The Bible presents the world as a flat disc with a solid dome over it. Every biblical representation of the earth is consistent with this model, and there is no biblical material to the contrary. Apart from the study of general revelation, there would be no reason to doubt this. If you read the biblical text apart from any modern scientific assumptions, this becomes particularly clear.
1. The Solid Dome
God created a firmament (raqia) in the midst of the waters, dividing the waters from the waters, so that there are waters above and below this raqia (Genesis 1:6). This raqia appears to be a solid object, because it is that which divides the waters above from the waters beneath. If the raqia were not there, then the waters above would come pouring down. The raqia is called “heaven” which explains why Genesis 7:11 refers to water pouring out of the windows of heaven. At the flood, God opened the windows of heaven, and the waters above came pouring down. Yet as we will see, those waters are still there, which means that the raqia still holds back those waters.
In Genesis 1:14-18, God creates lights in the raqia of the heavens, suggesting that the sun, moon and stars are fixed in the raqia. On the other hand, in Genesis 1:20, God creates birds to fly “across the face” of the raqia of the heavens. Again, the picture is entirely consistent with the idea of a solid dome. The term “al-pene” is used consistently to refer to concrete entities. Since there is no concept of outer space or atmosphere in Scripture, it would be entirely foreign to the biblical world-view to conceive of the raqia as invisible “space.” The raqia is entirely visible (that blue thing up there), and is consistently portrayed as a solid object that covers the (flat) earth.
This raqia is described in several other passages of Scripture :
Exodus 24:10-“And they saw the God of Israel. And there was under His feet as it were a paved work of sapphire stone, and it was like the substance of heaven in its clarity.” (Literally, “as the bones of the heavens in purity.”) This suggests that Moses conceived of the raqia-named “heaven”-as a solid substance much like sapphire. And further, it is unlikely that such an analogy would develop if the people of God believed that the raqia was anything except a solid structure. (Incidentally, the LXX translated this “like the firmness of the heavens in purity”-stereoma means solid body or foundation, and can be used metaphorically to refer to something that is steadfast).
Job 37:18-“With Him, have you spread out the skies, strong as a cast metal mirror?” This is plainly demonstrates that the biblical authors thought of the skies-the heavens-as a solid object. Since the historical accounts in Genesis and Exodus provide solid ground for seeing the firmament as a solid object, these poetical references only bolster this conclusion. After all, if they conceived of the firmament as empty space, they would be unlikely to use images such as this in their poetry.
Psalm 104:2-“He lays the beams of His upper chambers in the waters” suggesting that the waters above the raqia are still far below God’s dwelling place.
Psalm 148:4-“Praise Him you heaven of heavens, and you waters above the heavens!” This plainly states that the waters above the heavens are still there. The flood did not exhaust them. They still give praise to the Lord.
Psalm 150:1-“Praise God in His sanctuary; Praise Him in the firmament of his power.” A parallel here is made between the Holy place and the firmament. Each is a dome under which God rules and is worshiped. The earthly sanctuary is a picture of the whole earth-and indeed of the heavenly sanctuary.
Isaiah 40:22-“It is He who sits above the circle of the earth, and its inhabitants are like grasshoppers, Who stretches out the heavens like a curtain, and spreads them out like a tent to dwell in.” Here the heavens are compared to a tent or a curtain-solid objects which cover a flat surface; the term circle is never used to describe a ball or globe. Indeed it is also used in
Proverbs 8:27: “When he prepared the heavens, I was there, when He drew a circle on the face of the deep, when He established the clouds above…when He marked out the foundations of the earth.”
Isaiah 44:24-“who stretches out the heavens all alone.”
Isaiah 45:12-“I-My hands-stretched out the heavens.”
Jeremiah 10:12-“And has stretched out the heavens at his discretion. When he utters His voice, there is a multitude of waters in the heavens.” Remember that the raqia is named “heaven.” Therefore when Isaiah and Jeremiah say that God has stretched out the heavens, they are referring to the raqia-and Jeremiah even suggests that there are waters in that raqia.
Ezekiel 1:22, 26-“The likeness of the firmament above the heads of the living creatures was like the color of an awesome crystal, stretched out over their heads…And above the firmament over their heads was the likeness of a throne, in appearance like a sapphire stone.” Here, referring back to the Exodus passage, the firmament is portrayed as a canopy above the living creatures above which is set the sapphire throne. God’s throne is at the summit of the raqia. God sits enthroned in the heavens (Ps. 2:4, 8:1, 57:5, 103:19, Is 40:22, Ps 150:1., etc.), as he sits on the dome of the heavens, ruling over all he has made. So when Psalm 8 says that God’s glory is set above the heavens, it is not referring to some distant place, light-years away, but to the pinnacle of the raqia (that blue thing up there that keeps all that water from destroying us), where God’s throne is.
Zechariah 12:1-“Thus says the Lord, who stretches out the heavens, lays the foundation of the earth, and forms the spirit of man within him.”
Revelation 4:1-John sees a door open in the heavens, and he goes up and sees a throne. Naturally this means that he is seeing God’s throne which sits at the pinnacle of the raqia. Sure enough, he is able to look down and see the sea of glass (4:6; cf. 15:2)–which you would expect to see if there was a solid raqia above the earth. Yet he can see through the sea of glass to see all that is happening on the earth.
From these passages it is clear that the biblical authors thought of the blue dome over the earth as a solid object. This was plainly the belief and teaching of the church from Moses through the middle ages-long after the realization that the earth was not flat.
2. The Flat Earth
The flatness of the earth is portrayed in several places. It is nowhere stated in a blunt fashion as is the solidness of the raqia, but it is clearly the assumption behind the descriptions in the following passages:
Genesis 1:6-10-After God created the raqia to separate the waters above from the waters below, he separates the dry ground from the waters below. There is no indication that this is a globe hanging in outer space. Instead, since the waters under the firmament are gathered together into one place, the picture is that under this dome there are two (and only two) environments: water and dry land. Earth, after all, is not the name of the planet. It is only the name of the dry ground.
Job 37:3-“He sends it forth under the whole heaven, His lightning to the ends [wing, extremity, corner] of the earth.”
Psalm 104:5-You who laid the foundations of the earth, so that it should not be moved forever, You covered it with the deep as with a garment; The waters stood above the mountains. At Your rebuke they fled; at the voice of Your thunder they hastened away.”
Isaiah 11:12-“And gather together the dispersed of Judah from the four corners of the earth.” (compare Ezekiel 7:2-the four corners of the land)
Revelation 7:1-“After these things I saw four angels standing at the four corners of the earth, holding the four winds of the earth.”
Job 9:6-“He shakes the earth out of its place, and its pillars tremble; He commands the sun, and it does not rise; He seals off the stars; He alone spreads out the heavens.”
Psalm 19:1,4-6-“The heavens declare the glory of God and the firmament shows His handiwork. Their line has gone out through all the earth, and their words to the end of the world. In them He has set a tabernacle for the sun, which is like a bridegroom coming out of his chamber, and rejoices like a strong man to run its race. Its rising is from one end of heaven, and its circuit to the other end; and there is nothing hidden from its heat.” (This language plainly indicates that the sun begins his day in one place and ends his day in another place.)
Joshua 10:13-14-“So the sun stood still in the midst of heaven, and did not hasten to go down for about a whole day.”
These passages are entirely consistent with the picture of a flat earth, and a literal reading of them would result in the belief that the earth is flat. Indeed, this was the belief of all people who read them until the study of general revelation indicated that the earth was round.
Another implication from these passages is the idea of geocentricity. The passages cited above plainly indicate that the earth does not move. This, after all, was the primary theological objection to Copernicus and Galileo-since they insisted that the sun was at the center of the solar system. The Roman Church was exegetically correct. Scripture does indeed present us with a geocentric picture of creation. The question is whether general revelation can cause us to question our exegesis.
The biblical authors present the earth as flat. Not one whit of special revelation indicates anything else. The language of foundations, pillars, corners, tents, and firmaments all indicate a flat earth with a solid dome over it. The history of biblical interpretation bears this out. The rabbis debated the thickness of the raqia, and Robert Grosseteste, as late as the 13th century claimed that it was the plain teaching of the scripture and the church that there was a solid dome above the earth (see Robert Letham’s article “‘In the Space of Six Days’: The Days of Creation from Origen to the Westminster Assembly”Westminster Theological Journal 61 (1999) 149-174). No one questioned the flatness of the earth until people studied general revelation. Few questioned the solid dome above the earth until Copernicus and Gallileo challenged the Ptolemaic system. In the former case, the scholars were pagans; in the latter case they were Christians. The study of general revelation caused biblical scholars to question whether they had properly understood special revelation. There were no exegetical grounds for believing in a round earth. Indeed, exegesis would seem to indicate that the earth is flat. Likewise, exegesis plainly indicates that there is a solid blue dome over the earth-but upon scientific investigation, we have discovered that this blue dome is caused by refraction of the sun’s light! The study of general revelation may indeed cause us to question whether our traditional exegesis is in fact what the Word of God demand that we believe. Anyone who denies this must believe that the earth is flat, does not move, and has a solid dome above it.
On the other hand, if we admit that the Bible uses figurative language, and recognize that the biblical authors were speaking in the terms of simple observation, there is no dilemma. I look up at the sky. It’s blue. What else is blue? Water. Oh, of course, there must be water up there! Therefore there must be a clear or blue, solid barrier which keeps the waters from drowning me. I walk around on the earth. I don’t fall off. In my everyday life I assume that the earth is flat. The sun rises and the sun sets. I’m not spinning around. I don’t get dizzy!
Why do we expect the biblical authors to have access to modern scientific information? Do we really think that science is that important? Do we really think that science matters so much that God HAD to reveal it to Moses, David, and the prophets? What they say is true–from a simple observational perspective. I refuse to elevate science into a canon of biblical interpretation. It may cause us to reconsider our traditional exegesis, but we should not let it force us to distort what the Scripture says.
Scripture calls us to see the earth as the center of the physical universe. Scripture calls us to see the earth as a flat surface with a solid dome over it. It turns out that these statements are figurative, but they are no less true because of it. The earth is the center of the physical universe not in a physical sense, but in a spiritual sense. As a picture of heaven, it points to the centrality of heaven in the totality of reality. Likewise, we are to understand that there is a solid dome over the earth that protects us from the waters of chaos and destruction. Every time we see a rainbow we are to remember this. The rainbow-like the firmament-is a symbol of God’s power in protecting his people. If it turns out that the blue dome above us is not literally solid, that does not shake our confidence that God put it there to remind us that he is the one who pours out wrath and blessing. Every time we see it we are to remember his mercy and power.