While we are not required as Catholics to interpret every detail of the flood story literally, there does seem to be some evidence (preserved in many ancient cultures) of a flood or “mega event” that drastically reduced the size of the human race. In addition, genetic, geological, and anthropological information point to a period some 70,000 years ago during which humans almost vanished from the planet [*].
How much of the flood narrative is a story and how much is history may be debatable, but something surely happened. In Genesis, God is recounting for us that He intervened at a critical moment to prune and purify the human family of the more egregious effects of sin in the aftermath of original sin.
The Lord saw that the wickedness of man was great in the earth, and that every imagination of the thoughts of his heart was only evil continually. And the Lord regretted that he had made man on the earth, and it grieved him to his heart. So the Lord said, “I will blot out man whom I have created from the face of the ground, man and beast and creeping things and birds of the air, for I am sorry that I have made them.” But Noah found favor in the eyes of the Lord (Gen 6:5-8).
This leads to another necessary clarification. God is said to regret that He made us and is described as being deeply grieved. Descriptions such as these are largely held to be anthropomorphisms, which ascribe human traits to God as a way of indicating the thoughts of God by analogy. In whatever manner God is “grieved” or “regretful,” it is not in the same way that we are. We are being told in this text that God has a resolve to set things right and to put an end to extreme wickedness. The artful use of anthropomorphic language to advance the story should not be considered as overriding other Scriptures that remind us that God is not subject to change and passions as we are. For example,
- God is not man, that he should lie, or a son of man, that he should repent. Has he said, and will he not do it? Or has he spoken, and will he not fulfill it? (Numbers 23:19)
- [The Children of men] will perish, but You endure; And all of them will wear out like a garment; Like clothing You will change them and they will be changed. But You are the same, And Your years will not come to an end (Psalm 102:26-27).
- I the LORD do not change. So you, the descendants of Jacob, are not destroyed (Mal 3:6).
- Every good and perfect gift is from above, coming down from the Father of lights, with whom there is no variation or shadow due to change (James 1:17).
A third clarification is needed in order to “rescue” God from charges of injustice in this “mass killing” of the human race. God, of course, is the giver of life. As the one who gives it, He also sets the length of our life and the manner of our death. This is His right. Indeed, one might even say that this is His “job.”
By way of analogy, I tend to many rose bushes in front of my rectory. At times, I feed them, water them, and foster their growth. At other times, I prune them. In certain cases, I remove diseased plants from the rose bed. Last year, I removed three diseased rose bushes. Who would dispute my right to do this? Who would accuse me of injustice? This is my work and my proper role.
While it is true that human beings are certainly more precious than roses, it is still God’s role to attend to the life and death of human beings, to the planting and harvesting of individuals, cultures, and civilizations. In His providence, God will at times prune away large segments in order to stave off disease or foster growth in individuals and in humanity as a whole.
Thus in the flood narrative, God sees the widespread evil and chooses to save what little good remains by cutting away the rest. In so doing, He creates a new beginning of goodness for the world. It is not free of sin, but is less beset by grave wickedness.
Yet even here, God does not necessarily forsake the wicked whose earthly lives He ends. They are confined in Sheol and await a day of visitation from the Lord. Scripture speaks to the fulfillment of this merciful outreach:
For Christ also suffered once for sins, the righteous for the unrighteous, that he might bring us to God, being put to death in the flesh but made alive in the spirit, in which he went and proclaimed to the spirits in prison, because they formerly did not obey, when God’s patience waited in the days of Noah, while the ark was being prepared, in which a few, that is, eight persons, were brought safely through water (1 Peter 3:18-20).
The Lord calls to them once more in His descent to the dead after Good Friday. He awakens them, preaches to them, and summons them. Did only some or all repent in the flood waters? We do not know, but the point remains that in ending their earthly lives, God did not completely forsake them in sending the waters. The worst thing is not dying (which we all will do); it is refusing God’s merciful love though an impenitent heart. God works for our eternal salvation, not merely our earthly comfort.
Here’s one scientific theory; take it or leave it as you wish.