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.

Are you experienced?

Question from CM, United Kingdom

Those who come to Church seem more worried about “experiencing” God these days than about having a deep and full knowledge of Him as contained within the Bible. Is that a just a sign of the times that people want “signs and wonders” and faith just isn’t good enough anymore?

Wanting to see ‘signs and wonders’ is nothing new. Jesus was asked by the leading religious people to give them a sign in Matthew chapter 12, verse 38. His response, as recorded in that gospel, was vitriolic. Similarly Herod, the puppet ruler of Judea, was apparently eager to see the captive Jesus because “he hoped to see him perform a miracle” (Luke chapter 23, verse 8).

In both these cases Jesus refused to comply. The religious elite were chastised for not recognising his messiahship, a theme that dominates Jesus’ confrontations with them. They were the people who should have had no need for a sign. Herod was interested out of his own curiosity, nothing more, and Jesus had no intention of pandering to the demands of a spoiled despot.

However, elsewhere in the gospel accounts, and in the Biblical stories concerning Jesus’ followers, the miraculous is commonplace. Despite originally being included in the gospels to authenticate Jesus’ divinity in the minds of the reader, the miracles have caused immense problems for scholars in Western society since the Enlightenment. The rise of post-Modernism has fortunately rehabilitated the miracle stories, making them more acceptable to people.

As there has always been a ‘demand for a sign’, except during recent fads of rigorous rationalism, it should not be a surprise that people are looking for that now. Not much has changed in human nature in the past two thousand years and current Western culture is both consumerist and existential. Patrick Whitworth describes this tendency as such: “Reality today is people’s own experience. So we are all, in our Western society, children of existentialism, meaning ‘What I experience is truth’.” [Becoming a Spiritual Leader, Terra Nova, 2005, p.259]

This is both a challenge and a correction for the Christian Church. It is a challenge because it means the Church has to live good its promise. It is not enough to tell people that God loves them; they have to be shown. Similarly it is not enough to merely say that Jesus has conquered sickness; healing is the proof of the claim. Christians are therefore being pushed to prove their claims, which is only a worry for those who secretly do not believe their own propaganda. It is perfectly legitimate for the unbelieving to demand proof.

This questioning attitude is also a correction for the Church in that it prevents the development of a purely intellectual faith reliant more on human reason than faith experience. Obviously, there needs to be a balance between the two – experience should keep (fallible, limited) human reason in its place, while reason provides a limit on the possible excesses of charismatic religion. The difficulty is that sometimes the scale tips too far, so there exist churches with shallow theology ‘proven’ by dubious hysterical activity that can be easily manipulated, and churches who go as far as to deny that the miraculous can happen at all these days. In the case of the latter, a cynic could say that such churches have gotten so used to not seeing miraculous events they have had to find a reasonable explanation for why the things they read about in the New Testament Church do not happen in their church. Cue a doctrine of ‘dispensationalism’, prevalent in many non-Charismatic churches, that states that the ‘Spiritual Gifts’ were solely for the Apostolic era.

The question about faith ‘not being good enough anymore’ is interesting. Of course, this depends on what is meant by ‘faith’. If it means sound doctrine, then the argument can be advanced that any doctrine needs to be tested in the real world. Words have to be backed up by actions. While this probably does not apply to doctrines concerning the divinity of Christ, it does apply, as mentioned, to God’s power in healing. It is not unreasonable to expect pragmatic demonstrations that reinforce the doctrinal claims of Christianity, in some areas. Otherwise the statements made by Christians, however grand they sound, are ultimately meaningless.

There is a worry, however, that churches which perhaps over-emphasise the miraculous are ‘living in the moment’. As time goes on, and circumstances change, anecdotal evidence seems to suggest that Christians without a sound knowledge of the Bible or Christian teaching (catechism to use its proper description) are more likely to lose their faith. Experience is transient and highly variable. A person who bases their personal faith on the way they feel is therefore constructing their life on something that may change rapidly. They are also partaking in the modern cultural cult, the idolatry of self; making themselves the arbiters of what is real and doing what sinful human beings have always tried to do – put themselves in the place of God.

Human free will and divine foreknowledge – a logical contradiction?

Question from NP, United Kingdom

Does human free will override divine purpose? If God knew Adam and Eve were going to fall, why didn’t he prevent sin in the first place?

This is one of the huge debatable areas of theology, namely that of predestination, but couched in slightly different terms. It does of course rely on the ‘classic’ concept of God, namely that God is omnipotent, omniscient and omnipresent. It may be of interest to know that this view of God was absorbed into Christian theology from ancient Greek philosophy, as Christianity became the dominant religion in the Hellenistic world. Some people get around the problem of God’s foreknowledge of events by denying this classical description of God as being a later intrusion into Christian thought.

However, if we continue to hold what has become the traditional Christian view of God, we are faced with a conundrum. Either God created morally wilful beings and knew that would act immorally, but decided to create them anyway, or he did not know how they would act and therefore ‘sin’ could not be prevented. That leaves Christians with an interesting choice – either God allowed sin to occur, or God was unable to prevent it.

The former solution – that God allows sin as part of his divine plan – reaches its apogee in the hyper-Calvinist doctrine known as double-predestination. This is a view of God’s omnipotence that borders on fatalism, stating that God has predestined the ‘elect’ to eternal life and sinners to eternal damnation. Human free will is virtually negated in this doctrinal position. The latter option is often found in the various ‘free will arguments’, where God is assumed to have limited his own knowledge of what will happen in order to give created beings some kind of free will. Many of these arguments stumble because the ‘free will’ they describe is only ‘free’ because God wills it to be so. Human free will is thus just as tightly dependent on God’s will initially as in predestination.

The Biblical account is equally confusing. Certainly in the Old Testament, the children of Israel seem to thwart God’s intentions to the point where Yahweh gives up on them. In the New Testament there is a strong emphasis on God succeeding despite opposition from contrary spiritual forces or human agency. This opposition is credited with being real and possibly able to affect God’s plans, or at least delay the inevitable.

According to the Bible, God seems to want to work in partnership with human beings and, although wrathful when disobeyed, is portrayed as being unwilling to merely impose his will. The Genesis account, however literally we take it or not, is a touching story which seems to imply that God genuinely did not expect disobedience. That may be why God decided the only way to make amends for the disruption in creation was to enter it as a human being and negate the effects of sin through dying within the confines of the creation He had made.