The Holy Heavens of the Hebrews

Holy Heavens of the Hebrews and Cosmology

The ancient Hebrews pictured the Lord and His “holy heavens” lying somewhat nearer to the earth than we imagine today:

He bowed the heavens and came down.–2nd Samuel 22:10

The Lord came down [from heaven].–Genesis 11:5

Elijah was lifted up by a whirlwind to heaven.–2 Kings 2:11

Who hath ascended up into heaven, or descended?–Proverbs 30:4

Angels “ascended and descended” on a “ladder” reaching to “heaven.”–Gen. 28:12

Ye shall see heaven open, and the angels of God ascending and descending upon the Son of man.–John 1:51

The ancient Babylonians, Assyrians and Hebrews, pictured heavenly creatures like angels (seraphim, etc.) with bird-like wings flying through the earthʼs atmosphere to a “heaven” lying directly above the earth rather than through light-years of space lacking an atmosphere and where bird-like appendages would prove useless. (The ancient Mesopotamian tale, “Etana and the Eagle,” features Etana use of an eagle to fly to heaven.)

“Manna,” the food supplied to the Hebrews in the wilderness, falls from heaven.–Exodus 16, Numbers 11 & Deuteronomy 8

Angels who told of Jesusʼs birth “went away from [the shepherds] into heaven.”–Luke 2:15

A “star [of heaven]…went on before the [wise men], until it came and stood over where the child [Jesus] was”–Mat. 2:9

Such a “star” would have to be incredibly small to lead the wise men and then stand directly above the house where Jesus was born. Such a tale also helped reinforce belief in the holiness of the heavens, since those heavens were depicted as being able to direct people in a miraculous fashion.

The heavens were opened unto him [Jesus at his baptism], and he saw the Spirit of God descending like a dove, and lighting upon him: And lo a voice from heaven.–Matthew 3:16-17

On the morning of Jesusʼ resurrection, “an angel of the Lord came down from heaven and, going to the tomb, rolled back the stone and sat on it.”-Matthew 28:2

At “the Ascension,” “[the resurrected Jesus] was lifted up…and a cloud received him out of their sight” (Acts 1:9), whereupon Jesus took his seat “in the heavens…in the true tabernacle [tent], which the Lord pitched.”–Heb. 8:1,2

And Jesus will return in the sky “seated at the right hand of Power” with the “clouds of heaven.”–Mat. 26:64

The Lord will descend from heaven…and we shall be caught up…in the clouds to meet the Lord in the air.–1 Thessalonians 4:16, 17

Heaven opened, and a certain vessel descending upon him [Peter], as it had been a great sheet knit at the four corners, and let down to the earth.–Acts 10:11

…a door standing open in heaven, and the…voice…said, Come up here.–Revelation 4:1

And there was a great earthquake…and the stars of the sky fell to the earth, as a fig tree casts its unripe figs when shaken by a great wind. And the sky was split apart…and [men] hid themselves in caves…and said to the mountains…hide us from the presence of Him who sits on the throne.–Revelation 6:12-16

I see the heavens opened, and the Son of man standing on the right hand of God.–Acts 7:56

The “heavenly city,” the “New Jerusalem” “comes down out of heaven” to earth.–Revelation 3:12, 21:2

God is in heaven, and you are on the earth.–Ecclesiastes 5:2

The heavens are the heavens of the Lord; But the earth He has given to the sons of men.–Psalm 115:16

Further corroboration of the ancient view of the near proximity of God and heaven overhead, is not hard to find. The Babylonians built towers, called ziggurats, reaching toward heaven to attract the sky godsʼ attention. (Compare the Bibleʼs tale of the “tower of Babel”—Gen. 11:5) Mountains were like natureʼs ziggurats. Abraham ascended a mountain to sacrifice his son to the Lord. Moses spoke to the Lord after having ascended a mountain. (Ex. 19:20) Jerusalem was built on a holy hill nicknamed “Mt. Zion.” Jesus was transfigured on a mountaintop.And the resurrected Jesus was seen on a “mountain which Jesus had designated” in Galilee (Mat. 28:16), or is said to have ascended into heaven from a mountain near Jerusalem (Acts 1).

Based on the authority of many such Bible verses, the heavenly/spiritual realm was believed to lie “above” the earth and so near that climbing a mountain brought you relatively “nearer” to God. Of course, we know today that climbing a mountain only brings you infinitesimally “nearer” to the nearest star that still lays millions to billions of (conventional) miles away.

Moreover, the Hebrews had to be warned, many times, not to worship what lay “above” them, i.e., “the sun, moon, and stars, all the host of heaven.” (Deut. 4:19; 17:3; 2 Kings 17:16; 21:5; 23:5; Jer. 7:18; 19:13; 44:17,19,25) They never suspected that the earth was just as much a “heavenly object” as all the stars they “looked up to.” They never suspected that the earth was an integral part of them, sailing among the other “heavenly bodies.” If they had, then they would never have been tempted to “worship” objects that lay “above” their heads—because the earth lay equally “above” all those other heavenly objects depending on oneʼs perspective. Or as Nietzsche once put it, “So long as thou feelest the stars as an ‘above thee,’ thou lackest the eye of the discerning one.” (Friedrich Nietzsche, “The Sage as Astronomer,” Beyond Good and Evil)

For thousands of years (until the Protestant Reformation), pagans, Jews and Christians agreed that the stars lay “above” man and “nearer” to God, while Christians added that the earth was a “sink of impurity” with hell lying at the earthʼs center. Such a view was inspired by Biblical passages that spoke of the heavens above the earth as the holy abode of God and angels (Ps. 115:16; Eccles. 5:2; Gen. 11:5,7; 28:12; Isa. 40:22; Heb. 8:1,2; 2 Kings 2:11; 2 Sam. 22:10; Luke 2:15; Mat. 23:22; 26:64; Acts 1:9), with sheol, hades, the land of the dead, hell, lying beneath the earth (Job 11:8; Ps. 71:20; 88:3,6; 1 Sam. 28:8,13,15; Amos 9:2,3; Philip.2:10; Rev. 5:13).

Today, of course, we know that the sun, planets and stars lying “above the earth” are not “nearer to God” nor “nearer to a heavenly/spiritual realm” than we are on the earthʼs surface. And some people even dare to believe that perhaps God has given man not just the “earth” but also the “heavens” too, to explore.

Ancient Hebrew Metaphors Demonstrate the Relative Size Difference Between Their Cosmos & the Modern One (The Latterʼs Size Being Based on Telescopic Observation

Ancient Hebrew psalmists drew a parallel between the height of the “clouds” and the wondrous height of their Lordʼs “truth”:

For Thy lovingkindness is great to the heavens, And Thy truth to the clouds.–Psalm 57:10

Comparing the heights of Godʼs truth to the heights of the clouds no longer impresses modern man. Today we look down upon the clouds from aircraft and measure “heights” in light-years.

[Can] the heavens above be measured?–Jeremiah 31:37

The phrase, “cannot be measured,” refers in Hebrew to any great height, or number of finite things that no one would dream of measuring or counting one by one: “As the host of heaven cannot be counted, and the sand of the sea cannot be measured, so I will multiply the descendants of David.” (Jer. 33:22) Actually, the “descendants of David” total an incredibly smaller number than the number of known stars in the cosmos, but to the Hebrews both sets of numbers appeared equally “immeasurable.” Compare, Genesis 41:49, “Joseph stored up grain in great abundance like the sand of the sea, until he stopped measuring it, for it was beyond measure.” Such things appeared “immeasurable” to the ancient Hebrews because they could not conceive of ways of measuring them. Two thousand years later we have developed ways of measuring the “height” of clouds, the moon, the sun, and other galaxies. So, today, “measuring the heavens” is somebodyʼs job.

When I consider thy heavens, the work of thy fingers, the moon and the stars, which thou hast ordained; what is man, that thou are mindful of him?–Psalm 8:3-4

Does this verse demonstrate that the Psalmist was inspired by God to describe how small man appears when compared with the size of the modern cosmos? Hardly. No “inspiration” was necessary. The “heavens” referred to the clouds, and to the sun, moon and stars that the psalmist believed did not lie far above the clouds, along with the angelic heavenly realm lying not far above the sun, moon and stars. Any similarities between this ancient verse and modern day cosmic angst is merely relative. No doubt the cosmos must have felt intangibly huge to the ancients, regardless of their belief that the earth beneath their feet was the flat firm foundation of creation. In fact it may be that their cosmos felt more intangibly huge to them than our cosmos does to us because we can fly round the world, above the clouds, gaze at photos of outer space, and open a book on astronomy and read the distances to stars and galaxies set down for us in tangible numerical form.

Of course, knowing what he know today about the heights of the heavens, we are not likely to make the same poetic analogies as the ancients, like comparing the Lordʼs “truth” to the “height of the clouds,” which sounds less grand than it did to the ancients. Neither do we believe, along with the ancients (including the ancient Hebrews), that climbing a mountain or a tower brings us literally nearer to God.

Things Ancient Near Eastern Creation Stories Have in Common

  1. They Begin With About Four Basic Elements

    All ancient recipes for creation begin with the simplest of ingredients because the ancient mind was unaware of the complex differences between things and could only conceive of such differences in the broadest of categories, such as distinguishing between “earth, wind, water, light and darkness.” Such were the “elements” of creation. Hence, according to ancient Egyptian tales of creation, nothing existed in the beginning except a waste of “waters,” also known as “the deep.” Greek tales speak of “earth, murky night, briny deep.” Babylonian tales speak of “waters.” Some ancient Sumerian tales spoke not of water, but of another basic ingredient, a mountain of “earth” that existed in the beginning. Phoenician/Canaanite tales speak of “the beginning of all things” as “a windy air and a black chaos which embraced the air and generated a watery mixture, and from this sprang all the seed of creation.” The Hebrew tale in the book of Genesis has the “spirit of God” (the literal Hebrew word for “spirit” also meant “wind or breath”) moving on the surface of “waters” with “light” and “earth” to follow.

  2. They Invoke A Belief In the Magical Power of Words

    Many ancient tales of creation, not just the Hebrew one, attributed supernatural power to a godʼs “word,” i.e., simply “say the magic word” and things instantly appear, disappear, or are transformed. According to the Egyptian Book of the Dead every act of creation represented a thought of Temu and its expression in “words.” A host of Egyptian creation myths agreed that the agency of creation was the godʼs “word.” The pre-Babylonian civilization of Sumeria believed that all things existed and were created by the “word” of Enki. In fact, they viewed the “word” of all their gods as a definite and real thing—a divine entity or agent. Even Sumerian personal names reflected their belief in the power of the “word,” including names like, “The word of the wise one is eternal,” “His word is true,” and, “The word which he spoke shakes the heavens.” After the Sumerians came the Babylonians and their creation tale, Enuma Elish (nicknamed by scholars, the “Babylonian Genesis”), which began, “When Heaven had not been named, Firm ground had not been called by name…when no name had been named.” The Hebrew tale arose out of that same milieu.

    Added to the ancient belief in the “magic” of “naming” things, was also the belief that the “word” of a ruler or king must be obeyed, and the gods were believed to rule over nature much like kings were believed to rule over their fellow men, i.e., by “divine right.” Therefore, whatever a god said, was “done” in nature. A fragment from Sumeria states, “Thy word upon the sea has been projected and returns not [void].” The Babylonian Enuma Elish, states, “May I [Lord Marduk, the Babylonian creator], through the utterance of my mouth determine the destines…Whatever I create shall remain unaltered, The command of my lips shall not return [void], it shall not be changed.” Compare the Hebrew usage of the same phrase in Isaiah 55:11, “So shall my [the Lordʼs] word be which goeth up from my mouth; it shall not return unto me void, For it shall have done that which I desired.”

  3. They Divide The Ingredients in Two

    It was a common feature of early Greek cosmological beliefs, which they shared with those of the Near East and elsewhere, that in the beginning all was fused together in an undifferentiated mass. The initial act in the making of the world, whether accomplished by the fiat of a creator or by other means, was a separation or division. As the Hebrew myth has it, “God divided the light from the darkness…and divided the waters which were under the firmament from the waters which were above the firmament.”—W. K. C. Guthrie, A History of Greek Philosophy, Vol. I, (Cambridge Univ. Press: 1962)

    Ancient tales of creation often involved a division of primeval stuff into two equal halves—like cracking a cosmic egg in two and making “heaven” out of the top half and “earth” out of the bottom half. A Sumerian tale of creation has heaven and earth arise from a celestial mountain split in two. In Egyptian tales a god and goddess are pulled apart: “Shu, the uplifter, raised Nut (a water goddess) on high. She formed the firmament, which is arched over Seb, the god of the earth, who lies prostrate beneath her…In the darkness are beheld the stars which sparkle upon Nutʼs body.” The Egyptians also employed the less mythologized concept of a celestial dome (above which lies “the heavenly ocean”). In the Babylonian Enuma Elish, a water goddess is split in two by the creator to form upper and lower bodies of water, the upper half also becoming a “heavenly dome” that held back vast celestial waters. The Hebrew tale in Genesis has the creator make “a firmament in the midst [middle] of the waters, that it may divide…the water which was below the firmament from the water which was above the firmament.” Both the Babylonian and Hebrew tales continue with the “earth” being created in the lower half of the recently divided waters.

    It is interesting to note that the Father of Protestantism, Martin Luther, was adamant that the Bible spoke of waters lying above the moon, the sun, and the stars. He countered the views of astronomers of his day with the words of Scripture:

    Scripture simply says that the moon, the sun, and the stars were placed in the firmament of heaven, below and above which heaven are the waters…We Christians must be different from the philosophers [astronomers] in the way we think about the causes of things. And if some are beyond our comprehension like those before us concerning the waters above the heavens, we must believe them rather than wickedly deny them or presumptuously interpret them in conformity; with our understanding.–Martin Luther, Lectures on Genesis, Vol. 1, Lutherʼs Works, Concordia Pub. House, 1958

    Also, a Hebrew psalm referred to “waters above the sun, moon, and stars”:

    Praise Him, sun and moon; Praise Him stars of light! Praise Him highest heavens, and the waters that are above the heavens!–Psalm 148:3-4

    Furthermore, when the book of Genesis described a “flood” that covered the whole world, and reduced the world to its pre-creation watery beginning, the story states that the “flood gates of the sky” were “opened.” Neither did the author of that fable suppose that all the water above the firmament fell to earth, but that the “flood gates” had to be “shut” to stop more water from falling, and the creator had to promise not to flood the earth again with such waters. So, the Bible agrees with Luther that “the waters above the firmament” remained “up there”–and this agrees completely with ancient tales of creation in which the world arose from a division of waters which encompass creation still, and which the creator keeps at bay, having prepared a place in the “midst of such waters” for the earth.

  4. They Make Do With Whatʼs At Hand, Like a Potter Might

    Ancient creation accounts never explain where the first “waters,” or “earth,” or “darkness,” came from. Nor do the various creators make everything “out of nothing.” They often have to resort to creating plants, animals and human beings out of the earth or from parts of divine beings. Sometimes this includes molding creatures like a sculptor molds images out of clay—then imparting some magic to them. The Hebrew tale of creation in Genesis is no exception. It does not say where the water and the darkness came from “in the beginning.” Neither does it say that the “earth” was created out of nothing, but simply that “the dry land appeared” after the creator “gathered together the waters into one place.” Moreover, the Hebrew creator does not create vegetation and living creatures out of nothing but has “the earth” sprout vegetation, and “the earth” bring forth living creatures. Nor does the Hebrew creator make man out of nothing, but, “formed man from the dust of the earth.” Then “blew into his nostrils the breath of life, and man became a living being,” kind of like blowing on a clay sculpture to magically bring it to life. Neither was the divine “breath of life” shared only with man, for the same phrase is used in regard to every living creature that the earth brought forth, “all in whose nostrils was the breath of life.” (Gen. 7:21,22)

    In the Babylonian tale, Enuma Elish, the creator of heaven and earth, Marduk, is called “the god of the good breath [of life],” and he creates man from something divine, the blood of a diety. So there is a “divine connection” between man and the gods. (Sort of like the Hebrew tale where man is created in the “image” of the divine creator and brought to life by divine breath.) Alternate creation accounts from ancient Babylon have mankind springing up from the ground, or created from the flesh and blood of a god mixed with clay, or even fashioned by the chief Babylonian god with the help of a divine “potter”—not unlike the Genesis account of man being “formed [molded] from the dust of the ground.”

  5. Their View of Creation & Cosmology is Based on Appearances

    Another factor most ancient tales of creation share is that living things do not evolve from one another but are each made separately in the form in which the author already was most familiar. Plants and animals are described as having been created in the forms in which they appeared in the authorʼs own day. In a similar fashion, the earth was described as being created in the form in which it appeared to the ancient mind, which was “flat.” The earth appeared to be the flat and firm foundation of creation, while the sun, moon, and stars appeared to be relatively smaller than the earth and less solidly “set” in creation since they moved across the sky, hence even their creation came after the earthʼs—like light bulbs screwed into itʼs ceiling. And such objects might even “fall to earth.” (Some of the tiny bright lights in the sky were referred to as “wandering stars,” since they did not move in unison with the rest—though much later mankind discovered that those “wanderers” were not “stars” at all, but planets) And the earth appeared to lie beneath a vast dome stretched out above it. The ancient mind focused on the most basic of elements and the most basic of appearances when it came to its creation stories.

    Likewise, alternating periods of “day and night” were perceived by ancient earth dwellers as constituting the rhythm of the whole cosmos. The Hebrews even divided their cosmic creation account into “mornings and evenings,” “nights and days.” But today astronomers recognize the earth as merely one of a class of objects that spins on its axis and circles stars, with many other objects out there, each having their own “days and nights” of differing durations. There may even be a planet somewhere that spins so slowly on its axis that one side of the planet experiences perpetual “day” while the other side experiences perpetual “night.”

    Lastly, every one of the “six days” of creation in the Hebrew tale is devoted to creating things for the earth alone, or creating plants and animals to fill it. When the sun, moon, and stars are created, it is merely to light the earth below, and for signs and seasons on earth. Even on the first day of creation when the Hebrew creator made “light,” it was so He could set up “days and nights” for the earth. How earth-centered is that? Or how naively based on appearances as seen from earth?

  6. It is Not Necessary to Impute “Divine Inspiration” to Such Creation Stories. Only a Low Level of Creative Imagination is Required to Explain the Origin of Such Tales

    The level of inspiration required to explain the origin of naive and simplistic concepts like the elements being divided into “earth, wind, light and darkness,” “believing in the power of magical words,” “dividing the ingredients in two,” “making do with whatʼs at hand,” and, “things created as they appeared”—is equal to the level of mental sophistication of a young child. In fact the Harvard Smithsonian Center for Astrophysics conducted a study during the 1980s on the mental sophistication of children and discovered that almost one-half of children aged ten years and younger in the United States and other countries believe the earth is flat. And those who say it is round picture “round” as a giant pancake or a curved sky covering a flat ground. One in four thirteen-year olds also believes the earth is flat.

“Evenings & Mornings” / “Days & Nights,” Were Created Before the Sun?

Genesis tells us that the creator “divided the light from the darkness” and instituted “evenings and mornings.” But He did that “three days” before the “sun” was made! So the sun was kind of an afterthought, and alternating periods of light and darkness were Godʼs primary creations. The book of Job like the book of Genesis, agrees that “light and darkness” do not rely upon the sun, but have their own separate and distinct dwelling-places:

Where is the way where light dwelleth? and as for darkness, where is the place thereof?–Job 38:19

Therefore the belief arose, especially among Christians, that the light of “day” had no relationship to the light of the sun. Indeed, in the fourth century, Saint Ambrose wrote in his work on creation:

We must remember that the light of day is one thing and the light of the sun, moon, and stars another—the sun by his rays appearing to add luster to the daylight. For before the sun rises the day dawns, but is not in full refulgence, for the sun adds still further to its splendor. (Hexameron, Lib. 4, Cap.III).

Ambroseʼs teaching remained one of the “treasures of sacred knowledge committed to the Church” right up till the Middle Ages at which time Jews could still be tortured or condemned to death for disputing it! Like all dogmas it inspired subversive humor from those forced to assent to it:

“Which is more important, the sun or the moon?” a citizen of Chelm asked the rabbi (“Chelm” being a village of Jews who lived in the shadow of the Inquisition).

“What a silly question!” snapped the rabbi. “The moon, of course! It shines at night when we really need it. But who needs the sun to shine when it is already broad daylight?”

(Joke drawn from Encyclopedia of Jewish Humor, Henry D. Spalding, Ed., New York: 1969)

According to the first chapter of Genesis, the earth was created before the sun, moon, and “the stars also” (notice how the “stars” were regarded as mere trifles, lumped together at the end of the inventory). This order of creation is absolutely farcical. Our earth is a child of the sun. The offspring could not have existed before the parent.

The sun, moon, and stars were “made and set” in heaven “to give light upon the earth?” When we look beyond our solar system into the mighty universe of other suns and planets, we see that the cosmogony of Genesis is a dream of childish ignorance. When the Greek philosopher Anaxagoras dared to suggest that the sun was as large as the Peloponesus (the southern part of Greece) he startled his Greek contemporaries. What must have been the notions of a grossly unscientific people like the Jews? For them it was easy to regard the sun, moon, and “the stars also,” as mere satellites of the earth, “set” up in the sky as lanterns for the human race.

George William Foote, “The Creation Story,” Bible Romances

Further Comparisons Between Modern Astronomy & Ancient Near Eastern Creation Tales

  1. A Lot of Work To “Not Light” The Earth

    If the sun, moon, and stars were created “to light the earth,” then why create over a hundred billion galaxies whose light is invisible to the naked eye? (Only two nearby galaxies can be seen with the naked eye, and they appear no brighter than two dim stars in our sky.) In other words, over a hundred billion galaxies produce light that can only be seen with our most powerful telescopes, and it took telescopes recently mounted in space to detect 99/100ths of those galaxies. And galaxy is composed of about a billion stars, some of which are far larger than our sun. Therefore, the creation account in Genesis would be more believable if it told us how much trouble God went through to not “light the earth” with the rest of creation.

    Astronomers are even hypothesizing that the cosmos may contain “dark” matter and “dark” energy, so much “dark” stuff in fact, that most of the cosmos might still be invisible to us even with our satellite telescopes surveying it to a depth of thirteen-billion light-years in every direction. Again, thatʼs a lot of work to do to “not light” the earth.

  2. Stars Are Still Being Created

    According to the Bible, God made the stars on the fourth day of creation. Even more remarkable is the fact that He is creating them still, though the latter miracle is considered not worth mentioning by any of the Bibleʼs authors. (I wonder why? The creation of new stars is being chronicled continually in magazines and journals like Astronomy, Sky & Telescope and The Astrophysical Journal, just to name a few.)

    And God is still creating new planets (that continue to form out of rings of matter circling stars—see the above mentioned magazines).

  3. Uninhabited Planets Have Their Own “Great Lamps To Light Their Nights & For Signs & Seasons”

    Genesis 1:16 depicts the sun and moon as “two great lamps” [literal Hebrew translation]. Those “great lamps” were made to “light” the earth, to “rule” the earthʼs days and nights, and, “for signs and seasons” on earth. But a couple thousand years after the Bible was written, astronomers discovered a curious thing about that “great lamp” the moon. They discovered that Mars has two moons. Yet Mars has no people who need their steps “lit” at night, or who need to know the “signs and seasons.” Even more curiously, it was discovered that Neptune has four moons, Uranus has eleven, Jupiter has sixteen, and Saturn has eighteen moons (one of them, Titan, is even larger than the planet Mercury). The earth was created with just moon, and it “rules the night” so badly that for three nights out of every twenty-eight it abdicates its rule and doesnʼt light the earth at all—at which time creationists bump into each other in the dark.

  4. Other Plants Raises the Possibility of Life on Other Worlds, From Simple to More Complex Forms of Life. But the Bible Says the Sun, Moon & Stars Were “Made and Set” Above The Earth After the Earth Had Been Created and to “Light the Earth” And For “Signs & Seasons [Literally, Holy Festivals]” on Earth

    What fraction of stars in our Galaxy might play host to planets that can support multi-cellular life? Lineweaver and others have calculated the probable extent of hospitable space for complex life in the Galaxy, called the “Galactic habitable zone.” The criteria include distance from deadly supernovae, enough heavy elements to form terrestrial planets, and enough time for life to evolve. Based on these criteria, the Galactic habitable zone is an annular region between 7 to 9 kiloparsecs from the Galactic center and contains about 10% of the Milky Way stars with ages between 4 to 8 billion years old. [The Milky Way, like most of the 100 billion other galaxies in the cosmos, contains roughly a billion stars.]–Science, Vol. 303, Jan. 2, 2004

    Keeping in mind the above “odds,” there may be plenty of possible planets on which life might exist. But what does that imply about the Bibleʼs understanding of the cosmos when interpreted literally as in Genesis and the New Testament? See the following quotations to understand the questions raised by the notion of “[intelligent] life elsewhere in the galaxy.”

“A New Heaven?” Even for People Living in Distant Galaxies?

According to the book of Revelation a “new earth” and a “new heaven” will be created after Jesus returns. Occupants of other planets throughout the hundred billion galaxies of our present “heaven” will no doubt be surprised to receive such an unearned favor, all because of what happens on our little world. Or is this simply another example of how the Hebrews viewed the earth as the flat firm foundation of creation with the heavens above created simply for the earth below?

Though it is not a direct article of the Christian faith that the planet we inhabit is the only inhabited one in the cosmos, yet it is so worked up from what is called the Mosaic account of creation, the story of Eve and the forbidden fruit, and the counterpart of that story, the death of the Son of God—that to believe otherwise renders the Christian system of faith at once little and ridiculous, and scatters it in the mind like feathers in the air.

Thomas Paine, The Age of Reason

So long as people believed, as St. Paul himself did, in one week of creation and a past of 4,000 years—so long as people thought the stars were satellites of the earth and that animals were there to serve man—there was no difficulty in believing that a single man could have ruined everything, and that another man had saved everything.

Pierre Teilhard de Chardin, “Fall, Redemption, and Geocentrism,”Christianity and Evolution

Did Jesus die uniquely to save the sins of human beings on planet Earth, or is he being strung up somewhere in the universe on every Friday?

Michael Ruse, “Booknotes,” Biology & Philosophy, Vol. 14, No. 1, Jan. 1999

The Tower of Babel

The tale of the tower of Babel is an explanatory myth, an early attempt to account for the diversity of language and the diffusion of humanity after the legendary flood of Noah:

And the whole earth was of one language, and of one speech. And it came to pass, as they journeyed from the east, that they found a plain in the land of Shinar; and they dwelt there. And they said one to another, let us make brick, and burn them thoroughly. And they had brick for stone, and slime had they for mortar. And they said, let us build us a city and a tower.–Genesis 11

Next thing you know, “God” “comes down” to “see the city and the tower,” but He complains that “nothing will be restrained from them which they have imagined to do,” or, “nothing they plan to do will be impossible for them.” So God decides to “confuse their tongues.”

But doesnʼt Godʼs complaint make more sense today than it did back then? Today we have accomplished things deemed “impossible” by the ancients. We have “measured the heights of the stars,” “searched out the foundations of the earth,” laid claim to the moon, sent space probes beyond Pluto, diminished or halted plagues (via modern plumbing, sanitation, vaccines and antibiotics), avoided deadly lightning strikes (via the invention of the lightning rod), greatly increased the odds of infant survival, etc. In short, we have reduced the destructive potentials of acts of nature that were previously considered “acts of God.” Mankind is also unlocking the secrets of DNA, and probably will unlock secrets of artificial intelligence too. All this despite the language barriers that “God” allegedly set up at Babel. Surely it is absurd to think that the same God who allowed man to develop all of the above marvels once pulled a hissy fit over a bunch of brick layers? (“And they said one to another, let us make brick, and burn them thoroughly. And they had brick for stone, and slime had they for mortar. And they said, let us build us a city and a tower.”)

Furthermore, compare the way “God” reacts in Genesis chapter 11 (the story of the tower of Babel) with how “God” reacts in Genesis chapter 3 (the story of Adam and Eve being tossed out of paradise). God complained about the city of Babel, worried that “Nothing will be restrained from them which they have imagined to do,” so God reacted by “confusing their tongues.” While after Adam and Eve ate the forbidden fruit “God said, ‘The man has now become like one of us, knowing good and evil. He must not be allowed to reach out his hand and take also from the tree of life and eat, and live forever.’ So God banished him from the Garden of Eden.” Such stories merely resemble the way all ancient gods were depicted, jealously guarding their “knowledge,” their secret of “eternal life,” or other divine things.

Let me add that all known languages were not imposed upon mankind once and for all at “Babel.” Linguists and etymologists have found that languages are a product of evolution and keep evolving. Just compare Old English, Middle English and Modern English. Or compare the various European languages that evolved from the Latin tongue spoken by people of the Roman Empire.

Today however, the number of languages spoken on earth is diminishing; thousands of languages have become extinct. I guess itʼs Babel in reverse. The “curse” has been reversed?

The Heavens Are The Lordʼs

The heaven, even the heavens, are the Lordʼs: but the earth hath he given to the children of men.–Psalm 115:16

So man was only “given the earth,” and not heaven. For “the heavens are the Lordʼs.” So should we not be afraid to have left footprints and garbage on the moon in the Lordʼs heavens? Should we not tremble after having launched spacecraft named after pagan gods (Mercury, Gemini and Apollo) into the Lordʼs heavens? Speaking of “Mercury, Gemini and Apollo,” the Bible even forbids mentioning the “names” of “other gods!” (Exodus 23:13) Seems to me that the same followers of the Bible who picket abortion clinics need to start picketing NASA. We need to stop mucking round in the Lordʼs heavens before something bad happens like it did at the “city and tower of Babel.” Space exploration must stop! Man was only given the earth! Just to be safe we also ought to point our telescopes away from the heavens. Itʼs an invasion of Godʼs privacy.

I was watching TV when the Challenger shuttle exploded. That was a sad thing. Was there anything that you could have done? Were you mad because they came too close to your territory? Weʼre sorry.

–Jose, in Childrenʼs Letters to God, compiled by Stuart Hample and Eric Marshall

A Chronology of the Raqiaʼ & “Waters Above the Raquiaʼ”

The Hebrew Past

  • Raqiaʼ is solid throughout the OT.

Fourth to Third to Second Century BCE

  • The Book of Enoch (in one of its oldest sections, “The Book of Watchers”) affirms a solid firmament.
  • •The Book of Jubilees affirms a solid firmament above which are half the waters of creation, and above which God lives. (Jubilees 2:4-5,8-10; 19:23-28)

Second Century BCE:

  • Hebrew scholars translate their Scriptures into Greek (the Septuagint or LXX version of the Hebrew Bible) and employ the Greek word stereoma, based on stereos, which means “firm/hard,” as the closest equivalent to the Hebrew word, raqiaʼ. And the Song of the Three Holy Children [found in some copies of the Book of Daniel after 3:23], says that “waters be above the heavens” and are called upon to bless the Lord, but after the reader is brought closer to the things of the earth, clouds are called upon to bless the Lord, thus distinguishing between the two.

First Century CE:

  • The authors of the NT assume a three-tier cosmos, consisting of God in heaven above, a flat earth below, and people/beings “under the earth” (Philippians 2:10; Revelation 5:3, 5:13; see also Ephesians 4:9–10).

Second to Fifth Century CE:

  • Origen, a second-century church father, calls the firmament, “without doubt firm and solid; and it is this which ‘divides the water which is above heaven from the water which is below heaven.’” Ambrose, a fourth-century church father, comments, “the specific solidity of this exterior firmament is meant.” Jerome, a fourth–fifth-century church father, and translator of Genesis from Hebrew into Latin, translates raqiaʼ as firmamentum, based on firmus, which means “firm/hard.” Augustine, a fourth–fifth-century church father, says, “the term ‘firmament’ does not compel us to imagine a stationary heaven: we may understand this name as given to indicate not that it is motionless but that it is solid and that it constitutes an impassable boundary between the water above and the waters below.” Augustine adds, “Whatever the nature of the waters [above the firmament], we must believe in them, for the authority of Scripture is greater than the capacity of manʼs mind,” a phrase echoed by Martin Luther as late as the fifteenth century.
  • Jewish writings agree with those of the Christian fathers: In 2 Enoch [dated by some to the first century CE] Enoch is placed on a cloud, transported above the first heaven, and shown “a very great Sea, greater than the earthly Sea.” The Testament of Adam says, “waters [mighty waves] are above heaven” and praise God in the fifth hour, while clouds are distinguished from such waters by being made in the sixth hour. Rabbinical works mention the firmament and the waters above it, and speculate as to the firmamentʼs composition and thickness. [For citations to statements made in the preceding two paragraphs, see Paul H. Seely, “The Firmament and the Water Above,” Parts I and II, listed in note 2.]

Fifth to Fifteenth Century CE:

  • Most medieval theologians follow the lead of the Bible and church fathers and claim with certainty that waters lay above the planets and stars. But what kind of waters? Thomas Aquinas says such waters must be material, but he adds that their nature depends on the composition of the firmament–as is his custom, he describes various possibilities. But the most popular view of the firmament is as a “sphere of fixed stars” above which lays a “sphere of water” in liquid or crystalline form, and by “crystalline” most mean “liquid.” Indeed, in the twelfth century, Bartholomew the Englishman explains that the waters above the starry firmament are called “crystalline, not because they are hard like a crystal but because they are uniformly luminous and transparent.” Such waters are said to reflect downward the light of the luminaries and to prevent the melting of the firmament. [Edward Grant, Planets, Stars, and Orbs: The Medieval Cosmos, 1200–1687, first paperback ed. (Cambridge, England: Cambridge University Press), 1996, p. 103; and Grant, “Journey Through the Spheres: The Cosmos in the Middle Ages,” lecture delivered at Rice University, Houston, Texas on Friday, March 14, 1997,]

Sixteenth Century:

  • Martin Luther, in his Lectures on Genesis, writes of “this marvelous expansion of thick mist Moses calls a firmament… (whose) Maker gave solidity to this fluid material.”
  • John Calvin, unlike Luther, is more influenced by astronomy than the Bible, and he writes: “Things that we observe plainly show the fixed stars are above the planets, and that the planets themselves are placed in different orbits… the sun, moon, and stars are not confusedly mixed together, but each has its own position and station assigned to it” [John Calvin, Commentary on the Book of Psalms, trans. James Anderson (Grand Rapids, MI: Eerdmans, 1949) Psalm CXLVIII, p. 305]. Calvin also admits that the biblical description of the moon as one of only “two great lights” is at odds with astronomy: “If the astronomer inquires respecting the actual dimensions of the planets, he will find the moon to be less than Saturn”; but Calvin excuses such a gaff by claiming Genesis 1 features a “gross method of instruction.” [Commentary on Genesis, trans. John King (Grand Rapids, MI: Eerdmans, 1948), pp. 79, 87; see also, Scott M. Manetsch, “Problems with the Patriarchs: John Calvinʼs Interpretation of Difficult Passages in Genesis,” Westminster Theological Journal 67 (2005): 13–15.]

    Iʼm willing to bet that the ancients, not having the benefit of Calvinʼs astronomical knowledge, held a more Lutheran view of the cosmos; compare their opinions below:

    • “Moses describes the special use of this raqiaʼ, ‘to divide the waters from the waters,’ from which words arise a great difficulty. For it appears opposed to common sense, and quite incredible, that there should be waters above the heaven” [Calvin, Commentary on Genesis, trans. John King (Grand Rapids, MI: Eerdmans, 1948) pp. 79, 87].
    • “Scripture simply says that the moon, the sun, and the stars were placed in the firmament of the heaven, below and above which… are the waters… We Christians must be different from the philosophers in the way we think about the causes of things. And if some are beyond our comprehension like those before us concerning the waters above the heavens, we must believe them rather than wickedly deny them or presumptuously interpret them in conformity with our understanding” [Martin Luther, Lutherʼs Works, vol. 1, Lectures on Genesis, ed. Janoslaw Pelikan (St. Louis, MI: Concordia, 1958), pp. 30, 42, 43].

Nineteenth Century:

  • Anglican theologians and scholars contribute to a book that sums up the growing challenge to interpreting Genesis and other parts of the Bible in a literal fashion. One contributor writes, “The root [of raqiaʼ] is generally applied to express the hammering or beating out of metal plates; hence something beaten or spread out. It has been pretended that the word raqiaʼ may be translated ‘expanse’ so as merely to mean empty space. The context sufficiently rebuts this” [C. W. Goodwin, “On the Mosaic Cosmology,” Essays and Reviews (West Strand, London: John W. Parker and Son, 1860), p. 220 n. 1]. Two contributors to Essays are indicted for heresy and lose their jobs, but are reinstated later. Published four months after Darwinʼs On the Origin of Species, more copies of Essays are sold in two years than of Darwinʼs Origin in its first twenty.

The Bibleʼs Geocentrism

For most of recorded history people imagined that their feet were planted on firm ground, terra firma. The view presented in the Bible is no exception. The Bible depicts the earth as the firm, immovable, “foundation” of creation:

Thou, Lord, in the beginning didst lay the foundation of the earth.–Hebrews 1:10

The sun, moon, and stars were created after the “foundation of the earth” was laid. (Gen. 1:9-18)

Who hath established all the ends of the earth?–Proverbs 30:4

He established the earth upon its foundations, so that it will not totter, forever and ever.–Psalm 104:5

The world is firmly established, it will not be moved.–Psalm 93:1 & 1 Chronicles 16:30

Where wast thou when I laid the foundations of the earth?…Who hath stretched the line upon it? Whereupon are the foundations thereof fastened? Or who laid the corner stone thereof?–Job 38:4-6

For the pillars of the earth are the Lordʼs, and he set the world on them.–Samuel 2:8

It is I who have firmly set its pillars.–Psalm 75:3

Who stretched out the heavens… and established the world.–Jeremiah 10:12

The only time the Bible depicts the earth as moving is during an earthquake:

The earth quaked, the foundations of heaven were trembling.–2 Samuel 22:8

The earth quakes, the heavens tremble.–Joel 2:10

I shall make the heavens tremble, and the earth will be shaken from its place.–Isaiah 13:13

There was a great earthquake…and the stars of the sky fell…as if shaken from a tree.–Rev. 6:12,13

Though the Fathers of Protestantism (Luther and Calvin) agreed with the Catholic Church of their day that the earth was a sphere, neither Protestant nor Catholic theologians could see a way to avoid the Bibleʼs teaching that the earth does not move. The verses regarding that matter appeared crystal clear to major religious leaders. They also agreed that the Bible teaches that the sun and stars move round the earth.

For instance the Bible says, “He can command the sun not to rise” (Job 9:7), rather than, “He can command the earth to stop moving.” That God would direct His command at the sun rather than the earth, implied a geocentric perspective.

Likewise, Martin Luther pointed out that when the book of Joshua discussed the miracle of “Joshuaʼs long day,” that day was lengthened because “Joshua commanded the sun to stand still and not the earth.” (Joshua 10:12) Speaking of the sunʼs movement, the Bible also states: “The sun rises and the sun sets, and hastening to its place it rises there again.” (Eccles. 1:5, NASB) The mere mention of “rising” and “setting” might be disregarded as being due to oneʼs earth-bound perspective, but speaking of the sun “hastening to its place” so that it may “rise there again,” is not so easy to explain away. It means the author of Ecclesiastes believed that the sun moved daily around the earth. Compare Psalm 19:4-6, “In [the heavens] He has placed a tent for the sun, which is as a bridegroom coming out of his chamber; it rejoices like a strong man to run its course, its rising from one end of the heavens, and its circuit to the other end of them.”

As for the stars, the Bible teaches that they too move across the sky: “From their courses they fought against Sisera.” (Judges 5:20, NASB) “The One who leads forth their host by number…Because of the greatness of His might and the strength of His power not one [star] is missing.” (Isaiah 40:26, NASB)

Even whole constellations of stars are “led forth” in their season: “Can you lead forth a constellation in its season, And guide the Bear with her satellites? Do you know the ordinances of the heavens, Or fix their rule over the earth?” (Job 38:31-33, NASB)

Modern astronomy teaches the reverse all of the verses above, namely that the earth “hastens to” spin and run its “course” each day; it is the earth that God would have to “command” not to move, and that Joshua should have commanded to “stand still,” and, the earth that God would have to “lead forth,” and “guide” in “its season;” and, the earthʼs “ordinances” not those of the constellations above it, that must be “fixed” in order for the constellations to appear to move as they do across the earthʼs sky.

But some Christians still side with the Bible over modern astronomy, like Dr. Gerardus Bouw, who rejects that the earth goes round the sun. He believes the reverse is true, based first and foremost on the Bible verses mentioned above. In fact, he is the president of the “Society of Biblical Astronomy” and he wonders how any Christians who say they believe the Bible “cover to cover” can ignore the Bibleʼs view of the earthʼs immobility and the daily (and seasonal) movement of the sun, stars and constellations, especially when the Bible adds that God is doing the moving (and commanding the halting) of the sun and stars. Is God a liar? Does the Bible depict God “commanding” and “leading forth” things that donʼt really move? Dr. Bouw believes the Bible means what it says. Besides, when God is depicted as moving the sun and stars (daily and seasonally), or stopping the sun (miraculously), or shaking an immovable earth (creating an earthquake), such actions are demonstrations of Godʼs “might.” They are either that, or “mighty deceptive” language for God to have “inspired.” Like telling people who start their cars and step on the gas that, “God leads forth the trees which speed by on the roadside… Because of the greatness of His might and the strength of His power not one is missing!” (cf. Isaiah 40:26). Therefore Bouw remains a geocentrist, just as the Good Book says he should.

Quotations Related to a Holy Heaven Lying Directly Above the Earth

We know that anyone who wants to go to God and the precincts of the Blessed is taking a needless detour if he thinks this means he has to soar into the upper levels of the air. Surely Jesus would not have taken such a superfluous journey, nor would God have made him take it. Thus, one would have to assume something like a divine accommodation to the world-picture people had back then, and say: In order to convince the disciples of Jesusʼs return to the higher world, even though in fact that world was by no means to be sought in the upper atmosphere, God nevertheless staged the spectacle of Jesusʼs elevation. But this would be turning God into a sleight-of-hand artist.

David Friedrich Strauss, Das Leben Jesu, 1837

The ascension story, as Luke tells it in the Book of Acts, assumes that Jesus rises in order to enter heavenʼs door in the sky to be enthroned at the right hand of God. But in a space age, rising from this earth into the sky does not result in achieving heaven. It might only result in achieving orbit. Luke did not comprehend the vastness of space. No one in his day did. He could not have imagined space travel. If Jesus ascended physically into the sky and rose as rapidly as the speed of light, he would not yet have reached the edges of our own galaxy. [And our galaxy is merely one of over 100 billion.—]

John Shelby Spong, Rescuing the Bible from Fundamentalism

It was the common belief among the Jews that the Messiah would transcend the greatest of the patriarchs and prophets; and if Enoch was translated, and Elijah went up in a fiery chariot, it was only natural that the Messiah should ascend to heaven.

G. W. Foote, Bible Romances, No. 14, The Resurrection, 1880

The ascension of Jesus into cloudy concealment seems to have been modeled directly upon Josephusʼ [first century] telling of the story of the ascension of Moses before the forlorn eyes of his disciples.

Robert M. Price, “Of Myth and Men: A Closer Look At the Originators of the Major Religions—What Did They Really Say and Do?” Free Inquiry, Winter 1999/2000

There were ascents into heaven made long before and quite apart from Jesus. The Roman historian Livy, described the ascension of Romulus, the founder of the city of Rome, who came to be venerated as a god: One day Romulus held an assembly of the people before the city walls to review the army. Suddenly a thunderstorm broke out, wrapping the king in a thick cloud. When the cloud lifted, Romulus was no longer on earth. He had gone up into heaven.

Stories of ascensions were told in antiquity about other famous men, for example, Heracles, Empedocles, Alexander the Great, and Apollonius of Tyana. Characteristically the scene is set with spectators and witnesses, before whose eyes the person in question disappears. Often he is borne aloft by a cloud or shrouded in darkness that takes him from the eyes of the people. Not infrequently the whole business takes place on a mountain or hill. (Gerhard Lohfink, Die Himmelfahrt Jesu)

From this standpoint, Jesusʼs Ascension was nothing out of the ordinary. Jesus too, disembarked from a mountain, the Mount of Olives, for heaven. The point is that from a mountain itʼs not quite as far to heaven.

Uta Ranke-Heinemann, Putting Away Childish Things

Millions of Muslims believe Mohammed “ascended into the sky” riding a horse. Makes me wonder whether Mohammed caught up to Jesus and galloped past? Or, being the gracious prophet that he was, gave Jesus a lift?

According to the Christian Bible, Jesusʼ ultimate moment of triumph, his big exit, his grand finale, when he rose “into the clouds” to be seated at the right hand of God, was witnessed by only a handful of people, all of them, “disciples.”

See also some posts on the ancient view of hellʼs location, such as this entry.

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