News21 A Journalism Initiative of the Carnegie and Knight Foundations

Project Banner

Medill Belief and Public Life

Salvation Vacation

The Creation Museum in Petersburg, KY seeks to disprove evolution; but perhaps the real mission is to invite Jesus Christ into visitors’ lives
By Beckie Supiano, Sarah McCann, August 21, 2007
Take a narrated tour of the Creation Museum's "Walk Through Biblical History" with reporter Sarah McCann.

PETERSBURG, Ky.--It was during a rollicking revival meeting in sleepy Jennings County, Ind., that Don Buck, then 14, rose from the pew, sweaty palms extended, and, he says, accepted Jesus Christ as his Lord and savior. Buck described it as just knowing God was there– a feeling he assumed would be a once-in-a-lifetime occurrence.

But last May that feeling came back in Petersburg, a tiny town outside Cincinnati. Only this time, Buck, now 76, wasn't in church. He was sitting in a crowded theater in the Creation Museum, a $27 million effort to promote the Biblical creation story as scientifically true.

In other parts of the museum, amid life-like mannequins of Adam, Eve and dinosaurs set in a lush plastic Garden of Eden, museum researchers displayed what they say is scientific evidence proving the Genesis account of creation is fact. Yet the complex explanations behind exhibits on carbon dating, flood waters and the development of astral galaxies were largely lost on Buck, now an American Baptist pastor.

The spiritual foundation was not.

Since it opened Memorial Day weekend, the Creation Museum has become the latest battleground in the culture war between science and religion. Denying the conventionally-accepted scientific view of evolution, the museum also takes a particular biblical stance.

It advocates a literal interpretation of the Genesis creation story, stating the world was made by God in six days some 6,000 years ago.

But like Buck, many who have visited the museum say they may not share this exact view, or that they care more about the spiritual experience of the museum than learning the finer points of its specific theology.

Museum founders insist that’s what they want. They say salvation—rather than science—is their ultimate concern.

“There’s no point to converting people to creationism if they are not Christians,” said Ken Ham, president of Answers in Genesis, the non-profit creationist ministry behind the museum. In fact, since opening, he said, more than 100,000 visitors to the museum’s “Walk Through Biblical History” exhibit have been offered an invitation to accept Jesus as their savior.

Ham believes the invitation will be easier for guests to accept if they are first convinced the Genesis account of creation is historically accurate.

According to museum representatives, the heart of the Gospel is that Jesus came to redeem humanity from sin, which entered the world through the transgressions of Adam and Eve. Therefore, viewing Adam and Eve—and the rest of the Genesis account of creation--as historical is crucial.

“We need a way back to God. And that way is Jesus Christ, who took Adam’s place and took our place on the cross,” said museum astrophysicist Jason Lisle. “So in other words, the reason why we need a savior goes back to Genesis. A literal reading of Genesis.”

‘It’s a statement to the Christian world.’

Ham founded Answers in Genesis (AiG) in 1994, he said, to spread the message of God’s moral authority, especially to those exposed to evolution, a theory Ham believes can lead one away from the Lord. Ham said AiG addresses the creation story to help others lead a faithful and moral life.

“If you don’t believe in God and the Bible, there is no absolute authority, morality is relative and you can justify anything,” Ham said in a recent interview.

Therefore, debunking evolution remains a priority, and museum exhibits present a contrary view of history. In fact, even key pieces of evidence typically used to explain evolution--evolving species of horses, dinosaur fossils, Darwin's use of finches to show species variation--are used to make wholly different points about the origins of life. In order to favor creationism over evolution, the museum privileges the Bible over the scientific method, a process Lisle calls “presuppositional.”

This means the Bible is assumed to be an accurate representation of events.

“When we interpret scientific evidence we use the Bible as a guideline,” he said, stressing that in his experience, science always backs up the biblical narrative.

For example, everything from the formation of the Grand Canyon to the Ice Age is explained by Noah’s worldwide flood.

Nothing declares the museum’s opposition to evolution more powerfully than exhibits depicting dinosaurs frolicking with small children, or munching on a pineapple next to Adam and Eve. AiG co-founder and museum chief communications officer Mark Looy said it’s important to include the dinosaurs, which he said appear as “dragons” or “behemoths” in the Bible.

“Evolutionists probably use dinosaurs as their teaching icon to promote their evolutionary belief system, especially among young people,” Looy said. According to Ham, combating that teaching practice is one reason dinosaurs are the iconic image of the museum. “It’s a statement that we don’t believe in evolution. It’s a statement to the Christian world,” he said.

It’s also a statement about the theology behind AiG-- a particular type of creationism, known as Young Earth.

Jennie Parker of Warren County, Ohio, could barely contain her enthusiasm when describing what she called the life-changing approach of the museum’s exhibits.

“Unless you have the history, spiritually, nothing makes sense,” she said.

Before encountering Answers in Genesis, Parker said she was stymied in both her personal faith and her efforts to evangelize, for no one could prove to her the Genesis account of creation actually happened. Without that proof, she said, it was very difficult for her to defend the Gospel message to skeptics.

Parker said the Creation Museum has given her the definitive evidence she needs.

“I know what happened to me,” said an exuberant Parker, who fully believes the young earth doctrine. “That’s why I’m so bent on giving [answers] to other people.”

Young Earth, so named for a belief that the earth is in the range of 4,000 to 10,000 years old (as opposed to the 4.5 billion years put forth by modern science), also maintains that the world was made in the six, 24-hour days described in Genesis.

The timeframe for a Young Earth was developed in the 1600s by Archbishop James Ussher of Ireland, who combined biblical genealogies found in Genesis with extra-biblical historical dates to come up with an age for the earth of 4,004 years.

Some Young Earth creationists continue to use Ussher’s dates, while others think the earth is some 10,000 years old, said Ted Peters, co-editor of the Center for Theology and the Natural Sciences’ journal, Theology and Science. The museum’s stance is that the earth is somewhere between 6,000 and 7,000 years old; establishing a more exact date, they say, is not their concern.

Volumes of scientific evidence, including the fossil record, challenge this view of the earth’s age.

Conventional science argues fossils deposited in layers of rock that are separated from human remains by millions of years back up an evolutionary picture of life quite different from the Young Earth view that humans and animals—including dinosaurs—were created by God on Day Six.

Museum astrophysicist Lisle rejected the conventional scientific interpretation of the fossil record, and again cited the story of Noah as the explanation for the many layers of fossils, which nearly all other scientists say indicates an older earth. “There was a worldwide flood that deposited the bulk of the fossils a few thousand years ago. Biblical history explains the universe,” he said.

‘Be Careful! You’ll lose your values!’

Ken Miller was an 18-year-old lifeguard reading Darwin’s Origin of the Species the first time he met with opposition to evolution.

“Be Careful! You’ll lose your values,” swimmers would warn when they saw the book.

Miller, who maintained his Roman Catholic faith, went on to graduate with a PhD in biology from the University of Colorado in 1974. He’s currently a biology professor at Brown University and an expert witness in Intelligent Design trials, court cases which most often address conflict over the teaching of creationism vs. evolution in public schools.

“I was never taught to think of the Bible as an authentic book of science, but an attempt of its authors to grapple with the great truths of existence,” he said.

Yet Miller recognizes that for others, faith and evolution are in conflict. He attributes much of the turmoil to the difficulty involved in efforts to interpret the Bible as a historically accurate representation of events. Miller said that by any standard, the Bible is a book filled with mistakes and contradictions—multiple versions of the creation story, for example--which make it hard to say all of the book’s events happened as outlined. Attempting to reconcile all the inconsistencies “will result in a serious problem,” he said.

Catholics like Miller often don’t demand such consistency, for many are taught that the Bible is only one way God’s word is revealed to the world. Other sources include the teachings of the Roman Catholic Church and the traditions handed down over hundreds, even thousands, of years.

For some Protestant groups, however, the Bible is the only source, which is one reason why defending its historical accuracy can become so important.

“If the Bible is what it claims to be, the word of God—it is important that it connect to reality,” Ham said. “We have Scripture giving an answer back. It’s a real book of history.”

Ham was quick to add that his approach doesn’t mean AiG employees take every word literally. The museum attempts to discern when biblical authors used allegory or poetry such as language found in the Psalms, which should not be taken literally.

“But there is also real history in the Bible: Genesis. It’s a historical narrative that we take as history,” Ham said.

Miller contends it is better to look to science for answers to scientific questions. Doing so has been an ancient practice among many religious authorities for centuries, he said.

“St. Augustine said God is the Author of Nature, and was quite adamant that one should not use Scripture to reach scientific conclusions,” he said.

But tell that to Jennie Parker. For her, proof of the factuality of Genesis is the ultimate tool of evangelism. “This is history,” she said, pointing to an exhibit on flood waters. “Now I can respond to questions [of skeptics] in a spiritual way.”

‘Is it a big issue for people? You bet.’

Although the Institute for Creation Research, a California-based creationist think tank, reports there are no reliable numbers on how many Americans subscribe to creationism, many people have strong opinions on the topic.

“Is it a big issue for people? You bet,” Miller said, explaining that when he’s on radio shows across the country to discuss evolution, the switchboard quickly lights up.

According to a Newsweek poll in March 2007, only about 50 percent of Americans accept “the scientific theory of evolution.”

Miller said that means America has the highest rate of evolution-rejection in the western world.

Court cases involving the teaching of evolution remain rare.

Miller said only two have dealt with creationism in the past five years, and he testified in both.

In Dover, Pa., a District Court decision determined that a 2005 school-year policy violated the Establishment Clause. A statement designed to be read to certain ninth-grade science classes suggested Intelligent Design as an alternative theory to evolution. The court found the statement too closely aligned with the promotion of creationism, which precedent determined to be a religious belief.

The other case in Cobb County, Ga., was brought by parents in the school district who objected to stickers placed on some science textbooks in 2002. The stickers stated that evolution was a theory, not a fact, and should be examined with an open mind. Miller was the author of one of the textbooks that received a sticker. The stickers were ultimately determined to downplay the he teaching of evolution to “benefit” religious members of the community.

Aside from such high-profile cases, the debate remains largely a local issue that gets played out in school district curriculum skirmishes. “In the United States if people say, darn it, we want creationism taught here they can elect people who will carry that out,” Miller said.

The museum’s Looy said evolution can still cause spiritual upheaval for the faithful, something he experienced while in high school.

“In the early 1970s I was struggling regarding my faith because I was getting evolutionary teaching in my public schools,” Looy said. “It was certainly in conflict with what I was reading in Genesis so I was having what you might call a crisis of faith.”

Encountering the work of a leading creationist helped Looy see what he viewed as gaps in the fossil record and hear other arguments that confirmed for him the Genesis account of the earth’s origins. He hopes the museum can be a similar spiritual tool for young people today.

“Students are going to public schools and getting this teaching [evolution] and then they go to church on Sunday and they’re trying to reconcile Genesis with evolution,” Looy said. “We have many parents [that say] my son, my daughter went off to a secular school and gave up their faith because they thought that the Bible could no longer be trusted. I think there are a number of parents coming here, bringing their children to hear the other side of the origins question.”

Looy stressed that while the museum’s position isn’t simply a defensive one, it does conflict strongly with evolution.

“We stand up here and say there is a creator-God and he created us and that there is meaning and purpose in life and that the creator has laid down some laws of living for us,” he said. “The creation-evolution issue is more than a scientific dispute. It’s two worldviews in conflict.. .We have a worldview we present here that is in contrast to the secular humanism tenets of man determines truth for himself.”

While the public is divided over evolution, Miller maintained it’s a non-issue for scientists.

“Let me be clear, there really isn’t any debate over evolution in the scientific community,” he said. “It’s a generally accepted scientific concept. Within biology, nothing makes sense except in light of evolution.”

Jeremy and Stefanie Wynne of Ringgold Ga., weren't quite sure what to make of the dinosaurs in the museum’s Garden of Eden.

"We’re torn on that, like a lot of people," Jeremy Wynne said. The couple-- both teachers--explained that they grew up learning one thing about the world's origins in school and another in church. And while they believe in the Bible, "this is getting into an interpretation of the Bible," Jeremy Wynne said.

The dinosaurs weren’t the only part of the museum’s presentation the Wynne’s weren’t sure they agreed with. Shortly before visiting the museum, Stefanie Wynne heard the idea that the earth is 6,000 years old for the first time. Even after touring exhibits that try to back up this point and show its centrality to a Christian view, she said she wasn’t convinced the age of the earth was very important to her faith.

What matters is the path to salvation, she said.

Though hesitant regarding the museum's particular outlook, "I think it’s great there’s a museum devoted to spreading God’s word," Stefanie said. She and Jeremy were on their way to do mission work at their congregation’s partner church in Ohio.

Even visitors who share the museum’s worldview understand its goal goes beyond defending creationism.

Parker’s eyes welled up when she described the museum’s primary purpose.

“In the movie there is a sacrifice of a lamb. This foreshadows the Messiah to come. Then you see Mary holding a lamb. This will reach people familiar with the Passover lamb; it will reach people in Jewish culture, and Christian culture. There won’t be a dry eye in the house,” she said.

Parker was referring to a scene in “The Last Adam,” the museum’s movie heralded by Pastor Buck, Ken Ham and Mark Looy as a powerful spiritual aid.

“For Christians, ‘The Last Adam’ reminds them what we’re on about as Christians. For non-Christians, it’s that there is purpose and meaning in life,” Ham said.

Image: Salvation Vacation interactive
Click here for an interactive comparison of the Creation Museum and the Darwin Exhibit.

The Latest

Students from Medill School at Northwestern University spent eight months examining the connection between belief and public life in the United States, a pursuit that carried them everywhere from tattoo parlors to much more traditional venues and yielded an abundance of revealing stories.

Blog Reactions

See all results ...