Noah’s Ark and Apologetics

Tim Keller has a great analogy for how apologetics works. He says that the process of someone becoming a Christian is like them driving down a road in a car, when they come across a roadblock which stops them getting any further. The job of apologetics is to clear the roadblock out of the way so that the person can continue on their journey.

One roadblock I seem to find people being stuck at more and more these days is the story of Noah’s Ark. The problem (as it appears to the not-yet-Christian) is that the story is very hard to reconcile with modern science. For example:

  • to cover all the mountains on earth would require the sea level to rise by approx 9km. There isn’t enough “spare” water to do that, and would transform the surface of the planet to be like the abyssal plain.
  • it doesn’t fit with what we observe in terms of distribution of species on Earth. For example, as far as we can tell, kangaroos have only ever lived in Australia. That would make it tricky for Noah to collect them, and also for them to get back to Australia from the Ark (which came to rest in modern Turkey) without settling anywhere else en route.

As far as I can tell, there are four main strategies that could be deployed to deal with this roadblock.

A) Try to go round it instead of dealing with it head on, maybe by putting it in a “questions to deal with later” box. I don’t especially like that strategy, but it’s sometimes useful.

B) Say that the story in the Bible is essentially myth rather than history; it’s a parable of some kind. The problem with this is that the Bible clearly presents it as history of some kind – Peter refers back to it as a historical event, and the characters feature in genealogies. The Bible does contain myth (e.g. the killing of the monster Rahab in Isaiah 51 and Job 26), but it handles it quite differently.

C) Try to contest the interpretation of scientific data. Propose a completely different geography before the flood with a much flatter earth so there might be enough water. Have all the continental drift and plate tectonics happening during the flood, somehow have slow-growing olive trees (needed to produce an olive twig for the dove to find) survive on the abyssal plain, hope the other person doesn’t notice about the kangaroos and doesn’t have access to more paleogeological knowledge than you. The main problem with this is that if it works as an apologetic strategy, it gives them an unhelpful conspiracy theory mindset and gets them obsessed with secondary issues. If it doesn’t work (as on me if I wasn’t a Christian), it makes them think that all Christians are conspiracy theory nut jobs and gets them to write the whole thing off. Somewhere in the middle is getting massively bogged down for ages arguing about scientific minutiae, which is a complete distraction from the main point, which is Jesus, not flood geology. I used to try this approach; it didn’t work.

D) Show that the meaning of the text is broader than the conventional interpretation of it. For example, both the words translated “earth” in the story – erets and adamah can mean either “Earth” (as in the planet) or “land” (as in a country). In fact, both are used of the Earth in the creation narrative in Genesis, and both are used of the Promised Land in the Abraham story in the same book (e.g. Gen 28:13-15). Likewise the phrase “all the high mountains under the heavens” in Gen 7:19 could well mean “all the hills and mountains under the sky as far as the eye can see.” If you read the Noah story, but translating erets as “land”, it still makes perfect sense and doesn’t seem to contradict modern science any more. The author of Genesis deliberately leaves it ambiguous – it could be talking about a local flood, but the way it is told has lots of echoes of the creation story as well. So why haven’t the translators left that option? Probably because the earlier translations translated it as “earth” or “world” and so any new translators going for “land” would appear soft and get loads of flak from the noisy minority of Christians who are keener on holding onto their own interpretation of Scripture than what the Bible actually says.

Last time the question came up was a couple of weeks ago. I tried a potted version of D); the roadblock was cleared in a couple of minutes and the chap commented a week later how impressed he’d been and that he thought there might really be something to the Bible…