I get many questions about Noah’s flood (see last week’s blog post), and one of the most frequent questions I get asked is whether any credible Bible interpretation of the flood allows for the survival of humans who were not on board Noah’s ark. My answer depends on how the questioner defines “credible.”
If one’s definition includes figurative interpretations of Genesis where Noah is not a historical person but rather a type or symbol representing righteous humans and where the ark is not a real ship but a type or symbol for the means by which God rescues righteous people from calamities, then yes. Likewise, if the flood described in Genesis is a symbol for calamities that fall upon wicked humans, then yes—such interpretations of the Bible could allow for humans to survive the “flood” who were not on board the “ark.”
The problem I have with figurative interpretations of the account of Noah’s flood in Genesis is the total lack of any figurative language or figurative hints in Genesis 6–9. Every indication in the text is that the author intends for readers to understand that what he has recorded is a literal history of actual events that occurred in the life of an actual human being named Noah. Several other books of the Bible that speak of Noah as a historical person, the ark as a literal ship, and the flood as an actual inundation event affirm that this indeed is the intent of the Genesis text. Bible passages outside of Genesis that treat Noah as an actual person who survived a catastrophic flood include 1 Chronicles 1:4; Isaiah 54:9; Ezekiel 14:14, 14:20; Matthew 24:37–38; Luke 3:36, 17:26–27; Hebrews 11:7; 1 Peter 3:20; and 2 Peter 2:5. Bible passages outside of Genesis stating that the ark was an actual ship include Matthew 24:38, Luke 17:27, Hebrews 11:7, and 1 Peter 3:20. To be perfectly clear, I personally believe that the account of Noah’s flood in Genesis is neither figurative nor symbolic. I see it as literal.
Given that Genesis 6–9 is not to be taken figuratively or symbolically but rather is intended to be understood as a literal account of actual events that occurred, the question then becomes, can such a literal understanding allow for humans not on board the ark to survive the flood catastrophe? Here, the ubiquitous use of the words “all” and “every” in Genesis 6–7 provides a clear answer. Concerning the humans outside the ark that were killed by the flood catastrophe, Genesis 6–7 in the New King James Version uses the word “all” seven times and the word “every” or “everything” three times. Genesis 6–8 never uses a less inclusive word for the humans outside the ark who were destroyed by the flood.
The conclusion drawn from Genesis 6–7 that no humans outside the ark survived is affirmed by Matthew 24:39, which states that “the flood came and took them all away,” and Luke 17:27, which declares that “the flood came and destroyed them all.” This conclusion is further affirmed by Bible passages describing God’s judgment wrath upon reprobate humans. In each case, every single one of the human reprobates was killed, leaving none to survive. Some better known examples include the human populations in Sodom and Gomorrah, with the exception of Lot and his daughters, at the time of Abraham and the human population of Jericho, with the exception of Rahab, at the time of Joshua.
While no credible Bible interpretation allows for the survival of humans who were not on board Noah’s ark, it is worth noting that God gave Noah’s contemporaries every opportunity to repent of their habitual wickedness. God had Noah take 100 years to build and prepare the ark. As Hebrews 11:7 implies, during that long time Noah used the ark-building project as a pulpit to warn his contemporaries of coming judgment and to exhort them to repent.
God never sends judgment wrath without first sending an ambassador on his behalf. According to 2 Corinthians 5:18–20, every follower of Jesus Christ is such an ambassador. For the believers in Christ who are reading this blog, how are you doing in your ministry as an ambassador of God?