Does the Bible really teach a three-storey cosmology?
Originally published in The Hermeneutical Problem of Genesis 1–11, Themelios 4(1):12–19, September 1978.
Sometimes it seems that those who claim that the Bible used the symbols of its day are merely trying to say that it used a naive as opposed to a scientific cosmology, or, to put it more popularly, it did not bother to correct the prevalent three-storey cosmology. If we assume for the sake of the argument that this is the case, then it should be clearly recognized that all we have established is that scientific dogma should not be made out of biblical cosmology. The argument has no relevance to other parts of the account like the creation of animals, man, etc. Unfortunately this argument is generally used without this careful delimitation. Generally it is argued that the fact that one element shows the use of non-scientific concepts proves that the whole uses naive ideas whose details may not be pressed.
Yet once more the validity of the basic premise must be questioned. Was there ever a pure ‘three-storey universe’ idea in antiquity? For the pagan contemporaries of the Bible writers, cosmology was theology. The heavens expressed and were controlled by the various divinities. The sort of abstract spacial/mechanical interest involved in the idea of a three-storey universe is a product of the demythologization of Greek rationalism and Euclidian spacial concepts. One should not try to project a late idea back into biblical times in order to explain the Bible. In its rejection of polytheism biblical cosmology is of necessity radically different to its surroundings. It is not popular cosmology.
Secondly, what is so wrong about a ‘naive cosmology’? It is probably as close to the ultimate truth as modern cosmology. If we had not deified modern science we would not be embarrassed by those points in which biblical thinking diverges from prevailing modern ideas. Certainly biblical cosmology fits into a different structure of thought from modern cosmology, but it is the validity of that very structure of thought that is at issue. We tend to assume that the assumptions underlying modern physics are unquestionable. If we assume the validity of the structure of physics from any period with its philosophical presuppositions and concomitants1 we run the risk of accepting a structure which, because of its ultimate origin in a total humanistic philosophy, must clash with a biblical world view. What has generally happened is that the structure and method of modern science has been accepted as truth. When the conflict between this and a biblical view has been appreciated, an attempt has been made to give the biblical view a validity in some sort of restricted religious sphere. The basic question is whether our interpretation of the Bible is to be determined by the Bible itself or by some other authority. Once science has been set up as an autonomous authority it inevitably tends to determine the way in which we interpret the Bible. From the point of view of this discussion the outside authority may be Newton or Hoyle just as well as Darwin or Kant. The issue involved is still the same.
- For discussion of the philosophical presuppositions of physics, old and new, see M. Capek, The Philosophical Impact of Contemporary Physics (Princeton: Van Nostrand, 1961). Return to text.