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The Bible and Astronomy

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To be the Word of God, the Bible must be true. This should be self-evident. In recent centuries, however, we find that some scholars and scientists have made discoveries that, with superficial consideration, seem to contradict the Bible. Some such findings have sent tremors through the Christian world.

An example was a discovery by the Polish astronomer Nicolaus Copernicus, who in the early 16th century concluded that the Western world’s prevailing view of the universe was incorrect. It was an article of faith during the Middle Ages that the earth was the center of the universe, around which all other heavenly bodies revolved.

Historian William Manchester centuries later wrote that “the world was [believed to be] an immovable disk around which the sun revolved, and … the rest of the cosmos comprised heaven, which lay dreamily above the skies, inhabited by cherubs, and hell, flaming deep beneath the European soil. Everyone believed, indeed knew, that” (William Manchester, A World Lit Only by Fire, 1993, p. 89).

Copernicus, after years of observing the skies and consulting mathematical tables, arrived at a radically different conclusion: The earth is not a disk about which the sun rotates; it is a sphere traveling around the sun. His discovery brought shock and alarm to many religious authorities.

His view was about as welcome to the educated mind during the Middle Ages as the plague. Upon Copernicus’ presentation of his evidence to influential men in education and religion, his reward was jeers and ridicule. The established church branded Copernicus as an apostate for challenging the conventional wisdom of the day.

How did this conflict arise? The churchmen had taken their views from Ptolemy, a Greek astronomer living in Egypt in the second century, who had decreed that the earth was the center of the universe (ibid., p. 116).

Ptolemy was correct on one important point. It seems he “knew that the earth was a sphere” (Carl Sagan, Pale Blue Dot, 1994, p. 17). Others had previously deduced this as well. “More than three hundred years before the birth of Christ, Aristotle had determined that the planet must be a sphere; after an eclipse he had pointed out that only an orb could throw a circular shadow on the moon” (Manchester, p. 230).

Organized religion of the second century accepted Ptolemy’s geocentric view but ultimately rejected his belief that the earth was spherical. Theologians chose instead to “endorse the absurd geographical dicta of Topographia Christiana, a treatise by the sixth-century monk Cosmas … who … held that the world was a flat, rectangular plane …” (ibid.).

Some have leveled the accusation that biblical authors believed in a flat earth because of the references to the “four corners” of the earth in Isaiah 11:12 Isaiah 11:12And he shall set up an ensign for the nations, and shall assemble the outcasts of Israel, and gather together the dispersed of Judah from the four corners of the earth.
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and Revelation 20:8 Revelation 20:8And shall go out to deceive the nations which are in the four quarters of the earth, Gog, and Magog, to gather them together to battle: the number of whom is as the sand of the sea.
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. However, as one professor of Old Testament history addressed this: “Neither is the case for [the Bible presenting] a flat earth all that convincing—at least no more convincing than when modern newscasters claim that their news bureau has gone to the ‘four corners of the earth’ to gather their news” (Walter Kaiser Jr., The Old Testament Documents: Are They Reliable and Relevant? 2001, p. 76).

This is an expression that simply designates the four points of the compass. Indeed, we can look at Isaiah 40:22 Isaiah 40:22It is he that sits on the circle of the earth, and the inhabitants thereof are as grasshoppers; that stretches out the heavens as a curtain, and spreads them out as a tent to dwell in:
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, which states that God “sits above the circle of the earth.” This expression indicates that Isaiah understood the earth was round.

Copernicus was later joined in his conclusions by others. The astronomer Galileo confirmed the findings of Copernicus but recanted under threat of torture. But their scientific findings could not be restrained forever. The result was a loss of the monopoly that religion had over men’s minds. The Copernican discovery triggered the greatest credibility crisis that church authorities of the Middle Ages had to face. In defending their position, they presented human opinion, which could be—and was—overturned by scientific observation and experimentation.

Belief in the Bible and ecclesiastical authority would never be the same. Now a movement had begun that would eventually, in the minds of many, discredit the Scriptures as a legitimate source of authority.

Misunderstanding the Scriptures

In reality the Bible was not disproved at all. The misguided interpretations that men had attached to certain scriptures were discredited. It was not the Bible that stood corrected, but man’s assumptions about what the Bible said.

Ptolemy’s erroneous view had been injected into theology in the second century. Yet there is no evidence that Christ or the apostles believed in this view.

Religious leaders from the second century on were in error about the earth’s place in the scheme of things because of a misunderstanding of various scriptures. They misunderstood Psalms 93:1 Psalms 93:1The LORD reigns, he is clothed with majesty; the LORD is clothed with strength, with which he has girded himself: the world also is established, that it cannot be moved.
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, which says that “the world is established, so that it cannot be moved.” This verse does not conflict with the fact that God has placed the earth in a solar orbit.

We could say that this verse verifies what man has learned from the study of astronomy and physics—that the earth’s behavior is fixed and predictable. God set the earth in its orbit about the sun and, as the psalm notes, neither it nor we will go careening out of our place because God has set the earth’s course and controls the forces that keep both us and the world around us in our proper place.

The Bible ahead of its time

When the Renaissance dawned, scholars who awoke to the structure of the solar system were centuries behind the Bible in basic knowledge of the structure of the universe. One might wonder how people could have remained in the dark for so long. We must realize that with the arrival of the Dark Ages, man sank deep into an intellectual and moral morass that lasted from about A.D. 400 to 1000. During this time “intellectual life … vanished from Europe. Even Charlemagne, the first Holy Roman emperor and the greatest of all medieval rulers, was illiterate.” It was a period of “almost impenetrable mindlessness” (Manchester, p. 3).

The belief that the earth is not the center of the universe died hard. In some places this new truth was not accepted by religious leaders for more than 300 years after Copernicus’ discoveries. Tremors were felt throughout organized Christianity because many believed that the astronomical reality cast doubt upon the veracity of the Bible.

In reality it did no such thing. Again, it was not the Bible that was found wanting; it was the interpretation that had been adopted by religious authorities. The facts merely confirmed what the Bible had said all along.

In fact, the Bible proved to be well ahead of its time in key concepts. For example, Job 26:7 Job 26:7He stretches out the north over the empty place, and hangs the earth on nothing.
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describes God hanging the earth “on nothing.” This was written thousands of years before astronomer and physicist Isaac Newton discovered the invisible laws of gravity that showed the earth truly is suspended “on nothing.”

The age of the universe

Man’s misguided theory of the structure of the universe was the first major astronomical controversy that pitted science against religion. Many more controversies followed. One of the most hotly debated concerned the age of the universe.

Astronomers see evidence that the universe is many billions of years old and generally believe that it came into existence between 10 and 20 billion years ago through an event commonly called the Big Bang. On the other hand, some Bible believers, embracing a particular interpretation of Genesis 1 and other passages, dogmatically maintain that the universe is only about 6,000 years old. This figure is calculated from the chronological benchmarks in Genesis and other books of the Bible.

Astronomers respond that this view is insupportable. They offer evidence, gathered from viewing the heavens by powerful telescopes, that support their position. Asks one, “How is it that there are astronomical objects more than 6,000 light-years away?” (Sagan, p. 28). A light-year is the distance that light, moving at 186,000 miles per second, travels in one year.

It is obvious there are light-years between some religious people and science on this issue. Some advocates of the biblical record reason around such evidence by stating that the seeming age of the universe (and of the fossil and geological evidence of the earth itself) is attributable to an “appearance of age” that God built into His creation. Many people, including some theologians, properly respond that, if this is the case, God would be engaged in a form of deception.

Yet such arguments are unnecessary. The truth is that the Bible does not contradict scientific evidence, and science does not disprove the biblical record. The point most people on both sides of the argument miss is that the Bible does not say when the universe was created.

According to the Bible, Adam was the first man (1 Corinthians 15:45 1 Corinthians 15:45And so it is written, The first man Adam was made a living soul; the last Adam was made a quickening spirit.
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; 1 Chronicles 1:1 1 Chronicles 1:1Adam, Sheth, Enosh,
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), and adding the figures in the biblical genealogies does yield a date of about 6,000 years ago for Adam’s creation.

However, the Bible does not state that the creation of mankind and the creation of the universe occurred at the same time. The age of the universe is simply not stated in the Bible. It may well have been 10 or 20 billion years ago.

The “Big Bang” is the most popular current idea advanced to explain the creation of an enormous and majestic universe. Yet the theory acknowledges that the universe came into being at a specific moment, even though those who support the theory but don’t believe in God cannot explain the origin of the material from which the Big Bang supposedly proceeded or how the universe came about.

So scientists’ conclusions actually agree with the Bible’s statements that there was a specific moment of creation.

In the beginning

Let’s look at Genesis 1 and see what the often-misunderstood creation account really says.

“In the beginning God created the heavens and the earth. Now the earth was formless and empty, darkness was over the surface of the deep, and the Spirit of God was hovering over the waters” (Genesis 1:1-2 Genesis 1:1-2 1 In the beginning God created the heaven and the earth. 2 And the earth was without form, and void; and darkness was on the face of the deep. And the Spirit of God moved on the face of the waters.
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, New International Version).

The first statement in this account refers to God’s initial creative act. No exact time is given as to when this took place. What is evident, from comparing this passage with other scriptures, is that between verses 1 and 2 something happened to render the earth “formless and empty” [in Hebrew, tohu and bohu ].

Isaiah 45:18 Isaiah 45:18For thus said the LORD that created the heavens; God himself that formed the earth and made it; he has established it, he created it not in vain, he formed it to be inhabited: I am the LORD; and there is none else.
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tells us that God “did not create [the earth] a chaos [ tohu ], he formed it to be inhabited” (New Revised Standard Version). The initial creation was followed by destruction and chaos.

The New International Version’s footnoted alternate reading for verse 2 is, “Now the earth became formless and empty …” This indicates a time difference between the original creation described in verse 1 and the time leading to the creation of man beginning in verse 2 (see “Earth’s Age: Does the Bible Indicate a Time Interval Between the First and Second Verses of Genesis?”).

We are not told exactly when the initial creation took place. But the Bible hints that the original creation was followed by widespread destruction brought about by the rebellion of the powerful angel Lucifer, who became Satan (Isaiah 14:12-15 Isaiah 14:12-15 12 How are you fallen from heaven, O Lucifer, son of the morning! how are you cut down to the ground, which did weaken the nations! 13 For you have said in your heart, I will ascend into heaven, I will exalt my throne above the stars of God: I will sit also on the mount of the congregation, in the sides of the north: 14 I will ascend above the heights of the clouds; I will be like the most High. 15 Yet you shall be brought down to hell, to the sides of the pit.
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). Thus the account of Genesis 1:3-31 Genesis 1:3-31 3 And God said, Let there be light: and there was light. 4 And God saw the light, that it was good: and God divided the light from the darkness. 5 And God called the light Day, and the darkness he called Night. And the evening and the morning were the first day. 6 And God said, Let there be a firmament in the middle of the waters, and let it divide the waters from the waters. 7 And God made the firmament, and divided the waters which were under the firmament from the waters which were above the firmament: and it was so. 8 And God called the firmament Heaven. And the evening and the morning were the second day. 9 And God said, Let the waters under the heaven be gathered together to one place, and let the dry land appear: and it was so. 10 And God called the dry land Earth; and the gathering together of the waters called he Seas: and God saw that it was good. 11 And God said, Let the earth bring forth grass, the herb yielding seed, and the fruit tree yielding fruit after his kind, whose seed is in itself, on the earth: and it was so. 12 And the earth brought forth grass, and herb yielding seed after his kind, and the tree yielding fruit, whose seed was in itself, after his kind: and God saw that it was good. 13 And the evening and the morning were the third day. 14 And God said, Let there be lights in the firmament of the heaven to divide the day from the night; and let them be for signs, and for seasons, and for days, and years: 15 And let them be for lights in the firmament of the heaven to give light on the earth: and it was so. 16 And God made two great lights; the greater light to rule the day, and the lesser light to rule the night: he made the stars also. 17 And God set them in the firmament of the heaven to give light on the earth, 18 And to rule over the day and over the night, and to divide the light from the darkness: and God saw that it was good. 19 And the evening and the morning were the fourth day. 20 And God said, Let the waters bring forth abundantly the moving creature that has life, and fowl that may fly above the earth in the open firmament of heaven. 21 And God created great whales, and every living creature that moves, which the waters brought forth abundantly, after their kind, and every winged fowl after his kind: and God saw that it was good. 22 And God blessed them, saying, Be fruitful, and multiply, and fill the waters in the seas, and let fowl multiply in the earth. 23 And the evening and the morning were the fifth day. 24 And God said, Let the earth bring forth the living creature after his kind, cattle, and creeping thing, and beast of the earth after his kind: and it was so. 25 And God made the beast of the earth after his kind, and cattle after their kind, and every thing that creeps on the earth after his kind: and God saw that it was good. 26 And God said, Let us make man in our image, after our likeness: and let them have dominion over the fish of the sea, and over the fowl of the air, and over the cattle, and over all the earth, and over every creeping thing that creeps on the earth. 27 So God created man in his own image, in the image of God created he him; male and female created he them. 28 And God blessed them, and God said to them, Be fruitful, and multiply, and replenish the earth, and subdue it: and have dominion over the fish of the sea, and over the fowl of the air, and over every living thing that moves on the earth. 29 And God said, Behold, I have given you every herb bearing seed, which is on the face of all the earth, and every tree, in the which is the fruit of a tree yielding seed; to you it shall be for meat. 30 And to every beast of the earth, and to every fowl of the air, and to every thing that creeps on the earth, wherein there is life, I have given every green herb for meat: and it was so. 31 And God saw every thing that he had made, and, behold, it was very good. And the evening and the morning were the sixth day.
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is apparently a description of a restoration of the earth as a habitable planet just before the creation of man (see Psalms 104:30 Psalms 104:30You send forth your spirit, they are created: and you renew the face of the earth.
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). Biblical genealogies indicate that this occurred approximately 6,000 years ago, though nowhere does the Bible tell us when God first created the heavens and the earth.

God’s Word does reveal that initially there was no physical creation—no earth, no solar system, no galaxies. The apostle Paul describes this as “before time began” (Titus 1:2 Titus 1:2In hope of eternal life, which God, that cannot lie, promised before the world began;
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). Then, by divine command, God created the universe.

Science tells us something similar. “These days most cosmologists and astronomers back the theory that there was indeed a creation … when the physical universe burst into existence in an awesome explosion popularly known as the ‘big bang’ … The universe did not always exist” (Paul Davies, God and the New Physics, 1983, pp. 10-11, emphasis added).

Both of these accounts, one from science and one from the Bible, speak of an instantaneous origin of the physical creation. (To learn more, download or request our free booklets Life’s Ultimate Question: Does God Exist? and Creation or Evolution: Does It Really Matter What You Believe? )

Why was the universe created?

Science cannot of itself tell us why the earth and the physical creation exist. Wrote Carl Sagan: “Why it happened is the greatest mystery we know. That it happened is reasonably clear” ( Cosmos, 1980, p. 246).

But the Bible tells us why! “You are worthy, O Lord, to receive glory and honor and power; for You created all things, and by Your will they exist and were created” (Revelation 4:11 Revelation 4:11You are worthy, O Lord, to receive glory and honor and power: for you have created all things, and for your pleasure they are and were created.
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). Psalms 115:16 Psalms 115:16The heaven, even the heavens, are the LORD’s: but the earth has he given to the children of men.
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adds, “The heaven, even the heavens, are the Lord’s; but the earth He has given to the children of men.”

God created all things. He set aside the earth as a place of habitation for man, for the working out of His purpose. His plan is ultimately to bring “many sons to glory” (Hebrews 2:10 Hebrews 2:10For it became him, for whom are all things, and by whom are all things, in bringing many sons to glory, to make the captain of their salvation perfect through sufferings.
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), to offer sonship to all people through His Son Jesus Christ. This is the reason God brought the creation into existence by His command. The Bible explains God’s plan in considerable detail—as well as that plan’s implications for us. (For a more complete explanation, request or download our free booklet What Is Your Destiny? )

The Bible holds true in its description of the origin of all things. In response to the statement that God in the beginning created the heavens and the earth, one skeptical scientist stated, “But no one was there to see it” (Davies, p. 9). Not true— God and His angels were there. No human being there was to refute it, and there is no one who can refute it today. No man or woman has disproved the Bible. But there is a mountain of evidence to show it is true.

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