The flamboyant creationist Ken Ham's controversial and long-awaited "Ark Encounter" theme park has just opened in Williamstown, Kentucky. At a cost of almost $100 million, the park promises visitors -- who pay $60 for admission -- an encounter with "one of the greatest reminders we have of salvation."
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 80-acre elaboration of the section of Ham's equally ambitious Creation Museum -- about 40 miles away -- dealing with the story of Noah's Flood, as described in Genesis.
A companion booklet details how the project has faithfully reproduced the ark to match the descriptions provided in the early chapters of Genesis. 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 the "largest timber-frame structure in the world."
Dogged by controversy since its conception, the project has overcome 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. 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."
Ham may be right that the Lord has worked mightily on his ark project but I fear he has things backwards. If God was paying any attention to Ham's project at all, the divine efforts would most certainly have been expended trying to block such a project, to prevent yet another extravagant and misguided embarrassment from taking up residence in American evangelicalism.
The Biblical story of Noah's Ark is, to be sure, one of the grandest tales in Western Culture, although the 2014 Russell Crowe version was a bit flat. A six hundred year old man is contacted by God and told that an intolerably wicked humanity will shortly be drowned in a great flood. But Noah is a righteous man who does not deserve to die. So God tells him to build a giant boat to save himself, his family, and two of every species. And after the flood recedes his righteous offspring and the animals he rescued will repopulate the earth.
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 17thh century, questions were being raised in the great age of exploration 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, there were once just two kangaroos and both were located in Turkey. How did they hop across the ocean to Australia? As the catalog of animals grew it became clear they could not have even fit in the ark. When the poles were explored it was discovered that they could not have been under water just 4000 years ago. There isn't enough water to cover the mountains. Many plants could not have survived being submerged in salt water. The list goes on. The story of Noah's Flood is simply not possible.
In the 19th 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.
Recent discoveries in human genetics have shown clearly that the human race cannot have consisted of just 8 people a few thousand years ago. In Ham's imaginative retelling of the story all of the races existing now had to develop in an amazing evolutionary spurt that began when Noah's family got off the ark.
None of these challenges to a literal reading of the story of Noah should be considered controversial. And yet Ham has spent a hundred 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. Ham wants to convince a gullible, scientifically challenged public that Noah, with a crew consisting entirely of 7 family members, cared for two of every species of animal for over a year--feeding them, watering them, cleaning up their waste. 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 the water would not be refrigerated.
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. But I am horrified by the story as an adult. Taken literally--the 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 not sired by Noah 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. I doubt God helped Ham with his project to establish this.
In convincing people that Noah's Flood was a historical event, Ham has done a great disservice to Christianity and thinking people in general. For if Ham is right, 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 God will send a flood to carry away Ham's Ark.