|Landscape in Carina Nebula [Courtesy NASA]
Are Noah's ark and flood literal scientific facts?
David H. Bailey
Updated 1 January 2020 (c) 2020
In Williamstown, Kentucky, a full-scale reproduction of Noah's ark is now open to the public. Claimed to be the largest all-wood structure in the world, it is 155 m (510 ft) long, 26 m (85 ft) wide, and 16 m (51 ft) high, closely corresponding to the biblical dimensions, given in Genesis 6:15, namely 300 x 50 x 30 cubits. The Ark Encounter, like the nearby Creation Museum, is operated by Ken Ham's Answers in Genesis (AIG) organization, which promotes a literal young-earth creationist worldview: the Bible is an infallible repository of scientific as well as religious truth.
For example, the Creation Museum features two children playing with tame Tyrannosaurus rex pets, despite the fact that all dinosaurs went extinct 66.04 million years ago [Sanders2013a], whereas Homo sapiens did not arise until the last one million years. Similarly, the Ark Encounter and AIG assert that Noah's ark was literally constructed and operated as described, that the flood was global in extent, that it destroyed all organisms worldwide except those on the ark, that fossils were deposited in the flood, and that the ark's survivors are ancestral to all life presently on Earth [AIG-Flood2016].
Ancient flood myths
There are numerous stories of floods in ancient literature. For example, the Sumerian Epic of Gilgamesh [Epic-Gilgamesh2016], possibly the oldest written tale (dated to roughly 2700 BCE), tells of a great sage who warned of a flood soon to be unleashed by the gods and then built a large circular-shaped boat, reinforced with tar and pitch, to carry his family, grains and animals. After many days of storms, he released a bird to search for dry land [Tharoor2014].
Similarly, the mythic Indian king Manu of India's ancient Vedic literature, being warned of a flood that would destroy humanity, builds a boat to withstand the deluge [Tharoor2014]. Other flood myths have been seen in ancient African, American, Chinese, European, Egyptian, Korean, Southeast Asian and Scandinavian literature [Flood2016].
Real ancient floods
It is undeniably true that there were floods in prehistoric times, some of them rather extreme. For example, 5.3 million years ago water broke through the Strait of Gibraltar and flooded the entire Mediterranean [Zanclean2016].
Much more recently, between 7500 and 5500 years BCE, water broke through the Bosporus strait and flooded the Black Sea, which rose several hundred feet and inundated approximately 150,000 square kilometers (60,000 square miles) of land [Wilford1996]. Similarly, the Persian Gulf filled after waters rose following the last ice age, roughly 12,000 BCE [Flood2016]. A large flood occurred in China on the Yellow River in 1800 BCE [Montgomery2016]. And there are countless instances of smaller-scale floods in the geological record, including at various Middle Eastern locales.
Is the Ark Encounter's approach to Noah's flood scientifically tenable?
As mentioned above, both the Ark Encounter and the Creation Museum are operated by Answers in Genesis, which is committed to a highly literal reading of the biblical Noah-flood episode. How realistic is this approach in light of modern scholarship and science? Let us count the difficulties:
Many other difficulties could be listed -- see articles by Lorence Collins, Mark Isaak and Duane Jeffery, from which several of the above points were adapted [Collins2018; Isaak1998; Jeffery2004].
- According to creationists and AIG, Noah's flood occurred in approximately 2500 BCE, and all fossil layers were deposited in the flood. However, as is well known, extremely reliable radiometric measurements of various fossil layers give ages typically millions of years old, and agree to remarkable precision with measurements of the same layers in other locations around the world (see Reliability).
- Along this line, why are the fossils sorted so precisely in the geological record? Why did no dinosaurs make it to high ground? Why were no humans (infant, elderly, handicapped, etc.) buried at the bottom? Why were no human tools found at the bottom? "Flood geology" is utterly inconsistent with the geological record.
- A large percentage of the world's fauna, including, for example, dodos, sloths, penguins, kangaroos, koalas and many other species, are not native to the Middle East. How did they travel there to board the ark?
- Island species are particularly vulnerable to predators -- when predators have been introduced to an island, they often drive indigenous species to extinction (as has happened in Australia, Hawaii, the Galapagos and numerous other islands). Thus such species would not have been able to survive in the Middle East, away from their naturally protected habitats.
- The total mass of on-board animals would have been some 400,000 kg, if only yearlings were taken, or some 5 million kg, if adults were taken. Either figure is far more than could be accommodated in the ark as described in the Bible and reconstructed in Kentucky.
- The figures in the previous item do not include food and water for a one-year sojourn, which would multiply the weight by at least 10 times if not more. Further, many animals require special diets -- silkworms require mulberry leaves, Pandas require bamboo, and snakes, for example, require fresh food. How could fresh food be provided for a full year?
- How could large numbers of animals be protected from the many on-board predators, such as lions and tigers?
- Creationists have suggested that an atmospheric vapor canopy provided the water for the flood. But even assuming that the global flood depth was 40 feet (far lower than Everest), the canopy would have raised the atmospheric pressure, blocked light and heated the Earth's surface when it fell, killing any remaining life, including Noah. Other theories proposed for the source of water have similar difficulties.
- Where are the huge layers of silt and rounded rocks that should have been produced in a major flood? Also, why is there no evidence of a massive global flood in tree ring data, or in coral reefs, or in 40,000-year-old ice cores, or in 52,000-year-old Japanese lake sediments, or on the sea floor?
- Why is there no hint of a recent near-extinction of all plant and animal species in DNA data?
- How did animals travel back to their current habitats after the flood, with little or no interbreeding?
Most creationists acknowledge the difficulties, such as those above, but simply hope that one by one they can be solved. Others, such as creationist Henry Morris, argue that God created the world with an "appearance of age," perhaps as a test of faith [Morris2000]. Similarly, another creationist argues that Noah's flood may have been a "leave no trace" miracle of God, "in order to preserve mankind's all-important freedom to choose good or evil, belief or disbelief" [Millett2014].
These writers are certainly entitled to their opinions. But the vast majority of scientists and theologians, representing a wide range of denominations, have rejected this approach, whether it be for Noah's flood or the larger issue of evolution. As biologist Kenneth Miller (a Roman Catholic) explains [Miller1999, pg. 80],
What saddens me is the view of the Creator that [creationist] intellectual contortions force them to hold. In order to defend God against the challenge they see from evolution, they have to make him into a schemer, a trickster, even a charlatan. Their version of God is one who intentionally plants misleading clues beneath our feet and in the heavens themselves. Their version of God is one who has filled the universe with so much bogus evidence that the tools of science can give us nothing more than a phony version of reality. In other words, their God has negated science by rigging the universe with fiction and deception. To embrace that God, we must reject science and worship deception itself.
Francis Collins, Director of the National Institutes of Health (an evangelical Christian), adds [Collins2006, pg. 177]:
The image of God as a cosmic trickster seems to be the ultimate admission of defeat for the Creationist perspective. Would God as the great deceiver be an entity one would want to worship? Is this consistent with everything else we know about God from the Bible, from the Moral Law, and from every other source -- namely, that he is loving, logical and consistent?
This is from the writings of James E. Talmage, an early 20th century geologist and LDS theologian [Talmage1931]:
Let us not try to wrest the scriptures in an attempt to explain away what we cannot explain. The opening chapters of Genesis, and scriptures related thereto, were never intended as a textbook of geology, archeology, earth-science or man-science. Holy Scripture will endure, while the conceptions of men change with new discoveries. We do not show reverence for the scriptures when we misapply them through faulty interpretation.
Some of the most treasured works of ancient scripture and literature, from classics such as the Epic of Gilgamesh to the Genesis account of Noah and his ark, tell various versions of a great flood: typically a wise man and his family, together with various crops and animals, survived by floating on a wooden boat. Clearly this experience is deeply engrained into the human psyche, as it has generated some rather profound discussion and analysis throughout the ages.
Are these accounts historical? Although many observers are skeptical, it seems plausible, given the prevalence of these myths, that at least some are based on historical events, dimly remembered.
Yet must we insist that the particular version of this tale presented in Genesis 6 is a literal and scientifically precise account? And must we further insist that Noah's flood was a global (not just a local) inundation, that the fossils were all deposited in the flood, and that all living organisms on the planet today, without exception, are descended from the ark's survivors? Not only is this approach scientifically untenable, it is also a theological disaster, since it leads directly to "God the Great Deceiver" theology, an absurd notion that has been rejected by scientists and theologians from numerous religious traditions.
Thus while we may admire efforts of AIG and others in their efforts to draw awareness to ancient literature and scripture, we must draw the line at their insistence that the Bible be read as an infallible work of modern science. Reasonable people disagree.
For additional discussion, see