The earth is still flat.

Let me preface this post by saying I am not a historian, a scientist, or theologian. I have only my own experience to lean on. My prayer is that I can speak from a place of humility on a sensitive subject; a divisive subject that I nearly lost my faith over.        

Most of you are probably familiar with Galileo. In the 1600’s he made the bold claim that the earth was round, not flat as was the common understanding of the day. This bold assertion was met with strong opposition from the church. The earth could not possibly be round. Clearly this notion was contrary to Scripture. There is more to Galileo’s story, but that is not point of this post.

In the 1859, Charles Darwin published the book “On the Origin of Species” in which he made the bold claim that life on earth came through a process called evolution. This bold assertion was met with strong opposition from the church. All life was created by God in the span of a week approximately 6000 years ago. Clearly the idea that species evolved into new species over billions of years was contrary to Scripture. There is more to this debate that pits science against faith, but I should probably get to my own story.

I was raised in a Christian home and attended Christian schools all my life. In high school, I was an active member of the youth group. I still remember my youth pastors warning before heading to college. “When you get to college, watch out. There will be professors/students who will challenge your faith. Check everything against Scripture.” These weren’t his exact words, but he strongly cautioned me about the faith challenges academia might bring.

This was a man who I hold a great deal of respect for even to this day. Perhaps I misunderstood his advice, but in general I shied away from anything that seemed to conflict with my understanding of Scripture. So this was true for the duration of my college career. It was a Mennonite college, so it wasn’t too difficult to avoid subjects that would have challenged the authority of Scripture (or at least how I understood it). So I made my way through college with my mainstream conservative Christian theology intact.

In regards to creation of the earth, I believed in a fairly literal interpretation of Genesis. God made the earth. I probably suspected the earth was older than 6000 years, but I was buying the creationist explanation that the flood was the answer to most challenging fossil records. In my mind, I was fairly certain that the earth was not billions of years old, and macro evolution (the idea that species evolved into new species) was invented by atheists trying to cut God out of the picture. In general, I avoided any evolutionist theories because they didn’t make sense in my Scriptural worldview.

It wasn’t till I was two years out of college that I seriously dealt with the evolution question. I was with a group of young adults biking across the United States. While all of us were on the trip for different reasons, one common thread was that we had questions. Questions about what it meant to be a young adult in the context of the church and what it meant to be followers of Christ in this day and age. An environment was created in our group where it was safe and actually encouraged to question some of our preconceived notions and to reexamine what we had grown up learning.

Five days into the bike trip, I stopped at a museum in Oregon to inquire about a camping site. At one of the exhibits, they described their discovery in that area of layers after layers of dinosaur bones separated by millions of years with completely different dinosaur species, plant life, and climate zones. Suddenly the creationist flood theory didn’t make sense. And I was forced to wrestle with what I really believed about how the earth was formed.

Several weeks after my encounter with this dinosaur exhibit, we had made it to Iowa, and I interviewed a college friend who is an evolution biologist and also a Christian. For the first time in my life I realized that the being a Christian and believing in evolution was not mutually exclusive.

After the trip ended, I continued to dive into the topic of evolution. I went to a local college’s series on Genesis. I watched a creationist video series to balance out what I was learning about evolution. The deeper I looked, the more this evolution idea seemed plausible and the sillier the creationist sounded trying to use Genesis as a science textbook.

By this time my faith felt like it was falling apart. If God didn’t make the world 6000 years ago in six 24 hour days, then Genesis had it wrong! If Genesis was wrong, what about the rest of the Bible? My faith built upon this literal interpretation of all Scripture was crumbling.

Fortunately the moderator at the local college that was hosting the series on Genesis pointed me to “The Language of God” by Francis Collins. Collins was the lead scientist on the human genome project. He is scientist who became a Christian later in life, and believes that God made his creation through an evolutionary process. In his book, he frequently referenced C.S. Lewis’s writing because Lewis was of a similar persuasion on the topic of evolution.

Wow. Here were two very smart dudes saying that it was possible to be a Christian and understand Genesis in a new light. My faith didn’t have to die! But it did need rebuilt.

Suddenly I had more questions than ever before. How do I understand Genesis? How do I interpret scripture? If God created the world through an evolutionary process, then physical death had to exist before the fall of man. But that seems to change some of the assumed theology that I grew up with! So was the fall of man all about man’s spiritual death? What is the soul? What separates us from an ape? What was the ensoulment process? How did we become human and how was God involved in the process? Did Noah really build an ark if there is no evidence of a worldwide flood?

The hardest part for me when I felt my faith crumbling was that suddenly God felt very distant. What happened to my personal God whose hands molded the earth? It seems like 14 billion years ago, in a great burst of energy, God started everything in motion, and left things go on its own. Does God really care about me? Is there really an afterlife?

What followed this meltdown of faith was a period of rediscovering faith. I still don’t have answers for all my questions, but today I cling to the hope that God does care. And this faith is now centered squarely on this Jesus fellow. He is real right? He came to earth claiming to be God’s son. By making this claim, he was either insane, lying, or really was God (a C.S. Lewis argument). I believe that he is God and that he will follow through on his promises for those who choose to follow his narrow way. And he cares for ME. He is a personal God, not a distant God, and my relationship will last long after my physical body quits on me and in ways I can not begin to comprehend now. This is what gives me hope, and what I am pinning my faith on.

So what is the point of my post? For those of you out there who are not followers of Christ, I want to say this. To become a Christian does not mean you have to say the world is still flat. Jesus called us to live in ways that didn’t make sense to this world, but he wasn’t asking us to abandon reason. The Pharisees were the religious leaders that lived when Jesus was on earth, and they had all sort of rules about what to believe. Don’t let Christians who insist the earth is flat get in your way of following Jesus.

To fellow followers of Christ, I offer this. Whatever your beliefs are about the origins of the earth, I’m not trying to change them. We should be able to agree that God made us. How he did it is open for debate, but it should not get in the way of allowing others to be followers of Christ. And don’t be afraid of the questions that may challenge what you believe. Questions have the power to refine your faith, and center it on what truly maters.

When I start to get preachy on this subject, my wife reminds me that my approach is no different then a right wing Christian who is pushing an extremely literal interpretation. So I apologize if I came across this way. No matter how well I think I have something figured out, I’m still learning to be humble and open to God’s teaching.

Thank you for taking the time to read my story. I welcome any feedback and would love to hear your own wrestling with this topic and what faith and theological implications it may bring.

Comments (13)

  1. Ryan

    Thanks for sharing your story—I think there are many out there who will resonate with this. My own story has similar themes, but I suppose I would describe it as a bit less traumatic. It was more of a gradual growing into a more expansive worldview which could accommodate both the findings of science and a genuine faith. I don’t resent my fairly conservative upbringing, but I do hope to help my own children bypass the dislocation and disorientation that come when the doors of higher learning are flung open.

    I think that young Christians need to hear stories like yours. Thanks again for writing.

    Reply
  2. Josiah

    Always use your God given intellect and seek the truth.

    Reply
  3. Scott F

    “By making this claim, he was either insane, lying, or really was God (a C.S. Lewis argument)”

    As you continue your intellectual journey, I would encourage you to double check any argument attributed to C.S. Lewis. I have found his theology and reasoning suspect. Even the famous Christian apologist, William Lane Craig considers Lewis’ trilemma (referenced above) as false argument for Christianity – the implication that Lewis foists on his audience that no alternatives are available is simply untrue, if poetic!

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  4. mennomom

    I can hardly be considered “young” at my age, but I do claim Anabaptist. As for the radical – you’ll have to check with others on that one and it would depend on whom you ask. Thank you, Denver S, for telling your story. I hope it is an encouragement to those who might be struggling in this area. I’m glad there were those that were present for you at the time of your questioning. Let me offer my perspective. With rare exceptions, children are concrete and take things they are told to be true literally, very literally. So adults who teach children in the church, and parents, need to be very careful in how Bible stories are told and how they are interpreted to a child. The Bible should be taught to children as story, not as a textbook full of factual information. Somewhere along the way, probably middle school and high school, the child matures and learns that there is a difference between “truth” and “information”. Something can be true and not literally factual. This requires even more skill and sensitivity on the part of church teachers and leaders. For me, it was never a big deal – maybe because I attended public schools all my life and I know that many of my teachers were committed Christians of many stripes. And thankfully, it was before the era of culture wars and the rise of the Far Right religious/political movements of recent years. I grieve for those in the church who had questions and forsook their faith because they were made to feel as if they had to choose between faith and reason. Many of life’s great questions are not solved by either-or or yes-no answers. Rather both-and or maybe or I don’t know leaves room for further exploration and reflection. It also leaves room for mystery and transcendence. I know I’m preaching to the choir here, but just want to offer my support. God can handle our questions; unfortunately, some of God’s people cannot and have much to answer for.

    Reply
  5. TimN

    Denver, thanks for sharing your story. Its a powerful reminder that faith need not be a narrow and brittle thing in need of defense from the big bad world around us.

    If you’re ever in Chicago I highly recommend the Evolving Planet exhibit at the Field Museum of Natural History. The exhibit vividly portrays the richness of life on this planet that existed long before we were. Not just dinosaurs, but mammals and sea life that look completely alien to us today. I’ve always been fascinated by evolution, but after walking through this exhibit I was struck by how much Creationism rejects and ignore the shear breadth, depth and complexity of God’s creation through time. Frankly, the God that we find through four billions years of Earth’s history is much bigger, richer and more complex!

    Reply
  6. mountainguy

    Interesting history (I am both christian and evolutionist).

    Ps: Not all medieval philosophers believed in a flat earth. It seems it was very common that some of them believed earth was spheric

    Reply
  7. Stephen

    Thanks for your story. But to re-iterate what mountainguy said, no one ever really believed the earth was flat. The Greeks knew it was round, Thomas Aquinas knew it was round. Everyone knew it was round when Christopher Columbus tried to find a way around it. Galileo knew it was round, and so did the authorities that opposed him. The argument was about whether the sun went around the earth, or the other way around.

    The flat earth theory was a myth made up in the late 19th century.

    Reply
  8. Tim Baer

    I’ve been involved in this conservation a lot lately. Stangely, I argued that using the logic “If one part of the Bible is false then it’s false” leads people away from the faith and others denied it this ever happens. Yet here you are, just a day or two later. Interesting.

    My opinions on the matter are probably worthless but I think both evolution and Biblical Creation are kinda silly.

    Reply
  9. DenverS

    Thanks for all the comments. I’d like to respond to a few of you.

    Mountainguy and Stephen, thanks for correcting my historical inaccuracies. You are right that disagreement was over a geocentric view (earth center of the universe) vs heliocentric view (sun is the center of the universe). But “The earth is still flat” is a way cooler title than “the earth is still the center of the universe”! Sorry, I didn’t mean to push factual inaccuracies to make a point. My main point is 400 years later, it is pretty clear that the religious establishment of that day got it wrong when science seemed to conflict with their Biblical understanding. Today I believe that main-stream conservative Christianity in the United States is making as similar mistake.

    Scott F, thanks for pointing me to William Lane Craig. I wasn’t familiar with him before, but you got me curious to look into some of his material. If I understand Craig’s argument correctly, it is false to assume that the only options are that Jesus was insane, lying or God. This argument is often used that Jesus can’t simply be understood as a moral teacher without accepting that he is God as well. An example of a fourth plausible argument is that Jesus was a legendary moral teacher. Many years after Jesus’ death when the gospels were actually recorded, Jesus’ claim to be divine, records of his miracles, and claims that he rose from the dead could all be part of the legend and didn’t necessarily happen. To be clear, my great hope is that this forth option is false. I guess I’m realizing that any time I try to use reason to explain faith, there always seems to be a counterargument. So perhaps that’s the problem, faith is faith, and can never be proven.

    Mennomom, I recently completed the adoption of my 11-year old sister-in-law. She was raised in a household that understood the Bible very literally. So I’m realizing the complexities of trying to gently explain some of these concepts to a daughter who sees things very black and white, while trying to not force a certain viewpoint on her. Thanks for your thoughts and ideas.

    Tim Baer, this isn’t exactly what you were saying, but it I want to ad that I still have a deep respect for Scripture. I think many ‘literalists’ believe that you can’t have a respect for scripture if you don’t believe the literal meeting of what is written. I don’t quite see it that way. Genesis still is full of truth for me. If you strip away its use as a science manual, and look at the truths it explores of God and His relationship to humankind, it keeps its value intact. But yes, I firmly believe that using black and white divisive arguments about the Bible can lead people away from faith.

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  10. Tim Baer

    Ya know, upon further thought a flat Earth would be kinda cool. Then again, a pain in the ass to traverse. You couldn’t go from LA to Japan over the Pacific. No siree, that’s all the way across that damn map.

    Reply
  11. SteveK

    I had a professor in my conservative Bible college once say to me, “Creationists work hard at trying to reconcile the Bible and science. If only they actually understood what the Bible said.”

    I have found this to be true. I reject creationsism– especially anything related to a young earth– on the basis of a literal understanding of the Bible. Even so, I don’t think Genesis 1 was ever meant to be taken as literal science– a comparison to Genesis 2 makes that clear.

    Also, on C.S. Lewis. I am the first to critique the man, but I have found that we have to separate Lewis from those who quote him. That passage quoted is actually misquoted. You read it in Mere Christianity, and Lewis was in no way trying to prove Jesus’ divinity by it.

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  12. celeste

    I recently began reading Dava Sobel’s book “Galileo’s Daughter,” about Galileo’s correspondence with his daughter Maria Celeste, who was a nun and his spiritual support during his conflict with church leaders of his day. I had not known previously that Galileo was a religious Catholic “who believed in the power of prayer and endeavored always to conform his duty as a scientist with the destiny of his soul,” Sobel writes.

    From Galileo’s writings:
    “Whatever the course of our lives,” he wrote, “we should receive them as the highest gift from the hand of God, in which equally reposed the power to do nothing whatever for us. Indeed, we should accept misfortune no only in thanks, but in infinite gratitude to Providence, which by such means detaches us from an excessive love for Earthly things and elevates our minds to the celestial and divine.”

    I take comfort in knowing that we who believe that a scientific search for truth need not reduce, but can actually expand, our sense of awe in God’s grandeur, are part of a long line of people who have struggled with these questions.

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  13. DragonSlayer

    A few comments on an interesting post:

    First, I’m not sure that belief in Jesus (as least as he is presented in the New Testament) is any more credible than a literal belief in the Genesis creation account. I hope I’m not misunderstanding you, but if you say that you believe that Jesus is God then you must believe at least some of the prophesised-Savior-virgin-birth-miraculous-works-died-for-our-sins-rose-from-the-dead-will-come-again storyline. How is any of that any more palatable or plausible than a literal reading of Genesis?

    Second, what parts of the Bible would you separate into fact and fiction. Creation, the flood, the Tower of Babel – easy to dismiss as fiction. The existence of a person named Jesus and the springing into existence of the early church – easy to accept as fact. At what point in the middle does it go from being just plain made up to being a more or less accurate representation of what actually happened?

    Third, sin isn’t a very popular topic in some churches today, but the traditional view (the Fall, Jesus as the new Adam, the conquering of sin on the cross, and the reality and prevalence of sin in our lives) seemed at the very least to have the virtue of being neat and tidy. In your opinion, where does sin fit in the evolutionary scheme of things? I think that you raised a similar question in your original post, but I’m wondering if you’ve had any ideas on the subject.

    Reply

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