The Battle Between Science and a Literal Interpretation of Noah’s Flood
by Bryan Ness | 31 August 2021 |
The story of Noah’s flood has long been a favorite children’s story because of its apparent simplicity of message. Since Adam and Eve mankind has become progressively more sinful and God finally reaches the end of his patience and decides to destroy all humans and animal life using a worldwide flood, saving just a single family and a small number of animals on a large boat to repopulate the earth after the floodwaters recede. The focus in the child’s version of the story is God’s love and care for Noah, his family, and all the animals, and the rainbow displayed after the flood as a reminder that God loves us and will never again send such a great flood.
Noah’s flood, however, is more than just a children’s story, and the Hebrew version of the story is just one of several worldwide flood stories shared by other ancient Near Eastern cultures. The other stories share many of the same elements, including a single man and his family being saved, a large boat on which animals are saved, and several other parallels. What makes the Noah version of the story stand out is that the Hebrew God, a solitary god unlike the multiple gods in the other flood narratives, decides from the start that he wants to save some of the humans from the coming cataclysm. In all the other narratives, the gods as a group decide to destroy all humans because they no longer find them useful, and it is only due to a dissenting god that any humans at all end up being saved.
Thus, the primary purpose of the Noah story seems to be to contrast the monotheistic, merciful God of Israel with the multiple, vengeful gods of the competing religions in the ancient Near East. The story is meant to teach a theological truth about the only true God who is a God of justice, but also a God of mercy, who wants to have a personal, reciprocal relationship with the humans he has created.
In Seventh-day Adventist theology the Noachian flood story has been drafted for two additional purposes: 1) to stand as an apocalyptic warning of last day conditions on earth, where mankind becomes ever more sinful and degraded, and 2) to support a short-term age of the earth by using the flood to explain the fossil record. The latter use of this story is especially critical because standard geological evidence suggests the fossil record formed over hundreds of million years, which makes the traditional belief in a 7-day literal creation week a mere 6,000 years ago impossible to defend. Finding scientific evidence for a worldwide flood less than 6,000 years ago is also critical because Adventist theology teaches that God’s second book (i.e., nature) will always agree with scripture.
Throughout our history Adventists have steadfastly defended a purely literal reading of Genesis. But as more and more geological and paleontological data have accumulated, it has become harder and harder to use science to defend a worldwide flood. Many aspects of the story are not scientifically feasible, and the geological record is especially problematic.
Although evidence of extremely large and destructive floods is found in the geologic record in some geographic regions, there is no sign of a worldwide flood. There is archaeological evidence of civilizations that predate the flood, one of the most notable being the unbroken record of Egyptian civilization going back at least 8,000 years. Bristlecone pine tree ring dates go back more than 12,000 years and correlate closely with dates obtained from carbon dating. The oldest bristlecone pine still alive is 4,765 years old, which means it began growing before the date of Noah’s flood that is accepted by most fundamentalist theologians (2,348 BCE). There are unbroken ice core records going back 800,000 years and lake sediment records extending more than 1.4 million years. If there had been a worldwide flood about 4,500 years ago, these records would have shown evidence of such a large disturbance.
It is past time for Adventist theologians and scientists to reckon with these things and face up to the physical evidence and realize that science cannot “prove” that a literal worldwide flood as described in Genesis happened. It is possible science could provide evidence for a more localized flood that was the basis for the Near Eastern flood narratives, including Noah’s flood, but continuing to claim that science supports a worldwide flood is dishonest. If Adventist theologians believe we must maintain a belief in a worldwide flood, then so be it, but it will have to be based on faith alone, invoking God’s miraculous interventions on multiple levels.
It is also time to ask how essential it is theologically that the Noachian flood account be considered literal and worldwide. What if Noah’s flood were to be considered a larger than normal flood, but geographically local rather than worldwide? What if the way the story is told in Genesis used intentional hyperbole, and the author of the story had no concern or even knowledge whether it was a worldwide event or not, but for the sake of the theological message made it a universal story? What if a worldwide flood, even if it had occurred, cannot adequately explain the fossil record? Is there any reason to continue to interpret the story as literal if doing so doesn’t even solve one of the primary reasons for seeing it as literal?
Room for diversity?
These are important questions because Adventists that are scientifically well educated often recognize that the scientific evidence does not support the existence of a worldwide flood, and if the church insists all must believe in a worldwide flood, or their salvation is at stake, they are put in a bind. Dualistic thinking like this can lead to a crisis of faith. If a literal reading of scripture is made essential to one’s salvation, and incontrovertible scientific evidence shows that the story cannot possibly be historically accurate, believers are left in the position of either renouncing the Bible entirely or ignoring what appears to be objective reality. Many rational individuals in such a quandary will just leave the church, and maybe even Christianity entirely.
What if, however, instead of insisting that a literal reading is the only valid approach, the church used the new scientific evidence to reexamine our interpretation of the Biblical story? What if the church allowed for some diversity of belief around the interpretation of the flood story? Those whose faith allows them to accept the literal interpretation, despite the scientific evidence to the contrary, can continue to accept the traditional interpretation. Those who find the science so compelling that they must reinterpret the flood story more figuratively can be allowed to do so. Whether interpreted literally or figuratively, the flood story retains its basic message of God’s justice and mercy.
An added benefit of allowing for more flexibility in interpreting the flood story is preservation of the church’s intellectual reputation among outsiders and potential converts. Retaining a rigid hold on the literal interpretation of the story makes the church look ignorant of scientific realities. What well educated person would want to become a member of a church that would not only close its eyes to such truths, but would also actively persecute those members who accept what science has to say?
\This is not a new problem. To illustrate I will close with what Augustine of Hippo said in the 4th century CE:
“Usually, even a non-Christian knows something about the earth, the heavens, and the other elements of this world, about the motion and orbit of the stars and even their size and relative positions, about the predictable eclipses of the sun and moon, the cycles of the years and the seasons, about the kinds of animals, shrubs, stones, and so forth, and this knowledge he holds to as being certain from reason and experience. Now, it is a disgraceful and dangerous thing for an infidel to hear a Christian, presumably giving the meaning of Holy Scripture, talking nonsense on these topics; and we should take all means to prevent such an embarrassing situation, in which people show up vast ignorance in a Christian and laugh it to scorn. The shame is not so much that an ignorant individual is derided, but that people outside the household of the faith think our sacred writers held such opinions, and, to the great loss of those for whose salvation we toil, the writers of our Scripture are criticized and rejected as unlearned men. If they find a Christian mistaken in a field which they themselves know well and hear him maintaining his foolish opinions about our books, how are they going to believe those books in matters concerning the resurrection of the dead, the hope of eternal life, and the kingdom of heaven, when they think their pages are full of falsehoods on facts which they themselves have learnt from experience and the light of reason? Reckless and incompetent expounders of Holy Scripture bring untold trouble and sorrow on their wiser brethren when they are caught in one of their mischievous false opinions and are taken to task by those who are not bound by the authority of our sacred books. For then, to defend their utterly foolish and obviously untrue statements, they will try to call upon Holy Scripture for proof and even recite from memory many passages which they think support their position, although they understand neither what they say nor the things about which they make assertion (I Tim 1:7).”
- Augustine, S. 1982. The Literal Meaning of Genesis, Volume 1, Books 1-6 (J. H. Taylor, Trans.). Mawah, NJ: Paulist Press, pp. 42-43. ↑
Bryan Ness is a Professor of Biology at Pacific Union College