The Ark Encounter, an evangelical theme park near Williamstown, Kentucky, has welcomed between 4 and 5 million visitors since it opened in July 2016. Hundreds of thousands more are sure to visit this summer.
This theme park features a recreation of the story of Noah’s Ark from the Bible. As described in Genesis 6:14-16, God commanded Noah to build this ark to spare eight humans and a male and female couple from all kinds of flood creatures that God was going to unleash upon the world as punishment for sin.
As scholars of fundamentalism and creationism, we have visited the Ark Encounter many times. We’ve also written a book, “Righting America at the Creation Museum,” on the ark’s companion site, the Creation Museum in Petersburg, Kentucky.
What we find particularly striking about Ark Encounter is that it is a tourist site dedicated to highlighting – with great specificity – the wrathful nature of God and the eternal damnation that awaits unrepentant sinners. .
What is Ark Encounter’s argument?
According to Answers in Genesis, the fundamentalist organization that launched Ark Encounter, and its CEO, Ken Ham, Ark Encounter is a centerpiece of AiG’s mission to “expose the bankruptcy of evolutionary ideas and bedfellows: an earth “millions of years old” (and even older universe).
So, according to AiG, when Genesis 1 says God created the Earth in six days, it literally means six 24-hour days. Likewise, when the Bible says that Adam and Eve were created on the sixth day and gives details of their descendants and how long they lived, this is interpreted as telling the real story. And all of this means that, according to AiG, the Earth is “about 6,000 years old.”
While scientists have estimated the Earth to be around 4.5 billion years old, AiG counters by claiming that radiometric dating is unreliable. Instead, they claim that the catastrophic biblical flood created all the geological formations that make the Earth look ancient.
In recent decades, this argument has become a doctrinal touchstone for many American evangelicals.
A huge structure
We recently visited the Ark Encounter on March 15, 2022. Measuring 510 feet (155 meters) long, 85 feet (25 meters) wide and 51 feet (15 meters) high, the Ark Encounter is, to quote a visitor we heard, “So huge!”
After purchasing tickets that cost US$54.95 per adult, we and other visitors got on buses and climbed a long hill. Getting off the bus, we walked to the Ark, fully aware of our small size compared to this gigantic structure.
Inside the Ark, visitors cross three huge bridges, encountering rows of clay food storage containers, burlap sacks and animal cages. They observe over 100 bays featuring signs and digital animations that, among other things, go far beyond the Bible to explain Noah’s training in shipbuilding, carpentry and blacksmithing. The same creativity applies to the various displays explaining how eight humans on the Ark fed, watered and managed the waste of around 7,000 creatures.
Visitors also walk through a life-size diorama of Noah’s family’s lavish living quarters, where they learn about the skills, gifts, and interests of Noah’s sons – details not included in Genesis. They also discover Noah’s wife and the wives of his sons. The Bible never identifies these women by name, much less describes them. Nevertheless, the Ark gives them names, different ethnic complexions, biographies and even hobbies.
Despite the occasional sign acknowledging that the designers took “artistic license” with these dioramas, we couldn’t help but notice how much of what is in the Ark isn’t actually in the Bible.
But visitors to the Ark seem to embrace these dramatic additions to the biblical text. As religious scholar Paul Thomas observes in his new book, “Storytelling the Bible at the Creation Museum, Ark Encounter, and the Museum of the Bible,” the world created by the designers of the Creation Museum and the Ark Encounter satisfies the evangelical desire “for a time and place governed by biblical principles, even though that idealized time and place… never really existed.
A Very Angry God
AiG requires all Ark Encounter employees to affirm a 46-point Statement of Faith. They must agree, for example, that “gender and biological sex are equivalent and cannot be separated,” modern understandings of “social justice” are “unbiblical,” and that all humans “are sinners” and “are therefore subject to the wrath of God. and condemnation.
This emphasis on the overwhelming wrath of God is perhaps the most remarkable feature of Ark Encounter as a tourist site.
Genesis 7:16 states that when the waters of the flood rose, God slammed the door of the Ark. Once closed, all humans and animals on the other side of the door were doomed to drown.
According to a sign displayed at Ark Encounter, there may have been over 20 billion people on Earth at the time of the Genesis Flood, a number that would have included children and infants, not to mention unborn children.
Another poster asks, “Was it right for God to judge the whole world?” The answer: “Since he is the giver of life, he has the right to take life. Second, God is perfectly just and must judge sin. Third, all have sinned and deserve death and judgment.
Remarkably, Ark Encounter placed a “souvenir photo” sign near the door which, in the depiction of the Ark, sealed the fate of everyone on the other side. As we’ve seen every time we’ve visited Ark Encounter, happy visitors line up to have their picture taken outside this door.
According to AiG, this ancient divine massacre foreshadows a future divine massacre. As the Ark Encounter website puts it, “God will once again judge this wicked world, but this time it will be by fire…God always keeps His promises – judgment will come.” According to AiG, we can escape this fate by believing in Christ, but for the billions (past and present) who have not or have not, the result is “eternal, conscious punishment in the lake of fire (hell )”.
As historian Doug Frank makes clear in his 2010 book, “A Gentler God,” this understanding of a wrathful God is alive and well in American evangelicalism. Frank’s argument is supported by a 2014 Pew Research report which found that 82% of American evangelicals believe in a literal hell.
Millions of evangelicals visit Ark Encounter for all sorts of reasons, including, perhaps, its vastness. That said, the message they get from Ark Encounter is clear and simple.
The wrathful God has determined that those who do not accept Jesus as Savior, those who are staunchly on the wrong side of culture war issues like abortion and LGBTQ+ rights, will eternally pay for their sin.
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