Biblical Devastation in the Wake of a 'Tranquil Flood'
by James J. S. Johnson, J.D., Th.D. *
And, behold, I, even I, do bring a flood of waters upon the earth, to destroy all flesh, wherein is the breath of life, from under heaven; and every thing that is in the earth shall die. (Genesis 6:17)
Floods are destructive—just ask the thousands of displaced families who each year are devastated by floodwaters. Genesis 6–8 gives the historical account of a truly global flood unleashed by God in judgment for the sins of mankind. Only eight people were saved, along with representatives of the animal kingdom. The language of the Genesis record is clear—the Flood was the most terrifying and destructive event ever to fall upon the earth since the creation of the world, and no flood since has ever matched its devastating power.
But there are those who suggest, like Charles Lyell and others since, that the Genesis Flood was “tranquil”—a kind of gentle rise of the waters. This erroneous theory was exposed 50 years ago in The Genesis Flood by John Whitcomb and Henry Morris, yet decades later scientific error still pervades the teaching of geology and earth history, with the strategy to drive a wedge between biblical and natural revelation, thus pushing the Bible aside as irrelevant.
The Tranquil Flood theory clashes with Scripture.
To imagine our whole planet being gently smothered by a “tranquil” flood is as silly as the idea of serenely dropping a “tranquil atomic bomb” on Hiroshima or Nagasaki. But worse than that, the Tranquil Flood theory revealed at least two consequences that could be called Trojan Horses: 1) The theory was used as a strategy to deny the authoritative relevance of the Bible, and 2) the theory was used to deny the testimony of Genesis regarding the manner and timing of the Genesis Flood.
The Tranquil Flood theory denies the Bible’s authoritative relevance.
Deists of the 1700s and 1800s who rejected the Bible were faced with a predicament that hindered their efforts to explain earth’s history in ways that directly contradicted the Genesis account.1 In short, many influential scholars, especially in Great Britain and America, professed serious respect—even reverence—for the Bible. Thus, if a new scientific theory directly clashed with what Scripture taught, it would suffer at least some immediate and principled opposition.
Accordingly, many who proposed new theories that opposed the Bible chose to teach their theories in ways that deceptively paid lip service to the authority and accuracy of the Holy Bible.2 Clearly, it was a strategy to avoid public conflict with biblical teaching.
One of the most successful conflict-avoidance strategies was to promote the idea that a particular new theory did not “disagree” with the Bible because the new theory addressed a scientific topic not governed by biblical revelation. Thus, the theorist could argue, in effect, that his idea didn’t clash with Scripture because it addressed a topic not covered in Scripture.
People knew that if the new theory clashed with the information of Scripture, a conflict of authority would exist. However, skirting the informational conflict offered them escape from biblical accountability. The Bible, it was maintained, was simply not “relevant” on the topic.
In the Tranquil Flood theory, the Bible’s information was not loudly bashed as false; rather, it was casually sidestepped (and then ignored) as scientifically irrelevant.
[While] Lyell’s first blast of the uniformitarian trumpet was sounded as early as 1830…a new theory was rapidly gaining acceptance in Great Britain, which was intended to dislodge completely the Genesis Flood as a factor to be taken into consideration by geologists [for explaining flood deposits].…This was the “tranquil [flood] theory,” which maintained that the universal Flood was far too “tranquil” a phenomenon to leave any deposits whatever. Although first suggested by the Swedish botanist, Carolus Linnaeus (1707-1778), the “tranquil theory” was introduced to the British public in 1826 by a Scottish minister named John Fleming…[who alleged that] “the simple narrative of Moses permits me to believe, that the waters rose upon the earth by degrees…that the [Noachian] flood exhibited no violent impetuosity, displacing neither the soil nor the vegetable tribes which it supported….With this conviction in my mind, I am not prepared to witness in nature any remaining marks [i.e., geologic effects] of the catastrophe, and I find my respect for the authority of [biblical] revelation heightened, when I see, on the present surface, no memorials of the [Flood] event.” Charles Lyell eagerly grasped at this new theory as being in perfect harmony with his uniformitarian philosophy of nature: “I agree with Dr. Fleming that in the narrative of Moses there are no terms employed that indicate the impetuous rushing of the waters, either as they rose, or when they retired upon the restraining of the wind over the earth.”3
So, if the biblical Flood had left no global marks in nature, as Tranquil Flood advocates claimed, scientists could confidently speculate any imaginative idea—keeping their Bibles closed—about what the observable marks were, because any such marks could not be evidence of the global catastrophe that Moses described. Once again, the Bible was seen as irrelevant to geology and earth history.
Today, the so-called Tranquil Flood theory continues to leave its mark.
One day after class I [John Morris] got word that two Christian scholars were coming to ICR a few days later to discuss our view of the young earth. One of them, astronomer and big bang/old earth advocate Dr. Hugh Ross, had announced he was coming to ICR for a “biblical confrontation.”…The other scholar, philosopher/theologian Dr. Norman Geisler, also an advocate of the old earth, was coming in support of Ross….
But then came the question: What do you think about Noah’s Flood? [Ross argued for a local flood.]…At this point, Geisler chimed in to correct Ross. He insisted that the Bible clearly taught a global, worldwide Flood. But, Geisler said, it did not do the geologic work claimed for it by young-earth creationists. He held that it must have destroyed all the pre-Flood human inhabitants, but left little geologic trace on the planet. It rose, covered the world, drowned all of life on land, and then simply drained off. No rocks, no fossils. I asked how he could hold such a position, since even the minor, local floods of today do tremendous geologic work. How could a flood, which he admitted was much larger and more dynamic than any observed flood, do no geologic work? Thus, he proposed a tranquil Flood.4
The “tranquil theory” wedge denies that the Genesis Flood account is true.
Not only did the Tranquil Flood theory deny that the Genesis Flood account was authoritatively relevant for interpreting the rock layers of the world, that theory effectively denies that the Genesis Flood account was historically true. This sleight of hand was accomplished using the following sweeping generalizations:
a) The Tranquil Flood theory asserts that earth never experienced a global catastrophe that violently destroyed the earth’s geomorphology and its natural vegetation, but it does assert that the earth is eons old.
b) The Bible does not clearly describe a catastrophic global Flood,5 and never provides chronological data that negate the earth being eons old.6
c) Therefore, the Tranquil Flood theory does not suggest that the Bible is untrue.
But the second premise in this misleading syllogism is false, so the conclusion is faulty and false. By asserting a supposed earth history that contradicts the one described in Scripture, the Tranquil Flood theory effectively denies that the Genesis Flood account is true.
Adam sinned and the whole planet bears the Curse. The antediluvians were wickedly violent and the whole earth bears their judgment. God punished sin and His judgment was not at all “tranquil.” Only Noah and his family accepted God’s redemption.
Scripture describes the Genesis Flood as a violent judgment of our planet because of the unprecedented and unsurpassed violence on the earth—quite the opposite of “tranquil.”
Many names over the centuries have supported the Tranquil Flood theory: Charles Lyell, Carolus Linnaeus, John Fleming, William Buckland, J. Laurence Kulp, and Norm Geisler. But Moses did not, and it was he whom God chose to prophetically record the account about what happened during the one and only worldwide catastrophic Flood.
- Johnson, J. J. S. 2011. The Failed Apologetic of the Wedge Strategy: How the Intelligent Design Movement Treats the Bible as Irrelevant. Acts & Facts. 40 (8): 10-11. Whenever making use of a wedge involves dishonoring God’s Word, failure is the foreseeable result (Joshua 7:21, 24).
- Johnson, J. J. S. 2011. Just Say No to Trojan Horses: Worldview Corruption Is Lying in Wait. Acts & Facts. 40 (2): 17-18, especially endnotes 4 and 5.
- Whitcomb, J. C. and H. M. Morris. 1961. The Genesis Flood. Phillipsburg, NJ: Presbyterian & Reformed Publishing Co., 97-98, emphasis in original.
- Morris, J. D. 2009. The Young Earth: The Real History of the Earth—Past, Present, and Future. Green Forest, AR: Master Books, 128-129.
- The verb “destroy” (shachath, an intensive piêl verb in Genesis 6:17) means to wreck or smash the structural identity of, such as by denaturing an insect’s morphology by pulverizing it into mush. Although the word “punish” is not theologically popular in many modern circles, God was globally punishing global wickedness, using a violent judgment to punish a violent world. Scripture emphasizes the prevalent violence of mankind (Genesis 6:11-13), as well as God’s violent destruction of the whole world (Genesis 6:7,13,17,19; 7:3,4,6-7,10-11,19-20; 8:21; 9:11,15; 2 Peter 3:6; etc.). It was not just humans and animals that were smashed by global floodwaters; even the earth itself was “destroyed” (Genesis 6:13). The Bible does not portray a “tranquil” flood. The fossil record is a record of violent punishment due to the overpowering floodwaters “prevailing (like a mighty man-of-war) very much, very much,” according to the Hebrew text of Genesis 7:19.
- As documented before, the old-earth timeframe conflicts with Scripture’s data. Johnson, J. J. S. 2008. How Young Is the Earth? Applying Simple Math to Data Provided in Genesis. Acts & Facts. 37 (10): 4-5.
* Dr. Johnson is Associate Professor of Apologetics and Chief Academic Officer at the School of Biblical Apologetics.
Cite this article: Johnson, J. J. S. 2011. Biblical Devastation in the Wake of a “Tranquil Flood.” Acts & Facts. 40 (9): 8-10.