There are many passages throughout the Bible which appear to show that the authors believed in a three-tiered universe in which there were the heavens, the earth, and the underworld/waters. Some Christians argue that these descriptions were merely phenomenological: that is, the authors were writing as observers rather than attempting to report anything about the actual world. It is like when we say the sun rises, we aren’t actually intending to say the sun is orbiting the Earth, but rather just reporting something we experience: our perspective shows the sun rising.
Kyle Greenwood, in Scripture and Cosmology, argues that the biblical authors did, in fact hold to a three-tiered cosmology, and so the language should not be reduced to being merely phenomenological. He cites four strands of evidence for this conclusion:
First, whenever we find physical descriptions of the cosmos, it is described as three-tiered. Second, whenever we find… images or drawings of the cosmos, they are three-tiered. Third, nowhere… do we find the authors explaining their cosmology in any other terms besides the three-tiered system. Finally, we know that ancients thought of the cosmos in terms of the heavens, earth, and seas because eventually these ideas were challenged by Aristotle and Ptolemy, whose ideas were later challenged by Copernicus, Galileo, and Kepler. (69, cited below)
Greenwood’s argument seems to me to be quite convincing. If we want to hold that the Bible’s cosmology is phenomenological, we should have some textual evidence that demonstrates a different perspective was in mind. We don’t. Thus, when an author in the Bible speaks of the skies being “hard” (Job 37:18, for example), this reflects an ancient cosmology.
None of this does anything to undermine the authority or inerrancy of the Bible. Inerrancy, I believe, should properly be understood as meaning “The Bible is true in whatever it teaches.” (See my article on the term “inerrancy” and its usage.) The authors aren’t trying to teach us about cosmology, that’s just a background belief. They must describe the heavens somehow, and they used the understanding they had of the cosmos.
What do you think? Can we reduce the language of the Bible to being phenomenological? What reasons might we have for doing so? How might we best understand the Bible’s cosmology in light of other Ancient Near Eastern cosmology, and how could that help us understand what the Bible teaches?
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Kyle Greenwood, Scripture and Cosmology (Downers Grove, IL: InterVarsity, 2015).