Most people have by now heard of The Ark Encounter, a full-size replica of Noah’s ark in Williamsburg, Kentucky that opened on July 7, 2016, and that has already been visited by more than half a million people. The Ark Encounter was constructed by the creation apologetics ministry Answers in Genesis under the leadership of Ken Ham. I visited the Ark Encounter for the first time this past Wednesday.
The reconstruction of Noah’s ark at The Ark Encounter is of far superior quality than any previous attempts to draw or reconstruct the ark, such as the Noah’s Ark on the island of Ma Wan in Hong Kong, which I visited in 2010 (see photo in the gallery below), or the half-size and full-size floating arks built by Johan Huibers. It is the largest wood-frame building in the world, and its size is very impressive—both as you look at the ship from the outside, and as you walk through it on the inside. Great efforts were made by the scientific experts at Answers in Genesis to reconstruct the ark as accurately as possible and to show that it was both feasible for ancient builders to construct and capable of holding and sustaining eight people and two of every kind of land animal and bird. Rigorous scientific analysis was conducted to calculate the number of animals that would have been on board, the amount of food they would have needed, and the space that Noah and his family would have required. Attention was even given to such details as water collection, waste disposal, ventilation, and lighting. Models were constructed by engineers to test various hull designs for their seaworthiness and the amount their contents would be rocked in rough seas. Efforts were also made to be faithful to the biblical text, and to take the Genesis account seriously. The Ark Encounter is very impressive, and is worth visiting if for no other reason than to see how large Noah’s ark actually was (assuming that the long cubit used by the Answers in Genesis builders was the one used by Noah, which is likely). It is also an incredible feat of engineering and ingenuity.
Answers in Genesis has done great, groundbreaking work to raise awareness of the biblical story of origins and to defend the scientific credibility of the biblical account. The Ark Encounter is the most visible and already the best-known work that Answers in Genesis has ever produced. It is too big and too famous to be ignored, and secular scientists and the media are increasingly being forced to grapple with biblical creationism. Countless Christians, including both laymen and clergy, have become convinced through the ministry of Answers in Genesis and The Ark Encounter that it is indeed possible that God created the world only a little more than 6,000 years ago, and that He destroyed the world with a deluge of water only a little more than 4,500 years ago. The Ark Encounter should be considered a great success merely for the impact it has had as a public proclamation of the biblical history of origins.
Answers in Genesis places great emphasis on scientific accuracy, museum-quality artistic representations, and professional media productions. There is a nice exhibit inside The Ark Encounter on the Ice Age, for example. Answers in Genesis does not, however, hire experts on Bible scholarship or archaeology. One sees in the bookstore that Answers in Genesis assigned someone with an M.A. an engineering and no seminary training to write a book on the tower of Babel, and they assigned someone with a Ph.D. in astronomy to write a book on hermeneutics. With regard to The Ark Encounter, while Answers in Genesis is faithful to the basic biblical storyline, they never go beyond this to the realm of detailed exegesis of the Hebrew text. They also appear to have done little serious (i.e., expert) archaeological research, apart from matters which have a direct bearing on the construction of the ark (such as the length of a cubit and ancient shipbuilding techniques). As a result, the representations of life aboard the ark, the clothing of Noah and his family, and their tools and household items, is simply said to be an artist’s guess at how these things might have been, based on a non-expert understanding of the technologies and cultures of ancient times. Someone who has done serious study of ancient artifacts, as I have, can see right away that some of these artistic representations do not match extant ancient artifacts or cultural patterns. In fact, for representations of writing on the ark, the Answers in Genesis artists have simply made up a nonsense script of letters which never existed and which mean nothing; in my opinion, an attempt to (re)create Proto-Semitic writing would have been better. It also would be nice to see real ancient artifacts displayed, or reproductions of ancient artifacts, rather than “artists’ conceptions.” Some errors also existed when reference was made to the Hebrew text of Genesis, such as the assertion that we cannot know whether the text means there were seven or fourteen of every clean animal (there were fourteen), or that the name “Methuselah” has no prophetic significance (this name means “when he dies, it shall be sent,” a name given by the prophet Enoch, who was Methuselah’s father; and Methuselah did indeed die as a sign in the year of the Deluge after living longer than anyone ever had).
The biggest archaeological gap in The Ark Encounter is that no attempt was made to find or excavate the remains of the actual ark of Noah, which could yield precise information about the ark’s size, shape, construction materials, and construction methods. The Ark Encounter was built on the basis of biblical statements about the ark, our knowledge of ancient shipbuilding, and scientific testing of various possible design features. Answers in Genesis has shown virtually no interest in the thorough research done by their friend Bill Crouse and others which demonstrates that both ancient tradition and modern archaeological investigation overwhelmingly supports the identification of Mount Cudi (a.k.a. Cudi Dag, Cudi Dağı, Mount Judi, Mount Qardu) as the landing site of Noah’s ark. (See the article by Bill Crouse and Gordon Franz in the Fall 2006 issue of Bible and Spade, available here or here. The same issue contains a counterpoint article by Richard Lanser which makes the case for Mount Ararat. See also this 2013 blog article by Gordon Franz, the articles here and here by Timo Roller, and these articles by S. C. Compton.) I found it somewhat strange that The Ark Encounter said nothing at all about whether remains of Noah’s ark might still exist today (as many claim), nor did it mention the various traditions and theories about specific landing sites for the ark. It would have been nice to see the artist’s portrayal of the landing site of the ark match one of the traditional landing sites. The Ark Encounter’s portrayal of the first settlements after the Deluge should also have shown an authentic scene from Turkey, with drawings to match archaeological remains from the most ancient settlements in the area. Some photographs of the traditional landing sites could also have been included.
The major upside of The Ark Encounter is the attention it brings to the historicity of the biblical account. The major downside of The Ark Encounter is that it blurs the line between the historical and the conjectural. Children will have trouble understanding that when they see and hear an animatronic Noah describing life aboard the ark, this is merely someone’s hypothesis concerning the way things on the ark might have been, and that virtually none of what is heard or seen in the dioramas is specifically described in the Bible. It is a mistake to think that what is seen in The Ark Encounter is what actually was, or that the Bible affirms that it was so. Many people, both children and adults, will come away from The Ark Encounter thinking that Noah’s wife was probably named Emzara, when in fact this name comes from a Jewish legend that likely has no historical basis (from The Book of Jubilees 4.33, a pseudepigraphical work composed by a Pharisee between 135 and 105 BC). People will also assume that details such as the way Noah and his family are dressed are archaeologically accurate, when in fact their clothing was likely more similar to the standard robe and tunic of the ancient Near East. To their credit, Answers in Genesis does make an effort to distinguish between the things they have hypothesized or simply invented and the things that the Bible teaches. Still, when people walk through an exhibit which describes Noah’s life before he began building the ark, many will believe that this is indeed what Noah’s life was probably like, when in fact it is all a fairy tale. Ditto for the exhibit which describes the ark’s living quarters, and which says, e.g., “Ham enjoys building things with wood and metal, and he is the most ambitious of the sons. His wife, Kezia, is also a hard worker, and she is more interested than the other women in dressing up and looking her best.” There really is no reason to include these fictions, which detract from the credibility of the more plausible conjectures concerning the use of a system of ventilation on the ark, a rainwater collection system, and a process for sewage removal.
One issue many people have with The Ark Encounter is its high ticket prices. I understand that Answers in Genesis spent $100 million on the construction of The Ark Encounter, and it needs to recoup these costs. It is also an expensive, high-quality operation which requires a lot of money to run (including tight security, with three bomb-sniffing dogs). There is a price to pay for quality. Donor plaques are everywhere (a common practice, but one which violates Matthew 6:1-4 and James 2:1-9). The Ark Encounter has been called the world’s most expensive gospel tract. For a large family, the cost of visiting The Ark Encounter ($40 per adult, which starts at age 13) could easily run into the hundreds of dollars, especially if two-day passes are purchased which include admission to the Creation Museum or if tickets are purchased for such extras as the zip line, the “fossil find,” the camel rides, or the planetarium show. The single restaurant onsite charges $12.99 for lunch and $16.99 for dinner (which starts at 1 pm). Parking is $10. And most visitors will have travel expenses and a hotel bill. The United States is certainly the only country in the world where there are significant numbers of people who are willing to pay these prices for a chance to see a replica of Noah’s ark. Still, with half of Americans earning less than $30,000/year, it will be difficult for many to pay. I would suggest that The Ark Encounter offer a discount for pastors, missionaries, seminary students, and/or seminary professors. It currently only offers a 20% discount for active members and veterans of the U.S. Armed Forces, which can be used to purchase up to five tickets. Veterans also receive free admission on Memorial Day, Independence Day, and Veterans Day. This practice is rather puzzling, since the United States military has nothing to do with advancing the mission of the church. Christian organizations should favor soldiers in the Lord’s army. Also, while it is important to reach everyone with the message of Genesis, it would seem especially advantageous for Answers in Genesis to reach pastors and other Christian leaders if it wants to maximize its influence on the church.
In the category of miscellaneous criticisms, I found some of the background music (which plays constantly) objectionable and did not care for the movies. I also questioned whether it would have been necessary to keep each pairing of animals together in small cages, like a zoo, after they had all come to Noah and walked on board the ark voluntarily. Perhaps many of them could have been kept together in large pens or holds. I also found it odd that there was no exhibit to explain why The Ark Encounter is built with a wooden fin on the bow and a skeg on the stern—a shape which will appear strange to many (explained here). Nor were there exhibits to explain how the ark was constructed, how its boards could have been held together, what type of wood was used, or how it was pitched. There was not even an explanation of how The Ark Encounter itself was built, or any information about the huge logs used as posts in the center of the structure. On the upside, I found the food in the restaurant to be better than some of the online reviews had said (all of the complaints were about the hamburgers, before the restaurant switched to buffet-style dining). The zoo was also nice, and free with admission.
In spite of these criticisms, I found my visit to The Ark Encounter to be an enjoyable and educational experience, and I highly recommend visiting this amazing edifice at least one time. The Ark Encounter is a landmark in the modern creationist movement, if it is still only a model to be improved upon. It is a truly unique place; there has not been an opportunity to see anything like it since the original ark of Noah rotted away. Even people who do not believe the biblical account of creation will likely enjoy seeing the ark and the exhibits inside of it. The nearby Creation Museum is also well worth a visit, preferably the day before your visit to The Ark Encounter, so as to provide the background information necessary to understand The Ark Encounter. If you want to avoid large crowds, do not visit on Saturdays or holidays. Be prepared for a lot of walking, although motorized carts can be rented by those who need them. While a scholar who is hoping to find an archaeological museum at The Ark Encounter will be disappointed (outside of the excellent “Voyage of the Book” exhibit, presented by the Museum of the Bible), one can still enjoy The Ark Encounter after realizing that it was designed for scientific accuracy within a biblical framework, not for archaeological or language accuracy. Above all else, it stands as a giant witness to an unbelieving culture that Bible’s account of the origins of the world is true, and that it really was possible for an ancient man to build a great ship which could contain two of every kind of animal in the whole world.
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