The Bible and Astronomy

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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 and Revelation 20:8. 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, 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 Psalm 93:1, 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 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 Chronicles 1:1), 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, 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 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). Thus the account of Genesis 1:3-31 is apparently a description of a restoration of the earth as a habitable planet just before the creation of man (see Psalm 104:30). 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). 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). Psalm 115:16 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), 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.