Tuesday, 20 November 2018

Flat Earth Creationists and Firmament Denialism - Why flat earthers are the only truly consistent biblical literalists.

Flat earthers it seems are everywhere at the moment. A movement that one would imagine would have not survived the launch of space probes has not only managed to survive but thrive. One thing that many overlook however is that most flat earthers are united by their adherence to Biblical literalism. For them, the literal word of the Bible is the ultimate authority, and they are convinced that a literal reading of the Bible teaches a flat earth covered by a solid firmament. One may regard their denial of the last 2500 years of science as beyond insane, but they at least deserve credit for being consistent in their literalism. Conventional YECs and even geocentrists, both of whom also claim to take the literal word of the Bible as their ultimate authority in reality reject a literal reading of the Bible when it conflicts with their belief in a spherical Earth, leaving them rightly open to the charge of selective literalism.

Back to our flat Earthers. Recently, Josiah Hessein writing in The Guardian reported on the link between them and fundamentalist Christianity. The article opened with a report on a flat earth conference at Denver, Colorado:
The hotel is hosting the second annual Flat Earth International Conference – an event that Davidson himself founded and organized. 
“I’d first heard it in the Bible and thought ‘this can’t be true,’” he recalled, speaking with rapid excitement. “I mean, I believed everything else, that the Earth was created in six literal days, but what about all this other stuff [about a flat Earth]? To be consistent as a biblical literalist, I can’t pick and choose.” [1]
Well, quite. If you claim you're a Biblical literalist then you've got to take all the Biblical references referring to the nature and origin of the Earth literally. Unsurprisingly, given this emphasis on consistently interpreting the Bible literally, evangelical Christians represent one of the main group of flat earthers. Hessein again:

But perhaps the most common thread is the Bible, and the conviction of its fundamental truth. That makes evangelical Christians one of largest and most enthusiastic groups who embrace the theory, but they are also one of the least reported on and one that causes immense controversy in their own community. [2]
Unsurprisingly, the non-fundamentalist parts of the evangelical community are less than impressed by the spectacle of their fundamentalist wing finding yet another way to bring the name 'evangelical' into disrepute. Evangelical Christian and OT scholar Michael Heiser, who is currently Academic Editor for Logos Bible Software has written extensively on how ancient Hebrews - like others in the ancient Near East - did not believe the Earth was a sphere orbiting the sun but rather believed it was flat, and covered by a solid firmament in which the sun, moon, and stars were set. Heiser, as Hessein notes, is quite frustrated by the fact that flat earthers are taking his work (and that of other OT scholars who have documented the ancient Hebrew cosmogeography) out of context and using it as proof' that the Biblical references to a flat earth are prescriptive as well as descriptive:
“In Genesis, you have an Earth that is round but flat, with a solid dome over it,” says Heiser. “In Proverbs, there are references to the seas being held in place where light meets darkness, which is the horizon, where the dome covers and seals the Earth. You have references to the Earth being set upon a foundation, known as the pillars of the Earth. You have waters beneath the Earth, which is the realm of the dead.

“All of this is standard vocabulary for how people of this time and place viewed the world. They didn’t know about Antarctica or New Zealand. The Bible is an ancient Mediterranean-centered document, written by people who are describing their world through their experiences. The mountains are described as holding the dome of the sky in place, but there was no REI store nearby where they could buy mountain climbing gear and scale these peaks to see what was going on.”

Heiser is a Christian himself, albeit one who prefers to view the Bible in its historical context. [3]
Historical context is the all-important fact here, and it is where both standard YECs and flat-earthers fall down. The former, acknowledging just enough science to accept that the Earth is indeed spherical and orbits the sun while rejecting the rest of contemporary science when it comes to the age of the universe have to explain away the clear references to a solid firmament [4] while still pretending that they take the entire Bible literally in its description of the earth. The latter, while entirely consistent in their literalism have failed to recognise that the references to a flat earth and a solid firmament reflect divine accommodation, a point recognised long ago by John Calvin, who while (vainly) trying to argue for firmament as expanse acknowledged the difficulties in consistent literalism:
 Moses describes the special use of this expanse, “to divide the waters from the waters,” from which words arises a great difficulty. For it appears opposed to common sense, and quite incredible, that there should be waters above the heaven. [5]
Incredible is an understatement, particularly if one is simultaneously trying to deny the existence of a solid firmament while believing that the waters above the heaven are literal. Calvin continues:
For, to my mind, this is a certain principle, that nothing is here treated of but the visible form of the world. He who would learn astronomy, and other recondite arts, let him go elsewhere. Here   V 1, p 80  the Spirit of God would teach all men without exception; and therefore what Gregory declares falsely and in vain respecting statues and pictures is truly applicable to the history of the creation, namely, that it is the book of the unlearned. [6]
This principle, that God accommodates the finite perspective of His audience even if that means accommodating a belief in a flat earth topped by a solid firmament separating waters above from waters below, in which are set the sun, moon, and stars, is one that solves the problem by recognising that the Bible does reflect a flat earth cosmogeography without endorsing it or requiring its acceptance as a first principle, as Heiser remarks
My position is straightforward. The biblical writers do indeed describe a flat round earth...They wrote about the world this way because they lived at a time before knowledge of the natural world was sufficient to demonstrate otherwise. But I don’t believe the earth is really flat “because the Bible tells me so.” The knowledge the biblical writers had of their physical surroundings isn’t a truth proposition for biblical theology. Anyone who uses my work to prop up this idea without providing a disclaimer that I reject modern flat earth thinking is unprincipled and deliberately dishonest. [7]
The YEC analogue to the flat earther who takes the scholarly consensus on the ANE view of the world as proof the earth really is flat is arguably the position which seeks to read into the OT a modern cosmology, creating in the process a biblical-modern cosmogeography which violates both scripture and science. I was reminded of this yesterday when I encountered this slide from a fundamentalist presentation attempting to debunk the scholarly consensus on the firmament:

Of course the fundamental error behind this attempt at a biblical-modern cosmogeography is that it assumes without any justification that the Bible is going to reflect a modern concept of the world. Given that passages such as Job 26v11 "the pillars of heaven tremble, and are astounded at his rebuke" [8] when read literally teach a non-modern cosmology, any attempt to create a biblical-modern cosmology is dead in the water.

What strikes any disinterested reader when they see this slide is that the author has started with the conclusion - that the Bible must reflect a modern cosmology - and cherry-picked verses across the Bible that have no obvious relationship with each other and are taken out of context (the verses on the right come from prayer and wisdom literature so their use to construct a biblical-modern cosmology immediately suggests that the creator of the slide has committed eisegesis). It is entirely reasonable to expect that if the author wants to give us a coherent, consistent Biblical justification for his model, then the author would need to confine his supportive verses to a single passage or at the very least passages from a prose-narrative genre where the Biblical author is referring to a description of the earth.

Even the verses on the left, which come from the same passage betray evidence of considerable massaging in order to fit the conclusion. The author, without any justification invents two firmaments, a firmament called heaven (Gen 1:8) and a firmament of the heavens (Gen 1:18). The reason behind this multiplication of firmaments is to evade the fact that if one misinterprets raqia' as 'expanse' (the Hebrew word translated firmament in the AV which the CEB and NRSV correctly render as 'dome') then there is a huge problem in that as Gen 1:15 states, the sun, moon, and stars are in the firmament:

14 God said, “Let there be lights in the dome of the sky to separate the day from the night. They will mark events, sacred seasons, days, and years. 15 They will be lights in the dome of the sky to shine on the earth.” And that’s what happened. 16 God made the stars and two great lights: the larger light to rule over the day and the smaller light to rule over the night. 17 God put them in the dome of the sky to shine on the earth, 18 to rule over the day and over the night, and to separate the light from the darkness. God saw how good it was. (Emphasis mine) [9]
Keep in mind that Gen 1:6-8 informs us that the firmament separated waters above from waters below:
6 God said, “Let there be a dome in the middle of the waters to separate the waters from each other.” 7 God made the dome and separated the waters under the dome from the waters above the dome. And it happened in that way. 8 God named the dome Sky [10]
If this firmament was actually an atmospheric expanse separating clouds from ocean, then Gen 1:14-18 would teach that the sun, moon, and stars were in the atmosphere, something which even YECs acknowledge is impossible. In order to avoid this fatal blow to the biblical-modern cosmogeograpy, without any justification, a second firmament is created in Gen 1. As one can see from reading modern translations such as the CEB, the translators did not think there were two firmaments, but simply referred to the dome. (Gen 1:14 refers to the dome of the sky for the simply reason that in the preceding verse 8, the dome was named sky). Here, the mainstream view that the firmament is a solid entity separating waters above from waters below, in which were set the sun, moon, and stars is by far the more coherent explanation for the data.

Finally, if there were two firmaments, then we would expect to see clear reference to this in Ezekiel 1 which explicitly refers to the raqia':
22 The shape above the heads of the creatures was a dome; it was like glittering ice stretched out over their heads. 23 Just below the dome, their outstretched wings touched each other. They each also had two wings to cover their bodies. 24 Then I heard the sound of their wings when they moved forward. It was like the sound of mighty waters, like the sound of the Almighty,f like the sound of tumult or the sound of an army camp. When they stood still, their wings came to rest. 25 Then there was a sound from above the dome over their heads. They stood still, and their wings came to rest.
 26 Above the dome over their heads, there appeared something like lapis lazuli in the form of a throne. Above the form of the throne there was a form that looked like a human being. 27 Above what looked like his waist, I saw something like gleaming amber, something like fire enclosing it all around. Below what looked like his waist, I saw something that appeared to be fire. Its brightness shone all around. 28 Just as a rainbow lights up a cloud on a rainy day, so its brightness shone all around. This was how the form of the LORD’s glory appeared. When I saw it, I fell on my face. I heard the sound of someone speaking. [11]
Apart from the fact that the solidity of the firmament is clearly attested here, the absence of a second firmament neatly refutes the assertion that two firmaments exist in Gen 1. The model thus fails on Biblical grounds, and is clearly an example of distorting the Biblical data to salvage an attempt to read a modern conception of the Earth into the Bible.

Finally, the model fails on meteorological grounds. The 'firmament called heaven' according to this model exists to separate waters above (the clouds) from waters below (the ocean). As anyone with a nodding familiarity with meteorology would realise, clouds don't exist in a neatly defined layer, but extend from ground level (fog) to polar stratospheric clouds which are in the stratosphere approximately 20 km above ground level. In fact cumulonimbus clouds can extend from 200m to as high as 10km, occasionally even reaching 20,000 km.

Given that ground level clouds such as ocean fog are hovering over the ocean, the 'firmament called heaven' would appear not only to be doing a poor job of separating waters above from waters below but in this case be compressed out of existence altogether. When a model fails both biblical and scientific examination, it is fair to say that the only intellectually honest approach is to abandon it, stop trying to read science into the Bible, and read what the text in sociocultural context is actually saying.


Flat earthers, despite being utterly, irredeemably wrong have one thing over the class of YEC who try to read modern concepts of the world into an ancient text in that they are consistent with their literalism. Of course, their problem is that they think the biblical cosmogeography is prescriptive as well as descriptive, a view that places them in conflict with observed reality. YECs get the worst of both worlds in that they maintain their literalism selectively, asserting that despite the evidence, evolution is false and the earth young, but then abandoning their hermeneutic and insisting that despite what a plain reading of the Bible says, the Earth is spherical and has no solid sky. Needless to say, the special pleading and cherry-picking of the Biblical evidence required to defend the YEC view is considerable and undermines the integrity of their entire worldview.

Recognising that the Bible accommodates pre-modern cosmogeography without endorsing it, for the simple reason that it is more concerned with telling us who created the world, rather than when and how. Once more, the Bible teaches a theology of creation, not a science of creation.


1. Josiah Hessein "Flat Earthers keep the faith at Denver conference" The Guardian Sun 18th November 2018
2. ibid 
3. ibid
4. I have written extensively on this subject so will not repeat myself. It is fair to say that outside a tiny fundamentalist / confessional minority, OT scholarship recognises that the ancient Near Eastern concept of the world was radically different from ours, with belief in a solid sky (of varying geometries) normative. As OT scholar Peter Enns notes, "The solid nature of the raqia is well established. It is not the result of an anti-Christian conspiracy to find errors in the Bible, but the “solid” result of scholars doing their job. This does not mean that there can be no discussion or debate. But, to introduce a novel interpretation of raqia would require new evidence or at least a reconsideration of the evidence we have that would be compelling to those who do not have a vested religious interest in maintaining one view or another". See "The Firmament of Genesis 1 is Solid but That’s Not the Point" BioLogos Blog Jan 14 2010. (I am aware that a few Christadelphians have recently written against the scholarly consensus on the cosmogeography of the OT and ANE. As these authors are amateurs with zero professional training in the relevant scholarly disciplines, have self-published their works and have not submitted them as far as I am aware for professional peer review, these books can be dismissed without further examination.)5. John Calvin and John King, Commentary on the First Book of Moses Called Genesis, vol. 1 (Bellingham, WA: Logos Bible Software, 2010), 79.
6. ibid, p 79-80
7. Michael Heiser "Christians Who Believe the Earth is Really Flat — Does It Get Any Dumber Than This?" Naked Bible Feb 18 2016
8. Fundamentalists invariably appeal to Job 26v7 "He...hangs the earth upon nothing" to prove that the Bible was ahead of its time in describing the Earth suspended in space. Curiously, they fail to include verse 11 in their Biblical cosmogeography. This is yet another example of fundamentalist inconsistency in literalism.
Common English Bible (Nashville, TN: Common English Bible, 2011), Ge 1:14–18.
Common English Bible (Nashville, TN: Common English Bible, 2011), Ge 1:6–8.
Common English Bible (Nashville, TN: Common English Bible, 2011), Eze 1:22–28.