Commentary on "The Flat Earth Bible"
by Donald E. Simanek

Bob Schadewald's document generates occasional email responses from Christians who apparently find it challenging to their view of the Bible. For a long while I was puzzled why they should find it disturbing, to the point that they wrote long diatribes trying to argue why Bob's essay was misguided or mistaken.

Usually they totally misunderstood the reason for the article, and misrepented Bob's purpose.

  • Some thought Bob was actually arguing for the flat earth, and using Biblical "authority" to prove it. That was certainly not Bob's intent.
  • Some tried to show that the Biblical references Bob cited did not really mean to say the earth was flat.
  • Some cited other verses which they claimed clearly say that the earth is spherical.
Here's a typical example, from an actual email:

First and foremost: Daniel 4:10-11  the huge tree
If you actually read ALL of chapter 4 you will soon realize that this tree is in a DREAM, not in the real world.  So why is it so hard to imagine a pre-Galilleo world having dreams about an inaccurate science?  God didn't say "this is how it is".  Rather a human had a dream.  I have dreams about flying all the time but I don't have wings and I certainly will never fly by myself.

Actually the bible talks about the earth and its true shape: Isaiah 40:22 " [22] It is he that sitteth upon the circle of the earth, and the inhabitants thereof are as grasshoppers; that stretcheth out the heavens as a curtain, and spreadeth them out as a tent to dwell in." Please note that the book of Isaiah was written MANY years before Galileo.  You will find that when you read the bible and actually pay attention to it—you learn some new things that might just alter the way you look at the world.

Is the bible infallable? Yes. Are there any inconsistencies? None that have been found yet. Is the earth immovable as the bible says in Psalms? Not anymore. If you read further on in chapter 93 you will see that the flood came AFTER the earth was made. After the flood the earth had earthquakes but not before. This is just a simple error in your world view. You probably don't believe that the earth was created in 6 days so that is what throws off your interpretation of Psalms.

Just thought I would set you straight about the bible. Let me know if you have any questions.

Isn't that helpful? I can't fail to detect an underlying tone of superiority and condescention (the "I know the truth, so let me educate you and set you straight" kind). Of course these short paragraphs demonstrate that the fellow is a creationist, who believes that before the flood everything was perfect, the laws of physics as we know them do not apply, the laws of thermodynamics did not operate, so nothing ever wore out or ran down, and the earth was fixed and immobile. Only after the "fall of man" did things start to go to wrack and ruin.

He brings up the "grashopper" verse of Isaiah 10:22, even though Bob had already done so and had conclusively showed that the verse does not imply sphericity. This fellow does not read very carefully. It's curious that he consistently did not capatilize the word "Bible" yet he does capitalize "Psalms". Both are titles of books, which require capitalization.

It's unclear what point he's making about the "grashopper" verse. He seems on one hand to say that "circle" here means "sphere" (which point Bob already addressed and demolished). But then he undoes himself by saying this was only Isaiah's dream and isn't a description of the way things really are. Nice to have it both ways.

Then he reveals clearly what's bugging him. He believes the Bible is infallible. Apparently he does not believe the earth is flat. Therefore if the Bible seems to say the earth is flat (and never says it's spherical) we must be interpreting it wrongly.

These folks are troubled when anyone interprets the Bible in a way which reaches conclusions they don't accept. People who believe the earth is flat, and people who believe the earth is hollow, both use the Bible to support their views. Geocentrists do also. Perpetual motion machine inventors have even quoted Biblical verses they claim supports their beliefs.

Bob Schadewald was making several points in his essay. Bob was well informed about "creation-science" advocates who are opposed to the theory of evolution. Their fundamental reason for this view is their literal acceptance of the creation account in Genesis. In their view a "day" of creation means a 24-hour solar day of the same length as our day today. Creationists used to accept the 4000 year age of the world as derived from Biblical sources by James Ussher and John Lightfoot, but now are willing to accept an age of maybe 10,000 years, but no more.

Bob was showing that if you take a literal view of the Bible, you'd have to also accept a geocentric solar system and a flat earth, for those ideas are just as well-founded in the Bible. Of course that annoys creationists who don't happen to believe the earth is fixed and unmoving, and flat.

My email correspondent engages in still more apologetics to defend the inerrancy of the Bible. He supposes that the earth was initially created as fixed and unmoving, but later God changed that, and a lot of other things as well.

Bob's essay stands quite well on its own, and doesn't need further commentary or defense. That is why I generally ignore such emails, for I learned long ago the futility of trying to have rational discourse with those who filter everything they read or hear through their own rigid belief system. Attempting to have a serious discussion with such minds is like juggling eels or shoveling feathers. They define words in their own way to suit their own purposes, shift the argument when it gets uncomfortable, and concoct the most incredible rationales to shore up their belief system.

Sometimes someone asks what Bob's purpose was for writing this essay. From discussions of these matters with Bob, I know that this grew out of his long term observations of the ways people construct belief systems. He was a scholar of such historical themes as belief in the flat earth, the hollow earth, creationism and perpetual motion. All of these have common characteristics: absolute belief in a world-view, selecting evidence to fit that view while ignoring evidence that doesn't, using debater's tactics against opponents, often unscrupulously. Theirs is not a search for truth, for they imagine they already know the revealed truth. They are not engaging in science, though they loudly claim their arguments to be "scientific". And, almost without exception, believers in these pseudoscientific notions base their ideas on their own interpretation of the Bible. The creationists and "intelligent design" advocates of today are cut from the same mould. So it is not surprising that Bob wrote essays exposing these parallels. Several of these are on my web page, with Bob's permission. A book of Bob's essays on these subjects was published in 2008, titled Worlds of Their Own.

Update, July 2010.

The essay still generates responses. The latest is typical:

In not one place does the bible say 'the earth is flat.' If that is what they believed they would have just stated it like they did in the Quran. But you post every scripture you could think of to read flat into when it doesn't say flat. But strangely it does actually say the earth is both 'a circle' and 'floats upon nothing.' Those are curious statements from people who believed the earth was sitting on the backs of elephants in those days don't you think? So re-read the same scriptures with the knowledge that nowhere do they say the earth is flat and the knowledge that they do emphatically say the earth is round and rewrite your article. Or...let's do it this way, post a verse from the bible that says, 'the earth is flat." If that was their belief then all the eloquence they used to state the obvious is useless. Why were they beating around the bush instead of just repeating the accepted theory of their time and that is "the earth is flat"? It's because they never said the earth is flat but rather DID say it is round. You are saying they said the earth is flat, not them.

I replied:

This morning I received two emails from you. I don't care to prolong a fruitless discussion, but do wish to correct some assumptions you made.

I did not write the article about the "Flat Earth Bible", so addressing your complaints to me is a waste of time. The article clearly says it was written by Bob Schadewald (1943 - 2000) , and is one of several of Bob's articles that he kindly gave me permission to place on my web site (since he had no web site of his own, and didn't care to have one.) Bob passed away in 2000, and is therefore not available to respond to your complaints.

You can find out more about Bob at this page, and there's a link to more about him. As he was a friend of mine, I can tell you that he researched his articles thoroughly, and discussed the Flat Earth one with various religious friends, including religious scholars of several religions. Bob consulted original sources, and could translate the original languages of the Biblical documents. He was very familiar with the usual apologetics, and in his article he answered them, as you would nave noticed, had you read it carefully. The "grasshopper" passage is very commonly cited, and Bob addressed that in his article, so your citing of it is irrelevant.

Bob had no emotional commitment to any position regarding what the Bible says about the flat earth. His concern was with those religious folks who seem to think the Bible is something special--and have the curious conviction that their particular literal interpretation of the Bible is the sacred word of God.

You aren't the first to impose upon me the old hoary arguments in defense of some literal Biblical interpretation. I often respond to them with questions:

Would you be outraged if someone told you that the Egyptians and Babylonians believed the Earth was flat? No one ever has complained to me about that historical fact being stated. Why should the ancient Hebrews (their neighbors) be an exception? Where is the evidence that they even suspected that the Earth was round? Certainly not in the Bible. It doesn't say that clearly, or even hint at it. Where is the evidence that these people developed any observational astronomy (as the Greeks had) or invented the mathematics to draw conclusions about the shape and size of the Earth? There is none. So far as I can see, this wasn't a question that they investigated, or were seriously interested in. Do we expect scientific insight from a people who assumed that the value of p was 3, as the Bible says? (No, I don't want to discuss that one, for I've seen all the foolish apologetic arguments already.)

If the Bible really is the "word of God", then why didn't this supposedly all-powerful God make it clear, accurate and unambiguous? Sure the folks in pre-scientific cultures wouldn't have understood passages relating to scientific matters, but if the Bible survived (as it did) then eventually people would understand it correctly. Or didn't God care whether future generations of humankind would understand it? Why would God use a word (which we translated to "round", but could mean "circle", "orb", "circumscribed region" or "neighborhood") when there were more specific words available. "Round" can refer to a round, flat, pancake, and doesn't necessarily mean spherical or near-spherical. Where was this all powerful God when his "word" was being assembled into the Bible, and later when it was being translated into other languages? Had he lost interest in the project, unconcerned about preserving its exact meaning?

All the evidence from the Bible and from science suggests that if there is a god who "created" the world and "wrote" the Bible, it is a god who just doesn't give a damn anymore! Maybe he realized he botched the whole project, and has gone off somewhere to do other things.Or maybe he just got bored with the outcome (for, being omnicient, he knew the outcome all along). But wait, if he was all-powerful and omnicient he could have avoided mistakes. I guess that we must conclude he didn't give a damn all along. I can sympathize with that view.

From the same correspondent came this afterthought:

"It is he that sitteth upon the CIRCLE* of the earth, and the inhabitants thereof are as grasshoppers; that stretcheth out the heavens as a curtain, and spreadeth them out as a tent to dwell in." --Isaiah 40:22

This writer is describing things from God's view. How do you suppose he knew that from God's view the earth is circular?

Again, find me a passage that says the earth is FLAT just like this one says the earth is a CIRCLE and your article makes sense. Until then it's a quite silly submission from an otherwise intelligent person.

My response was brief. "Find me a Biblical passage that clearly says (or even vaguely suggests) that the earth is anything like a sphere, and that it rotates with respect to the heavens and moves in a circle around the sun. Surely, from a god's heavenly point of view, he (or she or it) would know that."

It seems that religious apologists who are quick to express their opinions in email or on the internet seem unable to check (1) the context of a web page, (2) links to and from a page, (3) other web resources, or library resources. Most college and university libraries and larger public libraries would have the reference work such as The Interpreter's Bible, a standard resource for Biblical interpretation. It is also available on CD. This at least would give them some idea of how Biblical scholars, who have studied the original texts in their original languages, and in their historical context, interpret Biblical passages. There's no suggestion that any of my correspondents have taken the trouble.

    —Donald Simanek, 2002, 2005, 2009, 2010.