Monday, November 16, 2015

Modern vs. Ancient Cosmology

I have been posting here recently on the concept of heaven in the Bible (see posts here, here, and here).  In that discussion, I have noted that in the Bible, both Old and New Testaments, there is a spectrum of meanings: 1) the regions above the earth (sky), and 2) the dwelling place of God.  I have suggested that the second meaning of heaven as the dwelling place of God may be figurative or metaphorical, meaning that when the writers of the Bible used that word to depict God's abode, they were not thinking anymore of the literal sky, but rather were using the word figuratively.  James McGrath, in his own blog post has pushed back on my suggestion of a figurative use for heaven in the Bible, suggesting instead that there may be a 100% overlap between the literal use of heaven (sky) and the use of heaven as God's home.  The question is this: when the biblical writers used the word heaven to mean God's abode, did they have a 100% overlap with their notion of sky.  That is, did God literally dwell in the sky?

I am not sure that I can fully answer that question in a blog post, and I am not sure how substantive my disagreement with James may actually be.  I would agree with Dr. McGrath that certainly in places the two uses of the word do overlap completely in the Bible. Of course there are places where the ancients literally thought God dwelt in the sky.  What I was suggesting was that there may be a spectrum of meaning of the word in the Bible, where the writers are moving away from a 100% overlap toward a more figurative usage.  Certainly today the modern Christian conception of heaven as a non-physical reality where God dwells and where Christians will dwell in eternity is at one extreme of that spectrum where there is a 0% overlap with the other extreme where heaven literally means sky.  My question is, in the Bible, is there any movement along that spectrum toward a figurative usage?

And here is where worldviews come in.  I am thoroughly modern in my worldview.  When I think of earth and sky, I cannot help but incorporate my modern, scientific worldview.  That is, the sky, for me, is the earth's atmosphere that surrounds a spherical planet, that is one of 8(9) planets that revolve around a sun, that is a mid-sized star in a large galaxy, that is one of millions of galaxies.
Everything in the the universe except for the earth itself appears to me in the sky.  To say that God literally dwells in the sky is, for me with my modern worldview, a nonsensical statement.  Heaven as God's abode, for me, has to be figurative and cannot simply mean sky.  But, what about the ancients for whom the sky was something very different?  When the ancients looked up, they saw the heavens or sky as a dome resting above a flat earth.  Above that dome was an ocean.  The Sun, Moon, and Stars moved around in this sky.  The sky was completely inaccessible to humans, so naturally it was the abode of God in a literal sense (as McGrath holds).  My question remains though: did the biblical writers develop at all in their sense of God and heaven, and was there any movement along the spectrum toward a figurative usage of heaven as the abode of God yet without 100% overlap with a literal meaning of sky?  I think there may have been such movement, but perhaps, that is just my modern worldview talking and I am importing that view into the ancient writers' conceptions.  What do you think?


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  3. There may have been some movement away from the idea of heaven as the abode of God and angels which lay literally overhead, but even the early and medieval rabbis and Christians continued to view the home of God as "up there," though the medievalists seem to have placed God's abode further from the surface of the earth than did the ancients.

    See "The Cosmology of the Bible"

    Also see "The Holy Heavens of the Hebrews"

    Different Christians interpret away cosmological passages cited by others, from interpreting way the flat earth passages to the geocentric ones, to the young-earth creationist ones, to the old-earth creationist ones: