Biblical Cosmology Defined and Explained

by | Sep 4, 2023

According to Dr. Michael Heiser,

“Cosmology” refers to the way we understand the structure of the universe. The biblical writers’ conception of how the heavens and earth were structured by God represents a particular cosmology. The ancient Israelites perceived the world and its structure differently than we do today.

For the Israelites, the universe was divided into three parts:

  1. The heavenly realm
  2. The earthly realm
  3. The underworld

Interestingly, “these 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’ (Exodus 20:4).”

This universal structure provided the ancient Israelites with a framework for how to view God and themselves within the larger narrative. Let’s look at these to understand their role in Biblical cosmology better.

The Heavens

This is the realm where God resided, above the firmament described in Genesis 1.

We find an Israelite understanding of the heavens in Genesis 1:6–8, which describes it as an expanse, with waters above and below: ‘And God said, ‘Let there be an expanse (????, raqia?) in the midst of the waters, and let it separate the waters from the waters.’ . . . And it was so. And God called the expanse (????, raqia?) Heaven

The firmament separated the heavens from the earth. It divided the waters above from the waters below. The firmament formed the covering for what Scripture refers to as the “circle of the earth.”

Dr. Heiser writes in his book I Dare You Not to Bore Me with the Bible:

“The firmament dome surrounded the earth, with its edge meeting at the horizon—’the boundary between light and darkness’ (Job 26:10). It was supported by ‘pillars’ or ‘foundations,’ thought to be the tops of mountains, whose peaks appeared to touch the sky. The heavens had doors and windows through which rain or the waters above could flow upon the earth from their storehouses (Gen 7:11; 8:2; Pss 78:23; 33:7).

For the ancient Israelites, the Heavens were where God resided, and He ruled as Creator. The firmament provided the boundary lines for the earth the Israelites inhabited.

The Earth

This was the natural world where humans resided. The place where God created a family of image bearers to rule and reign, beginning in a garden and extending out into the rest of the earth.

Further, the ancient Israelites believed the earth sat upon a watery abyss, supported by pillars and foundations.

He set the earth on its foundations, so that it should never be moved.

Here, on the earth, is where God began His creation in the natural world, and here is the place where sin would enter the Biblical narrative, with its effects being felt to this day.

The Underworld

This place was reserved for the dead.

The most frequent term for this place was Sheol (????; Prov 9:18; Psa 6:4–5; 18:4–5). The word for ‘earth’ (???, ?erets) is also used—the graves dug by humans represented gateways to the Underworld. In Job, the realm of the dead is described in watery terms: ‘The dead tremble under the waters and their inhabitants.

In the Underworld or Sheol, the souls of those who had passed away resided in darkness.

Furthermore, this would be the place where Christ descended to proclaim the Good News, setting captives free (1 Peter 3:18-19).

For the ancient Israelites, these three places comprised the universe’s structure, fashioning their views of God and the world they inhabited.

And as modern-day readers, this is the framework for better understanding and interpreting the Scriptures, explicitly concerning salvation.

Salvation and Biblical Cosmology

So, how does this biblical cosmology fit into the story of salvation?

For the ancient readers of Scripture, all three places of this universal structure played a role in God’s plan for redemption and salvation.

God created a beautiful world. Placed His image bearers within it. Called them to advance His Kingdom domain throughout the rest of the earth. Nonetheless sin enters the narrative bringing about death. This distorts God’s creation on the earth, and releases the power of darkness upon the earth. This sets the stage for God to enter His created world, in the flesh, to redeem broken and sinful humanity, restoring them to the right relationship with Him.

God does this through His Son Jesus Christ, who leaves His place in the heavens, to enter the earthly realm, defeating the power of sin and darkness through His death on the Cross, He descends into the realm of the dead (Ephesians 4:9). He is resurrected and He later ascends to the right hand of the Father.

Dr. Heiser sums it up in his book, Supernatural: What the Bible Teaches about the Unseen World And Why It Matters, when he writes:

From the beginning, God wanted his human family to live with him in a perfect world—along with the family he already had in the unseen world, his heavenly host. That story—God’s goal, its opposition by the powers of darkness, its failure, and its ultimate future success—is what this book is about, just as it’s what the Bible is about.

To ancient readers, the Scriptures told the story of God’s creation, intention, intervention, and redemption. It’s the story of Creator God restoring the beauty and wonder of the world by invading it with His heavenly kingdom realm. And it’s through this invasion that the powers of darkness are dispelled and defeated forever.

I Want to Learn More

If you’re ready to dive deeper into this topic, you can check out our online course: The Doctrine of Salvation.

With 7 hours of video content, you’ll take a journey through courses such as:

  • Cosmology and the Salvation Story
  • Defining the Problem of Sin
  • Salvation in the Old Testament
  • Exploring the Meanings of Idolatry and Belief
  • And much more

To learn more about this course, or to explore our catalog of online courses here at AWKNG Theology School, click here.

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