The Myth About the Flat Earth Myth

Image credit: https://www.dailydot.com/unclick/flat-earth-meme/

So apparently there are educated people who still believe the earth is flat. I wouldn’t normally waste time on such mindless drivel—except that it’s been getting a lot of press lately.

This week Elon Musk made history and launched the world’s most powerful rocket—on private funds no less. Yet most of what I saw online ignored the feat itself. Instead, photos of a spherical earth were used to mock flat-earth believers.

Is it just me, or is this a strange waste of news in 2018?

Maybe it was a poke at the handful of rich and famous who’ve recently come out as flat-earthers— celebrities like Tila Tequila, cricketer Freddie Flintoff, Kyrie Irving of the Boston Celtics, and rapper B.o.B.

Maybe some genuinely fear the Flat Earth Society is gaining new members.

“Apparently there are educated people who still believe the earth is flat.”

But I think there’s something else at play. Ditsy celebrities come and go, but the group perennially targeted with flat-earth jokes is one I belong to: Christians.

Countless times I’ve had my faith in the Bible likened to belief in a flat earth. The story being told by high-school textbooks, high-budget documentaries and high-profile atheists is that religion held us captive to flat earth myth until science came to the rescue.

“In church history you’ll find approximately two Christians who promoted a flat earth view.”

Told and retold, the tale goes something like this:

Defending the Bible, the church through history taught a flat earth, and it persecuted any scientist brave enough to disagree. Only when Christopher Columbus discovered America without sailing off the edge of the world did Christians finally concede the earth was a sphere.

But as it turns out, this story is the real flat earth myth. Time to consider some facts.

The Bible Doesn’t Teach It

Critics scoff that the Bible uses phrases like “the ends of the earth”. They say verses like Psalm 19:6 complete the picture of a flat geocentric earth, which says the sun “rises at one end of the heavens and makes its circuit to the other”.

Two problems. First, “ends of the earth” is a poetic phrase, not a geographical one. Any Hebrew scholar will tell you this is an idiom describing the furthest reaches of the inhabited world.

“Countless times I’ve had my faith in the Bible likened to belief in a flat earth.”

Second, while it’s scientifically wrong to say that the sun moves across the sky, even the most scientific among us do it. It’s called phenomenal language, and it’s a perfectly normal way of describing the world—so long as you’re not writing a science textbook.

What then does the Bible actually say about the earth’s shape? According to Isaiah 40:22, God sits enthroned above “the circle of the earth”. Admittedly, there’s poetry in this passage too. But it’s at least worth noting that circle here is the Hebrew word “khug” which also translates as sphere.

More curiously, Jesus spoke of his return as a momentary event, but describing that moment he said some people would be working during the day and others would be sleeping at night (Luke 17:34-35). That doesn’t work for a flat earth, but it does for a globe.

The Church Never Believed It

Dig up church history and you’ll find approximately two Christians who promoted a flat earth view—Lactantius (AD245-325) who was considered a heretic, and an obscure 6th-century monk called Cosmas Indicopleustes.

Through time and almost without exception, Christian theologians understood the planet to be spherical, as the sun or the moon appeared to be. The most influential theologian of the Middle Ages was Thomas Aquinas (1225-1274) who emphatically supported the views of physicists and astronomers that the earth was a sphere.

Image credit: https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Liuthar_Gospels

Emperor Otto III Enthroned, 10th century

Or consider the artwork of this era. At their coronation, Holy Roman emperors were routinely depicted holding an orb, symbolising their rule of the known world.

Even evolutionist-philosopher Stephen Jay Gould has acknowledged that “there never was a period of ‘flat earth darkness’ among scholars… all major medieval scholars accepted the earth’s roundness as an established fact of cosmology.”

Skeptics Invented It

I’m fascinated by the Spice Islands. I’ve lived there, and read the stories, and inhaled the scent that drew heady explorers to “the far side of the world”. But in all I’ve read about the Age of Discovery, this now-legendary tale of Columbus is nowhere to be seen.

Columbus was controversial, but for altogether different reasons. He knew other sailors were tapping into Indonesia’s spice by sailing around Africa. So he planned to find a shortcut the opposite way, sailing West. Think that through: he already knew the earth was round.

“In all I’ve read about the Age of Discovery, this now-legendary tale of Columbus is nowhere to be seen.”

Yes, church leaders warned him not to go. But their fear wasn’t him sailing off the edge. They feared his maps were wrong and that he’d run out of supplies before he got to Asia.

It turns out they were right. Heading West, Indonesia was four times further than Columbus calculated. Lucky for him and his crew there was an unknown continent called America in the way.

“Columbus planned to find a shortcut the opposite way by sailing West.”

He also found the “West Indies”. Have you ever wondered why we use the name Indies for islands in the Caribbean Sea? It’s because Columbus thought he’d arrived in the Orient. More evidence—in case you needed it—that early explorers knew they were sailing around a sphere.

If all this is true, where did the fake history come from?

Put simply, it was made up out of thin air in 1828. The famous American novelist Washington Irving (of Rip Van Winkle fame) created it to pad out his book, “The Life and Voyages of Christopher Columbus”.

“Columbus was controversial, but for altogether different reasons.”

Once the myth was entrenched in the public mind, two skeptics decided to give it a veneer of scholarship: in 1874, John William Draper and Andrew Dickson White included it in their so-called “History of the Conflict Between Religion and Science”.

And the rest is history. Or in this case, revised history.

Anyone Can See It

But we don’t even need a history lesson to find out what people of bygone ages knew about the shape of the earth. All we need is a bit of common sense.

Star constellations were visible to them in Africa that they couldn’t see in Europe. During a lunar eclipse, they saw the shadow of a curved earth move across the moon.

They saw the earth’s curvature at work when the hull of a ship sank below the horizon before its mast did. Climbing high on a cliff, they didn’t just see further because of better angles—they saw distant objects that were obscured at ground level by the horizon.

“We don’t need a history lesson to find out what people of bygone ages knew about the shape of the earth.”

Do you get it? Except for a few nuts on the fringe, the real myth never was that the earth is flat. The real myth, still believed today, is that the flat earth was a mainstream view advanced by the church.

Christianity and science aren’t at war. How can they be? Modern science was birthed out of a biblical worldview—in Christian Europe and nowhere else—and mostly by followers of Jesus.

“The real myth is that the flat earth was a mainstream view advanced by the church.”

So have a laugh at celebrities embarrassing themselves. Shake your head that something like the Flat Earth Society could still exist today. Read trashy news stories with a smirk.

But next time you’re the punchline of a flat-earth joke, be sure to set the record straight.

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2 comments

  1. James Krieg · March 5

    Hi Kurt, great article. What’s your take on the Copernican revolution and the claim that the church apparently opposed the idea that the earth revolved around the sun, but rather insisted that the earth was the centre of the universe?

    Like

    • kmahlburg · May 18

      Hey James, I might actually write a follow-up article on this one. Simply put, the church used some proof texts to oppose Copernican’s model, but at heart what they were really doing was trying to marry the Bible to Aristotle, and that was their downfall. The lesson from this is that we should be wary of getting too excited about any “modern” scientific theory and hanging our theology on it today, because it will probably change tomorrow anyway, while God’s Word will stand forever.

      Liked by 1 person

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