A cure for curses

Question from MF, USA

What are curses? Are they real, and how do you make them go away? Can you make a curse on someone else go away?

A recent news story from England, reported on BBC online, relates to this in very interesting way. The city of Carlisle in Northern England has a bloody history relating to a time when the ‘reavers’ of the lawless English and Scottish borders exerted a reign of terror during the Middle Ages. [On a tangent, that’s where the English word ‘bereaved’ comes from.] During this period the Archbishop of Glasgow issued a ‘curse’ upon the reaver families in 1525.

As reaver history centres on Carlisle, a local artist carved the words of the Archbishop’s curse on a special 14-tonne stone commemorating the turn of the millennium. In early 2005 a number of people requested that Carlisle Council remove the stone because since it had been installed the city has suffered widespread flooding, a large city-centre toxic fire and had borne the brunt of the foot-and-mouth epidemic that significantly affected the agricultural economy on which Carlisle depends. To make matters worse, the local soccer team were relegated from the Football League. [Full details of this story can be found online]

Ironically, a ‘white witch’ argued against destroying the cursing stone because: “A curse can only work if people believe in it… if the council destroys it, they would be showing their belief in the curse… destroying the stone would be very bad for Carlisle because it would feed that power.” [Kevin Carlyon, quoted in a BBC Online article ‘White Witch Warns of Curse Stone Power’, 8 March, 2005]

While it is not freelance theology’s intention to endorse Wicca or paganism, there is a certain element of truth in this statement. The Bible is fairly consistent in believing that words do have power, whether ‘blessings’ or ‘curses’. Oaths and vows are treated as seriously binding. However, while curses are regarded as, in that sense, ‘real’ by the Biblical authors, there is also a clear paradigm where God counteracts a human-uttered curse: Balaam’s curse on the Israelite nation is turned to blessing (Deuteronomy chapter 23, verses 4-5; see also Numbers chapters 22-24).

Within a Christian theological framework, curses are rendered powerless. A significant aspect of the crucifixion is that it included an aspect of being cursed because Jesus was ‘hung on a tree’(see Galatians chapter 3, verse 13/Deuteronomy chapter 21, verse 23). Every curse invoked against a Christian is therefore dealt with, just as any sin or wrongdoing is dealt with, through Jesus’ death on the cross.

In terms of making curses on other people ‘go away’, in Matthew chapter 18, verse 18, Jesus tells his disciples that: “Whatever you bind on earth will be (or has been) bound in heaven, and whatever you loose on earth will be (or has been) loosed in Heaven.” This is a commission of authority to those who choose to follow Christ and it would naturally follow that curses and the subsequent effects of curses are included in this, as much as anything else.

Thanks for your question, MF.

The point of miracles

Question from ES, USA

There are many events taking place in the world all the time. Some of these are held (by some) to be miracles. How do you tell which events are miracles and which are not? What about things that don’t happen? Sometimes when something doesn’t occur that some expect to occur, that is held to be a miracle. “A tornado roared through town and not a soul was injured! It’s a miracle!” If it’s difficult to tell the miraculous events from the non-miraculous events, it’s much worse for non-events.

The problem with ‘miracles’ is that they are ultimately subjective. Even where objective studies of miraculous healing take place, the findings of said studies either confirm previously-held convictions or produce conundrums that needs to be studied further. A cynical approach to miraculous events (and non-events) would be that when something ‘good’ happens, then it’s a miracle, but when a similarly unexpected and unlikely chain of events causes something ‘bad’, then it’s an unfortunate coincidence. How involved God is in either case is a matter of personal belief, with few people wanting to ascribe ‘negative miracles’ to God.

Those Christians who rely on miracles to verify their beliefs unintentionally subjugate their belief system to subjective experience. The oft-raised unanswerable question in ‘charismatic’ Christianity is not whether God can heal, but why God sometimes does not. This is the crisis point for many Christians in the experiential tradition – the proof of God’s existence seen when God heals miraculously is reversed as proof against God’s existence when such healing does not occur.

Another way to assess the ‘miraculous’ is to look at the point behind it. The New Testament gospel accounts include many ‘miracle stories’. In the post-Enlightenment scientific age, many of these have been explained away or ‘demythologised’, but whether the stories are taken at face value or not, it is obvious that the gospel writers viewed the stories about the miraculous as pointing to something more.

Jesus’ ability to heal the sick and raise the dead indicate his authority over the effects of sin in the world; his divine power over creation is similarly revealed in the ‘nature miracles’, such as the calming of the storm on the Sea of Galilee (Mark chapter 4, verses 35-41 and parallel accounts). In John’s gospel the link is made even clearer through the use of the word ‘signs’ instead of ‘miracle’ – each mighty act prefaces or links to a discussion that Jesus has with various individuals. The ‘sign’ underlines Jesus’ authority to teach the things he taught about God.

In the contemporary world, there is an emphasis on the miraculous that encompasses the human fascination with the mysterious. The same interest was recorded by the gospel-writers as a source of frustration to Jesus, who on occasion refused to ‘perform for the crowd’ (e.g. Matthew chapter 16, verses 1-4). To ascertain whether any unforeseen event could be a miracle, the point and ultimate result of said event is worth reviewing.

Thanks for your question, ES.

One in three, three in one

Question from VN, United Kingdom

Is God the father the boss of the trinity or are they all equal? Does God have a personality disorder, as there are different bits with varying characteristics?

The assertion that the Christian concept of God is of ‘one God in three persons’ has been the cause of many debates throughout Christian history. It is hard to understand how three can be one can be three, given the fact that human beings are individuals. The relationships between human beings have clearly defined limits and humans, as physical beings, have natural physical limits regardless of relationship. While any number of models to explain how the Trinity ‘works’ have been proposed (e.g. God as the Sun, light and heat), they are all slightly flawed because they rely heavily on physical examples.

It is not easy to talk about the way God relates within the Trinity as opposed to God’s external relationships with the world and created beings. Within orthodox Christian thought, though, one important concept is the idea of ‘coinherence’, or ‘perichoresis’. This idea was present in the Trinitarian debates of the fourth century, and then refined over the following centuries, as this question was repeatedly debated.

Put simply, coinherence/perichoresis refers to a relationship of mutual indwelling, so that when one person of the trinity acts, all three act. One is invariably in the other two, just as they are in the one. From this idea of perfect relationship and harmony comes the uniquely Christian idea of God being in very nature relational, which is the central point of creation and, of course, underscores the absolute tragedy of abused free will and the Fall. The creatures created out of a desire for relationship rebel against that relationship and turn their back on the creator.

The primacy of one Trinitarian person over the others was the cause of the fourth century Arian controversy, which saw God the Father as the prime, unbegotten God, with the Son as a lesser divine agent, and the Spirit as lesser again. This idea of gradated Godhead was countered at the Council of Nicea in AD325, when the Son was declared to be ‘homo-ousios’ (literally: of exactly the same being) as the Father, and then again at the Council of Constantinople in AD381 when the same was applied to the Spirit. The names ‘Father’ and ‘Son’ denote relationship, but not primacy. The ‘Father’ cannot be a ‘Father’, without a ‘Son’; the ‘generation’ of the Son happens eternally within the Godhead, so there was never a time when the Father was alone. The Spirit is the ‘bond of love’ between the Father and the Son. The Spirit thus proceeds from the Father and the Son (although that indicates a major point of theological disagreement between western Catholic theology and eastern Orthodox theology, with the west historically regarding the Spirit’s procession from both, while the east sees the Spirit proceeding from the Father alone).

While it is tempting to do, the concept of a coinherent Trinity means that drawing distinctions between God’s “different bits with varying characteristics” is slightly misguided. While the different persons may act in different ways towards the created cosmos and the creatures who inhabit it, there is a strong sense of united purpose and action together. So, the Son becomes a mortal man through the impetus of the ‘sending’ Father and the agency of the Spirit, all three working together as one to achieve the same ends; the Father endorses the Son through the sending of the Spirit; and the Son imparts the Spirit to reveal the Father in the life of the Church.

Thanks for your question VN.

Human bodies after the resurrection

Question from DH, Australia

When Jesus returns to earth and raises the dead what form will they be in? This is a question given to me by an elderly man in a nursing home and I cannot come up with a suitable answer for him.

The traditional Christian doctrine relating to the resurrection is that believers will receive new, immortal, perfect bodies when the dead are ‘raised’ (see 1 Corinthians chapter 15, verses 35-55). This emphasis on a physical body follows the Jewish holistic way of regarding the complete person as inseparable, in marked contrast to the Hellenistic Greek idea that the body and soul parted at death and only the soul survived.

Paul makes it quite clear that whatever the eventual fate of the body, the believer has already been ‘buried with Christ’ through the rite of baptism (Romans 6, verse 4, see also Colossians 2, verse 12). This is the death that matters to Paul – the death of the ‘old self’. The resurrection, when it happens, will occur ‘in the twinkling of an eye’ when ‘the dead will be raised imperishable’ (1 Corinthians 15, verse 52).

In the passage in 1 Corinthians chapter 15, Paul notes that, as with seeds, there is a difference between what is ‘sown’ and what is ‘raised’ and there is also continuity. Wayne Grudem comments: “On this analogy we can say that whatever remains in the grave from our own physical bodies will be taken by God and transformed and used to make a new resurrection body.” [Grudem, Systematic Theology, IVP 1994, p.833] This explains how the sea will ‘give up the dead who are in it’ on judgment day, as described in Revelation chapter 20, verse 13.

The Bible is quite aware that bodies decompose; dust returning to dust (Genesis 3, verse 19). Yet it would seem that is not a problem to God, who can take whatever remains and refashion the physical body in a perfect and incorruptible form, recognisably the same, yet different.

Thanks for your question, DH.

The impact of The Da Vinci Code

Question from KR, India

Hello, I came across your site and I found it very useful. But, I couldn’t find one answer, I searched all over the internet but didn’t find any luck. Could you please tell me how the Da Vinci Code affected/influenced Western thought? I hope you can help me.

There is already an item on freelance theology about The Da Vinci Code by Dan Brown. In terms of this question, the book has had very little impact on Western academic thought because it is a poorly researched detective novel that repackages some old, unproven and historically dubious ideas as part of its storyline.

The Da Vinci Code has of course proved very popular in terms of book sales and, with a film dramatisation being released next year, that popularity is probably set to continue. However, while it has sparked interest in the history of Christianity, a cursory glance at the contemporary features of the book indicates that this is a work of fiction. For example, the Catholic organisation Opus Dei, cast as villains in the novel, do not have monks, and the real Westminster Abbey does not have metal detectors at the doors.

Given the lack of contemporary accuracy, it is telling that the author shies away from questions about the accuracy of his research. Despite an assertion of truth on the introductory page, most of the ‘revelations’ concerning Jesus and Mary Magdalene are old ideas borrowed straight from a book published in 1982 called The Holy Blood and the Holy Grail. The authors of that book are now reportedly suing Brown for borrowing their ‘research’ without asking permission.

Incidentally, The Holy Blood and the Holy Grail was dismissed as fringe nonsense back in the 1980s. Other parts of The Da Vinci Code, including the description of the discussions at the Council of Nicea and the assertion that the Emperor Constantine rewrote the Bible to ‘prove’ Jesus was divine are laughable in the extreme and betray a complete lack of historical knowledge.

The success of The Da Vinci Code is undoubtedly because it challenges conventional religious norms and established religion. As such, its popularity is telling, revealing that despite centuries of scholarship the sensational and novel (i.e. new) grabs the imagination of people, who are willing to accept fiction as fact for no other reason than that they want to.

Thanks for your question, KR.

Salvation in the here and now

Question from TS, USA

If Jesus destroyed the power of sin and death, why does salvation seem to only give future and not present hope?

One criticism that is frequently levelled at Christianity is that it promises ‘pie in the sky when you die’ – the inference being that the promises of eternal life distract people from the injustices and hardships of day-to-day living. This view of salvation as something to come was the basis for Karl Marx’s famous description of religion as the ‘opiate of the people’, used by the rich and powerful to dupe the masses (proletariat) into accepting oppression and exploitation now in the hope of a better life later. (more…)

Long-lived people in Genesis

Question from DA, United Kingdom

In a Bible study quite a few years ago we discussed the reason behind the fact that some characters in the Bible lived beyond a hundred years. Can you explain to me why this was so because I have forgotten the answer we were given?

There are a number of theories put forward, especially among people who take Genesis literally. One idea put forward by literalists is that Noah’s Flood was caused when the waters that had been ‘separated’ and placed in the sky (Genesis chapter 1, verses 6-8), were released back onto the world. It is hypothesised that this band of water kept out harmful, life-shortening solar radiation, hence the long lifespans recorded before the Flood.

After the Flood, the average human lifespan decreased. Another viewpoint is that due to the cumulative effect of original sin, which built up in later generations, human lives gradually got shorter until the time of Noah when they stabilised at a ‘normal’ length.

It should also be noted that other middle-eastern ‘foundation myths’, some of which follow the same pattern as the stories that make up the early chapters of Genesis, also contain long-lived ancestors of humanity (for example the Sumerian/Babylonian Atrakhasis Epic). Whether these myths are early folk-memories which corroborate the Genesis account, or merely show that all chroniclers of prehistory, including the Biblical author(s), attribute longevity to people is open to debate.

Generally speaking, a less literal view would probably ascribe the extreme old age that most pre-Flood characters lived to as creative licence, indicating the ‘golden age’ that had been lost due to human sin.

Thanks for your question DA.

Living proof

Question from CV Alpha Group

This year Jon the freelance theologian answered questions ‘on the spot’ at a special Alpha evening. Here’s one of the questions that was asked:

How many people saw Jesus after his resurrection?

According to the various gospel accounts and the letters attributed to Paul, the following resurrection appearances took place. The various different accounts from the gospels were correlated by John Wenham in his book, Easter Enigma [Paternoster 1996, Appendix iv, p.139] as follows.

In or near Jerusalem
Easter Sunday morning – to Mary Magdalene
Easter Sunday morning – to other women, not all of whom were named
Easter Sunday midday – to Clopas and his companion on the road to Emmaus
Easter Sunday afternoon – to Peter
Easter Sunday evening – to ten of the disciples, plus others who were with them
Following Sunday – To the eleven surviving disciples, including ‘doubting Thomas’

Later, in Galilee
To the seven disciples who were fishing on the Sea of Galilee (John chapter 21)
To more than 500 ‘brothers’ in the hills of Galilee (1 Corinthians chapter 15, verse 6)
To James, the Lord’s brother (later leader of the church in Jerusalem)

Back in Jerusalem
To the eleven disciples, followed by his Ascension from the Mount of Olives after forty days spent among them (Acts chapter 1)

Paul also claimed to have met the risen Christ on the Damascus road “as to one who is born abnormally”, i.e. late, in1 Corinthians chapter 15, verse 8.

Christian Zionism

Question from CB, United Kingdom
I’ve been told that my position on the relationship between Israel and the Church is ‘replacement theology’ and is heretical. I’ve lived in Israel and worked with Jews, Arabs, Messianic Jews and Christians. I am certain that the fulfilment of Jewish faith is faith in Jesus as Messiah. I am uncomfortable with the idea that I should pray for the advancement of Israel as a political and military force to the cost of neighbouring people in order to fulfil biblical promises. What biblical perspectives are there about this?

In terms of Christian tradition, the idea that the Church, which transcends ethnicity, is the fulfilment of God’s covenant with Abraham is the traditional orthodox belief. However, within the last two hundred years, the belief has grown up, mainly among evangelical North American Christians that the Jews remain the ‘true’ children of the promise and will convert en masse to a belief in Jesus as their messiah during the apocalyptic end of the world. The establishment of the modern state of Israel in 1948 is seen as a mark of the ‘end-time prophecies’ coming true.

This belief is often referred to as Christian Zionism and is driven by modern-day attempts to interpret world events as correlating with the Book of Revelation, and the idea of an imminent rapture of Christians, after which the believing Jews will convert the rest of the world. Despite best-sellers like The Late Great Planet Earth by Hal Lindsay and the theology-crudely-dressed-as-fiction Left Behind series by Tim LaHaye and Jerry B. Jenkins giving the Zionist position a large profile in the Christian subculture, there are a number of flaws with it.

It is chiefly linked with both a selective and literalist reading of Scripture, which, for example, ignores the context of where Revelation was written and the community to whom it was written. Much of Revelation, which is interpreted by the contemporary writers mentioned above as yet to come, is written about events happening to a persecuted community already under the rule of ‘the Beast’, namely the Roman emperor.

A major problem with taking a literal reading of Revelation and identifying characters such as ‘the Beast’ with key players on the world stage, is that very often such claims go out of date. For years Soviet Russia was going to be a major instigator of Armageddon. Now, the Soviets seem to have dropped out of the picture, with other world powers, like China, branded as the bad guys [compare The Late Great Planet Earth with Lindsay’s later book Planet Earth 2000AD to see how the changes on the world stage lead to reinterpretations].

Zionism is also inextricably linked with, and dependent upon, the dispensationalist worldview, which was the preserve of edgy sectarian theologians in the nineteenth century, until given massive prominence by C.I. Scofield’s famous Reference Bible, first published in 1909. Scofield believed that history was divided into seven historical eras, based on the way God revealed himself to human beings, with this current era being the sixth one, ‘age of the Church’.

Interestingly, in his translation of the Bible, Scofield marked out his dispensationalist theology in the text. An example of Scofield’s interference with the text can be found in Isaiah chapter 11 under the heading ‘The Davidic Kingdom Set Up’ where six headings break up the first ten verses to show how it can be read as a dispensational ‘proof-text’. Scofield also had a highly selective attitude towards the Bible, believing that because the gospels dealt with what happened in the fifth dispensation, ‘the age of the law’, they only applied to Jews, not to Christians [Stephen Sizer, Christian Zionism: Road-map to Armageddon?, IVP 2004, p116].

As a side-note, Scofield’s obsession with dividing the Bible up into ‘dispensations’ is based on some very poor scholarship. In his earlier book Rightly Dividing the Word of Truth, published in 1888, Scofield quotes 2 Timothy chapter two, verse 15 where, in the Authorised Version, Paul instructs Timothy to “rightly divide the word of truth“. Scofield took that to mean that the Bible must have ‘right divisions’, which need to be followed in order to understand the course of human history. However, the Greek verb translated as ‘rightly dividing’ only appears in this verse and while literally it means cutting something straight, figuratively it means to handle something correctly. Paul is using the word to tell Timothy to use ‘the word of truth’ properly. [see Sizer, op cit, pp 116-117]. Even if Scofield’s defective understanding of Paul’s statement was right, it would only apply to the Old Testament anyway. It would be at least two centuries before the whole Bible as we have it now, was considered the Word of God.

Zionism as a movement has an interesting history and has had some interesting champions over the years, including Napoleon Bonaparte. However, the idea that Jews held an automatic right to the land of Israel only gained momentum when the idea started to gain common credence in Christian circles, mainly through Scofield’s Bible. With the growth in apocalyptic premillennial theology, that sees among other things an epic battle at Armageddon (Mount Megiddo in Israel) as inevitable, Christian Zionist organisations and influential church leaders, mainly in the USA, have actively campaigned on behalf of Israel.

The key element in Christian Zionism is the belief that the covenant God made with the Jews as his chosen people has not been rendered obsolete by the life, death and resurrection of Christ. As said before, this is in direct contrast with received Christian tradition, which, it must be noted, frequently swung too far in the direction of anti-Semitism and persecution of the Jews.

The argument made by many Christian Zionists is that through Christ, God has made a new covenant with his heavenly people – the Church – but God’s old covenant with his earthly people – the Jews – still applies. To this end, Zionists believe that by aiding and ‘blessing’ Israel, Christians are actively supporting God’s purposes by upholding his still-relevant covenant. In this theology, God’s purpose for his earthly people is to fulfil promises made to Abraham by ‘restoring’ the nation of Israel, rebuilding the temple in Jerusalem and restarting the observance of the Mosaic Law, complete with ritual sacrifices.

The big question is whether the promises made to the ancient Kingdom of Israel and the chosen covenant people who inhabited it still apply to the modern state of Israel. There are good theological reasons to reject this idea, but many Christian Zionists would argue that Christians who don’t accept their worldview are ‘spiritualising’ or ‘Christianising’ the Hebrew prophecies. This insistence on literally interpreting passages that refer to Israel as being about Israel, and not about the Church, seems to be consistent. But it does miss that point that the Bible frequently contains figurative language (much of what Jesus tells people in John’s gospel is misunderstood when taken literally, e.g. Nicodemus wondering how he could return to his mother’s womb to be born again in John chapter 3, verse 4).

One interesting point to be made about this ‘literalism’ is that the interpreters of Scripture who insist that passages referring to Israel must be taken literally, are ‘inconsistent literalists’ – for example, where God’s judgment is referred to as “torrential rains, hailstones, fire and brimstone” in Ezekiel chapter 38, verse 22, Hal Lindsey interprets this to be the use of tactical nuclear weapons [The Late, Great Planet Earth, Zondervan 1970, p. 161. NB: in the New International Version of the Bible ‘fire and brimstone’ is translated as “burning sulphur”]. It would seem that some words in the Bible mean exactly what they say, and some need creative interpretation. This is done at the whim of the translator, which is why ‘literal’ interpreters often disagree on the details.

However, a more serious theological problem is that by claiming both God’s covenants (with the Jews and the Church) are still active, Christian Zionists are effectively saying there are two forms of salvation available – namely through the Law and through Grace. In fact, one Christian Zionist theologian, John Hagee, has gone as far as saying that if the Jews had accepted Jesus as their messiah “every Gentile would have been forever lost” [quoted in Sizer, op cit, p.140]. The idea that observing the Jewish Law still offers a way of salvation is in direct conflict with most of Christian theology.

Ironically, Christian Zionists who insist that the old covenant with the Jewish nation still holds do not tend to quote the prophecy that Jeremiah gives about a new covenant. Found in Jeremiah chapter 31, verse 31, the new prophecy is explicitly unlike the covenant made with the Jews following the exodus. The writer of Hebrews comments on Jeremiah’s prophecy, saying that Christ has rendered the old covenant obsolete “and ready to vanish away” (Hebrews chapter 8, verse 13). Added to this, Paul in Galatians chapter 3 notes that the Law could not save people, which is why the covenant made with Moses had to be superseded.

Where they do quote Scripture and covenantal blessings, Christian Zionists divorce them from their historical contexts, placing them either as contemporary or future promises. Doing this therefore undermines the view of the Hebrew prophets whose oracles are recorded. The prophets usually saw themselves as speaking into their current situation, calling back their contemporaries to the covenant that binds them to their God, not about events to come two and a half thousand years later.

Similarly, the use of the Old Testament by Jesus and the New Testament writers is ignored when the Church is clearly cited as the focus of the new covenant that supersedes the old. The idea that the two covenants continue in tandem has no support in the New Testament. In fact one of the main metaphors used for the Church is the ‘new Israel’ – “a continuation of [God’s] plan expressed throughout the Old Testament to call a people to himself.” [Wayne Grudem, Systematic Theology, IVP 1994, p.861].

In Romans chapter 9, the ‘true’ children of Israel are not those who are physically descended from Abraham (i.e. ethnic Jews), but those who have believed in Christ. In Romans chapter 9, verse 25, a prophecy from Hosea is quoted to justify the Church being regarded as the people God has chosen. The idea of a separate covenant for the ‘original’ chosen people is rejected in Romans 11 – when the ethnic Jews “are saved in large numbers at some time in the future, they will not constitute a separate people of God or be like a separate olive tree, but they will be ‘grafted back into their own olive tree’ (Rom 11:24)”. [Grudem, op cit, p 861]

The restorationist idea that believes the Temple must be rebuilt in Jerusalem [Hal Lindsey, op cit, p.152] also undermines the saving death of Jesus on the cross. According to Christian theology, Jesus’ death put an end to the sacrificial system focussed on the Temple. “To suggest, therefore, that the temple must be rebuilt and sacrifices reintroduced in a restored Jewish kingdom centred on Jerusalem is to reverse the flow of biblical revelation and to suggest in some sense that the work of Christ was unfinished or incomplete.” [Sizer, op cit, p.205]

While there are several theological concerns with Christian Zionism, it is a force to be reckoned with in contemporary Christianity. As a theology, some of its keenest followers have a large amount of political influence in North America, encouraging the government to support Israel in every political venture. A practical result of this theology is the belief that war in the Middle East is inevitable, indeed even divinely ordained, which is worrisome as these Christian leaders often have the ear of senior American policy-makers. Given the current state of world events, the fragile and increasingly fractured peace in Israel is probably under threat from those who want to ‘bless’ Israel, but see world events in such a way that they are expecting God’s planned devastating war to occur at any time.

Thanks for your question about this large and involving topic, CB.

The likelihood that all the animals went to Noah

Question from KK, USA

Did Noah’s Ark actually occur, as described in the Bible? For instance, if there were two kangaroos on the Ark, how did they hop from Mt. Ararat all the way to Australia, especially considering that after the flood the surface of the earth would be nothing more than caked mud? What did they eat along the way? Also, how did two penguins get from Mt. Ararat to Antarctica? How did insects such as the mayfly, that have adult life-spans of around 24 hours, get from Mt. Ararat to say the Mississippi River Valley? It seems far-fetched, doesn’t it?

The short answer is: ‘Yes it does.’

For some reason Noah’s Ark keeps coming up as a question on freelance theology. It seems to be the one story in the Bible that causes the most problems for people. There are of course several creationist theories relating to this exact problem, which, while interesting, tend to raise as many new questions as they answer.

A few pointers:

1) While our English translations of the Bible say the ‘whole world’ was flooded, the Hebrew word translated as ‘earth’ in Genesis chapter 6 verse 17 is usually translated as ‘land’ or ‘country’ in chapter 10 verse 10. There is archaeological evidence for wide-ranging flooding in the Mesopotamian area (modern day Iraq) that roughly fits into the possible time-frame for when Noah’s flood occurred.

2) Kangaroos and other exotic animals are not mentioned in the story at all. There is no textual evidence of migrations from polar regions, the antipodes or the Western hemisphere to Mesopotamia, and then back from Mt. Ararat, although such things are often depicted by Bible illustrators who like drawing animals.

3) Comparative accounts that closely parallel the Noah story have been found in Babylonian legends, and in other middle-eastern cultures, but without the spiritual message found in Genesis relating to God’s wrath at human sin. There are also parallels in South American legends and, of course, the drowning of Atlantis due to the anger of the gods follows a similar theme. Traversing the sea was a forbidding challenge to early societies (it’s still tricky now!) and often ‘the sea’ was used to describe evil and chaos in primitive myths. The thought of waters rising over the land would have been exceptionally frightening in these cultures.

4) As has been said on freelance theology before, there is a danger when looking at these Biblical stories that in getting wrapped up in the ‘how’, people can easily lose focus on the ‘why’. This story has been included in Genesis to tell us about God’s character and the fact that God does not tolerate human sin. The story in Genesis chapter 9 verses 18-29 about Noah’s drunkenness shows that the ‘warning’ of the flood did not restore the right relationship between humans and God. That would take covenants with Abraham and Moses, the revelation of God’s Law and, ultimately, the Incarnation. And even now, it is theologically legitimate to say that until the final return of Jesus Christ, God’s plan to sort the world out is still in progress.