The flamboyant creationist and enthusiastic biblical literalist Ken Ham has just opened his controversial and long-awaited “Ark Encounter” theme park in Williamstown, Kentucky. At a cost of almost 100 million dollars, the park promises visitors—who pay $60 for admission—an encounter with “one of the greatest reminders we have of salvation.” In Ham’s view, Christians must accept all the stories in the Bible, no matter how fanciful, as literal history. Compromising on one Bible story compromises everything else.
Ham describes the Ark Encounter as a “one-of-a-kind historically themed attraction,” presenting “a number of historical events centered on a full-size, all-wood Ark.” The new project is an eighty-acre elaboration of the section of Ham’s equally ambitious Creation Museum—about forty miles away—dealing with the story of Noah’s Flood as described in Genesis.
A companion booklet details how the project faithfully reproduced the ark to match the descriptions the Bible says were provided to Noah by God. The resulting structure is 300 cubits long, 50 cubits wide, and 30 cubits high. (A cubit is an ancient measure based on the distance from an adult’s elbow to their fingertips, roughly 20 inches.) The Ark is thus more than one and a half football fields in length, making it, at least according to Ham, the “largest timber-frame structure in the world.”
Dogged by controversy since its conception, the project overcame many challenges. Tax incentives were controversial, given the organization’s view on LGBT hiring. Raising funds was a problem, solved partially by Ham’s high-profile debate with Bill Nye, who was an early visitor to the Ark Encounter. Scientists expressed concern about the promotion of pseudoscience. Biblical scholars objected to treating the myth of Noah’s flood as a historical event. Having overcome so many problems—which he views as the work of Satan—Ham now confidently states, “The Lord has worked mightily over the years to make this project a reality.”
The Ark Encounter is based on one of the grandest tales in Western Culture, although the 2014 Russell Crowe version was a bit flat. (Ham described it as “unbiblical, pagan” and “the worst film I’ve ever seen.”)
In the biblical account, God contacts a six-hundred-year-old man and warns him that an intolerably wicked human race will shortly be drowned in a great flood. Noah, being the only righteous man on the planet, is instructed by God to build a giant boat to save himself, his family, and two of every species. After the flood recedes, Noah’s righteous offspring and the animals he rescued will repopulate the earth with righteous humans.
The story of Noah’s Flood, more so than any other major story in the Bible, has been known for centuries to be impossible. Many lines of evidence make this clear. As far back as the seventeenth century’s great age of exploration, questions arose about how all the newly discovered animals could possibly have gotten to their existing locations if they were once on a boat that that docked in the Middle East. In Ham’s retelling, four thousand years ago there were just two kangaroos and both were located in Turkey, on Mt. Ararat where the ark came to rest. How did they hop across the ocean to Australia? And as explorers expanded the catalog of animals, it became clear they could not have fit in the ark, even if they could have gotten there.
Explorers soon discovered that the north and south poles could not have been under water just four thousand years ago. Once the height of the Earth’s great mountains was determined, calculations showed that there wasn’t enough water to cover them. Plants were discovered that could not have survived being submerged in salt water. The list goes on. The story of Noah’s Flood is simply not possible, and educated thinkers in the West began abandoning it more than three centuries ago.
Almost every new science that emerged in the wake of the Scientific Revolution created additional problems for the story. Evolution ruled out the possibility that all the races could have evolved from Noah’s family in just a few thousand years. Geneticists determined that the human race could never have consisted of just eight people. The discovery of continental drift showed that, by the time of Noah’s flood, the continents were in their present locations, making it impossible for the animals to have accomplished the necessary migration both onto the ark, and then back to their present locations.
These challenges to a literal reading of the story of Noah were the collateral damage of scientific progress, so much so that to insist today on the historicity of Noah’s flood requires the rejection of many mainstream scientific ideas. And yet Ham has spent $100 million dollars in a quixotic attempt to convince people that the story of Noah’s Flood is the central event in the history of our planet—the event that explains the origins of the mountains and the continents, the great canyons carved by rivers, the distribution of animals and human tribes.
Adding literary insult to scientific injury, nineteenth-century biblical scholars discovered ancient stories of other “Noahs” who were saved with the animals in a great boat. These stories predated the biblical version by centuries and were clearly its inspiration.
By the end of the nineteenth century, educated Christians were actively reexamining their tradition and seeking ways to free it from its pre-scientific worldview. This project took place on multiple fronts, but the most important involved the foundational stories in the early chapters of Genesis. In my book Saving the Original Sinner: How Christians Have Used the Bible’s First Man to Oppress, Inspire, and Make Sense of the World, I show how this played out in the story of Adam and Eve. The Noah story, interestingly, is a “reset” on Adam and Eve. Adam and Eve, created righteous, fell into sin that became so bad that, within a few generations, God wanted to start over. The righteous Noah was that attempt and, like the first effort, failed miserably.
Ken Ham’s ambitious projects are sponsored by his organization, Answers in Genesis, with an annual budget of twenty million dollars. He believes that rejection of the historicity of the first chapters of the Bible undermines the social order that God set up in Eden—an order built explicitly on traditional male and female roles. In his view, the growing acceptance of gay marriage, gender complexity, and even women having careers of their own, is all based on the collapse of the authority of Genesis—an authority he wants to restore by convincing people that the story of Noah is real history at the Ark Encounter.
It’s a daunting task from a practical point of view, even setting aside the scientific challenges.
Ham seeks to convince his audience that Noah, with a crew consisting entirely of seven family members, cared for two of every species—he uses the uncertain biblical term “kind” in place of species—for over a year. Noah’s tiny crew fed the animals, watered them, cleaned up their waste, healed their illnesses. This strains credulity. Just the two elephants alone would have needed at least 15,000 gallons of fresh water—water that would have to be stored, since the water outside the ark would have been salty. And, not being refrigerated, the water would have to be prevented somehow from becoming contaminated.
Noah’s story, as a tale for children, has a certain adventurous charm, and I was fascinated by it as a kid in Sunday School. Much of that adventure came back to me when I visited Ham’s other project, the Creation Museum, a story I recount in Saving the Original Sinner. But I have to confess that I am horrified by the story as an adult and wonder why it took me so long to see just how horrifying the story is. Taken literally—the entire point of Ham’s new park—the story suggests that God drowned all the children on the planet for their parents’ sins. Even if we assume that all adults outside of Noah’s family were terrible sinners deserving to be drowned, the collateral damage in the deaths of innocent children and animals dwarfs every major genocide in history combined. If Noah’s story is literally true, God is a monster.
In convincing people that Noah’s Flood was a historical event, Ham has done a great disservice to Christianity and thinking people in general. To preserve the historicity of Noah’s story, almost all of contemporary science, biblical scholarship, and ancient history must be wrong. If there ever was a tail wagging a dog, this has to be it.
Perhaps, as Ham believes God once did, an offended deity will send another flood, this time to carry away Ham’s Ark, which I suspect will not float.
About the Author
Karl Giberson teaches science and religion at Stonehill College and is a leading voice in America’s creation/evolution controversy. He is the author of ten books, including Saving Darwin, a Washington Post “Best Book of 2008,”Saving the Original Sinner: How Christians Have Used the Bible's First Man to Oppress, Inspire, and Make Sense of the World, and The Anointed: Evangelical Truth in a Secular Age, with Randall Stephens. He lives in Hingham, Massachusetts. He lives on the web at www.karlgiberson.com. Follow him on Twitter at @gibersok.