Updated: Oct 8, 2020
From Geocentric models to Heliocentric and from Steady State cosmology to the Big Bang theory, man has proposed many ideas of what the universe looks like. Of course all of them have problems. In fact the current popular model, the Big Bang Theory, has so many problems that its credibility has been in question for quite some time. Does the Bible offer any insight on this subject? It does indeed, and what it says might shock you.
The current popular cosmological model posits that while all matter and energy originated from a single point, the universe itself has no center. The Big Bang understanding of the expanding universe sounds rather counter-intuitive as every explosion has an epicenter, but scientists hypothesize that the space/time continuum actually curves back on itself (think of the surface of a balloon) and therefore no point can be called the center, while all points appear to be center from their frame of reference. This is an interesting 2D hypothesis but it was mainly designed to explain away a very unsettling 3D observation—namely that all points of light in the universe appear to be moving away from the Earth. The Doppler effect, or the "redshift" that we see all around us would seem to indicate that our planet is at, or near, the center of the observable universe. Indeed the man who discovered this redshift, Edwin Hubble, admitted as much in his book ironically titled The Observational Approach to Cosmology saying, "Such a condition would imply that we occupy a unique position in the universe, analogous, in a sense, to the ancient conception of a central earth. The hypothesis cannot be disproved but it is unwelcome... Regarding the possibility that the observer [is] in a unique position [this] unwelcome supposition of a favoured location must be avoided at all costs."
As Hubble noted, ancient civilizations who kept meticulous record of the movements of the heavens, such as the Mayans, concluded much the same—that Earth was at the center of the universe. The Greeks (Ptolemy) and Israelites held that belief as well. Jewish cosmology actually held that the universe consisted of three heavens of concentric circles, with Earth at the center. While this may sound rather simplistic to the modern reader, there is actually scientific evidence which aligns with this understanding. After Hubble discovered the redshift phenomenon, our calculations became more refined and precise and an even more unsettling pattern emerged—quantized redshift.
Quantized redshift is the observation that not all objects in space are moving away from us at random intervals, but that there is a very defined pattern. Galaxies surrounding ours are "quantized" or clustered into groups of set distances. In other words, rather than random placement, which is what one would expect using a Big Bang haphazard explosion model, galaxies are placed in "bands" surrounding us in concentric circles roughly 250 million light years apart. With the observable universe estimated at being 46.5 billion light years in radius, that would mean that there would be roughly 186 concentric spheres of galaxy clusters, of 1-2 trillion galaxies in total radiating outward from our location. This observation cannot be explained away by the traditional expanding universe model as geometry does not permit concentric circles to appear at any point of reference—only at or near the center of the radius. Think of the construct of the universe as a Russian nesting doll of over a hundred layers and galaxies painted on each one's surface with the innermost nesting doll being a single galaxy—ours.
Equally interesting is the fact that CMBR maps of the universe's microwave radiation show that the entire universe aligns with the Earth's orientation in space. It suggests that not only is the Earth at the center of the universe, but it is the North Star of the universe—the cosmos is oriented around our orientation. Our equator is the equator of the universe. Our Northern Hemisphere is the universe's Northern Hemisphere. Our axis of tilt, our ecliptic plane in relation to the Sun—all mirrored by the universe on the macro scale. When Dr. Max Tegmark discovered this, it radically challenged his view of the Earth's place in the universe, changing his perspective from humanity being insignificant in the cosmos, to believing humanity is spectacularly significant. Ironically, and a bit tragically, the shift from geocentric cosmology to heliocentric, to Newtonian, and eventually to Big Bang/Expanding Universe was all rather philosophical rather than scientific in nature. As Albert Einstein noted, "The struggle, so violent in the early days of science, between the views of Ptolemy and Copernicus would then be quite meaningless. Either CS [Coordinate System] could be used with equal justification. The two sentences, ‘the sun is at rest and the earth moves’ or ‘the sun moves and the earth is at rest,’ would simply mean two different conventions concerning two different CS." Scientific American interviewed George Ellis (co-author with Stephen Hawking) and quoted him saying, “People need to be aware that there is a range of models that could explain the observations... For instance, I can construct you a spherically symmetrical universe with Earth at its center, and you cannot disprove it based on observations... You can only exclude it on philosophical grounds... What I want to bring into the open is the fact that we are using philosophical criteria in choosing our models. A lot of cosmology tries to hide that.”
Hang on, you might say—maybe a geocentric model is credible after all, but tens or hundreds of concentric circles is much more than the three described in Jewish cosmology. That is true, but actually all of those concentric spheres of galaxies are contained in just one of the three heavens described in scripture—the second heaven. But let's back up and reconstruct the biblical cosmological model starting with Genesis.
A Biblical Reconstruction
Genesis 1:1 states that in the beginning, God created the heavens and the earth. Notice heavens are plural in most translations while earth is singular. The Hebrew word for "heavens" used here is shamayim, a plural word meaning sky, heaven, firmament, or abode. While shamayim can in some cases be translated as singular depending on the context, here it certainly is meant to be plural as Genesis goes on to describe the layers of these heavens. The "heaven" described in Genesis is created on the second day and separates the waters below from the waters above—which we'll get to later.
And God said, Let there be a firmament in the midst of the waters, and let it divide the waters from the waters. And God made the firmament, and divided the waters which were under the firmament from the waters which were above the firmament: and it was so. And God called the firmament Heaven. And the evening and the morning were the second day. -Gen 1:6-8 (KJV)
The waters below are those found on Earth—rivers, lakes and seas as well as subterranean water which is critical in understanding biblical geology, Sheol (discussed at length here), and Noah's flood. So this "expanse" (raqiya in Hebrew), or translated as the "firmament" in the KJV, is a "heaven" but again this should be read in the plural as Genesis goes on to break this heaven down into two distinct layers. In verse 14 the "firmament" of heaven is said to contain all celestial bodies—the sun, moon, and stars. So in modern vernacular, this "heaven" we would call outer space. The firmament consists of two parts however as verse 20 distinguishes the "open expanse" of the firmament as the place that birds fly. The Hebrew phrase used here is paniym raqiya , or the "face of the expanse." The paniyim raqiya is the first heaven that we would call sky. So Genesis defines and describes two "circles" of heaven, the paniym raqiya and the raqiya— the first heaven which is the atmosphere, and the second heaven which is the cosmosphere.
The third heaven is alluded to in the creation account, but isn't explicitly described. Simply called shamayim in the Old Testament, it is however the easiest to deduce and the one we most commonly associate with the word "heaven"—the abode of God. It is identified in Jewish cosmology quite explicitly in a New Testament passage however.
I know a man in Christ who fourteen years ago was caught up to the third heaven—whether in the body or out of the body I do not know, God knows. And I know that this man was caught up into paradise—whether in the body or out of the body I do not know, God knows— and he heard things that cannot be told, which man may not utter. -2Co 12:2-4 (ESV, emphasis added)
We see this hinted at in Genesis 1:2 where the Spirit of God is "moving upon the face of the waters." These waters are separated by the raqiya into the waters below (terrestrial and subterranean water) and the waters above. Above what? The raqiya, or the second heaven. In other words, there is a layer of water which separates the first and second heaven from the third heaven. Put more simply, there is a barrier separating God from His physical creation, or a layer of water separating the physical heavens from the spiritual heaven. This sounds shocking and speculative, so allow me to quote a few other passages which also reference this great body of water above the two physical heavens, starting with a very straight-forward statement by David.
Praise him, you highest heavens, and you waters above the heavens! -Psa 148:4 (NASB)
Note that the waters are above the heavens—plural. The following passages are a bit more spectacular in their descriptive language as they are from visions (as no man has physically seen these waters). The first appears to be from an earth-bound perspective looking up, while the others appear to be from a third heaven point of view, looking down.
When those went, these went; and when those stood, these stood; and when those rose from the earth, the wheels rose along with them, for the spirit of the living creatures was in the wheels. Over the heads of the living creatures there was the likeness of an expanse, shining like awe-inspiring crystal, spread out above their heads. -Eze 1:21-22 (NASB)
The word for "crystal" in the Hebrew here is qerach, which means ice, or condensed frozen water that forms ice crystals. There are other phrases which describe these waters as precious gem-like crystal, but this one is explicit that it is water.
and they saw the God of Israel; and under His feet there appeared to be a pavement of sapphire, as clear as the sky itself. -Exo 24:10 (NASB)
and before the throne there was something like a sea of glass, like crystal; and in the center and around the throne, four living creatures full of eyes in front and behind. -Rev 4:6 (NASB)
And I saw something like a sea of glass mixed with fire, and those who had been victorious over the beast and his image and the number of his name, standing on the sea of glass, holding harps of God. -Rev 15:2 (NASB)
In these visions of the heavenlies, we see that the floor of God's abode—the third heaven—is paved with an awe-inspiring crystal which is likened to sapphire (blue in color), but also described as clear, glass, and "mixed with fire" (red in color). These contrasting descriptions can be reconciled with the idea of a prism—a crystal which refracts light into different colors while being clear itself. Like in the Ezekiel passage, the Revelation passages both refer to this material as water. The Greek word krustallos, rendered as "crystal" in Rev 4:6 again means ice crystal and in both Revelation passages this is corroborated by the usage of the phrase "sea of glass." The Greek word for sea used here is thalassa which of course refers to water.
While Big Bang remains popular, there is growing discontent among scientists with its shortcomings and failures. It necessitates fudge factors like dark matter and dark energy, which despite considerable effort, we have yet to prove their existence. They were invented from necessity, not borne out by actual scientific observation. Many scientists would love to replace it with a model which better reflects our observations, and one was proposed back in the late '90's by the most famous and revered theoretical physicist of the modern era—Dr. Moshe Carmeli. Called Cosmological Relativity, it added a fifth dimension (velocity) to classical physics to account for the observable redshift in the universe (the four established dimensions are the three physical dimensions, plus the dimension of time). Astoundingly this model fit all the observed data beautifully without the need for unobserved dark matter or energy. However it was rejected by most scientists as it came to some rather uncomfortable conclusions. Cosmological Relativity, unlike Big Bang, begins with the assumption that the universe has a defined and unique center with Earth at or near it. It then posits that the universe is spherically symmetrical and expanding and accelerating outward from that unique center. While this may not sound vastly different from the Big Bang model, the implications are quite shocking. With a unique center and spherical symmetry, that would mean the universe also has a gravitational center which the Earth is at or near. This is important as gravity effects both light and time—the closer to the gravitational center one gets, the faster time moves. This model therefore posits that the Earth, being at or near that gravitation center, is relatively young while the universe around us appears quite old. This is because the further from the gravitational center of the universe you get, the slower time moves relative to that of the center reference point.
This phenomenon, known as time dilation, is not theoretical—we have observed the gravitational effects on time. Experiments using synchronized atomic clocks placed at the base and top of skyscrapers have shown those clocks to de-sync as the one at the top moves slightly slower due to being further away from the earth's gravitational center (higher altitude). The movie Interstellar plays on this quite heavily during a sequence when one member of the team is chosen to stay on board the ship while the rest disembark on an alien planet near an enormous gravity well. Due to their proximity to that gravitational center, hours pass for them, but when they return to the ship, their team member has aged several decades.
The Cosmological Relativity model posits that while the entire universe originated from the same moment in time, time itself stretches and slows down the further from that point of origin you get. This means that according to the time clock of Earth, the universe is quite young. At the same time, starlight is able to travel the millions of light years necessary for us to view it because while the speed of light may remain constant, the amount of time it has to travel increases as the distance from Earth increases.
To many this may all sound incredibly academic and unimportant to practical Christianity, and I'd agree to an extent. For me, one of the main reasons I like to ponder these things is because all too often in our modern society, we think we already know everything which can be known and we tend to view scripture as a dusty old book which contains no earth-shattering revelations. However, the truth is that the Bible contains a great number of teachings which should challenge our thinking and keep us in a constant state of awe and wonder—a view which was deeply held by the fathers of modern science. But there are also some intriguing theological parallels and implications of Jewish cosmology which are borne out in both the Old and New Testaments.
The key parallel we observe is found in the Old Testament structures of the Tabernacle and the Temple. Remember the tabernacle's design was dictated by God to Moses to teach the Jewish nation (and the nations surrounding them) of the ways of God. Each of the instruments and furnishings of those structures were given by God to Moses and specifically crafted to reflect a heavenly pattern, including the layout of the floor plan itself (Exo 25:9, 40). In the New Testament, it is again reiterated that those structures were actually earthly copies of heavenly realities.
Now if He were on earth, He would not be a priest at all, since there are those who offer the gifts according to the Law; who serve a copy and shadow of the heavenly things, just as Moses was warned by God when he was about to erect the tabernacle; for, "SEE," He says, "THAT YOU MAKE all things ACCORDING TO THE PATTERN WHICH WAS SHOWN YOU ON THE MOUNTAIN." -Heb 8:4-5 (NASB, emphasis added)
And in the same way he sprinkled both the tabernacle and all the vessels of the ministry with the blood. And according to the Law, one may almost say, all things are cleansed with blood, and without shedding of blood there is no forgiveness. Therefore it was necessary for the copies of the things in the heavens to be cleansed with these, but the heavenly things themselves with better sacrifices than these. For Christ did not enter a holy place made with hands, a mere copy of the true one, but into heaven itself, now to appear in the presence of God for us... -Heb 9:21-24 (NASB, emphasis added)
And the temple of God which is in heaven was opened; and the ark of His covenant appeared in His temple, and there were flashes of lightning and sounds and peals of thunder and an earthquake and a great hailstorm. -Rev 11:19 (NASB)
Now remember that the construction of the tabernacle (which the design of the temple was later loosely based on by King David and King Solomon) consisted of three courts or layers between man and God—the outer court, the inner court, and the holy of holies. Remember also that while many had access to the two open courts, only the high priest once a year had access to the holy of holies—the abode of God. Remember also that God's abode was physically separated from the two open courts by a thick barrier (Early Jewish tradition stated that the Temple veil was as thick as a man’s hand, although scripture gives no measurement)—a single piece of woven linen called the veil of covering. Intriguingly, the colors attributed to this veil in Exodus 26:31 are blue, purple, and scarlet—which are near identical to the colors described from visions of the floor of heaven (sapphire and fire). In fact, the description the Jewish historian Josephus gives of the veil is quite spectacular:
"Before these doors there was a veil of equal largeness with the doors. It was a Babylonian curtain, embroidered with blue, and fine linen, and scarlet, and purple, and of a contexture that was truly wonderful. Nor was this mixture of colors without its mystical interpretation, but was a kind of image of the universe; for by the scarlet there seemed to be enigmatically signified fire, by the fine flax the earth, by the blue the air, and by the purple the sea; two of them having their colors the foundation of this resemblance; but the fine flax and the purple have their own origin for that foundation, the earth producing the one, and the sea the other. This curtain had also embroidered upon it all that was mystical in the heavens, excepting that of the [twelve] signs, representing living creatures." -Wars 5.5.4
So it is not difficult to argue that the construction of the tabernacle was meant to reflect the pattern of the heavens—three layers with two connected and one separated by a beautiful and imposing barrier. What is equally intriguing is that though most of our modern interpretations and reconstructions of the tabernacle are quite modest and simple rectangular designs, a close examination of the biblical texts and actual physical experimentation by engineers would suggest that the tabernacle was actually a dome—concentrically circular in shape.
Now when Christ died, we know that this massive veil was torn—from top to bottom—but that detail may have more significance than we think: it may also be prophetic. That veil separated the presence of God on earth, from man, but there is another event at the end of the age which this seems to be a foreshadowing of... The removal of the heavenly veil—the sea of glass— which separates God from His creation.
Then I saw a new heaven and a new earth; for the first heaven and the first earth passed away, and there is no longer any sea. And I saw the holy city, new Jerusalem, coming down out of heaven from God, made ready as a bride adorned for her husband. And I heard a loud voice from the throne, saying, "Behold, the tabernacle of God is among men, and He will dwell among them, and they shall be His people, and God Himself will be among them. -Rev 21:1-3 (NASB, emphasis added)
Again, the word for "sea" used here is the Greek thalassa, though I admit this passage could have another possible interpretation. The immediate context of this passage is the descending of the heavenly tabernacle onto the new earth, permanently changing the location of God's abode for the first time in history. This is the consummation of the ages, the fulfillment of the biblical promises, prophecies, and foreshadowings—including that of the death and resurrection of Jesus. Therefore I lean toward interpreting this "sea" in that context—the sea of glass—meaning that the heavenly veil is destroyed from the top down as God descends to live among men. However, there may be another meaning, either in addition to, or instead of this one. In verse 4 it talks about there no longer being any death, and the sea is also symbolic of Sheol in the Bible. Specifically, Revelation 20:13 talks about "the sea giving up her dead" on judgement day, so the destruction of the "sea" may also be referring to death.
Regardless which interpretation you go with of the sea in Revelation 21:1, it is clear that the progression in scripture is that man is separated from God, Jesus' finished work on the cross removes the spiritual separation, and then at the end of the age God removes the final physical separation once sin is dealt with. The fact that this overarching narrative appears to tie in with Jewish cosmology is fascinating at the very least, but also illuminating of some curious biblical passages. The fact that the most preeminent theoretical physicists of the modern age spent over a decade formulating a cosmological model which neatly aligns with the biblical descriptions is astounding. Pondering these things helps keep me humble and in awe of both God and His timeless word and reminds me that despite how many times I've read it, there is yet more unfathomable truth to be discovered—and hotly debated. Because for now, we see through that glass dimly...
*For more information on the current state of cosmology and the implications that Earth is at or near the center of the universe, watch the science documentaries, The Principle and Journey to the Center of the Universe.