From Hurricane Katrina to SuperStorm Sandy to various massive typhoons across the world, the thought of a Great Flood triggers thoughts of complete destruction. No greater event as described in the Bible confronts us with the terrifying power of nature than Noah’s Flood. Yet the central theme in the Noah story is not mindless natural forces, but rather the supreme Holy authority of a Merciful Creator God faced with human disobedience.
Even popular culture is fascinated with Noah and God’s Flood. I do not know how good a film this will really be, but a new movie staring Russell Crowe due in 2014 promises to explore the theme using the latest computer generated imagery techniques:
Film director Darren Aronofsky tells that the story of Noah had captivated him ever since he was about thirteen years old. What do we make of the narrative about Noah’s flood in Genesis 6-9 that would inspire a movie like this?
Noah in the Bible
With Noah’s Flood the central Biblical message should be clear. The God of the Bible released that Flood as a sign of judgment against a rebellious people. In one of the ancient Babylonian flood stories, one of the gods sent the flood to silence a noisy people who were keeping that god from sleeping. But such an amoral and shallow rationale is completely missing from the Bible. In stark contrast, the one True God, as opposed to a plethora of competing pagan deities, is grieved by the destructive behavior of the humans He has made. Nevertheless, God in His graciousness does save some, including Noah and his immediate family.
There is no escaping God’s judgment apart from His intervention to save us. In anticipation of the coming of Jesus, the story of Noah’s flood highlights this tension between divine Justice and divine Mercy. It is also a story about one man and his family that stood obedient to God in face of a mocking world. In the story of Jesus Christ we have been given a way to enter into the “ark” that He has provided. In Jesus, God embodies Himself as that Man who alone would be obedient and actually become that Ark that would save us.
Nevertheless, when it comes to some of the particulars regarding the scientific and historical details about Noah’s flood, Christians often find themselves disagreeing with one another. The controversy results from various tensions dating back to the rapid development of science and historical studies in the 19th century.
The Global Versus Local Flood Debate
Until about the late 1800’s, most Christians pretty much accepted the idea of a great deluge that wiped out the face of the entire planet. Most natural philosophers with an interest in geology had accepted a theory of catastrophism, the idea of a major catastrophe or catastrophes responsible for the emergence of earth’s geologic features. However, geologist Charles Lyell put forth the idea of a uniformitarian model for understanding geologic transformation. For Lyell, the earth’s features “uniformly” developed gradually and slowly over a long period of time, with layers upon layers of sedimentation over millions of years.
Most scientists today accept a largely uniformitarian understanding of rock development, with some catastrophic events interspersed in earth’s history. Unfortunately, the emergence of uniformitarian science backed by an extensive catalog of observations put the traditional narrative of Noah’s Flood as a global event into question.
A further complication arose after archaeological discoveries of various Ancient Near East flood stories, including portions of the Babylonian Atrahasis Epic first published in 1876, with an expanded version published in 1975, which references the insomniac god that needed some earplugs. Historians have debated whether the Genesis material somehow preceded these pagan flood stories, or if the pagan stories came first, or (more likely) if both the Genesis and pagan narratives share some common historical tradition despite crystal clear differences.
By the late 19th century and onwards, most evangelical Bible scholars had adopted a largely “Old Earth” perspective that embraces the concept of a “local” Flood as opposed to a “global” Flood. Many of these scholars have noted good Biblical reasons for accepting a “local” Flood, not just simply to account for the scientific data.
For example, Hugh Ross at Reasons to Believe argues for the idea of a “worldwide” Flood. In many Bible passages, the notion of the “world” more readily correlates to the then “known world” of the ancients. There is fairly good evidence to indicate that at the time of the Noahic Flood that humanity was still relatively confined to the area in the Ancient Near East and had not yet dispersed to the far corners of the earth (about 50,000 years ago, according to Ross. Or look here for a different “old-earth” approach to the date question). Therefore, the idea of consciously identifying the “world” with that which is “global” is something that we as moderns take for granted that was not known in Noah’s day. Also, in Psalm 104:5-9 which roughly parallels the Creation account found in Genesis 1, the text indicates that God set a boundary for the oceans so that they might never again cover the earth after the event of Creation, which rules out a “global” Flood for the later era of Noah.
For more details, look at my Veracity colleague John Paine’s “Old Earth” references to the local, “worldwide” Flood and John’s research via Hugh Ross on the Book of Job. Check out the following video for a summary of this view:
From a more secular perspective, we can find supporting evidence scientifically for a local flooding event comparable to what we find in the Bible, though this article from the National Center for Science Education does not address all of the concerns of the Biblical account.
“Flood Geology” and the Church
But while most evangelical Christian thinkers in the early 20th. century found the idea of a “local” Flood a more refined way of understanding Biblical teaching, not everyone was convinced. George McCready Price, a Seventh-Day Adventist, in the 1920’s pioneered the idea of a massive global Flood that could simultaneously account for the existence of the fossil record, the tremendous upheaval of sea floors and the emergence of tall mountain ranges, and a Young Earth of around 6,000 years old. In 1961, a Virginia Tech hydraulic engineer, Henry M. Morris, and a theologian, John C. Whitcomb, published a more popular version of Price’s theory in their landmark book The Genesis Flood, which effectively launched the contemporary Young Earth Creationist movement.
According to this proposal of Flood Geology, the sea floors of the oceans opened up catastrophically, shooting water upwards from beneath the oceans, accompanied by relentless rain that flooded the entire globe. Later when the Flood waters receded, great tectonic plate shifts dropped the sea floors to take in the Flood waters and conversely shot up large mountain ranges. As most of life was destroyed at this time, this would explain why we find fossil remains way up high in the Himalayan mountains.
Kentucky-based Answers in Genesis, which built the popular Creation Museum, is also raising money to build a full-sized replica of Noah’s Ark to demonstrate the ideas behind Flood Geology (Answers in Genesis dates the flood at approximately 2348 B.C.). Advocates of the Young Earth view maintain that their proposals are necessary since any trend towards accepting the concept of a “local” Flood, or worse, even no Flood at all, is a denial of Biblical faith. Though not as impressive as the multi-million dollar special effects of Darren Aronofsky, this brief animation shows the basic idea (Ken Ham needs to work some type of deal with Aronofsky for better visual effects):
As you can probably imagine, resolving the details involving a global Flood can get really, really complicated very quickly. When I went to hear Terry Mortensen, an apologist for Answers in Genesis, give a public talk at the College of William and Mary earlier this year, I remember one female student listening patiently as Dr. Mortensen gave his defense of a global Flood. After a few moments, this young woman leaned into the microphone and asked, “And you expect me to believe all of that?”
Advocates of a global Flood will often respond by saying that belief in the Resurrection of Jesus Christ can be difficult to have faith in, too. This is a very good point. It is definitely worth considering. However, I find that belief in a global Flood requires something that belief in the Resurrection does not do. It requires you to believe in a whole rather intricate and complex set of miracles all contingently strapped together which are never explicitly taught in the Bible, a problematic feature of nearly all apologetic approaches that try to read too much science out of the Bible, or even read too much science into the Bible.
The Bigger Picture with Noah
My concern is that we not get so hung up in the minutiae details of the science and history that we miss out on the bigger picture, the story of what God wishes to teach us and apply in our lives today about the example of Noah’s faith. We live in a world where men and women live in rebellion against a loving and patient God: People like me, and probably like you, too. This God longs for people to humble themselves and turn back in trusting faith to the God who made them. There is room on the ark, thanks to Jesus. God is incredibly forbearing, but He warns that the Final Judgment will be far more severe than any Flood, whether it be “global” or “local”. We will just have to see whether Darren Aronofsky and Russell Crowe get this right or not!
Have you checked the weather lately? Is that raindrops I hear falling in the distance? I wonder if I have my umbrella with me? Surely, that will protect me. Right?
For more Young Earth Creationist resources supporting a global interpretation of Noah’s Flood, look at this extensive collection of resources at Answers in Genesis.
For more resources supporting an understanding of a local interpretation of the Flood, look here at BioLogos.org. You might be challenged to consider the Genesis Flood narrative as a different type of literary genre that is not necessarily tied to a strict rendering of history.
For more background on the Atrahasis and other pagan Flood narratives, the theological challenges presented by these archaeological discoveries, and more detail on literary genre you will be rewarded by reading what Old Testament scholar Pete Enns has to say, starting with this post at BioLogos.org.