Ken Ham's Noah's Ark: Evangelistic supertool or colossal waste of money?

The huge replica of Noah's Ark nearing completion.Ark Encounter

Ken Ham, CEO of Answers in Genesis, has fulfilled a life-long dream: the Ark is built. That's Noah's Ark, or a replica thereof. It is the largest timber-framed structure on earth, seven stories high and 200 yards in length, and it is expected to attract around 1.6 million visitors a year. Ham says that Ark Encounter, to give it its proper title, is "one of the greatest Christian outreaches of our era".

The cost? $100 million.

It's due to open on July 7 and is designed to be "family-oriented, historically authentic, and environmentally friendly". It's a sister attraction of the Creation Museum and will "equip visitors to understand the reality of the events that are recorded in the book of Genesis". Among its contentions are that there was a real global flood, that Noah and his family really did build a ship of the same size and dimensions as written in Genesis 6, that all of the animals brought by God to Noah did fit inside the Ark, including the dinosaurs, and that God saved Noah and his family and the animals on the Ark, just as He had promised.

You can't fault Ken Ham's ambition, or his commitment to the cause. And let's admit it: given the belief that every word of Scripture has to be interpreted at exactly face value, that there's no room for insights from literature or theology, let alone science, it makes a kind of sense. The Bible says the entire world was submerged in water? It must have happened. One of every creature, from penguins and polar bears to aadvarks and anacondas? That's a long way to walk, or slither, but it must have happened. Doubt that and you're doubting the Bible, and if you doubt the Bible you're doubting God. You have nothing left to hold on to.

I don't see it like that. I don't think I'm doubting the Bible if I say Genesis 6-9 is a theological document rather than a historical one, that preserves memories of periodic local catastrophes. I think I'm reading it as it was meant to be read. I think the authors of that story would have been mortified at Ark Encounter. 

Ken Ham is not a man to be argued with, except on the basis of "what the Bible says", and he's pretty clear about that; there's a video of him debating atheist scientist Bill Nye that shows it. Apart from that, he seems like a decent enough fellow.

But what I have to regard as his theological error has led to such a massive waste of Kingdom resources that it can't be described as anything other than tragic. It's not just the money, though $100 million could do untold good if it were applied to evangelism or poverty relief or development. It's the intellectual investment so many good people have put into defending the indefensible. It's the damage to the credibility of the gospel among people who know the world is nearly 14 billion years old, not 6,000, and won't take Jesus seriously if they think they have to believe otherwise.

This is a folly on a massive scale, and I can't help thinking about a similar project. Oddly enough, it's also in Genesis, in chapter 11. It's a building scheme undertaken out of hubris, designed to shock its beholders into awestruck silence. But God brought their plans to nothing and the Tower of Babel was never built.

Well, the Ark is at least finished. Whether it will prosper is a different question. Whether it will do any good is another one. But let's hope it doesn't obscure the message of Genesis 6-9: that a loving God turns away from angry destruction and promises life, hope and new beginnings.

Follow Mark Woods on Twitter: @RevMarkWoods