Atheist Jonathan MS Pearce’s Straw Man Global Flood

Atheist Jonathan MS Pearce’s Straw Man Global Flood August 30, 2022

+ Clarification of an “Anthropologically Universal” Flood

Atheist anti-theist and “philosopher” Jonathan M. S. Pearce runs the blog, A Tippling Philosopher. He used to encourage me to visit his site and offer critiques, and wrote under a post dated 12-14-21: “I even need to thank the naysayers. . . . Dave, you are welcome at my new place. Come challenge me. . . . thanks for your critiques of my pieces.” Again, in a post dated 1-27-22, he stated: “I do welcome disagreements because I don’t want [my blog] to [be] just an echo chamber. . . . [S]omeone like Armstrong does give me ammunition for some of my pieces!”

I replied (usually point-by-point) to Pearce’s arguments 72 times. He made some sort of response to maybe one-quarter of those: if even that many. But credit where due: fellow atheist Bob Seidensticker has utterly ignored 80 of my critiques. For whatever reason, something snapped in Jonathan in March 2022. When I provided him with several “meaty” critiques in February 2022 (see a lot of that summed up) — nothing any different from what I had been doing for several years –, he melted down and thundered / pleaded on 3-1-22:

STOP IT STOP IT STOP IT. Please stop this. All you are doing is spouting the absolutely debunked drivel apologetics that my book takes to task. . . . I welcome your comments, but these are totally off-topic and you show absolutely no desire to interact with my own material . . . [capitalized “yelling” is his own]

My my! In charity, I will assume Jonathan was having a bad hair day. He virtually never explodes like this. But if one persistently refutes an atheist’s attacks on Christianity and the Bible, this is what one eventually gets. Jonathan (formerly calm and congenial, for the most part, in our interactions) rapidly became progressively more hostile and rude. Despite the disappointing, embarrassing, and sad display, however, I continue to think that he’s basically a nice guy who (like millions) is a much better person than his putrid, flatulent ideology. I think we’d have a great time in a pub over beer.
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In any event, he simply can’t handle being refuted (or even vigorously scrutinized, as it were). Assuredly, it’s nothing unusual or unique to him (or confined to atheists). He’s like lots and lots of people of all stripes in that respect. For my part, I can’t make calm, rational arguments if someone who disagrees is descending into verbal diarrhea and irrelevancies and/or emotional distress. In such high-charged circumstances, I note (or think), “if you can’t stand the heat get out of the kitchen” and move on: “shaking the dust off my feet”: as Jesus urged.
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This is the manifest result, in my opinion, of the widely held atheist notion that all (or at the very least, most) Christians are idiots and inveterately opposed to science and reason alike, simply by virtue of the fact that they are Christians. They can’t possibly be honest, either: so tens of thousands of atheists think and express. So the more I replied to him, the more hostile he became, because this just ain’t supposed to happen, you see: that a lowly, imbecilic Christian can actually prevail in a debate (and many debates) over a smarter-than-thou atheist.
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Enough of the tedious background. Presently, I am critiquing Jonathan’s insistence on bashing the global or universal or worldwide conception of the Flood of Noah, as if it is the mainstream (or biblical) position. It’s not. In logic, we call that a straw man. As an atheist, Jonathan’s goal is to make Christianity, Christians, and the Bible look as ridiculous and absurd as he can. One way to do that is to insist that the Bible teaches a global flood, and to ignore and even mock any and all Christian protests to the contrary; to pretend that most Christians still hold to this view, in the face of overwhelming scientific evidence. Here is what he wrote in his article, “Noah’s flood is a heinous story” (OnlySky, 8-8-22):

And don’t get me started on how it [a global Flood] is not physically or practically possible by any stretch of the imagination. Moreover, there is simply no evidence for a global flood or even a large regional flood that some theists will try to argue [links to his replies to me on this topic] (a theory that makes equally little sense).

But let’s focus on the global flood. The one described in the Bible is a terrible event. Of course, this is mythology. It is obviously mythology. But an awful lot of people still believe that it is literally and historically true.

First of all, this involved the death of everyone on Earth bar eight. . . . the entire global population. . . . 

And that doesn’t even begin to consider the sheer volume of animal death throughout the globe. Every animal bar two (or seven, depending on which source you read) dies. 

Once again, I will provide basically the same argument that I already submitted to Jonathan and his adoring fans several times (to no avail as always). I noted that the Catholic Encyclopedia way back in 1908, was already describing the global flood opinion as scientifically and exegetically obsolete:

Till about the seventeenth century, it was generally believed that the Deluge had been geographically universal, . . . But two hundred years of theological and scientific study devoted to the question have thrown so much light on it that we may now defend the following conclusions:

The geographical universality of the Deluge may be safely abandoned

Neither Sacred Scripture nor universal ecclesiastical tradition, nor again scientific considerations, render it advisable to adhere to the opinion that the Flood covered the whole surface of the earth. . . .

There are also certain scientific considerations which oppose the view that the Flood was geographically universal. Not that science opposes any difficulty insuperable to the power of God; but it draws attention to a number of most extraordinary, if not miraculous phenomena involved in the admission of a geographically universal Deluge. . . .

Some Christians (along with biblical skeptics and atheists) assume that the biblical account of Noah’s Flood, or the Deluge can only be interpreted hyper-literally; in other words, as referring to a global catastrophic event in which the entire world was literally covered with an amount of water so deep that every mountain (including Mt. Everest: 29,032 feet = 5.5 miles elevation above sea level) was covered.

The consensus of both Catholic and Protestant biblical scholars for well over a century has been that the interpretation of a local Flood is perfectly in accord with the best exegetical and hermeneutical principles of biblical interpretation. In other words, it’s not “biblical skepticism” or “liberal theology” to believe in the local Flood.

Baptist theologian Bernard Ramm’s immensely influential book, The Christian View of Science and Scripture (hardcover edition, published by Wm. B. Eerdmans Publishing Company, Grand Rapids, Michigan, in 1954; reprinted in 1966) represented mainstream evangelical (as opposed to “fundamentalist”) Protestant, post-World War II thinking. Ramm argued:

To cover the highest mountains would require eight times more water than we now have. It would have involved a great creation of water to have covered the entire globe, but no such creative act is hinted at in the Scriptures. (p. 244)

Getting rid of such a vast amount of water would have been as miraculous as providing it. If the entire world were under six miles of water, there would be no place for the water to drain off. Yet the record states that the water drained off with the help of the wind (Gen. 8:1). A local flood would readily account for this, but there is no answer if the entire world were under water. (p. 245)

The flood was local to the Mesopotamian valley. (p. 249)

Dr. Ramm discussed the question of frequent biblical non-literal, hyperbolic (exaggerated) language:

Fifteen minutes with a Bible concordance will reveal many instances in which universality of language is used but only a partial quantity is meant. All does not mean every last one in all of its usages. Psa. 22:17 reads: “I may tell all my bones,” and hardly means that every single bone of the skeleton stood out prominently. John 4:39 cannot mean that Jesus completely recited the woman’s biography. Matt. 3:5 cannot mean that every single individual from Judea and Jordan came to John the Baptist. There are cases where all means all, and every means every, but the context tells us where this is intended. Thus, special reference may be made to Paul’s statement in Romans about the universality of sin, yet even that “all” excludes Jesus Christ.

The universality of the flood simply means the universality of the experience of the man who reported it. When God tells the Israelites He will put the fear of them upon the people under the whole heaven, it refers to all the peoples known to the Israelites (Deut. 2:25). When Gen. 41:57 states that all countries came to Egypt to buy grain, it can only mean all peoples known to the Egyptians. Ahab certainly did not look for Elijah in every country of the earth even though the text says he looked for Elijah so thoroughly that he skipped no nation or kingdom (I Kings 18:10). From the vantage point of the observer of the flood all mountains were covered, and all flesh died. (pp. 240-241)

Presbyterian geologist Carol A. Hill’s brilliant article, “The Noachian Flood: Universal or Local?” (Perspectives on Science and Christian Faith, Volume 54, Number 3, September 2002), is a goldmine in terms of food for thought concerning a local Flood, in harmony with what we know from science. She impressively tackles the question of literal and non-literal biblical language at great length. I can only cite a small portion of it:

Earth. The Hebrew for “earth” used in Gen. 6–8 (and in Gen. 2:5–6) is eretz (‘erets) or adâmâh, both of which terms literally mean “earth, ground, land, dirt, soil, or country.” In no way can “earth” be taken to mean the planet Earth, as in Noah’s time and place, people (including the Genesis writer) had no concept of Earth as a planet and thus had no word for it. Their “world” mainly (but not entirely) encompassed the land of Mesopotamia—a flat alluvial plain enclosed by the mountains and high ground of Iran, Turkey, Syria, and Saudi Arabia (Fig. 1); i.e., the lands drained by the four rivers of Eden (Gen. 2:10–14). . . .

[I]n Mesopotamia, the concept of “the land” (kalam in Sumerian) seems to have included the entire alluvial plain. This is most likely the correct interpretation of the term “the earth,” which is used over and over again in Gen. 6-8: the entire alluvial plain of Mesopotamia was inundated with water. The clincher to the word “earth” meaning ground or land (and not the planet Earth) is Gen. 1:10: God called the dry land earth (eretz). If God defined “earth” as “dry land,” then so should we.

Regarding specifically the water covering “all the high mountains” (Gen 7:19), Dr. Hill states:

[T]he Hebrew word har for “mountain” in Gen. 7:20 . . . can also be translated as “a range of hills” or “hill country,” implying with Gen. 7:19 that it was “all the high hills” (also har) that were covered rather than high mountains.

This being the case, Genesis 7:19-20 could simply refer to “flood waters . . . fifteen cubits above the ‘hill country’ of Mesopotamia (located in the northern, Assyrian part)”. The Hebrew word har (Strong’s #2022) can indeed mean “hills” or “hill country”, as the Brown-Driver-Briggs Lexicon defines it. Specifically for Genesis 7:19-20, this lexicon classifies the word as following:

mountain, indefinite, Job 14:18 (“” צוּר); usually plural mountains, in General, or the mountains, especially in poetry & the higher style; often figurative; הָרִים, הֶהָרִים, covered by flood Genesis 7:20 compare Genesis 7:19; . . .

In the New American Standard Version, har is rendered as “hill country” (5) many times in the Hebrew Bible: Genesis 10:30; 14:10; 31:21, 23, 25; 36:8-9; Numbers 13:17, 29; 14:40, 44-45; Deuteronomy 1:7, 19-20, 24, 41, 43-44; 2:37; 3:12, 25; Joshua 2:16, 22-23; 9:1; 10:6, 40; 11:2-3, 16; 11:21; 12:8; 13:6; 14:12; 15:48; 16:1; 17:15-16, 18; 18:12; 19:50; 20:7; 21:11, 21; 24:30, 33; Judges 1:9, 19, 34; 2:9; 3:27; 4:5; 7:24; 10:1; 12:15; 17:1, 8; 18:2, 13; 19:1, 16, 18; 1 Samuel 1:1; 9:4; 13:2; 14:22; 23:14; 2 Samuel 20:21; 1 Kings 4:8; 12:25; 2 Kings 5:22; 1 Chronicles 6:67; 2 Chronicles 13:4; 15:8; 19:4.

The same version translates har as “hill” or “hills” nine times too: Deuteronomy 8:7; 11:11; Joshua 13:19; 18:13-14, 16; 1 Kings 16:24; 2 Kings 1:9; 4:27.

Lorence G. Collins is a geologist and petrologist. He wrote a fascinating article, “Yes, Noah’s flood may have happened but not over the whole earth” (Reports of the National Center for Science Education, 2009, 29(5): 38-41). It noted how the Bible habitually uses phenomenological language (including for the Flood):

Northeast and southwest of the nearly flat surface that contains the two rivers [Tigris and Euphrates], the topography rises to more than 455 m [1493 feet] in Saudi Arabia and in Iran. Calculations show that elevations of 455 m high cannot be seen beyond 86 km [53 miles] away, and these places are more than 160 km [99 miles] from the Euphrates or Tigris Rivers. Therefore, none of the high country in Saudi Arabia or Iran would be visible to a tribal chief (or Noah). On that basis, the “whole world” would definitely appear to be covered with water during the Flood, and that was the “whole world” for the people in this part of southeastern Mesopotamia at that time.

I found a good topographical map of Mesopotamia online; see also a second one. One can readily observe that there is a sort of “basin” in the alluvial floodplain in this area.

The question, then, is: why does Jonathan Pearce: an intelligent man, who claims the label “philosopher” for himself, insist on warring against straw men? If he wants to debate the consensus position of Christian thinkers of all stripes, that would be the local Flood. But he derisively dismisses that as dishonest and goes right to the global Flood.
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He can do whatever he wants, of course, but I submit that it’s intellectually dishonest and arrogant to present this as undeniably the biblical view and that held by most Christians, when in fact it is held by only a tiny number of Christians: primarily among the sub-group commonly known as “fundamentalists.”
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I want to also tackle the related question of “anthropological universality”: meaning that all the human beings in the world were in the Mesopotamian floodplain in c. 2900 BC and were wiped out, save for those in the ark. Many atheists on Jonathan’s blog brought up the point that the Bible and/or Catholicism require this.
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The Catholic Encyclopedia in it’s article, “Deluge” in 1908 (cited above) indeed espouses this view. But it’s not authoritative or magisterial (i.e., not binding on Catholics). I asked a theologian friend of mine (Dr. Robert Fastiggi) who worked on the latest version of the best source of explaining the various levels of authority of Catholic dogma (Heinrich Denzinger, Enchiridion Symbolorum: A Compendium of Creeds, Definitions, and Declarations of the Catholic Church [San Francisco: Ignatius Press; 43rd edition: September 1, 2012; revised by Peter  Hunermann; partially edited and translated by Robert Fastiggi and Anne Englund Nash]), and he clarified that Catholics are not required to accept anthropological universality as part of Catholic dogmatic belief.
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That is, Catholics can have different opinions on the question and follow secular science, history, anthropology, archaeology, etc., to where they lead us. Clarifications in this regard were made by the Biblical Commission of the Church in January 1948 and in Ven. Pope Pius XII’s encyclical Humani generis in August 1950. These clarifications / modifications of prior prevailing views (and allowance of different ones) also prove once again that the Catholic Church is open to science and is willing to even modify its best understanding of the Bible as a result of further understandings and discoveries. And that’s exactly as it should be.
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There are those (albeit a tiny — though very vocal and visible — number in Protestantism and even smaller number in Catholicism) who hold to older “Bible and science” traditions and so believe in a universal Flood (i.e., water covering the entire earth to a depth higher than Mt. Everest’s elevation), a young earth (6-10,000 years), flood geology (or “catastrophism”), a literal six-day creation, a complete denial of any aspect of evolution (even theistic evolution), etc. I have nothing against such people. Some are my personal friends. They are as sincere in their beliefs as anyone else and seek to hold a “high” view of biblical inspiration and the Christian faith (as I do). I simply think they are wrong on many levels.

But by no means can they be said (sociologically) to be “mainstream” or representative of the consensus of Christian thought or the entirety of Christianity regarding Noah’s Flood. And this is my point. Jonathan and many atheists pretend and falsely claim that they do represent that. Essentially, they attempt to collapse or reduce all of Christianity to the tiny number who hold to fundamentalism and “hyper-literal” views of biblical exegesis.

Here are the relevant documents:

Letter of the Secretary of the Biblical Commission to Cardinal Suhard, Archbishop of Paris, January 16, 1948

3864 The question of the literary forms of the eleven first chapters of Genesis is far more obscure and complex. These literary forms correspond to none of our classical categories and cannot be judged in the light of Greco-Latin or modern literary genres. One can, therefore, neither deny nor affirm their historicity, taken as a whole, without unduly applying to them the canons of a literary genre within which it is impossible to classify them. If one agrees not to recognize in these chapters history in the classic and modern sense, one must admit that the current scientific data do not allow giving a positive solution to all the problems they pose.

The first duty here incumbent upon scientific exegesis consists above all in the attentive study of all the literary, scientific, historical, cultural, and religious problems connected with these chapters; one should then examine closely the literary processes of the early Oriental peoples, their psychology, their way of expressing themselves, and their very notion of historical truth; in a word, one should collate without prejudice all the material from the palaeontological and historical, epigraphic, and literary sciences. Only thus can we hope to look more clearly into the true nature of certain narratives in the first chapters of Genesis.

To declare a priori that their narratives contain no history in the modern sense of the term would easily convey that they contain no <history> in any sense, whereas they relate in simple and figurative language, adapted to the understanding of a less developed people, the fundamental truths presupposed for the economy of salvation as well as the popular description of the origin of the  human race and of the chosen people. (pp. 794-795)

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Ven. Pope Pius XII: Encyclical Humani generis, August 12, 1950

3898  Just as in the biological and anthropological sciences, so also in the historical sciences there are those who boldly transgress the limits and safeguards established by the Church. In a particular way must be deplored a certain too free interpretation of the historical books of the Old Testament. Those who favor this system, in order to defend their cause, wrongly refer to the Letter which was sent not long ago to the archbishop of Paris by the Pontifical Commission on Biblical Studies [see part of it above]. This letter, in fact, clearly points out that the first eleven chapters of Genesis, although properly speaking not conforming to the historical method used by the best Greek and Latin writers or by competent authors of our time, do nevertheless pertain to history in a true sense, which, however, must be further studied and determined by exegetes; the same chapters <the letter points out>, in simple and figurative language adapted to the mentality of a people but little cultured, both state the principal truths that are fundamental for our salvation and also give a popular description of the origin of the human race and the chosen people.

If, however, the ancient sacred writers have taken anything from popular narrations (and this may be conceded), it must never be forgotten that they did so with the help of divine inspiration, through which they were rendered immune from any error in selecting and evaluating those documents.

3899 Therefore, whatever of the popular narrations have been inserted into the Sacred Scriptures must in no way be considered on a par with myths or other such things, which are more the product of an extravagant imagination than of that striving for truth and simplicity which in the Sacred Books, also of the Old Testament, is so apparent that our ancient sacred writers must be admitted to be clearly superior to the ancient profane writers. (pp. 807-808)

Belief in a local Flood is, I respectfully contend,  far more in accord with current science than belief in a global Flood, and a denial of the anthropological universality of the Flood is harmonious with what we know from archaeology, history, anthropology, and paleontology. Both views are the current consensus among Christian thinkers of all stripes. To deny this is to be either 1) ignorant of the facts, or 2) aware of them, and hence, intellectually dishonest in contra-Christian presentations.

Atheists don’t speak for Christians, and almost never present an honest representation of what the best thinkers in Christianity believe. We Christians speak for ourselves, thank you. And we are sick and tired of being misrepresented. If the best atheists can do is only battle against caricatures and straw men when they tackle Christianity and the Bible, then I suggest that they need to deeply re-examine their whole anti-theist, anti-Christian “project” and get honest with themselves and everyone else.

Every middle school debating team learns first of all that they must know their opponents’ views even better than their opponents do. Most atheists would spectacularly fail that test when it comes to properly understanding Christianity, and especially when it comes to offering critiques of the real thing, as opposed to cynically spewing out cardboard caricatures of their own imaginations and fancies.

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Summary: Atheist Jonathan MS Pearce wrongly & dishonestly assumes that a global Flood is the mainstream Christian position & undeniably the biblical teaching. It’s neither.

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