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Ancient vs Modern Cosmology

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I wanted to take a session to discuss and revisit something we’ve talked about before in our series on the Supernatural by Dr. Michael Heiser. This will come up again later in the Fall on our study over Genesis. And that is the concept of Cosmology. I think one of the biggest problems in the Western Church today is to think about the Bible more in literalistic terms. Rather than Theological terms. What I mean by this is that often the way we approach the Bible is that of an English speaking modern person. Now initially you may say. How can I do it any other way? What I am trying to communicate is that we often end up thinking know what the Bible is saying. When at the same time we are completely missing the culture to which that Bible is inextricably bound. We have to let the Bible be what it is. In the culture to which is was brought. Then let our Theology be developed out of both the Bible (in it’s original language and context), as well as the culture to which is was born.

The Old Testament and the Ancient Near Eastern Worldview

Proper interpretation of the Bible requires an understanding of the original context in which it was written. This is particularly true for the Old Testament. God chose a specific time, place, and culture—the ancient Mediterranean and the ancient Near Eastern world of the second and first millennia bc—in which to inspire faithful persons to produce what we read in the Old Testament. Understanding their worldview leads to more faithful understanding on our part, since misinterpretations result from assuming that the biblical writers thought, believed, and acted as we do.
Although this ancient world is unfamiliar to most of us, it would have been even more unfamiliar to students of the Bible living prior to the archaeological discoveries of the late 19th and early 20th centuries. The languages of the ancient Sumerians, Babylonians, Egyptians, and Canaanites were deciphered within the past 200 years. The intimate relationship between the Old Testament and the literature and ideas of these civilizations became accessible only after such developments in ancient history and archaeology. This opened an extraordinary window for understanding what the biblical writers meant. These connections are especially significant for our understanding of .[1]
[1] Heiser, M. S. (2012, 2016). The Old Testament and the Ancient Near Eastern Worldview. In Faithlife Study Bible. Bellingham, WA: Lexham Press.
One of those Theological concepts is Cosmology. Now I know we’ve used that term before. But I want to back up and define it. And then briefly flush our the differences that appear as a result of our modern view vs what the ancient culture of the Bible actually believed.


So let’s start by defining our terms. The term “cosmology” is composed of the Greek terms for “world” (κόσμος, kosmos) and “study of” (λογία, logia). The related term “cosmogony”—composed of the Greek terms for “world (κόσμος, kosmos) and “to become, be created” (γίνομαι, ginomai)—refers to any theory describing the origins of the world. In the ancient world, these two ideas are often difficult to separate.

What is Cosmology?

The term “cosmology” refers to the way in which we understand the structure of the universe. The biblical writers’ concept of how the heavens and earth were structured by God represents a particular cosmology. This cosmology involves ideas about where God dwells within the known “universe” and reflects the writer’s experience or understanding of the world, not historical or scientific fact. For example, cosmologies include descriptions about places and events humans do not experience until death or unless permitted to do so by an act of God.

Old Testament Cosmology

The Israelites believed in a universe structure that was common among the civilizations of the ancient Near East. This structure included three parts: a heavenly realm for the gods, an earthly realm for humans, and an underworld for the dead. The vocabulary of the Israelites’ cosmology is also similar to that found in the literature of Mesopotamia, Egypt, and Canaan.
The three tiers are reflected in the Ten Commandments: “You shall not make for yourself a carved image, or any likeness of anything that is in heaven above, or that is in the earth beneath, or that is in the water under the earth” (; compare ; ). This cosmology is also affirmed in and .

The Heavens

presents a basic understanding of the heavens: “And God said, ‘Let there be a vaulted dome (raqia') in the midst of the waters, and let it cause a separation between the waters.’ So God made the vaulted dome, and he caused a separation between the waters which were under the vaulted dome (raqia') and between the waters which were over the vaulted dome. And it was so. And God called the vaulted dome (raqia') ‘heaven.’ ” The vaulted dome was believed to be solid and thought to hold back the waters above it, preventing them from falling on the earth.
The vaulted dome, sometimes called the firmament (and sometimes equated with the sky), was seen as connecting to foundations that went deep below the sea. The dome surrounded the earth with its edge meeting at the horizon—the boundary “between light and darkness” (; compare ). This explains verses like: “When he made skies from above, when he founded fountains of the deep” () and “With [God] can you spread out the skies, hard as a molten mirror?” ().
The vaulted dome was thought to be supported by the tops of mountains, because the peaks appeared to touch the sky (e.g., ). The heavens had doors and windows through which rain or the waters above could flow upon the earth from their storehouse above the dome (; ; ; ).
describes waters above and below the solid firmament, a belief also reflected in . God was thought to dwell above the firmament, as described in : “Thick clouds are a covering for him, so that he does not see; and he walks about on the dome of heaven” (compare ; ).

The Earth

The earth sat atop the watery deep. The “waters below” refers not only to waters that humans use but also the deeper abyss. Thus, the earth was seen as surrounded by and floating upon the seas (), having arisen out of the water (). The earth was thought to be held fast by pillars or sunken foundations (; ; ).

The Underworld

The realm of the dead was believed to be located under the earth. The most frequent Hebrew term for this place was she’ol, often transliterated in English Bibles as Sheol or translated as the realm of the dead, or even the grave (; ; ). At times, the Hebrew word for “earth” (ʾerets) is also used to describe the underworld, since graves were believed to represent gateways to the underworld. In Job, the realm of the dead is even described in watery terms: “The spirits of the dead tremble below the waters and their inhabitants” (). Jonah’s description is perhaps the most vivid. Although he is located in the belly of the great fish, Jonah says he is in the underworld: the watery deep at “the foundations of the mountains,” a “pit” that had “bars” that closed forever ().
This worldview shaped the Old Testament and illustrates how the Bible uses the language of its time to explain its perspective and to glorify Yahweh.[1]
So a visual representation of the Ancient Hebrew Conception of the Universe might look like this.
[1] Heiser, M. S. (2012, 2016). The Old Testament and the Ancient Near Eastern Worldview. In Faithlife Study Bible. Bellingham, WA: Lexham Press.

Big Bang Cosmology

Modern Cosmology has a different perspective. Big bang cosmology is a widely accepted theory regarding the origin of the universe (see Evolution, Cosmic), according to which the material universe or cosmos exploded into being some 15 billion years ago. Since then the universe has been expanding and developing according to conditions set at the moment of its origin. Had these conditions been different in the slightest degree, the world and life as we know it, including human life, would never have developed. The fact that conditions necessary for and favorable to the emergence of human life were determined from the very instant of the original cosmic explosion is called the anthropic principle.[1]
Modern cosmology views the world in light of science.
The modern cosmology that emerged from observational astronomy in 16th century Europe meant a radical break-away from earlier conceptions of the world. While all ancient and nonwestern worldviews usually describe a multidimensional reality in which diverse environmental, economic, sociopolitical and ideological factors intersect, modern cosmologies espouse the vision of a radically different universe which is completely dehumanized, ethically indifferent and universally valid. Despite these differences cosmology and worldview tend to be used interchangeably to depict ancient and nonwestern worldviews. Any correspondences which can be found between different parts of ancient and/or nonwestern worldviews and modern cosmologies tend to transfer modern conceptions to the premodern world. Ignoring ancient cultural contexts, we risk imposing modern cosmological concepts on past worldview categories. While we have to describe ancient astronomies in our own terms, our ultimate goal is to understand them on their own terms.
So this should raise some obvious questions. Did the ancient hebrews have the same categories as our modern point of view? If the ancient hebrews did not have a concept of a Blue Planet. Then what ramifications does that have for the way we approach the first chapters of our Bible?
Much of our modern view of origins (sub-planted by our scientific culture) influences our interpretation. This much is sure and without question. But the question is... as science progresses and discoveries are made. Does this move us closer to understanding God or farther from it or Him? I think the answer to that question may just lie in our approach!
As science progresses. It presumes
[1] Geisler, N. L. (1999). Big Bang Theory. In Baker encyclopedia of Christian apologetics (p. 102). Grand Rapids, MI: Baker Books.
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