What is the Local Flood Theory, and how did it come about?
For eighteen centuries after the introduction of Christianity, Christians and most non-Christians believed that there had been a great earth-destroying flood in the long distant past. The account of one man and his family having been saved from this flood along with many animals in a large vessel was usually part of this story. In the sixteenth and seventeenth centuries – when world exploration on behalf of the British government was underway – care was taken to record the verbal history, beliefs and customs of each tribe and nation not yet touched by western civilization. All these records from every continent were archived in the libraries of Cambridge University. Sir James Frazer published his summary of all this work in 1918. This included 137 accounts of the great flood found in tribes and nations from around the world. It is emphasized that these accounts pre-existed any missionary work.
A worldwide catastrophic flood in human history stood as a major barrier to any other belief system regarding man's origins except that found in the Book of Genesis. That barrier was removed step by step to permit an alternative belief system introduced by Charles Darwin in 1859. The first step was taken in 1669 in Italy by Nicolas Steno who proposed that the sedimentary layers of rock were laid down sequentially from a series of extensive local floods; he did not specify the time between each flood. Then, in 1814, Georges Cuvier in Paris claimed that each of these floods was large, local, catastrophic and separated by very long periods of time. He also claimed that they all took place before the advent of man. Shortly after this, in 1826, a Scottish minister, John Fleming, proposed that the last of these floods was the Genesis Flood but – while this was global – it was entirely tranquil as indicated by the olive leaf plucked by the dove [Genesis 8:11]. This enabled Christians to believe in the Genesis Flood but not to expect to find evidence for it! Scripture is clear that the Flood was catastrophic, global and the world perished [Genesis 6:13]; olive plants can recover from a flood and burial very quickly.
The next step was taken in 1830 by Charles Lyell who denied that there had ever been any catastrophic events in Earth history. This doctrine was called uniformitarianism and expanded the timeframe of Earth history immensely. In effect, Lyell had given scientific credence to the idea that the Genesis Flood had been simply one of a number of local floods. However, it needed an English theologian to convince the Christian public in England that Lyell's proposal was correct. John Pye Smith was that man, and he began to advocate the local flood theory by lectures and a book in 1839, then posthumously and with greater boldness in 1854. A moment's thought by anyone, including Christians, shows the fallacy of suggesting that the Genesis Flood was local. In the first place, Noah would have been a fool to spend a century building a huge vessel for animals that would have moved out of the area. Secondly, the remaining areas of the world would contain many more of the same animals and wicked people, thus negating the purpose for the ark. Finally, Jesus and Peter acknowledged Noah and the Flood [Matthew 24:37-39 and 2 Peter 3:3-6]. Nevertheless, the local flood theory is essential for those churches that have adopted Darwin's theory of evolution.