Friday, April 17, 2009

Cosmology and the Bible

If you are not familiar with the word cosmology, it merely means the the study of the origin and nature of the universe.

From the very beginning, the Bible teaches that we live in a three-tiered universe. We find this idea in the story of creation. And God said, Let there be a firmament in the midst of the waters, and let it divide the waters from the waters. (Genesis 1:6)

The original readers of these words, the Hebrews, understood this to mean that the earth was like a hemisphere floating on a giant body of water. The firmament was a solid, arched vault that sat over the earth. It had several functions: it supported a reservoir of water (Psalms. 148:4); it also supported the stars; and it was the dividing line between heaven and earth. In this solid dome were windows and doors that let moisture fall to earth in the form of rain and snow (Genesis. 7:11; Isaiah. 24:18; Malachi. 3:10).

Ancient people had no idea of the vast distances in our solar system, let alone the universe. They thought the firmament was close enough that birds could fly to it and cruise along its underside. The writer of the Book of Baruch adds additional details to the tower of Babel story. He said the people who built the tower (or ziggurat) wanted to find out what the firmament was made of: clay, brass, or iron. When they reached it their intent was to poke a hole in it (3 Baruch 3:7-8). Sounds like an early scientific experiment. Since God wouldn’t allow them to mess with his creation, he caused them to go blind and scrambled their brains.

Without modern technology and mathematics, people believed that God and other divine beings such as the angels lived above the firmament (The Lord is high over all nations, and his glory is higher than the heavens.—Psalm 113:4). Below the earth was a dark, watery place of chaos (The great dragon was hurled down—that ancient serpent called the Devil.—Revelation 12:9). Over the millennia, people have always assumed God lived "up there." People refer to the "Man Upstairs" and will raise their eyes or point upward when speaking of God. A familiar hymn sung in churches is titled "Glory to God in the Highest."

In this day and age we know that God doesn’t sit on a throne above the heavens. If you travel high enough you won’t be bumping into any angels flitting about. Many Christians have even began to wonder about Jesus ascending into the clouds. Even though the writer of Luke told two different stories (one in the Gospel of Luke, the other in the Acts of the Apostles) about how Jesus left his disciples, Christian tradition has always focused on the first story — that Jesus was bodily lifted into the sky on his journey to heaven. Contemporary Christians question this story. Even if Jesus had been able to travel at the speed of light in his journey to heaven, two thousand years later, he would not even have left our galaxy.

Does this mean that Christians today know better than our ancestors long ago? Have Christians stopped thinking that God lives "up there?" As I’ve mentioned before, psychologists like to try to find answers to human questions. Psychologists from Gettysburg College and North Dakota State University wondered if people still thought of God as being above the earth. Or in their words, did people "consistently employ descriptions of vertical space in both Christian and non-Christian religions?" The researchers also recognized that most people thought of the Devil as being "down there."

They devised a clever experiment to find out if people associated God with "up" and the Devil with "down." They did this by showing a series of four God-related words (Almighty, Creator, Deity, and Lord) and four Devil-related words (Antichrist, Demon, Lucifer, and Satan) on a computer monitor. The total of eight words were randomly shown either at the top of the monitor or near the bottom of the monitor. When the word appeared the subjects were supposed to indicate whether it was God related or Devil related. Sometimes the God words appeared near the top and sometimes near the bottom of the monitor. Likewise for the Devil-related words.

The researchers were not interested in whether or not people assigned the words to the correct category — God or Devil. They measured how quickly each person responded. The psychologists guessed that people would take longer to assign a word to the correct category if the word were in a mismatched space, namely, a God word at the bottom or a Devil word at the top.

The results verified what they thougth would happen. The subjects took longer to match the God word when it was at the bottom than when it appeared at the top. Here is how they explain their results.

It seems that our results are consistent with religious symbolism and ritual. Preachers, priests, or ministers often speak to their congregations from an elevated platform known as the pulpit. This practice intentionally or unintentionally builds on the sorts of perceptual representational processes examined here, with a higher vertical position suggesting a closer relationship to God.
Our data are also consistent with the frequent observation, in anecdotes at least, that higher realms of attention seem to promote experiences of closeness to God. Along these lines, it has been reported that military pilots and astronauts tend to have experiences of God when flying high above the earth Similarly . . . an upward eye gaze is generally associated with experiences of being closer to God. Such systematic links seem particularly amenable to conceptions of divinity emphasizing high regions of vertical space.
The authors of the study explain the reason people do this is because our brains have a mechanism for using metaphors for describing something that is not directly accessible to our senses. The human brain is a sensory-based organ. Consequently, when we need to describe and make sense of abstract concepts, we need to use metaphors to make sense of what we are attempting to communicate. Since nothing supernatural can be perceived through our five senses, humans need to use metaphors for describing God or the Devil. That is why humans use metaphors such as "up" to describe something as ineffable as God.

A final note. The study did not find as strong a relationship between Devil and "down" as it did between God and "up." The data also found no significant differences in performance between believers and nonbelievers.

If you want to read the original study, you can go to the Journal of Personality and Social Psychology (2007, Volume 93, Number 5, pages 699-710). I can also send you a copy of the article in PDF format if you send your request to

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