The Gospel of Deluge

Fr Stephen De Young’s invocation of the story of Noah and the Ark as critique of apokatastasis got me wondering how I might preach this story. I did in fact preach a series of sermons on it back in the late 80s at St Mark’s Episcopal Church in Highland, Maryland. I had attended a week-long seminar taught by Elizabeth Achtemeier on Preaching the Old Testament, and I came back so enthused that I began to preach on the book of Genesis over the next several years. It was also at this time that I began to read and preach the Old Testament typologically. I wonder what I said about the story of Noah back then.

How might I preach the story of Noah today? I am handicapped by the fact that my library no longer contains the many commentaries on Genesis that I used to own. They, along with two-thirds of my theological library, were given to the Immaculate Conception Seminary about a decade ago. But I still own Nahum Sarna’s JPS Torah commentary on Genesis, as well as Walter Brueggemann’s Interpretation commentary. I also picked up Fr Patrick Reardon’s little book Creation and the Patriarchal Histories a couple years ago. So I am not left totally to my own devices as I reflect on this story (thank God!).

The task of the preacher is to declare the good news of Jesus Christ; and this includes sermons whose foundational texts are from the Old Testament, for every verse of Scripture is about the crucified and risen Lord returning in glory. When reading the Old Testament, therefore, the preacher cannot remain content with critical-historical exegesis, as important as this may be. He must always be asking himself, “Where is Christ?” “What is the good news of this text for my congregation?”

The story of the deluge is, of course, a story of divine judgment. We can put aside the metaphor of the ancient law court, which is irrelevant to our reading of the story. At a basic level, it’s quite simple. God looks upon his world and descries that it has devolved to an intolerable level of degeneracy and wickedness:

The Lord saw how great was man’s wickedness on earth, and how every plan devised by his mind was nothing but evil all the time. And the Lord regretted that He had made man on earth, and His heart was saddened. The Lord said, “I will blot out from the earth the men whom I created—men together with beasts, creeping things, and birds of the sky; for I regret that I made them.” But Noah found favor with the Lord. (Gen 6:5-8 [JPS])

In only ten generations the world has descended to such a level of violence, disorder, and pollution that God’s plans for his creation have become (apparently) unrealizable. His heart is filled with sorrow, and he regrets his creation of mankind. He thus determines to destroy all living things—not just humanity but also the animals and birds. Such is the depth of the evil and corruption that now indwells the world. Should we think of this as retributive punishment? Perhaps but the text seems to imply something else, something deeper. After all, do lions, tigers, and bears really deserve obliteration (mosquitos and cockroaches are, of course, a different matter)? One gets the sense that the creation has reached a condition of brokenness that cannot be easily repaired. And note the Lord’s emotional response to this situation—he is broken-hearted. At least that is what the Hebrew text intimates. The LXX, on the other hand, emphasizes the divine wrath:

And when the Lord God saw that the wicked deeds of humans were multiplied on the earth and that all think attentively in their hearts on evil things all the days, then God considered that he had made humankind on the earth, and he thought it over. And God said, “I will wipe out from off the earth humankind which I have made, from human to domestic animal and from creeping things to birds of the sky, for I have become angry that I have made them.” Yet Noe found favor before the Lord God. (Gen 6:5-8 [NETS])

Sorrow, grief, anger are not, of course, incompatible. If we make something beautiful and precious and someone mars or destroys it, we may well feel all these emotions. But one should not, I think, construe God’s decision to blot out all life as impulsively generated. It is a considered decision made in response to the lawlessness and corruption that now characterizes the world. Nor should we think of the event as the divine Judge meting out just deserts. This is not a morality tale. It is a tale of de-creation …

All the fountains of the great deep burst apart,
And the floodgates of the sky broke open. (Gen 7:11)

… and re-creation, of endings and new beginnings.

“The Flood is a cosmic catastrophe,” Sarna writes, “that is actually the undoing of creation. But God’s chastisement and grace operate simultaneously, so that out of the disaster comes renewal. One righteous man, Noah, together with his family and representative animals and birds are to be saved in order to regenerate the world” (p. 48). God determines to give man a fresh beginning, safely bringing him through the primordial waters of chaos.  But most significantly God makes a covenant with Noah in which he wholeheartedly commits himself to the well-being and salvation of fallen humanity:

And God said to Noah and to his sons with him, “I now establish My covenant with you and your offspring to come, and with every living thing that is with you—birds, cattle, and every wild beast as well—all that have come out of the ark, every living thing on earth. I will maintain My covenant with you: never again shall all flesh be cut off by the waters of a flood, and never again shall there be a flood to destroy the earth.” (Gen 9:8-11)

By the Noachide covenant God decisively breaks the cycle of human disobedience followed by divine retribution. A change happens, as it were, but it is a change not within the heart of man (see 8:21-22) but within the heart of God—“never again”! As Brueggemann puts it:

We have seen that in 6:5-7:10 there is a simple structure of indictment-sentence in which God resolves to punish the guilty. But that has now been changed. The one-to-one connection of guilt and punishment is broken. God is postured differently. From the perspective of this narrative, there may be death and destruction. Evil has not been eradicated from creation. But we are now assured that these are not rooted in the anger or rejection of God. The relation of creator to creature is no longer in a scheme of retribution. Because of a revolution in the heart of God, that relation is now based in unqualified grace. (p. 84)

It should be clear that the typological resources of the story of the deluge are rich and profound. Noah as type of Jesus Christ and the ark as type of the Church immediately come to mind. But in my hypothetical homily I think I would want to expound the flood as revealing the Creator’s unconditional love for the ungodly, sealed in the cross of the incarnate Son (Rom 5:6-8). Condemnation has been turned to justification. Death has become atonement. As St Peter declares:

For Christ also died for sins once for all, 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 preached to the spirits in prison, who formerly did not obey, when God’s patience waited in the days of Noah, during the building of the ark, in which a few, that is, eight persons, were saved through water. (1 Peter 3:18-20)

Only eight were saved in the ark of Noah; but in the ark that is Jesus Christ, all mankind—indeed, all creation—has been gathered. The Son has died for all, the righteous for the unrighteous. In him the sins of humanity have been judged. In him we have passed through the waters of wrath and destruction. When we look up at the sky and see a rainbow, we see the sign of the primaeval covenant, now fulfilled in the New Testament of the Crucified: bow has become cross; flood has become Pascha; ruach has become the Spirit that brings life unto the eternal kingdom of the risen Messiah.

(Go to “Debating Universalism“)

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21 Responses to The Gospel of Deluge

  1. Ronald Murphy says:

    Apparently you and Stephen De Young sharply disagree on the Catholic-Universal hope of the Gospel, if I have gathered that you have come to the Truth of the final Reconciliation of all, that I have been reading about in your writings from Clement of Alexandria, Origen, Gregory of Nyssa and the other Cappodicians, St. Isaac the Syrian, and many other early church saints and theologians.

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    • Fr Aidan Kimel says:

      Yes, Fr Stephen and I do sharply disagree, both on justification and on the universalist hope. I will address this disagreement in the next post or two.

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  2. Karen says:

    In this typological exegesis, surely that it is mentioned there were “eight” people saved in the ark through the flood is significant. I know it is significant that Christ rose on the “eighth” day, the inauguration of the never-ending New Day of the Kingdom. I’m not versed in Hebrew numerological symbolism to understand the symbolism of this number in the Flood narrative, but perhaps it has been explored somewhere.

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    • Fr Aidan Kimel says:

      Haha! Well done, Karen. St Justin Martyr invokes precisely this point in his Dialogue with Trypho 138.1.

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      • Karen says:

        Thanks, Fr. Aiden. I enjoyed reading that. I can see there are many such treasures in Justin Martyr.

        Everything I knew about the “eighth day”, I learned from reading the bookstore catalog! 🙂

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  3. danaames says:

    Father, this makes all kinds of sense to me.

    Interestingly, a book that is “making the rounds” among reasonable Evangelicals these days is “The Lost World of Adam and Eve” by Prof. John Walton, who has some interesting things to say about the Hebrew indicating that God is doing chaos management in the days of creation. We modern folk are fairly insulated (or at least, we think we are) from the kinds of things over which the ancients would want to see their deities have control. I see some common threads.

    Following gratefully.

    Dana

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    • Dante Aligheri says:

      It is an excellent book, building on some work done by Jewish scholars like Moshe Weinfeld, and it really highlights the Temple and creation/new creation imagery running through Scripture and how the Temple is tied up with creation, concerns with ritual purity, and how ritual purity, creation,and chaos/non-being relate. Another book which I think augments this one would be “Cosmic Covenant” by Robert Murray, SJ., which draws out the primordial covenantal-familial relationship made between God and the dominions and principalities as well as the forces of nature and Temple’s role in its maintenance. In my opinion, these works really draw together the common identity between the God of creation and the God of covenant.

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  4. The use of flood imagery in Psalm 104 supports your point. The Psalmist speaks of the waters as chaotic and threatening, but then shows them to be ordered by God to quench the thirst of animals, man, and plants. Though the psalm is directed principally to creation, there is at least an echo of Noah’s flood with, “Thou didst set a bound which they should not pass, so that they might not again cover the earth.” The once formless and hostile waters now serve the cause of life, not death. Therefore, as you say, as much as judgment, the flood is about re-creation.

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  5. Connie says:

    Your last paragraph is so beautiful, Fr Aidan. I was sitting here wondering how in the world could the priests on that other website actually hold to such a dark, (in my opinion barbaric) view of God’s judgment and hell and not even want to read about a possible Orthodox alternative view. Clearly they have chosen to stay ignorant of St Isaac’s teaching.

    But I suppose the sensibility that it is okay to think of people suffering unending torment is drummed in at an early age. When I used to read to my youngest daughter the story of the 3 little pigs I always had to change the ending because of the utter horror on her face and the scream that ensued when one time I read the real ending that the wolf came to a fiery death. And whenever there was a bully in a story I always had to change the narrative so that the bully reformed somehow, even if he had to suffer temporarily to reach that state. Otherwise she would be crushed: she had to have a good ending. But I suppose if I had read how they all got their comeuppance and died in pain forever and ever, she might have eventually adopted a cavalier attitude toward unending suffering. I think of how the story of Noah gets drummed into little kids at such an early age and now look back horrified. I cannot imagine reading that story other than in light of the fact that death, as horrible as it is, is not the final word for the bullies, the unrepentant, the sinners. To read it to children without the light that Christ has shed upon the world but only in the narrow tribal view that those guys simply got what’s coming to them must leave an indelible stamp of callousness on the listeners. Thus the view of the callous hermit to whom Silouan said, “Love could not bear that.” Thus the view of Fr Stephen De Young, Fr Andrew Damick, and too many people in modern Christendom.

    Anyway, just possibly this could explain why some people, while loving in many ways, can hold so stubbornly to a belief in eternal conscious torment.

    May you, Father Aidan, be blessed to continue on in Truth and Love.

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  6. Marc says:

    Fr. Aidan,

    I see that one of your most zealous infernalist critics, Fr. Whiteford, has a new post on his blog trying to convince his readers that there is no chance of repentance after the body dies. Of course, if this point of view is correct then most of the people who have ever lived are condemned to eternal damnation. The writings of several saints are offered in support of his assertion.

    This assertion clearly contradicts the Church’s teaching on the Harrowing of Hades, and the belief in a dynamic intermediate state of souls. Perhaps you could offer some illumination as to whether the quoted saints really believed what is asserted, or frame these quotes in another context.

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    • Fr Aidan Kimel says:

      Marc, I have not visited Fr John’s blog to check the citations; but I’m quite sure that many of the Church Fathers can be cited to support the rejection of post-mortem repentance. But I do not know how to reconcile this rejection with (a) the preaching of Christ to the inhabitants of Sheol (1 Peter 3:18-21), (b) the practice of some of the saints of “praying sinners out of hell,” and (c) the annual recitation by Orthodox Christians of the Third Kneeling Prayer of Pentecost.

      Regarding our Lord’s descent to Sheol, I strongly recommend Met Hilarion Alfeyev’s book Christ the Conqueror of Hell.

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      • Marc says:

        Thanks for your response Father. I wonder if most of the citations were originally meant for a primarily Orthodox Christian audience with a pastoral emphasis warning parishioners not to slack off in working out their own salvation. It is Interesting that St. John Chrysostom is cited, and yet he gave us the beautiful Paschal Homily we reread each year that implies that all of the human beings present in Hades believed the Gospel preached to them by our Lord Jesus Christ, repented, were forgiven and reconciled, and then entered paradise.

        Like you, I have to give much more weight to the abc of the Scriptures, practices of the saints, and our liturgical prayers. Met. Hilarion’s work is a real jewel that I like to revisit often.

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    • David Llewellyn Dodds says:

      I’ve been wondering about such things, having read early works which treat the events of St. Matthew 27:52-53 as permanent and others which treat them as temporary. Both would seem possible: for example, St. Lazarus of Bethany is (I think) universally taken to have died again. Is he (ever) taken by any to have been incapable of sin after being raised? Various later accounts of miraculous temporary raising of the dead seem to concern their being able to repent when once more living in the flesh. Does anyone contend that such must be returned to the flesh as it is only once more in the flesh that they can repent? And is a distinction made between what is possible while earth or cosmos endure and what is possible at or after their destruction? (I am not proposing that you attempt to answer all, or any, of this, but am trying to sketch what seems to me the range of possibilities.)

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    • Karen says:

      There are certainly many Scriptures and Fathers who who can be cited to support there can be no repentance after death. Is it possible that in context these must be speaking of repentance after death and Final Judgement considered together as one and the same event?

      Regardless, I think what may account for some (if not all) of the contradictory practices in the Church is that we also don’t know who may have indeed begun to repent in this life in a way still largely hidden from us, but which repentance can be completed after death by the help of the prayers of the Church, and so we pray for all.

      Any story which teaches a Saint can pray someone out of hell logically can only be speaking of hell as Gehenna anticipated in the intermediate state, not Gehenna realized post Final Judgment (since we would all be present there with all the dead, not still here in this life praying).

      When it comes to what the Church teaches about what happens following Final Judgment, it seems regarding the Church’s majority view, there is no such ambiguity even in practice. Remaining faithful to Orthodox teaching in light of Orthodox practice would be to consider “Gehenna” finite and remedial only in the sense of the intermediate state and that we hope and pray there will be no unrepentant left by the time of Final Judgment. It seems to me this is really the only possibility left open by Orthodox teaching in light of its practice. A confidence in at least the possibility of universal salvation is still possible in this scheme, but in no way does this hope require teaching Gehenna is reversible/escapable post Final Judgment.

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      • Marc says:

        All good points Karen. Thanks for the post.

        Because the weight of Scriptural revelation confirms that Gehenna is a place and experience of eternal death and annihilation, Satan and the demons will not be saved nor live in eternal torment. Perhaps the spectacle of their annihilation will bring those human beings condemned to the same punishment to repentance, and a last moment reprieve.

        The results would be the universal salvation of all human beings, and the elimination of evil from the new Creation. Because the source of evil is annihilated by the same eternal fire that annihilated Sodom and Gomorrah, it will not continue to burn in the age to come (see Jude 7).

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        • David Llewellyn Dodds says:

          What is the ‘fire of aeonian “dike” ‘ (St. Jude 7)?

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          • Marc says:

            My understanding is that “aeonian” means according to an age. This age can mean a period of time defined by life or existence. If the word is used in conjunction with God or His Kingdom, it is understood as everlasting. In the case of Sodom and Gomorrah and the eternal (aeonian) fire of hell, it last until it consumes and annihilates all that is subjected to it.

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          • Fr Aidan Kimel says:

            On the meaning of aeonian, you may find these two articles of interest: “How Long is Forever?” and “Part IV of my review of Tom Talbott’s book.”

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          • David Llewellyn Dodds says:

            Thank you! I see I got my genitives mixed up: it is the ‘ “dike” of aeonian fire’. Is there a Greek word indicating the opposite of ‘teleios’ (cf. St Matthew 5:48)? – a kind of permanent failure to realize a ‘telos’?

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      • David Llewellyn Dodds says:

        When I wrote the question, “is a distinction made between what is possible while earth or cosmos endure and what is possible at or after their destruction?”, I did not then attempt to address the possible distinctions which C.S. Lewis discusses in The Discarded Image (pp. 120-21. q.v.), for example, with reference to the Second Letter of St. Peter, chapter three: if the ‘kosmos’ which ‘perished’ by water (v. 3) did not include the moon, the stars (and any planets), or even earth’s atmosphere, will the ‘fire’ of verses 6-12 extend further (though the earth be more thoroughly destroyed)? And, does Final Judgement coincide with destruction of all organic life on earth or of the earth itself (or, need it do so)? Or is there an ‘intermediacy’ extending beyond those events? Lewis seems aware of some discussion, though he does not specify names and works beyond reference details from one work each by Sts. Augustine and Thomas Aquinas and by Dante (not all of which I have (re)read (recently)!).

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  7. From the method in which this discussion has unfolded, I’m sensing a close parallel between the understood typology of The Deluge, as it is being utilized by Fr Stephan to deflate a Universalist eschatology and the recent controversy involving the Christocentric vs. Christotelic interpretations of the OT. Dr. Douglas Green, Professor of Old Testament at Westminster Theological Seminary in Philadelphia was apparently forced into retirement over this wrangle when a happy median could not be found by either side. The labyrinth of details and opinion is not easy to follow but a resolute obstinacy permeated the minds of the participants resulting in the unfortunate conclusion (?)

    Fr Kimel’s last post, suggests a “Christocentric antitype” perspective in that he states –

    [“for every verse of Scripture is about the crucified and risen Lord returning in glory”.]

    Paul’s use of this method is pervasive through out the NT – Romans 5:14 being the most obvious example. Whether Christocentric or Christotelic, the principle of “Theópneustos” should apply. The sticky issue of course is “how “to read that typology accurately, especially when it refers potentially to future eschatological events. For example, one might consider the Judgment of God in the Food of Noah, through a “Preterist Framework” seeing its Christolelic fulfillment in 70 AD.

    Now personally I don’t believe this, but some hold to this idea. Do we in fact have a vantage point that Noah did not? As he stood there and gazed up at the Rainbow, did he know in his heart that what all he and his family had just went through, in some strangely beautiful way, pointed to his ultimate Redeemer ? Was he capable of considering a form of Apocatastasis typology in his heart, in a “post-antediluvian” sense? We enjoy Christotelic privilege, but did he?

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