1684: Rainbow

Explain xkcd: It's 'cause you're dumb.
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Listen, in a few thousand years you'll invent a game called 'SimCity' which has a 'disaster' button, and then you'll understand.
Title text: Listen, in a few thousand years you'll invent a game called 'SimCity' which has a 'disaster' button, and then you'll understand.


In this comic, the patriarch Noah from the Abrahamic religions, represented by Cueball, talks to God after the biblical flood. He asks what the coloured band across the sky is, and God tells him it is a rainbow. According to the Book of Genesis, God placed a rainbow in the sky, giving it significance for the first time, as a promise to humanity that he would never again make a flood to cleanse the world of sin (Genesis 9:2–17). A rainbow is an optical phenomenon caused by reflection, refraction and dispersion of light in water droplets resulting in a spectrum of light appearing in the sky, one of many light phenomena caused by sunlight and precipitation.

Then Noah notices a double rainbow outside the original promise rainbow. Secondary rainbows are caused by double reflection of sunlight inside the raindrops. When asked about this God seems to falter, but recovers and claims he made it to show that he will never again set the Earth on fire, an event which apparently happened long ago and for which God apologizes. This may refer to the early Earth being a liquid ball of molten rock (the Hadean period), or later global fire catastrophes caused by asteroid impacts and volcanic eruptions. That God promises to never again burn the earth goes against the idea of Armageddon where everything will be destroyed in fire etc. The creation account in Genesis also says nothing about fire, and those who believe in six-day creation (a group that mostly overlaps with those who believe in the Flood) generally do not believe that the Hadean period actually happened, so most people who believe in the original Biblical account actually believe that the *only* time the Earth has been or will be destroyed by fire is after this event.

Noah begins to notice some other optical phenomena as he next spots a bow near the sun. God promptly claims 'that' bow is a promise to never again make raccoons immortal as it destroyed the Earth's ecosystem. Although today these animals can be a pest, see 1565: Back Seat, they are luckily not immortal.[citation needed] Randall is likely referring to an unkillable form of immortality rather than biological immortality, as, while that would likely cause some issues, the raccoons could still fall prey to predation and disease. Should raccoons have been rendered unkillable by predation or disease as well as by aging, then the combination of an average gestational period of 65 days, a litter size of 2-5 individuals and an omnivorous appetite makes for a creature that could easily dominate any and all ecological niches.

If Noah can see it with his naked eyes it is most likely that the "third bow" is a halo. Halos can appear in the direction of the Sun (as is the case with the bow here, and opposed to the two rainbows mentioned above) or the Moon. A typical person is most likely to notice the circular 22° halo, which is a halo forming a circle with a radius of approximately 22° around the Sun, or occasionally the Moon.

It could also be that Noah has spotted a tertiary rainbow or even a higher order rainbow which are very faint rainbows circling the sun. These bows are discussed in the what If? released the same day. But they are very faint rainbows circling the sun and usually obscured by its glare, and only recently have they been photographed. Knowing Randall the joke could be inspired by this not well known fact (there are at least 5 observable orders of rainbow), and each could potentially represent a promise from God regarding a disaster.

Noah continues by noticing two sun dogs (or parhelia) which often co-occur with the 22° halo. These consist of a pair of bright spots either side on the Sun, intersected by the halo, thus making it most obvious that the third bow was indeed a halo, not a hard to see rainbow.

God gets tired of this and tries to stop Noah by saying that he has said sorry, and asks him to drop the subject. That is probably sensible because there are 25 different atmospheric optical phenomena listed on Wikipedia alone. Following the logic of the comic and the evasive answer of God, it could mean that there are some more skeletons in the closet.

The title text is a continuation where God tells Noah that in the future humanity will invent a game called SimCity. This is a strategy computer game in which the player creates and manages an environment wherein sims autonomously build a city (or in later versions a country, or a planet). The sims are simple AI processes that "build" residential, commercial and industrial structures within the game space, according to the topography and zoning choices made by the player, then use them to create more wealth to expand their city. The sims have to contend with traffic jams, social problems, ecological impacts of their own activity and occasional natural disasters ranging from earthquakes to Godzilla.

The player has God-like control of the world, including a disaster button, for when the player doesn't want to wait for a disaster to happen by chance. God suggests that it is too tempting to push the disaster button once a civilization has been built up, if just to see what happens. This can also be interpreted as a reference to the Simulation Hypothesis, which states that there's a high likelihood of us living in a simulated universe, with a fallible "God" who's simulating our Universe purely for his own entertainment/educational purposes.

Overall the comic pokes fun at the idea of explaining natural phenomena as messages from a deity.


[Cueball looks up on a rainbow band going through the top right corner of the panel. A black blob in the bottom of the panel right of Cueball with white text inside shows the reply from God to the questions. The blobs continue through the rest of the comic.]
Cueball: Wow, God- What's that band of color?
God: A rainbow.
God: It is a sign of my promise that I will never again flood the Earth.
[A frameless panel.]
Cueball: Oh, good! Hey, what about that second bow above the first one?
God: Oh, uh, sign of my promise not to set the earth on fire.
God: Sorry for doing that a while back.
[Cueball points left.]
Cueball: What about that third faint bow near the sun?
God: My promise to never again destroy Earth's ecosystem by making raccoons immortal.
[Cueball points even higher up towards left.]
Cueball: And the little rainbow clouds on either side of-
God: Look, I said I'm sorry. Can we just drop it?


  • This comic about rainbows coincided with the first release of a what if? article in almost two months. It was called Tatooine Rainbow about rainbows if Earth had two suns like the fictive planet Tatooine from Star Wars.

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How do I find the official transcript?Transuranium (talk) 11:00, 23 May 2016 (UTC)Transuranium

Most recent comics do not have official transcripts. Forrest (talk)11:13, 23 May 2016 (UTC)
But now there is one here ;-) Kynde (talk) 11:38, 23 May 2016 (UTC)
Actually the transcript seems to appear with a lag of abut 10 comics at this time. But also for some time the transcript has been messed up so for instance this official transcript page] for comic 1673: Timeline of Bicycle Design actually displays the transcript for comic 1670: Laws of Physics, but still has the correct title and the title text for 1673. Wonder if Randall has never noticed this, even though it has been an issue for at least most of this year (see the trivia for 1644: Stargazing.) --Kynde (talk) 12:19, 25 May 2016 (UTC)

Religion... geez. It's some weird stuff, huh. 17:05, 23 May 2016 (UTC)

Now that XKCD adopts the voice of God, it's time to write him off and move elsewhere. 11:56, 23 May 2016 (UTC)

Nice of you to decide for everyone. Just like god would do, right? 13:38, 23 May 2016 (UTC)
My house is better than your tent. 21:34, 28 May 2016 (UTC)
Word of God has appered before, as in Comic 224 or 258. 17:09, 23 May 2016 (UTC)
Seems to me that adopting the voice of God is the main practice of devotional speakers, including priests & pastors. If you're unwilling to accept people's interpretations & commentary on religious doctrine, then that leaves only having faith in the most literal meanings. If that's your preference then good luck, because even the Catholic church doesn't preach the gospel as literal untranslated Truth. 18:08, 25 May 2016 (UTC)

For the sake of doctrinal accuracy, God (assuming the comic is in fact referring to the Jewish God who set his war bow in the cloud after the Flood) never promised not to destroy the earth by fire. Christian theology (2 Peter 3:10) implies God fully intends to destroy the earth by fire - or at least by unprecedented universal nuclear fission. 11:59, 23 May 2016 (UTC)

In the Hopi faith, the First world is said to have been destroyed by fire, the second by ice, & only the most recent world destroyed by flood. This theme recurs frequently throughout indigenous American & Central American cultural histories. Given the widely publicized Hopi tales of rainbow bodies & the often accented correlations with "Western" religions, it seems to me that it would be reasonable to assume that in this comic, Randall is not actually depicting the strict Noah's Flood interpretation of events, but rather a wider conversation with God, incorporating multiple religious histories to present a much more inclusive picture of prior apocalypses which apparently are believed to have destroyed the Earth. 18:14, 25 May 2016 (UTC)
Good point, but for universal respect you should capitalise His pronouns. 12:16, 23 May 2016 (UTC)
Ok, really? So the bible says "I will destroy the earth by universal nuclear fission" ? I must have missed something on the first reading -- could you tell me the page number? 19:20, 23 May 2016 (UTC)
"And the elements shall melt with a fervent heat." 3500ºC is enought to melt everything, but when combined with Colossians 1:17 "in Him all things are held together" that implies he could stop holding things together - voila, every single element on the table separates into a soup of protons, neutrons, electrons, and enough free energy to destroy a universe - oh wait that's the point. Okay, so that's just speculation, but it sounds cool to watch. 11:48, 24 May 2016 (UTC)
It doesn't mention a nuclear catastrophe in so many words. It does mention a massive asteroid will destroy the planet and that angels will collapse the pillars of reality which are all the rules God built the universe on. It's actually an incredibly visual passage for such abstract concepts, wonderfully well written. Lackadaisical (talk) 20:31, 23 May 2016 (UTC)

When the conditions are right, various types of multiple rainbow may be visible. Rhubbarb (talk) 12:03, 23 May 2016 (UTC)

Atmospheric optics enthusiast signing in. That's right. Although the "third faint bow near the sun" Cueball mentions might indeed refer to the 22° halo, another possibility is that he means the (very rare) tertiary or third-order rainbow. See wikipedia:Rainbow#Higher-order_rainbows. Here's a picture of one. 13:03, 23 May 2016 (UTC)

Should we mention multiple rainbow discussion in today's What If?? Djbrasier (talk) 19:54, 23 May 2016 (UTC)

Yes it is now included in the explanation. Given that the third panel halo has sun dogs it is not a third order rainbow that Noah sees though. --Kynde (talk) 13:14, 24 May 2016 (UTC)

There is nothing within the Bible to indicate that the earth was destroyed by fire before the flood. As already mentioned, there is mention in the Bible that God intends to destroy the world by fire in the future. Second Peter 3 contains a number of references to this, especially verses 7 and 10. note the phrase "and the elements will be dissolved (or melt) with fervent heat" which could mean nuclear holocaust, or worse. 04:19, 24 May 2016 (UTC)

Or it could mean that the Sun will enter into its Red Giant phase in about 5 billion years and incinerate the Earth that way. Whilst humanity is capable of wiping itself out via nuclear holocaust, I think that actually destroying the planet is a bit beyond our capabilities. 05:43, 30 May 2016 (UTC)

Regarding the what if. Does anyone now which video it is he will not make any reference to in the image with Megan touching the rainbow. It seems like it should be easy to find it, but unless it is the commercial for touching the rainbow (which shows nothing like in this picture), it does not seem to be easy to find. --Kynde (talk) 13:14, 24 May 2016 (UTC)

You mean the "double rainbow" meme? This should probably explain it - Double Rainbow at KYM Psu256 (talk) 15:54, 25 May 2016 (UTC)
Yes thanks. I just found (and saw) the original double rainbow video because it was referenced in Whiplash (the movie) and I read about it in the trivia section on IMDb. So I remembers this and came back here, which was great because it was first with your link that I understood the fuzz ;-) Kynde (talk) 10:46, 8 June 2016 (UTC)

While I agree that mentioning Noah is probably worthwhile, nothing in the comic directly indicates that Cueball is in fact Noah as opposed to just some random fellow talking to God. In the Genisis account (Genesis 9) https://www.biblegateway.com/passage/?search=Genesis+9&version=NIV God tells him about the covenant and the rainbow, rather than being asked about it - thus Cueball is clearly someone other than a person familiar with the whole deal. J-beda (talk) 23:10, 24 May 2016 (UTC)

Perhaps, but most people only have a passing familiarity with the bible and many assume they have a greater knowledge than they do. Also the author has changed how things happen before for the sake of the comic. In the past we would have the official transcript to settle the matter but lately this hasn't been included. While the person in the comic may not be Noah I would say Noah is notable enough to reference and for the moment we should refer to him as Noah because it wouldn't serve to make the explanation clearer if we don't, it would just be pointless nitpicking which clutters up an otherwise alright explanation. Lackadaisical (talk) 00:43, 25 May 2016 (UTC)
I think it is clearly Noah, it is right after the flood so there are only him and his family, and Noah would not know what it is until God tels him. And given that god generally only rarely speaks, it is most likely that Noah has though what it was before God tels him about it. And if Noah thinks about it, then God know that he had the though... This is of course for the fairytale fluff of the bible, but in that context it must be clear that this is Noah. --Kynde (talk) 12:10, 25 May 2016 (UTC)

I feel like the section on "halos" is fairly irrelevant (and to a lesser extent the following section for the final panel). Cueball doesn't say he sees a ring AROUND the sun, he says "what about that faint third bow near the sun", "bow" being short for rainbow. He's seeing a third rainbow near the sun, probably faint because of being close to the sun in the sky. I believe the gag here isn't describing real life conditions, it's that god is rather incorrigable, constantly apologizing but never improving, continuously putting up apology rainbows. After all, even a second rainbow is rather uncommon. It's a silly image for Cueball to be seeing rainbows all over the sky. I think that's the gag, and the current explanation is just overthinking it. - NiceGuy1 04:07, 25 May 2016 (UTC) I finally signed up! This comment is mine. Also, it clearly never occurred to me to re-check this comic for new comments. :) Hopefully now that I've signed up I'll get notified of comments now. Right? NiceGuy1 (talk) 09:59, 9 June 2017 (UTC)

Read the What-If. It was over-thought before the explanation was ever written. 05:23, 25 May 2016 (UTC)
Well the rainbow clouds on either side of the sun, where a "bow" around the sun is seen, is almost certainly referring to sun dogs. And they appear together with halos! And since Noah did not even now what a rain bow was and asked "what that colored band was", then anything he sees in the sky will now be called a bow, and not a ring/halo. It is not impossible to have rainbow in one direction and halo with sun dog in the other! But to see the third bow with your eyes is all but impossible! --Kynde (talk) 12:10, 25 May 2016 (UTC)

Hey I thought he was talking about the individual colors as 'bands' This makes for less rainbows to be seen.