Recently, several conservative Christian media outlets reported on a geological discovery published in the journal Nature. Geologists have reportedly found more evidence of a watery layer between the earth’s surface and its core. Being a non-geologist, that’s about all I can say about it without making a fool of myself. I also can’t comment on the validity of this research, although it does appear that related discoveries have been in the news for several years. But, for the purposes of this article, it doesn’t matter. What matters is that these news outlets are telling Christians that these discoveries “[affirm] the Holy Bible’s explanation on where water on Earth came from”, according to Christian Today. The reference here is to the “fountains of the great deep” in Genesis 7:11 that, in the biblical story of the Flood, are one of the sources of watery destruction. In fact, this “great deep” shows up quite a lot in Scripture, leading some to expect that such an underground ocean literally exists.
As I wrote in November, these sorts of apologetic efforts stem from a well-meaning but misguided desire to “prove” the Bible’s authority by showing that it contains accurate scientific details that the writers couldn’t possibly have known without divine aid. The problem, as I argued, is that these attempts ultimately do damage to the Bible’s reputation by forcing it to provide information that it wasn’t meant to give.
But some Christians will respond, “why couldn’t the Bible predict modern scientific discoveries? After all, it is divinely inspired!” It’s a reasonable question. The Bible tells us about the nature of ultimate reality in all sorts of ways. Why not the nature of our physical reality as well?
An assumption behind these questions is that the Bible’s references to the natural world are basically interchangeable between the ancient and modern worldview. Thus, whatever words like “heavens”, “sea”, and “earth” meant to the original writers of Scripture, we can substitute our modern understandings of these words without doing harm to the text. In the case above, these Christians reflect this common belief. They assume that when the Bible speaks of a massive underground body of water, it can equally reflect a modern and ancient conception of this geologic feature.
The problem is that the biblical references to this underground ocean reflect an ancient cosmology that is completely, categorically, and irreconcilably different than our own. The “great deep” has no possible equivalent in modern cosmology. Equating the “great deep” in Scripture with any scientifically detectable underground body of water is to fundamentally misunderstand the ancient world in which it was written.
Kyle Greenwood’s new book Scripture and Cosmology: Reading the Bible Between the Ancient World and Modern Science, which is the focus of this series, demonstrates persuasively why this is the case. Part 1 of Greenwood’s book walks through each “tier” of the ancient universe, from heaven to earth to sea to underworld. He presents historical and archaeological evidence from the world of the Bible—the so-called “ancient Near East”—and shows how this cosmology influenced the biblical writers.
For the purposes of this essay, let’s focus on one particular feature of ancient cosmology: the “cosmic ocean”. The people of the biblical world assumed that what we think of as “outer space” is actually a universe-wide ocean. As Greenwood explains, this is an entirely rational belief if one pictures the universe based on everyday observation and intuition. Why is the sky blue? Where does rain come from? Ancient people figured that the sky was blue because there was a giant cosmic ocean high above the earth. Greenwood states that, “It was a nearly universal truth [in biblical times] that the sky was a solid structure…it served as a barrier for the upper waters” (54). And precipitation came from this cosmic ocean above the sky. Coupled with the common experience of finding water deep in the ground, “the ancients conceived of the earth arising out of primordial waters, called the cosmic ocean…the earth was thought to be surrounded by these cosmic waters” (62). This picture of the world is found in numerous literary and visual sources (many just discovered in the last century) and Greenwood details a large number of them.
Of course, just because the ancient Egyptians or Babylonians thought something doesn’t automatically mean the Hebrews agreed. After all, their beliefs about God were foundationally different than the polytheism of the surrounding pagan nations. And, as Greenwood readily admits, many modern scholars have over-emphasized the similarities between the Hebrews and surrounding cultures. But still, “the authors [of Scripture] shared a common cognitive environment that colored their view of the cosmos” (41), and so we should not be surprised that the Bible reflects these beliefs.
For biblical evidence, look no further than Genesis 1, which opens with a picture of darkness and watery chaos. Modern visual depictions of these verses assume a modern perspective of the universe, where the water is contained to the surface of the earth. But Genesis portrays these waters as the backdrop of the whole story of creation. Here are verses 6-7 in the NRSV translation:
6 And God said, “Let there be a dome in the midst of the waters, and let it separate the waters from the waters.” 7 So God made the dome and separated the waters that were under the dome from the waters that were above the dome. And it was so.
These verses only make sense if the whole universe is filled with water. The picture here is God blowing a bubble of habitable space in the middle of the cosmic sea and placing a barrier to keep the waters from crashing down onto earth. Interestingly, the heavenly bodies (sun, moon, and stars) are “set…in the dome” (1:17), under the “waters above”, rather than above them. So again, the picture is of cosmic waters encircling the entire universe, including stars and planets (which ancients assumed were attached to the solid dome). Greenwood concludes: “As was the case with ancient Israel’s neighbors, the land mass they called earth was thought to be surrounded by water—east and west, above and below” (95, emphasis mine).
Christians have tried a variety of strategies to get around the plain sense of this passage, including the “vapor canopy” theory in which this “dome” is a dense blanket of pre-Flood water vapor. Young-earth creationist ministry Answers in Genesis formally renounced this theory in 2009 because of multiple biblical and scientific problems with the idea. But the most common approach among Christians is to relativize the image by using the word “expanse” instead of “dome” in many translations. This way, the verses are less eye-raising for modern people who no longer believe in a cosmic ocean or a solid barrier in the sky. But when the Bible refers to the sky—particularly when praising God for his creation—it frequently uses the language of a solid dome (the word translated as “dome” in Genesis 1:6-7, raqia, refers elsewhere in the Bible to metal being hammered into sheets). And as we’ve already seen, any attempt to equate the biblical imagery with our modern conceptions of sky and atmosphere misunderstands the way ancient people thought of the universe.
Thus, to overlap the modern and ancient cosmologies in any scientific way is to render both cosmologies incoherent. This is why Christians need to stop saying things like “an underground ocean proves the Bible”. We cannot look to the Bible for scientific data about the “waters below” while simultaneously ignoring or relativizing what it says about the “waters above”. Do we really want an apologetic in which the truth of the Bible depends on the accuracy of scientific beliefs of ancient cultures? As I argued in the first post in the series, trying to defend our faith in this manner is an open invitation for scorn from thoughtful, informed individuals.
How do we defend the authority of the Scriptures, particularly as it pertains to creation, when its writers’ conception of the physical universe is based on a cosmic ocean that doesn’t exist? To quote the back cover of Greenwood’s book, “what does the dome of heaven have to do with deep space?” We’ll cover Greenwood’s answer to this question in the next two parts in the series, as he surveys the history of Christian encounters with biblical cosmology (think: Galileo) and offers a compelling vision for the relevance of the Scriptures for contemporary times.