Unless you’ve been hibernating for the last two months (or completely consumed by the political coverage), you’ve heard that Noah’s Ark has run aground in the hills of Kentucky and opened for business. The Ark Encounter is the brainchild of Answers in Genesis (AiG) president Ken Ham, who has predicted it to be “one of the greatest Christian outreaches of our era.” There is substantial overlap in the end goals of AiG and BioLogos: we too proclaim the good news that Jesus Christ is Lord over all, and we desire to see all people enter into a saving relationship with God. But it is well-known that we disagree sharply with AiG about the interpretation of God’s “two books”: Scripture and the created world. So you might have predicted we would be less than thrilled with the Ark Encounter as Christian outreach.
Over the last few weeks we have posted articles on our website about the theology of the Noah story, the inadequacy of the science of a "global" flood, and a new Common Questions article on the topic. President Haarsma also posted a response to the general messaging of AiG surrounding the opening of the Ark, but we have stopped short of critiquing the attraction ourselves, because we only had second-hand information. Now I have seen it with my own eyes, and I bring you this report.
My first impression was that the Ark is really big. It is visible off in the distance from the parking lot, but once you take the shuttle back to where it sits, the scale is apparent because you can see little specks of people walking next to it. Kudos to AiG and the architectural firm (from my hometown) that built such a stunning structure with first-rate craftsmanship.
But, of course, the prodigious proportions of the ark raise one of the central questions the Ark Encounter was designed to answer: could a 500 year-old man really have built this with only the technology available in the Stone Age? Or more generally, could the story really have happened exactly the way we read it in Scripture? The way the Ark Encounter attempts to answer that question, in my opinion, ultimately undermines Ham’s goal of Christian outreach. They tie the credibility of the Gospel itself to contrived explanations more befitting an amusement park than a serious inquiry into the truth.
Filling in the details
If you try to bring the biblical story of Noah to life, there are lots of details that need to be filled in. Some of these are no cause for concern. For example, Genesis doesn’t say how tall Noah was, but if you’re making an animatronic Noah you have to give him a height. And in God’s instructions for building the ark, the furnishings of the living quarters were not specified. There are lots of these kinds of issues that had to be settled, and the designers of the Ark Encounter generally did a good job creating a realistic feel to things. I wonder, though, if it is this quest for realism that gets them in trouble.
AiG’s method of interpreting the Bible is to take the “plain reading” as the literal truth. So when the text says Noah was 600 years old (Gen 7:6), they assume it means exactly what someone today would mean, and they must come up with a realistic explanation for why people lived so long back then (here are some reasons to think that’s not what the original audience would have understood by the attribution of long life). And when the Bible says to bring two of every kind of animal onboard (Gen 6:19), there are a host of questions that come up that are not addressed in Scripture. AiG anticipates those questions and has realistic displays to show how the Noah story really could have happened exactly as written. OK, they fudge a little on bringing two “of every living thing, of all flesh.” The plain reading of this would include plants, fish, and marine mammals. So they have to do more sophisticated interpretation to show it doesn’t really mean those living things. But AiG takes “kind” to be a very real designation, as this is one of the keys to making the story work.
If we’re supposed to take the story in this hyper-realistic sense, one of the first questions that comes to mind is “how could all of those animals fit on the ark?” Scientists today have identified more than a million different species of animals. Even a boat as big as this one couldn’t house two of each of them. So what are we supposed to do? We could take the text as employing hyperbole, as Tremper Longman argued in our series on the theology of Genesis. Or you might think this is an indicator that the story is not meant to be taken as real history at all. AiG doesn’t like either of those options because of their commitment to a strictly literal, face-value interpretation of the text. There is another option they might take, and I wonder why they didn’t: it was just miraculous. All the millions of species fit on the ark and lived there for a year because God miraculously made the ark bigger on the inside than the outside—think of the tents at the quidditch world cup in Harry Potter, or the Kingdom of God shed in Narnia’s Last Battle. Wouldn’t that kind of explanation make the story even more a testimony to God’s power? Instead, AiG adds some detail to the Hebrew word for “kind” and defines it such that there were only 1400 kinds of animals that needed to get on the ark. Then after the flood receded, these animals evolved—ahem, adapted—into the millions of species we see today (to evaluate how well that explanation stands up, check out Joel Duff’s blogpost on it).
Thinking further about the story, you might wonder how all the animals were fed. The Bible doesn’t address this very specifically, just saying “take every kind of food that is eaten” (Genesis 6:21). (I’ve never heard anyone speculate about what a “kind” of food might be.) The Ark Encounter gives an implicit answer by putting lots of pots around (it feels like there are lots of places for storing food), and they answer more explicitly by showing how a plumbing system might have worked. There is even a room with lots of little pieces of scroll where notes are kept on which animals eat what. Perhaps, the display suggested, this is the work of one of Noah’s kids who had been making careful observations for many years of what different kinds of animals like to eat. I guess the Bible never says it didn’t happen this way.
If you keep thinking about animals eating all that food, you’ll eventually get to the messier end of things and wonder how they coped with all the waste on board. This smelly problem was answered by an animated video showing an elephant walking on a treadmill to power a big scooping system that emptied waste into a massive septic tank. More than once, I overheard visitors say variations on, “That’s pretty cool! I can see how that would work.” I had a different reaction: I stood there watching the video and asked my friends, “Why wouldn’t God just have the animals hold it in for a year?” Perhaps that sounds like I’m making fun of them. I’m not. I mean this seriously. When Scripture doesn’t tell us exactly how something happened, why not posit a miraculous intervention?
I think their logic works something like this:
We want to convince people that the Bible can be trusted. When people today pick up a Bible and read a story like this, they might be skeptical that it really could have happened just like the text says. That kind of doubt will eat away at the foundations of Scriptural truth, so we need to show the story to be true by retelling it as realistically as possible. Invoking miracles too often might undermine the realism for today’s culture, so that should be done only as a last resort.
Using that line of reasoning, they set to filling out the story. It is one thing to add realistic detail to personal biographies and to systems for lighting, ventilation, and waste removal on the ark. But for this story to be a realistic account of actual history, there are massive implications for things like the fossil record, ice ages, and the diversification of species. In their embellishment of the story, AiG has been careful not to contradict anything Scripture says, but they have not been so careful with what God has written in his other “book”: the created world.
Of course AiG doesn’t think their science contradicts nature. Throughout the ark, the science displays are accompanied by their familiar refrain about different starting points: “One World, Two Views.” They’re looking at the same facts as “secular” scientists, they claim, but because of their different starting point (God’s Word instead of man’s word), they come to very different conclusions. It appeared to me that their starting point led the Ark Encounter into a different world—a kind of alternate reality that doesn’t operate according to the same rules and physical laws. Their commitment to a very stark realism of the story results in decidedly unreal scientific explanations. We’ve detailed many times before the problems with their science.
Ham said he wanted to build something that “competes with the Disneys and the Universals to get a message to the world.” I’m afraid he has done that, but the message has not come across as he intended. J. Gresham Machen was a leading Christian thinker of the middle of the 20th century. This passage from one of his articles is often used to counteract “secular” thinking. I think it works just as effectively to counter the kind of thinking on display at the Ark Encounter:
“We may preach with all the fervor of a reformer and yet succeed only in winning a straggler here and there, if we permit the whole collective thought of the nation or of the world to be controlled by ideas which, by the resistless force of logic, prevent Christianity from being regarded as anything more than a harmless delusion.”
I hope the Ark Encounter does lead some people to Christ. God uses all sorts of people and plans (including our oft-misguided plans) to do this. So I don’t deny at all that there will be a “straggler here and there” who is won to Christianity by the Ark Encounter; and I’m glad for that.
My concern is that the real impact on our culture by this “greatest Christian outreach of our era” will be a different one. If we have to suspend acceptance of massively corroborated scientific explanations in order to see the Noah story “realistically”, I’m afraid the biggest impact of the Ark Encounter will be to reinforce the suspicion among many today that biblical Christianity is nothing “more than a harmless delusion.” It might be fun for a day to escape into an alternate reality where the natural world works differently. But if we want to stand up for the truth of Scripture, we must do so in the real world, not in an amusement park.
I believe that every person today—regardless of their education and background—can pick up a Bible and read it profitably. The Word of God is living and active, and the Holy Spirit speaks to us through our reading. But I also believe that each of us must look to experts to help us read Scripture better. The plain sense of the words to us today may not be the intended sense of the authors. There are biblical scholars who have devoted their lives to understanding the ancient languages and contexts. We need to let them guide us. Furthermore, the created order (God’s other “book”) and the experts who have devoted their lives to studying it can also help us understand Scripture correctly. We don’t need to develop alternate sciences to shore up our interpretation of Scripture. We need to do the best biblical interpretation we can, and do the best science we can, and work through the dialogue between these two as well as we can.
May God give us grace to do so and lead us into his truth.