Where Did the Idea of a Flat Earth Originate?

by Tim Chaffey

     Skeptics and Bible critics love to accuse young earth creationists (YEC) of believing in a flat earth.  Since we take Genesis “literally”[1] we must also believe in a flat earth.[2]  The Bible consistently points to 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).  He is referring to one moment in time but it is during different times of the day for various people.  He 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 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.  Last week, my daughter was taught the same thing at a private Christian school.  Nowadays, this story is accepted as historical but is it accurate?

     As early as the 3rd century BC, men knew that the earth was round.  This was based on scientific observations made by Eratosthenes.  He 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 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.

     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 claiming that the Medieval church believed in a flat earth.  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.[3]  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, Roger Bacon, and the Venerable Bede taught the earth was a sphere.

     This misinformation spread rapidly 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.   

     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 theologians’ 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.  Once again, it has been shown that the Bible is not at odds with modern science.  Rather, modern science confirms biblical teaching. 

[1] In a sense, YEC’s do not really “interpret” Genesis – we simply accept the text as it is written.  In another sense, everyone interprets so it may be fair to say that we interpret it “literally.”  This is the proper biblical hermeneutic known as the grammatical-historical approach.  In other words, the text should be taken “as is” unless something in the text indicates that it should be interpreted differently. 

[2] The Bible does not teach a flat earth.  It does speak of the “four corners” (Rev. 7: 1; 20: 8) of the earth but it is simply referring 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.

[3] As we have already noted, the Bible does not teach a flat earth, no matter how badly the critics may wish it did.

(updated 8/10/07)

(back to articles)