When you construct a gargantuan $100 million Noah’s ark replica in the heart of America’s “Bible belt”, chances are you’ll gain attention. Lots of it.
Ken Ham is the controversial driving force behind the Ark Encounter and sure enough, the media has flocked to Kentucky, North America to cover his impressive feat of taking the specifications in Genesis 6:15 and extrapolating them into the world’s largest timber-frame structure.
I first became familiar with Ken and his Answers in Genesis ministry during his fleeting appearance in Bill Maher’s 2008 documentary Religulous. Ken’s truncated responses portrayed him as a stern, smug figure who was meant to illustrate Christianity at its least appealing.
As I would later discover during our interview, Ken’s appearance in Religulous had more to do with manipulative editing to maximise laughs and scorn than his actual manner.
In 2014, I witnessed Ken debate Bill Nye on YouTube as the pair grappled with creationism and evolutionary science; it was positioned in some of the media as a Thrilla in Manilla-type ultimate showdown pitting the truth-claims of Genesis against Darwin.
Did the debate deliver a knock-out blow in favour of Ken’s creationism or Bill’s evolutionary science? No, but it was never going to convert either side’s position on the matter. What it did do was generate great publicity for Ken’s Answers in Genesis and get the American public focused on Christianity.
So earlier in the year when the opportunity arose to speak with the man I had only ever seen on the silver, television or computer screen, I jumped at it. I was deeply curious about who this fascinating Queenslander was beyond the talking points and sensationalist headlines.
Over Skype, we discussed Ken’s past, the Ark Encounter, Christianity in the culture, marriage, Bill Maher and what the future holds for Answers in Genesis.
Here is Ken, in his own words.
Where did your interest in creationism start?
When I first became a science teacher and taught at Dalby State High School, at that particular stage I was able to teach the students about Creation, about the Book of Genesis, about evolution. It wasn’t a problem, it wasn’t an issue at all back then from a teaching perspective in the schools and I taught my students what they were supposed to learn in their textbooks.
What sparked me to do that was the fact that students heard I was a Christian, I was going to be the head of the Christian group in the school and they said, “Sir, how can you be a Christian when we know the Bible’s not true?”
I said, “How do you know the Bible’s not true?”
They said, “Well, what we’re taught in our textbooks about evolution, millions of years, we came from ape-like creatures, obviously the account of Adam and Eve is not true.”
And that’s when I started to teach them how to think correctly about science, so one of the things I did was teach how to think about science, the difference between what you can do in the present, your beliefs about the past.
Then, some of the churches started asking me if I would speak on the topic of origins in church and I found out most Christians hadn’t really thought through the issues. That all of our doctrines are founded in Genesis. Why did Jesus die on a cross? Why are we sinners?
So I found that people were just fascinated and really interested in the topic, that’s one of the reasons why the demand got bigger and bigger. We started a ministry out of our house in Sunnybank and it grew and grew, eventually I started even doing tours in the United States and then moved over in 1987 to work with Dr Henry Morris at the Institute for Creation Research for seven years.
My burden for building a Creation museum goes back to my teaching days when I took students to secular museums all from a secular perspective, and had a burden to build a museum from a Christian creationist perspective.
So it really was those early days of teaching, the fact I had a father who didn’t just teach us what to think about the Bible but was always answering the critics of the Bible. He was a school teacher but teaching us how to answer the critics, so I grew up with that bent of apologetics, of wanting to defend what you believe, not just believing something but knowing why you believe something and knowing how to defend it.
The kids at school, because of their attitudes to the Bible, of wanting to do something about that; that was all a part of how we really began the ministry in Queensland.
Why did you build the Ark Encounter in the United States and not Australia?
One of the things I’ve come to realise over the years, and I believe this is the reason why we ended up building the Creation Museum here in the United States and now the Ark in the United States, is because the population in Australia is not that large as you know, about 20 million or so that’s when we were living there, and the percentage of those that go to church and would call themselves Christian is pretty small, it’s sort of more like the United Kingdom I guess would be now.
Whereas here in the States, you’ve got a much bigger population, you’ve got 300 million people, like 15 times the population, and you’ve got a much bigger percentage that go to church.
Although there would be certainly a place for such a religious theme park, themed-attraction it really is, in Australia, I don’t believe it would have the population to support it financially, just to raise the funds to support something like this, and then to be able to have the numbers that you need for maintaining it, even just maintaining something staff-wise, maintenance issues for the facility are quite astronomical.
From a perspective of financing it, I think it would be very difficult in Australia, that’s not to say it couldn’t be done but it might need to be subsidised. Something like the Ark is more likely to work in other countries, because it’s so well known, people are fascinated by the Ark.
But we’re bold about the fact that it’s not just an attraction, it’s not just a themed attraction, we are Christians, we didn’t just build it for entertainment, there’s no point in doing that. We built it because we want to challenge people about the truth in God’s word and the gospel.
Now it’s a themed-attraction that a lot of non-Christians will come to and be fascinated by, just because of all the exhibits inside, about Noah’s life and all sorts of other interesting things, the fact that this is the biggest timber-frame structure in the world.
But even to build something like that, we used Amish craftsmen that headed up building the timber-framing, that’s a very specialised art, it’s not easy to find those sort of people who can do that.
There’s only one mill in the whole of America that actually had the machine that we needed to be able to get the timber, and then we had to find these massive logs, some of the big ones that are up to 200-years-old, came from beetle-infested forests, harvested under forestry license, we were able to get those.
I think to build something like this in Australia would be rather difficult.
How do you balance faith and finances?
What we’re doing is owned by a not-for-profit but we’re doing something that’s akin to, you know, what the secular world does in a big way, it’s not an amusement park, you wouldn’t call it that, we don’t have rides, it’s not like Disneyland. It’s of the quality of Disney, the quality of Universal Studios. It’s called a themed-attraction.
We raise funds from our own supporters, we have hundreds of thousands of people on our mailing list that support what we do. When we built the Creation Museum, we raised initially $27 million to build the Creation Museum, and the average gift that built that was $130, even though we had some larger gifts, some six-figure, five-figure and so on but the average was about $130.
Well for the Ark, it’s been funded a little differently in that it has been funded through a bond offering of $62 million. A bond offering is like people who loan you money but it’s all done legally and in special trust and all the rest of it.
So we raised $62 million, people who had money invested in the stock market or for their retirement have decided we want to invest in this, we pay interest on it, and they see it as using money for the Lord’s work, so we were able to raise that $62 million.
And then we had to raise $38 million in donations, I think right now we’re up to $37.5 million or something like that. In fact, we’ve actually received donations from people in 39 different countries for the Ark project.
The bulk of it has come from America, from thousands of our supporters who did what they can. When you have a lot of people who give what they can, you can do a lot with it.
That’s how we’re able to finance the $100 million. It’s all come from our own supporters, the ministry that’s been built up over the years, people who have the same burden we have and want to be involved in this and want to see it happen.
How do you justify the Ark Encounter’s expense when that money could be spent on the poor and needy?
The people who have given to the Creation Museum, people who have given to the Ark, the actual donations: they’re people that support their local church, they support the poor and needy in what they do and so it’s them deciding ‘we’re giving our bit to this’ so we can do something big in this area to reach people with a spiritual impact.
The bond offering, that’s really just on loan to us, money that would’ve been invested in the secular stock market, and people say they’d rather invest it for our retirement in a Christian work. And when you look at the fact that, I know over here we’ve had some of the secular world say, “What a waste of money!” because it should have been given to the poor and needy, well, the reason they say that is out of prejudice because they don’t agree with the message, that’s why they say it.
And the reason I say that is because do they say that to Hillary Clinton who is spending $2 billion on her political campaign? That’s how much they’re raising, $2 billion!
What about all these cruise ships that are being built just for entertainment? Some of those cruise ships are nearly a billion dollars to build.
I mean we could talk about any facility, what about a church auditorium that costs fifty million or a hundred million? So it goes on. We could look at everything like that.
We actually did some research, primary research before we built this, we used America’s Research Group, a behavioural science research group out of Florida, and twice they’ve done this for us now, they did two general population studies and so it is primary market research.
If we built an ark, would people come? Their prediction is a minimum, based on the research, a minimum of 1.4 million, up to 2 million people a year, which is basically unheard of for a Christian facility like this.
And many of those would also be non-Christians, unchurched, who wouldn’t go to church but they are willing to come to something like an ark.
I’ve already had many leaders in the community in this area, a number of them are not Christians, come down and say they want to bring their family to it, they’re going to be promoting it, they see it as something special, they know we’re Christians, we’re not ashamed by that, we make sure they know, we always present our message tastefully, I think that’s the right thing, for Christians to do it with grace and to do it sensitively which is what we do but we’re still bold about it.
When you think about the reach, the spiritual reach, we can do as a ministry; see that’s not our only mission, we do other things as well, for instance we support other missions.
We support a special mission organisation, a Children’s Hunger Fund that actually reaches millions of kids around the world and through our Vacation Bible School (VBS) program we’ve been able to supply nearly three million meals to those kids through our VBS program over the past two years.
Can the ark float?
No, it won’t float, because it wasn’t built to float, because it’s actually anchored to three buildings, where we house the restrooms, the lifts, the exit stairs in those buildings and so it anchors those buildings so people can go in and out of those buildings on the side, so it obviously wouldn’t float.
There’s never going to be another global flood, God promised that in Genesis 9 in regard to the rainbow, that there’d never be another global flood again, we’d have lots of local floods but never a global flood.
It was designed as a real wooden ship and built as a building for tourists, so it’s a unique sort of structure, it actually looks like a ship, it’s using the heavy timber-frame structure, it was designed as a ship using post and beam construction, the correct terminology is timber-framed, it’s not the biggest timber building in the world, it’s the biggest timber-framed building in the world, which uses the heavy timbers, the post and beam construction.
The major takeaway from the Ark Encounter?
I’ve been asked that question many times by the secular media, and by the Christian media too, and my answer would be very similar to what I was asked when I did the debate with Bill Nye.
When I did the debate with Bill Nye, before all that happened (about 15 million have now seen that debate, about five million or so live watching it) and the media then asked me, what do you hope to come away with this?
And for me it’s, look if we can get people talking about the Bible, talking about the message of the Bible, the message of Christianity, the message of the gospel, that’s really the big takeaway.
For me as a Christian, I see something like the Ark Encounter that Christians will come and become equipped, that they’ll be emboldened to go out and be more bold as Christians in contending for the faith, and that non-Christians will come and be challenged about God’s word, to challenge them about looking at it more closely and considering it, considering their eternity.
Here in America where we see increasingly in the public arena, crosses, nativity scenes, Ten Commandments being taken out of public places, where we see the emphasis of taking Christ out of Christmas, we see all these sorts of things happening, and it’s very difficult for teachers to talk about Christianity in public schools, there’s threats of lawsuits if they mention the Bible and all that sort of thing.
I see this as a way of publicly opening up the conversation about Christianity, of impacting millions of people, of overcoming what I would call … there’s really a censorship by the secularists in talking about Christianity freely and I see building a themed-attraction like this that will have worldwide attraction, that’ll attract millions of people, is really a way of, okay, we can publicly get people talking about the Bible, talking about the Christian faith, because our whole motive is, as Christians, we do want to see people saved and one to the Lord Jesus Christ.
I mean that’s our motive, that’s why we do it. We don’t do it for entertainment, we don’t do it just for fun, we don’t do it just to build some attraction to get lots of people, there’s no point in doing that.
We do it because we want to see people challenged with God’s word and the gospel. It’s really a way of publicly opening up that conversation, and getting people and the media and the average person, Christian and non-Christian, talking about these issues so in a way it enables us to carry out the great commission; preach the gospels, make disciples and the parable of the Ten Minas, do business until I come, the business of the king, preaching the gospel and contending for the Christian faith as we’re told to do in Jude.
What are your thoughts on Christians who are non-creationists?
First of all, we’ve often been misquoted or misrepresented on this issue, because yes, I do take a strong stand on taking Genesis as literal history and the reasons why I do that, but that doesn’t mean that we’re saying, “If you don’t believe what we believe, you can’t be a Christian”.
We have never said that, in fact on our website, there are many articles where I make it clear that what you believe about the age of the earth and evolution, it’s not a salvation issue.
I mean in Romans 10:9 we read, “If you confess with your mouth that Lord Jesus and believe in your heart that God raised him from the dead, you will be saved.” And so salvation is conditioned upon faith in Christ, not what you believe about the age of the earth or the days of creation.
So if people say to me, “Can you believe in millions of years and be a Christian?” I would say, “I know many Christians who believe in millions of years.”
Can you believe in evolution and be a Christian? I would say, “I know many Christians who believe in evolution.”
Can you reject the six days of creation as literal days and be a Christian? I know many Christians who say they are not ordinary days, and then they would say, “OK”.
Because I would say, “Look, it’s not a salvation issue perse.”
And they would say, “Well, then it doesn’t matter then.”
I would say, “Yes it does matter” and this is where I would challenge people.
I would say for those who believe in evolution or millions of years, I would say to them that there’s an inconsistency here, and there’s an authority issue that I would challenge you on.
I would challenge them by saying, “As soon as you believe in millions of years, the idea of millions of years came from the belief that the fossil layers were built up millions of years before man,” and if you add that in to the Bible, before man, before sin, in the fossil record, it’s a record of death, bloodshed, diseases.
There are diseases like brain tumours, cancer in the fossil record, and fossil thorns. If you’ve got all that before man, before sin, after God created man he said everything he made was very good, then God said cancer is very good, brain tumours are very good.
My understanding would be that the whole of creation groans because of our sin and it’s not God who is responsible for death and bloodshed, but our sin.
The first death and bloodshed in the garden when God killed animals and clothed Adam and Eve, there’s the origin of clothing, why do we wear clothes, the animals don’t but we do. Actually the origin of clothing is in Genesis when God gave coats of skin to Adam and Eve, the first blood sacrificed, a picture of what was to come in Jesus Christ. The Bible says about the shedding of blood is there’s no remission of sin. How could you have the shedding of blood millions of years before sin?
And then the other thing I’d say to them is it is an authority issue because if you just read Genesis as written and that’s how Jesus quotes from it, Jesus in Matthew 19 when asked about marriage, quotes directly from Genesis 1:27 and Genesis 2:24 about male and female, about one flesh, as the basis for marriage being a man and a woman.
And of course, we could look at other New Testament writers, Paul in 1 Corinthians 11 says, “Woman came from man.” And that’s exactly what we read in Genesis.
So if you try to add evolution to that you’ve got to change the words of scripture, and what I would say to them is what you’re doing is unlocking a door to say, “We don’t take God’s word as written, we can take man’s ideas and reinterpret it”.
Then where do you draw the line? Do you do that with the resurrection? Do you do that with the virgin birth? Do you do that with all the miracles? Do you do that with everything else as well?
So it really comes down to your view of scripture and whether we’re letting outside ideas influence how we’re taking scripture, interpreting it, or whether we’re letting it speak to us naturally according to the type of literature and the language. And so I see it as an authority issue and I see it as an issue of consistency.
What was your experience with Bill Maher and the making of Religulous?
Bill Maher is a very anti-Christian man. That was an interesting situation, actually there’s a whole account of that on our website where a documentary team had arranged to come and visit our ministry, we’ve since had to change our protocols into how we check out some of these people, but they had actually set up a false website and didn’t tell us who they really were and we had no idea that Bill Maher was heading this up. They came in under false pretences and then they actually, we had to change all our security protocols too as a result of this.
They had Bill Maher come in the back door, let him in against our security protocols. I didn’t even know who he was at the time, had no idea. I had just heard I was doing an interview for a documentary and so he came in and it wasn’t until later on that I understood who he was and that he had broken our rules, and snuck in to try and get this interview with me.
I can tell you this: when they did the interview he kept asking me questions about creation, evolution, and I kept giving him answers and at one stage in the interview the producer yelled at me and said, “You have answers for everything!” and they were mad because I was giving answers.
So then they took one little piece of what I said and put it in Religulous, and took it out of context, well they didn’t put the whole context in where Bill Maher kept saying to me, “Well you don’t know, how can you say you know, you can’t say you know” and that’s when I said to them, “Well, what Bill? Do you know everything? Because you’re saying you do know, you’re saying you know you can’t know so do you know everything?”
So they took a tiny little bit of that conversation and put it in that movie Religulous.
What are your thoughts on the relationship between church and state?
Here in America, I mean the First Amendment guarantees people freedom of religion, free speech and the free exercise of religion. That’s guaranteed by the constitution.
The way in which it’s seen by the courts over here in America, which is what people need to understand, the way it’s seen by the courts, is the fact that if something is run by the government such as a public school, then a teacher in that school is seen as an agent of the government, and so from the government’s perspective how they see things.
Now I would see things differently as a Christian because I would say that everybody teaches religion, and when you’re teaching that everything happened by natural processes that’s a religion, it’s a religion of naturalism, so the government is teaching religion, but that gets into other issues.
But from a government perspective, when a teacher is an agent of the state they can’t go and teach their view to students as if it’s the right view, but if students ask about different views they are free to explain different views as long as they are not endorsing a particular view. That’s how the government sees it.
But in a situation where you’ve got a government school say, and they’ve got an auditorium, and they want to make the auditorium available for rent, the law is they can’t just rent it to non-Christians, if they’re going to rent it to one group, they’ve got to allow it to be available to all, Christian or everyone, because it’s the government and they’ve got to allow all views, they’ve got to allow everyone to participate.
So it’s a difference between whether you’re an agent of the government or whether it is something here for the people.
One of the problems that we’ve got, from a Christian perspective when you look at what the role of state is from what God says and the Bible, it’s to maintain law and order, and what we see is the state is getting, in the whole western world, more involved in legislating morality and so on, dealing with these issues.
That’s where the state is, in a way, dictating a state church and those things do become issues.
We live in this world, we’re to obey the government, but when it comes down to obeying God’s word we have to obey God’s word first obviously.
I think America is unique in that it has got the First Amendment guaranteeing freedom of religion and free exercise of religion, but even here we see that being eroded in that even with the LGBTI movement, they’re trying to make that a civil rights movement, whereas we would say, “No, it’s a moral issue, it’s not a civil rights issue,” it’s not like whether you’ve got dark skin or not and you can’t change the shade of your skin, the amount of melanin you have, the shape of your ears or something like that.
But you can change your behaviour and it seems to me that what’s happening, and I see it happening in Australia too, is that those who want a particular view, say take the marriage issue, those who agree with gay marriage, those who don’t, many of those who want gay marriage, they don’t want to be just free to believe what they want, they want to enforce that others have to believe it too, that’s what I see happening.
And that’s where the problem arises, where it then takes away from the free exercise of religion and someone saying, “Look, I should be free to say I don’t agree with that, I believe God made Adam and Eve, he made the first marriage, Jesus quoted from that, that’s why I believe marriage is a man and a woman, if you don’t believe God’s word, I understand why you don’t believe in marriage as a man and a woman.”
But what we’re finding is more and more, I think those people that are very adamant about gay marriage are saying “No, you have to agree with me in regard to these issues”.
It’s a conflict of world views, I think that’s what we’ve got to understand, it’s really a clash of world views.
Where to in the future?
We planned out an entire park and already got the permits for it here at Ark Encounter. We got 800 acres and we’ve already got the infrastructure and permits to develop about 220 of those acres, so we’re going to be building a first century village, a walled city, a pre-flood walled city, a Tower of Babel, the Tower of Babel will be a big structure, and we’ll also deal with issues which we already do deal with to a certain degree, but we’ll deal with them to a much greater degree; issues of racism and prejudice, and how people understand we’re all one race and so on.
We have enough for us for years to come, to outlive us, enough plans that we’ve put together, and we hope to start on phase two, basically early next year, once we open the Ark and we’ve got a number of things we’ll keep improving and adding to that with all the world-class exhibits.
We have a world-class team, a number of these people worked in Hollywood, we have a world-class team of designers, fabricators, sculptors, we want to keep on board, and to continue to make this a major attraction.
It’s interesting, here in the United States, it’s almost becoming the era of Christian attractions to publicly reach people with the message of God’s word.
In 2017, there’s going to be the Big Museum of the Bible opened in Washington DC, you’ve got now the Creation Museum and the Ark Encounter that opens in a month’s time, we’ve also got Sight and Sound Theatre in Pennsylvania which is a major Christian theatre that I believe you can get more people in than the New York theatres, it’s a Christian theatre. We’re seeing more of this happening and I believe that in many ways the local church has not been impacting the culture in a big way and I think this is to help the church getting the message out.
It’s not to take the place of the church, it’s to be an assist to the church, to help them, that’s why I pray that the local church uses places like the Ark Encounter, they’ll be coming in groups, I’ve heard churches who want to get non-Christians in their area, bus them up to the Ark Encounter and to use it as a point of witnessing, that’s really what it’s all about.
For more information on the Ark Encounter visit arkencounter.com