Part Ten in a Series
One of the questions that comes up each time I speak on science and Genesis is this: Did rain fall upon the earth before the Flood? People wonder, too, whether or not the rainbow Noah saw was the very first rainbow. Apparently, many Christians have been taught that the earth's cycle of evaporation and precipitation was very different before the Flood from what it is today and that major atmospheric changes occurred at the time of the Flood.
This teaching is, I believe, part of a larger hypothetical scenario called the canopy theory, the point of which is to account somehow for "importation" of the water required for a global flood (water that is missing from the earth's environs) and also to account for the drastic shortening of man's life span after the Flood. (Both issues were addressed in this column in the most recent issue of Facts & Faith, v. 5. n. 1, 1991, pp. 4-5.)
According to the theory (more appropriately called a hypothesis), in the days before the Genesis Flood the earth supported a massive layer of water (either frozen or vaporous) high in the upper atmosphere. At the time of the Flood, the canopy is said to have melted or condensed at God's command, thereby dumping the cataclysmic deluge on the earth's surface.
Unfortunately, this popular scenario finds insufficient support from scripture and no support whatsoever from science. Let's take a look at the Biblical passages first. Genesis 2:5 speaks of a time when God had not yet sent rain upon the earth. What is the time context of this verse? It refers clearly to a time when the continents were still devoid of life. That is to say, it describes a period prior to the third creation day and to the establishment of our stable water cycle.
Genesis 2:6 comes after a punctuation break in the Hebrew and seems to refer to a later time when God caused "mist" (though a few translations say "streams") to water the ground. Apparently the ground at this point needed watering to support the flora and fauna. The Hebrew word used for "mist" in this verse is 'ed. Its normal translation is "mist" or "vapor," as in a fog. To translate it as "streams" is to stretch it toward a rare and, in this case, inappropriate usage.
Technically, both mist and fog qualify as rain. Mist, fog, and rain all refer to drops of liquid water in the atmosphere. The distinction lies in the size of the drops, and that distinction is imprecise. Where I grew up in coastal British Columbia we called anything less than a downpour a mist.
Neither does the later discussion of the rainbow as a covenant sign (Genesis 9) imply that rain and rainbows had never been seen before the time of Noah. When the Flood was over, God told Noah that He would never again destroy all mankind and his animals by the waters of a flood. Then God designated the rainbow as His signature, a reminder, of this covenant (contractual agreement between God and man, initiated by God) not to repeat a watery judgment against man's sin. It may be worth noting that the other eight covenants of scripture are signified with previously existing items or actions to which the covenant simply adds new meaning.
As for scientific analysis of the canopy theory, I must begin by stating my belief that when God performs a miracle (and the operation of a canopy would have to be considered one, for it is outside the realm of naturally occurring phenomena), He does not deliberately cover up or distort the evidence to mislead us or to keep us from detecting it. What most Christians do not realize is that acceptance of the canopy theory requires acceptance of a massive cover-up by God. I cannot reconcile such action as consistent with the character of the God of the Bible.
From science we learn that no mechanism exists for supporting such a quantity of water (frozen or vaporous) in the Earth's upper atmosphere. Neither is there a mechanism for protecting a canopy from destruction by meteorites and interplanetary and cosmic radiation.
A further problem is that when ice melts it uses up 80 calories of heat per gram. When vapor condenses it releases 539 calories of heat per gram. In other words, the melting or condensing of a canopy would have caused such massive temperature shifts on Earth that Noah and his crew could not possibly have survived. Backing up a bit, if a canopy were vaporous, the greenhouse effect it would have engendered before the Flood would have trapped so much heat as to make life impossible on the surface of the earth.
These are only a few of the scientific difficulties with the canopy scenario, mostly theoretical. Physical counterevidence is also available. Geologists point to splash depressions in well-dated sandstone deposits, depressions caused by falling drops of liquid water. These splash patterns show that raindrops of all the sizes we see today have fallen throughout the last several geologic eras, including eras before the Flood.
The canopy theory represents yet another reminder to Christians that we need to submit our apologetics arguments to review by reputable non-Christian and Christian scholars in appropriate disciplines. If only scientists who are Christians attest to a particular physical phenomenon, especially one of such magnitude as the canopy, we have good reason to question its validity.