It is commonly held that the Genesis flood was worldwide. We are told that a literal view of the teaching of Scripture compels the reader to accept this. However, it may be replied that what appears to be taught as literal in the OT is sometimes re-interpreted and spiritualised in the NT. (See further my essay on Spiritualisation.) For example, in Genesis 32:30 Jacob claims he has seen God, but the NT declares that no one apart from the Son has seen God (John 1:18; 6:46). Again, the literal son of David (Solomon) becomes his “spiritual” son at a later date (cf. Rom. 1:3; Luke 1:32f., etc.). Yet again the physical land or city that looms so large in the OT becomes the heavenly land or city of the NT (Heb. 11:10,16; 12:22; 13:14). Expressing the issue differently, theologians are surely right to argue that the literal often gives way to a sensus plenior or fuller sense as revelation progresses. Or again, types are eventually fulfilled in antitypes. Here Adam is a case in point. Paul tells us in Romans 5:14 that Adam, the earthly or fleshly man, was a type of Christ, the heavenly or spiritual man. (See further my essays The Days of Creation and Twenty-Four Hours? Reasons Why I Believe the Genesis Days are Undefined Periods of Time.)
In Luke 17 Jesus teaches about his second coming. To illustrate his point he refers to the flood and the holocaust of Sodom and Gomorrah. The latter was clearly local and Lot and his daughters escaped from it and lived first in Zoar and then in a cave (Gen. 19:20-22, 30). It is thus a reasonable inference that the flood, though a mighty cataclysm extending far beyond the limits of the cities of the valley, was also, relatively speaking, local as Genesis 10:32-11:1 would seem to imply. This, however, is often denied. For all that, it would seem that the grounds on which this denial is made are deeply suspect.
For a start, it may legitimately be argued that the account of the Genesis flood is based on eyewitness. Otherwise expressed, it is described phenomenologically or from the writer’s point of view. Anyone who like myself has sailed in a ship across the Atlantic, Pacific and Indian oceans might well arrive at the conclusion on the basis of what he sees that the whole world is covered by water. He knows, however, on other grounds that this is not so. By contrast Noah would have had no appreciation of the wider world. This is made clear by what is said about language in Genesis 11:1.
Apart from Matthew (24:37-39) and Luke 17 where the focus is exclusively on people, the flood is referred to in 2 Peter (cf. 1 Pet. 3:20). In verse 5, Peter tells us that God did not spare the ancient world (kosmos) when he brought a flood on its ungodly people. By contrast, in the next verse he clearly refers to the destruction of the physical cities of Sodom and Gomorrah. To be more specific, he appears to draw attention to the destruction of people in Noah’s case but of both habitat and inhabitants in the latter. If it is complained I am drawing too fine a distinction, I can only urge the reader to consult the next chapter.
In 2 Peter 3:5 in contrast with 2:5 the author’s reference is clearly to the physical creation, that is, earth (ge), yet strangely, if we accept the literal interpretation, he alludes to people (kosmos) in verse 6. If we go back to Genesis at this point, we immediately become aware that when the flood occurred man had not yet spread over the globe (9:1,7; 9:18; 10:32). Numerical increase and geographical (this word is in essence a Greek compound!) dispersion occurred after Noah’s day. We are thus forced to conclude that a worldwide flood was not necessary to destroy the world of the ungodly in Noah’s time. In light of this it seems reasonable to infer that Peter by choosing his words carefully is pointing up this fact. This inference is supported by what Peter says in verse 7 (cf. v.5) where he refers once more to creation (ge).
There is a further point to make. In Hebrews 11:7 the author tells us that Noah condemned the world of his time. Here again, the word used is kosmos apparently meaning people as opposed to their habitat as in the time of Lot. At the end of the world, apart from the rapture of believers (1 Cor. 15:51), both people and habitat will be destroyed. This seems to be beyond reasonable dispute the view of Jesus (Mt. 24:35), Peter (2 Pet.3:7,10-12) and the author of Hebrews (12: 26-29). Paul apparently held the same view (1 Cor. 7:31; 2 Cor. 4:18, John, 1 John 2:17). In fact, in Romans 9 while acknowledging that a remnant will be saved, he specifically refers to judgement on the earth (ge) (9:27f.).
I conclude that the notion that a literal worldwide flood is taught by Scripture is open to serious question.
Acknowledgement and additional note
I am indebted to my reading in 1995 of Dick Lucas and Christopher Green’s “The Message of 2 Peter and Jude” (p.133) for my recognition that in 2 Peter kosmos always refers to the world of man (1:4; 2:5,20;3:6) and the ge is always the material earth (3:5,7,10,13).
It has to be said with regret, however, that Lucas and Green, like E.M.B.Green, pp.73f.,142f.), are right in what they affirm but wrong in what they deny. They say, p.53, that the corruption we are to flee is not our physical bodies, but sin. In fact it is both. They seem to forget that the call of man who is made in the image of God is to exercise dominion over the physical creation, which is both temporal (Heb. 1:10-12) and corruptible (Rom. 8:18-25) by cultivating the spirit (cf. a horse that is controlled by its rider who is not merely flesh like the horse, Isa. 31:3, but also spirit, cf. James 3:2f.). Paul makes no bones about the issue when he tells his readers to put to death what is earthly in them, that is, their flesh (Col. 3:5). Elsewhere he says, in violent contrast to Esau (Heb. 12:16) and Ishmael (Gal. 4:29f.), that he has crucified both the flesh and the world (Rom. 6:6; Gal. 5:24; 6:14) not because they are evil as such but because they are temporal and ultimately unprofitable (John 6:63).
Tragically, Christians misunderstanding what is at stake have attributed denial of the flesh to Greek dualism or Manicheism. That is completely to miss the point. The truth is that man is by constitution an anthropological dualism: he is both flesh and spirit. And the flesh as a product of the earth is subject to the control of the spirit (Gen. 1:26-28, cf. 1:2; Heb. 11:3). Jesus was flesh, so the body of flesh could not possibly be evil, as the Greeks thought, without making him evil (cf. God as Creator). What he did, as his temptations show (Mt. 4:1-11; Heb. 4:15) was control his flesh, which is a law to itself (Rom. 7:23,25) as it is in animals, according to the law of God and thus avoid sin. In other words, in contrast with the rest of us who like both Eve and Adam give way to the flesh (Gen. 3:6), he kept the law and by so doing attained to righteousness and hence to (eternal) life in accordance with God’s original promise (Gen. 2:17; Lev. 18:5; Rom. 7:9f., etc.).
As the second Adam, Jesus alone in the entire history of man conquered the world (John 16:33), the flesh (Rom. 8:3) and the devil (John 14:30, cf. Rev. 5:5). On the assumption of justification by faith, he is therefore universally indispensable (John 14:6, etc.).
E.M.B.Green, 2 Peter and Jude, rev, ed. Leicester, 1987.
Dick Lucas and Christopher Green, The Message of 2 Peter & Jude, Leicester, 1995.