Mormonism and science/Global or local Flood
How do we reconcile the Flood of Noah with scripture and Church teachings?
|Adam and Eve:|
This is a doctrinal or theological topic about which there is no official Church doctrine of which FairMormon is aware. Leaders and members may have expressed a variety of opinions or positions. Like all material in FairMormon Answers, it reflects the best efforts of FairMormon volunteers, not an official Church position.
Questions and Answers
Question: How do Latter-day Saints reconcile scriptural accounts of the Flood of Noah with scientific evidence of continuous human habitation on the earth?
There is scientific evidence of diversity of species, language and of continuous human habitation
Modern scientific knowledge regarding the diversity of species, language and evidence of continuous human habitation does not support the Biblical story that a global flood wiped out most life as recently as 4,400 years ago.
The following criticisms are often applied to Latter-day Saint (or traditional Christian beliefs) regarding the Flood:
- It is claimed that LDS scriptures require Mormons to believe in a global flood, and that if LDS doctrine or leaders are fallible in their statements concerning the flood, then they must be wrong about other Church doctrines as well.
- If Noah's Flood was not global, how do we account for Joseph Smith's claim that the Garden of Eden was located in Missouri?
- Isn't it true that before the flood all the continents were all one land mass, since the Bible says that the earth was "divided in the days of Peleg."
Latter-day Saints believe that Noah existed, and that he built an ark to save his family from a flood, and that the flood occurred
There are a number of basic teachings which we all accept regardless of the global or local scope of the Flood:
- There existed a prophet named Noah.
- Noah was commanded by the Lord to construct an ark.
- Noah warned the people of the impending deluge.
- The Flood was a literal event which did indeed occur.
- Noah, his family and the animals he collected were saved from the deluge.
- The Lord made a covenant with Noah and his descendants.
Whether the Flood covered the entire earth, or whether it only covered Noah's world, makes no difference
Latter-day Saints believe that the prophet Noah existed, and that he was commanded to build an ark and save his family from a flood. A belief that this flood was global in nature is not a requirement for Latter-day Saints; traditionally, many earlier members and leaders endorsed the global flood views common in society and Christendom generally. The accumulation of additional scientific information have led some to conclude that a local flood — one limited to the area in which Noah lived — is the best explanation of the available data. People of either view can be members in good standing.
John A. Widtsoe (1943): "The Old Testament records a flood that was just over fifteen cubits (sometimes assumed to be about twenty-six feet) deep and covered the entire landscape"
The Encyclopedia of Mormonism includes a quote from John A. Widtsoe regarding the reported depth of the flood. It should be noted, however, the Widtsoe himself actually believed in a global flood. From the article "Earth," Encyclopedia of Mormonism:
THE GREAT FLOOD. The Old Testament records a flood that was just over fifteen cubits (sometimes assumed to be about twenty-six feet) deep and covered the entire landscape: "And all the high hills, that were under the whole heaven, were covered" (Gen. 7:19). Scientifically this account leaves many questions unanswered, especially how a measurable depth could cover mountains. Elder John A. Widtsoe, writing in 1943, offered this perspective: The fact remains that the exact nature of the flood is not known. We set up assumptions, based upon our best knowledge, but can go no further. We should remember that when inspired writers deal with historical incidents they relate that which they have seen or that which may have been told them, unless indeed the past is opened to them by revelation. The details in the story of the flood are undoubtedly drawn from the experiences of the writer. Under a downpour of rain, likened to the opening of the heavens, a destructive torrent twenty-six feet deep or deeper would easily be formed. The writer of Genesis made a faithful report of the facts known to him concerning the flood. In other localities the depth of the water might have been more or less. In fact, the details of the flood are not known to us [Widtsoe, p. 127].
Question: Why does the Church teach that the flood was a global event?
Without a doubt, the flood is always treated as a global event as it is taught by Church leaders
Without a doubt, the flood is always treated as a global event as it is taught by Church leaders. This is not likely to ever change, since it is based directly upon a straightforward reading of the scriptures. The challenge comes to those who examine scientific data showing the diversity of plant and animal life, and the millennia required to achieve such diversity. The story of a global deluge then appears to be at complete odds with scientific data, which may encourage some not only to doubt the scriptures, but to even question the existence of God. Therefore, can one believe that the Flood of Noah may have been of limited scope, yet still accept what is taught in Church? We examine the scriptures from the point of view of the prophets who wrote the story of the Flood in order to answer this question.
One must examine the scriptures from the point of view of the prophets who wrote the story of the Flood
Although this criticism is directed at the LDS church, it is really directed at anyone who believes in a literal reading of the Old Testament. LDS leaders have in the past taught the concept of a global flood based upon such a reading. Although the idea of the global flood has been used as an example, Church leaders have never stated that a belief in a global flood is necessary for salvation.
Genesis 7:19-23 reads:
- 19 And the waters prevailed exceedingly upon the earth; and all the high hills, that were under the whole heaven, were covered.
- 20 Fifteen cubits upward did the waters prevail; and the mountains were covered.
- 21 And all flesh died that moved upon the earth, both of fowl, and of cattle, and of beast, and of every creeping thing that creepeth upon the earth, and every man:
- 22 All in whose nostrils was the breath of life, of all that was in the dry land, died.
- 23 And every living substance was destroyed which was upon the face of the ground, both man, and cattle, and the creeping things, and the fowl of the heaven; and they were destroyed from the earth: and Noah only remained alive, and they that were with him in the ark.
A similar reference to the destruction of all flesh from off the earth is found in Latter-day scripture in Moses 8:25-30. These passages have long been interpreted to mean that the entire globe was covered by water (although some have pointed out that the reader is left to wonder how "the mountains were covered" by water "fifteen cubits" deep — approximately 23 feet.) The primary reason for this global interpretation is the use of the word "earth." When modern readers see the word "earth," they envision the entire planetary sphere. Dr. Duane E. Jeffery elaborates:
A critical issue in the Flood story in the King James Bible has to do with translations of the Hebrew words eretz and adamah as meaning the entire “earth.” What do these terms actually mean? It is widely recognized that Hebrew is a wonderful language for poets, since virtually every word has multiple meanings. But that same characteristic makes it a horrible language for precision. As it turns out, eretz and adamah can indeed be a geographical reference akin to what we usually mean by “the earth.” But it is not at all clear that the ancients had the concept of a spherical planet that you and I do. Many scholars argue that the Bible writers thought in terms of a flat earth that was covered by a bowl-shaped firmament into which the windows of heaven were literally cut..." 
The concept of a spherical earth did not appear in Jewish thought until the fourteenth or fifteenth century
In fact, the concept of a spherical earth "did not appear in Jewish thought until the fourteenth or fifteenth century."  The word "earth," as used in the Bible, simply refers to solid ground or land, as opposed to water (see Genesis 1:10 — "God called the dry land Earth; and...the waters called he Seas...."). It is, of course, possible that earlier prophets had a more advanced view of the nature of the earth—this perspective could, however, have been lost to later centuries and scribes.
The concept of a global flood has become further reinforced within the Church by the fact that Church leaders teach that the flood washed away the earth's wickedness
The concept of a global flood has become further reinforced within the Church by the fact that modern day prophets and apostles have taught that the flood washed away the earth's wickedness. For example, in 1880 Elder Orson Pratt stated that God "required our globe to be baptized by a flow of waters, and all of its sins were washed away, not one sin remaining."  Joseph Smith, Jr. taught that Noah was born to save seed of everything when the earth was washed of its wickedness by the flood.  Such wickedness could include man's wickedness, or it could imply a need for the earth itself to have a type of baptism.
Question: Are Church members required to believe in a global flood?
Typically, references to the Flood are presented in the context of teaching some Gospel principle
The early prophets and apostles frequently taught their beliefs regarding a global flood using the scriptures. In modern times a belief in a global flood event continues to be widely-held within the Church. A search for the full term "global flood" on the official Church website (www.lds.org) produces only a single reference in the January 1998 Ensign, although there are a number of references in other articles to the Flood being of a global nature even up to the present time. (see: Statements by General Authorities related to the Flood) Typically, references to the Flood are presented in the context of teaching some Gospel principle. One recent article in the Ensign, written by BYU professor Donald W. Parry, clearly and directly indicates his opinion that the flood was global in nature.
Still other people accept parts of the Flood story, acknowledging that there may have been a local, charismatic preacher, such as Noah, and a localized flood that covered only a specific area of the world, such as the region of the Tigris and Euphrates Rivers or perhaps even the whole of Mesopotamia. Yet these people do not believe in a worldwide or global flood. Both of these groups—those who totally deny the historicity of Noah and the Flood and those who accept parts of the story—are persuaded in their disbelief by the way they interpret modern science. They rely upon geological considerations and theories that postulate it would be impossible for a flood to cover earth’s highest mountains, that the geologic evidence (primarily in the fields of stratigraphy and sedimentation) does not indicate a worldwide flood occurred any time during the earth’s existence.
There is a third group of people—those who accept the literal message of the Bible regarding Noah, the ark, and the Deluge. Latter-day Saints belong to this group. In spite of the world’s arguments against the historicity of the Flood, and despite the supposed lack of geologic evidence, we Latter-day Saints believe that Noah was an actual man, a prophet of God, who preached repentance and raised a voice of warning, built an ark, gathered his family and a host of animals onto the ark, and floated safely away as waters covered the entire earth. We are assured that these events actually occurred by the multiple testimonies of God’s prophets. 
The belief that the flood was either global or local does not constitute a critical part of Latter-day Saint theology
The belief that the flood was either global or local does not constitute a critical part of Latter-day Saint theology. Jeffrey notes that ideas of a global flood may have resulted from a widespread local problem. A current hypothesis that has been gaining ground since 1998 is that a significant flooding event occurred in the area now occupied by the Black Sea. Evidence has been discovered which has led a number of researchers to believe that the Black Sea area was once occupied by a completely isolated freshwater lake at a much lower level than the ocean. The theory is that the sea level rose and eventually broke through the Bosporus shelf, resulting in a rapid flooding event which would have wiped out all life living along the shores of the lake (see p. 34). Whether this is the source for the Genesis flood remains conjecture.</ref> Whether the flood was global or local, we believe that the prophet Noah existed, that he built an ark, and that he and his family survived the deluge.
Question: How could the Garden of Eden have been in Missouri if the Flood was local?
This question requires a lot of assumptions, and cannot be answered
A question related to the scope of the Flood that arises is how the Garden of Eden could possibly have been located in Missouri if Noah's flood was not global, since his posterity appeared in the Old World. If one were making assumptions about a localized flood in Noah's day, one would have to assume that the flood originated wherever Noah was, and that for as long as the ark drifted, extended at least as far as Noah could see. It would be difficult to know where Noah was before the flood, but the length of Noah's journey could be quite far based upon storm conditions and the time afloat.
One "limited flood" explanation that has been proposed for this is that Noah built his ark and either went down the Mississippi River valley, or that he built the ark on the East Coast of the North American continent. Another line of thought is that the placement of the Garden on the North American continent was more of a symbolic act intended to "sacralize" the land—thus providing it with its own "sacred history" similar to that of the Old World. The truth is, however, that the Biblical description of the location of the Garden of Eden does not match up with existing Old World geography, any more than it does with New World geography.  (For a more in-depth treatment of this subject, see Kevin Barney, Was the Garden of Eden Really in Missouri? and the wiki article Garden of Eden in Missouri?).
Question: Doesn't the Bible say that the continents were divided immediately after the Flood?
At least a few leaders of the Church have been of this view that the continents were divided during or after the Flood
Prominently, prior to becoming president of the Church, Joseph Fielding Smith wrote that
in the beginning all of the land surface was in one place as it was in the days of Peleg, (Genesis 10:25.) that the earth was divided. Some Bible commentators have concluded that this division was one concerning the migrations of the inhabitants of the earth between them, but this is not the case. While this is but a very brief statement, yet it speaks of a most important event. The dividing of the earth was not an act of division by the inhabitants of the earth by tribes and peoples, but a breaking asunder of the continents, thus dividing the land surface and creating the Eastern Hemisphere and Western Hemisphere. 
John Taylor also expressed similar views, albeit more briefly.  It is perhaps important to note that then-Elder Smith wrote that "By looking at a wall map of the world, you will discover how the land surface along the northern and southern coast of the American Hemisphere and Europe and Africa has the appearance of having been together at one time."  Elder Smith was writing between 1953 and 1966; modern continental drift theory was only beginning to gain acceptance during this period (even by 1977, a geology textbook would note that "a poll of geologists now would probably show a substantial majority who favor the idea of drift," while also providing a substantial critique of the theory. 
It is difficult to know, then, if Elder Smith would have revised his view of the implication that continents "fit," jigsaw-puzzle-like, into each other had he been aware of some of the later evidence. He was certainly humble enough to renounce other views which he had expressed which contradicted later scientific advances.
Scriptures that refer to the earth being "divided" refer to groups of people being separated
A few scriptures, then, refer to the earth being divided:
- Genesis 10:25 and 1 Chronicles 1:19: And unto Eber were born two sons: the name of the one was Peleg; because in his days the earth was divided: and his brother’s name was Joktan.
- D&C 133:24: And the land of Jerusalem and the land of Zion shall be turned back into their own place, and the earth shall be like as it was in the days before it was divided.
There is no serious biblical scholarship that reads these verses as implying a rapid drift of the continents
The verses in Genesis and 1 Chronicles are describing the descendants of Shem. LDS scholar Hugh Nibley viewed Genesis 10:25 (which says that in the days of Peleg "the earth was divided") as meaning "the earth was divided among the children of Noah." There is no serious biblical scholarship that reads these verses as implying a rapid drift of the continents—partly because such an idea would have been utterly foreign to writers in that time period. Some members have preferred to take the reading of Elder Smith as described above.
Note that a belief that the continents were physically divided during the flood contradicts the belief that the Garden of Eden was on the Western continent, since there would have been no "Western hemisphere" prior to the Flood. At best one would have to say that the Garden of Eden was on the same continent that the modern Middle East is on, but that it was a little further west than believed by traditional fundamentalist Christians.
- Statements by General Authorities on the subject of the scope of the Flood—
Brief Summary: Many statements have been made by Church leaders on the subject of the flood. We list these statements and examine their scope and purpose. (Click here for full article)
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The Church does not take an official position on this issue
This is one of many issues about which the Church has no official position. As President J. Reuben Clark taught under assignment from the First Presidency:
- Here we must have in mind—must know—that only the President of the Church, the Presiding High Priest, is sustained as Prophet, Seer, and Revelator for the Church, and he alone has the right to receive revelations for the Church, either new or amendatory, or to give authoritative interpretations of scriptures that shall be binding on the Church....
- When any man, except the President of the Church, undertakes to proclaim one unsettled doctrine, as among two or more doctrines in dispute, as the settled doctrine of the Church, we may know that he is not "moved upon by the Holy Ghost," unless he is acting under the direction and by the authority of the President.
- Of these things we may have a confident assurance without chance for doubt or quibbling.
Harold B. Lee was emphatic that only one person can speak for the Church:
- All over the Church you're being asked this: "What does the Church think about this or that?" Have you ever heard anybody ask that question? "What does the Church think about the civil rights legislation?" "What do they think about the war?" "What do they think about drinking Coca-Cola or Sanka coffee?" Did you ever hear that? "What do they think about the Democratic Party or ticket or the Republican ticket?" Did you ever hear that? "How should we vote in this forthcoming election?" Now, with most all of those questions, if you answer them, you're going to be in trouble. Most all of them. Now, it's the smart man that will say, "There's only one man in this church that speaks for the Church, and I'm not that one man."
- I think nothing could get you into deep water quicker than to answer people on these things, when they say, "What does the Church think?" and you want to be smart, so you try to answer what the Church's policy is. Well, you're not the one to make the policies for the Church. You just remember what the Apostle Paul wrote to the Corinthians. He said, "For I determined not to know any thing among you, save Jesus Christ, and him crucified" (1 Corinthians 2:2). Well now, as teachers of our youth, you're not supposed to know anything except Jesus Christ and Him crucified. On that subject you're expected to be an expert. You're expected to know your subject. You're expected to have a testimony. And in that you'll have great strength. If the President of the Church has not declared the position of the Church, then you shouldn't go shopping for the answer.
This was recently reiterated by the First Presidency (who now approves all statements published on the Church's official website):
- Not every statement made by a Church leader, past or present, necessarily constitutes doctrine. A single statement made by a single leader on a single occasion often represents a personal, though well-considered, opinion, but is not meant to be officially binding for the whole Church. With divine inspiration, the First Presidency...and the Quorum of the Twelve Apostles...counsel together to establish doctrine that is consistently proclaimed in official Church publications. This doctrine resides in the four “standard works” of scripture (the Holy Bible, the Book of Mormon, the Doctrine and Covenants and the Pearl of Great Price), official declarations and proclamations, and the Articles of Faith. Isolated statements are often taken out of context, leaving their original meaning distorted.
In response to a letter "received at the office of the First Presidency of the Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints" in 1912, Charles W. Penrose of the First Presidency wrote:
- Question 14: Do you believe that the President of the Church, when speaking to the Church in his official capacity is infallible?
- Answer: We do not believe in the infallibility of man. When God reveals anything it is truth, and truth is infallible. No President of the Church has claimed infallibility.
To see citations to the critical sources for these claims, click here
- Encyclopedia of Mormonism, "Earth" off-site
- Duane E. Jeffery, "Noah’s Flood: Modern Scholarship and Mormon Traditions," Sunstone no. (Issue #134) (October 2004), 31–32. off-site Jeffrey notes that ideas of a global flood may have resulted from a widespread local problem. A current hypothesis that has been gaining ground since 1998 is that a significant flooding event occurred in the area now occupied by the Black Sea. Evidence has been discovered which has led a number of researchers to believe that the Black Sea area was once occupied by a completely isolated freshwater lake at a much lower level than the ocean. The theory is that the sea level rose and eventually broke through the Bosporus shelf, resulting in a rapid flooding event which would have wiped out all life living along the shores of the lake (see p. 34). Whether this is the source for the Genesis flood remains conjecture.
- Duane E. Jeffery, "Noah’s Flood: Modern Scholarship and Mormon Traditions," Sunstone no. (Issue #134) (October 2004), 30. off-site
- Orson Pratt, "The Earth's Baptism In Water," (1 Aug. 1880) Journal of Discourses 21:323.
- History of the Church 1:283; Evening and Morning Star, August 1832.
- Donald W. Parry, “The Flood and the Tower of Babel,” Ensign, Jan 1998, 35. off-site
- Duane E. Jeffery, "Noah’s Flood: Modern Scholarship and Mormon Traditions," Sunstone no. (Issue #134) (October 2004), 31–32. off-site
- Kevin Barney, Was the Garden of Eden Really in Missouri?, By Common Consent, July 4, 2007.
- Joseph Fielding Smith, Answers to Gospel Questions, 5 vols., (Salt Lake City, Utah: Deseret Book, 1957–1966), 5:73. ISBN 1573454400. GospeLink (requires subscrip.)
- John Taylor, Government of God (Salt Lake City, Utah: Deseret Book, 1852), 110. off-site
- Joseph Fielding Smith, Answers to Gospel Questions, 5 vols., (Salt Lake City, Utah: Deseret Book, 1957–1966), 5:73. ISBN 1573454400. GospeLink (requires subscrip.) For essentially the same argument, see also 4:22; Church History and Modern Revelation (1947), 2:35; and Man: His Origin and Destiny (1954), 385, 421–422. Note that these sources are all even earlier, and likewise predate modern continental drift data and theory. President David O. McKay was clear on multiple occasions that the latter volume represented only President Smith's personal opinions, and were not Church doctrine (see here and here).
- Richard A. Davis, Principles of Oceanography, 2nd edition, (Addison-Wesley, 1977), ISBN 0201014645. For more on continental drift theory's history and development, see wikipedia.org off-site.
- J. Reuben Clark, Jr., "Church Leaders and the Scriptures," [original title "When Are the Writings or Sermons of Church Leaders Entitled to the Claim of Scripture?"] Immortality and Eternal Life: Reflections from the Writings and Messages of President J. Reuben Clark, Jr., Vol, 2, (1969-70): 221; address to Seminary and Institute Teachers, BYU (7 July 1954); reproduced in Church News (31 July 1954); also reprinted in Dialogue 12/2 (Summer 1979): 68–81.
- Harold B. Lee, Teachings of Harold B. Lee (Salt Lake City, Utah: Bookcraft, 1996), 445. GospeLink (requires subscrip.)
- LDS Newsroom, "Approaching Mormon Doctrine," lds.org (4 May 2007)
- Charles W. Penrose, "Peculiar Questions Briefly Answered," Improvement Era 15 no. 11 (September 1912).