A classmate once told me the biblical story she found most irredeemable was that of Noah and his ark. When Joshua slaughters cities in God’s name, you can always blame Joshua. But who do you blame when God decides to drown the entire world?
It’s an uncomfortable tale, no question. But sometimes it’s too easy to get up on our moral high horse when it comes to the Bible. The honest truth is most of us would be pleased if the world worked more like Noah’s story.
If only God would choose the really righteous people, the few virtuous among the violent and the wicked, the ones who actually get it right.
(That’s us, God. You know that, right?)
If only God would shelter us and our loved ones in a protective ark.
If only God would let those others perish, and their evil with them.
If only we and our people were left to restructure the world in our image — run the government, the church, the family as we know it should be done.
How much better everything would be!
The trouble is, it doesn’t work. A world populated by the descendants of Noah turns out no different than the world that began with Adam. Noah’s virtues aren’t enough to even keep his own household in line (Gen. 9:18-27).
It turns out that even the best of us isn’t, well, really all that good. Give us a few days of uncontested rule, and the most righteous of us will drive the world into chaos.
At the very heart of the life of the church is a ritual called baptism. Periodically we pull the cover off a pool and tell people, “Show up here next week if you’d like us to lower you under the water to die” (Rom. 6:2-5).
Every time the church performs a baptism, we tell a revolutionary story. We say, “Our world is full of violence and evil. We all wish that it was different. And it can be. But there’s only one solution. All of us have to die.”
There’s no exception in the Christian story for Noah or the “super-good people.” We’re all part of the problem. We are all carriers of a disease that is killing both us and creation. The only cure is to go under water. To die to the people that we were. To lose the superiority and self-will, the resentments and the fear that are part of the contagion.
Christianity is a dreadful self-help religion. You might come to it looking for a way to be good or right. But all it will give you is a way to be dead.
Yet paradoxically, this is exactly where the world’s healing begins. The myth that we are the righteous who should float above the water ends when we acknowledge that we are the guilty whom God must plunge beneath it. And that truth sets us free.
Jesus saves, but the only way to be saved is to willingly die and be drawn into his resurrection. The new world we’re looking for, the world where everything is healed and right and permanently different from what came before — that new world will be composed entirely of people who choose to die and be reborn out of the waters.
Paul, who describes baptism in Romans 6 as a kind of death, doesn’t get this idea from nowhere. He argues in Romans 4 that this vision of faith traces back to Abraham. Unlike Noah, Abraham isn’t introduced in Genesis with any accolades like “blameless” or “exemplary.” Abraham was only ultimately counted righteous because he trusted. He was counted righteous, in other words, not because he was good enough but because he believed God was good enough. In this way he became the father of everyone who chooses to go under water and put their trust not in their own righteousness but the righteousness of God.
Meghan Larissa Good is teaching pastor at Trinity Mennonite Church in Glendale, Ariz., and author of The Bible Unwrapped: Making Sense of Scripture Today, coming in October from Herald Press.