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The Hardest Passage in the Bible (For Me)

I am writing up reflections on my devotions every day for six weeks. This is one of those posts.

I find Genesis 6–8 to be some of the most challenging passages in all of Scripture. The account of Noah and his family and many animals boarding a boat and surviving a worldwide flood by the mercy of God is an amazing picture of both God’s wrath against sin and his mercy to those who call on him. I do not find the passage difficult for theological reasons, so much (though I understand why others wrestle with the section there), but for the difficulty they present in reconciling the Scriptures with the evidence of the world around us.

I have a bachelor’s degree in physics and I spend a substantial part of my time outside of seminary working as a software developer. Science is deep in my soul; the way the universe ticks has always fascinated me and the way we study the universe no less so. The combination of these pieces leaves me able to understand—far better than many of my peers—just how odd the narrative seems scientifically.

There are plenty of parts of the history that do not trouble me at all. That God could miraculously flood the entire earth is not a matter of doubt in the least. That he could miraculously carry people and animals through the flood is likewise unproblematic for me. Even the repopulation of the earth with animals from what was an impossibly small sample1 when compared to the nearly incomprehensible biodiversity that characterizes our world is as nothing for the one who made all things.2 God made the universe; he is perfectly capable of managing a worldwide flood without breaking a sweat.

The problem, from my point of view, is that—all the arguments to the contrary of Ken Ham and his fellow travelers notwithstanding—there is not a shred of credible evidence for a worldwide flood in the geological record. It is an item that must be taken purely on faith, and not only on faith but on faith that runs exactly contrary to all the best evidence otherwise available to us. For a faith that sets as its capstone the historicity of a miracle, this is troublesome.3 Granting that scientific evidence is always open to revision, the best we have right now says, “This didn’t happen.” That leaves me in a strange spot.

The spot is strange precisely because ours is a historical faith, and because I am confident—absolutely confident—that 2,000 years ago, Jesus Christ really did rise from the dead, and he really is enthroned at the right hand of God the Father in heaven right now,4 and he really is coming back to set all things to rights. I believe his word, and I believe that the Scriptures are true. The historical evidence is amazing; the testimony from the internal coherence of Scripture itself is remarkable; and I and many others have personally witnessed the power of God in the lives of believers and unbelievers alike—to heal people, to deliver from demons, and to radically transform people from those who hate God to those who love him. I believe and trust in Jesus Christ.

And I have no idea what to do with Genesis 6–8 other than to continue asking questions in a posture of faith seeking understanding.5 I believe the passage, because it is the word of God, though I do not understand it yet. But—for now—that is enough. Jesus does not require that we understand every last thing, and he does not demand that we set aside all our questions; he requires only that we believingly obey him even as we continue asking in faith that he will ultimately answer us (and more, that he will ultimately satisfy us more than the answers will). And so as I continue seeking how best to understand this passage, I will also continue worshipping my risen, reigning God-Man Savior-King.

  1. Obligatory Firefly reference here: I can’t help but thing of River Tam saying, “Noah’s ark is a problem… We’ll have to call it early quantum state phenomenon. Only way to fit 5000 species of mammal on the same boat.” 
  2. Obligatory tweaking of the nose of all angrily ardent anti-evolutionists: If we assume that all animals alive today are descendants of animals that were on that boat, and think about the size of the boat and the number of distinct species of animals on the planet—including every kind of bird, reptile, and mammal—we are forced inevitably to the conclusion that God directed massive, species-boundary-crossing evolutionary diversification in the immediate aftermath of the flood, or otherwise to suppose that he simply recreated all the other species (in which case, why bother taking that particular set on the boat?). The fact that said evolution would have occurred far more rapidly than old-earth models suggest does not negate the fact that macro-evolution is all but demanded by the flood narrative. 
  3. If you’re curious: I’m an old-earth creationist, and I find the creation narrative much less difficult to square with the scientific record than I do the flood. 
  4. Is he presently reigning millennially? Heh. That’s definitely a different post… 
  5. Thankfully, I’m in good company, since I stole that phrase from St. Augustine. 


  • Kurt thought to say:

    Matthew 24:37-39 is all the historic evidence I need. He was there. I’m going to trust the dead Jew that didn’t stay dead.

    P.S. Aren’t there some geological evidences of a flood? Or do you just not buy them as legitimate?

    Offer a rejoinder↓
    • I’ve not seen any evidence that any geologist who isn’t trying to prove the flood narrative buys. (The same is true of a young earth.) Any time you come at the evidence that way, you’re going to get bad science, because you dismiss anything and everything that doesn’t fit your narrative. (Note that this is, at least potentially, a critique of the reigning scientific paradigm, as well!)

      As for your point about Jesus: yes. That was pretty much my point here. You’ll note that the passage says not much (nothing, depending on your reading) of the questions I raise here—and remember, I don’t have a whit of problem with God taking the action he does, nor with the picture being broadly historical. I struggle with it being worldwide, truly global, not with the idea that Noah really did make an ark, load his family and a ton of animals on it, etc. Does that make sense?

      Offer a rejoinder↓
  • William Donahue thought to say:

    Hey, Chris. Been following your blog for a few weeks now, since I started following you on, and have enjoyed your insights on theology.

    I suppose I don’t have as high a view of Scripture as you do. I grew up in a very conservative (borderline fundamentalist) church/private school, and was taught the “6000 year old earth” stuff. There was also almost no serious examination of Scripture. It was what the preacher said it was, and that settled it. as I grew up I found it more and more difficult to accept the (caricature of) Christianity I had been taught. Eventually it became this false dichotomy of “biblical inerrancy vs. Atheism/agnosticism” in my mind. Thanks to people like William Lane Craig I learned that there’s more to it than that and sort of started from step one. I’ve since gained a more full and educated view on a lot of these issues and have been able to happily accept orthodoxy, though I still find inerrancy an issue. I’m willing to accept a doctrine of special inspiration, but I’m also fine with the idea that the israelites put their own mythological flourishings on things in order that they could more effectively teach the important theological messages. The life, death, and resurrection of Christ is more important to me than upholding any specific view of Scripture.

    Anyhow, before I became comfortable with accepting evolution I was a fan of Hugh Ross’s work. His view (and probably a very prevalent view in both OEC and perhaps some more conservative TE circles) is the view that the flood was “universal” (killing all humans) but not “global”. I imagine you’ve heard this viewpoint before, and maybe know more about it than i do. What’s your opinion of it? Do you find it exegetically unjustified, or is there another reason you don’t hold to it? It seems to me like the most likely interpetation of the situation from an inerrancy point of view.

    Offer a rejoinder↓
    • William, thanks for popping over. I thought I recognized your name from ADN. Love that place. :)

      William Lane Craig is great. I also think you’d probably have an easier time with the older, Princetonian (Warfield/Hodge) view of inerrancy than with the version being espoused by a lot of conservative evangelicals today. I know I do! One or both of that pair was an old-earth guy, for example—and they practically defined inerrancy. There are some interesting historical factors at play here with regard to evangelicals’ approach on this issue which, as far as I can tell, have as much to do with culture and power as they do with theology. I agree with you on the life, death, and resurrection of Christ; with my stricter brothers and sisters I want to be careful to preserve a very high view of Scripture simply because the failure to do so has quickly led a lot of people right off any number of other theological cliffs.

      I do like Hugh Ross, though I don’t find him totally persuasive in all areas, and he was definitely my entry point into thinking I wasn’t crazy in my own views, which had developed fairly fully (if not in terribly great confidence) by the end of high school. I don’t presently buy straight-up evolution by solely natural means. On the other hand, I don’t necessarily consider some degree thereof, punctuated or at least capped by special creation (of humanity) an issue for Genesis 1–3. (See my comment to Tyler.) So I’m probably not terribly far from where you are!

      Offer a rejoinder↓
  • Nice post! The Augustinian posture is definitely necessary in places. For me, one place is reconciling 1 and 2 Thess. within my partial preterism. I’m also unsure of some things about Gen. 6-8.

    I am curious about your OEC views though. So you do affirm some element of macro-evolution of animals after the flood? How do you understand the creation narrative? And what do you do with Romans 8 and the connection of the Fall of Man with the curse on all of creation?

    Just curious! I haven’t worked out these things for myself, although I’m tempted by a Klinean framework view for at least some of the creation narrative. If even a “brief” response is beyond the scope of this comment thread, I totally understand, haha. Peace.

    Offer a rejoinder↓
    • Heh. 1 and 2 Thessalonians are the biggest reasons I still lean historic pre-mill!

      My view on the creation narrative bears longer discussion than I’ll give it here, but I’ll sum up briefly. First, I strongly affirm the Framework view of the text; I think it’s plainly obvious at a textual level to anyone paying attention. (I believe Kline affirmed this, among other things; I just read a great paper of his a couple weeks ago on it.) This, combined with the description of the text as being in ‘epic’ form—an assertion I’m not yet qualified to validate, but which makes sense of the elevated, poetic prose, the repetition of phrases, geography the author would know was otherwise inaccurate (the rivers), and even the similarities to related ANE cultures’ creation narratives—means I tend to read Genesis 1 as accurate but not scientific.

      I find quite attractive what I believe is Sailhamer’s position on the specifics: what is in view is specifically the preparation of the garden, the dwelling place for humanity. Given the paradise/fall-and-expulsion/return-to-better-garden theme that runs throughout Scripture, I think that’s at least part of what’s going on. As such, I have no trouble affirming some sort of development before that time—all directed quite actively by God, like a potter shaping a pot.

      I think taking this view actually makes sense out of a lot of details that otherwise are quite perplexing. For example, the tree of life: why, if Adam and Eve, were immortal, was there such a tree at all? Their fall, then, specifically affected humanity when it comes to death; there is no reason in the text to believe that animals (and plants!) didn’t die previously. Indeed, how would they have even known what death was, otherwise?1 It may have also had further effects on creation, e.g. more destructive weather, etc. (the “groaning” and the futility to which the earth was subjected by God—not, notably, by man). And so on. I could and at some point probably will write at more length, but I think you get the gist.

      I currently lean toward a local, ‘universal’ flood (per William’s comment about Hugh Ross above), which eliminates the necessity of massive evolution post-flood. As already noted, I don’t really have any problem with God using slow rather than fast means to bring things into their current state of existence. Either way, he did it, and quite magnificently, too. I like to point to the Rockies, which give every evidence of being formed by slow-working, natural geological processes, and are amazingly beautiful. That sounds like a potter’s work to me.

      1. Dembski throws out the interesting, though in my view probably wrong, idea that the Fall had retroactive effects in history. It’s at least novel. :p 

      Offer a rejoinder↓
      • Ok, hm, interesting. I’m sympathetic with the idea of Genesis 1 being focused especially on the garden. And some properties of Creation (immune systems, medicinal plants, carnivorous teeth designs in some animals, etc.) are definitely an awkward fit for more YEC views. However, I still find it difficult–although perhaps more emotionally/intuitively than explicitly biblically–to deny that ALL death and “corruption” (although I guess you could define those more narrowly, as you started to) in nature is directly related to the Fall (in light of Rom. 5 and 8 mostly, of course). Then again I also react emotionally negatively to the prospect of a steak-less and bacon-less new earth… :p

        Also, I don’t quite understand what you were saying about the tree of life…sorry…

        I need to review some notes of mine about the tree of life in the garden, though, as I was recently thinking about that and the traditional Murray-Kline debate, wherein, unless I’m mistaken (which is ENTIRELY possible here) Murray thought Adam and Eve originally partook regularly of the tree of life as their normal sustenance and sacrament of communion with God before the Fall, while Kline emphasized the tree of life as a symbol of the prospect of eschatological, glorified life Adam and Eve would have been given upon perpetual obedience in the covenant of works and completion of the cultural mandate. If I remember right, I ended up siding more with Kline, although recognizing with Murray that God was nevertheless in a broad sense “graciously” giving Adam and Eve life and many other good things all along. That’s all a tad tangential, though…

        Offer a rejoinder↓
        • Heh. Probably my fault. My point with the tree of life is that they almost certainly weren’t immortal independent of said tree (it seems I side with your representation of Murray). There are a number of possibilities, as you outline: it could be you eat of it once, and live forever, or that you eat of it regularly and it preserves your life forever. Either way, they apparently needed it, and losing access to it meant their death—if not immediately, then ultimately. The idea that their eating of it would lead to their living forever apart from God’s sustaining power is what pushes me that way, as opposed to (what you represent as) Kline’s position, which doesn’t seem to account for the life-giving actuality of the tree per God’s statement when he bars the way back in.

          Regarding death and corruption: death itself is clearly at least inclusive of (and perhaps even primarily) spiritual death, given that the warning was, “On the day you eat of it you shall surely die,” and Adam lived to be 900 years old—at least many of which years were after eating it. That is not to say that physical death was not also included, but the death that happened immediately was not physical but spiritual. So my reading of Romans, at least at present, is that all people die and creation is corrupted, but that doesn’t necessarily imply that all (plant! and) animal death is because of that. Indeed, to a step further: there had to be at least cellular death of plants prior to the Fall, at least if plants were actually plants like they are today. ::shrug::

          Offer a rejoinder↓
          • Fair enough on the plant cells thing, on its own. However I still like Kline better on the tree of life, given Revelation’s use of similar imagery for glorified eschatological life only attained through Christ’s resurrection (which I take as going beyond unfallen life, in light of passages like 1 Cor 15:45-49 and Rom. 5:12-21). Also, while I agree spiritual death is included as a (at least relatively) unique aspect of the Fall of Man, I want to say that full blown, complete physical death DID occur “on that day,” in the substitute sacrifices God used for the coverings, which I see as a kind of first sacrament of the covenant of grace. They did die themselves, too, in ways, but by grace they didn’t experience the full measure of the curse. Like Moses or David there were still consequences, though. Oh, one other question related: do you take prophecies about peace in the animal kingdom as only figurative of Jew/Gentile rifts healed? I’m not settled on that, either. Fascinating discussion! Genesis always drums up pretty epic debates :p

          • I think your point about the Tree of Life in the age to come is important for the discussion, and I don’t know exactly what to make of that, either… though it could well be that God offers that as a means of grace to bring about his ends with our physical bodies. A sort of sacrament as it were. Heh. I actually really like that idea. Won’t know for a while if it’s right, though. (One of the things that really tends to get lost in baptistic anti-sacramentalism is just how profoundly physical this faith of ours is!)

  • Steven H thought to say:

    In a lot of ways, I’m in the same boat–ha, boat!–as you. I’ll add that I don’t know what you’d look for in determining whether just a year of flooding happened such a long time ago; would it be recognizable? I’ve also heard that God could have preserved plant-life and whatnot (the dove brought back an olive leaf… and if God can preserve people through fire, then why not?). That certainly can’t be proven, but I guess it’s a possibility… I guess… I tend to ignore the things I probably won’t ever know.

    Offer a rejoinder↓
    • Definitely. As I noted in footnote 2, there’s a genuine reality of God working in miraculous ways in this event beyond what we explicitly see in the narrative—at least in part because of things Noah didn’t know and wouldn’t have understood (any more than Moses) like genetic bottlenecks, repopulation curves, and the sheer number of species of mammals alone on the planet… It’s quite possible God did lots of things; we just don’t know what. The one thing I find very, very hard to buy is the idea that he did this one huge thing… that didn’t leave any evidence at all.

      Offer a rejoinder↓
  • Alex Adriaanse thought to say:

    If Noah only took small (young/infant) versions of each species on the boat, do you think that would’ve freed up enough space to take all non-aquatic species on the boat?

    Offer a rejoinder↓
    • As best as I can tell, that probably wouldn’t help all that much. If you think about how large a young elk is, for example… :p More importantly, though, the command was explicitly to take animals with their mates, which necessarily implies maturity (at least to my mind).

      Offer a rejoinder↓
    • Eric Dorbin thought to say:

      The short answer is no, not at the current level of diversity in the animal kingdom. Currently scientists have identified over 5k different species of mammal, almost 10k birds, 9k reptiles and over 6k amphibians. While these numbers are rough approximations, and while we know the ark was pretty gigantic (it took 120 years to build), there’s just no way you’d get that many things on board, much less keep them healthy for a long while at sea. What Chris, I think, is getting at is that either there were animals and ecosystems unaffected by the flood, or a God-directed rapid evolutionary explosion and diversification for us to end up with the animal kingdom we have today.

      Offer a rejoinder↓

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