Sunday, August 08, 2010

The Bible, the Truth and the Flood

One of the chief ways by which the evangelical movement seeks to distinguish itself from the "world", other religions, and even other Christian movements is how it treats the Bible.  The Bible is central; it is the filter through which evangelicals understand God.  It is often proclaimed as the means by which we can know what is right and wrong.  This is enshrined in doctrines central to the faith of many churches and para-churches.  For example, here is a doctrinal statements from Wheaton College, one of the top evangelical colleges:
WE BELIEVE that ... the Scriptures of the Old and New Testaments are verbally inspired by God and inerrant in the original writing, so that they are fully trustworthy and of supreme and final authority in all they say. (http://www.wheaton.edu/welcome/aboutus_mission.html)
And here is a part of the long doctrinal statement from Dallas Theological Seminary (DTS):
We believe that the whole Bible in the originals is ... without error. (http://www.dts.edu/about/doctrinalstatement/)
These doctrinal statements by evangelical colleges are serious: the faculty members must regularly assent to them or else they are out the door.  Those groups or people that do not hold to this view of the Bible are viewed as "liberal" and fallen away from the truth.

But do those who seek to enlighten the world with the truth, truly, honestly, value the truth?  Let's say, hypothetically, that we found that some part of the Bible is clearly mistaken in what it says.  Wouldn't that pose a severe test to the faculty at Wheaton and DTS?  If they admitted that there was an error in the Bible they would lose their jobs. To keep their jobs they must deny that they see any errors even in the face of compelling evidence.  So if this hypothetical situation were to occur, that an error in the original manuscripts of the Bible could be indisputably established, then to continue to support the doctrines of Wheaton or DTS would be an act of doublethink (as described in Orwell's 1984); asserting that two contradictory things are true.

But is this thought experiment purely hypothetical, or are there really passages in the Bible that are clearly mistaken in what they say?  Most of the important teachings in the Bible are outside the range of testable statements.  For example there is no way to confirm or disprove God appearing to Moses on Mt. Sinai.  There is, however, an important story in the Bible about which we now have very strong scientific evidence: Noah's flood.  First a quick summary of the flood via a selection of verses from Genesis 6-8:
And God said to Noah, ‘I have determined to make an end of all flesh, for the earth is filled with violence because of them; now I am going to destroy them along with the earth. Make yourself an ark of cypress wood; make rooms in the ark, and cover it inside and out with pitch. ... For my part, I am going to bring a flood of waters on the earth, to destroy from under heaven all flesh in which is the breath of life; everything that is on the earth shall die. But I will establish my covenant with you; and you shall come into the ark, you, your sons, your wife, and your sons’ wives with you. And of every living thing, of all flesh, you shall bring two of every kind into the ark, to keep them alive with you; they shall be male and female. ... In the six-hundredth year of Noah’s life, in the second month, on the seventeenth day of the month, on that day all the fountains of the great deep burst forth, and the windows of the heavens were opened. ... The flood continued for forty days on the earth; and the waters increased, and bore up the ark, and it rose high above the earth. ... The waters swelled so mightily on the earth that all the high mountains under the whole heaven were covered; the waters swelled above the mountains, covering them fifteen cubits deep.  And all flesh died that moved on the earth, birds, domestic animals, wild animals, all swarming creatures that swarm on the earth, and all human beings; everything on dry land in whose nostrils was the breath of life died. He blotted out every living thing that was on the face of the ground, human beings and animals and creeping things and birds of the air; they were blotted out from the earth. Only Noah was left, and those that were with him in the ark. ... And God made a wind blow over the earth, and the waters subsided; ... and in the seventh month, on the seventeenth day of the month, the ark came to rest on the mountains of Ararat. ... Then God said to Noah and to his sons with him, ‘As for me, I am establishing my covenant with you and your descendants after you, and with every living creature that is with you, the birds, the domestic animals, and every animal of the earth with you, as many as came out of the ark. I establish my covenant with you, that never again shall all flesh be cut off by the waters of a flood, and never again shall there be a flood to destroy the earth.’ ... The sons of Noah who went out of the ark were Shem, Ham, and Japheth. Ham was the father of Canaan. These three were the sons of Noah; and from these the whole earth was peopled.
The Genesis flood story is an important part of the Biblical message and of Christian faith.  It shows God's judgement on the human race and all animals.  These are only saved from extinction by the righteousness of one individual: Noah, and his obedience to God in building an ark.  This theme of salvation through a righteousness-man-of-God is repeated numerous times in the Bible, from Abraham to Moses to Jesus.  The theme of judgement-on-wicked-people is also repeated numerous times in both Old and New testaments right through to its culmination in the Book of Revelation which is almost a repeat of the flood except with lots of fire and blood.  If the flood story is mistaken, that throws into question a whole lot of other claims in the Bible.

Now it is quite clear from the story that the flood is intended as a global flood that kills all of mankind and all land animals except for those God rescued by the Ark.  Not only is this stated explicitly numerous times, but the whole story depends on it.  If it were just a local flood in the Near East, then there is no need for an enormous Ark to save sheep and giraffes and cows, as these would have survived just fine in their populations in other parts of the world.  All one would need is a small boat to save Noah and his family.  Also a local flood would not have killed all those people in China and the Americas, removing Noah as the ancestor of all living humans -- a key requirement of God's-covenant-with-mankind portion of the story.  So there is no getting around that the author intended this to be a historical account of a global flood that killed all humans and animals except those on Noah's Ark.

Many Christians would dismiss the issue by placing the global flood in the myth category (along with Odysseus' Odyssey); that is, it didn't really happen but it can teach us important lessons.  That, however, is precisely what conservative evangelical doctrines seek to counter: according to them no part of the Bible is historical fiction.  They don't deny metaphor and poetry, but that is clearly not the case for the Flood as the Bible presents it as an essential part of our history and lineage.

So here is an important part of the Biblical account that makes very strong claims about the world, and these claims are actually testable given modern scientific knowledge.  We can look for evidence of a global flood occurring in the last few thousand years.  What do we find?  We find overwhelming evidence that no such flood occurred. The evidence is so strong that to believe in a global flood is like believing in a flat earth or that the sun orbits around a stationary earth.  Just one example that I find compelling is from ice cores.  These are layers of ice that are laid down annually in Greenland and Antarctica (just as tree rings accumulate annually) and extend back hundreds of thousands of years.  If there were a global flood it would have deposited a vast layer of sediment in these cores at some point in that time.  But there is no such layer.  Hence there cannot have been a global flood.  If you want to read a plethora of evidences pointing to the same thing, have a look here: http://www.talkorigins.org/faqs/faq-noahs-ark.html

We face a contradiction.  We have a key Biblical account that is clearly mistaken in its central claims. We also have numerous doctrinal statements by a plethora of evangelical groups, colleges, churches and seminaries that deny that errors in the Bible are possible.  Moreover we have thousands or millions of Evangelical Christians who claim to represent the truth who at the same time strongly believe in and support these doctrinal statements that are clearly false.  How can this be?  What do the faculty at Wheaton say: do they deny the Bible as the "supreme and final authority in all that [it says]?" or do they deny the ice cores?  Could it be that 1984 has already arrived?