In a previous article, I discussed many of the Bible passages that flat-earthers claim teach that the earth is flat. Of course, those passages teach no such thing, and those who say otherwise mangle Scripture to make it conform to what they want to believe about the world. In that article, I discussed only some of the more prominent biblical passages found among promoters of the flat earth. They use other verses that by their own admission don’t explicitly teach that the earth is flat, claiming them to be more properly understood within the flat-earth model, and hence implying that the earth is flat.
An example of this is Jesus’ words in Matthew 24:29, which reads,
Immediately after the tribulation of those days the sun will be darkened, and the moon will not give its light, and the stars will fall from heaven, and the powers of the heavens will be shaken.
A parallel verse is Mark 13:25:
And the stars will be falling from heaven, and the powers in the heavens will be shaken.
Flat-earthers argue that since these verses speak of the stars falling, then the stars will literally fall. They also assume that these stars will fall to the earth, an action that these two verses do not specifically state. This idea will be examined below. Flat-earthers claim that these stars falling to earth is impossible if the conventional understanding of cosmology is true. According to conventional cosmology, the stars are much larger and more massive than the earth, and the stars are very far away. Therefore, stars (as understood in the modern sense) can’t fall to the earth. Flat-earthers conclude that, on the other hand, this is quite plausible in the flat-earth model, where the stars are much closer and smaller than generally thought and are attached to a dome over the flat, disk-shaped earth. Hence, flat-earthers believe that these verses imply that the earth is flat.
Let us examine what these verses likely mean. These verses are part of Jesus’ apocalyptic statements that deal with astronomical bodies (Matthew 24:29–31; Mark 13:24–27). Interestingly, the parallel passage from the other synoptic gospel, Luke 21:25–28, doesn’t mention the stars.
Before doing so, perhaps I ought to better explain what the flat-earthers who espouse a biblical approach think of stars. Many flat-earthers think that stars are angels, and hence modern astronomers are completely wrong about the nature of stars. The equating of angels with stars is not unique to flat-earthers, for many Christians do so, at least in some cases. There are several biblical passages that suggest this equation. For instance, in Job 38:7, God asks Job in the context of creation if he were there when the morning stars sang together and all the sons of God shouted for joy.
Most people think that the morning stars and the sons of God of these parallel lines are angelic beings. Revelation 1:20 identifies the seven stars in Jesus’ right hand in Revelation 1:16 as the angels of the seven churches in Asia (John 1:4). Some passages use the phrase “host of heaven” to refer to stars (e.g., Deuteronomy 4:19; 2 Kings 23:5; Isaiah 34:4; Jeremiah 33:22; Acts 7:42). On the other hand, some passages use the phrase “host of heaven” to refer to angels (c.f. 1 Kings 22:19; Luke 2:13–14). However, does it follow that stars and angels must be the same thing, in every context? Hardly. How can we tell which meaning is intended? As usual, context is key. The word heaven is used more than one way in Scripture, such as the abode of God, the astronomical realm, and the atmospheric realm. In “host of heaven,” when heaven is the abode of God, angels probably are intended; when heaven is the astronomical realm, almost certainly stars are intended.
What Does the Word Fall Mean?
The Greek word translated “will fall” in Matthew 24:29 is πεσοῦνται (pesountai). Technically, πεσοῦνται is an indicative mood, future tense, middle or passive voice, and third person verb. The English verb “will be falling” in Mark 13:25 is in the future progressive tense, a different tense from “will fall” in Matthew’s account. Why the difference? Mark used a slightly different Greek word, the present tense, active, masculine, plural, nominative participle πίπτοντες (piptontes). Both Greek words derive from the root πίπτω (piptó), meaning “to fall.” And this is how this word and its related forms usually are translated the many times that they appear in the New Testament, such as with both the rain and the house in the Parable of the Two Builders in Matthew 7:24–27 and the seed in the Parable of the Sower in Matthew 13:1–23. Therefore, Matthew 24:29 and Mark 13:25 are good translations.
But does this require that the stars must physically fall to the earth? First, notice that where the stars fall is not identified in these verses, so it is an assumption that the stars will fall to the earth. But, more to the point, must we understand that this falling is to be taken so literally? For instance, the English word fall has non-literal meanings. Consider Edward Gibbon’s Decline and Fall of the Roman Empire or William Shirer’s The Rise and Fall of the Third Reich. In either case, neither the rise nor the fall are to be taken literally. Such non-literal usages of the Greek word translated fall appear in the New Testament. One example is Revelation 2:5, in which addressing the church at Ephesus, the Apostle John wrote,
Remember therefore from where you have fallen; repent, and do the works you did at first. If not, I will come to you and remove your lampstand from its place, unless you repent.
Clearly, the word fallen here is not literal. The Greek word here is πέπτωκας (peptōkas), again from πίπτω. When the Apostle Paul wrote in 1 Corinthians 13:8 that love never ends, or fails, he used the Greek word πίπτει (piptei), likewise from πίπτω. One could translate that as “love never falls,” a clearly non-literal usage of the word fall. However, the exact same Greek word means literally “to fall” in Matthew 17:15 and Mark 5:22. The point is, the Greek word translated “fall” in the New Testament often means literally to fall, but in some passages, the same Greek word doesn’t mean literally to fall, but instead means to fail, or cease.
Given this information, how can we know if the description of stars falling in Matthew 24:29 and Mark 13:25 are literal or non-literal? It is important to interpret Scripture with Scripture. Matthew 24:29 is more detailed than Mark 13:25, and it includes four elements:
- The sun will be darkened.
- The moon will not give its light.
- The stars will fall from heaven.
- The powers of the heavens will be shaken.
Flat-earthers argue that since these verses speak of the stars falling, then the stars will literally fall.
Some of these elements are found in various Old Testament passages. Before deciding whether these Old Testament passages are talking about the same thing, let us explore how many of these elements are present in each passage. For instance, Isaiah 13:10 contains elements one and two, but it says something slightly different from element three:
For the stars of the heavens and their constellations
will not give their light;
the sun will be dark at its rising,
and the moon will not shed its light.
That is, the stars are described as withdrawing their light, much as the light of the sun and moon will also be dimmed.
While it uses different terminology from the gospel accounts of Jesus’ words, Isaiah 24:23 seems to refer to the first two elements:
Then the moon will be confounded
and the sun ashamed,
for the Lord of hosts reigns
on Mount Zion and in Jerusalem,
and his glory will be before his elders.
It would be absurd to suggest that the moon will be literally confounded and that the sun will be literally ashamed (though the hyper-literal hermeneutic of flat-earthers might demand that). Some may object that within the context of Isaiah 24:23 (Isaiah 24:21–23), verse 21 reads,
On that day the Lord will punish the host of heaven, in heaven, and the kings of the earth, on the earth.
They believe this verse indicates that verse 23 doesn’t literally refer to the sun and moon. However, given that verse 22 seems to describe the punishment of the host of heaven and the kings of the earth (declared in verse 21) and then verse 23 moves on to focus on the glory of the Lord and his reign, the most likely meaning of the passage is that the glory of the sun and moon will be nothing compared to the glory of the Lord.
Hence, Isaiah 24:23 likely refers to the sun and moon being dimmed—or at least dim in comparison to God’s glory.
Joel 2:10 mentions the first, second, and fourth elements, and as with Isaiah 13:10, the stars are said to dim:
The earth quakes before them;
the heavens tremble.
The sun and the moon are darkened,
and the stars withdraw their shining.
Amos 8:9 appears to include the first element:
“And on that day,” declares the Lord God,
“I will make the sun go down at noon.
and darken the earth in broad daylight.”
Ezekiel 32:7–8 includes elements one and two, but as with Isaiah 13:10 and Joel 2:10, element three may be expressed as the stars dimming:
When I blot you out, I will cover the heavens
and make their stars dark;
I will cover the sun with a cloud,
and the moon shall not give its light.
All the bright lights of heaven
will I make dark over you,
and put darkness on your land,
declares the Lord God.
Joel 3:15 includes the second and third elements, but as with Isaiah 13:10, Ezekiel 32:7–8, and Joel 2:10, the third element may be expressed as a dimming of the stars:
The sun and moon are darkened,
and the stars withdraw their shining.
Finally, Joel 2:30–31 includes elements one and four, but states something different about the moon:
And I will show wonders in the heavens and on the earth, blood and fire and columns of smoke. The sun shall be turned to darkness, and the moon to blood, before the great and awesome day of the Lord comes.
What does it mean that the moon will be turned to blood? Contrary to common belief, this does not necessarily mean that the moon will turn red. I have argued elsewhere that this likely refers to the dimming of the moon.1 This understanding unifies Joel 2:30–31 (as well as Acts 2:20 and Revelation 6:12 that also mention the moon turning to blood) with the darkening of the moon in Isaiah 13:10, 24:23; Ezekiel 32:7–8; Joel 2:10; and Joel 3:15. Hence, Joel 2:30–31 likely contains the second element as well.
Some may object that this understanding of the moon turning to blood in Joel 2:30–31 is too far of a stretch. Some might even opine that when Joel referred to blood, he literally meant blood. Of course, few people would insist on such an extreme literalism. It is important to keep in mind that the prophetic books contain many examples of symbolism, allusions, simile, metaphor, and poetic devices. It would be very boring to say the same thing the same way every time. A hyper-literal approach to these passages would result in the conclusion that each passage is referring to its own unique event or events rather than the same event or events.
For example, consider Isaiah 13:10 and Amos 8:9. Isaiah 13:10 says that the sun will be dark at its rising, but Amos 8:9 says that the sun will go down at noon. Taken very literally, these cannot be the same events. For one thing, the rising of the sun and noon are roughly six hours apart. More importantly, Isaiah 13:10 has the darkened sun rising, while Amos 8:9 says that the sun will unexpectedly set (not dim) at noon. For that matter, Ezekiel 32:7–8 states that God will cover the sun with a cloud. That is, if Ezekiel 32:7–8 is taken literally, the sun neither inexplicably dims nor abruptly sets very early, but merely is covered by a cloud. But that hardly is apocalyptic, because the sun is so blocked on any overcast day. Nearly everyone would agree that these verses are not to be taken quite so literally, and many believe they refer to the same event. Admittedly, Ezekiel 32 is a prophecy against Egypt, and there is debate about whether it has been fulfilled already or if it awaits a future final judgment. If it has been fulfilled, Ezekiel 32:7–8 is an example of a prophecy that had an immediate fulfillment and will have a later fulfillment as well. Therefore, there is some doubt as to whether Ezekiel 32:7–8 ought to be included in this discussion.
Since each of these apocalyptic passages contain some of the four elements in Jesus’ statement in Matthew 24:29, but none of them state that the stars will fall, perhaps we ought to collate Jesus’ words about the stars falling with the dimming of the stars in Isaiah 13:10, Ezekiel 32:7–8, Joel 2:10, and Joel 3:18. The one explicit Old Testament passage that mentions the stars falling may be the key passage to consider. Isaiah 34:4 states the following:
All the host of heaven shall rot away,
and the skies roll up like a scroll.
All their host shall fall,
as leaves fall from the vine,
like leaves falling from the fig tree.
Many assume that “the host of heaven” is the stars.
Many assume that “the host of heaven” is the stars.2 Notice that only one of four elements of Matthew 24:29 appears here. Also notice that the English verb fall occurs three times in Isaiah 34:4. However, the New American Standard Bible doesn’t use the word fall but rather translates the Hebrew verb as wither. Why the difference? The Hebrew verb used here is a Qal yiqtol (sometimes called an “imperfect”) verb from the root nbl. This verb appears at least 25 times in the Old Testament. It is normally translated as fade or wither. HALOT gives the meaning as “to wither, decay; to crumble away.” Fall is not even a recognized proper meaning.3 Why, then, is this Hebrew word translated as fall here? The Septuagint translators (as well as the subsequent KJV translators) might have chosen to translate this word as piptó based on the theological influence of other passages even though it is not the best translation, at least in a literal sense. Perhaps people in the past had no problem understanding that the word fall has many nonliteral meanings. Interestingly, the Vulgate didn’t translate these verbs as fall, but as flow away and fade, which is closer to the primary meaning of that Hebrew verb.
It is important to note the parallel structure found in lines one and three of Isaiah 34:4. The first line says that the “host of heaven shall rot away.” The New American Standard Bible says that the “host of heaven will wear away,” while the King James Version states that the “host of heaven shall be dissolved.” All are good translations of the Hebrew verb used there. This verb rarely means “to fall.” If the meaning of the third line is that the host of heaven will fall, then this parallelism is destroyed.
Lines four and five are similes with a dependent clause and prepositional phrase comparing the falling stars to withering leaves on a vine (presumably a grape vine) and the withering of something on a fig tree. Why do I say “something” here? While the object of the dependent clause in line four (leaves) is indicated in the Hebrew text, the object of the prepositional phrase in line five is not indicated in the Hebrew text. Since the object of the preposition is absent in the Hebrew, it is probably meant to be implied from the text. But the object is important in English, so the translators provide a likely object. The translators of the English Standard Version quoted above provided leaves as the object of the preposition in line five. The King James version provides the word fig, but it is in italics to indicate that the word is absent in the Hebrew. Likewise, the New American Standard Bible inserts the impersonal pronoun one in italics as the object. Since leaves clearly are not figs, all these translations cannot be right. One reads awkwardly in English. Perhaps the Geneva Bible offered the cleverest and most accurate solution to this difficulty, for it inserted the impersonal pronoun it. It indicates an implied yet unidentified object, as it is by the word’s absence in the Hebrew. By the way, the Vulgate solved this problem by combining the fourth and fifth lines into a single line, “like the fading leaf of the vineyard and of the fig tree,” thus implying the use of “leaf” in both lines. Does it matter whether the object of the fifth line is leaves or figs? So far, no, but it might matter elsewhere, as we shall soon see.
Given these facts and the context of comparing the leaves on a vine or on a fig tree, wither probably is a much more appropriate translation than fall in Isaiah 34:4. This collation with other Old Testament apocalyptic passages of astronomical interest strongly argue that Matthew 24:29 and Mark 13:25 refer to the stars dimming, not that the stars literally will fall to the earth.
However, Christians hold different views on what the Bible means when it speaks of the stars falling, yet none of the popular understandings require or imply a flat earth in any way. For example, some Christians view these statements as being symbolic. From their perspective, these kinds of passages should not be understood literally, for they represent a symbolic way to describe catastrophic events, such as the sudden collapse of a nation or final judgment. Others believe that the stars and other heavenly bodies should be viewed in a metaphorical sense. In this view, these heavenly bodies represent angelic powers opposed to God who have been or will be defeated. The language about their falling or being cast down is understood as God humiliating these principalities and powers by stripping them of the authority and position that he had previously given them. Yet others perceive the passages speak of objects literally falling to the earth but that they are not stars, merely asteroids and or meteors.
There is one other New Testament passage that is potentially problematic for this interpretation about collating these different passages. Revelation 6:12–14 reads,
When he opened the sixth seal, I looked, and behold, there was a great earthquake, and the sun became black as sackcloth, the full moon became like blood, and the stars of the sky fell to the earth as the fig tree sheds its winter fruit when shaken by a gale. The sky vanished like a scroll that is being rolled up, and every mountain and island was removed from its place.
This is the one biblical passage that clearly states that stars will fall to earth. Taken at face value, one might understand this to be a literal falling. However, the comparison to the Old Testament passages discussed above are striking. Since the sun here is described as turning dark, it is likely that the moon’s becoming like blood is a reference to the moon’s dimming as well. If so, then the first three of the four elements of Matthew 24:29 are present here. But one could argue from the full context (Revelation 6:12–17) that the fourth element is present as well.
But the comparison to Isaiah 34:4 is even more striking. John appears to be alluding to Isaiah 34:4 when he likens the vanishing of the sky to the rolling-up of a scroll. This imagery appears nowhere else in Scripture, suggesting that John had Isaiah 34:4 in mind when he wrote Revelation 6:13. Furthermore, John’s simile of the stars falling as a fig tree sheds its unripe fruit appears to come from Isaiah 34:4 as well. But we’ve established that it isn’t clear whether Isaiah 34:4 mentions the fruit of the fig tree at all, and that Isaiah 34:4 doesn’t use the word fall to describe the stars, leaves, or even figs. How do we resolve this issue?
There are at least two ways to solve this dilemma. Many commentators believe that the falling of the stars in Revelation 6:13 refers to an exceptional meteor shower. Flat-earthers are likely to strenuously emphasize that Revelation 6:13 says that the stars will fall, not meteors. However, they are committing the fallacy of equivocation by holding to this literal interpretation. The word meteor in the modern sense dates to the Elizabethan era, only four centuries ago. Prior to that, meteors were known as falling stars, a term, along with shooting stars, that is in common use today. Until the invention of the telescope four centuries ago, any point-like luminous objects in the sky, including meteors and planets, were considered stars. Therefore, it is quite proper to consider that Revelation 6:13 may refer to an exceptional meteor shower. However, this consideration introduces the problem of collating with the Old Testament passages that tell of the dimming of the stars. Even a huge meteor storm would not affect the stars: they presumably would remain visible. One could argue that there are two physically separate but possibly synchronized events: a huge meteor storm and supernatural dimming of the stars. While many commentators have no problem with this solution, I find it wanting, because it seems to multiply effects unnecessarily.4
The other way to resolve this dilemma is to realize that, being prophetic, the Book of Revelation has much imagery and symbolism, so one must be careful in employing hyper-literalism in deducing its meaning. For instance, the Book of Revelation mentions stars in several places where almost no one thinks that literal stars are intended. For instance, in John’s vision of Jesus (Revelation 1:9–3:22), he mentions seven stars (Revelation 1:16 and 20, 2:1, 3:1). Jesus Himself identifies the seven stars as the angels of the seven churches (Revelation 1:20). Lest a flat-earther go hyper-literal here and insist that stars literally are angels and angels literally are stars, Jesus here also identifies the seven lampstands as the seven churches. Clearly, churches aren’t literal lampstands. Speaking of angels, most commentators think that the stars of Revelation 12:4 are the angels who, depending on one’s eschatology, either fell with Satan or will eventually be cast down to the earth with him. Revelation 12:1 mentions a sign in the sky of a woman with a crown of 12 stars. Almost no one believes that these are literal stars, but opinions vary widely as to whether these 12 stars refer to the 12 tribes of Israel or something else. About the only exception to this are people who thought that the sign of Revelation 12:1–6 would be fulfilled with a solar/planetary/stellar alignment on September 23, 2017, but since that date passed without incident, that isn't likely. Finally, Revelation 2:28 and Revelation 22:16 refer to Jesus as the “morning star,” but we know that Jesus Christ is not literally a star. There are many other examples of nonliteral words in the Book of Revelation, but the examples here of stars that are not to be taken literally ought to demonstrate the problems that may arise when mentions of stars elsewhere in the Book of Revelation are taken in a hyper-literal way. In conformity with Old Testament passages, perhaps Revelation 6:13 refers to the dimming of stars, a conclusion that I have reached elsewhere.5
Here I have examined Isaiah 34:4, Matthew 24:29, Mark 13:25, and Revelation 6:12—the only four verses in the Bible that speak of the stars falling.6 Clearly these prophetic passages are apocalyptic, and their interpretation should be considered in terms of other similar passages. Collation of the relevant biblical passages, along with careful study of the Hebrew and Greek words used in these passages, indicate that in most cases they likely don’t refer to a literal fall of literal stars (as understood in the modern sense) to the earth. Rather, I consider it most likely that the stars are prophesied to dim, along with the sun and moon. This dimming will be perplexing, or else what kind of sign would that be?
Flat-earthers promote a strictly literal understanding of the Bible.
Flat-earthers promote a strictly literal understanding of the Bible. However, one does not have to look far in Scripture to see that such a hyper-literal hermeneutic is fraught with problems. And even the most literal of flat-earthers eventually jettison their hyper-literal hermeneutic. On the evening before his crucifixion, Jesus told his disciples that he was the true vine and they were the branches (John 15:1–11). Clearly, this is not literally true, but is a metaphor. Jesus also said that he was the good shepherd (John 10:11–17), though there is no record that he tended any literal sheep. Jesus also said that he was the door of the sheepfold (John 10:7–10). Can one be a literal shepherd while simultaneously being a literal door to a literal sheepfold? Jesus also claimed to be the bread of life (John 6:35–51). Is this literally true? Jesus told the woman at the well about living water (John 4:10). Judging by her response, the woman at the well took this literally because she didn’t understand the metaphorical nature of this living water (John 4:11–12 and 15). This metaphorical term was used in the Old Testament (Jeremiah 2:13; 17:13; Zechariah 14:8). Such nonliteral use is common in the prophetic books of the Old Testament. Since the Apostle John frequently used metaphors in his gospel, he certainly was acquainted with their use. And since John alluded to Old Testament prophetic passages in the Book of Revelation, he certainly was aware of the use of metaphor in prophecy. Therefore, it comes as no surprise that John would use metaphor, symbolism, and other literary devices in the Book of Revelation, which, after all, is prophetic too.
Flat-earthers chide creation organizations such as Answers in Genesis for not taking Scripture literally. However, we’ve never made the claim that we think that everything in the Bible should be understood in a strictly literal sense. We believe that the Bible is inspired by God, and hence is authoritative and without error. This means that when the Bible gives a historical account, that history is true. The nature of historical narrative is that it is factual, and apart from idioms and figures of speech, is largely, but not entirely, literal. However, poetic and prophetic passages are a very different genre from historical narrative in that they use much imagery, metaphor, simile, and other literary devices. It really isn’t very difficult to distinguish between these different genres. Unfortunately, flat-earthers appear to have great difficulty seeing the difference. Perhaps they are motivated by fear—fear that if they accede that there is anything nonliteral in the Bible, the door opens to all sorts of figurative interpretation of Scripture. But we ought not to be motivated by fear but by desire for truth. Otherwise, we are not rightly handling the word of truth (2 Timothy 2:15).
But there may be a more insidious motive underlying the flat-earth movement. It may be that much of the flat-earth movement was spawned as a subtle attack on creation ministries, such as Answers in Genesis, and upon the authority of Scripture itself. Promoting a hyper-literal approach to Scripture, when many parts of the Bible clearly are not meant to be understood in this manner, ultimately undermines confidence in Scripture. I fear that many flat-earthers who profess salvation through the Lord Jesus Christ will fall away if they come to realize that the earth isn’t flat after all. It’s no accident that the claim “the Bible teaches the earth is flat” first arose among 19th century skeptics. Many professing Christians who have fallen into belief that the earth is flat may be unwittingly doing the devil’s work.