Surviving the Flood

What has been the worst disaster in the history of the world? There have been hurricanes, tornadoes, volcanoes, earthquakes, tidal waves, famines, floods, epidemics, and wars, but the worst disaster ever was the worldwide flood in the days of Noah. Of all the people, birds, and land animals on the earth, none survived except those in the ark. Never has another disaster wiped out so many animals. Never has another disaster destroyed all the world’s people except for eight survivors. No other disaster even comes close. In Genesis 7 the Bible says,

All the springs of the great deep burst forth, and the floodgates of the heavens were opened. And rain fell on the earth forty days and forty nights…

For forty days the flood kept coming on the earth, and as the waters increased they lifted the ark high above the earth. The waters rose and increased greatly on the earth, and the ark floated on the surface of the water. They rose greatly on the earth, and all the high mountains under the entire heavens were covered. The waters rose and covered the mountains to a depth of more than twenty feet. Every living thing that moved on the earth perished—birds, livestock, wild animals, all the creatures that swarm over the earth, and all mankind. Everything on dry land that had the breath of life in its nostrils died. Every living thing on the face of the earth was wiped out; men and animals and the creatures that move along the ground and the birds of the air were wiped from the earth. Only Noah was left, and those with him in the ark.

The waters flooded the earth for a hundred and fifty days. (Genesis 7:11‑12, 17‑24).

The Worldwide Flood

Not everyone believes the flood happened. Some think the entire story of Noah and the flood is just a lie that somebody dreamed up. Others wouldn’t call it a lie—they value the flood story as a profound legend that has much to teach us—but they don’t think the flood actually happened. However, the flood was indeed real. The Bible says so, and Jesus himself clearly says so. It is never wise to doubt God’s Word in the Bible or to think that Jesus is wrong. The flood was real, and the Bible describes it accurately.

Still, even some people who esteem the Bible and believe there was a real Noah and a real flood have a hard time believing that the flood covered the whole earth. They interpret Genesis to mean that the flood did not cover literally the whole world but only the world that the author of Genesis knew—that is, the region of the Near East. They prefer this interpretation because they don’t see how the whole earth could be covered with water, and they don’t think geology supports a worldwide flood. But there is nothing in science that makes a worldwide flood impossible, and there are many things in the Bible’s account to indicate that the flood was global, not just regional.

Genesis speaks of water covering the whole earth. Scripture says, “All the mountains under the entire heavens were covered” (7:19).  All people, birds, and land animals perished except those in the ark. It’s hard to see how such biblical wording can mean anything but a worldwide flood. Viewing it as a regional flood weakens the strong wording of Genesis and raises many more problems than it solves.

If the flood covered only a particular region, why would Noah have to build an ark at all? Why not simply travel to a different area that wouldn’t be underwater? Why spend decades building an enormous ark if Noah could stay safe and dry simply by relocating?

If the flood didn’t cover the whole earth, why would God command Noah to take a pair of every kind of land animal and bird into the ark? Many kinds of animals live in more than one region, so those kinds could survive in other areas even if those in one area died in a regional flood. It’s especially hard to see why birds would need to be on the ark if the flood wasn’t worldwide. Birds could easily escape a regional flood by flying elsewhere.

Genesis says, “The waters flooded the earth for a hundred and fifty days” (7:24). That’s five months underwater! How could a local flood cover mountains for five months without affecting other areas? Water spreads out. It doesn’t rise to a great height in one area and not affect neighboring areas. A tidal wave or an overflowing river can cause a local flood that lasts a short time and does lots of damage. But the Genesis flood covered mountains for five months, and the regions that weren’t so high did not dry up for an entire year. No local flood could do that.

Another problem with the local flood viewpoint is that it empties God’s promises of meaning. After the flood, God promised, “Never again will there be a flood to destroy the earth” (9:11). Now, if the Genesis flood was only regional, God’s promise means nothing. There have been many regional floods with serious loss of life since God made that promise. But if the Genesis flood was indeed worldwide, then God has indeed kept his promise. There has never been another global flood since the time of Noah.

Jesus and his New Testament apostles confirm that the flood was worldwide. Jesus compares the flood to the worldwide judgment that will occur at his second coming, implying that the scope of the flood was as global as the final judgment. Jesus says, “The flood came and took them all away” (Matthew 24:39). That sounds universal. The apostle Peter echoes Jesus, saying, “By these waters also the world of that time was deluged and destroyed” and “the present heavens and earth are reserved for fire, being kept for the day of judgment” (2 Peter 3:6). According to Jesus and Peter, the future judgment will extend everywhere, just as the past judgment of the flood extended everywhere.

Water, Water Everywhere

It’s hard to deny that the Bible teaches a worldwide flood, but some people question it on scientific grounds. For example, how could there possibly be enough water on earth to cover Mount Everest, over 29,000 feet above sea level? Well, there are fossils from sea creatures high on Mount Everest. Whether or not those fossils come from Noah’s flood, the mountain was under water at some point in history. We should not assume that Mount Everest has always been as high as it is now. Mountains and valleys may have changed greatly during and after the flood. There’s enough water on earth right now that if the whole earth were smooth, with no mountains or hills, no valleys or ocean trenches, the whole planet would be covered with over 8,800 feet (2,700 meters) of water.

It appears that every place on earth has been under water at one time or another. Scientists have unearthed fossils of billions of dead things buried in water‑carried mud and sand all over the world. Some Christians believe that most of these fossils were deposited during the flood or during chaotic weather in the years following the flood. Many scientists, however, attribute the fossils not to a single worldwide flood but to many different events throughout vast ages of earth history.

It can be interesting to explore whether or not there are  scientifically satisfying evidences and explanations for the flood. But the Bible’s credibility doesn’t depend on our ability to find evidences and explanations. What God says is always more reliable than what man says, and in discussing the flood, there is much that we just don’t know. The earth’s physical features may have been different at the time of the flood than they are now. The water may have come in ways quite different from anything we know of. The remains of plants and animals may have been deposited in ways that cannot be predicted or even imagined in terms of present processes. The flood was not just a natural process but a supernatural judgment. We don’t know where God used the normal laws of nature and where he used his power directly in miraculous ways that surpass naturalistic explanation.

The Bible says, “All the springs of the great deep burst forth, and the floodgates of the heavens were opened” (Genesis 7:11). The brilliant Bible interpreter John Calvin takes this to mean that God removed the created laws that usually keep water within certain bounds. The waters of the great deep—oceans, lakes, rivers, underground reservoirs—did not “flow in their accustomed manner,” says Calvin, “nor did the rain distill from heaven.” Water began gushing from below and pouring from above. At creation God had originally separated land from water, but at the flood he broke down that separation so that water would overwhelm the land and everything living on land.

We shouldn’t deny the Bible’s account of the worldwide flood based on current ideas about water and the laws of nature, nor should we be too eager to “prove” the flood in terms of geology or fossil findings. It may be possible to support the story of the flood in terms of natural laws and scientific evidence, and a number of Christian scholars, especially creation scientists, work hard at this. That’s fine, but the reality of the flood doesn’t depend on our ability to explain it scientifically.

The patterns of nature don’t limit God; he controls those patterns and can change them if chooses to do so. When God rescued Israel from Egypt, he brought them through the Red Sea on dry ground by making water stand in walls on either side of the path through the sea. When Jesus was on earth, he walked on water, and he quieted raging waves simply by speaking. We can’t explain scientifically how water could stand up in like a wall or how Christ could walk on water and make it obey him. But it’s clear that whenever the Lord wishes, he can make water behave outside the ordinary boundaries and properties he created for it. He simply needs to give a command, and water does what he says.

At the time of Noah, God commanded water to flood the whole earth, and that’s what the water did. All our efforts to understand or explain what process God might have used won’t change the basic fact of the worldwide flood. It was the worst disaster in history, and it came as a direct judgment of God against the evil of humanity and the corruption of the earth.

God Remembered

Imagine being one of those people inside the ark. Almost everything and everybody you know is suddenly gone. Your entire world has vanished underwater. What a strange and awful feeling! Even if you’ve never been through a worldwide disaster like that, maybe you’ve been overwhelmed by tragedy and problems, and you  see no way to move beyond those troubles into the future. Or maybe you think the world around you is such a mess that it is beyond hope. But don’t give up. Don’t give in to despair.

Think of Noah. As the waters raged and increased for forty days, as not even a mountaintop appeared for many months afterward, as the ark floated aimlessly with nowhere to land, Noah may have tempted to despair. He had survived the flood, but would life ever again be worth living? Would the world have a future? Yes, Noah could still have hope and a future, even in the world’s worst disaster. If Noah and his family could survive history’s worst disaster with a sense of hope, isn’t it possible that you, too, could find new hope even when your world has been ruined? When floodwaters covered the whole earth and Noah was sealed in the ark for month after month, it may have seemed that God had forgotten him.

But God remembered Noah and all the wild animals and the livestock that were with him in the ark, and he sent a wind over the earth, and the waters receded. Now the springs of the deep and the floodgates of the heavens had been closed, and the rain had stopped falling from the sky. The water receded steadily from the earth. At the end of the hundred and fifty days the water had gone down, and on the seventeenth day of the seventh month the ark came to rest on the mountains of Ararat. The waters continued to recede until the tenth month, and on the first day of the tenth month the tops of the mountains became visible. (8:1‑5)

God judged his enemies, but he saved his friend Noah and his family. God sent the floodwaters, but he also took away the water so that eventually the highest points of land reappeared. But when would it be safe to leave the ark? Noah wanted to find out.

After forty days Noah opened the window he had made in the ark and sent out a raven, and it kept flying back and forth until the water had dried up from the earth. Then he sent out a dove to see if the water had receded from the surface of the ground. But the dove could find no place to set its feet because there was water over all the surface of the earth; so it returned to Noah in the ark. He reached out his hand and took the dove and brought it back to himself in the ark. He waited seven more days and again sent out the dove from the ark. When the dove returned to him in the evening, there in its beak was a freshly plucked olive leaf! Then Noah knew that the water had receded from the earth. He waited seven more days and sent the dove out again, but this time it did not return to him. (8:6-12)

The raven could fly about and perhaps find dead carcasses to feed on, but the dove could not live on death. The dove needed to find new life in the world before it would leave the ark for good. Today the dove and olive branch are symbolic of hope after disaster and peace after turmoil. But for Noah, the dove and the olive branch were literal proof of a new creation that would be a good home for the people and animals in the ark. Olive trees could grow only on lower ground, so Noah knew that God was drying up the earth and restoring plant life on it.

By the first day of the first month of Noah’s six hundred and first year, the water had dried up from the earth. Noah then removed the covering from the ark and saw that the surface of the ground was dry. By the twenty‑seventh day of the second month the earth was completely dry. (8:13‑14)

Even when Noah knew this, however, he was not yet ready to leave the ark. Noah and those with him must have been eager to get out into the open, but not before God said so. God had sealed them in the ark, and they could not leave until God opened the ark and told them to leave. Noah lived by faith God’s Word. For you and me, too, the only way to survive disaster and to thrive afterward is to live by faith in God’s Word. Faith in God’s Word moved Noah to build the ark when God told him to. Faith in God’s Word moved Noah to enter the ark when God told him to. And faith in God’s Word kept Noah in the ark until God told him to leave.

Then God said to Noah, “Come out of the ark, you and your wife and your sons and their wives. Bring out every kind of living creature that is with you—the birds, the animals, and all the creatures that move along the ground—so they can multiply on the earth and be fruitful and increase in number upon in.”

So Noah came out, together with his sons and his wife and his sons’ wives. All the animals and all the creatures that move along the ground and all the birds—everything that moves on the earth—came out of the ark, one kind after another.

A New Lease on Life

At last the terror was over. The world had a new lease on life. The people and animals in the ark would multiply under God’s blessing and repopulate the world. What a moment it must have been to step out of the ark! What a feeling to know that the world had a future! How did Noah respond?

Then Noah built an altar to the Lord and, taking some of all the clean animals and clean birds, he sacrificed burnt offerings on it. The Lord smelled the pleasing aroma and said in his heart: “Never again will I curse the ground because of man, even though every inclination of his heart is evil from childhood. And never again will I destroy all living creatures, as I have done.

“As long as the earth endures, seedtime and harvest, cold and heat, summer and winter, day and night will never cease.” (9:20-22)

Humanity and animals got a new lease on life, and that lease will not expire as long as the earth lasts. We have God’s Word for it. For the rest of earth’s history, there will never be another disaster as devastating as the flood Noah survived.

This lease on life is not based on human qualifications. If the survival of humanity and animals depended on people being good enough, everything would be wiped out. We may think we’re pretty good, but what does God think? God says of man, “every inclination of his heart is evil from childhood.” God said this even of Noah and his family. We are all sinners by nature and by choice. If God dealt with us only on the basis of what we deserve, if the human race’s lease on life expired the moment we became offensive to God, then we would all perish immediately.

But God has chosen to deal with us in mercy, not based on our qualifications but based on a sacrifice offered on our behalf. Before the flood, God commanded Noah to take a pair of each animal kind, but to take seven of certain kinds of animals  so that some could be used as sacrifices. God provided Noah with these sacrifices, and Noah lived not by faith in his own goodness but by grateful faith in God’s grace and in God’s willingness to forgive and save on the basis of the sacrifice God provides.

Genesis says that God was pleased by Noah’s sacrifice. Is that because roasted meat smelled appetizing to God? Of course not. Noah’s sacrifice, like other animal sacrifices in the Old Testament, was pleasing to God because it pointed to a greater sacrifice that God himself would offer, the sacrifice of his Son, Jesus. Jesus died on a cross to pay the penalty for our sins. He died as the sacrificial Lamb of God who takes away the sin of the world. It was only in anticipation of Jesus’ sacrifice that the fragrance of Noah’s sacrifice was pleasing to God. The Bible says, “Christ loved us and gave himself up for us as a fragrant offering and sacrifice to God” (Ephesians 5:2).

If we come to God by faith in Jesus and in his sacrifice, God likes the aroma. If we pray in the name of Jesus, our prayers have the aroma of Jesus. If we live by faith in Jesus, our lives have the aroma of Jesus. If we give ourselves and our gifts to God and to people in need for Jesus’ sake, our gifts have the aroma of Jesus. The Bible says, “They are a fragrant offering, an acceptable sacrifice, pleasing to God. And my God will meet all your needs according to his glorious riches in Christ Jesus” (Philippians 4:18-19).

What do you smell like to God? Do you stink like sin, or do you have the aroma of Christ that comes through faith in him? Put your faith in Jesus. Then you will indeed be pleasing to God. You will have renewed hope that life is worth. Indeed, you will have eternal life cannot die. Just as Noah believed in the Lord and was saved along with his family, so the Bible tells you, “Believe in the Lord Jesus, and you will be saved—you and your household” (Acts 16:31).

Here’s a prayer from the Bible which is fitting for all who live on after the flood and trust in God’s promises:

You covered the earth with the deep as with a garment; the waters stood over the mountains. But at your rebuke the waters fled, at the sound of your thunder they took to flight; they flowed over the mountains, they went down into the valleys, to the place you assigned for them. You set a boundary they cannot cross; never again will the cover the earth… When you hide your face, your creatures are terrified; when you take away their breath, they died and return to the dust. When you send your Spirit, they are created, and you renew the face of the earth. May the glory of the Lord endure forever; may the Lord rejoice in his works—he who looks at the earth and it trembles, who touches the mountains and they smoke. I will sing to the Lord all my life; I will sing praise to God as long as I live. May my meditation be pleasing to him, as I rejoice in the Lord. But may sinners vanish from the earth and the wicked be no more. Praise the Lord, O my soul. Praise the Lord. (Psalm 104:6‑9, 29‑35)

By David Feddes. Originally broadcasted on the Back to God Hour and published in The Radio Pulpit.