The Flat-Earth Myth

It is common to hear critics say that biblical authors and Christians in the early church believed in a flat earth. This myth has permeated our society, but is there any truth to it?

Skeptics and Bible critics love to accuse Christians of believing in a flat earth. This is especially true when they talk about those of us who take Genesis at face value. This kind of rhetoric is also becoming popular in the political arena, with liberal politicians accusing those who disagree with them as being flat-earthers. Where did this whole flat earth idea come from?

Many will say it comes straight from the pages of the Bible. However, the Bible does not teach a flat earth. It does speak of the “four corners” of the earth (Rev. 7:1; 20:8), but this simply refers to the four cardinal directions. Nebuchadnezzar’s second dream (Daniel 4) was about a tree that could be seen “to the ends of all the earth.” This description does not necessitate a belief in a flat earth and even if it did, it is given during a dream—hardly a place to receive scientific insight.

On the contrary, the Bible consistently teaches a spherical earth. Isaiah 40: 22 reveals that God sits “above the circle of the earth.” Jesus said that he would return when people were in bed, working in a field, and grinding at a mill (Luke 17:34–36). Here He referred to one moment in time but it will be at different times of the day for various people. This only works with a round earth; a flat earth would have no time zones. Jesus knew all about the spherical nature of the earth because He is the One who created it.

I remember being taught in school that people used to believe the earth was flat. The ancients believed there were people on the other side of the earth known as antipodes. These people, it was thought, walked upside down. Christopher Columbus allegedly had a difficult time finding a crew because everyone was afraid that they would fall off the edge of the earth. This is what I was taught in a public school. My daughter was taught the same thing at a private Christian school. Nowadays, this story is widely accepted as historical, but is it accurate?

Men have always known the earth was round. In the 3rd century BC, Eratosthenes observed the length of shadow cast in Alexandria (Egypt) and that no shadow was cast near Aswan (Egypt) on the summer solstice. He calculated the size of the earth to within one percent. But did the Church ignore this information and teach a flat earth?

A few figures throughout Church history made statements that some have interpreted as teaching a flat earth. Lactantius (245–325) denied the existence of the antipodes because they would have been walking upside down. St. Augustine denied the existence of these people—not because he believed in a flat earth—but because he thought they would not have descended from Adam and Eve. Augustine was open to the idea of a round earth. Cosmas Indicopleustes (6th century) thought the earth must be in the shape of the tabernacle (rectangular) based on an over-literal interpretation of Hebrews 9:1–5.

Despite the statements, the Church did not teach a flat earth during the time of Columbus. These explorers did not believe they were going to fall off the edge of the earth. Columbus had difficulty obtaining a crew because he was an Italian trying to convince Spaniards to sail with him, and because people doubted whether or not one could bring enough supplies and food for the journey. The people knew that a person could reach the East by sailing west but they did not know about the American continents and so they thought that Columbus would need to sail all the way from Spain to China non-stop. Columbus convinced the authorities that the distance would not be as far as they thought by using different figures than what had been established centuries earlier. Ironically, the authorities were right, but Columbus “lucked out” because he did have enough supplies to reach the Bahamas.

This misinformation may have started with Washington Irving’s publication of his “biography” of Christopher Columbus. This work promoted the lie that the ignorant medieval folks thought the earth was flat and Columbus had to convince them otherwise.

Only a few historians before 1870 and nearly all of them since 1900 mentioned the idea of a flat earth. What happened in that thirty-year period to change society’s perception of ancient man’s understanding of the earth? Two books were published during that time claiming that the medieval church believed in a flat earth (likely borrowing from Irving’s fictional elements in his Columbus biography). John Draper wrote History of the Conflict Between Science and Religion in 1874. In it he accused Lactantius and Cosmas of ignoring Greek science and promoting a flat earth based on the Bible. Andrew Dickson White (founder of Cornell University) published A History of the Warfare of Science and Theology in Christendom in which he repeated Draper’s claims. These were the first two historians to claim that the medieval church believed in a flat earth despite the fact that Thomas Aquinas (1225–1274), Roger Bacon (c. 1214–1294), and the Venerable Bede (c. 672–735) taught the earth was a sphere.

Historians now recognize that the Church did not teach a flat earth, yet the lie is still promulgated in numerous books and schools. Even the late Stephen Jay Gould (a leading evolutionist) came to the church’s defense when he said, “For the myth itself only makes sense under a prejudicial view of Western history as an era of darkness between lighted beacons of classical learning and Renaissance revival—while the nineteenth-century invention of the flat earth, as we shall see, occurred to support another dubious and harmful separation wedded to another legend of historical progress—the supposed warfare between science and religion.”

History reveals that the Church did not teach a flat earth. The Bible does not teach a flat earth. Apparently, John W. Draper invented the flat earth myth in an effort to attack biblical Christianity. Modern critics are following his lead, as are liberal politicians who use the same rhetoric. Ironically, these people use the term to label someone as ignorant, when in reality, they are the ones who are ignorant of real history.

About Tim Chaffey

I am the founder of Midwest Apologetics and work as the Content Manager with the Attractions Division of Answers in Genesis. I have written (or co-authored) several books, including In Defense of Easter, God and Cancer, The Sons of God and the Nephilim, and The Truth Chronicles Series (see the publications page for more details). Please note: the opinions expressed on this site are my own and do not necessarily represent the views of Answers in Genesis.


The Flat-Earth Myth — 2 Comments

  1. Wow are you ignorant. Not stupid, but ignorant. The earth IS flat and you have been brainwashed by the world. The bible specifically states the earth rests on pillars and does not move. The “circle of the earth” from Isaiah, is from the perspective of looking DOWN on it. The earth is also God’s “footstool”. I don’t know how anybody can rest their feet on a footstool spinning and moving tens of thousands of miles an hour through space. And what of the firmament? Strong it is said to be in the bible. You have been brainwashed by NASA and the world. You need to actually STUDY this from a biblical perspective and THEN maybe you will see the curvature of the earth does not exist. Many experiments have been done that prove this. You can easily do them yourself. Believe the scriptures and wake up.

    • Mark,
      In all seriousness, I don’t know if you are being serious or just trying to mock the Bible. The Bible does not demand that the earth is flat. The only references to something that could be interpreted as a flat earth are found in poetic language which features a lot of figurative language. The historical narrative passages do not give any indication of a flat earth.
      We have more than enough observational evidence (not brainwashing from NASA) that the earth is spherical. Our airplane routes do not take straight routes but follow more of an arc because it is a shorter route due to the curvature of the Earth. If the earth were truly flat, then we wouldn’t have the various time zones, since sunrise and sunset would be at the same time for everyone (unless the Antipodes existed on the other side of the world, then their sunset would be our sunrise and their sunrise would be our sunset). If you are at a high enough altitude you can see the curvature of the earth. The fact that you can sail or fly in one direction and eventually end up back where you started shows that the Earth isn’t flat.
      These are just a few of the reasons that don’t come from NASA to show that the Earth is not flat.

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