An elderly, bearded, white man dressed in ancient Middle Eastern garb, turban and all, stood on a stage in the middle of a field in Williamstown, Kentucky, and played a tune on what appeared to be a wooden flute. It was July 5, and I was watching him online from the comfort of my in-laws’ home in Memphis. Two minutes into his solo, the Williamstown High School band joined in, marching in formation through the crowd of 7,000 people who had come to bear witness to the ribbon-cutting of Ark Encounter, a Christian theme park featuring a replica of Noah’s ark built using the dimensions God gave to Noah in Genesis 6.
Ark Encounter has captivated my interest and curiosity since Answers in Genesis (AiG) announced the colossal project in 2010. AiG is the popular young-Earth creationist apologetics organization led by Ken Ham, well-known for the 2014 Bill Nye-Ken Ham debate. My interest in Ark Encounter stems not from the desire to see a particular worldview defended or rebuffed, but simply from the fact that I’m fascinated by some of the quirkier ways fellow Christians express their faith. On AiG’s website Ham described the opening of Ark Encounter as “a historic moment in Christendom.” I knew I had to see it for myself, and I was pleased when CT asked me to report on the opening. That is how, in the 24th year of my life, in the 7th month, on the 7th day of the month, I set out on a journey to visit Ark Encounter with one question in mind: What are we, evangelical Christians, to make of this?
The first hints that a major tourist attraction had landed in these Kentucky fields were signs on the highway warning motorists to expect ramp delays at the exit leading to Ark Encounter. Traffic jams, I imagine, are foreign to the residents of Williamstown, a city of around 4,000 people. But they just might become the new normal. A study from America’s Research Group predicts that as many as 2.2 million people will visit the attraction in its first year alone. That is to say, the gas station and motel across the street from the park’s entrance are about to have a very good fiscal year.
I drive through the main entrance as hardhat-wearing construction workers in cherry pickers put the final touches on the Ark Encounter sign. There’s no boat in sight—just a sea of blacktop dotted with few dozen cars. The park doesn’t open to the public for another hour, but people are already in line, waiting to hand over $40 per adult and $28 per child to get in. I hop on a bus taking Ark Encounter employees to their stations. After one mile, the bus reaches the crest of a hill, and there it is: Noah’s ark, $100 million worth of biblically-proportioned, timber-framed splendor.
From a structural standpoint alone, Ham has done something remarkable. The thing is 510 feet long and 80 feet high. Imagine the Statue of Liberty lying horizontally. Now add 200 feet to it and you’re still five feet short of the ark’s length. The juxtaposition of seeing a massive ship in the middle of a field with no water in sight save for a small brown pond is disorienting, but only adds to its grandeur.
Since I have a reporter’s pass, I have 45 minutes to explore the world’s largest free-standing timber-frame structure free of tourists. As I make my way up the entrance ramp beneath the ark, I begin to hear music and the sound of a distant storm playing through speakers. Inside, cages filled with detailed models of extinct animal species thought to be the ancestors of the animals we are familiar with today line both sides of the main floor.
Ham believes that two of each kind, not species, of land-dependent animals joined Noah on the ark. “A good rule of thumb is that if two things can breed together, then they are of the same created kind,” the Ark Encounter website says. This is important because according to AiG’s worst-case-scenario calculations, Noah’s family shared the ark with a mere 7,000 animals.
“Each family member would have been responsible for an average of about 850 animals,” a sign with the title “Manageable Workloads” reads, hanging above one of the animal exhibits.
I close my eyes and imagine myself as Noah, surrounded by animals, perhaps pleading with God to let the water recede, perhaps receiving no answer. When I open my eyes, an Ark Encounter employee is standing in front of me.
I’m about to be late for my interview with Ham, and after wandering around the ark for a while, I’m a bit turned around.
“Is this the first floor?” I ask. “I need to be on the third floor, but I’m not sure how to get there.”
“Well, technically speaking, this is the main deck,” he says, emphasizing the nautical terminology.
He directs me toward the third deck, where Ham is waiting at a circular table in the bow of the ark.
Ken Ham’s grander vision
Ham has been dreaming about this moment—the opening of Ark Encounter—for three decades, he says. The project took a backseat when AiG decided to open the Creation Museum in 2007. Just 45 minutes down the road, the museum promotes the young-Earth creationism belief. But Ham always knew the ark would happen eventually. In 2004, while the Creation Museum was under construction, he was already asking, “What can we continue to do to make a statement for Christianity to the world?” By 2005, Ark Encounter had become AiG’s top post-Creation Museum priority.
There’s more coming, too. The next phase, which will cost another $50 million, includes a walled city similar to one Ham believes Noah would have lived in before the flood and a replica of the Tower of Babel. The height of the Tower of Babel is still up in the air, but considering Ham’s commitment to staying as true as possible to the biblical account, it will be tall enough to warrant divine intervention. There’s also a 900-seat auditorium in the works and talk of a “teaching ride” that takes guests through the 10 plagues of Egypt.
“The Bible says to go into all the world and preach the gospel,” Ham says. “We’re saying … let’s do something that will also attract the world here.” He compares the park to a Christian version of Disney World, saying his themed attraction is “beyond Hollywood in quality.” As I sit within the wooden walls of the massive attraction, I can’t help but wonder:
A “Christian” Disney World might attract millions of people, but will guests really leave with a deeper understanding of the grace, mercy, and love of Jesus Christ?
The numerous displays and exhibits throughout the massive structure bear witness to the staggering amount of certainty that must be required to dedicate years of your life to this sort of project. Ham and AiG have been doing this long enough to anticipate every question that might be thrown at them. What about fossils? How did they dispose of animal waste? How do you explain the Ice Ages?—they have an answer for them all. Still, I’ve never met a Christian who hasn’t been through seasons of doubt or uncertainty. During our interview, I ask Ham about this. Does he ever wrestle with doubts? Has doubt been a part of his spiritual journey?
He pauses for a full ten seconds—the longest pause of our conversation—before speaking.
“I’ve never not believed in God.”
He says he has, however, had many “Red Sea events”—moments when he was bearing the pressure of of what he was trying to accomplish and feeling like Moses, with the Red Sea ahead and the Egyptians behind. “As [God] trusts you with big things, sometimes there are bigger things that you get to the edge of and say, ‘what are we going to do?’”
Ultimately, Ham says, his hope is that non-Christian guests will leave Ark Encounter with an interest in learning more about the Bible, and he sees the theme park as “one of the greatest Christian outreaches of our era.” “We aren’t going to convince the majority,” he admits, “but we need to do business until [Jesus] comes.” Ham also hopes Christians leave feeling like they can be more public and bold with their faith. “Christians feel put down in this culture. They come here, and they’re encouraged.”
What life was like on the ark...maybe
After the interview with Ham, I head down to the second floor where I find Noah’s library. I had no idea Noah had a library on the ark, but here it is, right in front of me. Genesis 5:1 says, “This is the book of the generations of Adam.” That verse alone serves as grounds for including a library on Ham’s version of Noah’s ark. Since the word “book” is used, it’s entirely possible that Noah had a library, Ham pointed out during our interview. “Who says that Adam didn’t write and hand down writings to Noah who brought them on board the ark?”
Along with a library, Ark Encounter depicts Noah having surprisingly advanced woodworking and blacksmith shops onboard. “It helps you understand that Noah and his family were just like us,” I recall Ham telling me earlier. “But probably much more intelligent.” There’s also an entire exhibit speculating about what Noah’s life was like before God called him to build an ark. A sign reads: “Driven by a desire for adventure and a love for construction, Noah traveled to a small port city where he became an apprentice shipwright. He learned blacksmithing and shipbuilding and eventually married the daughter of his employer.”
The beginning of the exhibit acknowledges that the creators have used “artistic license” to provide a “plausible backstory based on clues from Scripture,” but to my knowledge, there is absolutely nothing in the Bible that supports these speculations.
An exhibit on the third floor shows what Noah and his family’s living quarters might have been like on the ark. From an artistic perspective, it’s gorgeous. In addition to showing what life might have possibly been like on the ark, the exhibit seems to invent personalities for Noah’s family. One sign reads: “Just like his mother, Shem is a natural in caring for animals, particularly the clean animals. They have discussed various theories about selectively breeding certain animals to produce offspring more useful for domesticated functions.” The sign goes on to say that Shem spent his free time studying the scrolls in his father’s library, and that he longs to see the stars again.
There is yet another “artistic license” disclaimer for this sign. This one reads, “Since we don’t have a time machine, we can only make educated guesses about the looks, skills, and personality of each individual.… We took great care not to contradict biblical details.” Simply not contradicting biblical details leaves a lot of room for embellishment. I doubt the motivations behind these additions are malicious. Nevertheless, while these “educated guesses” may create engaging exhibits, they seem to have little to do with teaching visitors about God.
A life-changing theme park?
As I wind my way through the exhibits, people continue flow in, slowly filling the massive vessel. I wonder what they make of all of this?
At one exhibit I find two teenage girls on a youth group trip (the matching T-shirts are a dead giveaway) staring into a cage containing a model dinosaur, roughly the size of a full-grown golden retriever. “From the animal’s perspective, this is insane,” one of them says. “One day you’re with your pack or your herd, and God tells you to leave everything you know, find an ark, and climb on board.” The other girl is silent for a moment, pondering her friend’s comment. “I wish I had faith like that,” she finally says.
By 11 a.m. all three decks are packed with visitors, and the temperature inside the ark is beginning to rise. I head to the stern, where the crowd is thinner, and meet a man from Caledonia, Ohio, named Don. “We’re Christians,” he says, “but it’s not like we’re Bible-thumpers or anything like that.” Don and his wife made the three-hour drive to Ark Encounter because his daughter, son-in-law, and grandchildren have driven from New York for the opening day. “I think we believe in it,” he says when I ask about the Genesis account. “It’s still hard to fathom how 8 people could take care of 7,000 [animals] … but that’s what the Bible says, so apparently it did happen.” He says he would come back if his grandchildren wanted to, but other than that, “this is sort of like going to see a movie: You see it once.”
While examining the rainbow exhibit, I meet Jimmy Butts, a student in the Master of Divinity program at Southern Baptist Theological Seminary. He says he sees the theme park as an educational opportunity for Christians to learn how to answer the tough questions about their faith. “Oftentimes, we go through life, and when our beliefs have not been challenged and we haven’t been forced to answer certain questions … we’re not ready to give an answer,” he says. “As we go through here, we’re seeing [the exhibits] hit on specific questions that skeptics ask or use as a critique.”
Ark Encounter and the Gospel
I’ve been inside this wooden vessel for a few hours, and I’m starting to get hungry. The chips and Pepsi products sold inside the ark are tempting, but I have a long drive home ahead of me, and my heart (and stomach) is set on something grander to complete my Ark Encounter experience: Emzara’s Kitchen, the 1,500-seat restaurant next to the ark. I follow the exit signs and end up in a sprawling gift shop hawking traditional amusement park wares. Books. Stuffed animals. Cheap pottery. Colorful purses. Lotions and face washes. Mugs. Hats. A shirt with bears on it that reads “Bear-y glad we were on Noah’s ark.” I begin to pull out my wallet because I’m a sucker for knick-knacks, but a whiff of something deep fried from Emzara’s realigns my priorities. It takes 25 minutes of standing in line, but I finally order a surprisingly delicious $7 personal pan pizza and a water, forgoing the $9.99 refillable souvenir bottle (“$1 refills at both Ark Encounter and Creation Museum!”).
I sit down at a table by myself and go about the impossible work of trying to make sense of Ken Ham, Ark Encounter, and these thousands of people.
I pull out my phone to check Twitter and find headlines about yet another tragedy that quickly moves me to tears. My morning inside the ark had felt like a vacation from the real world, a brief distraction from the overwhelming brokenness and pain that permeates our communities. I agree with Ham in one sense: We are to go into the world, preach the gospel, and do business until Christ comes. But whereas Ark Encounter aims to fulfill this mission by drawing people in through its turnstiles, I tend to think we experience and share God’s presence best when we weep with those who weep, care for the orphans and the widows, and love our neighbors as ourselves. This means entering into and engaging with cultures, communities, and places where we may not always feel welcomed or encouraged.
Many people will have a genuine experience with God at Ark Encounter. Their faith will be strengthened, and they will walk away with a renewed appreciation for the Bible and a desire to speak boldly about their beliefs. But for the skeptic or the atheist who might be drawn to the park out of curiosity, there is little to make them stop and think about the point of it all: Jesus, our savior who left heaven, came down to earth, lived a sinless existence, and died so that we may have life abundantly.
People are searching for answers to life’s biggest questions: Why am I here? Am I loved? What do I do with my pain? Any beliefs we have about Creation, Noah’s ark, or the Bible as a whole are beneficial only insofar as they help us point a hurting world to the one who provides the true answers to the longings of our hearts. A 100-million-dollar, biblically accurate wooden replica of Noah’s ark can find its true value only by directing us to the wood of the Cross and the one who died on it for the sake of the world.
With tears still in my eyes and distressing news headlines still swirling in my head, I make my way back to the busy parking lot and get in my car. I pull out of Ark Encounter, turn right, drive past the gas station and motel, and head down the highway toward home. After a few minutes, it starts to rain.
Cort Gatliff is a writer who lives in Birmingham, Alabama, with his wife. He studied journalism and English at the University of Tennessee.