“Ark Encounter,” built at a cost of more than $102 million, is scheduled to open July 7 in Williamstown, Ky.
WILLIAMSTOWN, Ky. —
In the beginning, Ken Ham made the Creation Museum in northern Kentucky. And he saw that it was good at spreading his belief that the Bible is a book of history, the universe is 6,000 years old, and evolution is wrong and is leading to our moral downfall.
And Ham said, let us build a gargantuan Noah’s ark 45 minutes away to draw millions more visitors. And let it be constructed by Amish woodworkers, and financed with donations, junk bonds and tax rebates from the state of Kentucky. And let it hold an animatronic Noah and lifelike models of some of the creatures that came on board two-by-two, such as bears, short-necked giraffes — and juvenile Tyrannosaurus rexes.
And it was so.
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Ham’s “Ark Encounter,” built at a cost of more than $102 million, is scheduled to open July 7 in Williamstown. Ham and his crew have succeeded in erecting a colossal landmark and an ambitious promotional vehicle for their particular brand of Christian fundamentalism, known as “young earth” or “young universe” creationism.
It was not smooth sailing. The state tried to revoke the tax rebates after learning that Ham would require employees to sign a “statement of faith” that would exclude people who were gay or did not accept his particular Christian creed. Ham went to court and in January, he won.
On a recent afternoon, the Australian-born Ham looked out on the workers in hard hats affixing pine planking to cover the Tyvek plastic wrap still visible on the stern. The ark stretches 1 ½ football fields long, rises as high as a seven-story building and is said to be the largest timber-frame building in the world. Ham is betting it will become an international pilgrimage site and a draw for the curious, the seculars and even the skeptics.
“The reason we are building the ark is not as an entertainment center,” Ham said in an interview in a cabin overlooking the construction site. “I mean it’s not like a Disney or Universal, just for anyone to go and have fun. It’s a religious purpose. It’s because we’re Christians and we want to get the Christian message out.”
The ark is also intended to serve as a vivid warning that, according to the Bible, God sent a flood in Noah’s time to wipe out a depraved people, and God will deliver a fiery end to those who reject the Bible and accept modern-day evils such as abortion, atheism and same-sex marriage. “We’re becoming more like the days of Noah in that we see increasing secularization in the culture,” Ham said.
Ham’s interpretation of what he calls “the Christian message” is derided by most scientists and educators, and resented by some Christians who consider it indefensible, even embarrassing.
Young earthers believe God created the universe in six 24-hour days, and since all of history is only 6,000 years, humans coexisted with dinosaurs. An exhibit at the Creation Museum shows two smiling children playing in a lush garden next to two petite Tyrannosaurus rexes.
Bill Nye, best known as “the science guy” on television and in books, said in a telephone interview, “Humans and ancient dinosaurs did not live at the same time. It’s completely unreasonable.” Science has established that Earth is billions of years old, and no worldwide flood occurred in the last 6,000 years.
“We’re going to raise a generation of kids who are scientifically illiterate,” said Nye, who debated Ham at the Creation Museum in 2014, a matchup watched online by millions.
A group of local atheist activists, the Tri-State Freethinkers, recently tried to put up billboards on the highway approaching the ark, calling it the “Genocide and Incest Park,” but no billboard company would agree, said the Freethinkers’ founder and president, Jim Helton, so the group plans to protest at the ark’s grand opening. “The moral of the flood story is horrible,” Helton said. “We’re not saying he can’t build his park. But we don’t think it’s appropriate for a family fun day.”
Young earth creationism gained currency about 60 years ago, and has remained a marginal creed within Christianity. Even many Bible-believers and evangelicals accept the science showing that the universe is billions of years old — some reasoning that each of the six “days” of creation in the Book of Genesis may have lasted millions of years, not 24 hours. And many Christians accept evolution.
But the young earthers are having a heyday, thanks largely to Ham and his supporters. Their ministry, Answers in Genesis, produces books, magazines, videos and curricula used by thousands of churches and home-schoolers. The Creation Museum — which sells these materials in its gift shops — claims 2.7 million visitors have come in the nine years since it opened. But about half those visitors came to the Creation Museum in the first three years, suggesting interest may have dropped off. The ark could change that. Ham projects that the ark will attract 1.4 million to 2.2 million visitors in the first year, and will double the attendance at the Creation Museum.
Preparing the creatures
Inside a cavernous warehouse in an office park in Hebron, a few miles from the museum, about 50 artists, designers, carpenters, sculptors and volunteers have been working six-day weeks to prepare the exhibits for the ark.
A sculptor inserted stiff gray-brown hairs one at a time into the chin of what looked like a wild boar. Another wiped off the black dye on a bear’s chest to make it look less like a contemporary black bear. A giraffe with a short neck was being “baked” in a large oven to set the dye on its fur.
Tim Chaffey, a content manager and writer for the Answers in Genesis ministry, explained that most of the models do not resemble animals the way they look today, but extinct species. According to young-earth creationists, the ark carried up to 1,400 “kinds” of creatures that gradually evolved into the animals we know today. Young earthers accept the notion that nature makes small adaptations over time — but do not accept that humans and chimpanzees descended from a common ancestor.
The ark designers had to scale back their initial ambition to have live animals living on board to demonstrate the truth of the Noah story, said Chaffey, a graduate of Liberty University, a Christian college in Virginia founded by the Rev. Jerry Falwell.
There will be only about 30 pairs of stuffed animals on the Ark Encounter because there just isn’t enough space. “We have to have dozens and dozens of bathrooms for visitors. Noah didn’t have to have that,” Chaffey said.
Drawings of Noah and his seven family members hung on a wall. Their skin is “middle brown” and their faces are a blend of racial features because, as the only survivors of the biblical flood, all the races and ethnicities on Earth would have descended from these eight people, Chaffey said. But in some of the displays in the warehouse, there were indications of the ministry’s dark vision of humanity. An artist, Stephanie Fazekas, stood at a computer drawing figurines of women in togas. They were prostitutes for a diorama portraying the morally decadent society that the Bible says was wiped out in a flood.
In an interview, Ham railed against atheist groups for trying to prevent his project from receiving tax incentives from Kentucky. Answers in Genesis claimed that the state’s denial of those tax credits violated the group’s First Amendment rights.
Judge Greg Van Tatenhove of the U.S. District Court for the Eastern District of Kentucky agreed, writing in his January decision that tourist attractions — even those that advance religion — meet the neutral criteria for the tax incentives.
The ark is now in calmer waters. The workers, standing on hydraulic lifts, have covered over the Tyvek, and just in time. The Tyvek was printed all over with the slogan of its maker, DuPont: “The Miracles of Science.”