As I have previously discussed, belief that the earth is flat has rapidly grown of late, largely through dissemination via countless Internet sites and the influence of social media. Unfortunately, many Christians have fallen prey to this, misled into believing that the Bible teaches the earth is flat and that, until five centuries ago, the church likewise taught that the earth is flat. In this article, I will examine many of the biblical passages that supposedly teach that the earth is flat, and I will show that in fact they do not. But before doing so, I must respond to two false assumptions mentioned above—that the church historically taught that the earth is flat and that this changed 500 years ago.
As the medieval scholar Geoffrey Burton Russell ably demonstrated, contrary to common misconception, the medieval church did not teach that the earth was flat. Thomas Aquinas introduced Aristotelian thought into medieval church teaching. Writing in the fourth century BC, Aristotle clearly taught that the earth was spherical. In the early second century BC, Eratosthenes accurately measured the circumference of the spherical earth. Claudius Ptolemy’s Almagest, from the early second century AD, provided a useful model for calculating the positions of heavenly bodies. While this model was geocentric, it did not promote a flat earth, but instead was based upon a spherical earth. The works of Aristotle, Eratosthenes, and Ptolemy were all widely available and discussed in the late medieval period, and continued to be through the transition to the Renaissance. Given the clear record of history, why is it so commonly believed today that most people, and especially the church, thought that the earth was flat?
GIVEN THE CLEAR RECORD OF HISTORY, WHY IS IT SO COMMONLY BELIEVED TODAY THAT MOST PEOPLE, AND ESPECIALLY THE CHURCH, THOUGHT THAT THE EARTH WAS FLAT?
This misconception is easily traced to the writings of two late nineteenth-century skeptics, John William Draper and Andrew Dickson White, who invented the conflict thesis. The conflict thesis holds that religion in general, and Christianity in particular, held back progress. The contention of the conflict thesis was that medieval Europe was gripped with superstition (Christianity) that prevented intellectual advancement, and it was only after man’s reason reasserted itself during the Renaissance that man slowly became unshackled from religious dogma, bringing about the Enlightenment. It is true that four centuries ago the Roman Catholic Church opposed Galileo’s teaching of the heliocentric theory. According to the conflict thesis, it was the alleged geocentric teaching of the Bible that caused the Roman Catholic Church to oppose Galileo. However, the historical record demonstrates that it was the teachings of Aristotle and Ptolemy that played the major role in that conflict.2 That is, the Galileo affair was a battle between two scientific theories—geocentrism and heliocentrism—with the Bible playing a very minor role. Hence, the conflict thesis reinterpreted the Galileo affair into something that it was not.
The promoters of the conflict thesis also retold the story of Christopher Columbus. Most people today persist in the belief that at the time of Columbus, nearly everyone thought that the earth was flat. According to the story, Columbus was one of the few people who thought the earth was spherical, and he understood that on a spherical earth one could sail westward from Europe to reach India and China. Supposedly, Columbus had to argue against strong objections coming from those who thought that the earth was flat to get support for his expedition. Finally, according to the story, Columbus managed to complete a voyage to the New World, and when he returned to Europe, people realized that Columbus was right—the world was round and not flat. Really? How did sailing from Europe to the Caribbean and back to Europe prove that the world was spherical? It didn’t. The truth is that no one told Columbus he could not reach the Far East by sailing west. Everyone knew that it was possible, because everyone knew that the earth was spherical. The problem was that the earth was very large. Most people understood that the distance westward from Europe to the Far East was far greater than going eastward (a look at any globe proves this). The question was not how possible it was to reach Asia by going westward, but rather how feasible it was. The belief was that the ocean between Europe and Asia was vast, with little or no land in between. At the time of Columbus, voyages over open water were very risky, and ships rarely sailed more than three days out of the sight of land. A voyage westward across the ocean to Asia would have required months, with no opportunity for resupply or rescue along the way if problems developed.
The facts of history refute the commonly held story about Christopher Columbus. Much of the work supporting a flat earth today uncritically repeats and builds upon this false view. The flat earth movement began in the mid-nineteenth century, the same time that the conflict thesis was being developed. While the skeptics were ridiculing the Bible for allegedly teaching that the earth is flat, early flat-earthers foolishly accepted this false claim. Undoubtedly, the recent surge of interest in the flat earth among Christians has been fueled by the (false) belief that the Bible teaches that the earth is flat. Those who have enlisted in the flat-earth movement of late apparently are ignorant of the fact that those who promoted the conflict thesis made the same arguments to discredit the Bible. This could be ironic, or perhaps it is not. It is possible that certain people promoting the flat-earth today are doing so to discredit the Bible and Christianity all over again. If so, then Christians who have been misled into believing that the earth is flat have foolishly fallen into the trap. Let us examine the Scriptures to see what they say. We shall find that promoters of the flat earth do not handle them any better than they handle history.
Does the Bible Teach that the Earth has an Edge?
Nearly everyone understands that a sphere does not have an edge. Indeed, we can travel indefinitely around a sphere and never reach a boundary or edge. On the other hand, if the earth is flat, it must have an edge somewhere, unless the earth is an infinite plane. However, few people today suggest the latter, and no one in the ancient world did. Bible skeptics are fond of pointing out that the phrase “four corners of the earth” appears three times in the Bible. Surely, the skeptics claim, this must refer to a flat, square earth—thus proving that the Bible teaches a flat earth. At the very least, they reason, this shows that the Bible writers believed one of the flat earth cosmologies of the ancient world, thus proving that the Bible is not inspired, but that the people who wrote the Bible merely reflected the worldview of their times. There are some examples of flat earth cosmologies from the ancient world, but they always consisted of a flat, round earth. A circle was considered a much more perfect shape than a square, so none of the ancient flat earth cosmologies involve a square earth. If a square flat earth were the cosmology of the Bible, then it would have been at odds with every other ancient flat earth cosmology. Therefore, this attempt by the skeptics to claim that the Bible teaches a flat earth does not square (pun intended) with the facts of history.