By Jeff Boldt

Christians can be pretty forgetful. When you’ve been around 2000 years, it happens. For example, the Bible teaches that creation is the temple of God and that we are priests in that temple. Early Christian interpreters took this for granted, as did medieval and even early modern interpreters. We don’t. It would be fitting, though, this Christmas season, if we were to recover some of this vision, in light of the fact that “the Word became flesh and tabernacled among us” (John 1:14). Creation indeed has become God’s dwelling.

Every Christian group remembers its favorite era, and forgets the rest. Evangelicals wish they lived in the first century. The Orthodox want to relive the Byzantine empire. Some Protestants wish they lived during the sixteenth century Reformation. Anglicans dig the 60s, apparently.

When I was first exploring the Anglican Church, I would run into these puzzling men brought up on 1960s scholarship who thought they had to throw out most of the Bible because it taught a “three-story universe.” This is the idea that God literally lives in heaven above, we on earth, and the dead below the earth. Living many decades after the 60s meant I couldn’t understand the relevance of their concern, and as an artist, I found it hard to understand people who couldn’t think symbolically. Heaven is not literally up. Instead, “up” signifies God’s transcendence –– his infinite greatness in comparison with creation. Hell is “down” in order to signify our humiliation by sin and the grave. Scientific problem solved.


I’ve begun to wonder whether there isn’t a bigger problem. After all, the creation account in Genesis 1 not only puts heaven above the earth, but separates them by the “firmament” –– a solid structure that holds up the heavenly realm. In modern cosmology, there’s no such thing as a firmament. On the one hand, lots of folks add this to the list of reasons to ignore the Bible. On the other, if you’ve watched “Beyond the Curve,” you’ll know there’s a growing movement of flat-earthers committed to a three-story universe.

The first thing to say is that biblical cosmology is not “ancient science,” though there are three groups that think it is. “Fundamentalists” think Scripture gives us true science –– a science that’s better than modern science. On the other side, opponents of religion want us to believe the Bible’s cosmology is ancient science so that they can discredit Scripture. Finally, there’s the Liberal Christian tradition which says that the biblical writers taught science, and that their science is conveyed through myths, which are glorified guesses. In hindsight we know they’re wrong. Still, Liberal Christians can separate kernels of truth from the indigestible husk of Genesis 1.

All three of these alternatives are wrong. Scholars of mythology don’t think ancient people –– let alone biblical authors –– were trying to do science. Contrary to popular myth, the vast majority of Christian interpreters prior to Christopher Columbus believed the earth was round. These traditional interpreters thought that when the Bible’s cosmology used words like “firmament,” they were figurative –– representing something deeper. (Hint: the deeper truth always has to do with Jesus.)

So, what’s the truth about the cosmos in Scripture? What does it tell us about God? We need to move on from immature thinking about Scripture to full maturity. Hebrews 5:13–6:3 says that the basics of faith have to do with repentance, faith and works, baptism, the reception of the Holy Spirit, and the last things. The greatest mystery, however, is the Cross, which is solid food. Indeed, the meatiest part of Hebrews is its deep teaching about Christ as the priest of creation.

Priesthood is central to a Christian understanding of creation, because the Bible teaches that creation is God’s temple and humans are priests in that temple.

The Israelites built temples as microcosms of creation. The tabernacle built by Moses and the temple built by Solomon were divided into three parts that correspond to the “three-story universe” in Genesis 1. The outer courtyard, the holy place, and the most holy place where the ark of the covenant — God’s “footstool” — sat. Laid horizontally, the tabernacle-temple corresponded to heaven, earth, and under the earth.

If the Jewish temple was a microcosm, then the cosmos itself was one large temple. When God gave Moses a blueprint for the tabernacle, it was simultaneously a blueprint of the universe laid out in Genesis 1. This is why the Bible constantly contrasts the Jewish temple, “made by hands,” and the cosmic temple “not made by hands”:

 This is what the Lord says:

“Heaven is my throne,
and the earth is my footstool.
Where is the house you will build for me?
Where will my resting place be?
Has not my hand made all these things,
and so they came into being?”
declares the Lord. (Isaiah 66:1-2)

… the Most High does not live in houses made by human hands. (Acts 7:48)

[Levitical priests] serve at a sanctuary that is a copy and shadow of what is in heaven. This is why Moses was warned when he was about to build the tabernacle: “See to it that you make everything according to the pattern shown you on the mountain.” (Heb. 8:5)

In other words, the temple God has chosen to dwell in is creation, which is the temple he made for himself.

This is also clear from Genesis 2 and 3, because the Garden of Eden is the “most holy place” on earth where God comes to walk with Adam, whose job was to “till the earth.”  Hebrew uses the same word for “tilling” and for serving as a priest in the temple. Adam was a priest. But he failed to do his job, and he was expelled from the holy of holies. Cherubim covered the entrance to Eden so that he couldn’t come back.

Similarly, when God gave Moses the blueprint for the tabernacle, the holy of holies was blocked off by a curtain embroidered with stars, just like the firmament that separated heaven and earth in Genesis 1, and with the angels that separated Eden from earth in Genesis 3.

One of my favorite children’s books is The Garden, the Curtain, and the Cross. Here’s how it tells the story:

To show [Adam and Eve] they had to stay outside, God put some warrior angels in front of the garden. The angels were like a big KEEP OUT sign…. God wanted people to remember: It is wonderful to live with him… but because of your sin, you can’t come in. So he told the people to build a special building called his temple, where he would live. In the middle of the temple was the most wonderful place in the world –– the place where God was, with nothing bad and nothing sad. It was VERY exciting …  But then God told people to put A BIG CURTAIN around this wonderful place. The curtain had pictures of warrior angels on it. It was a big KEEP OUT sign. For hundreds of years, the temple curtain reminded people that God said,  It is wonderful to live with him… but because of your sin, you can’t come in. … Hundreds of summers and winters passed by, and the KEEP OUT curtain stayed in the temple. Then, one day, God’s Son came to live in this world… He was called JESUS.

The book of Hebrews has Jesus fulfill the priestly role of Adam (2:5-9 with reference to Psalm 8). No Levite in Israel was able to do this fully, since they were all sinners and they all died. Jesus, however, was sinless and eternal.

The Gospel records that when “Jesus breathed his last,” “The curtain of the temple was torn in two from top to bottom” (Mark 15:37-38). Adam’s sin was reversed! As a result, Hebrews says

Therefore, brothers and sisters… we have confidence to enter the Most Holy Place by the blood of Jesus, by a new and living way opened for us through the curtain, that is, his body… (Heb. 10:19-20).

Jesus’s body is the curtain; it is the firmament between heaven and earth, between us and God. And when Christ’s body was torn by thorns, and nails, and spears, the way back to Eden was opened. We can ascend to the top of the “three-story universe”… or, that’s what the symbolism implies.

At the same time when Jesus was baptized it says, “when he came up out of the water, immediately he saw the heavens being torn open and the Spirit descending on him like a dove” (Mark 1:10). The firmament is open, the Spirit floods down on us.

Because of Christ, heaven and earth are connected by a two-way street again –– a ladder. “You will see heaven open and angels of God ascending and descending on the Son of Man” (John 1:51). We can ascend to God, and his Spirit can descend on us.

The priesthood of believers is an extension of Jesus’ priesthood. With the descent of the Holy Spirit, it is tempting to think that we automatically carry him everywhere we go, that by our own priestly efforts we are “furthering the kingdom,” or that we are joining heaven to earth. Luther warned us about such “theologies of glory.”  Our ascension is only the result of a prior descent with Christ to the lower parts of the earth. When the Son of God took the “form of a servant” and “emptied himself” in death (Phil. 2), he poured out the Holy Spirit on us. Likewise, the Holy Spirit will be poured out of our bodies when we obediently embrace a holy death. Then our descent to the grave will truly be an ascent to the throne of God. For those with ears to hear, this is the mystery of the three-story universe.

Jeff Boldt has a Th.D. from Wycliffe College and serves as a priest at Trinity Church Streetsville in Mississauga, Ontario.


Further Reading

St. Ephrem the Syrian: Hymns On Paradise. Crestwood, N.Y: SVS Press, 1997.

Numbers, Ronald L., ed. Galileo Goes to Jail and Other Myths about Science and Religion. Cambridge, Mass.: Harvard University Press, 2010.

Walton, John H. The Lost World Of Genesis One. Downers Grove, Ill: IVP Academic, 2009.

Watch The Bible Project


About The Author

The Rev. Dr. Jeff Boldt is a professor of theology at the Alexandria School of Theology.

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6 Responses

  1. Michael F

    I like the work of Numbers and Walton, and Jeff Boldt’s essay is full of good ideas. But the organization of the piece is very chaotic and lacks cohesion. And personally I dislike writing that levels accusations without naming those accused. Who are these “puzzling men” advocating the rejection of the Bible because of its three-tiered universe? And what is this “1960s” scholarship Boldt has in mind? I suspect he is thinking of people like John A. T. Robinson and John Knox, but that would be a misrepresentation of the scholarship in that period, or at least we need a distinction with these scholars, who stand squarely in the tradition of orthodoxy, and those like Don Cupitt and James Pike who were more humanists than serious Anglican thinkers. Robinson, Knox, and others certainly had no desire to dismiss scripture or its images just because it uses mythological thinking; in fact, Robinson was trying to argue for precisely the kind of reclaimation of myth that Boldt wants here. That’s why it’s important to name who you’re accusing, because the lack of definition can hide a lot of ambiguity and inaccuracy, and it limits the ability of readers to verify one’s claims.

    And it just continues. We get aspersions against “fundamentalists,” but who are we thinking of? Henry Morris? R. C. Sproul? J. I. Packer? Morris is definitely a fundamentalist with a distorted view of the Bible. But Packer certainly thought that scripture gives us true science as well; is he a fundamentalist? And R. C. Sproul, who certainly has as conservative a view of scripture as anyone, held a much more nuanced view of the relationship between science and scripture. Again, the lack of citations for the nameless accused really damages our ability to make use of the accusation.

    And of course, that popular punching bag, the “Liberal Christian tradition,” returns again, accused of teaching that in fact the biblical writers were teaching science, mythological science. Boldt is quite right that this is wrong, but who exactly does he have in mind as teaching this? Bishop Spong certainly, but he’s less a liberal than a humanist. What about Rowan Williams? He is more centrally in the liberal tradition, yet the claim couldn’t be more untrue of him.

    In the end then, Boldt opens this essay perpetuating tired stereotypes of the divisions within Anglican thought, without actually looking at the people themselves, where we might notice the nuances and the degree to which many of these categories are superficial rather than illuminating.

    • Jeff Boldt

      Dear Michael, thanks for the push-back. Unfortunately, Covenant doesn’t like footnotes, so I’ll take the opportunity. No doubt Robinson thought biblical myths weren’t all outdated science but rather existential truths. He had no criteria for drawing any of these lines, so I just find him muddled. Maurice Wiles was much clearer. Nevertheless, the idea that myths are either scientific or existential truth claims is an unpopular belief among those who study mythology (see Robert A. Segal, A Very Brief Introduction to Myth). Whatever biblical symbols are, Walton and Robinson would no doubt agree that they are literary figures. Coming from a resourcement/post-liberal/Radnerian perspective, I think biblical types and figures are more than literary conventions, but ontologically and “sacramentally” connected through the Incarnate Logos. This is a step further than the average evangelical is willing to go, which is why, I believe, they have to deal with contradictions between science and religion that are only apparent. (To be sure, I used scare quotes on “fundamentalist” to indicate that the term is used pejoratively by most people, even though I don’t intend any condescension).

      • Michael F

        Jeff, thanks for the sound reply, and sorry for my delay – I didn’t see it until now (Akismet didn’t email me).

        I’ll grant your naming of Maurice Wiles, though I’m surprised to hear that he has been that influential in liberal circles. Wasn’t the “Myth of God Incarnate” taken up by the Jesus Seminar crowd? As for Robinson, John Robinson is my specialty, and I do take issue with the idea that myths are simply “existential truths” for him. I think he’d whole-heartedly concur with your understanding of myth here, that myth is a true story of God’s action told in the language of Kairos, not Chronos. Are you familiar with this distinction of his from In The End God? It’s a very clear and philosophically precise definition, not muddled at all. While his work is probably not based on the anthropology of myth, it is based on what myth was within the Hebrew thought-world, and I think his use of myth is pretty accurate to what we empirically see within sacred scripture itself. Anyway, I’ll end just with the suggestion that I think you’re making opponents where you might actually find friends. A big suggestion if you’re going to engage with Robinson is to step outside of Honest to God. That book is his least clear and is too obscured by the popular reaction around it to be very useful. He has much better work in the aforementioned book, as well as the later chapters of Exploration into God and The Human Face of God. I’m sure you both differ on the details – you’re right that he IS an existentialist, although he does not therefore replace Christian theology with existentialist categories the way Bultmann wanted to. He’s more of a Kierkegaardian than anything. But he’d love the idea that biblical types and figures are ontologically and sacramentally connected to the God revealed in Christ.

  2. Adam Clontz

    I agree with Jesus representing the firmament. First time I’ve seen that, but after a lot and I mean a lot of research into NASA I believe there really is a physical firmament and the earth is flat. Now before you just call me crazy do so really deep research on NASA and not just using Google. I took a screenshot from an old Hebrew dictionary/translation book and found the word nasa in it, which means to deceive in Hebrew. Now I know that’s not their official name but it’s what the whole world knows and calls them. There are declassified documents from NASA, I have screenshot, taking about training pilots on a flat non rotating earth, it’s from 1987. Other government alphabet agencies have similar declassified documents. Anyone want screenshots or more info just ask me on YouTube (Naz* the other 4 letter word for Nasa)

  3. Adam Clontz

    Forget to add, it’s called an airPLANE,not an airSPHERE for a reason. Plus the instruments and you gauges in an airplane basically tell you are flying over a flat plane


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