The Gospel of Flatland

By Dr. Lindsey Scholl, Logic School Director

Imagine that you were flat as a pancake – flatter, even. And not only are you flat, but everyone and everything in your world is also flat. In fact, you are only a shape and your world is two-dimensional. How would such a world look to you? How could you tell the difference between your best friend the equilateral triangle and your boss, the octagon? There are no aerial views: you can only see the sides of your fellow shapes. So any approaching square would look like this: ———–. An isosceles triangle would like this —-, if he’s approaching you with his base. If he’s approaching with you with his sharp point, he just might run you through.

This is the world that Edwin Abbott envisions in his classic 1884 novel, Flatland. The main character, A. Square, is a successful shape who is entirely content with his height-less world because he cannot envision anything else. He has no tools to conceive of a third dimensional shape, such as a sphere.  Then one day, Sphere appears in his sitting-room.

It takes some work for Sphere to convince Square of Sphere’s true nature (after all, with his two-dimensional eyes, Square can only see a line that claims to be a Sphere). But Sphere is insistent: he has come to proclaim the Gospel of the Three Dimensions, and he will not give up. Finally, in a dramatic effort to convince Square of the truth, he plucks poor Square up out of his two dimensions and reveals to him the vast, breathtaking world of three-dimensional Space.

Here is what Square says of the experience: “I looked, and behold, a new world! There stood before me, visibly incorporate, all that I had before inferred, conjectured, dreamed, of perfect Circular beauty.”*

If you like apologetics, you will immediately see the value of Square’s religious experience: a new and complete plane of existence has suddenly been made known to him. He might have said, like St. Paul in First Corinthians, “For I have seen through a glass darkly. . .I knew in part, but now I know even as I am known.”  Just as the idea of two dimensions is incredible yet desirable for Square, the idea of a fourth dimension is tantalizing and even necessary to those of us already living in three dimensions. Surely we can know God more fully in that fourth dimension. Although there is no evidence that Abbott wrote Flatland with an apologetic agenda, he clearly understood that his work has religious overtones. After all, it is Abbott who puts the phrase “The Gospel of the Three Dimensions” in the book, and when Square finally sees the Third Dimension, he enters into a sort of ecstatic, religious trance.

But neither Square nor Abbott stops with the Third Dimension. A highly intelligent fellow, Square quickly assumes that if there is a Third Dimension he did not know about, there must be a Fourth. And a Fifth. And a Sixth, ad infinitum. Suddenly, the good news of a Third Dimension becomes a series of infinite progressions, and Square drinks it in.

Yet Square’s story does not end happily. Although he has been given this semi-divine revelation, he has to return to his two-dimensional existence. He cannot live in the Third Dimension, and what’s worse, no one at home believes him. He spends the rest of his days imprisoned as a madman.

What good had his “gospel” done him? It gave him knowledge but nothing else. It transformed his mind, but not his body. The same Square that was born as a Square would die as a Square. The story gives no indication that Square had a hope of going to the Third Dimension after death. Nor did Sphere offer any promise that he could make Square third-dimensional like himself. The Gospel of the Third Dimension good news was not actually good news at all. It was just news. It may have offered exciting truth, but the only change it wrought in Square was an exciting vision and perpetual imprisonment.

How different is the Gospel of Christ that we know and love! Our Gospel proclaims that God the Father has delivered us from the dominion of darkness and transferred us into the kingdom of the Son he loves, in whom we have redemption, the forgiveness of sins (Colossians 1:13). We have been transferred into a better dimension, and unlike Square, we will be changed and become like our Savior.

Knowledge of higher planes is not enough to constitute a gospel. But knowledge that brings transformation and deliverance . . . that is good news. May we always proclaim that news at TCS.

Merry Christmas!

*p. 117 (Signet Classics, 2005).

**For more thoughts on Flatland, listen to James Harrington’s talk (“Vampires, Governesses, and Anglo-Catholic . . . Oh My”) from the 2013 Pursuing Wisdom Colloquy at Providence Classical School.