In 2004 I was among the multitudes across the planet who watched in horror as a powerful earthquake under the Indian Ocean created massive tsunamis, killing well over 200,000 people. The videos of the waves rushing upon the land demolishing housing structures and ripping up trees demonstrated the awesome and deadly power of water. Similar scenes played out during the Japan tsunami a few years back. But this isn’t limited to tidal waves. Tremendous devastation has occurred during sustained torrential rains, when dams give way and release mega volumes of water, and even when giant seas empty out onto lower land masses. The reality of our situation is this: we live on a planet that’s covered by over 70% water. Floods are bound to happen. And occasionally, they are apocalyptic.
And then there’s the granddaddy of all floods, the so-called Noah’s Flood recorded in Genesis. As traditionally understood, this flood was so enormous that it covered the entire planet. And it was deep, very deep. The tallest mountain was said to be under water. Every person and all creatures were killed. However, by virtue of God’s forewarning, Noah built a huge ark, and was saved along with his family and two of each kind of animal.
That is how the text is normally read and has been understood by Christians throughout history. However, a growing number of Christians are proposing that the Flood wasn’t global in scope after all. It was a local, or regional, flood. They hold that the text can be read this way, and that unless we take the Flood as local, we run into a multitude of problems. For instance: How could Noah and his three sons sustain all of those animals: food, water, cleaning? And then there’s the scientific evidence, or lack thereof. These arguments, among others, have caused many Christians to reconsider the traditional interpretation of Noah’s Flood. And it should be noted that many are conservative Christians, even believing in the inerrancy of Scripture.
So where do I stand on this? Well, let me be honest and say that I’ve courted the Local Flood Theory (LFT). Some of the scientific arguments are indeed convincing, and even some of the textual arguments make some valid points. But I can’t accept it if the text itself doesn’t allow it. So I performed a personal experiment of sorts. I started in Genesis 6 and read through to ch. 9. Over the years I’ve done this “experiment” several times, even reading with the assumption of a local flood in mind. Yet no matter how hard I tried, I couldn’t escape the reality that the text teaches a Global Flood (GF). In what follows I want to give a couple of arguments why the GF is the only interpretation that works. Next I’ll discuss some of the common objections to the GF. And lastly, there will be a brief discussion about why this is an important topic.
Argument #1: The duration of the flood
In even the worst of local floods, the water subsides rather quickly. The reason for this is that it has somewhere to go. Gravity pulls the water to the lowest point, into streams, rivers, and eventually, the oceans. In the aforementioned tsunamis, the tragic events of the flooding lasted for perhaps a few hours, before the waters pulled back into the ocean. Within a matter of days the land dried out and humanitarian efforts were underway.
Contrast the relative brevity of even the most enormous of recent floods, with the long duration of the Genesis account. Consider these numbers:
- “the waters prevailed on the earth 150 days” Gen. 7:24
- It was 76 more days before “the tops of the mountains were seen” Gen. 8:5
- It was 60 more days before a bird finally found land. Gen. 6:8-12
- It took 150 days for the waters to fully abate after the flooding stopped. 8:3
- In total, Noah was in the ark 315 days.
One could argue that the numbers here are merely symbolic and a little too neat to be taken literally. But the text reads as history, giving specific dates at each milestone. Even the most enormous of regional floods cannot account for the number of days listed above. Some have proposed that the Mediterranean emptied into the Black Sea about 5,000 B.C., creating a significant flood of the region, searing into the memories and legends of those who witnessed it. Certainly if this did occur it would be absolutely devastating. The amount of water in that sea pouring through the land would decimate everything and everyone in its path. But like all local and regional floods, it wouldn’t last that long before the water would subside finding a new place to rest. Only if the water did not have a place to go, would it “prevail on the earth” for many months.
Argument #2: God’s promise to all earthly creatures
After Noah, his family, and all of the animals had exited the ark, God made a covenant with them. Never again would flood waters destroy all creatures on the earth. The sign would be the rainbow (cf. Gen. 9:8-17). Keep in mind this wasn’t merely a covenant to a specific people, such as the Jews; nor was it just a covenant with all humans; no, it was a covenant promise to all creatures, human and animal. As such, it’s the only one like it in the entire Bible. Note the following verses:
“I establish my covenant with you, that never again shall all flesh be cut off by the waters of the flood, and never again shall there be a flood to destroy the earth.” Gen. 9:11
“And the waters shall never again become a flood to destroy all flesh.” Gen. 9:15
“When I bring clouds over the earth and the bow is seen in the clouds, I will remember my covenant that is between me and you and every living creature of all flesh.” Gen. 9:14
It’s hard to fit this covenant promise with a regional flood. I would argue it’s impossible. In fact, I would go further and argue that it undermines the Noahic Covenant altogether. For instance, how would someone in say, Brazil, understand the Noahic Covenant? Does a rainbow there invoke a remembrance of the covenant, or does it only apply in the land of the flood? This is a major problem created by trying to make the flood local.
I’ve debated how to structure this argument. It seems a dialogue format will make it easier to follow.
GF Proponent: Do you believe the Noahic Covenant is for all humanity and all creatures?
LF Theorist: Yes, it was for all the creatures on earth.
GFP: Did all of the creatures on earth die during the flood?
LFT: Well, all of humanity died, since they were localized to that region. That’s why an enormous and devastating regional flood could take them all out.
GFP: Do you also believe all of the animals on earth were located in that region?
LFT: Probably not.
GFP: Was the NC only for the animals coming off the ark, or for all animals on earth?
LFT: It was for all.
GFP: Then how does the NC have meaning with regards to the animals not experiencing the flood? The animals’ comprehension of such a promise is beside the point. How does the NC relate to those animals, or all of the animals that have existed since?
Since Noah’s Flood there have been countless local and regional floods that have destroyed whole populations of people and animals. Perhaps one could argue that the NC is only for the Middle East region where the deluge took place. If such is the case, it only applies to those living in that region. But that’s a problem, and not a small one. The NC has always been understood to be universally applicable, which is why you don’t find many (if any) proponents of a more limited understanding. But if the NC isn’t limited in scope, then I can’t come up with a rational understanding of how it has lasting and binding meaning if the flood was merely local. Only if all creatures, human and non-human, perished in this cataclysm does God’s universal covenant promise make any sense. And the only way all creatures could perish would be in a global flood.
There are other problems with the LFT, but these two are sufficient to show that it undermines the text of Scripture, and virtually nullifies an important covenant of God. But there are some objections to be answered. Below are some of the most common.
Objection: The ark itself doesn’t make any rational sense. First off, not all of the kinds of animals could possibly fit on it. Second, there wouldn’t have been nearly enough room for all of the food and water for that length of time. Relatedly, what about the carnivores? Do we think that hay would satisfy lions & snakes? Therefore, wouldn’t a multitude of extra animals be needed to feed them? Third, how could a handful of people take care of such a large number of beasts? And what about all of the waste!
I don’t believe this to be a particularly difficult problem. Recall that God is all over this story. He is the one who calls Noah and gives him very specific instructions; He is the one who brings the animals to the ark; He is the one who shuts the door of the ark; He is the one who brings on the flood. In light of God’s active participation in the story, it isn’t at all inconceivable that he caused the animals to fall into hibernation for the duration of the flood. This would effectively eliminate any need for extensive care for the animals. I understand the text doesn’t tell us this is what happened, but it is a reasonable explanation, and shows how it might well have occurred.
As for the number of animals, the text states that they were brought two by two according to their kind. If we include all of the variations then, yes, it would be problematic. But this isn’t how the story relates it. And keep in mind the size of the ark. Its dimensions were roughly 450’ long, 75’ wide, 45’ high, and it had three levels. This was a very large vessel and would have had adequate room to house the animals.
Objection: There isn’t nearly enough water on earth to cover the highest mountain. We’re talking enough water to cover the planet to a depth of over five miles! Where did it come from? And just as problematic, where did it go? A localized flood makes way more sense.
This is a scientific objection with some teeth, I must admit. The key to my answer is this statement: “the fountains of the great deep burst forth” (Gen. 7:11). Rain in and of itself would not produce a global flood of this magnitude, even forty straight days of it. However, if combined with enormous quantities of water from the “great deep” it could. So is there water underneath us? And if so, is there really that much water? Yes, there is. A couple of years ago scientists discovered that there is a giant reservoir of water way below the earth’s surface. Perhaps three times the amount in all of the oceans combined. Here’s a quote from New Scientist:
“We should be grateful for this deep reservoir. If it wasn’t there, it would be on the surface of the Earth, and mountain tops would be the only land poking out.”[i]
It should be noted that if there’s even more water down there, as the researchers believe could be the case, then there would be no “land poking out.”
Objection: Ice core samples demonstrate that there was no global flood. These samples accurately relate historical data from tens of thousands of years ago, including volcanoes and droughts. A global flood would absolutely be represented, if it actually occurred. But it isn’t there, so the flood must have been local.
Of all the scientific objections, this one is perhaps the toughest to deal with. There have been attempted answers, but none of these accurately deal with the evidence. My first response is to acknowledge that these samples do not indicate a worldwide deluge during Noah’s time. However, I don’t believe this is the definitive evidence against it. While we know the effects of a big localized flood and of hydraulic effects in general, a worldwide flood as described in Genesis, has not been observed and could have unexpected effects upon the land and seas. We also don’t know where the water entered and exited, what temperature it was, what temperature the earth was in various places, or of the salinity of the various seas. For instance, if the seas were highly salinated, did the fresh water sit on top, only mixing a little? Did the ice at the poles melt, or was the water cold enough and not long lasting enough to have not greatly affected the ice? There is a lot we don’t know. So while I understand the scientific case against the GF, it’s not so overwhelming to cause me to abandon the clear meaning of the Bible.
So why is this discussion important? For one, if we abandon what the Bible teaches on the subject of the flood, there’s no reason to not use a similar hermeneutic elsewhere in Scripture. Human nature is such that once a section of the Bible is found false, all of it becomes suspect. But these chapters were not written as legendary or mythological accounts. There is a great deal of specificity in it, far more than what’s in the other ancient flood stories. For instance the dims of the ark show that it was designed to withstand a major flood; there are very specific landmark dates given, such as months, days, and Noah’s age. If it’s legendary, then all of these details are superfluous.
A second reason to reject the LFT is that it serves to undermine the promises of God. As shown earlier, the Noahic Covenant only makes sense if the flood was global. When Christians believe in and teach a local flood, they need to understand the theological implications, as well as the effects on their students. There are many promises of God throughout the Bible. The NC was the first. If it’s called into question, the rest also become suspect. Let God be true.
Scripture quotations are from the ESV® Bible (The Holy Bible, English Standard Version®), copyright © 2001 by Crossway, a publishing ministry of Good News Publishers. Used by permission. All rights reserved.
[i] Scientist Steve Jacobsen as quoted in “Massive ‘ocean’ discovered towards Earth’s core,” by Andy Coghlan. https://www.newscientist.com/article/dn25723-massive-ocean-discovered-towards-earths-core#.U56BwfldXTo. Accessed 05 June 2016. To be fair, I should point out that the water in this reservoir is trapped within the molecular structure of the earth’s mantle. In other words, it’s not just some big underground ocean. Therefore, some would object this couldn’t be released, at least not very easily. But there’s still much we are learning about God’s creation. It could very well be that the right conditions would cause the water to “burst forth” as described in the text. This is apparently what did, in fact, occur.