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Flood theology: why does Noah’s Flood matter? (1)

June 2015 | by Stephen Lloyd

Ocean waveThe account of creation in Genesis 1 and 2 comprises 56 verses, while the account of the Flood in Genesis 6–9 comprises 81 verses — nearly 50 per cent more.

Many volumes have been written on the theology of creation, but very little on the theology of the Flood. Sermons on creation are far more common than those on the Flood. Noah’s Flood appears to have little significance to modern Christians. Why?

For many the Flood is sidelined as a children’s story. Despite the fact that it entails the most horrific, large-scale mass killing in history, it is seen as ideal Sunday school material, perhaps because it lends itself to exciting displays of animals.

For adults, when the Flood is addressed, it is taught as an isolated judgement story: sin leads to judgement and those who trust God are rescued. While this is undoubtedly correct, it does not give the Flood any special significance.

There are many other stories in the Bible that teach the same lesson, so, in this view, if Genesis 6–9 was removed from the Bible, nothing substantial would be lost.

Theistic evolutionists tend to pay very little attention to the Flood. For example, D. R. Alexander (Creation or evolution. Do we have to choose? Monarch, 2008; p.242) gives it a single paragraph in his book. While Alexander and those who share a similar position believe Noah’s Flood was a historical event, their concern is to minimise its historical and geological impact by insisting that it was a local, not a global, catastrophe.

Genesis Flood

Creationists do, to a degree, recognise the importance of the Flood. Interestingly Whitcomb and Morris (Whitcomb, J. C. and Morris, H. M., The Genesis Flood: the biblical record and its scientific implications, Presbyterian and Reformed, 1961) called their influential book The Genesis Flood, not ‘The Genesis Creation’. But, generally speaking, creationists’ interest in the Flood has focused on finding textual arguments for why the Flood should be understood as a global, rather than local event; in other words, countering their theistic evolutionist critics.

This is the main concern of the biblical chapters in Whitcomb and Morris and in the more recent revision by Snelling (Snelling, A. A., Earth’s catastrophic past, Vol. 1, Institute for Creation Research, 2009). There is very little treatment of the Flood’s significance theologically.

As creationists, our lack of engagement with the theology of the Flood is a mistake, because it reinforces the perception that the Flood is of minimal theological significance. That affects how creationist arguments for its universality are heard.

The textual arguments for a global Flood are very strong, but they are usually ignored by theistic evolutionists because they are seen as unimportant. If it is assumed that there is little at stake theologically over whether the Flood was a global event, there is little incentive to engage with the creationist arguments.

In this article I will show that the strongest arguments for a global Flood do not rest on isolated proof-texts, but on central biblical themes. I will do this by looking at the place of the Flood in the overall storyline of the Bible, i.e. the story that takes us from creation to new creation via the cross and resurrection of Jesus Christ.

I am not simply placing the Flood within the storyline (as you might show a particular biblical character fitting into the Bible’s timeline), but showing why the Flood is essential to the coherence of the storyline of the Bible and thus to the gospel itself. In short, I am explaining why Noah’s Flood matters.

Noah's ark reconstruction in DordrechtAll history

The Flood is theologically significant because without it we are missing part of the storyline through which we interpret all history.

2 Peter 3:3-10 sets out a timeline for the Bible’s story. There are three acts of creation occurring by the Word of God: the initial creation in which land and water are separated; the Flood which reverses that separation (an act of ‘de-creation’), where the waters again cover the earth before recreating what is our current world; and, third, our current world one day being purified by fire and re-created. The Flood is therefore one of the markers of three key epochs in history: the world before the Flood, the present world and the new creation.

The world we live in now is different to the original creation because of the Flood. The idea that the Flood was starting a new epoch in history was something assumed in Jewish thinking. Peter himself assumes it in 2 Peter 2, in which he uses Noah as an example, a model, for the Christians he was writing to.

R. J. Bauckham (1983) summarises the message of 2 Peter 2:5-9 in this way: ‘Noah, preserved from the old world to be the beginning of the new world after the Flood, is a type of faithful Christians who will be preserved from the present world to inherit the new world after the judgement’ (Word Biblical Commentary: Jude, 2 Peter, Nashville: Thomas Nelson, 1983; p.250).

This way of thinking comes from Genesis itself. In 7:11 the Flood is dated precisely to be in the 600th year of Noah’s life, and the 17th day of the second month. This degree of precision is highly unusual in Scripture and is consistent with the Flood being the start of a new epoch.

In addition, the description of the Flood is one of de-creation. Creation is undone. The order of destruction in Genesis 7:21 mirrors the order of creation in days 5 and 6. But the world is then reassembled in acts of re-creation. Dry land reappears from the water (8:1-5). Plants begin to grow (8:11).

Noah is like a second Adam from whom the world is re-populated, and the creation command to ‘be fruitful and multiply’ is reissued (9:1). Noah is told to have dominion (9:2) and all nations are descended from Noah (9:19). Noah is also like Adam in that he is portrayed as a man of obedience (6:22; 7:5) who later falls (9:21).

Peter sees the de-creation and re-creation of the Flood as a parallel to the de-creation and re-creation associated with the second coming of Jesus. And Jesus makes the same link in his own teaching (e.g. Matthew 24:37-39).

What is striking in what both Peter and Jesus say is that the original creation out of nothing is not the paradigm for the new creation, but the re-creation of the Flood where a new world is made from existing material. This is consistent with the New Testament teaching that our resurrection bodies in the new creation will be transformed versions of our existing bodies.

Universality

Understanding the Flood correctly in its place in the story-line of the Bible has important implications for its scale. There is a thread of universality throughout Genesis 1–11 required by the Bible’s storyline.

R. M. Davidson comments: ‘The theology of the Flood is the pivot of a connected but multifaceted universal theme running through Genesis 1–11 and the whole rest of Scripture: creation and the character of the Creator in his original purpose for creation; un-creation, in humankind’s turning from the Creator; the universal spread of sin, ending in universal eschatological judgement; and re-creation, in the eschatological salvation of the faithful remnant and the universal renewal of the earth’ (Evangelical dictionary of biblical theology, ‘The Flood’; Elwell, W. A. (editor), Baker, 1996; pp. 261-263).

In other words the Flood must be of the same universal scope as the original creation and the new creation (as also suggested by 2 Peter 3:5-7, which brings these three events together).

We instinctively read Genesis 1 as describing the creation of the whole earth. And the destruction of the Flood is described in terms of wiping out what God created in chapter 1 (Genesis 6:6-7; 7:4) — so the Flood is as extensive as the original creation (Creation, catastrophe and Calvary: why a global flood is vital to the doctrine of the atonement, ‘Biblical evidence for the universality of the Genesis flood’, by Davidson R. M.; Baldwin, J. T. (editor); Review and Herald, 2000; pp. 79-92).

Hence, if it is argued that the Flood is a local event, the creation described in Genesis 1 must also refer to the creation of a small part of the world. The idea of a local creation was suggested by John Pye Smith in 1840. The arguments against Smith’s interpretation, as set out for example by B. Ramm (The Christian view of science and Scripture, Paternoster, 1955; pp. 131-133), work just as well against understanding Genesis 6–8 as describing a local Flood.

To be concluded

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 Biblical Creation Society’s magazine Origins (September 2014), and is used by kind permission.