© Copyright 2014 by Gretchen Passantino Coburn
My virtual mailbox has been crowded with questions about the movie NOAH that opened March 28 2014. I haven’t seen it. I’ve read a lot of reviews, some from people I respect in the arts, the Bible, and/or theology. It was the first place box office winner for its opening weekend, pulling in more than $44 million in US ticket sales. It remains to be seen whether it can maintain that level of popularity, but that’s not my focus here. This is all I’m going to say about the commercial success or failure of the movie.
Many others have commented on the cinematic license taken with the literary text. This doesn’t bother me, since movies almost always take significant liberty with an underlying written text. What works in words may not work at all in visuals and the opposite is usually true, too. I understand the movie misses the great story of redemption foreshadowed in the story, the sinfulness of humanity, salvation by faith, and God’s redemptive faithfulness to the world He has created, including the humans He has created in His image. I also understand there is quite a bit of environmental gospel in the story and that at some points humans are characterized as the enemies of God’s natural world. This is all I’m going to say about the biblical or non-biblical story line of the movie.
My focus here is on some of what is absent from the biblical story. I will address some of these significant absences from Genesis chapters 6-10 here.
First, the foundational assumption for biblical interpretation is to understand the main theological theme of the passage and use that to govern all interpretation. The main theme of Genesis 6-10 is not environmentalism, evolution, or human stubbornness. The main theme is God’s Great Redemption Romance Story: that sinful man, judged and condemned in Adam, is nevertheless loved and redeemed by God’s own work by His Spirit in His Representative (Son), and transformed into His fruitful Spouse. Noah is both Adam (the sinner) and Christ (the chosen One). The flood is God’s judgment. The Ark is God’s rescue (Christ on the Cross). Noah’s family and their progeny are the Church, the People of God. The dove and the olive branch are the signs of the renewed and redeemed creation. The sacrifice after the Flood is the Memorial of God’s sacrifice on our behalf. Absent are doctrinal side issues that distract us from this main redemptive theme.
I’m not “allegorizing” the “plain meaning” of the Bible. I believe in the complete accuracy of the Bible as God gave it and meant it to be understood. When the Bible is recording history, it is accurate history. When it is recording science, it is accurate science, etc. But underlying and overarching every kind of text (historical, scientific, poetic, epic, narrative, metaphorical, etc.) is God’s Great Redemption Romance Story in part or in whole, in type or anti-type, in anticipation or remembrance. Once we fix this theological bedrock in our interpretive framework, many of the questions we ask of a particular text are completely irrelevant and it is no wonder they are not addressed exhaustively (if at all) in the text.
Have you ever tried to relay an experience to someone and he or she keeps interrupting you to ask irrelevant questions? Maybe you want to talk about how somebody cut you off on the freeway and only God’s grace saved you from causing a fatal five car pileup. Does it really matter what color the offending car was? Or what was being advertised on the billboard next to the freeway? Or what was in your fast food meal that spilled all over the seat and dash when you slammed on your brakes?
Let’s look at the story of Noah from a similar perspective. If the main story is God’s Great Redemption Romance Story, does it matter if the entire geographical globe was flooded or could the “whole earth” mean the whole area occupied by humans? Our theological bedrock requires the second, but the first is irrelevant to the theology.
If the main story is redemptive, does it matter if Noah and his wife or his sons and their wives had other children who were or were not taken into the ark and saved from the Flood? Theology teaches us that all have sinned (even Noah, his wife, his sons, their wives, and any other of their descendants) and that all of us deserve judgment (flood). All of them deserved to be condemned in the Flood and none of them deserved to be saved from the Flood.
If the main story is redemptive, then any who were saved from the Flood were saved by God’s mercy and grace, by the redeeming sacrifice of His future coming, dying, and rising Son. Yes, it says Noah “found favor” with God, “walked faithfully,” and was “found righteous.” But remember our theology: we find favor in Christ, we walk faithfully in Christ, we are found righteous in Christ. Our salvation and rescue from judgment is not derived from our seeking God’s favor or creating our own faith or doing righteous acts: our salvation and rescue from judgment is derived from Christ’s perfect representative life, death, and resurrection. He is the one who is favored by God, who is faithful, who always acts righteously. Our favor, faith, and righteousness are products of our salvation, not generators of our salvation. Noah, his wife, his three sons and their wives were saved in spite of the fact that they were just as disfavored, unfaithful, and unrighteous as everyone else (including any other family members who may have lived then). They were saved in spite of their sinfulness, not because of their sinlessness.
Second, a sound principle of biblical interpretation (indeed, all literary interpretation) is that one must not presume that absence of evidence presented is evidence of absence. Confusing? Here’s an example: If I were to say “I worked on an article today,” that simple statement wouldn’t be evidence of absence of any other activity I did today. In the same way, if one gospel says “one angel was at the tomb” on Christ’s resurrection day, that isn’t evidence against another gospel’s “two angels were at the tomb.” (In fact, if you have two angels, you always have at least one angel.)
Let’s apply this to the story of Noah. For example, I’ve been asked, if Noah were really 600+ years old, and his sons were also old, then how could it be that neither Noah and his wife nor his sons and their wives had any other children? Wouldn’t it be reasonable to think Noah had other sons, and unreasonable to think he had no daughters, including not a single daughter who was “righteous” as his three sons were? If you read the five relevant chapters of Genesis carefully, you will not find any text excluding Noah or his sons from having other children, either before the Flood or while they were on the ark. The point of the story is that God chose eight individuals from among the sinful class of all humanity to rescue from his Flood judgment. Any other descendants or siblings are irrelevant to the theological point of God’s selection of certain individuals for saving from the Flood. Remember, this is an event that points us to the Main Event. Whether “true believers” drowned in the Flood is irrelevant: the drowning of a “death-doomed body” (Romans 8:11) is a tiny calamity compared to that same person’s eternal life and final resurrection life in a resurrection body.
Third, absent from the Genesis story of Noah are works that qualified Noah or his family members to receive God’s rescue from the Flood. Noah built the Ark, preached God’s coming judgment, gathered the animals, and put his family inside after God chose him, not in order to be chosen by God. Noah’s obedience was a consequence of his salvation, not a means to attain his salvation.
Yes, Noah “found favor” with God (Genesis 6:8) and was saved from the Flood even though he was a sinner. Just as Mary “found favor” with God and was chosen to bear the Son of God even though she was part of sinful humanity. And just as Job “found favor” with God, who restored him to “full well-being” (Job 33:26). Job did not earn God’s favor, God blessed him with His favor as an application of his grace and mercy long before the historical time of His Son’s sacrifice. Look at the sequence in Psalm 84:9-11. In verse 9, the psalmist asks God to look “with favor” on His anointed One (the Messiah). In verse 11, the psalmist rejoices that God looks “with favor” on “those whose walk is blameless.” Who is blameless? Only One is actually blameless: Jesus the Messiah who took our sins on Himself on the cross and rose from the dead, the “firstborn” of all those saved (Luke 2:52). The psalmist and all others of faith (whether before, like Noah, or after, like Peter, Paul, and Christians throughout all ages) find “favor with God” by being “in Christ.” (See especially the term “in Christ” or “in Him” in Ephesians 1.)
Yes, Noah “walked faithfully” (Genesis 6:9), but this was accomplished by God’s work in His Son, not by anything Noah accomplished on his own. Remember, Jesus is the lamb slain from before the foundation of the world (Revelation 13:8). Paul argues (Romans chapter 4) that Abraham was saved, not by works, but by faith, noting that he was “declared righteous” in Genesis 15:6, before he had done any works, that is, before he was circumcised (Genesis 17:24).
In summary, there are features significantly missing from the biblical account of Noah (Genesis 6-10) by the Holy Spirit’s design to keep our focus on the glorious story of redemption it depicts and prefigures. Absent are side issues like the precise geographical extent of the Flood or whether rainbows ever appeared before the Flood. Absent are designations of whether anyone else in Noah’s generation inherited eternal life either after drowning in the Flood or after being included but unmentioned in the Ark. The Ark event is an earthly example of a spiritual reality: the Flood stands for eternal judgment; drowning stands for eternal death; living in the Ark stands for salvation; landing on the mountains of Ararat , offering a sacrifice, and planting a vineyard stands for God’s renewed creation and fulfilled kingdom.
There are other significant absences in this event and in the rest of God’s Word. The absences are not meant to withhold God’s Gospel from us, but to focus us on His Gospel. The Word of God is given to us, not to satisfy our every idle curiosity, but to display God’s Great Redemption. Second Timothy chapter two declares that the Word of God is “the Holy Scriptures, which are able to make you wise for salvation through faith in Christ Jesus. All Scripture is God-breathed and is useful for teaching, rebuking, correcting and training in righteousness, so that the servant of God may be thoroughly equipped for every good work.”
© Copyright 2014 by Gretchen Passantino Coburn
In my more than forty years of Christian apologetics ministry, questions about the “unforgivable sin” continue to recur. Those who pose the questions are not indifferent to God. Nor do they hate God. Instead, they invariably grieve their loss and they despair of salvation. We have a classic Answers In Action article addressing the particular scripture passages that confuse readers. This article is much more focused on the principles behind such confusion and despair. It is derived from a response I composed to plea from someone who feared for his soul, but is generally applicable to anyone who believes he or she may have committed the unforgivable sin.
First, I commend those who continue to pursue relationship with God in spite of their fear, confusion, doubt, and despair. This is a characteristic of a human heart experiencing the saving power of the Holy Spirit, not a heart that has refused God’s grace and forgiveness and hardened itself to salvation. In other words, someone’s persistent concern and return are proof in themselves that he or she has not committed the unforgivable sin.
Two features are most common in those with this unresolved struggle: (1) They give undeserved and misunderstood weight to their continuing sinfulness, and (2) They elevate their subjective experience of each moment over the objective truth of the gospel, affirmed by the testimonies of God’s Word and God’s people (both through time and in personal relationship with other believers).
Many in this uncertainty point to their repeated and continuing sinfulness as evidence they have never been and never can be saved. This is contrary to the testimony of God in His Word. Until we die and are resurrected and brought completely into God’s fulfilled kingdom, every single one of us will continue to sin. Martin Luther has a well-known observation that can be summarized like this: If you have no desire to sin and are not sinning, check your heart & your breath to see if you are still alive. In the same way, if you are not grieving over your sin and longing for forgiveness through Jesus Christ (especially as distributed in the Lord’s Supper), check your heart and your breath to see if you are still alive. Repeated and continuing sin is not an evidence of the absence of salvation.
In other words, it is the common, biblical experience for believers to experience the seed of sinfulness with which they are born and which continues to live in them until the resurrection; but it is also the common, biblical experience for believers to experience the seed of regeneration, to have remorse and seek forgiveness and reconciliation with God. Sadly, for those who despair, it seems easier to “believe in” his or her “sinful seed” than to “believe in” his or her “seed of life,”
This brings me to my second main point: As long as one gives more trust to his or her own subjective fear, and less trust to the testimony of the Spirit through His Word and His people (the community of believers local & universal), he or she will be “tossed about by every wind of doctrine.” Such a one has no objective anchor for the soul. The “bedrock of the sea” that will hold our “anchor” firm is God Himself (and His Word), who loves each one of us so much that even while we were loyal to sin, He gave His beloved and only Son to pay the price for us & bring us back to Him (John 3:16 and Rom. 5:1-5). He desires and commands an intimate, personal, and unique relationship with each of us through His Spirit. The “anchor” that keeps each of us connected to the bedrock (God) is God’s community of believers, not only universal but also local and intimate through relationship with believers in fellowship, worship, and knowledge of God’s Word.
The most common persistent sin struggle despairing people experience is pornography. This is to be expected, because pornography is a counterfeit of the personal intimacy God created as the only fulfillment of our relationship to Him and our relationship to others. Pornography substitutes exploitation for self-sacrificing love; physical stimulation for spiritual transformation; transitory climax for enduring devotion. Being filled by sex is not the problem: being empty of God-directed intimacy (with Him and with other believers) is the problem.
The “solution” to this struggle to believe one can be saved is like many biblical paradoxes: it is incredibly easy and simple; it is undeniably difficult and complex. The solution is complete and utter abandonment to God, an emptying of one’s self, a forsaking of one’s own will, a “reckless” throwing of oneself on God, trusting His mercy and grace so much that if He does not “catch” him or her, he or she will be utterly destroyed on the rocks of divine deceit. In one way, it is simple and easy: just give up everything. In another way it is profound and impossible: just give up everything. It is that conundrum that God accepts nothing from us but must have everything from us; that we must surrender to His Spirit but we can’t surrender on our own. Praise be to God that the resolution to this difficulty is that the equation is not equal – it is not “all us” and “all God.” God has “weighted” the equation such that our inability makes way for His ability, and He is eager and able to overcome our inadequacies, not by our act of coming to Him, but by our surrender to receive Him coming to us. Because we are still in this sinful world, in our sin-infected body, with our sin-tainted mind and spirit, we will continue to fall and will consequently surrender ourselves over and over. But the good news is that God is not fickle like we are: while we waver between sin and surrender, He is always there in mercy and grace, forgiving and restoring us. Again, the equation is not balanced: God has the upper hand in love and forgiveness, not us.
What I see missing from most of those who fear they’ve committed the unforgivable sin is that “anchor” of intimate relationship that secures them to the bedrock of the Lord. There is a reason that God established human marriage, a lifelong covenant between two people, as a picture of the relationship between God and us.
1 Corinthians 13:4-8a defines that lifelong covenant as “love.” “Love is patient, love is kind. It does not envy, it does not boast, it is not proud. It does not dishonor others, it is not self-seeking, it is not easily angered, it keeps no record of wrongs.”
“Love does not delight in evil but rejoices with the truth. It always protects, always trusts, always hopes, always perseveres. Love never fails.”
Is this the kind of relationship a fearful one has with God? With other believers? If not, then this is what he or she needs to seek eagerly: not by trying to stir up an emotion or prove oneself, but by practicing living according to its precepts.
Be patient with God: give Him time to display His plan; don’t dictate one’s own plan to Him.
Be kind to God: put the best construction on God’s action in one’s circumstances; don’t assume He is out to exclude someone who yearns for Him.
Do not envy God: act in trust that He is a loving Father; don’t demand the lonely autonomy of someone cut off from God’s guidance.
Do not choose one’s own way over God’s way: many might think going their own way is a sign of humility (they’re not good enough for God) but instead it is a sign of boasting (their sinful inclinations are more powerful than God’s forgiveness).
Focus one’s attention on God: fill the mind and life w/worship and love of God; don’t pretend one is repentant by being obsessed with his or her own sinfulness and fear, and yet neglecting the solution-giver, the Lord Himself.
Practice true humility: C. S. Lewis skillfully describes the difference between proud and humble, “not thinking less of yourself, but thinking of yourself less;” in other words, focus on the Lord and His power and blessings in life, not on one’s own helplessness and fears.
Don’t dishonor the Lord by insisting that the greatness of one’s sinning is greater than the Lord’s greatness to forgive and regenerate: it is contrary to God’s Word to believe that He would reject someone and hold him or her accountable for his or her own sins when he or she is desperate for acceptance and forgiveness through Christ; rather, honor the Lord by honoring His sacrifice through His Son.
Don’t judge the Lord by one’s own subjective, fallible, inadequate judgment: God is the one who promised to forgive the sins of anyone who repents; no individual has the power to exempt oneself from His promise.
Affirm that God’s compassion and loving-kindness is greater than any individual’s anger: even if one thinks his or her devotion to pornography (or any other sin) is extraordinary, in fact it’s always possible (and usually easy) to find others whose sin abounds even more; in fact, God does not limit His forgiveness to those whose sinning is trivial but extends it to those whose sinning is gross. It is not quantity of sin that excludes one from salvation – the tiniest sin is enough and the greatest is not enough – the quality of Christ’s redemptive work covers all.
Stop clutching to both individual recurrent sin and one’s misjudgment of God: He has promised to keep no record of one’s sins since they are covered by Christ; when someone continues bringing them up (either by remembrance or repetition), he or she is accusing God of being a liar.
Now look at the second paragraph of 1 Corinthians 13: These are the positive features of the intimate, personal, loving relationship God has provided for each of us in Jesus Christ. Turn our back on all the negatives & follow God’s encouragement to rejoice in the truth that salvation is God’s work in Christ, not our work toward Christ; to accept His protection of our salvation, not our own good intentions; to trust the Lord’s love and compassion, not our own fickle emotions; to have confident hope in the finished work of the cross on our behalf, not in our own fallible intuition; accept the perseverance of the Lord on our behalf, not our own wavering back and forth between obedience and sinning. Finally, practice confidence in the divine love that never fails rather than the unredeemed human love that is counterfeit.
If we practice intimate love relationship with the Lord, we will be drawn inexorably into intimate love relationship (not sexual) with God’s people, the church (both universal and local). We will begin to trust others, rely on their encouragement and support, welcome their assurances and corrections, experience mutual positive involvement in each others’ lives, and begin to identify ourselves with God’s people rather than with those who are aliens to the faith.
If we sincerely practice loving God and loving God’s people (that means making ourselves vulnerable to both God and a local fellowship of believers), the power of sin, fear, and doubt in our lives will begin to lessen. Doing so is not pursuing a subjective, fleeting, transitory emotional experience – I’ve just spent multiple paragraphs defining true divine love.
In conclusion, here are common specific questions fearful people often ask and summary answers to them. “What do I do now?” Move forward boldly and with utter abandon into God’s forgiving and loving arms. “Where do I go now?” To a local fellowship of believers who are truly in love with their Bridegroom, Christ, and therefore can model that love for you. (You know intuitively how to distinguish between those who are generally trustworthy and those who will attack your faith and “punish” you for your failures.) “What am I to believe about salvation?” That it is God’s plan, God’s work, God’s love, and God’s intention, not only for all the others, but also for you. “How do I stop back-sliding?” By learning through practice and association with God’s people to enjoy and occupy yourself with the things of the Lord who is your Lover rather than the things of the world that prostitutes itself. “Can I be free of slavery to pornography?” Yes! When you begin to make a habit of loving God in the 1 Cor 13 sense, you will find yourself falling more and more in love with God and His people and you will experience the true love that will so outshine the transitory counterfeit of pornography that you will look back on it and think, “How could I ever have substituted that pitiful deceit for God’s immense love?” “How can I test myself” must be answered in the negative: you cannot test yourself, a self-defeating subjectivity; but you can trust God’s test confirmed through His church, both the voices of history (like Lewis and Luther) and the voices of those you become intimately personal with in fellowship by God’s love. The true purpose of confession in the church is, in fact, to provide this confirmation of God’s forgiveness to those who are trapped in fear by their subjectivity. Martin Luther said, “Confession embraces two parts: the one is, that we confess our sins; the other, that we receive absolution, or forgiveness, from the confessor, as from God Himself, and in no wise doubt, but firmly believe, that our sins are thereby forgiven before God in heaven” (The Small Catechism).