Monday, May 21, 2018

Was There a Biblical Flood?

Is this what really happened?

One might be forgiven the impression that the Catholic Church has given up on the story of Noah and the Flood as anything more than that, a story. After all, it's the Protestant evangelicals who are enthusiastically building full-scale ark replicas, mounting search expeditions to Mt. Ararat and all the rest. While on the Catholic side we have to make do with the likes of Bishop Barron and his ironically named "Word on Fire" lectures arguing that a good portion of the Old Testament is mere allegory containing no more literal truth than the novel Moby Dick.

While I suspect it's true that the majority of post-Vatican II Catholic laypeople and prelates do not anymore believe in an historical Noah, to the extent that there is an official current Church position on the matter it is that Noah was a real person and the Flood - a massive cataclysm that wiped out all but eight human beings - was a real event.

Noah and the Flood are mentioned in five sections of the 1993 Catholic Catechism. Following longstanding interpretive tradition, the flood is said to prefigure baptism, with the dove sent by Noah representing the Holy Spirit. Christ is in a sense the new Ark. But there's no indication that the Catechism authors do not mean it also to be taken literally. Among other things, a mere allegorical Covenant would have no meaning.

The Catholic Encyclopedia (1913) reports that virtually all Catholic theologians up to that time believed that the Flood was a real event.

The New Testament refers to Noah in many places. Among other things, he appears in the standard genealogies as well as the well-known warning spoken by our Lord Himself:
As it was in the days of Noah, so it will be at the coming of the Son of Man. For in the days before the flood, people were eating and drinking, marrying and giving in marriage, up to the day Noah entered the ark; and they knew nothing about what would happen until the flood came and took them all away. That is how it will be at the coming of the Son of Man.
And, of course, the references to Noah and the Flood in Genesis and other places in the Old Testament are written in a manner that appears to describe real events, including relating the exact dimensions of the Ark.

It should also be added that stories of a massive and perhaps worldwide flood are ubiquitous in the myths of perhaps the majority of world cultures.

However, among those 20th and 21st century Catholic theologians who subscribe to the orthodox literalist position, it's also true to say that many if not most believe that the Flood was not a global event but merely local to the Middle-East. The Catholic Encyclopedia itself leans in this direction, while admitting that this (in 1913) was a relatively new interpretation brought about by the scientific evidence or lack of it, for a worldwide flood. 

Thus, from around 1800 to 1900, a time when geology was still in its infancy, many orthodox Catholics stopped believing in a global Flood. Why this happened is an interesting question but I will not answer it in detail here. My own view is that it was as much due to a new critical attitude towards the interpretation of Scripture, as well as sympathy with certain philosophical or pseudo-scientific premises popular at the time - such as uniformitarianism - rather than any explicit clash with the empirical evidence per se.

It is important to note, however, that the view that the Flood was local went along with, and still goes along with the orthodox understanding that it nevertheless wiped out all of humanity except for Noah and his family. Thus, the new more "scientific" view carried with it a premise that could later be theoretically disproved by science - that at the time of the Flood, mankind had not yet spread out past a relatively small area in the lands of the Bible.

Contemporary proponents of the local theory must grapple with the fact that modern science seems to show that the human population was diffused around the world many tens of thousands of years ago. If we are to take the orthodox but local theory seriously, then we would have to believe that out of a pre-civilized population who, when it came to technology, were primarily focused on slowly coming up with a better axe-head, there came one family with the knowledge and means to construct a massive boat, 500 feet long.

This, in my view, is another example where a supposedly more "scientific" and believable theory, meant to make Scripture consistent with the alleged discoveries of modern science, ends up in fact looking ad hoc and preposterous.

Proponents of the local theory believe that their account is more realistic when it comes to the diversity of animals taken on the Ark and rescued. How would Noah have had the time or space to save all those Arctic animals and jungle animals, etc.? But if the question is flipped, it becomes devastating in the opposite direction. Why would God want Noah to go to extravagant lengths to merely carry the Middle-Eastern creatures, virtually all of whom, or at least their close relatives, would have survived anyway, elsewhere?

Most "young-earth" creationists believe that the Flood was global and occurred sometime in the mid- to early third millennium before Christ. This appears to assume a massive telescoping of human history, at least as most now understand it, with the Biblical attempt to erect the Tower of Babel and the historical beginnings of Egyptian civilization - its gigantic monuments soon to follow - being apparently squeezed into just a few hundred years. On the face of it, this seems ridiculous. We should note, however, that the written histories - the records of dynasties and so forth, as opposed to mere archaeological extrapolations - "coincidentally" go back to around that time and no further.

Those who do not believe in the Biblical account of the Flood cite a lack of geological and other evidence. The "old-earth" local Flood camp must somehow contend with this as well as the technological question: If civilization is really much older, and intercontinental migrations go back much farther than the Biblical literalists suggest (and old-earth creationists generally accept the premises involved in carbon-dating, the fossil record claims for early man and so on), then how can one make sense of such a high-tech project as the Ark in, say, 50,000 B.C.? That the fact that it didn't happen is not provable by modern science seems small consolation. Indeed, to me, it emphasizes the desperate nature of the view.

But the young-earth creationists at least have a consistent story - consistent within its own terms, that is. In response to the alleged lack of evidence for a worldwide flood, they claim that the evidence is in fact everywhere. The fossil stratification and geological phenomena supposedly pointing to great age is reinterpreted by them as evidence for a cataclysmic event. The unprecedented physical force of the Flood killed most land creatures - including probably the dinosaurs - created shale-oil deposits, disgorged the fossils of sea creatures on land while creating the "layering" often found in the fossil record, carved out massive canyons and other formations, destroyed and created continents, and changed the very climate, perhaps ushering in a mini-Ice Age as the waters receded.

The "science" of Flood Geology is relatively new, but in one sense it's merely a new version of catastrophism, perhaps the dominant view of proto-geologists until the early 19th century. Catastrophism would then be rejected by many 19th century scientists on a priori or philosophical grounds more than anything else - isn't it simply more reasonable to believe in slow and gradual change? - and later, the contrary uniformitarian view would be seen to have the added bonus of being a necessary premise for making the new theory of Darwinian evolution - requiring millions of years of gradual biological change - to work.

Ironically, catastrophism would make a comeback in mainstream science in the latter half of the 20th century, though without, of course, any Biblical associations. No longer would it be assumed, for example, that all natural geological formations were created in a slow and gradual manner.

Is the young-earth creationist account believable? As stated a few days ago, it's obviously quite unbelievable for most moderns, as it would necessitate rejecting what much of current science tells us is now beyond rational debate, such as the basic assumptions underlying radiometric and carbon-dating, among other things.

But for a Catholic who believes in a literal Flood, the alternatives are also unbelievable or at least untenable. At the least, I think that faithful Catholics who take both Catholic doctrine and logical and empirical considerations seriously owe young-earth creationism a second look.

A "God of the Gaps" forcing Catholics to continually retreat to ad hoc stories of cavemen building Arks to save camels and Arabian leopards in an unverifiable past is not an attractive option. And, of course, rejecting the historical truth of some kind of Flood is firmly against both Scripture, tradition and current Church teaching.


  1. Sounds like your church is messed up, Oakes.

  2. Isn't most of the proof for the old-age of fossils, the earth, and the universe (whether radioactive dating, the speed of light, the age of galaxies, etc...) based on mathematical formulas/proofs that are not observable by the "average man" through his senses? I'm not dissing the intellect, which can make accessible rational and logical truths that are outside sense experience, but it is interesting that these old earth/universe proofs, used to support evolution (as it gives it the time the theory needs), are exclusively in the realm of higher mathematics (within chemistry, physics, astronomy, etc...). I may be wrong, and would love to be directed to examples, but is it possible for a man to walk in his backyard and through sensible observations, deduce that so and so rock is more than 10,000 years old, or that so and so star is so far away that the light had to have taken more than 10,000 years to get here? It may very well be that I don't have the scientific training necessary to fully understand how these ages are arrived at, but then again, that's my point: most men don't, and most men never will. In other words, I don't have the specialized training, and likely never will, to "see" for myself that such and such item is really x years old. I can only trust and take the word of other men who claim to have worked through the formulas, who claim to understand the math and science, who claim to have "seen" for themselves. Perhaps unrelated, but a quick search of these various topics seem to show that a plurality of the scientific research, mathematical formulas, and theories that underpin the "old" universe/earth/fossil proofs have nearly all been discovered/formulated in the last century or so. In particular, there is an interesting date correlation between Pope Leo XIII's alleged vision that caused him to draft and institute the Leonine prayers, and the rise of Darwinism and the "old" universe proofs.

    1. Yes. The interesting thing is that the old-earth theory began as a mere assumption, and then the empirical evidence conveniently came along to corroborate it. And of course the earth doesn't "look old" or, for that matter, look new or any particular age to anyone outside of a small group of scientists who have already made a priori assumptions about things that most people don't even understand - that the speed of particle decay is historically uniform, for example.

      And all individual results are evaluated against the accepted paradigm. Does anyone doubt that if someone dated a particular dinosaur specimen to only 6,000 years ago, the result wouldn't be thrown out or modified, due to "contamination," etc.?

  3. JMJ

    As a bearer of a BA in Geology, plus a BA in Physics and an MSc in Meteorology, all dating back to the 1980's, I've had plenty of time to look into and consider theories about the Great Flood that would comprehensively account for what Sacred Scripture says about it, including the inexplicable decrease in lifespans after the Flood.

    It's Walt Brown's Hydroplate Theory, found in his online book, "In the Beginning, 8th Edition," available in its entirety online, including diagrams and photos, at .

    Though not a Catholic, he puts many modern(ist) Catholic scholars to shame by his thorough approach.

    He even explains -- and graphs -- the exponential drop in human lifespans over the generations from Noah to Abraham.

    Blessed Octave of Pentecost!

    Ademar of Ohio

    1. Thanks for your comment!

      I received your note and so kept your first comment and deleted the shorter version. I've been having unrelated problems with my phone, so I apologize if I haven't always been timely in posting or vetting reader comments.