A couple weeks ago, Steve, who regularly comments here, left a comment regarding “the heavens and earth” spoken of so often in Scripture. He pointed out the relationship between Genesis 1, Jeremiah 4:23-26, and Matthew 24:35. I was intrigued by the little bit that he said, and our brief exchange led to Steve agreeing to send me his thoughts on the subject to be posted. I appreciate Steve taking the time to do this. Here is part 1 of 3:
“In the beginning God created the heavens and the earth.” Well, that certainly sounds simple enough. At first glance, Genesis 1 seems straight forward. But appearances can sometimes be deceiving. Upon closer examination, there are a number of oddities about the creation account. Why does God create light, days, and nights several days before He creates the sun, moon, and stars in order to establish days and nights? If the light on day one is sunlight, wouldn’t it have made more sense to make the sun first? If the light was not sunlight, then what light is it, and where is it now? For that matter, how does it make sense to make plants before making the sun? And why does creation begin with an ocean of water? It doesn’t say God created these waters; they just seem to already be there. And why is the account in Genesis 1 so different from Genesis 2? These are some of the questions I’ve pondered for a long time. Perhaps you have, too.
I would like to thank Adam Maarschalk for allowing me to share this study on his Pursuing Truth blog. This is the first post in a three part series on the biblical heavens & earth, and in particular, how this affects our understanding of the new heavens & earth and eschatology (the study of last things). The posts in this study reflect no one’s beliefs but my own.
To avoid possible confusion, let me make a few statements upfront about my beliefs. I believe the Bible is the divinely inspired Word of God. I believe in the future Second Coming, when Christ will return in the flesh on the last day and raise/transform the bodies of everyone who has ever lived, making us immortal and forever abolishing physical death. I believe the new heavens & earth is a present reality here on the earth, and was established in 70 AD.
Taking a scientific approach to the creation of the heavens & earth
Since many readers will undoubtedly find the conclusions of this study unusual, allow me to explain how I reached my present conclusions. I first began to read and seriously study the Bible as an adult. My first major area of study was Christian evidences – is the Bible true? Because if the Bible isn’t true, then who cares what it says? Naturally, this led to the study of the creation account in Genesis, especially in regards to science. What does it say about the age of the earth, and what about evolution? I did not even consider non-scientific interpretations because #1 it seemed to plainly be speaking of a step-by-step, scientific process of creation, and #2 I assumed all non-scientific interpretations were the domain of liberals who didn’t really believe the Bible.
It is possible to read Genesis 1 with an old earth interpretation, and while it comes close to approximating the views of modern science, it was never a perfect fit. And the more one interpreted it in conformity with modern science, the more forced the interpretation sounded. On the other hand, the young earth reading of Genesis 1 seemed more natural, but it was incompatible with modern science, and it did not explain the peculiarities within the text.
Houston, we have a problem
At this point, I reached an impasse – I was dissatisfied with both the old earth and new earth interpretations, and yet I couldn’t see it any other way. I kept thinking, “If only I could understand it the way the Jews did in the days of Moses…” But how would they have understood it? They certainly wouldn’t have read it in view of evolution or the controversy over the age of the earth!
I got the feeling I was missing a key piece of the puzzle, and if I could just find that missing piece, the creation account would suddenly make sense, or at least make more sense. But I had no idea what that missing piece was. After several years of study with little to show for it, I threw my hands up in frustration and put aside the study of creation. Until…
A paradigm shift
One day I was in the Bible section of a library looking for something to read. One of the books caught my eye, a book on Genesis. The book was Genesis Unbound, by a Dr. John Sailhamer. Skimming the back cover, I came across one of the most ridiculous interpretations of creation I had ever heard – that the first two chapters of Genesis are not really about the creation of the universe. Ha, what a joke! So I checked it out on a lark for the entertainment value. I couldn’t wait to go home and see how he would try to argue such an absurd interpretation.
But when I started to read the book, the joke was on me. Here was a serious book, written by a serious scholar, who took the Bible seriously, and he made sense. Instead of reading the Genesis creation in view of modern science, which was entirely foreign to the original context, he read it in view of the rest of the Hebrew Scriptures. Whoa, Nelly! To quote a Third Day song, this new approach “hit me like a bomb.”
I had always wondered at the first chapter of the Bible being about science, when the rest of the book was not at all about science. Now it made sense – the beginning of the Bible wasn’t about science, either.
Hit by another bomb
Genesis Unbound dropped another bomb into my lap by pointing out Jeremiah 4:23-26. If that passage doesn’t ring a bell, do yourself a favor and go read it right now. No really, I’ll wait. :^) There is an undeniable connection between this passage and Genesis 1, and yet this passage is not talking about the destruction of the universe but Jerusalem’s destruction by the Babylonians (more on this in part two of this series).
I don’t think Dr. Sailhamer understood the full significance of Jeremiah 4:23-26. In retrospect, I suppose it was because his views on eschatology prevented him from seeing it. At this point having yet to do a serious study of eschatology, I had no such blinders. This passage not only greatly affected my understanding of the Genesis creation, it would also have a major influence years later when I began my study on Revelation and eschatology (especially Matthew 24:34-35). Despite having major differences with it, Genesis Unbound was clearly a step in the right direction.
The end of the age of science
But let’s get back to the question, how would the ancient Jews in the time of Moses have understood the creation account? How would the Apostles have understood it? Paul H. Seely wrote a series of articles on how the ancients viewed the earth, sky, and seas, and compares it to how the Bible describes these things. The articles can be found here:
To summarize the articles, as they are quite lengthy (but well worth your time to read in full), the ancient Israelites believed the earth was a flat circle, the sky was a solid, upside down bowl, and there were two oceans, one above the solid sky, and one that was below and encircled the earth. This was not only the view of the ancient Jews, but it was also the common Christian view held for the bulk of Church history.
So when we read Genesis 1 in view of a spherical planet orbiting the sun, an infinitesimal speck in a vast universe, and a Heaven that lies beyond the boundaries of our material universe, we are reading Genesis 1 out of context. To put it bluntly, we are reading it all wrong.
The solid sky
Many years ago, I recall reading a debate between a conservative Christian and an atheist over whether or not Genesis 1 spoke of a solid sky, the “firmament.” Since at this point I was already convinced the Bible was true (based on the historical evidence for the resurrection of Christ, the fulfilled prophecies in Christ, the kalam cosmological argument, etc.), and I knew that the solid sky was false, I didn’t pay much attention to the actual arguments. I “knew” the arguments for the firmament were false because they had to be false, and that was that. Now that I no longer had such a simple view of creation, I was free to examine the arguments in the historical and grammatical context of the Bible and go wherever the evidence led. And that led to a solid sky.
Young earth creationists (YECs hereafter) often accuse others of reading their views of science into the Bible, but they do the very same thing. The ultimate argument even YECs make against understanding the sky of Genesis 1 as a solid firmament is because it is scientifically not so. But if we follow the YEC’s advice and go with a simple, literal reading of creation, we find a solid sky.
On day two, God creates an “expanse” or “firmament,” depending on your translation. The correct translation is “firmament,” but for the sake of argument let us go with “expanse” for now. This expanse separates the body of water into two bodies of water, one above the expanse, and one below the expanse. The waters above the expanse are commonly believed to be the clouds, or the atmosphere, or a water canopy (how some YECs explain Noah’s flood). But we shall see this is not correct.
On day four, God creates the sun, moon and stars, and they are placed “in the expanse” (Gen. 1:14). But remember, the waters above are “above the expanse” (Gen. 1:7). The water above is the same as the water on the earth, as they were once one body of water, and now this water is above the sun, moon, and stars. Which scientifically doesn’t make sense. I understand some may want to read it another way, or may feel they need to read it some other way, but this is what the text says. At the end of the day, we will either respect the Bible and submit to what it says, or we will submit the Bible to what we say. There is nothing in the historical context, or the text itself, that would justify reading multiple firmaments. In my view, this refutes the young earth, old earth, and any other scientific interpretation of creation.
Corroborating the solid sky
There are any number of biblical passages that reaffirm this interpretation of Genesis 1. Here, we will look at but a few that are consistent with this understanding.
The Bible depicts not only an ocean above the firmament, but this is also the location of Heaven, where the throne of God is. The firmament is seen as being made of a solid glass or crystal, hence God is seated above the crystal sea (Exo. 24:10, Eze. 1:22-26, Rev. 4:5-6 & 15:2). Proverbs 8:28 tells us that when God created the skies above, He made them “firm.” Although the firmament was solid, there were gates in it so people and angels (and water, in the case of Gen. 7:11 & 8:2) could pass through.
The premise behind building the tower of Babel (which means “gate of God”) appears to be if they built a tower tall enough, they would be able to reach the firmament and break into Heaven itself. This is also assumed in the divinely inspired dream God gave to Jacob in Genesis 28:12-17, the famous ladder/stairway to Heaven. Again, the thinking here is that if one had a ladder or stairway tall enough, one could climb all the way up to the very “gate of heaven,” and enter into Heaven itself.
In 2 Corinthians 12:2, Paul speaks of being taken “up to the third heaven.” He wasn’t sure if it literally happened, or was just a vision, but he obviously believed it could have been a literal event. In the mind of the ancients, the first heaven was the near sky where the birds and clouds were. The second heaven was the higher sky up to the firmament, which included the sun, moon, and stars. And above that was the Heaven of God. So the way to get to Heaven, in their thinking, was to go straight up and through the firmament. Which is exactly how Jesus is depicted as ascending into Heaven in Acts 1:9-11. And when Jesus returns at the Second Coming, He will descend from Heaven into our clouds in the very same way (1 Thess. 4:16-17).
The impact on inspiration
All of this is not a problem for the more liberal minded among us, but what about those of us who consider ourselves (as I do) Bible conservatives, one who believes in God, believes the Bible is true, and takes the Bible seriously? It should first be noted that inspiration was never as simple as it first seems. Divine inspiration did not rule out the need for consulting other sources (Luke 1:3-4), and obviously did not grant omniscience (1 Cor. 1:16). Even Jesus, during His human life on earth, did not make use of His divine omniscience (Matt. 24:36).
Take Jesus’ ascension into Heaven as described in Acts 1:9-11. Even the most steadfast YEC knows that if you board a rocket in Jerusalem and blast off, when you reach the clouds, you ain’t gonna see Jesus. If you continue to go up, you’ll eventually break through the atmosphere into outer space. And guess what? You still ain’t gonna see Jesus. Because we know what the ancients didn’t – that Heaven isn’t up there. Heaven must be in some other realm altogether. And presumably the only way to get from here to there is to be miraculously teleported into Heaven.
So the only way to go to Heaven is to go “POOF!” And yet, Jesus didn’t go to Heaven that way, He instead went up into Heaven. Which is interesting, seeing as how Jesus was the Creator of the universe, and that He was from Heaven, so we know He was under no confusion as to the layout of things. Instead of going POOF, He deliberately goes up in conformity with their preconceived notions of the universe and Heaven. Jesus does not bother to explain to the Apostles, “Now you probably expect me to go up into Heaven, but that is based upon a scientifically inaccurate view of the universe and the location of Heaven.” Regardless of how we think Jesus should have done it, that is the fact of the matter.
So for those of us who respect the Bible, we should acknowledge the fact that God revealed Himself through the scientific views the ancients already had, even if they were inaccurate. Why didn’t God bother to correct the Bible’s human authors about the shape of the earth, or the nature of the sky, or the location of Heaven? For those of us today with a modern scientific perspective, that would provide further evidence for the inspiration of Scripture, but perhaps it would have provided (the appearance of) evidence against the inspiration of Scripture for all of those who don’t have access to modern science. Which would include everyone for thousands of years, and even many Christians today who still do not have access to modern science. It is important to remember the Bible wasn’t written solely for our generation or for our part of the world.
Also, God apparently used their beliefs to teach certain spiritual truths. God used their belief that Heaven was literally above the earth to teach that Heaven is on a higher plane, that is, a higher moral plane. This also reinforces a major point that God Himself is on a higher moral plane than any man, “For My thoughts are not your thoughts, nor are your ways My ways… For as the heavens are higher than the earth, so are My ways higher than your ways and My thoughts than your thoughts” (Isa. 55:8-9) and “No one is good except God alone” (Mark 10:18). If we aspire to go to Heaven, we must repent and purify ourselves, and be purified by God, hence the transformation of our mortal natural bodies into immortal spiritual bodies at the resurrection (1 Cor. 15:44-53).
The goal of this first post in this series has been to show the need to rethink the biblical heavens & earth. In part two, we will examine what the biblical heavens & earth actually is, and in part three, the new heavens & earth.
Steve is a teacher and a preacher in the Churches of Christ.