. (And the Bible most importantly of all.)
Belief that the earth is a sphere was well-established in the West even prior to the church’s existence. And everything in God’s Word is consistent with that view.
Yet this slide into folly is a warning to all of us. We need to be humble before God’s Word because any one of us can slip if we begin to lean on our own understanding rather than the clear revelation of the Bible. In the end, we could find ourselves undermining the very things we claim to uphold.