We sin, we repent, and then we sin again. Understanding Noah’s flood gives us hints to break the cycle.
The 2016 Presidential Campaign in the United States has begun, and most of the candidates have claimed the Christian faith. Only the candidates know their hearts, and while outsiders are told to “know a tree by its fruit”, to judge based on what a person does, no one can ultimately state whether or not another’s name is in the Lamb’s Book of Life. Some presidential hopefuls mention their religion and then hurry on to other topics. Others, especially evangelicals, reveal how their religion impacts their politics. The faith statements of the first group are taken at face value, but those of the later often engender special ridicule.
People who take the Bible seriously and try to order their lives by it have always been misunderstood. Whether Catholic, Protestant, or Orthodox, those who study Scripture and try to follow it, all of it, have no lack of foes. One of the favorite games of those who oppose life-changing Christianity is to set up a caricature of what such Christians believe and then try to mock them into oblivion. Creation and Intelligent Design are favored targets, but so is the flood of Noah. This article will discuss Biblical and scientific issues around the Flood of Noah.
The Cycle of Redemption
The Bible portrays the behavior of mankind cyclically. From a high point of alignment with God’s character and will, man’s conduct deteriorates and sin increases. Sin’s natural fruit is confusion, pain and suffering, and these grow as individuals and societies move farther from their Creator. As sin increases, harm increases. Eventually the pain reaches a point where people yearn for salvation. God raises up a man or woman, a deliverer, to lead the people back to Him; to help them realign with His will. Through this deliverer, the Lord brings people back to Him. This is the Cycle of Redemption.
The pattern is alignment-deterioration-correction/calamity-deliverance-alignment (A-D-C-D-A). In a person normally attuned to God’s will, a sermon or Bible passage may be enough of a correction to bring them back into fellowship with Him. In someone else, it may take a job loss, divorce, or death of a loved one. Some will never repent, and they will languish on earth in their iniquity until God’s work for them is done. Then they will spend eternity getting what they thought they wanted; isolation from the Lord, from love, from beauty, and from everything good in the universe.
Before the Fall, Adam was perfectly aligned with God’s character and His will. After the Fall, man fell from His perfect plan for the race. Despite the example of Enoch, human sin exploded, and disaster loomed. Rather than obliterating humanity, God saved one man and his family. Mankind was again at a high point in alignment with the Almighty. Centuries or millennia later, after the sad episodes at Babel, God raised up another man, Abraham, to realign people to Him and write the next chapter in the saga of salvation. Moses came next, followed by 400 years of the Cycle under the judges. Over the centuries God raised up David and the Prophets. Jesus finally restored what Adam had lost, but His work will not be finished until the Final Reckoning.
Noah’s Flood as Historical Event
Genesis 6-8 describes the Flood, and I invite you to pause and read those chapters. The people of the world became more and more wicked and God decided to destroy humanity from the earth with a great flood. God told Noah, a righteous man, to build a large boat (an ark) to save himself, his family, and a pair of each type of animal on earth. At the appointed time Noah loaded the animals and his family on to the ark and the flooding began. Rain fell for 40 days and “the fountains of the deep were opened,” suggesting ground water floods. The water killed every living thing and covered the mountains. After several months the waters receded, and the ark grounded in “the Mountains of Ararat”. Noah, his family, and the animals left the ark to repopulate the world.
This narrative suggests that the Flood was global, but there are major scientific problems with this view. The internet is awash with websites supporting and opposing a global flood. Some commentators have abandoned the idea that the flood was an historical event. They see Noah’s flood as a legend to warn the wicked and encourage the righteous.
The account, however, claims to be history. Early Hebrew interpreters from the Kings to the New Testament, including Jesus Himself, understood the Flood to be an event in history (Matthew 24:38-39). To reject the Flood as legend is to have no basis other than personal preference to accept or reject anything else in the Bible. While this stance is popular with many who wish to be their own gods, it fails to provide any certainty, any unity, any hope, or any transcendent meaning. No one who takes the Bible seriously can write off the Flood as allegory – the Bible itself excludes that possibility, and science does not require it.
The Extent of the Flood
Most cultures on earth have some kind of early flood myth. This fact suggests that either there was a great (even global) flood or that people across the globe interpreted flooding that they saw in nature in much the same way (man was evil, God judged them, one man was saved, etc.). The universality of the story suggests that it cannot be rejected out of hand but probably has some historical basis.
If the flood was an actual historical event, there are four possibilities as to its scope: 1) global, 2) known world, 3) regional, or 4) local.
A global flood that covered even the mountains to 17,000 feet elevation would have required over 630 million cubic miles of water beyond what is present in the world now. The water would have to come from somewhere and go to somewhere. If the early atmosphere had that much water, life as we know it would have been impossible. If that much groundwater existed it would have come from the fiery depths of the earth and been released as steam. Getting members from 21,000 species all over the world on to the ark would have been impossible with natural means. During the rain, the ark could not have held enough food and water for its passengers, and disposing of tons of human and animal waste would have been daunting. The force of the waters would probably have shattered the overloaded boat. After the flood, it would have been as difficult to get animals back to their native habitants as it was to get them to the ark to begin with. How did kangaroos and koalas, for example, make it from Australia to Mesopotamia and back to begin repopulating?
Skeptics usually tie the global flood to Young Earth Creationism, dating Noah’s flood to about 2500 BC. This contradicts other data suggesting that man migrated from Africa to the Middle East around 65,000 BC, into Europe and Asia about 40,000 BC, and into the Americas around 20,000 BC. There is archaeological and other evidence for continued expansion of the human race from 2500 BC without a pause for a flood. The “Young Earth” position makes the scientific objections to a global flood even greater.
Believers can make two major errors; the first is to misunderstand or misrepresent science, and the second is to misunderstand or misrepresent the Bible. For centuries some medieval Christians believed that the sun revolved around the earth. In Joshua 10:12-14, God “made the sun stand still” so the Israelites could wreak havoc on their enemies. Another passage that geocentrists used to “prove” that the earth was the center of the universe was Psalm 93:1, which states that the “earth cannot be moved.” Psalm 19:6 suggests that the sun, not the earth, moves. When Galileo (1564-1642) and Copernicus (1473-1543) challenged these notions with empirical observation, their assertions challenged the entire social order. Five hundred years later we understand that while Scripture was not wrong, our interpretation of it was. While the Bible is the Special Revelation of God to man, the Universe is the General Revelation of God to man. Both reveal the nature of the Almighty, and they can be useful to correct misinterpretations of each other.
As students who hold the Bible in high esteem we must now ask if the text requires a global flood. Christians believe that the Bible was written by men inspired by God (2 Peter 1:21). The Bible has no errors, but it does report on the errors of others. For example, “the fool says in his heart, ‘there is no god’”. In this case, Scripture is reporting the errors of another. The Bible also honestly reports on the observations of others. In the resurrection story, Matthew 27 reports one angel, but Luke 24 reports two angels. As with all accounts from human witnesses, one person saw one thing and someone else saw it a little differently. At the Resurrection, the Bible reports what witnesses saw.
A human observing the flood from the vantage point of Mesopotamia, for example, would have seen water cover vast swaths of flat land and even the local mountains. Statements like “all flesh died” would have referred to all members and types of birds, animals and men that the writer knew about (Genesis 7:21-23). When he says “the mountains were covered”, he would have meant that the tallest mountains in the region were underwater. The huge mountains at the borders of the known world, those of eastern Turkey, western Iran, and Armenia, were considered the thrones of the gods which held up the heavens. They were not even considered part of the world. No ancient writer would have expected such abodes of deity to be inundated by waters sent by the gods to destroy man.
The use of words and phrases like “all mankind” and “all flesh that moved on the earth perished” implies a global flood, but those phrases are used elsewhere to refer to regional events. Genesis 41:57 states that “the people of all the earth came to Egypt to buy grain”, because “the famine was severe in all the earth”. Yet no one believes that Inupiat from Alaska or Bushmen from Australia were getting grain from Joseph. Such grandiose language was commonplace in antiquity. The Assyrian king Tiglath-pileser I (1114-1076 BC) was described as “unrivaled king of the universe,…king of all princes, king of kings”, yet Samuel the Prophet and King Saul led Israel at about the same time.
Therefore a regional or “known world” flood is supported both by the Biblical text and by science. In fact, we know of several floods that ravaged the Middle East in the period before 2000 BC, and any one of these could be Noah’s flood. The Biblical text is not consistent with a local flood, and science does not require a local flood. Therefore we will not discuss it here.
Although it is easier to harmonize science and Scripture with a known world or regional flood, a global flood cannot be ruled out. There is much about science that we do not understand, as a true scientist will humbly admit. God can and will do as He wishes. I conclude, therefore, that Noah’s flood happened. Further, a known world or large regional flood is a plausible alternative, both scripturally and scientifically, to a global one.
Noah’s Flood as God’s Judgment
Another constant refrain of enemies of Christianity is that any God who would judge is a god unworthy of our allegiance. This statement is breathtaking in its hubris. Just as any person has conduct that he or she deems acceptable, so a personal God will have conduct that He deems acceptable or unacceptable. Since He is the ultimate standard of righteousness, He cannot “live and let live”, tolerating unrighteous acts. God is the Judge.
Furthermore, if God is the Creator and Sustainer of the Universe, the source of everything good and beautiful in the Universe, as Christians affirm, He deserves our allegiance. As creatures of mud and wind who bloom today like a desert lily and wither tomorrow, we have no power over the Lord of the Universe. We will bow before Him because of who He is, whether or not we like what He does. Who made us the judge, anyway?
Consistent with the Cycle of Redemption, before the Fall the universe was magnificent and perfect. After the Fall the moral state of Creation declined and reached a nadir just before the Flood. As a result, God judged the inhabitants of the world and pronounced judgment; the people of the world would perish for their sin. This sounds scandalous to the modern mind. Jesus’ description of the antediluvian people doesn’t sound all that bad, and what about the children, the handicapped, and the preborn. Why did God kill them too? Why did they suffer punishment? Is God just?
This mindset is irretrievably earth-centered. To man, healthy and prosperous life on earth is the greatest good, and suffering and death are the greatest evil. To God, eternal life in heaven is the greatest good. Freeing those who receive Him from this wicked world and bringing them to Him is a great mercy. The present earth matters insofar as it provides the opportunity for people to follow Him. Suffering and death are the sad consequences of sin but, in the hands of the Lord, they can lead to Christ-likeness and eternal life.
Berating man for being earth-centered is a little like berating a fish for being water-centered; earth is all our bodies have experienced. Unlike a fish, however, man is a spirit being created in the image of God and with a sense of eternity (Ecclesiastes 3:11). Therefore we can see spiritual realities. Sin makes hearts hard and eyes dark, but the Holy Spirit softens us and gives us light. God cares deeply about the earth, but He cares more about eternity. Injustice and suffering on earth pale compared to the glories of eternity.
There is another aspect of God’s judgment. Sin destroys the sinner, and righteousness is its own reward. As a result, disobeying God is ultimately self-destructive. Just as a father keeps his toddler away from a hot stove, so our Lord loves us enough to try to stop us from things that hurt us. When people reject Him so totally that they themselves will no longer be saved, He punishes them for the sake of leading others to salvation. In the truest sense, God’s judgment is a form of mercy. The Creator deeply loves all those He has created, and wants none to perish. In Christ, He has done everything possible to bring all people back to Himself.
Noah’s Flood as God’s Mercy
One of the fundamental questions of man over the millennia has been “why is there something instead of nothing?” If you adhere to the Big Bang theory you have to ask where the original mass and energy came from. If you believe in Darwinism you must inquire why anything evolved. If you are a theist you inevitably wonder “why did God create us?” God’s way are mysterious, and the closest that we can get is to know that He made the universe because of who He is. We can say that it was for His glory, but since He is infinite and His glory is infinite, and infinity cannot be increased, that answer falls short. All other answers do too.
Lifespans in the antediluvian world were 300-900 years, but because of the sin of man, God said that the span would decrease to 120 years (Genesis 6:3). These shortened lifespans occurred after the Flood. It is possible that the decrease in human lifespan was due to climatic changes occasioned by Noah’s Flood. The presence of rainbows in the world, if they did not exist in the antediluvian one, suggests a huge change in the atmosphere. Certainly shorter human lives would allow less time for evil to accumulate in each man’s heart. In a real sense, this is an act of mercy.
God also showed mercy to Noah and his family. The behavior of Noah’s sons after the landing showed sin even in that righteous family, but the Lord still protected them. God also showed mercy to mankind, wanting to begin again with humanity, no matter how awful the first try. As a result, the biggest news in the story of Noah is not the Flood, which is merely the mechanism by which He accomplished His judgment and mercy. The big news is the character of God, and His ultimate goodness towards His people.
The story of the Flood is another episode in the Cycle of Redemption. When little children learn of Noah’s flood in Sunday School, they discover a sweet story with a kindly old man building a big boat and saving friendly animals from a scary flood. Over the years, increasingly sophisticated people learn to disparage the Flood, or at least reject the God who allowed it. This is a bad idea. My conclusions are not definitive but hopefully provocative. Perhaps the sweet story of the Flood is actually sweeter than we ever imagined.