The Great Flood of Noah is a classic Bible story - and a contentious one. Many would argue that traditional or literal interpretations cannot be squared with modern scientific thinking - others reject that science.

I'm sure you also have an opinion. I'm primarily interested in knowing what the main streams of interpretation are. How, for example, do the major churches (Catholic, Orthodox, Baptist, Lutheran, etc.) interpret this story — is there an official teaching? Beyond doctrinal arguments, what's the spectrum of belief in interpreting the Flood, and in reconciling it with later NT references and concepts of inerrancy?

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    Hi and welcome to the site. Please take the tour and check out how we are different than other sites when you have a chance. Because of the particular format of this site, more focused questions work better here and sometimes overbroad questions get closed. It's a somewhat subjective judgment, but your question does seem broadish, so you may want to consider editing to focus it just a little more sharply to prevent votes to close. Mar 26, 2017 at 18:58
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    Perhaps you could first settle for an overview of the various views and then consider reasking some of your sub-questions as follow-up questions instead. Mar 26, 2017 at 19:01
  • I understand, thank you for your correction. I don't feel capable of reducing the scope of the question at present, so please feel free to close the question if necessary. Mar 26, 2017 at 21:49

3 Answers 3


There are 4 basic views regarding the interpretation of the great flood. Generally speaking, these connect to the interpretation of Genesis 1-3 as well.

Global Flood

The first camp is from those who take literal reading of Genesis. Despite some scientific drawbacks here, such as the fact that there does not exist enough water in any form (including ice) to cover the continents and mountain tops and most mainstream scientists state that there is no geological evidence for a global flood. In response, many creation scientists will attempt to dispute this and seek to assemble evidence to the contrary, though mainstream scientists will generally dispute and critique these interpretations of the geological record. This can often lead to some allegations of great conspiracies and cover-ups by mainstream scientists. There is, of course no issue with this interpretation in terms of Biblical Inerrancy.

Local Flood

These scientific challenges generally lead to a second camp of those who take a literal reading of Genesis, but simply do not believe the whole earth was flooded and instead believe a portion of the Levant was flooded. This view depends on the idea that instead of the whole earth being flooded, it was only the whole known earth. This view attempts to appeal to world maps of the time which depict only the Levant such as the Imago Mundi.

Imago Mundi Translation of the Imago Mundi

Since this was the "Whole Earth" as Noah and the writers of Genesis knew it, the argument is that we should simply be better translating "earth" to clarify that this really refers to the Middle-Eastern region.

Similarly, many believe that Noah simply assumed the whole earth was flooded since there was water as Far as Noah could see. Obviously, Noah did not paddle the ark around in a grid search pattern to verify the veracity of this claim before making it and even had he done so, he would have been unable to map the whole earth in the ark in 40 days. As such, these interpreters would say that this is a pretty obvious exaggeration in the text - so obvious that the author of Genesis did not intend this to be understood as the whole earth literally being flooded, but instead this was intended as an obvious hyperbole. The argument here is if this was intended to be obvious hyperbole, then there is no scriptural errancy - the error is in our own understanding and interpretation of the text.

Those with this view might cite the flooding of the Black Sea, the creation of the Mediterranean Sea itself, the formation of the Red Sea, and/or the formation of the Caspian Sea. Still others might suggest the flood event records a tsunami in the Mediterranean Sea or even the idea that a Tsunami/earthquake caused a strait to burst/give way causing the formation of one of the above events.

Allegorical Interpretation

This view attempts to avoid any scientific problems with the above by simply claiming that the great flood was not intended to be understood as a literal event. This view would appeals to the genre of the text of Genesis to claim that it was always intended to be understood as allegorical. Those in the allegorical school of thought generally would claim that either 1) the entire book of Genesis was intended to be this way, 2) the first 11 chapters of Genesis are allegorical or 3) Only the creation and flood stories are intended to be allegorical. This view would argue that because the text was intended allegorically, it there is no issue with inerrancy.

There are many criticisms of this view including larger theological discussions regarding issues like original sin which debates the need for a literal Adam, and the critique that the flood story is sandwiched between genealogies and historical narratives similar to those of the other patriarchs which do not have the hallmarks of the intent of a non-literal interpretation seen in texts like Psalms, Proverbs, Song of Songs, Lamentations, Ecclesiastes, and similar texts. In favor of this view is the idea that Genesis 1 seems to take the form of a hymn, poem, or prologue and factors like the fact that "Adam" means "Man" and "Eve" means "Life" which some argue shows that the authorial intent that these names are meant to be proxies for mankind, not specific, real individuals and similar literary notes.

Framework View

This view, favored by Panbabylonists makes little or no attempt to address scriptural inerrancy. Instead, this view prefers to make comparative studies of Genesis as a literary framework. This view notes the presence of things like the Toledot formula which divides Genesis into sections of narrative and seeks to make a polemic comparison to similar flood narratives by other cultures such as the Epic of Atra-Hasis and the Epic of Gilgamesh. This view may appeal to Documentary Hypothesis to suggest that the flood narrative might be a post-exilic addition added by a later redactor to an earlier version of Genesis - a view supported by scholars like Gordon J. Wenham and others.

Instead of looking for the literal plausibility, most who hold the framework view are unconcerned with inerrancy and instead prefer to assume that the story was intended literally, but also as a corrective to the existing flood narratives. This view then looks for the notable differences between the stories to attempt to determine the theological claims being made (namely the superiority of Yahweh) by examining the polemic comparisons.

Instead of retaining the idea of Biblical inerrancy, some adherents of this view favor infallibility of the text - making a distinction between the two. Instead of being concerned with the duration of the flood (was it 40 days or 41 days?) or how much of the earth was flooded, this view focuses on the larger picture and meaning of the text - that Mankind is sinful, that God is a God is a God of salvation who seeks to restore mankind, etc. and views these larger truths to be infallible. Other adherents of this view may adhere to some or all aspects of the Global, Local, or Allegorical views, or none of the above.

This view largely arises as an attempt to explain archaeological and historical discoveries and as such is the "new kid" on the block and is thus not as widespread as other views. Due to the high academic cost of entry and the need to be well-versed in archaeology and the to be read archaic Sumerian and Babylonian texts, this view is largely relegated to the realm of academia. The complexity and academic background needed for this view has often caused it to be largely dismissed by laity in the mainstream which usually prefer one of the 3 above simpler views.

  • A fantastic summary, thank you James! Do you have any ideas where individual denominations/churches sit on this spectrum? I imagine the Catholic Church may have an official teaching, while the Protestant groups allow more 'flexibility'. Mar 27, 2017 at 16:13
  • Yes - that is correct. It will vary widely among protestants. Some denominations have official positions while others do not. Catholic, Othodox, LDS, etc probably have official church positions, but I'm not sure what those are. Mar 27, 2017 at 16:18
  • This is a solid and useful overview of major views on the Flood narrative of Genesis. However, there are a few things that may need some fixing. 1) the opening paragraph is somewhat confusing. First you speak of four basic views, which you will then proceed to cover one by one. But then you jump to the YEC vs. OEC view, which has no clear connection to the four views covered in the main body of the answer, making it unclear why you are including them in your introduction. Mar 27, 2017 at 18:29
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    2) A minor point, but the ark was afloat, not for 40 days, but for 150 days. See Genesis 7:24, 8:2-4. Mar 27, 2017 at 18:31
  • 3) Scholarly objectivity seems to go out the window in the section on "Allegorical Interpretation," where instead of simply stating what this view posits, it is framed with "attempts to," "claims that" and other such wording implying that this view is probably wrong. Allegorical interpretations don't "attempt to avoid any scientific problems." They do avoid any scientific problems. And so on. Whether those interpretations are right or wrong is beyond the purview of the question, and of the guidelines of this site. Mar 27, 2017 at 18:35

James already gave a good overview... however I feel his treatment of the "Global Flood" interpretation is rather biased.

First off, almost no one proposes a "literal" reading of Genesis. The authors use occasional metaphors and hyperboles which are clearly not meant to be taken literally. That said, there are conjectures that phrases such as "spread out the heavens like a curtain" (Isaiah 40:22) are less metaphorical than we might know, but that's somewhat beside the point.

Why believe in a global Flood?

The Book of Genesis records:

Genesis 7:19-22
19 And the waters prevailed so mightily on the earth that all the high mountains under the whole heaven were covered. 20 The waters prevailed above the mountains, covering them fifteen cubits deep. 21 And all flesh died that moved on the earth, birds, livestock, beasts, all swarming creatures that swarm on the earth, and all mankind. 22 Everything on the dry land in whose nostrils was the breath of life died.

The thing about metaphors and hyperbole is they're usually easy to recognize. The above passage does not appear to be either; there's little material for a potential metaphor, and hyperbole is rarely specified with precise measurements. The often proposed reading of such passages is referred to as "historic" or "plain reading"; that is, how would someone approaching the text with no preconceived notions as to its interpretation be likely to interpret it?

What about some of the objections to this interpretation?

there does not exist enough water in any form (including ice) to cover the continents and mountain tops

This presupposes that the Earth today looks like the Earth prior to the Flood. In fact, all modern global Flood models are based on substantial topological changes coinciding with the Flood. A "flat" earth (that is, a hypothetical Earth which is a perfect oblate spheroid with no topological features) would actually be entirely covered by a more than two kilometers of water. The Bible tells us that the highest points were covered by a measly (in comparison) 15 cubits. (Further discussion of this, or other, points is encouraged to take place via additional Questions.)

most mainstream scientists state that there is no geological evidence for a global flood

Most mainstream scientists also assert that God doesn't exist, or if He does, He certainly had no involvement in the origins of stars, animals or people (in direct contradiction to Genesis 1). When looking at "scientific" evidence, it's important to consider whether that evidence has been interpreted through a world view that affirms God's Word, or one that has denied God a priori. In fact, when viewed from the starting point of God's Word, there is significant evidence of a global Flood, which James already cited.

mainstream scientists will generally dispute and critique [...] interpretations of the geological record [which would suggest a global Flood]. This can often lead to some allegations of great conspiracies and cover-ups by mainstream scientists.

Naturally, scientists whose a priori commitment is to denying God will seek to deny such claims. Mainstream "science" also claims that humans somehow came about through chance processes which ultimately started from nothing but non-living matter. This is despite that abiogenesis has never been observed or even shown to be plausible, nor has the ability of existing organisms to exhibit unbounded change ever been observed or shown to be plausible. (Conversely, we repeatedly observe the opposite of both points, as predicted by a plain reading of Genesis.)

Only crazies believe this... right?

The idea of "great conspiracies and cover-ups" is something of an exaggeration that misses the true problem, which has been predicted since at least the first century A.D.:

2 Peter 3:3-6
... scoffers will come in the last days with scoffing, following their own sinful desires. 4 They will say, “Where is the promise of his coming? For ever since the fathers fell asleep, all things are continuing as they were from the beginning of creation.” 5 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, 6 and that by means of these the world that then existed was deluged with water and perished.

Interestingly, this not only predicts denial of Biblical history, but of the (global) Flood specifically. This is an important point, of course, with respect to the cited concerns of NT references and Biblical Inerrancy.

The critical point, again, is that the majority of people that reject a global Flood (or divine Creation, or Christianity in general) aren't doing so based on the evidence, but rather on the basis of a presupposition that God does not exist. Once God has been excluded, one can concoct various explanations to explain what is seen without invoking God. Such explanations are not, however, necessarily rational.

The book "I Don't Have Enough Faith to Be an Atheist" by Norman Geisler and Frank Turek gives an excellent overview of the flaws in the materialist worldview, along with some of the absurd things that materialism believes. It's a good starting point for understanding that the beliefs of materialism aren't based on evidence, but on an a priori philosophy. Many other resources go into much more depth with respect to specific beliefs, but understanding that the root of the problem is a desire to deny God (since we otherwise might be accountable for our actions), or to shape God's Word according to our own sinful desires (which otherwise might tell us we ought to not do the things that we want to do), will provide much better insight into how and why so many people hold views that are contrary to a plain reading of the Bible.

The problem is not "great conspiracies and cover-ups". The problem is not that the evidence points away from God (Romans 1:20 tells us quite clearly that the opposite is the case). The problem (as well described and predicted by the Bible itself) is human nature; as noted, most people don't want God to exist, so they start by choosing to exclude God and then make up stories to justify that belief. Humans are remarkably good at this sort of thing (just try talking to anyone that believes the Earth isn't mostly-spherical), and in areas not related to theology or origins debates, this is well established psychology. Thus, ask yourself; if we know this to be true of human nature in other areas, why should we believe it isn't also the case when it comes to belief in God, Creation, or the Flood? Only God's Word is a sure source of Truth.

What about specific denominational positions?

How, for example, do the major churches (Catholic, Orthodox, Baptist, Lutheran, etc.) interpret this story — is there an official teaching?

In my experience, beliefs can vary significantly within a denomination, or even within a particular church. There are, however, organizations (often pan-denominational) which are devoted to particular views.

For example, Answers in Genesis is so thoroughly committed to a historic reading of Genesis 1-11 that this is not only reflected in their very name, but they have built a 1:1 scale replica of Noah's ark as a combination museum and practical demonstration. Creation Ministries International states that "the great Flood of Genesis was an actual historic event, worldwide (global) in its extent and effect".

Conversely, there are organizations such as BioLogos (an organization dedicated to denying Special Creation as described in Genesis 1), which makes an equally clear statement: "there has never been a global flood that covered the entire earth, nor do all modern animals and humans descend from the passengers of a single vessel".


There are a couple of caveats in this discussion that pertain to both young earth creationism as well as old earth creationism.

First of all, when did the flood described in Genesis occur? Andrew E. Steinmann, in the Lutheran tradition, has argued that there are possible gaps in the genealogies of Genesis 5 and 11.

It could have been million of years ago that the flood took place. And, to get even more mind boggling, civilization prior to the flood could have been very advanced technologically. The science fiction books, Ice by Shane Johnson and the Days of Peleg by Jon Sabol are examples of such Christian speculation.

Secondly, the events that surrounded the disaster at the tower of Babel could have resulted in a de-evolution of sorts. See the work of the young earth creationist Todd Wood on his blog here.

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