By Bob Smietana / The Tennessean
HEBRON, KY. - Mike Zovath doesn't think it's going to rain for 40 days and 40 nights anytime soon.
But like Noah in the Old Testament, he still plans to build an ark.
And it's to be big. Five hundred and fifty feet long, 85 feet wide and 51 feet high.
"It's really only been done once before," he said. "We are scratching our heads to figure out how Noah did it."
Zovath, vice president of Answers in Genesis, a Hebron, Ky.-based Christian nonprofit, is in charge of the $50 million Ark Encounter project. He says he's having the time of his life with it.
The ark is the centerpiece of a planned biblical theme park 40 miles south of Cincinnati that organizers hope will draw more than a million visitors a year from Bible Belt states including Tennessee.
It's also a sign of the enduring interest in the story of the ark. A blockbuster film about Noah, starring Russell Crowe, is in production for a 2014 release, and its replica of the ark was damaged by Hurricane Sandy. A new book from geologist David Montgomery says that the story of the ark was likely based on a smaller regional flood in the Middle East.
Most of the current work on the ark is being done in a warehouse about six miles from the Creation Museum. Design drawings line the lobby, showing the ark along with other park attractions, such as the Tower of Babel and a 10 Plagues ride. On a table by the window is a scale model of the park's 800 acres.
There's also a mockup of one of the 144 bays, or sections, of the ark. Standing about 18 feet tall, it gives the first glimpse of the size of the project. A similar section is on display outside the Creation Museum. Zovath says the finished ark will be more than twice the size of the warehouse.
"Just being in this huge ship that is all wood will be dramatic by itself," he said. "I think people will be awestruck."
'To show the world'
Answers in Genesis promotes a strict version of creationism that teaches that the world is about 6,000 years old and was made by God in six days. That view is on display at the Creation Museum, which opened in 2007 and has drawn more than a million and a half visitors.
But the $27 million museum attracts a relatively small group of people - either true believers or critics of creationism. Zovath and other organizers of the Ark Encounter hope it will draw a bigger audience.
"There's a lot of speculation about the ark. Could Noah have built it? How could Noah have gotten all the animals on it?" said Patrick Marsh, chief designer for the ark.
"We want to build something to show the world that it can be done and then to present the message of God's salvation."
Both sides intrigued
The idea of an ark intrigues Creation Museum fans and skeptics alike.
The Rev. Peggy Haywood of Nashville United Methodist Church in Nashville, Ind., visited recently for the second time. She said she'd come back to see an ark.
"Sometimes we read things in the Bible and it's hard for us to wrap our minds around it because it seems so long ago and it seems so impossible," Haywood said. "If you literally see it, it's not so impossible."
Tim Woodford, a missionary in Hermosillo, Mexico, stopped by with his wife and six kids on the way back from visiting relatives in Canada.
When most people think of the ark, he said, they think of a cute little boat with smiling animal faces sticking out of it.
"It was really big enough to hold every species and more, and lots of room for those who wanted to go," he said.
Blogger and biology professor Paul Zachary "PZ" Myers, a frequent critic of the Creation Museum, said the ark might tempt him into making a trip to see it.
Although he doesn't believe the story, a giant wooden boat would be fun to see, said Myers, who was in Nashville in October for a skeptics convention.
Mark Coppenger, professor of Christian apologetics and director of the Nashville campus of Southern Baptist Theological Seminary, believes the story of Noah is literally true.
He says he'd make the trip to Kentucky to see the ark.
Nancy Anderson French, a Christian writer and blogger from Columbia, Tenn., has her doubts. Her kids have visited the Creation Museum on a school trip, but she does not embrace the six-day view of creationism that the museum promotes.
Still, French said, if she were driving by the ark on the highway, she might stop.
"It would be cool," she said.
Seen as a metaphor
Coppenger sees great theology in the story of Noah. It shows that God will punish people who do evil but show mercy to those who ask him for help.
He said people have to decide whether they want to believe the Bible or the theories of modern scientists about whether the story of Noah literally happened.
But Dave Montgomery, a geologist at the University of Washington and author of "The Rocks Don't Lie: A Geologist Investigates Noah's Flood," said science and faith don't have to conflict.
Scientists such as Nicolas Steno, a 17th-century Catholic bishop who helped invent modern geology, set out to prove that the story of Noah was literally true, Montgomery said. When they found that the rocks told a different story, they began to interpret stories like Noah more metaphorically.
"They had faith God did not create a deceptive world," he said.
The story of Noah's ark is probably based on a major ancient flood in Mesopotamia, he said. People thought the flood covered the whole world, he said, because they didn't know how big the world really is.
"People weren't just making up things to tell their kids. They were telling stories about ancient disasters," he said. "Noah is the earliest disaster epic."
Realism is goal
The debate over whether the story is true will likely continue long after the Ark Encounter project is done.
Zovath has his hands filled now with fundraising and trying to figure out how the ark really worked.
The Bible gives few details, other than the size: 300 cubits long, 50 cubits wide and 30 cubits high. Researchers for the ark project found that about 12 different sizes of cubits were used in ancient times and decided to use one that's 20.1 inches long.
The Bible also says that Noah took two of every kind of animal and seven pairs of some kinds. Scientists with ties to the museum think that may mean somewhere between 1,000 and 2,000 pairs.
Zovath said it took 10 years to build the Creation Museum, where he was project manager, and he hopes it won't take that long to build the ark, which has been in development since 2010. The Answers in Genesis website estimates that it took Noah more than 50 years to build the ark.
The project will be a partnership of Answers in Genesis and a private, for-profit company called Ark Encounter LLC. Once completed, the project will get some state money in the form of sales tax breaks.
The ark itself will cost about $50 million, and organizers say they have raised about $24 million in donations and investments for the project.
The next goal is to raise an additional $3 million in donations by the end of the year. People can donate $100 to pay for a peg, $1,000 for a plank or $5,000 for a beam.
The best part of the job is trying to make the ark as realistic as possible, Zovath said. Original designs would have floated, he said, but the architects had to add elevators, stairs and other amenities, including a rooftop restaurant, to make it a working tourist attraction.
Right now he's trying to figure out how many animals would have lived on the ark and what to do with all the poop. The best guess for now is using some for fertilizer and dumping some overboard with a conveyor belt.
"We think Noah might have done just like we are doing," he said. "You get to a problem and you figure out what to do."