As the new film Noah is now playing at a cinema near you, and the church I am now attending was divinely predestined to come upon this story in their study of Genesis on exactly the same weekend (I’ve been told it was a mere coincidence), the Flood has been on my mind a bit more than usual of late. When it comes to epic stories, they don’t come much bigger than Noah’s. It is surely one of the tales that inspired the term “biblical proportions”.
Back in 2011, when a tsunami devastated parts of Japan and led to the Fukushima nuclear crisis, I was struck by how, even with all of our modern technology and efforts to bend Mother Nature to our will, we can still be brought to our knees by the most basic substance on our planet. I sat down and wrote the following essay, which I now find to be relevant given the discussions about Noah’s Flood, or as it is often called, the Deluge. Included is an admittedly amateur level analysis of the fossil record and the implications of ancient flood narratives.
I am struck by the images that are coming out of Japan. Simple towns on the island’s northeast coast, simple people living out their days on the shore of the Pacific – all of it now swept away by the power of nature. Underneath the ocean floor, the great tectonic plates somehow shifted, flinging the endless expanse of water into motion. It crashed upon the coast of Japan, destroying everything in its wake: plants, homes, lives….all gone. Buildings float in the water as toy boats in a pond. What is left is devastation as far as the eye can see.
It is not hard to see why the ancient civilizations assigned an almost divine power to water. On the one hand, they depended on it for the growth of their crops and the sustaining of their own lives. On the other, they feared the terrors it was capable of unleashing. It has often been noted that so many cultural mythologies contain some sort of flood narrative, perhaps the most famous being that of the ancient Mesopotamians (the Epic of Gilgamesh),which bears certain resemblances to the one contained in the Torah (as well as the story of Adam and Eve).
Obviously, scholars are of a wide variety of opinions regarding the authenticity of the biblical account, and why shouldn’t they be? Even in the wake of such events as the devastating southeast Asian tsunami a few years back, a flood capable of covering the entire earth up to the heights of the tallest mountains seems somewhat implausible, and this is without even considering the claim that a single family escaped the chaos in a handmade boat along with two members of every animal species (or more, in the case of sacrificial animals).
In such circumstances, it may be best to start small. What can we surmise from the existence of flood narratives? It is possible that the stories are completely made up, but more likely that they are based on memories of even more ancient events. Before humans developed extensive writing systems and methods for historical record keeping, they tended to pass down information orally, as some cultures still do today.
Such a process inevitably involves a certain amount of change: amplifications, simplifications, and outright exaggerations. Thus, the end result after hundreds and even thousands of years is not entirely trustworthy, to say the least. But stripped down to its core, an oral tradition may give us a clue as to something that actually did occur in the distant past.
The core of these traditions is a highly destructive flood. Now, this is a lot easier to imagine than a great fight between warring deities or something of that sort. Indeed, we may be able to safely accept that each of these cultures was devastated by water at one point in its history. But are they all referring to the same flood? Now we have a much more difficult question on our hands. Recorded history gives us no indication of a flood covering even the majority of the planet, but as we have already stated, these ancient flood narratives may well be rooted in something much older than recorded history.
We must venture instead into the realm of science, and here I am at a significant disadvantage, for I am no geologist. I am entirely reliant on the findings of others. But the soil and rock beneath our feet has left us a picture of something far older than any records made by human beings. To the best of my knowledge, there are two different situations present in the Earth’s crust: 1) Layers of rock and fossils that are formed exactly how geologists would predict, and 2) Portions that for one reason or another do not match the typical model.
Situation #1 is actually quite helpful to us because it assures us that, absent any outside factors, there is a normal way that these layers of earth should form. Therefore, we can assume that if we have rocks that fall under situation #2, they have been impacted by some outside factor, either related to the local environment or some abnormal event. What makes matters more difficult is that #2 rock formations are different from #1 rock formations, but they are also quite different from one another. Combine that with the wide range of possible factors affecting their misarrangement, and any number of interpretations appear feasible.
Those who hold to the truth of the biblical flood narrative state that the geological record supports their beliefs, while many geologists and secularists see no such evidence. It would perhaps be simpler to get all of them to agree to the following statement: “Water damage appears to be responsible for numerous abnormalities in the fossil record at different locations.” This respects the well-known power of water without attributing everything to one giant event.
As far as a definitive statement is concerned, rocks do not seem to provide us with undeniable evidence one way or another. If a worldwide flood did occur, it seems possible (if improbable, secular geologists would add) that it could have resulted in the fossil record before us. However, that mere possibility is by no means an effective method of proof.
One of the more interesting theories out there (or facts, depending on where you stand) is the existence of a single continent on this Earth, Pangaea, in the long distant past. Interestingly, the concept of Pangaea is widely accepted in secular segments of the scientific community. Those who believe in a worldwide flood interpret our current seven continents as evidence of a massive event which broke Pangaea into these pieces and caused them to drift apart. Geologists, on the other hand, see evidence of a slow breakup over millions of years. In fact, they believe that Pangaea itself was the result of other continents joining together and that there were actually multiple supercontinents throughout the Earth’s long history.
One thing I can say with certainty, despite my lack of geological expertise, is that the worldwide fossil record is simply too complex for anyone to claim that they can account for every bit of it and thus reconstruct an infallible history of the planet Earth. We have now taken into account so many outside factors that it seems arrogant to claim that, at certain points, up may not actually be down, as the saying goes. My conclusion is that, given the current extent of our scientific knowledge, anyone can assert that the rocks support their claim while dismissing the problematic bits as outliers.
In the end, it would appear that both anthropology and geology have failed to provide us with the kind of undeniable facts that are so helpful in coming to a conclusion. We have some well-established theories, but there are exceptions to even those rules. Was there a massive, worldwide flood that devastated all forms of life? I cannot possibly prove it to you one way or another. But returning to those images from Japan, I am once again reminded of the shadow which seems to rest upon the human heart.
We have always imagined two things: An apocalyptic event in the past and an even greater one in the future. Is that all just chance, the need for human beings to believe in something greater than themselves? Is it a hope for ultimate justice, for some meaning behind the small events of daily life? Or could there be, despite all the doubters, a shred of the truth in these tales, these fears? Chances are, at the end of the day, you will believe what you want to believe.