Noah's Ark Turned Up in Kentucky. And Atheists Are Angry

An evangelical Christian group invested $120 million in building the Ark Encounter to convince visitors that the world was created less than 6,000 years ago

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Noah's Ark, the centerpiece of The Ark Encounter, a tourist attraction in Kentucky.
Noah's Ark, the centerpiece of The Ark Encounter, a tourist attraction in Kentucky. Credit: Ark Encounter
Moshe Gilad
Moshe Gilad
Moshe Gilad
Moshe Gilad

KENTUCKY – A thin rain fell, but it did not look like a flood was about to wash away northern Kentucky. Yet, standing in front of us was Noah’s Ark, waiting to save mankind. It is 155.5 meters (510 feet) long and is perched in the middle of a beautiful green park. Along the trail are plants clipped into the shapes of pairs of elephants and giraffes. Hundreds of visitors who came to Grant County in Kentucky on the same rainy morning stood, gazing at it in wonder. Nothing had prepared us for the amazing sight of the enormous ark, without any windows, as tall as a seven-story building (16 meters high) nestled in the heart of America.

The Ark Encounter, as the park is called, is one of those places you must see to believe. Immediately after you step into the ark, you find yourself engaged on two different levels. This is an awe-inspiring, fascinating, entertaining tourist attraction. But it is also one with terrifyingly serious intentions. Its founders “recreated” the biblical story of the flood and Noah, who built his lifeboat so that his family, along with the lizards, owls, bears and porcupines, would survive the flood. The ark floated and humanity was saved because of a single family. The animal kingdom survived and the story has a happy ending. A wonderful tale.

But the builders of the modern version of the ark believe that this was not just a story. In their view, the Book of Genesis is a history book, every detail of which is accurate. They invested $120 million (through private donations and state funds) in building the Ark Encounter to convince visitors that the world was created less than 6,000 years ago, that Noah was 600 years old when the flood took place, that he spent 70 years building the ark and that 6,744 animals belonging to 1,398 species were on the vessel. How do they get to this precise number? The founders, members of “Answers in Genesis,” an evangelical Christian ministry, have made the exacting calculations.

To spread their beliefs that the world was created in six days and rebooted after the flood, they invested a great deal of money and effort – and the ark project is just the beginning. Later, they will build a Tower of Babel, too, they promise. Over 2 million people have already visited the Ark Encounter since it was opened two years ago. It is the most popular tourist attraction today in Kentucky, with the visitors coming primarily from the Bible Belt.

In addition to the new ark, visitors to the region take in the Creation Museum about an hour’s drive away in Petersburg, Kentucky. At this museum, built 10 years ago by Answers in Genesis, you can see dinosaurs strolling in the Garden of Eden, alongside Adam and Eve.

Our friends, the dinosaurs

For over four hours, I climbed between the decks of the ark. It doesn’t have staircases, only well-designed, long, polished wooden platforms. Every floor is about a different topic. The first deck is devoted to the living conditions of the animals and people who spent the 150 days of the flood inside the ark. It turns out they had thousands of jugs of water made out of clay, containers of food, piles of straw – and mostly lots of large wooden cages where the animals lived: pair by pair. Noah and his family are displayed on the second deck alongside questions about evolution, compared to creationist theory. The third floor compares Noah’s era to ours today. It turns out that Judgment Day will come but we can still be saved.

Lifelike pairs of animals in the recreated Noah's Ark. Credit: Paul deCesare

The lighting is a bit dim, yellowish. No natural light enters the ark. A fascinating soundtrack accompanies the visitors. You hear kids bleating and elephants trumpeting, human cries along with barking, chirping and screeching. You can hear the incredible storm raging outside. In a few places there is music. The pens contain animals in the form of terrifyingly realistic models, complete with fur and a vital look in their eyes. Made especially for the ark museum, they are truly wonderful – especially the dinosaurs. You didn’t know there were dinosaurs in Noah’s Ark? Then it’s a good thing you came to visit the Ark Encounter. It turns out that the subject of dinosaurs is a really big thing. If until now you thought the dinosaurs went extinct over 60 million years ago, then think again – the dinosaurs were in the ark too, alongside people.

All the exhibits are complemented by displays of information, diagrams and figures that lend it all a scientific feel. A team of Hollywood designers, led by Patrick Marsh – who worked for Universal Studios and built such attractions as King Kong – are responsible for the excellent design. The level of work on the ark, including all its details and components, competes quite successfully with the best theme parks in America. Some of the animals move, others make noises, some of them flap their wings and other eat out of the hands of mannequins of Noah, his sons and daughters-in-law. The daughters-in-law may not have names in the Book of Genesis, but the founders of the ark took some artistic liberties.

This is not the only case of such liberties. The bible does not elaborate on many topics, beginning with the precise dimensions of the ark, its appearance, or how the internal spaces were divided up. The builders of the contemporary ark took it upon themselves to fill in those blanks. They also provide detailed explanations of their decisions and the considerations that guided them. To judge by the fascinated and wonderstruck looks of the visitors, they did a good job.

“It is not a cute story, it is a horrible story,” says Hunt. “This is a story of genocide and incest. God killed everybody,” says Hunt, questioning the premise that the extinction of humanity can be presented as a Disney-style attraction.

The approach of the founders of Noah’s ark is surprising. They are not trying to hide or skirt the accepted scientific claims. Just the opposite. They present the latest scientific theories one by one and address the claims of those who espouse evolution, history of the human species and the world.

The 155-meter long ark at a park in Grant County, Kentucky. Credit: Paul deCesare
Models of giraffes at the Ark Encounter.Credit: Moshe Gilad

Over 120 exhibits are spread out throughout the ark. In every one, the scientific approach is presented alongside the “divine” approach. God’s word is much simpler and much more convincing than the complex and confusing claims of humans. In a few places, detailed explanations are presented of why everything written in the Bible is true. In other places in the ark, questions are directed at the creationists: How did Noah keep the temperature cool inside the ark so the polar bears could survive? Each of these is answered in a simple, direct and convincing manner. The answer? Polar bears don’t need low temperatures. But in any case, polar bears weren’t on the ark – Noah took only one pair of bears with him. All the bears in our world today are their descendants, including the polar bears.

The correct approach

The people behind the ark leave no grey area – there is only the correct and incorrect approach. They, of course, are right. They are not apologetic about this. On the contrary, they have gone on the offensive. The innocent visitor, charmed by the scale and quality of the exhibit and the first impression it leaves, doesn’t have a chance.

Scientists may present the skeleton of Lucy – the fossil of an Australopithecus found in Ethiopia that is estimated to be 3 million years old and considered to be a possible ancestor of modern man – as proof of evolution. The ark and Creation Museum don’t ignore that. They, too, display the fossil bones, but alongside a model of a chimpanzee with an explanation that Lucy was an ape.

“Maybe there is something to this story,” an elderly man standing next to me says, as we read the nice explanation, – using clear and simple pictures and illustrations – detailing the process that created the Grand Canyon as the direct result of the flood. So what if geologists unanimously agree that the Grand Canyon was created through a long process by the Colorado River 6 million years ago, while the creators of the Ark Encounter think it was created in a flash by the flood, only 5,000 years ago?

Noah's Ark, the centerpiece of The Ark Encounter, a tourist attraction in Kentucky. Credit: Paul deCesare

Like most of the visitors to the ark, I too was not prepared to deal with the onslaught. Those who believe in the story of creation nod their heads in agreement and march on with satisfaction to the next display. The members of the larger group, who tend to believe the scientists and think that geologists know what they are talking about, are filled with doubt for a moment. It takes knowledge and determination to overcome more than 120 impressive exhibits. It is easier and more convenient to drown in delusions.

Answers in Genesis

The organization that built the ark, Answers in Genesis, is an evangelical Christian group that proclaims the truth is written in the Bible and it is historical and factual. Ken Ham, 67, who was born in Australia but now lives in the United States, renamed and founded the U.S. branch of the group in 1994. He even taught high school science classes. Since then he has published 50 books, including “The Lie: Evolution” and a children’s book: “Dinosaurs of Eden,” that answers questions such as whether Adam and Noah lived along with the dinosaurs (The answer is yes). Much of his work has been done along with his colleagues Mark Looy and Mike Zovath.

The day after I visited Noah’s ark, at the end of a visit to the Creation Museum, I had a long conversation with Looy, one of the founders, and Patrick Kanewske, who served in the Marines for 30 years and today is one of the senior executives for the two attractions. They were both very pleasant, polite and were happy to answer my questions. The fact that the Ark Encounter has drawn interest in Israel seemed to be taken for granted for them. They are not afraid of criticism or a cynical approach in the media. In fact, they demonstrated endless warmth and friendliness. The ark is a Christian themed attraction and people come to see it because they are curious about the Biblical story, says Looy.

“The bible is history. We take it literally. This is how we portray it here,” says Looy, noting that “we do give two different views – men’s word and God’s word. We don’t give our opinion in what you have to believe, as you probably saw, especially in the scientific exhibits. We think the creation side, God’s side, is very compelling.”

Models of Noah and a family member inside the seven-story Ark. Credit: Moshe Gilad
A model of Noah's family member inside the seven-story Ark. Credit: Moshe Gilad

As for why they chose the story of Noah’s Ark and the flood, he says it is because the flood was a dramatic turning point in the history of mankind, a new beginning for history. In the future, they plan on presenting other dramas, including the life of Jesus and the Tower of Babels. “This is just the beginning,” says Looy.

The reason they chose Kentucky is that it’s a location accessible to two-thirds of the U.S. population who can reach it in less than a day of driving. Their presence also helps to boost an economically depressed region. The two sites employ 1,000 people and stimulate commerce and industry in the region, says Looy.

The organization is not involved in politics, he says. But it does take a position concerning “religious” issues such as abortion and marriage. In Looy’s view, America was once a Christian nation, but not so anymore. He argues that people gave up Christianity because of science, which supposedly disproved the Biblical account. The group’s goal is to provide the church with good answers to defend their faith.

Looy is well aware that for now the creationists are still in the minority. But he is hopeful about the impact that the Ark Encounter and Creation Museum have had on the two million people who have already visited and been exposed to new information. Fighting evolution is a difficult battle, he admits, but he is optimistic.

LGBTs left out

Looy’s optimism worries many people, two of whom I met the day after my visit to the ark. We met at a Mexican restaurant off the highway leading to Cincinnati, Ohio – they didn’t want to get anywhere close to the Ark Encounter.

Displays full of information that give a scientific feel to the exhibit at The Ark Encounter. Credit: Courtesy of the Creation Museum

The Tri-State Freethinkers is an organization of atheists from Kentucky, Ohio and Indiana with 2,800 members. They act against racial discrimination, the Ku Klux Klan, support legal abortions, aid LGBT people, and back the right to die with dignity. Their battles have included demonstrations in front of the ark, since the day it was launched.

How can you build an amusement park based on a story that is filled with genocide and incest, ask Jen Scott and Jim Hunt, two members of the Freethinkers in their 30s, who live in Florence, Kentucky, a suburban community in the northern part of the state, not far from Cincinnati. Is Noah’s family the example we want to educate the children of Kentucky on, they ask?

“It is not a cute story, it is a horrible story,” says Hunt. “This is a story of genocide and incest. God killed everybody,” says Hunt, questioning the premise that the extinction of humanity can be presented as a Disney-style attraction. “What is amusing about that?”

The Ark Encounter was set up with support of the founders and a number of wealthy evangelical figures. The local authority provided the land.

Employees must declare their religious belief and pledge that they are not LGBT, charge Scott and Hunt. Single people must commit to not having sex before marriage, they add.

Spokespeople for Answers for Genesis confirmed that employees at the museums are required to sign a declaration pledging that they believe in Christianity and God’s creation of the world. They declined to show me the wording of this statement and did not provide details of what it includes. In response to a question of whether I could be hired there, they said it depends on whether I would be willing to sign the declaration.

Where’s the rainbow?

Near the end of the visit in the ark, I expected to reach the upper deck, outside. But there is no such thing. At no time does the window heralding hope open above my head. The ark is a closed bubble. Noah may be standing on a ladder on the uppermost deck and holding a dove, but that’s all.

You can’t even see the rainbow, and that’s a shame, because after the flood the colorful rainbow is supposed to appear – a promise to us that the threat to mankind and animals in our world is over. Instead of the rainbow was a large store selling souvenirs and from there we went on to the Ararat Zoo. The pair of kangaroos smiled at me.

Correction (November 25, 2018): An earlier version of this article incorrectly stated that the Ark Encounter was set up with support from the state of Kentucky and has since been corrected. In addition, the article incorrectly stated that the founders took out a loan for the project.

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