A Boat of Biblical Proportions

For a new theme park, Creationists (with a little help from a geneticist, some Amish men, and generous tax breaks) are building a replica of Noah’s ark—exactly as God instructed.

Jesse Lenz

Early in the book of Genesis, God becomes revolted by His own work. Deviant and immoral, man was not what He’d had in mind: “And Jehovah saw that the wickedness of man was great in the earth, and that every imagination of the thoughts of his heart was only evil continually.”

Enraged by our collective failing of character, God readied the flood waters. He chose a righteous, blameless man and tasked him with repopulating the planet. His instructions were explicit:

Make thee an ark of gopher wood; rooms shalt thou make in the ark, and shalt pitch it within and without with pitch. And this is how thou shalt make it: the length of the ark three hundred cubits, the breadth of it fifty cubits, and the height of it thirty cubits. A light shalt thou make to the ark, and to a cubit shalt thou finish it upward; and the door of the ark shalt thou set in the side thereof; with lower, second, and third stories shalt thou make it.

Noah rolled up his sleeves. Decades later, his ark set sail.

Michael Zovath and Patrick Marsh would prefer to not take quite as long. With a small team of designers and builders, they’re preparing to construct a colossal wooden ark per the directives presented in the Bible and in accordance with what they refer to as the “sound established nautical engineering practices” of Noah’s time. When completed, their 510-foot-long ark—the centerpiece of a biblical theme park to be called Ark Encounter—will take up about one and a half football fields. (There has been something of a global ark-building boom in recent years, but Zovath and Marsh’s structure promises to outstretch even its biggest competitors, including the concrete-and-glass-fiber ark built in Hong Kong in 2009, which is 450 feet long, and a similarly sized vessel constructed by a wealthy businessman in the Netherlands after he dreamed that the country had flooded.)

The two men work out of a warehouse-like space in an anonymous industrial complex in Hebron, Kentucky. When I visited this fall, I was shown a few scale models of their ark, which, compared with the delightful wooden boat pictured in many a children’s book, is a terrifying-looking thing: it has no portholes or open decks, and except for a single door that God is supposed to have slammed behind Noah (“And Jehovah shut him in”) and some very narrow openings for light and ventilation, the vessel is sealed off in a way that suggests a giant floating coffin.

It turns out that erecting a massive ark based on a few lines of ancient verse raises some practical quandaries. Gopher wood, for example, is not a kind of wood recognized by modern arborists. Likewise, a cubit, the unit of measurement employed by God in Genesis, is not a standardized metric, although many people believe it refers to the length of a man’s forearm, from his elbow to the tip of his middle finger. Then there are the countless mysteries (scatological, sociological) about the interior, where Noah, his seven family members, and his herd of animals (“Of every living thing of all flesh, two of every sort”) are said to have spent a year and six days.

Zovath is a senior vice president and co-founder of Answers in Genesis, a group of biblical literalists who believe that the Earth was created 6,000 years ago, over the course of six consecutive days. The ministry, which is spearheading Ark Encounter, has some experience with this sort of undertaking, albeit on a smaller scale: in 2007, in Petersburg, Kentucky, it opened the Creation Museum, a 70,000-square-foot complex consisting of a café, several movie theaters, a planetarium, and 160 exhibits elucidating events recounted in the book of Genesis.

Ark Encounter—which is to sit on an 800-acre plot of land in Williamstown, about 40 miles south of Cincinnati—will be filled with actors and animals (some real, some mechanical) and will also feature a Tower of Babel, a walled city, an aviary, a “first-century village,” and something called a “Journey Through Biblical History,” involving a boat ride down the Nile. Like all Kentucky tourist attractions, Ark Encounter is eligible for generous state tax incentives—in this case, controversially, up to $43 million over 10 years. The park also has the unequivocal support of Kentucky’s Democratic governor, Steve Beshear, who likes to boast that the complex could produce up to 900 jobs.

As an apologetics ministry, Answers in Genesis is devoted to defending the Christian faith via a literal reading of the Bible, without allowances for allegory. Rather than publicly disavow science, though, the group has appropriated its methodology, hiring teams of creationism-friendly researchers to weigh in on ark-related puzzles. (Speaking of science, Answers in Genesis plans to use energy-efficient LEED technologies for the park’s heating, cooling, and lighting systems, so as “to be good stewards of creation”—though Zovath, for all his preoccupation with flooding, has said he doesn’t believe in global warming.)

One team of advisers, led by Georgia Purdom, who has a doctorate in molecular genetics from Ohio State University, is attempting to compile a definitive list of which animals would have been required to re-speciate the Earth in Noah’s time. According to the Answers in Genesis Web site, God allowed for the “potential for tremendous variety within the original created kinds.” Through “genetic mutations and other mechanisms,” those original kinds generated the “great diversity of living things we see today.” Although by some estimates nearly 8 million species of animals are thought to inhabit the planet right now, Answers in Genesis believes that Noah would have needed just 2,000 to 4,000 “original kinds” for his ark—which helps explain how everyone managed to fit. The original created kind later yielded all other kinds: the ur-dog begat wolves, dingoes, foxes, Great Danes, poodles, and so on. “We’re trying to define—and it’s never been done before, we’re breaking new ground—how many dogs make up a dog-kind, and what does that dog-kind look like?,” Zovath said.

My questions about other specifics were met with a quick, relentless defense. How did eight people feed and clean up after several thousand wild animals? Conveyor belts. How did Noah pack enough food for everyone? He pelletized it. What kept all the animals from eating each other? The hand of God.

“We don’t want anyone to think we’re just making things up,” said Marsh, who is Ark Encounter’s design director.

Answers in Genesis contemplated building a full-scale ark as a sister attraction to the Creation Museum as early as 2004, but the idea became more plausible when a consulting firm estimated that an ark would receive 1.6 million visitors in its first year. Zovath told me he was further heartened by a survey, conducted by 60 Minutes and Vanity Fair in 2009, concerning which “lost artifacts” respondents might like to see: the ark swept it, claiming 43 percent of the vote (Atlantis was next, at 18 percent). “People are fascinated with the ark—with the whole account,” Zovath said.

Hoping for some added insight into the ark story’s enduring appeal, I headed to the Creation Museum’s sizable ark exhibit, one of its biggest draws. There, I watched an animatronic Noah make hash marks on a curling piece of papyrus, then pause to answer a few preprogrammed inquiries, barking his responses like a seasoned Catskills comedian. (“Why did I build the ark? Well, I built the ark because, simply put, God told me to!”)

The rest of the exhibit, though, was surprisingly frank about the gruesomeness of the flood. In one diorama, the ark floats past a rock inhabited by screaming, about-to-drown humans (one particularly unlucky figure is also being mauled by a large cat). The darkness of the story surely contributes to its cultural weight; as doomsday narratives go, the body count is nearly unbeatable.

As for Ark Encounter, so far, land has been purchased, design work has been completed, and Amish builders from Indiana have been enlisted for construction. The ark is expected to cost about $21 million, of which the ministry has raised more than $8 million (supporters can sponsor a peg for $100; a “Lifetime Charter Boarding Pass” is available for $3,000 per family). When I asked Zovath whether his project was really achievable—whether he could safely and efficiently fabricate a multimillion-dollar tourist attraction to God’s specifications, using only wooden pegs, planks, beams, and whatever else might have been available to Noah—he didn’t hesitate.

“It’s certainly possible,” he said. “It was done a few thousand years ago.”