ABOVE: Noah and his helpers building the ark, drawn by an unknown artist for the book Arca Noë (1675), by the German Jesuit natural philosopher Athanasius Kircher, who has been described colorfully by Paula Findlen as “the last man who knew everything.” Image courtesy of the Jesuitica Collection, John J. Burns Library, Boston College.
One week from today, Answers In Genesis opens the much-anticipated Ark Encounter in northern Kentucky. When I visited AIG’s Creation Museum a few months after it opened in 2007, I was impressed by the spatial layout, the visual appeal of the exhibits, and the technical quality of the planetarium. Ken Ham’s organization got a big bang for the 27 million bucks they invested in that project, and from all accounts the Ark Encounter will be equally impressive on these measures. With a sophisticated advertising campaign that brought Noah’s animals to Times Square on New Year’s Eve, AIG might be right that they’ve “embarked on what we believe is perhaps an unprecedented marketing effort ever for any ministry.”
All told, it’s a massive project that wonderfully illustrates the massive importance of a “literal” interpretation of the biblical story of the Flood for the creationist understanding of natural history. Let me elaborate.
How Big Was Noah’s Ark?
Athanasius Kircher believed that Noah put the animals in pens arranged on three separate decks, as shown here. Christian scholars for centuries have speculated on how Noah could have gotten all those animals on board, and how he could have loaded enough food and fresh water to nourish them for roughly a year. Image from Kircher, Arca Noë (1675), courtesy of Wellcome Library, London. Copyrighted work available under Creative Commons Attribution only licence CC BY 4.0.
According to the Bible, Noah’s ark was 300 cubits long, 50 cubits wide, and 30 cubits high. Converting those numbers into a ship with a specific size (in modern units) and shape is not an exact science. The floating replica built by Dutch contractor Johan Huibers a few years ago is not quite as large as AIG’s version, which is 510 feet long.
That’s a lot of room for cargo, but even with all that carrying capacity, how could the ark possibly hold representatives of all the animals in the world? Athanasius Kircher thought he had that one figured out: Noah needed to find room for only about fifty different types of animals. After the flood, they would produce the others by a process of hybridization. According to geologist Marcus Ross, Ham’s organization basically takes the same approach, though their number of basic “kinds” is about twenty times bigger than Kircher’s. That’s still a whole lot of evolution by natural selection to happen afterwards—and ironically AIG admits this, though they prefer the word “adaptation” since their audience knows that God would never use “evolution” to create all living things. Their creationist version of Darwinian evolution, however, “requires such changes to be able to occur relatively rapidly,” by which they really mean at breakneck speed, far more rapidly than mainstream science allows. This notion of evolution on steroids would have astonished earlier generations of creationists.
Why is Noah’s Ark so Important to Creationists?
Why is Noah’s ark so important to creationists? Because it is central to their anti-evolution narrative, which ultimately derives from Seventh-day Adventist sources from the early twentieth century. As I explained elsewhere, at that time nearly all conservative Protestant authors accepted an ancient earth, with most fossils being formed by regular geological processes untold ages before the creation of human beings a few thousand years ago. They did not believe in “flood geology,” the idea that fossils are relics of the Flood.
Copies of Price’s pamphlet are now rare, but its influence has been profound. It was published by “The Modern Heretic Company,” the author’s own outfit, while he was working as a skilled laborer in Loma Linda, California. Photograph by Edward B. Davis.
Flood geology was given that name and popularized by an Adventist author, the Canadian schoolteacher George McCready Price, who wrote dozens of books over six decades. In 1906, he published a thick pamphlet called Illogical Geology: The Weakest Point in the Evolution Theory. As the subtitle indicates, it was intended to attack evolution at its “weakest point,” geology. Price rejected the standard geological column, the organizing principle according to which younger rock is found on top of older layers and certain specific fossils are used to help date the layers in which they are deposited. Instead, he proposed that the fossil-bearing rocks had been produced all at once, during human history, in a single world-wide flood—the one in which Noah built an ark.
The significance of flood geology for young-earth creationism must not be missed: if most fossils were formed in the Flood, then they were not formed through eons of earth history and we cannot draw evolutionary inferences from the fossil record. Thus, the Ark Encounter represents two mightily important things in the minds of creationists. First, the biblical story is literally true—a man named Noah actually constructed a huge wooden boat to save all animal “kinds” from dying in a worldwide flood. Second, the Flood produced the fossils, so we have no scientific evidence that evolution actually happened. Ham’s ministry wants all Christians to accept those two “facts” as foundational to the truth of the Bible and therefore to the gospel of Jesus Christ. Simple, isn’t it?
What’s the rest of the story?
First, there’s the biblical piece, which isn’t quite that simple. As Paul Seely has argued (to cite just one of very many similar opinions), the story of Noah’s flood does not recall a literal series of historical events. Although the biblical story might be based on an actual flood in the Mesopotamia region, its ultimate message is to proclaim God’s sovereignty over nature and his justice, love, and grace, not to provide information on historical cataclysms.
Second, there’s the scientific piece. Although some geologists once believed that geological evidence supported the historicity of a truly worldwide flood, by the 1830s that view was rapidly on the way out, as evidence grew for glacial activity that offered a much better explanation of “erratic boulders” and other things previously understood as detritus caused by the Flood. More recently, studies of ice cores in Greenland and Antarctica turn up no evidence that those parts of the globe were ever inundated by water. Furthermore, North America has been continuously occupied by humans for at least 12,000 years, a fact that seems very difficult to reconcile with a worldwide catastrophe in Noah’s time (Haynes, cited below).
Finally, there’s the historical piece. Despite the fact that Ham and company insist that the gospel depends on the truth of their view, commitment to the YEC duo of a young earth and flood geology remained on the far periphery of conservative Protestantism from the Civil War down to 1961, when John C. Whitcomb and Henry Morris published The Genesis Flood. Morris had already endorsed Price’s ideas in his book, That You Might Believe (1946), and he later persuaded Whitcomb to write a doctoral dissertation on Price’s young earth and flood geology, leading to the jointly written book that launched the modern creationist movement and made so-called “scientific creationism” so popular among conservative Evangelicals today.
Ultimately, then, young-earth creationism is all about the Flood. That’s why AiG built the Ark Encounter.
Looking Ahead: The Bible, Rocks, and Time
This column interrupts the series I began last time about American religion and science since Darwin. I’ll resume that later this summer, after presenting some excerpts about young-earth creationism and the Flood from The Bible, Rocks and Time (2008), an excellent book about Christianity and geology by Calvin College geologists Davis A. Young and Ralph F. Stearley. If you want to understand more fully why young-earth creationism is not the best option for Christians, be sure not to miss that!