In the Beginning and End of the World: Ken Ham and the Biblical Flood

In the Beginning and End of the World: Ken Ham and the Biblical Flood August 29, 2016

“Le Lâcher de la colombe,” engraving by Gustave Doré. Source: WikiMedia Commons

The infamous Christian creationist and all-around controversialist Ken Ham has been making the news a lot recently, due to the opening of his Ark Encounter—his organization’s theme park boasting a “life-size” replica of Noah’s ark, as per the proportions described in the Biblical book of Genesis; all in a feeble attempt to persuade people of the historicity of the flood narrative, exactly as it appears in Genesis.

Beyond what’s (to myself and others) the farcical idea of the Ark Encounter itself, however, several other things in conjunction with this have become the subject of widespread ridicule and outrage. For example, people have lampooned a plaque in the replica ark that channels Satan to say “if I can convince you that the flood was not real, then I can convince you that heaven and hell are not real.”

The most recent stumbling block is a Facebook post by Ham, in much the same vein as this. In it, he comments on an article by a Lutheran pastor who, as Ham tells it, “says the account of Noah is not history”—

but if that’s true then Jesus, Peter, and the author of Hebrews lied. The pastor says Genesis is myth. Well, then the gospel would also be, as it’s preached in Genesis 3:15, 21. If Noah is a myth, then so are all those listed in Hebrews 11, like Abraham, Isaac, Joseph, Moses, and others.

Here, Ken Ham is clearly engaged in what’s just as much an inner-Christian debate as he is one between Christians and skeptics—a position that he’s been in for some time now, and is presumably going to continue to find himself in.

Before saying anything else, though, the basic underlying principle that Ham’s thinking of here is, charitably, the interdependence of the New Testament and the Old Testament in terms of history and theology. The authors of the New Testament looked toward Old Testament figures, their lives and the events in them, and used these as the basis for important theological assumptions and arguments—including things which constitute the core of Christian truths that Ham and others affirm.

And on one hand, that the earliest Christians and the New Testament authors did indeed look toward Old Testament figures and events as laying the foundation for their own theology and notions of history is undeniably true.

Now, as Ham sees it, it’s unclear why the prospect of Noah having not been a historical person necessarily entails that Abraham, Isaac, et al. weren’t either—unless he’s thinking about the fact that according to the genealogies in Genesis, these figures had Noah as their 10× great-grandfather, and then, based on this, assumes the same sort of scenario as in, say, the grandfather paradox in time travel. (That is, erase Noah, and all of his listed descendants might just poof out of existence along with him.)

But while, contrary to Ham, we can certainly at least imagine a historical Abraham without a historical Noah, I genuinely believe that any reasonable person should be able to agree that if, based on other factors, we had good reason to be skeptical about the historicity of, say, Adam, Noah, Abraham, Isaac, Joseph, and Moses, then this should have pretty radical effects on how the truth of Christianity itself is approached and understood; and this would be the case for virtually all Christian denominations and believers.

And this has been acknowledged even by those who are otherwise among Ham’s harshest critics. For example, in response to this most recent incident, Michael Stone at the Progressive Secular Humanist blog here on Patheos suggests that “[o]nce biblical creationism is rejected, Christianity unravels: if there is no Adam and Eve, there is no original sin, and thus no need for redemption through the blood of Christ.”

To be sure, even here Michael taps into an issue that can’t simply be hand-waved away. And I think there’d be less impetus to do so once it’s realized that the issue of the historicity of Adam and its theological implications has been a major point of contention among Christians and non-Christians since Darwin—or, arguably, since Isaac La Peyrère—and that the debate is as fierce today as it’s ever been. (You can find a survey of the landscape of the theological implications here, for both evangelical theology and beyond, in publications like Peter Enns’ The Evolution of Adam: What the Bible Does and Doesn’t Say about Human Origins. And there are more technical and historically informed studies by David Livingstone and Michael Ruse.)

And there are certain senses in which what Michael suggests also represents the normative view not just among, say, evangelical Protestants, but in orthodox Christianity as well. To take just one example, Catholicism is dogmatically committed to a historical Adam and Eve, from whom original sin has its origin “via sexual reproduction, not through imitation¹ [of the original Adamic sin],” and which is truly a barrier to salvation for humans who universally inherit this sin, unless they secure the purifying effects of Christian/Catholic faith.

But besides the thorny issue of Adam and original sin, I think that, from reflecting more deeply on the Biblical text that Ken Ham mentioned in his most recent post—and also on other related texts—there are other important ramifications from a blanket rejection of the historicity of Noah and the flood that nonetheless might be overlooked. And I suspect that those like Ham haven’t really recognized these, possibly due to the fact that Ham’s own efforts in defending the Genesis flood seem largely oriented just toward the idea that there was one, as his twofold commitment to Biblical inerrancy and literalism demands.

Without belaboring the point, then, I want to suggest that there are at least two major theological consequences if the flood of Noah isn’t understood to have actually had any historical basis, which can be summarized as follows:

  • if Noah’s flood didn’t actually have any historical basis—or at least if it wasn’t really something that was divinely meted out by the Jewish God upon the whole world for its sins²—and yet Jesus and others in the New Testament warned about future apocalyptic events precisely by comparing them to the dire threat of the flood, then these warnings start to look like more and more like an empty threat. (Going forward in this post, I often use the word eschatological instead of “apocalyptic,” in reference to the events of the end of the world.)
  • if Noah’s flood didn’t actually have any historical basis, and if the flood narrative (and extrabiblical tradition in Second Temple Judaism associated with it) is looked at in its own right—and this is all what the New Testament and early Christian interpretation of this was built and depended on in the first place, obviously—then, in short, this leaves the story itself without any applicable moral or meaning, in terms of a wider Biblical theology/hermeneutics.

I’ll explain and defend these in the sections to follow.

Again, Ken Ham specifically mentioned the 11th chapter of the Epistle to the Hebrews in his Facebook post, that “[i]f Noah is a myth, then so are all those listed in Hebrews 11, like Abraham, Isaac, Joseph, Moses, and others.”

For a little background, Hebrews 11 is of a sort of catalog of seminal Old Testament figures, singled out for their commendable faith in various things. (Before Abraham, Isaac, and Joseph, as Ham mentioned, the list also included Abel, Enoch, and Noah. This will be important in a second.)

One important thing to recognize about this chapter and catalog is how it’s ultimately all bound up in a theme of Christian eschatology, the category of beliefs having to do with the expected supernatural “end of the world.” Although hinted at a couple of times throughout Hebrews, this theme is most obviously signaled in its conclusion. After all the figures are listed, the author writes “yet all these, though they were commended for their faith, did not receive what was promised . . . so that they would not, apart from us, be made perfect” (11:39). The idea here is that, despite the faith and righteousness of Abel, Enoch, Noah and others—despite whatever kind of preliminary reward they might have received because of this—they hadn’t truly been ultimately rewarded yet; and as the author has it, this delay is in fact to ensure that there’s no disparity in their being rewarded before righteous Christians themselves are.

So what is this ultimate reward that’s being postponed? Perhaps among other things, what seems to be most clearly suggested by this is the notion of these figures participating in the climactic eschatological event of the universal resurrection of the dead (cf. Hebrews 11:35), when all dead humans would be resurrected; “those who have done good, to the resurrection of life, and those who have done evil, to the resurrection of condemnation” (John 5:29). And Hebrews’ emphasis here, that there’d be no disparity in terms of when the righteous dead of the Old Testament period are rewarded and when contemporary Christians are, can readily be compared to what Paul says about the resurrection in his first epistle to the Thessalonians, reassuring them that “we, who remain alive until the coming of the Lord, will by no means precede those who have died” (4:15).

This eschatological resurrection of the dead was, naturally, bound up with other related events that were expected at the end of history, including the final judgment. Which brings us to one of the other themes of Hebrews 11, faith in the “unseen”; and then, from here, to Noah and the flood.

The opening verse of Hebrews 11 is quite well-known: “faith is the assurance of things hoped for, the conviction of things not seen.” For the author of Hebrews, this unseen reality includes both God himself—his “eternal power and divine nature, invisible though they are,” as Paul has it in his epistle to the Romans (1:20)—as well as the yet unseen future eschatological age and rewards. Yet unlike elsewhere in the chapter, in Hebrews 11’s reflection on Noah, “what is unseen refer[s] to the threat of judgment rather than eschatological blessing” (Donald Hanger, Encountering the Book of Hebrews: An Exposition, 145).

This passage reads

By faith Noah, warned by God about events as yet unseen, respected the warning and built an ark to save his household; by this he condemned the world and became an heir to the righteousness that is in accordance with faith. (Hebrews 11:7)

In addition to the uniquely negative connotation of “unseen” here, also interesting is the idea that Noah himself participated in the condemnation of the world in some way.

Due to this aspect and others, I’ve long suggested that the language used to portray Noah here could be indebted to contemporary traditions about Noah’s great-grandfather Enoch—who’s in fact mentioned in the verses immediately before this in Hebrews 11, and who was integrally connected with the eschatological future and judgment in various other texts and traditions of Second Temple Judaism. The most well-known among these texts is the book of Enoch, or 1 Enoch for short. But there are others too; and in conjunction with what’s said in Hebrews 11:7, we might look particularly toward a section in the 2nd century BCE Jewish apocryphal Book of Jubilees. In this, the imagined angelic authors behind the text speak about Enoch, that he “testified against the Watchers who had sinned with the daughters of men” (see Genesis 6:1-4), and that

He was taken from human society, and we led him into the Garden of Eden for (his) greatness and honor. Now he is there writing down the judgment and condemnation of the world and all the wickedness of mankind. Because of him the flood water did not come on any of the land of Eden because he was placed there as a sign and to testify against all people in order to tell all the deeds of history until the day of judgment. (Jubilees 4:22-24)

So not only is Enoch “writing down the . . . condemnation of the world,” but in his very placement in the Garden (because of his “greatness and honor”) he stands “as a sign and to testify against all people”—like Noah who by his very faith “condemned the world.”

All together, in various texts throughout the Second Temple period, both Enoch and Noah are heralds of a coming judgment; and at least the latter was portrayed as having been mocked by contemporary skeptics because of his warnings³: a motif that’ll be important shortly. (See my Note 3 for more extensive references to this.) Further, Enoch and Noah’s own participation in the judgment and condemnation of the world can also be connected with another tradition—one that appears several times in the New Testament itself, too—that at the end of history, righteous Jews and Christians will themselves participate in the judgment/punishment of the unrighteous.⁴

How does all this connect with the two main implications of a non-historical or non-literal flood that I mentioned earlier, i.e. in regard to how Jesus and others in the New Testament warned about future apocalyptic events precisely by comparing them to the dire threat of the flood?

While there are a few different points of entry in terms of answering this, to just pick one here: toward the end of the book of Enoch, in the Epistle section—”that which was written by Enoch . . . praised by all men, and judge of all the earth, to all my sons who will dwell upon the earth and to the last generations who will do uprightness and peace” (92:1)—Enoch delivers a warning to “you sinners, you are content to eat and to drink and to rob and to sin and to make people naked⁵ and to add to wealth and to see good days”; a warning about the dire eschatological fate awaiting them (1 Enoch 102:9).⁶

It’s hard not to detect, in this, a clear connection to the exhortations of Jesus in the New Testament gospels, specifically in relation to the carefree eating and drinking of those who’ll be unprepared for judgment. In the so-called Olivet Discourse, one of Jesus’ main eschatological discourses that appears in all of the first three gospels, in the version of this from the gospel of Matthew we find

37 For as the days of Noah were, so will be the coming [hē parousia] of the Son of Man. 38 For as in those days before the flood they were eating and drinking, marrying and giving in marriage, until the day Noah entered the ark, 39 and they knew nothing until the flood came and swept them all away, so too will be the coming of the Son of Man. (Matthew 24:37-39)

(In the parallel to this in the gospel of Luke, the blissfully unaware actions of humanity prior to the flood are expanded upon, for example adding a line about commerce with which 1 Enoch was also concerned: “just as it was in the days of Lot: they were eating and drinking, buying and selling, planting and building…” [17:28].)

As it’s understood here, the “coming” of the Son of Man—in Greek, the parousia—is none other than the Second Coming of Jesus. Seen all together then, this text stands as a prime example of the connection between the primordial cataclysmic flood and the future eschatological judgment, made at a few different places throughout the texts of the Second Temple period and beyond.⁷

Above, when discussing Hebrews 11:7, I mentioned the traditions of the incredulity of Noah’s contemporaries, and their mockery of his proclamation of an imminent judgment. Perhaps most importantly here, this might be paralleled with a similar incredulity at the eschatological judgment proclaimed by the early Christians themselves—one mentioned, for example, in the New Testament in the second Epistle of Peter:

3 First of all you must understand this, that in the last days scoffers will come, scoffing and indulging their own lusts 4 and saying, “Where is the promise of His coming [hē parousia Autou]? For ever since our ancestors died, all things continue as they were from the beginning of creation!” 5 They deliberately ignore this fact, that by the word of God heavens existed long ago and an earth was formed out of water and by means of water, 6 through which the world of that time was deluged with water and perished. 7 But by the same word the present heavens and earth have been reserved for fire, being kept until the day of judgment and destruction of the impious/godless. (2 Peter 3:3-7)

The “promise of His coming”—again, the parousia, as above from Matthew—is none other than the final eschatological judgment of God; or, again, the Second Coming.⁸

And the incredulity of the “scoffers,” against Jews/Christians and their eschatology, is one that would soon be attested to independently of the New Testament itself. For example, the 3rd century Tyrian Neoplatonic philosopher Porphyry, referring to the section of Paul’s epistle to the Thessalonians that I quoted earlier in which he suggests the imminence of the eschatological resurrection, taunted that “the end has not come and will never come!” And specifically in reference to the idea of the fire in which the impious will perish, mentioned here in 2 Peter, the infamous Christian critic Celsus mocked this sort of Christian eschatology “that, when God applies the fire (like a cook!) all the rest of mankind will be thoroughly roasted and that they alone will survive, not merely those who are alive at the time but those also long dead who will rise up from the earth possessing the same bodies as before.”⁹

In any case, in 2 Peter, it’s hard to miss the comparison and contrast between water and fire that it draws in relation to the primordial and eschatological cataclysms. And this itself reminds us of several traditions that were current in the Mediterranean and Jewish world at the time. For example, roughly contemporary to when 2 Peter was probably written, the Jewish historian Josephus relates—near the beginning of his Jewish Antiquities, and immediately preceding a section on Noah and the flood—an extrabiblical tradition in which the children of Seth (the son of Adam, the first man) recorded contemporary knowledge and teachings on two pillars for posterity, in light of a prophetic insight by Adam that the world would be destroyed by water and by fire:

in order that humanity might not lose their discoveries or perish before they came to be known—Adam having predicted that there would be an extermination of the universe [ὅλος], at one time by violent fire and at another time by a force with an abundance of water—they made two pillars, one of brick and the other of stones and inscribed their findings on both, in order that if the one of brick should be lost owing to the flood the one of stone should remain and offer an opportunity to teach men what had been written on it and to reveal that also one of brick had been set up by them.¹⁰

(The conjunction of world destruction by water and by fire is a motif that appears a few different times in rabbinic literature, i.e. the Talmud, too. And interestingly, when this was connected with the Biblical flood, the fire was specifically conceived as a flood of fire, מבול של אש.)

Between Literalism and Historicity, Non-Literalism and Non-Historicity

To zoom out and look at the bigger picture a bit here before proceeding: Between conservatives and progressive Christians, it’s not just differing modes of Biblical interpretation that are wielded like weapons in the ideological battle that these groups are so often engaged in. It’s the history of Biblical interpretation that’s used this way, too; a history that, perhaps predictably, those behind these differing approaches often shape in their own image.

And I can’t help but think that, especially for progressive Christians here, there’s a common thread between how they understand the primordial cataclysm of the flood and the future eschatological tribulations of the Bible, at least in terms of how they perceive the earliest Jewish/Christian authors and interpreters to have understood these. And I suspect that many have a sense that neither of these was taken very seriously here, or at least not very literally.

To say a few words about the former: It’s now common to hear a sort of blanket assessment that the earliest Jews and Christians “didn’t take Genesis literally”—which, for progressives, also often means that they didn’t interpret it historically, and applies to everything from the creation days of Genesis 1 to the Tower of Babel incident and beyond; and presumably, for many, includes the flood story as well. And from my own experiences in engaging with progressive Christians, I think it’s fair to say this idea seems to have attained a sort of orthodoxy for a significant number.

If we had to speculate as to the reason behind its popularity here, I think it’s hard to avoid the suspicion that it (rather conveniently) allows them to see early Jewish and Christian interpreters pretty much exactly like the ideal contemporary rational, critical, and science-friendly interpreter that they themselves are; and from here it’s hard not to see this as what’s in many ways a fundamentally apologetic approach (in the sense that it kind of allows Christianity to bypass what might be a more intense critical scrutiny that it could be subjected to). However, despite the fact that there indeed were some “progressive” trends in early Biblical interpretation, this blanket judgment that the early interpreters didn’t take Genesis literally or historically—especially in some of the more specific or idiosyncratic ways that this is understood—is a complete fabrication and misrepresentation.¹¹

I mention this for several reasons. To kind of pick up from where I left off in the previous section, though, I had quoted the relevant section of 2 Peter,

by the word of God heavens existed long ago and an earth was formed out of water and by means of water, through which the world of that time was deluged with water and perished. But by the same word the present heavens and earth have been reserved for fire, being kept until the day of judgment and destruction of the impious/godless.

2 Peter continues that

the day of the Lord will come like a thief, and then the heavens will pass away with a loud noise, and the elements will be dissolved with fire, and the earth and everything that is done on it will be disclosed. 11 Since all these things are to be dissolved in this way, what sort of persons ought you to be in leading lives of holiness and godliness, 12 waiting for and hastening the coming of the day of God, because of which the heavens will be set ablaze and dissolved, and the elements will melt with fire (3:10-12)

It’s interesting that here in 2 Peter, as it is with Genesis and the flood more broadly, these lines have been the subject of debate among scholars and theologians precisely in regard to the issue of literalism. That is, in certain circles there’s skepticism as to whether this fiery destruction, etc.—which, following others, I’ll call language of cosmic catastrophe—was intended literally, and wasn’t instead drawing on a kind of Jewish precedent of characterizing monumental political or metaphysical events using similar hyperbolic language.¹² (In terms of similar cosmic figurative language still used today, think of the idiom “earth-shattering”; or, for a fortuitous event, that the “stars aligned,” etc.)

To be sure, scholars today are conscious more than ever of the pitfalls of overly literal interpretation of language like this in certain instances. Think of apocalyptic literature like Revelation, where it seems to be exactly the case that contemporary political events and other things were cast in a much grander symbolic cataclysmic or cosmic guise. Yet, along with the major strides in our understanding of Jewish and Christian eschatology that have been made in the past few decades, in virtually every element and iteration of this, there’s also been a growing recognition that there are instances where language of cosmic catastrophe was taken very seriously—was taken quite literally—by early Jews and Christians.¹³

A lot more could be said about the background and intention of the verses from 2 Peter above, in regard to their cosmology and other things. But without spending too much time on this in particular, another connection can be drawn here that’s important for my point going forward—a link again to Jesus’ eschatological Olivet Discourse, specifically as it appears in Matthew 24 (itself literarily dependent on the earlier version of the discourse from Mark 13, but with some changes):

29 Immediately after the suffering of those days the sun will be darkened, and the moon will not give its light; the stars will fall from heaven, and the powers of heaven will be shaken. 30 Then the sign of the Son of Man will appear in heaven, and then all the tribes of the earth will mourn, and they will see ‘the Son of Man coming on the clouds of heaven’ with power and great glory. 31 And he will send out his angels with a loud trumpet call, and they will gather his elect from the four winds, from one end of heaven to the other. 32 From the fig tree learn its lesson: as soon as its branch becomes tender and puts forth its leaves, you know that summer is near. 33 So also, when you see all these things, you know that he is near, at the very gates. 34 Truly I tell you, this generation will not pass away until all these things have taken place. 35 Heaven and earth will pass away, but my words will not pass away. (Matthew 24:29-35)

“The sun will be darkened, and the moon will not give its light” and other things here obviously sit easily alongside these verses in 2 Peter, and we might say fall into the same category of cosmic catastrophe. And interestingly, we also have a more specific connection between the two texts, with Matthew’s “heaven and earth will pass away [pareleusetai]” and 2 Peter’s “the heavens will pass away [pareleusontai] with a loud noise.”

As with 2 Peter, some have suggested that Jesus’ own language of cosmic catastrophe in the Olivet Discourse wasn’t really intended to suggest an actual apocalyptic “end of the world,” but was simply a figurative way of referring to the events of the destruction of Jerusalem in 70 A.D., the harrowing culmination of the First Jewish–Roman War.

To be sure, that Jerusalem and its destruction plays some part in the eschatological Olivet Discourse is beyond question. In fact, it’s Jesus’ disciples having called his attention to the grandiosity of the buildings in Jerusalem that prompts the discourse in the first place—an observation that first impels Jesus to proclaim that the buildings will be destroyed, which then prompts his disciples to ask for clarification about this. It’s in response to this, then, that Jesus lays out the full eschatological itinerary.

But the idea that this was all figurative language for the destruction of Jerusalem remains an extreme minority view among Biblical scholars, for several reasons—not least of which because, no matter how earth-shaking the Jewish–Roman War and destruction of Jerusalem was for Jews, the overarching thrust of these verses in Matthew—including what preceded it in the discourse in 24:4-28—seems to be pointing toward more grandiose events than these, beyond the horizon of Jerusalem.¹⁴

And it seems to be the end here which is precisely explicated in what follows this. Most significantly, following the darkening of the sun and moon in 24:29, Jesus says that all the tribes of the earth “will see the Son of Man coming on the clouds of heaven with power and great glory; and he will send out his angels with a loud trumpet call” and “will gather [episynaxousin] his elect from the four winds” (Matthew 24:30-31).

For Matthew—and not just in the discourse of ch. 24, but throughout the gospel more generally—the coming of the Son of Man is the decisive eschatological event in which again, among other things, the final judgment is inaugurated. We see this in Matthew 16:27-28, “for the Son of Man is to come with his angels in the glory of his Father, and then he will repay everyone for what has been done.” (This is followed by a frank statement about the timing of this: “truly I tell you, there are some standing here who will not taste death before they see the Son of Man coming in his kingdom.”)

Further, keeping in mind the language of his “gathering” the elect in Matthew 24:31, we read in the very next chapter after this that “when the Son of Man comes in his glory, and all the angels with him . . . all the nations will be gathered [synachthēsontai] before him, and he will separate people one from another as a shepherd separates the sheep from the goats” (25:31-32).

Along with what follows, this unquestionably describes the final judgment where all humans are ultimately rewarded or punished for their actions on earth. (Elsewhere in Matthew, as a counterpart to his gathering of the elect, we also have the eschatological Son of Man coming with his angels in order to “collect/gather” sin and evil. Matthew 13:40-42 reads “just as the weeds are collected and burned up with fire, so will it be at the end of the age. The Son of Man will send his angels, and they will collect [syllexousin] out of his kingdom all causes of sin and all evildoers, and they will throw them into the furnace of fire…”)

In any case, with the Son of Man’s coming on the clouds and the trumpet and the gathering, we’re also reminded of the final verses of 1 Thessalonians 4, mentioned earlier specifically in conjunction with the eschatological resurrection. More fully now, these verses from 1 Thessalonians read

13 But we do not want you to be uninformed, brothers and sisters, about those who have died, so that you may not grieve as others do who have no hope. 14 For since we believe that Jesus died and rose again, even so, through Jesus, God will bring with [axei syn] him those who have died. 15 For this we declare to you by the word of the Lord, that we who are alive, who are left until the coming of the Lord, will by no means precede those who have died. 16 For the Lord himself, with a cry of command, with the archangel’s call and with the sound of God’s trumpet, will descend from heaven, and the dead in Christ will rise first. 17 Then we who are alive, who are left, will be caught up in the clouds together with them to meet the Lord in the air; and so we will be with the Lord forever.

Without a doubt, this describes a literal eschatological descent, resurrection, and ascension; and in light of all these things, it’s both tempting and likely that the details from Matthew about the trumpet and the “gathering of the elect” have the resurrection in the background, too.¹⁵

…The End (of the Beginning and the Beginning of the End) is Near; Repent

To bring this all together: following Matthew 24:29-35 in the Olivet Discourse, quoted above, is where our original “for as the days of Noah were, so will be the coming of the Son of Man…” begins. This was connected, of course, with 2 Peter and its own flood/eschatological tradition.

Some might be tempted to note, though, that also present in the Olivet Discourse here is an insistence on the pressing imminence of the fulfillment of its predictions—one that’s lacking in the parallel in 2 Peter: “truly I tell you, this generation will not pass away until all these things have taken place.”¹⁶

In fact, sitting between the two sets of verses from 2 Peter 3 that I’ve already quoted, the epistle offers what might appear to be a caveat or a corrective to this kind of eschatological imminence—a rationale for why there’s been a delay in the dawning of eschaton thus far (a delay presumably between whenever the author of 2 Peter imagined that the end had first begun to be proclaimed and when 2 Peter was actually written, probably in the late 1st century):

8 But do not ignore this one fact, beloved, that with the Lord one day is like a thousand years, and a thousand years are like one day. 9 The Lord is not slow about his promise, as some think of slowness, but is patient with you, not wanting any to perish, but all to come to repentance.

The first verse here quotes Psalm 90:4, and has actually proven to be a prooftext of some apologetic versatility. Not only does it continue to be used to mitigate what seems (to humans) to be the long delay of the eschaton by appealing to the timelessness of God, but it’s also regularly been used as support for the popular notion that the six “days” of creation in Genesis 1 are not to be seen as literal solar days as we know them, but perhaps were more expansive periods of time—ones that can be more easily harmonized with the time-frame of modern scientific cosmology/geology/evolution. (Ironically enough though, some of the earliest and most influential Christian interpreters used this verse as the basis for a kind of millennialism, in which the six creation days of Genesis 1—which to them really were understood as normal days—were representative of six millenniums of world time. That is, these interpreters believed that from the time of its creation until the final eschaton, the world would exist in total for 6,000 years; and most ancient Jewish and Christian interpreters believed the world to already be somewhere between 5,000 to 5,500 years old at the beginning of the Common Era.)

But in the second verse here in 2 Peter—that God only appears to tarry, “not wanting any to perish, but all to come to repentance” (3:9)—we might discern another integral connection with the Genesis flood. To explain this, a little background is necessary. In Genesis 6, prior to God’s decision to send the flood, he ordains for humans that “their days shall be one hundred twenty years” (6:3). Since this follows directly upon the genealogy in the previous chapter, having listed the massive lifespans of those from Adam to Noah, Genesis 6:3 is understood to serve as a kind of transitional bridge between the extraordinary nature of humanity in the primeval period and the lives of humans after this—”abridging their term of life from its former longevity to 120 years,” as Josephus puts it. In Genesis itself however, despite God’s having ordained this shortly before the flood, this reduction actually doesn’t start to take effect until a few generations after Noah; and those like Abrahaam, Isaac, and Jacob all lived to be over 140 years old.

In light of the apparent discrepancy that these post-Noah generations continued to live for more than 120 years, various alternate explanations for what “their days shall be one hundred twenty years” in 6:3 meant emerged among the early interpreters. For example, the famed Jewish interpreter Philo of Alexandria, who was roughly contemporary with the historical Jesus himself, suggested that this statement was only meant for “the men living at that time, who were later to perish in the flood after so great a number of years, which a benevolent benefactor prolonged, allowing repentance for sin.” That is, he suggests that what would have normally been the shorter lives of the unrighteous were actually prolonged in order to give them more time to repent before the flood. Similarly, in the Targumim, the early Aramaic expanded translations of the Hebrew Bible, the relevant Targum on Genesis 6:3 has God himself clarify that “I have given the span of 120 years (in the hope that) perhaps they might do repentance” (Neofiti 1).¹⁷

Although the “extension” of time in light of unfulfilled prophecy was certainly not unknown in ancient Judaism elsewhere,¹⁸ the fact that the context in 2 Peter already had to do with the flood, and that its delay was extended specifically to make time for repentance, as in these flood traditions, makes a connection between the two unavoidable. Even more specifically, the suggestion in 2 Peter that this additional time was made for “all to come to repentance” might be compared with what we find in verses 1.128-31 of the apocryphal Sibylline Oracles, which precisely has to do with the tradition of Noah’s ministerial mission: “Noah, embolden yourself, and proclaim repentance to all the peoples, so that all may be saved.”¹⁹ It continues, however, that “if they do not heed, since they have a shameless spirit, I will destroy the entire race with great floods of waters.” (Recall also just two verses prior in 2 Peter 3:7, where the end spells the “destruction of the godless.”)

In any case: although I mentioned at the beginning here that 2 Peter 3’s qualification about the time of the eschaton might be a sort of caveat or corrective to the type of imminence that we seem to find in the Olivet Discourse and elsewhere, one thing easily overlooked is that the very first line that introduces this section of 2 Peter is “in the last days scoffers will come . . . saying, ‘Where is the promise of his coming?'” That is, at the same time that it offers an explanation for the delay of the eschaton up until that point, it also seems to doubles down on the imminence: this—the skepticism about the grand eschatological coming of God—is one of the signs that these truly are the last days.

Whether the author of the epistle 2 Peter—understood in orthodoxy to be the apostle Peter himself, but widely disputed by Biblical scholars—was genuinely making some prediction about scoffers subsequent to his own time, or if this was instead an ex eventu prediction made in light of the fact that the scoffers had already arrived in the author’s time (which, again, is often understood to be sometime in the late 1st century, after Peter’s death),¹⁹ᵇ in either case what’s clear is that the scoffers about the eschaton have arrived. As suggested earlier, we already have unambiguous evidence of this from the 2nd or 3rd century; and we can surely locate it earlier than this too. 

So if the presence of these scoffers is a sign of the end, what does it say that this scoffing has now been around for some 2,000 years: nearly twice as long as Christianity’s own mother religion had even been in existence before Christianity came around—or perhaps even more tellingly, as suggested earlier, greater than one-third of the age of the world itself as it was calculated by early Jews and Christians—and with no end in sight?

How miserable are those who are of two minds, who doubt in their soul, who say, “We have heard these things from the time of our parents, and look! We have grown old, and none of these things has happened to us.” You fools! . . . In truth, his plan will come to completion quickly and suddenly, as even the Scripture testifies. (The first epistle of Clement, 23.3-5)

ווי רקייא למחר מבולא אתי עבדין תתובא

Woe, foolish ones! Tomorrow a flood will come, so make repentance. (From Qohelet Rabbah)

Thus read the words of Clement of Rome from the tail-end of the first century, closely echoing those of 2 Peter—as well as those of Noah himself, as they were imagined in a rabbinic midrash (an expanded re-imagining/commentary) on the book of Ecclesiastes.

In case it wasn’t obvious, I side with the sentiment of Porphyry of Tyre, quoted earlier, in thinking that the Jewish/Christian eschatological age has not come, and will never come. In light of the evidence we have, there’s no truly compelling argument that the earliest Christians—almost certainly including the historical Jesus and Paul themselves—didn’t expect that their generation would live to see the true, tangible inauguration of the expected eschatological events: where the world would never again return to normalcy, and soon culminate with the resurrection and final judgment. Thus we can see these early Christian figures alongside hundreds of other impassioned but ultimately failed apocalyptic prophets or groups throughout history.

In this view, although the author of 2 Peter and the believers that he represented thought of their contemporary scoffers as fools who’d soon eat crow in the final judgment, these scoffers, maligned in their time, now seem to have been exonerated; perhaps even vindicated. In the same way, in light of the insights of modern geology and the other sciences having uncovered no trace of a Biblical flood,²⁰ could we say that the ancient scoffers of Noah have finally been redeemed as well?

On one hand, this might seem like a bizarre question. That is, on the level of story and tradition, the answer is obviously no. As it goes, these unrighteous in the days of Noah indeed perished, no matter how good of a reason they might have had to doubt Noah otherwise. But, on the other hand, if we don’t find scientific/historical grounds on which to affirm the Biblical flood at all—and yet if Jews and Christians are still inclined to let Noah and the flood retain their power as Biblical figures (or as a herald of judgment, as in the wider tradition here)—is there a sense in which Noah, now sans the cataclysm for whom he’s always been the namesake, perhaps stands somewhat alongside other failed apocalyptic claimants as a misguided or perhaps even deluded alarmist?²¹

Of course, I suppose that here I’m no longer talking about Noah solely in his own story anymore, but precisely about Noah as symbol that was employed by Jews and Christians.

But still, the prospect is tantalizing.

As mentioned at the beginning of this section, in a rabbinic commentary on the book of Ecclesiastes, Noah is imagined as exhorting his contemporaries to repent, because “tomorrow a flood will come.” And it’s impossible not to see this as closely parallel to the message of what must be among the earliest strata of the New Testament gospels, and surely of the various historical figures behind these, too.

For example, in the gospel of Matthew, at the true beginning following the introductory infancy narrative, the stage is set that “in those days John the Baptist appeared in the wilderness of Judea, proclaiming, ‘Repent, for the kingdom of heaven has come near.'” (Just verses later, John singles out Pharisees and Sadducees for condemnation: “You brood of vipers! Who warned you to flee from the wrath to come? Bear fruit worthy of repentance.”²²)

Further, in the true earliest gospel, that of Mark, Jesus appears on the scene on the heels of John—and with the same message—as follows:

Now after John was arrested, Jesus came to Galilee, proclaiming the good news of God, and saying, “The time is fulfilled, and the kingdom of God has come near; repent, and believe in the good news.” (Mark 1:14-15)

Augustine’s Scoffers

I hope this post hasn’t been too scattershot so far. To finally start to wrap up here:

This post took its jumping-off point with a theme that’s often dominated the message of Ken Ham and others like him: if we can doubt the historicity of Noah and the flood, then why believe anything in the Bible (or Christianity itself) at all?

Although I reiterated that things certainly aren’t as simple as Ham understands them, what I’ve done throughout this post is to call attention to how some elements of the Genesis flood and what it was understood to stand for are indeed integrally woven into the fabric of what’s been held since the beginning as Christian truth: focusing, of course, particularly on how the catastrophic end was expected to mirror that of primordial times. That is—and in more systematic terms—what was the original utopia of the Garden of Eden became tainted by sin, eventually metastasizing until it could no longer be tolerated; with humanity’s all-but-universal unrighteousness then cauterized in the catastrophic flood. But the new postdiluvian creation in fact remained corrupted—Ham “uncovering Noah’s nakedness” no sooner than Eve grasping for the fruit—and so there will now be an expected future event, this time ending unrighteousness once for all, followed by a permanent return to utopia for the righteous.

But does affirming this truth, so fundamental to historic Christianity, indeed require affirming the historical truth of the flood? Can this in any way be related to what’s actually been believed in historic Christianity?

By way of answering this, we might note what seems to be a popular assumption that Ken Ham’s theology relating to the necessity of the historical flood is a contemporary aberration that’s totally alien to historic Christianity. But, in the same way that other modern theological urban legends are laid to rest, when we really take a look at the history of ideas here, we could be faced with the perhaps disconcerting prospect of locating some of the origin of Ken Ham’s apologetics here—his affirming the historicity of Genesis and the flood in the face of all doubt—much earlier in history, and with someone who’s in many ways thought to be polar opposite of Ham: the eminent 4th/5th century church father, Doctor of the Church, and saint Augustine.

Before making the comparison here, I want to reiterate that a great many things differentiate Ham and Augustine, on any number of issues, and also in terms of their fundamental philosophical/ideological approaches. Augustine was a great theological innovator and in many ways a consummate intellectual. Ham can in no way be said to be either, and also runs pretty directly afoul of a kind of condemnation of Christian pseudoscience that Augustine delivers in at least one place.²³ Nevertheless, like the lines drawn between Luther and Hitler, the history of ideas sometimes can’t eschew controversial connections in order to operate at its best; and I think that Augustine could have played a seminal role in the sort of thought that’s influenced Ham in several significant ways. (Of course, there’s nothing to say that Ham drew directly on Augustine here, but nonetheless we might think that a lot of Ham’s theology here was influenced by various mediators between the two.)

As an example of this, in a chapter in the 15th book of his City of God, Augustine connects the past and present in several ways in his defense of the long lifespans of the figures recorded in the genealogies of Genesis, and of the existence of Biblical giants (Genesis 6:4; Numbers 13:33). He begins by noting that

some unbeliever [infidelis] might perhaps dispute with us the many centuries that, as we read in our authorities, the men of that age lived, and might argue that this is incredible. In the same way some people refuse to believe that men’s bodies were of much larger size then than they are now.

In this Augustine closely echoes what Josephus had written in the same text of his that I quoted earlier in my post (on the sons of Seth and the cataclysmic flood and fire): “let no one, comparing our present life and the brevity of the years that we live with that of the ancients, think that what is said about them is false, deducing that because now there is no such extension of time in life neither did they reach that length of life.”²⁴

As for the historicity of Biblical giants, here Augustine turns to an early paleontology for support: “the real proof . . . is to be found in the frequent discoveries of ancient bones of immense size, and this proof will hold good in centuries far in the future, since such bones do not easily decay.” And even though Augustine mostly contrasts this kind of tangible proof of giants with the issue of the long Biblical lifespans (though he does note that Pliny the Elder had written of certain people who lived to be 200 years old), he reiterates that this can’t be basis of skepticism:

the longevity of individuals in those days cannot now be demonstrated by any such tangible evidence. Yet we should not on that account question the reliability of this sacred history; our refusal to believe what it relates would be as shameless as our evidence of the fulfillment of its prophecies is certain²⁵

Here Augustine expresses an opinion that he would return to several times: that the historical reliability of Bible cannot be doubted—not without everything else coming into doubt as well; and he arguing for this here specifically by connecting the Biblical primeval history with the prophetic future.

Of course, today we have every reason to believe that the idea of Biblical giants and the extreme lifespans of the earliest humans according to Genesis are indeed “mythological”—the very characterization that Josephus, Augustine, and others sought so strenuously to avoid.

The past sections of this post have focused on the connections between the flood and the eschatological future, in several dimensions. In light of all that I’ve said here (and particularly conjunction with what I talked about in the last section), it’s hard not to think of the early Christian conception of the eschatological future as in some senses sitting on the same level of mythology as the former—though, here, we might even be inclined to think of “mythology” in the more pejorative sense.²⁶

And interestingly enough, this characterization (minus the pejorative aspect) has embraced by some Christians themselves. For example, in more recent times, the well-known Biblical scholar Dale Allison, reflecting on the potential dismay that Christians may have upon learning that Jesus and Paul really did proclaim what appears to be failed eschatologies, asks

So how should we respond? The widespread dismay arises in part, I submit, from a failure to comprehend fully that eschatological language does not give us a preview of coming events but is rather, as the study of comparative religion teaches us, religious hope in mythological dress. Narratives about the unborn future are fictions, in the same way that narratives about the creation of the world are fictions.

The end is like the beginning. Genesis is no historical record of the primordial past, and the New Testament offers no precognitive history of the eschatological future. The New Jerusalem, the last judgment, and the resurrection are, just like Eden, the serpent, and Adam, theological parables. We must interpret them not literally but as religious poetry, which means with our theologically-informed imagination (The Historical Christ and the Theological Jesus, )

(You can read the context of these lines by Allison more fully here.)

It’s hard to know whether here Allison speaks to Christians themselves, or to anyone who might seek to appreciate religion on just, say, merely a historical or poetic level. On one hand, why would non-Christians feel “dismay” at Christianity’s apparent failed eschatology? But on the other, how can the eschatological resurrection simply be a “theological parable” for Christians?

(Toward) The End

For Christians who would at once defend Jesus’ prediction in the New Testament that the eschatological age would be like the “days of Noah,” and yet who also aren’t inclined to see the Biblical flood as historical, it’s commonly responded that Jesus’ point here is carried strongly enough on the weight of literary allusion alone. After all, every culture in the world tells stories that don’t have an actual historical basis, and yet we all still clearly understand the message that they’re trying to send; and this doesn’t change even when we allude to fictional character or stories when making serious points. 

But there seems to be a serious oversight here. While of course, in theory, it’s possible for particular theological points in the New Testament to not depend on some fundamentally historical occurrence(s), nevertheless, if a critically informed Biblical theology is a desideratum for Christians, then one perhaps unintended consequence here is that this leaves the Genesis flood story itself without a clear lesson—or, at worse, with a manifestly false one.

What I mean is this: for those who don’t see the flood as historical, but nonetheless are inclined to find some sort of ultimate message or meaning in the story—say, for example, ultimately reducing to something like “God doesn’t like unrighteousness, and punishes people when they sin”—there are certainly reasons to be highly skeptical of this idea. And, in truth, although there are certainly plenty of stories in the Bible where God does punish sin immediately and/or tangibly, nowhere is the converse expressed more poignantly than elsewhere in Biblical literature, too—in those instance in which God is mysteriously absent in terms of upholding justice here on earth.

Think of the words of Job, “why do the wicked live on, reach old age, and grow mighty in power?” (21:7), or the questioning plea of the martyred saints in the book of Revelation, “sovereign Lord, holy and true, how long will it be before you judge and avenge our blood on the inhabitants of the earth?” (6:11); or perhaps even Jesus’ saying that God “makes his sun rise on the evil and on the good, and sends rain on the righteous and on the unrighteous” (Matthew 5:45). If anything, then, for those who look to the flood story as a lesson about divine interaction with the world, this might stand to give the impression that, for some reason—in contrast to the past—God has abandoned the cosmos and is now indifferent to unrighteousness.

Conversely, if the flood narrative is understood just to illustrate, say, a prophetic “God will (ultimately) punish sin”—that is, that this only looks forward to the grand eschatological judgment in the future—then here the story doesn’t speak of its own accord at all; and in truth this undermines the entire Judeo-Christian tradition that warns of the eschatological judgment on the basis that it will be like the flood. (That is to say, if the flood story is just a figurative illustration of what the future eschatological judgment will be like, then early Jews and Christians made a fatally circular argument: that the future eschatological judgment will be as bad as, well, the predicted future eschatological judgment.)

And of course, to add to this, there’s nothing in the flood narrative itself that indicates that it was intended or can be understood to be pointing at a future event, as opposed to a primeval one. Even Origen of Alexandria, the greatest early champion of figurative and allegorical interpretation of the Bible, was compelled to defend the historicity of the flood and the ark—by arguing, for example, that the dimensions of the ark can be interpreted as bigger than what the literal text itself says. Further, far from the idea that what the flood narrative really portends is the distant eschatological future, one point of emphasis in the Genesis flood narrative is in fact that such a catastrophe won’t happen again: “I will remember my covenant that is between me and you and every living creature of all flesh; and the waters shall never again become a flood to destroy all flesh” (Genesis 9:15; cf. Isaiah 54:9).²⁷

In the end, then, we might all be compelled to join the “scoffers” in asking what reason do we have to believe that God will enact some sort of grand universal punishment of the unrighteous in the future if there really was no grand universal punishment in the past (even though, as we saw, the former was regularly compared to the latter, and even though the latter was believed with the same amount of conviction as the former)?

Sovereign Lord, holy and true, how long will it be before you judge and avenge our blood on the inhabitants of the earth?” So was the cry of the souls of the righteous martyrs, quoted from Revelation above; and it’s on this subject that I want to conclude.

At heart, despite the apparent violence that this seems to advocate, these words in fact aren’t a call for vindictive vengeance. When appreciated most fully, they’re simply part of a more general call for divine justice to finally come to our world: a world where true justice seems to be all too absent.

Contrary to what’s almost certainly still a popular belief, for the earliest Christians ultimate justice wasn’t to be attained in heaven. To be sure, the souls there were at peace and rest, and like the righteous Old Testament patriarchs of Hebrews 11 had received their preliminary reward. But the climactic eschatological event that the earliest Christians truly looked forward to was when the kingdom of heaven came to earth—when the living would be transformed, and disembodied souls would rejoin their bodies, to both inherit the reconstituted utopia on earth together.

As in Revelation, these souls disembodied cried out for vengeance on those who had wronged them; but justice would never be made complete without their resurrection.

For progressive Christians like Dale Allison, who himself represents the pinnacle of scholarly rigor in terms of understanding Christian eschatology, the resurrection of the dead may be “mythological,” or a “theological parable”—one that perhaps Jesus and Paul themselves misunderstood; and, in any case, whose original predicted time-frames for fulfillment appear to have run out. But if Christianity is true at all, and if the historic beliefs of Christianity are to mean anything at all, I think this is a “parable” that still has to come true literally; no matter how problematic or paradoxical this might be.

In light of this, why is the Christian belief in the historicity of the flood, or even the idea of the necessity of it, any less absurd than this? (Especially when no less an authority than Augustine insists about Scripture, again, that “our refusal to believe what it relates”—and here, again, he was referring specifically to the events of the early chapters of Genesis and their historicity—”would be as shameless as our evidence of the fulfillment of its prophecies is certain.” In light of all that’s been said so far, we can be sure that the historical Jesus and Paul almost certainly would have thought the same, too.)

The position of Ken Ham and others that the flood of Genesis must be historical, no matter what the evidence suggests, is obviously an egregious abuse of science and critical thought in general. But, conversely, if the only other way to truly maintain the authority and relevance of the Bible is to insist (in spite of the evidence and perhaps at the expense of coherence) that it’s just metaphor all the way down, then—as P. J. FitzPatrick once said of those who want to play the game of incisive criticism of Bible and yet always hide behind a veil of mystifying vocabulary, so that the Bible is never really dethroned from its place of authority in theology and, indeed, supernatural reality itself—”I rather think I prefer fundamentalism.”²⁸

⁂       ⁂       ⁂

(Footnotes can be found on the next page.)

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