universal flood??

With the Ken Ham and Bill Nye debate thoroughly over, but left with an unsettling taste, I had to say something.

OK I have some questions about the flood that I needed answered. An old student Trevor Cartwright brought up the Genesis account once more. Long ago I dismissed the possibility that Genesis was giving us a literal account of events in ancient history. But lingering questions remain. I am firmly convinced that God does not intend to deceive people by plain observation, and that human senses are generally reliable, especially with so many eyes on the same objects. Science does not give us absolute truth, but it does give us good probability, and human logic, though incomplete, does not deceive us as far as it goes.

So here it goes: The contention is about whether the flood is universal or local. I abandoned the prospect that it was global a long time ago because of the large number of species and the variety of species on different continents that did not seem to have known each other, and certainly not a mere 6000 years ago.

I don’t have a problem with thinking that the flood is local, and that the ancients thought the world to be very small. Here’s a rather recent map of Ptolemy’s from 105 AD, thousands of years after the supposed universal flood.
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Ptolemy’s world was much tinier than ours, and I can imagine the sort of thinking that went into his worldview. I don’t suppose that he would have found universal assent for what he included or what he left out though, the proportions or topology. A universal flood for Ptolemy, a far more educated and knowledgable person than Moses or the scribes who compiled the text of scriptures in 550 BC, would have been possible, since the world was so small.

I got to thinking though, if as Genesis 7:20 says, “The waters rose and covered the mountains to a depth of more than fifteen cubits” (NIV) then a universal flood would have covered Mt. Everest by more than 23 feet. A note by the translators suggests that this passage could be translated “rose more than fifteen cubits, and the mountains were covered” does not suggest more than a local phenomena, a common occurrence for the Mesopotamian river basin. Many readers who trust the veracity of the Jewish scriptures breathe a sigh of relief.

But, enter the moderns, like Ken Ham, and you have a universal flood, implying that Everest was covered by more than 23 feet of water. Everest is 8,848 meters above sea level. That implies that in 40 days and nights, it rained about 221 meters a day, ~9.21 meters an hour, (for the non-scientific among us ~30.21 feet per hour or an inch every 2 minutes) over the whole earth. I admit, speaking as a modern, that Everest is growing ~4 millimeters a year, but this amounts to only about 24 meters in 6000 years, shortly after the “creation event” for Hammites and Ussherites. This wouldn’t change the calculation much.
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Give space for another passage of Genesis, 7:11 where the “Springs of the deep” burst forth and maybe that figure for daily rain is a little high. Now scientifically speaking, when we look for springs of the deep, underground reservoirs of such magnitude, we do not find them. But according to the US Geological Survey, in a page that answers the question “How much water is in the earth?”, it turns out that there isn’t much at all compared to the 8,848 meters of water deep required to cover Everest. In fact rough calculations of the average volume of the earth a radius of 6371 km = 1.08 x10^12 or 1,080,000,000,000 km^3 and the additional volume of water needed to get the water up to that height, would constitute approximately 10x10^9 or 10 billion km^3 about 7.22 times the amount of water on the earth at this time, 1,386,000,000 km^3. So some terrible questions come up.

(I was so happy to find that note on the alternate reading of that passage in Genesis 7:20. It sort of solves the whole puzzle Ham puts up as a matter of fact. Translations may not be as reliable as Ham wants them to be.)

The greatest difficulties come for the literalists who want a universal flood. It’s too much water, where did it come from? There are no large (4-8 kilometer deep) caverns in the earth, and there never were, if the laws of physics obtained back then, and there was never a dome of water in the sky. After getting all that water here in an impossible downpour, where did it go? All the Bible says is that the waters began to recede until later in the year when the ark set down on the land. In total, about a year’s time had transpired before the inhabitants got off the ark.

What we have in the necessity of a universal flood is a miraculous event, (that means God going against the laws of nature (though I don’t think God does that)) implying God couldn’t see the bad behavior of people beforehand, and had to come up with an ad hoc resolution to the problem. If there is a God, this version of God that the literalists have cooked up is almost laughably puny, certainly not worthy of worship. And if that’s all God is, then the new Athiests are correct to dispose of him.

I think God is wiser than that. To be consistent, the literalists have a terribly contradictory text on their hands. How they have managed to fool themselves into believing their interpretation true is beyond me. I think the Bible is much more human and subtle. The writers were not robots copying down texts dictated to them by an angel, or God himself. They understood the complexities of human nature and even divine providence. We do them a terrible disservice to treat these texts as a logical puzzle without even considering how human these stories are.

Here’s the latest from Reasons.org. Reasons to Believe just published a paper on the universal flood. They have better numbers and research than my speculation above, but conclude generally the same thing I did. Here it is: The Universal Flood.

6 thoughts on “universal flood??”

  1. Dr. Olena,
    I used to dogmatically affirm the literalness of the extraordinary events of Gen 1, particularly Creation, Fall, Flood, and Babel. I grew up watching Kent Hovind, Ken Ham, and other “Young Earth Creationists” (YEC). I graduated from my Fundamentalist Baptist high school as a YEC zealot bent on converting the world to this cosmological perspective. And of course, I defended a worldwide flood. I even wrote a paper on this in Anthropology 101 in junior college!

    Gradually, however, I began questioning this stance. My friend Aaron and I discussed the true meaning of the Hebrew word “yom.” Could this refer to an “age” or “span” rather than a 24 hour day? After all, even St. Augustine pondered this. Furthermore, how much time really elapsed between 1:1 and 1:2? I changed from YEC to Old Earth Creationism (OEC). Also, does Noah’s flood epic HAVE to be real? Does Jonah’s epic HAVE to be real? Job? Babel? After all, many of these stories follow a chiastic form. Perhaps the literal nature is of no concern to the author. Perhaps the author is concerned with teaching a theological truth via fictional story (you know…like Jesus did in the NT…).

    It was around this time that I began attending Evangel University. I was blessed to be able to attend a few of Dr. Douglas Olena’s classes (Contemporary Philosophy and Ancient Western Philosophy). I vividly recall sitting with Dr. Olena after class for a few hours one day and going back and forth over this topic. He mentioned that I was reading the text anachronistically. (Confession: I had to go look that word up after our discussion). Anyways, I was still convinced that the truth of what literally happened was right there in Genesis; it simply had to be decoded properly.

    As time passed, however, I continued to ruminate on that conversation with Dr. Olena. I also researched scholarly works regarding the hermeneutical framework of Genesis. Prior to this, I read one-sided books that either A. challenged Darwinism with scientific anomalies (e.g. polystrate fossils, the Cambrian explosion, etc.) or B. freaked out about Nazism taking over if more people believe in Evolution. I also worked with a guy named Toby who had some really good questions about such issues (though I never admitted it at the time). I eventually changed my hermeneutical foundation.

    What I eventually learned was that one must affirm two (if not more) hermeneutical presuppositions to posit the views of Fundamentalism: scripture was mechanically dictated to men by the Holy Spirit (little or no human element), and it was all intended to be literal. If one starts with such a foundation, then she is forced to fit all scientific date into that framework. It ends up looking rather messy (as Dr. Olena eloquently proved in his blog post) and horribly inconsistent with what is literal and what is allegorical. In the Nye/ Ham debate, Ham was kind of dumbfounded by this question.

    What is the Biblical writers were imperfect humans trying to narrate God’s story? What if they were just people like you and I with limited knowledge who desired to convey their perspectives? I think that Dr. Olena is correct: we rob the Bible of the human element when we affirm verbal plenary (or mechanical dictation) inspiration. There really is beauty to be found in the library (a la Rob Bell) known as the Bible when we realize that they were human like us- shortcomings and all. (And come on, do you really think that the Holy Spirit forced Paul to write that he wished his agitators would emasculate themselves in Gal. 5:12)?

    So with all that being said, I think that many Christians come to the table with a hermeneutical flaw rather than a scientific flaw. One’s presuppositional philosophy dictates how he interprets the scientific data. Many Fundamentalists read books that argue about the science of Creationism and the Flood but never even take a second look at the very relevant hermeneutics; the literalness of Genesis is simply assumed. Many in the New Atheist movement are guilty of this fallacy too (from the opposite end of the spectrum)- they dogmatically deny God and limit all truth to what is empirically verifiable. That is a bold assumption.

    To conclude, thank you Dr. Olena. Your classes really enlightened me on this and many other subjects. Thank you for taking time to converse with me about this issue in particular. Your classes and our discussions have played a major role in this young, aspiring theologian’s development. I am eternally grateful. Thanks.

  2. Hey Trevor, Whether you can be eternally grateful at this moment in time is in question. Whether you will be is another question. I hope that we can all move closer to the truth of the real world and of God. I did appreciate you as a student.

    The new atheists have a collection of presuppositions that are problematic as you note.

    The concept of verbal plenary inspiration is not precisely dictation. Often the concept requires that God guided the writers, and that the words specifically convey the meaning God intended, though the precise ordering and choice of those words was left up to the individual. Islam specifically states that the words of the Qur’an were dictated to Muhammad by the angel. That is never the concept for the Bible, though in certain cases where God tells the prophets to say, “Thus says the Lord…” there is more specificity to those declarations. Nonetheless if God had an English speaker in mind for a particular word, he nonetheless spoke to the writer of Scripture in a culturally appropriate way.

  3. What I have been moving towards (with my math background as it stands) is understanding the axiomatic underlying positions our world views. That is, I have come to realize more and more our viewpoints and conclusion are based upon our underlying implicit assumptions, and therefore very importantly our definition of the words we are using.

    The golden child example for this in my opinion is the concept of “equal rights”. Some people on the left argue for “equal rights”. Whether or not a state allows gay marriage, I and a gay gentleman or woman have the same rights in any state (to marry someone of the opposite gender only in that state, or to marry someone of either gender).

    That is, the underlying assumptions about the definition of the word “equal” are what is at play here, but the goal for both parties in the debate have the same goal. We often don’t realize that about many debates.

    We do a disservice when we don’t examine our underlying assumptions of ourselves and those who disagree with us as opposed to simply our conclusions.

    So long as two sides to any debate stick to the “therefore” statements and do not examine carefully the definitions of the words each are using and the underlying principles, discussion/debate is in vain. The only yard stick we have for whose underlying assumptions make more sense is “is it consistent with what we observe?”.

    Based on what we know about today, I tend to agree with you the assumption of a local flood seems more consistent with our observable data. I am not 100% on this. I am a statistics guy, I hardly ever am. Still, I am fine with anyone who believes that it wasn’t. What I do have a problem with is believing in the necessity of the Bible to be a “scientifically accurate” account in the sense of their lack of understanding about how the universe works.

    Honestly, unless it is a debate about the necessity of the Bible being scientifically accurate, I personally do not find enough value in debating the issue of ‘which type of creation’ or ‘which type of flood’ occured-my underlying assumption here is that the Bible is (whatever else it is) God’s Word and contains his truth. On that grounds, I stand (in part, simply by belief).

    My question is, though: What does this do to our exegesis? If we chalk up Noah’s safety to God’s direct protection, and the rainbow to his promise never to flood the earth again, what does this do to the meaning of this part of our history? Does the story lose its meaning?

  4. Your questions at the end are good ones. I would reverse the intent of your first question by asking what our exegesis does to the story. Is it possible to avoid presuppositions of a damaging kind when we interpret? There may be no way out of the paper bag we wrap ourselves in if we presuppose that logical consistency was a condition of truth for the writers of the scripture. The story and our method of interpretation are intertwined. There may be no way of wringing out some objective story from the text. I also wonder whether this sort of crass mechanistic theorizing is useful for interpretation.

    I’m not sure I chalk up Noah’s safety to God’s direct protection. What Noah did was obey, unlike his contemporaries. Do you think God would have destroyed any person who could and would hear him and obey? (Can’t answer that.) Interestingly enough the earth has gone through a couple of ice ages that completely encased the earth. But what we know of life, only the macroscopic forms, and the largest of those might be subject to a die-out. Some forms live happily in an environment too cold or too hot, too oxygen rich or poor for us. Why, look at the tardigrade. Would a universal flood cause a universal die-out? That’s an interesting question. There might be some risk for salt or fresh water animals, but what about birds who live on the water, and eat from the sea? Certainly, again the macroscopic animals who depend on dry land would perish, but would the microscopic life do so, or the amphibians, otters, sea lions, penguins, etc. who live close to water?

    The meaning of the story is not lost if the flood is local. This is the people of God who were responding to God’s judgment. What they experienced was a lesson they understood well enough. And if God told them, as the Bible records that he wouldn’t do this again, and the rainbow is a sign of his promise, would that be less true?

    The rainbow is not magic either, it is physics. Though Genesis 9 is the first mention in scriptures, is it the first time that a rainbow appeared? We don’t know, but if the laws of nature are persistent, it probably isn’t. I appeared every time the conditions for it were right, even as it does today.

  5. There is another issue Aaron that I want to address. That is, concerning what others believe. The issue here is some sort of true beliefs we as humans all hold to. It certainly doesn’t matter whether a person believes in a young earth or not if there is no cost to that belief, but there is an implicit cost that is not contained in that belief itself. That is, if we hold to a young earth on some supposed literal interpretation of the Scriptures, then we are completely insensitive to the scientific world that historically is part of the Western tradition since the middle ages. We set ourselves off against well warranted beliefs that have centuries of corroboration in observation, and scientific theory.

    Yes, we should be generous, and allow people to believe what they wish, but when it comes to judgment about those beliefs in the public arena, the young earthers have nothing but a very poor interpretation of an ancient text as proof. And it is an interpretation. They are not getting to the Truth of the Scriptures when they do what they do. A proof of that proposition is almost trivial, but still not accepted by them.

    I can tell how well a scientific project is going by how much they have to rely on the political process to support their beliefs with law. When they can only insist that their views should be held because the law permits it without scientific support, I am wary about the truth value of the belief, as I am with respect to Ham and Hovind’s young earth assertions.

    Bill Nye was extremely generous with Ken Ham, staying on the substantive issues without attacking Ham’s right to believe what he wished. Ham was not so subtle.

    My view is that Christians should say nothing that would place a stumbling stone in the way of somebody coming to Christ. When the young earth view is baldly asserted in the face of good scientific corroboration (admittedly probabilistic), then anyone who buys the truth of the scientific proposition of an ancient earth, will not be interested in the spiritual value of what the Christian person subsequently says. So, my interest is in evangelism. How can we claim to know the truth when the truth we claim is inconceivable by those who are observationally and rationally centered in a scientific view that has a multiplicity of prodigious proofs at hand.

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