Noah’s Flood versus Modern Science

My interpretation of the Biblical story of Noah is complex. I consider that the story contains both literal elements and figurative elements. By faith, I accept the story as true, but with reason I understand that not every part of the story is to be understood literally. In this way, we can reconcile the story of Noah with modern science.

Is the story of Noah entirely figurative? Science would seem to suggest that it is. There is no evidence of a universal flood which covered the entire surface of the earth with water, destroying all animal and human life except what was on the Ark of Noah. Human civilization was not wiped out, at some point in the distant past, to be re-established by Noah and his family. It would be impossible for all species of animals to be placed on one ship. And then how would they repopulate the distant continents and islands of the world?

These are all reasonable points, and as believers we cannot ignore them. Our most holy religion is based on faith and reason, not faith alone. But this would seem to leave us with an interpretation of the story of Noah as merely a fictional teaching story, not an historical event.

However, the “fictional teaching story” approach has problems.

Noah is presented by the Bible as a real human person, the ancestor of Abraham, of David, and even of Jesus. Noah is also in the lineage between Adam and Abraham. If Noah did not exist, then Scripture would be false. When a lineage is given, it is presented as an account of family history, the history of the Israelites, and even the history of the human race (beginning with Adam and Eve). A lineage is not a mere parable.

{24:37} And just as in the days of Noah, so also will be the advent of the Son of man.
{24:38} For it will be just as it was in the days before the flood: eating and drinking, marrying and being given in marriage, even until that day when Noah entered into the ark.
{24:39} And they did not realize it, until the flood came and took them all away. So also will the advent of the Son of man be.

Jesus speaks about Noah and the Flood, and He compares Noah to Himself and the Flood to the event of His Return. The Return of Christ will be devastating to unrepentant sinners, but salvific for the few just and faithful souls. Similarly, the Flood was devastating to a sinful world, but God’s faithful servant, Noah, and his family were saved.

Quickly, we see that the ‘fictional teaching story’ thesis falls apart. Some elements of the story must be literally true.

Literal and Figurative combined

My approach to the story of Noah and the Flood views the Biblical account as partly literal and partly figurative:

Literal elements:
* Some type of great flood-event occurred
* Noah and his family existed
* Noah did build a large ship for him and his family
* Many animals were on the ship
* They survived the flood-event on the ship

These literal elements are not at all contrary to reason or science. A large ship was built, but not as large as if the Biblical description were taken literally. Some animals were on the ship, in order to represent all animal life on earth. Some humans were on the ship, in order to represent all human life on earth. And a cataclysmic flood-event did occur, though it did not literally submerge the entire surface of the earth.

Figurative elements:
* the size of the ship is figurative, not literal
* the waters of the flood did not cover all land
* the flood did not kill all humans and animals outside of the Ark
* not all animal species were on the Ark

In the Old Testament, numbers are often used in a figurative, not a literal manner. The ages of the Biblical persons prior to Abraham are figurative. The seven days of Creation are also figurative. So when the Bible gives the size of the Ark, the numbers are not literal.

But some numbers in the Bible are literal, even if they may be an approximation. The 40 days and 40 nights of the flood-event might not be the exact amount of time. But there is no reason to reject that assertion as the approximate length of the event.

What Was The Flood Event?

Some persons will object to my interpretation, saying that there is no scientific evidence for such a flood event. But that assertion is simply untrue. Once we admit that the extent of the flood is figurative, we can propose a flood-event that does not kill all animals or humans outside the Ark, on the basis of science.

My book:
Noah’s Flood: Literal or Figurative?
reviews 4 different scientific proposals for the origins of the great flood. None of these scientists are “creationists”. None propose a flood that covers all land or which kills all animals and humans outside the Ark. These are the four theories about the flood:

1. The Black Sea Deluge Theory

The idea is that a great, but still relatively local flood occurred around the Black Sea, displacing many peoples and thereby initiating the many flood stories found in various ancient societies. The occurrence of this ancient flood is provable from science.

2. The Postglacial Flood Theory

The idea is that a warmer and wetter climate at the end of the last glacial maximum (LGM) caused a massive reflooding of the Persian Gulf, displacing the peoples who had settled in that land. Prior to the warming of the climate early in the Holocene Epoch, the colder climate left the ocean levels much lower than today. When the glaciers began to melt and the ocean levels rose, large areas of land were flooded and many peoples were displaced.

So the above two theories propose a massive but essentially local flooding as the basis for the story of Noah.

But the next two theories propose a worldwide flood-event, though one not so extensive as a literal reading of the Bible would present. Instead, what is proposed is a great flood that affected the whole world, but did not submerge all land. But in each of these proposed floods, most of the land was not submerged, most of the animals were not killed, and a large portion of the human race survived.

3. The Youngest Big Impact Theory

The impact of a comet in the deep ocean produced the historical event that is described in the Bible and in the myths of many cultures as the great Flood. There were immense torrential rainstorms, tidal waves, and severe destruction to land, to animals, and to human civilization. This approach theorizes that the impact of a comet or asteroid had worldwide effects that became the basis for flood myths in cultures in every part of the globe. The flood event was global, though it did not cover all land with water.

However, the dating of the impact discussed in this theory is problematic: about 9,500 years ago (7,500 BC). We have only ten generations between Noah and Abraham, and Abraham lived, very approximately, around 2000 BC. Even a figurative interpretation of the events from Noah until Abraham does not allow for that 5,500 year gap.

Also, civilization at that point, 9,500 years ago, was barely developed. Agriculture was in its infancy; ship building was probably very rudimentary. The timing does not fit the Biblical description.

4. The Flood Comet Impact Theory

This is the scientific theory that I favor as an explanation of the Biblical Flood. Its chief architect is W. Bruce Masse. He proposes a flood event caused by the impact of a comet in the deep ocean. The timing of this impact is 2807 BC, based on an ancient description of the flood with a drawing of the night sky. The drawing includes the alignment of various planets, the moon, and stars allowing us to date the picture to the spring of that year.

This timing of the flood is tenable. Civilization was well-developed, including extensive agriculture, trade, and ships. There is enough time between Noah and Abraham to allow for about ten generations. Abraham might have lived as early as 2200 BC.

And this type of flood event is terrible enough to make the Biblical description accurate though figurative. But not so severe as to destroy all life outside the Ark. And Masse provides evidence of the impact (in the deep Indian Ocean) from science. He further offers an analysis of the many flood myths from cultures around the world (over 1000 cultures with flood myths). Only a real historical event could explain their similarities and the close fit between their description and a scientific estimate of the effects of such a deep ocean impact.

See my book for more on this topic:
Noah’s Flood: Literal or Figurative?

Ronald L. Conte Jr.
Roman Catholic theologian and
translator of the Catholic Public Domain Version of the Bible.

Forgiveness and Salvation for Everyone
available in print (paperback, 510 pp.) and in Kindle format.

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