The global flood—according to the New Testament
Published: 24 May 2012 (GMT+10)
Many Bible skeptics regard Genesis 1–11 as mythical, copied from Enuma Elish, the Epic of Gilgamesh, and other such ancient writings—so not only is it a primitive myth, it’s not a particularly original one, in their view. We’ve often written about the characteristics of Genesis that show it claims to record history.
Sadly many believers have bought into various compromising interpretations of the Flood narrative, but as Christians, aren’t we supposed to believe what Jesus did? And it’s easy to extend that to believing what the apostles that He appointed and inspired by the Holy Spirit to author Scripture believed as well. If Christians don’t believe the Bible, in what sense are they ‘Christ followers’? So let’s look at what Jesus believed and what the New Testament tells us about the circumstances surrounding Noah’s Flood.
The world at the time of Noah
In Noah’s day, Jesus tells us that people were going about conducting ‘business as usual’ until the Flood came: “in those days before the flood they were eating and drinking, marrying and giving in marriage, until the day Noah entered the ark, and they were unaware until the flood came and swept them all away” (Matthew 24:38–39). But it wasn’t a pleasant place to live—the culture was so immoral that Peter called it “the world of the ungodly” (κοσμῳ ἀσεβῶν, kosmō asebōn, 2 Peter 2:5). There were even angels who sinned at that time (2 Peter 2:4) by deserting their proper positions (Jude 1:11). While the New Testament doesn’t specify exactly what this sin was, it fits in nicely with the assertion in Genesis 6 that the ‘sons of God’ took wives among the ‘daughters of men’—in other words, angels taking human wives1 and fathering the Nephilim.
The Ark and its passengers
The author of Hebrews says: “By faith Noah, being warned by God concerning events as yet unseen, in reverent fear constructed an ark for the saving of his household. By this he condemned the world and became an heir of righteousness that comes by faith” (11:7). Peter says that only eight people were saved in the Ark (1 Peter 3:20): Noah and seven others (2 Peter 2:5). Absolutely everyone else was killed in the Flood (Luke 17:27).
The extent of the Flood
The Flood of Noah destroyed the entire human civilization that existed at that time (Matthew 24:39; Luke 17:27; 2 Peter 2:5; 3:5–6). The scope was global, and so severe that the earth was, in effect, reversed to its state on Day 2, before God created dry land—the whole earth was covered with water. This is strongly stated by 2 Peter 3:6, which says that the kosmos was destroyed in the Flood, pointing to its global extent:
What was destroyed was “the world of that time,” which contrasts with “the present heavens and earth” that are mentioned in the next verse. While the focus of the destruction is certainly on the human beings inhabiting that world … the destruction extended to the whole “world” as the merging waters undid the work of Gen 1:6–10, returning the creation to a watery chaos and concomitantly destroying those living things that were created after Gen 1:10.2
So not only was the Flood anthropologically universal, as most ‘progressive creationists’ would allow, but according to the New Testament it was global.
A rainbow surrounds God’s throne in Heaven (Revelation 4:3) as a constant reminder of His promise to Noah never to flood the earth again. The concept of a global Flood is often ridiculed not only by secularists, but also by Christians who doubt its historicity. But God promised not to send another Flood like the one He sent in Noah’s day. If it was just an extremely disastrous local Flood, God would have broken His promise because there have been innumerable catastrophic local floods.
New Testament theology of the Flood
The New Testament authors rarely reference the Old Testament for its own sake—they assume basic belief of the Old Testament Scriptures—rather, they are raising the historical events to use as examples or precedents to support their theological arguments. This is why a lot of the details of the story of Noah’s flood aren’t found in the New Testament (if you just had the New Testament, for example, you wouldn’t know that there were any animals on the Ark!). But silence should always be interpreted as agreement unless there is a compelling reason to do otherwise.
So the New Testament authors take Genesis as history, but revealingly, they take it as more than history at the same time. Because Genesis 1–11 is primarily about God’s actions in Earth’s and humanity’s earliest history, the New Testament authors are primarily interested in what these events tell us about God (note this doesn’t mean that the history is less important).
God’s righteousness is clearly on display in the Flood narrative—He judges angels as well as people when they sin (2 Peter 2:4; Jude 1:6), but He spares the righteous (2 Peter 2:5). Peter used the Flood story to teach that God is equally capable of judging sin and preserving the righteous in today’s world as He was in Noah’s day (2 Peter 2:9–10).
Even so, He is patient in His judgment—just as God was patient in waiting for Noah to complete the Ark’s construction, today God is patiently waiting so that more people can come to faith in Jesus (2 Peter 3). But this doesn’t mean that people should be complacent. Jesus taught that just as people didn’t expect the Flood, His coming will be sudden and unexpected (Matthew 24, Luke 17), and it will be too late for those who didn’t believe while there was still time. As one commentator notes:
The people could see Noah building his ark, and doubtless, human nature being what it is, some mocked him. But they knew nothing; they did not share in Noah’s wholehearted commitment to the service of God, so they did not know what was coming on the earth. They disregarded what Noah said to them, doubtless believing firmly that their views were just as valid and just as likely to be correct as those of the ark maker. But such convictions did not avail when the Flood came and took them all away. The purposes of God are worked out quite irrespective of what puny humans think about them. Jesus is saying that people will in this way continue to be about their normal business right up to the time of his coming. That will be the critical point; after that it will be too late, just as it was too late for the antediluvians when the Flood came. The coming of the Son of man will be just as abrupt, just as unexpected, just as decisive as the coming of the Flood was.3
Christian theology is tied to history
While a lot of modern people want to separate theology from history, in the New Testament the two are inextricably tied together. The history doesn’t mean anything unless it’s interpreted correctly, and the theology has no foundation if the history isn’t accurate. Each time the New Testament authors cite a historical fact, it’s to give a precedent for how God has worked in the past. There’s nowhere where a NT author says simply, “Noah built an ark to escape a worldwide flood” with the purpose of getting the audience to believe just that. Christians writing to Christians assumed that they would believe the Scriptures. Rather, the historical points are used to support the theology that the author is teaching, such as ‘God judged the world once, so don’t think that He won’t do it again!”
What this means is that if we reject the history that the NT authors accepted, their theological arguments have no weight whatsoever. It seems illogical to say, “Peter was wrong about a global Flood in which only the passengers of the Ark survived, but his theology is still accurate.”
We should be encouraged that the New Testament authors placed such a great confidence in the Bible’s history, and that should inspire us to be equally as confident.
New Testament references to the Flood
“For as were the days of Noah, so will be the coming of the Son of Man. For as in those days before the flood they were eating and drinking, marrying and giving in marriage, until the day when Noah entered the ark, and they were unaware until the flood came and swept them all away, so will be the coming of the Son of Man.”
“Just as it was in the days of Noah, so will it be in the days of the Son of Man. They were eating and drinking and marrying and being given in marriage, until the day when Noah entered the ark, and the flood came and destroyed them all.”
“By faith Noah, being warned by God concerning events as yet unseen, in reverent fear constructed an ark for the saving of his household. By this he condemned the world and became an heir of the righteousness that comes by faith.”
“… because they formerly did not obey, when God’s patience waited in the days of Noah, while the ark was being prepared, in which a few, that is, eight persons, were brought safely through water.”
“For they deliberately overlook this fact, that the heavens existed long ago, and the earth was formed out of water and through water by the word of God, and that by means of these the world that then existed was deluged with water and perished.”
“For if God did not spare angels when they sinned, but cast them into hell and committed them to chains of gloomy darkness to be kept until the judgment; if he did not spare the ancient world, but preserved Noah, a herald of righteousness, with seven others, when he brought a flood upon the world of the ungodly.”
“And the angels who did not stay within their own position of authority, but left their proper dwelling, he has kept in eternal chains under gloomy darkness until the judgment of the great day.”
“And he who sat there had the appearance of jasper and carnelian, and around the throne was a rainbow that had the appearance of an emerald.”
- Angels are spiritual beings and do not marry in heaven. But they have been known in Scripture to manifest in our realm using corporeal bodies which can eat and so presumably carry out all normal human body functions, including reproduction. Return to text.
- Davids, P. H. (2006). The letters of 2 Peter and Jude. The Pillar New Testament commentary (271). Grand Rapids, Mich.: William B. Eerdmans Pub. Co. Return to text.
- Morris, L. (1992). The Gospel according to Matthew (614). Grand Rapids, Mich.; Leicester, England: W.B. Eerdmans; Inter-Varsity Press. Return to text.