Noah’s Flood has a pivotal place in the central themes of the Bible. That it was a universal rather than local flood is demonstrated by its central place in the Bible’s storyline.
The second coming of Christ involves final judgement, but it is more than this — it is the start of a sin-free world. Similarly, the Flood was a terrible, global judgement, but it was also the start of an era of grace, to ensure sin would not triumph.
The period between the Flood and the Second Coming is an era of abundant grace, centred on the death and resurrection of Christ (see figure 1).
Before the Flood there was grace (for example, Enoch walked with God, Genesis 5:24), but the world degenerated into rampant violence and perversion: a world spiralling out of control to self-destruction (Genesis 6:5, 12).
The hope inspired by Enosh (Genesis 4:26) when ‘men began to call on the name of the Lord’ is long gone. Grace, it seems, has almost been snuffed out. The downward spiral is most graphically highlighted by the fact that there were only eight righteous people left, by the time the Flood came. The people of God across the entire earth were down to one family.
But after the Flood there is a change: God makes a new (numerous) nation through Abraham. God’s people increase, and, by the time we get to the end of the story, the people of God are a multitude that no man can number (Revelation 7:9).
There is also explicit teaching in the text that points to an era of grace beginning at the Flood. First, as the Flood reached its height, ‘God remembered Noah’ (Genesis 8:1). This is the first time in Genesis that God is said to ‘remember’, a word loaded with salvation significance. It means keeping a promise to save (Exodus 2:24).
Secondly, there is a striking contrast between what God says before (Genesis 6:5-7) and after the Flood (Genesis 8:21).
Before the Flood God is grieved over sin and his response is judgement. After the Flood God echoes the words of 6:5, about man being incurably and perpetually sinful, but says that this is now a reason why there will not be another Flood. For sin to be a reason to show mercy doesn’t make sense to human reason, but that is the whole point about God’s grace — it goes beyond human reason!
So, before the Flood, sin is a reason to bring judgement, after the Flood sin is a reason to show mercy (Moberly, R. W. L., The theology of the book of Genesis, Cambridge University Press; pp. 111-118).
That promise of grace is the reason there is not an endless cycle of increasing sin, followed by universal judgement. The different response is prompted by Noah’s offering (Genesis 8:20), a sacrifice that points forward to the cross.
We are still in this era of grace beginning at the Flood, as 2 Peter 3:9 makes clear. The ‘delay’ in the Second Coming is to give more time to repent.
Changes in creation
The era of grace is reflected in changes in creation itself as a result of the re-creation of the Flood. This re-creation does not lead to a sin-free world like the new creation, but it does lead to a world more adjusted to sin than the original creation.
It is a world in which the damage and destruction sin can cause is limited, so humanity does not destroy itself completely. For example, the dramatic reduction in life-spans after the Flood was a mercy, in that it limited the damage one individual can cause. Just imagine a leader like Stalin living for 900 years!
In addition, the climate changes and frequent natural disasters after the Flood would have made it harder to grow food, so more human energy would need to be spent on survival rather than fighting. The creation of nations would also help to limit the concentration of power (see God’s concern in Genesis 11:6).
2 Peter 3:7 notes that it is our present world, the world shaped by the Flood, that awaits destruction (and re-creation, 3:13) when Jesus comes again. It is our world that has already seen resurrection life, the in-breaking of new creation, not the world before the Flood.
Even the suffering present in our post-Flood world is understood by Jesus as ‘birth pains’ of the new creation (Matthew 24:7-8). In other words, the re-creation of the Flood is the first step pointing in hope towards the birth of new creation when Jesus comes again.
So far under this heading, I have argued that the Flood inaugurates an era of abundant grace. I will now turn to consider who is included in this era of grace.
Genesis is very explicit. The post-Flood promises apply to Noah and his descendants and the animals that were rescued in the ark (Genesis 9:9-10). If there were other people and animals who were not affected by the Flood (as would be the case in a local flood), the covenant God made after the Flood, symbolised by the rainbow (9:12), would not apply to them.
This has direct implications for us today, because of the gospel promise made to Noah’s descendant, Abram, in Genesis 12:3, ‘All peoples on earth will be blessed through you’.
Which ‘peoples’ are included in this promise? Given the context, this must refer to the nations who emerged from the confusion of Babel (11:9), peoples who are explicitly said to have descended from Noah’s sons (9:19; 10:32).
In other words, the promise of a Saviour, a descendant of Abraham, is for peoples (nations) descended from Noah’s sons. If the Flood were merely a local event, there would be many people alive today who are not descendants of Noah. They would not be included in Abram’s promise.
It is only on the basis of a global Flood, destroying all people apart from Noah’s family, that we can consistently understand Jesus’ command to ‘go and make disciples of all nations’ (Matthew 28:19) as universal, applying to all humanity, including nations not known to the New Testament writers.
In summary, when we understand the place of the Flood within the storyline of the Bible, it is clear that only a global Flood provides a consistent basis for the promises made to Noah and Abraham applying to all the world’s nations today.
Not just people
Under this second heading, I have focused on the anthropological universality of the Flood. In the final section of this article, I will now turn to the theological significance of the Flood affecting the whole earth, not just people. (The Flood may have affected creation beyond planet earth, but it is its effects on the ‘earth’ which are made explicit in the biblical text.)
Christ’s work of salvation involves the reconciliation of ‘all things’ (Colossians 1:20). Salvation is not just about individual sinners finding forgiveness and a body-less life in heaven, but a new creation where believers have physical resurrection bodies in a cosmos that has been re-created. The Flood is where this hope for the physical world is first made explicit.
Self-evidently, the Flood affects more than humanity alone: animals are killed; plants are destroyed; the very ground is no longer dry land. In Genesis 6:13, God explicitly says he is going to destroy the earth as well as the people and animals.
As discussed last month, the Flood is an act of de-creation, a judgement on creation itself. But why is creation, aside from humanity, under judgement?
If the problem was merely human sin, then surely an appropriate judgement would be to strike all humans dead through a plague, or suchlike? The fact that God sends a Flood indicates something is wrong with the whole of creation.
Genesis 6 makes clear that it is not just mankind that is the problem. Genesis 6:11 says the earth had become ‘corrupt’, an obvious contrast to Genesis 1:31 where all God had made was ‘very good’ (Clines, D. J. A., Faith and thought 100; p.133).
‘All flesh’ (here I am quoting from the New Revised Standard Version which does not wrongly translate ‘all flesh’ as only humans) had become corrupt (6:12). Within the Flood account this means animals as well as humans (7:15, 16, 21).
Animals were violent as well as people (6:13), and this explains why God was grieved at having made animals as well as people in Genesis 6:7. In other words, the animals were not behaving in the way he had made them in the beginning. Animals have transgressed their created status under man, and, while originally vegetarian (Genesis 1:30), now prey upon man (9:5).
Type of Christ
Clearly, animals are not sinful in the sense of being moral agents consciously choosing to disobey God’s commands, but they are part of a creation that has been thrown into rebellion against its Creator because of man’s sin. It is a world where ‘natural laws are broken by all levels of created beings’ (Clines, p.134).
Given that the behaviour of animals and the sinful actions of man are both anti-creational — crossing the boundaries and order set by the Creator — the judgement of the Flood dismantling creation is a fitting punishment. In the Flood, the boundary between land and sea is crossed, the ‘breath of life’ (2:7) is taken away (7:22) and the earth which has become ‘corrupt’ (literally ‘destroyed’) is itself destroyed (6:13) (Clines, p.135).
In the storyline of the Bible, the Flood is the first of many judgements in which creation beyond mankind is also included (e.g. Exodus 7:14 – 11:5; Jeremiah 7:20; Zephaniah 1:2-3; Revelation 8:7-12). But it is also the first time that the redemption of creation is revealed. God ‘remembers’ the animals as well as Noah (8:1) as the waters start to recede.
The recreation of the earth after the Flood is essential to Noah’s own rescue. God could have saved Noah and his family by taking them off the earth to live in a spiritual world. Instead, he saves them with a boat made of wood, and makes a new physical world for them to live in. It is with the actions of a righteous man (6:9) that creation is rescued.
Strikingly, Noah’s name (5:29) means comfort or rest, understood in terms of bringing rest from the curse that has affected the ground. In other words, Noah’s mission was not only to preserve human life and limit human violence, it was to bring hope that the toil brought through the curse of creation would be relieved.
It is not hard to see in Noah a type of Christ, the truly righteous man, whose sacrifice on a wooden cross rescues us from judgement, and whose bodily resurrection signals the promise of a new creation. But Noah also anticipates the ‘sons of God’, whose bodily resurrection will be accompanied by the liberation of the whole of creation (Romans 8:19-23).
Noah’s Flood is the first time that we discover that the salvation promised in Genesis 3:15 is not only the spiritual salvation of the souls of individual sinners, but the redemption of the whole of creation. God loves creation. The Christian hope is physical. We will live with God, in resurrected bodies, in a new creation.
If these theological lessons flow from the Flood, then Noah’s Flood, including its extent, must matter.
With so much at stake theologically, we are compelled to develop scientific models that are consistent with a global flood in human history. And we are also compelled to give the Flood a far more prominent place in our theology of creation and salvation.
The author works for Biblical Creation Ministries (BCM) and is pastor of Hope Church, Gravesend. He contributed to the book Debating Darwin (Paternoster, 2009). This article first appeared in BCS’s magazine Origins (September 2014), and is used by kind permission.