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For the World is Hollow, and I Have Touched the Sky, part 2

October 31, 2011

“The Ascension never happened. It was not an historical event. If a tourist with a handicam had been present at Bethany they would have recorded absolutely nothing.”

So begins a dominical homily entitled “Taking leave of the three-tiered universe,” which at least one Kiwi vicar deemed a fitting exhortation for Ascension Sunday. Clerical garb notwithstanding, he might be suspected of landing in the wrong career. What you want to bet he had our celebrated line drawing of the “three-tiered universe” in one of his text books early on? I did as well, in tenth grade. He seems to have swallowed it whole, however, and so has been led to a logical conclusion: Jesus’ ascension is a myth. (I wonder what he thinks of Yuri Gagarin.)

Could be, if the diagram is imprinted on your mind first, and you take it as authoritative, and not as the brainchild of feverish imagination, fueled by a heaping dose of chronological bigotry, you might look at the verses we are about to consider as confirmation of the whole schema. Work the other way around, and try to produce it from the actual data, and I submit you’ll find it nowhere in any passage or in the aggregate.

In the list below, we will soon find an over-representation of material from visionary experiences and image-heavy poetic texts. I.e. not the first places to go for concrete descriptions of the physical cosmos. Ignore the genre and setting of the passage and, yes, you might arrive at an erroneous conclusion.

In regard to the three tiers, with verse one of the Bible two regions are distinguished: heaven and earth–or the sky and the ground. The sky, heaven, i.e. that which is not the earth is indeed associated with the domain of God, and His holy angels. And it’s more than merely association, as the ascension does in fact demonstrate (Luke 24:51; Acts 1:9). How it all works, who can say? Any direction away from the center of the earth is “up.” Does the earth have to be lined up a certain way to point to God’s heaven? We don’t particularly think of it as actually spacial, even as we employ the spacial metaphor. And I don’t see any reason the ancients were any different, except you can treat them as being infantile in their thinking, since they are not here to defend themselves.

Give the ancients credit for having a little sophistication about the thing though:

But will God indeed dwell on the earth? Behold, heaven and the highest heaven cannot contain you; how much less this house that I have built!(1 Kings 8:27)

So we see Jesus, quite literally, rising up, when ascending to the Father. Did he need to do this? Who knows? But He did. And we have the same upstairs downstairs theme in visionary revelation of otherwise invisible spiritual realities: Gen. 28:12, 17: is the a vision of Jacob’s “ladder.” In Rev. 5:3 there is a door opened through which John, in the vision, accesses a heavenly throne room. And verse 13 actually refers to heaven, earth, under the earth, and the sea. That makes four, of course, not three. And we don’t need the TTU drawing to see this listing is intended to cover the entirety of the cosmos. But again, this is within a vision. Manifestation of spiritual entities in corporeal form, with surrounding environments in the form of physical objects is questionable evidence for the form of the physical cosmos.

Phil. 2:10 is not visionary, but it is an eschatological context, and we do believe that the dead will “rise” from their burial places in the earth, unless you’re a vicar, perhaps. And again, spiritual conception, as of angels in heaven, and possibly “fallen” angels, if this be the “under the earth” reference are depicted according to their respective realms. Whether spirits have knees, in the ancient people’s conception is open to question. But even if spiritual realities are spoken of by this language, it is hard to employ this for an understanding of physical cosmology.

Ex. 20:4: it is difficult to understand why this is included here. The sky is indeed above the earth, the earth is below the sky, and the sea is lower than the land. The text is forbidding idols in the shape of birds, beasts and fish. Where exactly is the ancient cosmology?

Luke 16:19-31 is a parable, also eschatological, at least in terms of the place of the departed dead. It nowhere says where this happens, however. It does say the rich man “lifted up his eyes.” But this is not an indication of looking upward, into the sky, unless it specifies this direction. It simply means to direct one’s eyes (Gen 33;5; 43:29, Ezek 8:5.

Yes, there is a persistent spacial metaphor, dealing with realms of spirit in language of verticality–and more than mere metaphor, as Christ’s ascention and His promised return “in the clouds” makes clear. What the objective reality may be, we are hardly better able to elucidate today than in ancient times–and certainly not due to the advance in science, nor the mapping of the globe.

There are more things in heaven and earth, Horatio,

Than are dreamt of in your philosophy.

Yet to concoct the detailed dreamland depicted in the line drawings from these kind of expressions is like extrapolating a dragon from a single fossilized femur. And the fanciful features of this imagined model will prove to be a product of modern myth-making–so far may they be derived from any propositions of Scripture.

Solid dome over the earth?

This notion derives, I think from the Hebrew word raqia’, introduced in Gen. 1:6, and rendered in Latin firmamentum, giving us our traditional English firmament. No clause in the text identifies the sky as solid. We merely have the etymology of the word, from the verb RQ’ meaning to “beat out, spread.” Etymology, as someone has said, is not ontology.

We do have an instance where the word is used–not of the sky at all–but of a small dome, albeit in a vision (Ezek 1:22-26). Elsewhere, the word seems to be a synonym for shamayim, the more usual word for “heaven” or “sky.” (See some discussion about it here.)

Old Testament scholar Gleason Archer insists: “The term raqia’ does not mean a beaten-out metal canopy, as some writers have alleged–no ancient culture ever taught such a notion in its concept of the sky–but simply means “a stretched-out expanse.” Several translations, such as the ESV, render it “expanse.”

I suspect this is just another instance of the etymological fallacy at work however. Whatever the derivation of this word, it refers to the sky. A word’s etymology, often an extended meaning from another usage, really serves as a kind of mnemonic to tie this form with that meaning. “Dome” is an appropriate designation for the sky because this is the aspect it presents to us, as real, at least, as the “fact” that it is blue. This appearance is particularly true at night, where on close observation of the stars, the track they inscribe, an arc, is smaller as you look to the north, and also to the south, than it is in between. Indeed, to set up an artificial duplication of the night sky you need a room with a domed ceiling–a planetarium. To refer to the sky by a word “meaning” dome is neither a manifestation of cosmological naivete, nor an indication that one believes it to me solid.

More than mere appearance, however, we do have, in “objective” reality a dome-shaped structure over our heads, a “sphere” of which we perceive approximately half. Even in the 21st century we refer to “spheres” of all kinds surrounding the earth, atmosphere, stratosphere, hydrosphere, etc. Modern astronomy employs a celestial sphere as an orientation device, an imaginary structure, just as real as the equator and the meridians. And though a sphere is a type of “solid” we scarcely think of our “spheres” as solid.

So Gen. 1:6-8, 20 simply uses the word raqia’ without asserting solidity. It’s the sky.

Ex. 24:10 is also an odd choice. Here is another vision: God manifest, evidently in human form, and under his feet is pavement “as clear as the sky.”

We have a lot of poetic passages, some referring to God stretching out the sky “as a tent” (a simile, i.e. not meant literally) or the sky as circular (see above), but none of these indicate the sky is actually solid: Ps. 104:2; Isa. 40:22; Prov. 8:27-28; Isa. 45:12; 51:13-14; Jer. 10:12; 51:15.

Isa. 34:4; Amos 9:7; Rev. 6:13-14 refer to the heavens “rolling up like a scroll,” once again imagery and in eschatological settings, the former poetic prophecy, the latter a visionary experience, not observation of any natural order.

Psa. 19:4-6 does contain a reference, in poetic imagery to the sun following a circuit across the sky. Now, I sure, I suspect, if asked the psalmist would understand the sun to revolve around the earth, but this hymnic imagery does not assert geocentricity any more than our saying sunrise and sunset does, or the hymn Great is Thy Faithfulness (composed 1923!) does by the line “Sun, moon and stars in their courses above.”

Besides, similar to what I mentioned in regard to the stars, I’d like to point out that though the earth revolves around the sun, from the observer’s perspecive on the earth the visible disc of the sun really does inscribe an arc across the sky–sky itself being is a phenomenological term–due to the motion of the earth on which we ride. The sun becomes visible at 0 degrees, then 10, then 20, then 30 and so on until we see it at 90 degrees, zenith is the scientific term. Then in the other direction we can follow its position through the degrees, descending down to 0 again, all of which mathematically we can describe as an arc.

This leaves us with two from Job: Job 22:14 and Job 37:18; image-heavy poetry and in the mouths of two unreliable speakers, Eliphaz and Elihu respectively. The latter is worth note because in this one place the ESV does give an interesting rendering, which might support the solid sky idea, the only place we have a significant hint of it:

“Can you, like him, spread out the skies, hard as a cast metal mirror?”

The language of this verse is obscure, as Job frequently is, and contains a hapax here rendered “mirror.” It might mean “appearance,” which is how some Greek version seems to take it. The word “strong” is interpreted by the ESV and others as “hard” is “strong.” The NCV, for one, renders the verse “you make it look as hard as polished bronze.” At any rate, it is quoted speech, not endorsed by the narrator, the speaker is noted to be a faulty counselor, later rebuked by the voice of God. The tone is sarcastic, and the specifics counter-factual: Job did not can not effect creation like God. Suffice it to say, there are multiple strikes against this verse representing a solid sky as the Bible’s standard cosmology.

Conclusion: dome shape, yes, as both we and they perceive it, and conceive the celestial hemisphere above us. Solid no–certainly not as far as any Scriptural assertion tells us.

“Floodgates” in firmament?

With the sky being a solid dome and a celestial sea above it, rain is understood to be caused by the opening and closing of portals in the dome. Is this asserted somewhere in the Scriptures. Since the sold sky itself is not, what is the evidence for such so-called “floodgates” of heaven?

Such an expression occurs twice in the flood account: Gen. 7:11 and 8:2, respectively opening and closing of something called aruboth hashshamayim, “windows of heaven” (as well as “fountains of the deep”), corresponding to which the forty-day rain begins and ends. Is it reasonable to infer from these mentions a cosmology that has rain sourced in physical openings in a solid sky?

First, let us observe that the flood story is not narrating the event of a routine rain shower. The events described are in every way extra-normal.

Second, the expression is not frequent, but in two other cases appears to be a metaphorical reference to extraordinary divine activity beyond normal providence:

In 2 Kings 7:2, 19, a man uses the expression in an incredulous reaction to a miracle predicted by Elisha:

Then the captain on whose hand the king leaned said to the man of God, “If the LORD himself should make windows in heaven, could this thing be?” (v. 2)

In Mal. 3:10 the expression is a metaphor for abundant blessing:

Bring the full tithe into the storehouse, that there may be food in my house. And thereby put me to the test, says the LORD of hosts, if I will not open the windows of heaven for you and pour down for you a blessing until there is no more need.

(Malachi 3:10)

Third, we do find a similar expression used in connection with rain. Here though we can see both (a)opening and closing have to do with extranormal divine activity, and (b) rain is clearly sourced in clouds. The context is the event summarized by James:

Elijah was a man with a nature like ours, and he prayed fervently that it might not rain, and for three years and six months it did not rain on the earth. (James 5:17)

God’s miraculous stopping of the normal rain cycle as judgment and later resuming that cycle are what are referred to as opening and closing of heaven:

then the anger of the LORD will be kindled against you, and he will shut up the heavens, so that there will be no rain, and the land will yield no fruit, and you will perish quickly off the good land that the LORD is giving you. (Deuteronomy 11:17)

When heaven is shut up and there is no rain because they have sinned against you… (1 Kings 8:35)

The LORD will open to you his good treasury, the heavens, to give the rain to your land in its season and to bless all the work of your hands. And you shall lend to many nations, but you shall not borrow.

(Deuteronomy 28:12)

And he said to his servant, “Go up now, look toward the sea.” And he went up and looked and said, “There is nothing.” And he said, “Go again,” seven times. And at the seventh time he said, “Behold, a little cloud like a man’s hand is rising from the sea.” And he said, “Go up, say to Ahab, ‘Prepare your chariot and go down, lest the rain stop you.’” And in a little while the heavens grew black with clouds and wind, and there was a great rain. (1 Kings 18:43-45)

There is no evidence in the text of Scripture that “windows of heaven” are understood as a concrete detail in the physical cosmology, the mecanism by which rain is produced. Quite the contrary, we see the expression employed in reference to a supernormal act of divine power disrupting the routine of normal providence.

Stars embedded in the firmament?

Four verses are adduced for this assertion, none of which refer to stars being embedded in the firmament. Two describe events in visionary experiences Dan. 8:10 and Rev. 6:13, not in the physical world. The other two are similar eschatological judgment imagery Isa. 34:4 and Matt. 24:29.

Pillars supporting earth and sky?

Every cited source for this idea is an image-heavy poetic passage. Pillars of the earth: Psa. 75:3; 104:5; Job 38:4-6; 26:6; 1 Sam. 2:8; 2 Sam 22:16; Zech. 12:1; Prov. 8:29; and pillars of heaven: Job 26:11; 2Sam. 22:8; Isa. 13:13; Joel 2:10.

Even a cursory glance at the context of all of these examples ought to dismiss any notion that the description is being offered as a concrete reality of the cosmos. The imagery is of God as a wise and skilful builder, who built, as Jesus later said, upon a rock and not upon shifting sand (Matt 7:24-27). The earth therefore is stable, not flimsy, established with the Lord’s strength.

We see the image also ascribed to “wisdom”:

Wisdom has built her house; she has hewn her seven pillars. (Proverbs 9:1 ESV)

Nowhere in a narrative or historic passage do we find an assertion to the physical existence of pillars supporting either earth or sky. No statement of Scripture even hints that any author supposed such a structure as depicted in the illustration of the “three-tiered universe.” What are the pillars themselves supposed to be standing on? Where are the turtles when you need them?

Watery abyss below the earth?

It is difficult to see how any of the cited verses support the assertion:

In Gen. 49:25, the sky is said to be “above,” which it is; the sea or “deep” below, which it is, both below the sky and below the level of the land–which is “above sea level.” Here the text is referring to “blessings” from these sources, i.e. rain and fish, respectively. There is no reason to imagine a cosmological body of water directly underneath the land. That is not what the verse says.

Psa. 24:1-2 refers to no “abyss” but to seas and rivers. It describes the Lord as “founding” the land on these. Apparently this is a poetic reference to God’s separation of dry land from water in Gen. 1:9-10, as is Psalm 136:6.

(Dan. 33:13 does not exist.)

Immovable earth?

Here we have reference to the permanence or stability of the earth, as we have seen in the section on pillars. It is true that these verses (1 Chron. 16:30; Psa. 75:3; 93:1; 96:10; 104:5) have been missapplied in the past to argue for the Ptolemaic model against the Coppernican, but they were never about any regular celestial motion of the planet earth. These verses do not say the planet does not move, but that the earth will never “be moved,” that is displaced or disrupted, because God has established its stability. Ps. 75:3 in particular makes clear the kind of movement the text is referring to “tottering.” There was never anything relevant in these verses to the earth orbiting or not, or any schema of cosmology.


Here is an interesting bit from a bald piece of theatrical propaganda entitled Inherit the Wind. Incidentally, I acted in this play, in the part of Bert Cates (the fictionalized Scopes, who was tried for teaching evolution). In the courtroom drama, loosely based on the actual Scopes trial, Drummond (Darrow) thinks he has a gotcha for Brady (Bryan):

“…they must’ve had a notion that the sun moves around the earth. Think that’s the way of things? Or don’t you believe the earth moves around the sun?”

If you’ve ever read or seen this play, have you ever noticed how Drummond actually reponds (better than Brady does, and albeit unwittingly) to his own question, when speaking in an entirely different context, though again trying to express superiority Drummond:

“All motion is relative. Perhaps it is you who have moved away — by standing still.”

Now let’s stipulate that against the reference point of the galaxy, the earth and the other planets orbit the star we call our sun. But if indeed “all motion is relative,” from the reference point of the earth, it is just as factual to describe the sun and the rest of the universe moving circularly around the earth. There’s no factual error in describing the relative motion of the earth and the sun in this way, although this is hardly a reason to say the earth is the center of the universe.

Could I also point at here that Coppernicus and Galileo erred here as well. The sun is hardly the center of the universe, merely of this solar system.

Now, whether any individual in history understood the relative position and movement of the earth and the sun as we do today, references to sunrise and sunset are no indication of what the speaker understands about astronomy, nor are they an affirmation of geocentricity, whoever makes the reference. The reasons are two:

(a) obviously these expressions are conventional language, and yes, the priniciple behind them can be described as “phenomenological language.” This does not mean speaking in a way that is false but appears to be true. It means basing the meaning of the vocabulary on perception rather than a conceptualization from an outside point of view. Thus we refer to the “sky,” which is a real thing, but is structured as such only as an object of perception. From an objective outside point of view–apart from the perceptor–the relationship of entities which perceptually comprised the “sky” is very different, and entails vast distances.

(b) second, to the viewer on the surface of the earth, the position of the sun does change over time. It is first at zero degrees elevation and is later at ninety degrees, i.e. overhead. This is rightly described as rising.

Thus all the following passages refer to sunrise and sunset, and none assert thereby geocentricity: Psa. 19:4-6; 50:1; Ecc. 1:5; Matt. 5:45.

Psalm 19:5 refers also to the sun’s “course.” Again, while we may like to insist, the sun’s “path” is “apparent,” but it is valid perceptual reality, which is used even in modern astronomy.

Josh. 10:13 is a classic canard, being a text that does not assert the sun moves but does say that it stopped. What took place in this reference miracle we are in no position to determine, but just as the reference to the sun’s motion and course, based on an earth-based observer’s point of view, is perfectly valid, reference to the disruption of this state can rightly be described as stopping.

As this installment is quite long enough at this point, it. looks as if we are in for a part three. So, to coin a phrase: “To be continued.”

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