The fact that God stretched the heavens does not teach an expanding universe.

Questions about God, the Bible and the Christian culture

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Question: I understand that you answer questions for Got Questions Ministries, and I have a question about this article on the expanding universe: https://www.gotquestions.org/universe-expanding.html

I disagree that Isaiah 42:5 teaches that the universe is expanding because “expanding” means that it’s an ongoing process. But Isaiah 42:5 says that “God stretched out the heaven…” which is past tense. This sounds like something God has already completed. I don’t see anything in the wording that says it will keep stretching in the future.

Answer: Greetings friend. Thank you for touching down with us at Mainsail Ministries. You are correct. I also serve as a writer (a question answerer) at Got Questions Ministries, so I will be happy to discuss their article on the expanding universe. I’ll offer four points in the article’s defense.

First, your objection is based on a false premise: the word “stretched” in Isaiah 42:5 is not necessarily in the past tense. Not every translation translates it that way. For instance, Young’s Literal Translation ( — and note the word “Literal” — ) renders “stretched” as “stretching.”

Thus said God, Jehovah, preparing The heavens, and stretching them out, Spreading out the earth and its productions, Giving breath to the people on it, And spirit to those walking in it. (Isaiah 42:5, YLT)

The non-literal (and more ubiquitous) New International Version (NIV) diffuses the past tense by rendering “stretched” as “stretches.”

This is what God the LORD says-- the Creator of the heavens, who stretches them out, who spreads out the earth with all that springs from it, who gives breath to its people, and life to those who walk on it: (Isaiah 42:5, NIV)

So, the thing you cannot say is because these verses are in the past tense, that the Bible doesn’t teach an expanding universe… because it is no slam-dunk that variations on “stretch” are in the past tense. The fact that Hebrew scholars — the ones who have the wherewithal to work on these important official translations — do not commit the word “expand” to the past tense should be enough to give you pause.

In fact, if all you happened to read were the “Literal” translations (Literal Standard Version, Smith's Literal Translation, Young’s Literal Translation) and also the NIV, you’d assume that God’s establishing the heavens is an ongoing process… and not something he did in the past and is no longer doing.

My second point — and here’s where my answer gets a little awkward — is that I believe that the universe is expanding. The thing is, unlike Got Question Ministries, I do not believe that these verses teach that. I see them as a phenomenological description of the heavens — not an explanation of its properties... and not a description of God’s methodology. In my opinion, that would be beyond God’s intent for the original audience.

You see, my hermeneutics are tuned epistemologically so that meaning has to “earn” a spot in the text. How that plays out in the real world is I don’t look for everything to connect to everything else… like John Nash did in the movie A Beautiful Mind. Not everything that can be related in a text was intended by the author(s) to be related.

I realize that Got Questions Ministries article on the expanding universe leans the opposite way, but this is a secondary issue of the faith — and the ministry allows its writers to respond in their own voice and from their own perspectives as long as they maintain the core orthodoxies of the faith.

My third point is that credible Christians believe that the Bible teaches an expanding universe. Hugh Ross of Reasons to Believe is among them. He is a wonderful Christian man with a Ph.D. in astronomy! I simply do not agree with him that the Bible anywhere teaches an expanding universe. I agree that it allows for one. But the bar for “allowing” is a lot lower than the bar for “teaching.” My hermeneutical stand is that the Bible does not make that bar.

In an article entitled Big Bang—The Bible Taught It First! (by Hugh Ross, July 1, 2000), Hugh Ross stated:

“The characteristic of the universe stated more frequently than any other in the Bible is its being “stretched out.” Five different Bible authors pen such a statement in eleven different verses: Job 9:8; Psalm 104:2; Isaiah 40:22; 42:5; 44:24; 45:12; 48:13; 51:13; Jeremiah 10:12; 51:15; and Zechariah 12:1. Job 37:18 appears to be a twelfth verse.”

https://reasons.org/explore/publications/rtb-101/big-bang-the-bible-taught-it-first

The citation above contains his data, so you can check out what he says for yourself. Ross is my go-to science guy as I explore how the Bible relates to the physical universe. But we have a different hermeneutical style. Ross sees God putting scientific things in the Bible that the original audience had no way of understanding…. and I can’t quite go there.

But I want to be fair with the data, and Ross includes more supporting verses than anyone. What we disagree on is whether those verses are intended to mean something to both audiences. I say, God only had the original audience in view.

Some commentators aver that God “seeded” his word with scientific truths that will be unlocked by future audiences as part of his revelatory process. I don’t agree. I see that as deceptive. It’s like an inside joke that we are in on… and we are sort of laughing at those in ignorance. That’s insulting to the original audience… and I’m sure that God is bigger than that.

My fourth point is that The Stack Exchange agrees with me — which is always nice! But they make such a cogent case against the idea that the Bible teaches an expanding universe that I will include their entire explanation below. They were asked, “Does Isaiah 40 indicate (along with science) that the universe is expanding?” Their short answer was “no.” Their reasoning is below.

This is a great question, and I'm glad you asked it. This verse is often used by Christian apologists to show that the Bible was ahead of its times in its scientific claims. While this sounds convincing to modern readers of English translations, it is a very poor argument to use.

Exhibit A: The word "stretch"

To many, the idea of God "stretching" out the heavens sounds an awful lot like the "expansion" of the universe, but that is not what the word means. The Hebrew word נָטָה has the idea of something being spread out. Imagine standing upright and sweeping your arm in an ark from one side to the other (like you were painting a rainbow) and saying "God spread out the heavens". This gives a good picture of what the word means. It can be translated (depending on context) as spread outreach outstretch outextend, or bend.

Exhibit B: Context

The context really drives our understanding of Hebrew words and helps us move from semantic range to authorial intent. So what did the author intend to say here? Was he trying to explain an astronomical theory which wouldn't be discovered for another 3,000 years? No. Let's look at his own description of this "spreading out" of the heavens:

Who stretches out the heavens like a curtain

Do curtains experience a Big-Bang-esque ever-increasing expansion of internal matter? No. Curtains are simply spread out to cover a window. The author's meaning here is simply that God spread out the heavens like a covering.

Exhibit C: Hebrew parallelism

Any reader of the Hebrew text will notice that in poetic passages (exp. in songs, proverbs, & prophecy), parallelism abounds. The Hebrew people liked to say one thing with two words (or phrases.) They did this at times for clarity, at times for an appealing sound, and at times because... well... that's just the way they wrote! The two parallel words / concepts were often linked by "and". We have an example of that literary device here in this passage:

Who stretches out the heavens like a curtain
And spreads them out like a tent to dwell in.

The "stretching" is put in parallel with the "spreading"; these two are signifying the same thing.

Conclusion

The author's intention was simply to say that God spread out the heavens like a covering for the earth.

While in practice the Isa. 40:22 apologetic can be effective in reassuring believers and convincing non-believers that the Bible is the word of God, it should not be used, because that is not what the text is saying. We need to be careful to respect the authorial intent behind the words that we're reading and not use (abuse) the author's words for our own purposes -- particularly if we claim to have a deep respect for the Scriptures.

https://hermeneutics.stackexchange.com/questions/14015/does-isaiah-40-indicate-along-with-science-that-the-universe-is-expanding

I need to bring all these parts together, so let me close with a summary of my position on different issues to show how (I believe) they coalesce into a cogent answer.

I subscribe to biblical inerrancy under the terms of the Chicago Statement on Biblical Inerrancy (1978). I also believe that the universe is indeed expanding… and that it is nearly 14 billion years old. I believe that references to “stretching” in Isaiah et al are poetic, figures of speech and phenomenological language… and that they are not referencing the physical reality we understand today.

So, although it’s tempting to attach the notion of stretching to what we now understand to be an expanding universe, that would be concordism in my opinion. My stand on hermeneutics does not allow for God to “hide” information from the original audience… except as he does so expressly as in prophecy. This is why I classify the relationship of Isaiah’s terms to our current knowledge as incidental and not purposeful… and this makes any issues about the verb’s tense moot!

I know that you based your comments on the verb’s tense. but as you can see, I had to expand the answer to give you what I judged to be a contextual and biblically faithful answer. I pray that this helped you. God bless you.

 

(Mainsail Ministries articles often have a preamble where I discuss the thinking that went into them. These are called Monday Musings — and if you haven’t read the one associated with this article — consider doing so at the following link: 20210712 The fact that God stretched the heavens does not teach an expanding universe ).

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