PETERSBURG, Ky. -- Ken Ham stood outside his $27 million Creation Museum before its official opening on Monday (May 28) and declared its mission is not just to counter evolution.
He also wants to create a few Christians.
"We don't just want to see people converted to creationism,'' said Ham, president of the Answers in Genesis ministry, which built the museum on a site officials say is a convenient travel distance for two-thirds of all Americans.
"We do want to see people consider the claims of the Gospel, the claims of Christianity, to see people put their faith and trust in the Lord Jesus Christ.''
The latest juncture between evolutionists and creationists comes in the form of a 60,000-square-foot building whose main hall features animatronic dinosaurs and figures of young children playing near each other in a way its owners believe life really occurred some 6,000 years ago.
With the slogan "Prepare to Believe,'' Ham's creation-defending ministry opened the museum on Memorial Day on 49 acres just over the Kentucky state line from Cincinnati.
The museum was partially funded by three anonymous families who donated $1 million each, but 75 percent of all donations averaged around $100, officials said. Those donations built a state-of-the-art museum with vibrating seats and sprays of water in a theater that depicts Noah's flood, and extensive exhibits that claim the Grand Canyon could have formed around the time of that flood rather than millions of years ago as suggested by most scientists.
A studious visitor could spend several hours in the museum, which includes a planetarium, exhibits detailing the construction of Noah's Ark and life-size sculptures of Eve handing Adam the forbidden fruit from the Garden of Eden.
Two days before the official opening, a supportive crowd of hundreds of civic and business leaders and charter members -- some who paid $1,000 for a lifetime membership -- dined on shrimp and fruit kabobs after a ribbon-cutting ceremony.
Critics, however, were not far away: a plane circled overhead from the group Campaign to Defend the Constitution (DEFCON) flying a banner that read, "DEFCON SAYS THOU SHALT NOT LIE.'' Atheist and scientific groups have signed petitions complaining the museum fosters "superstition'' and will confuse schoolchildren who see one view there and hear another in high school and college.
"The `museum,' as it's called, is part of a campaign to deceive children and undermine scientific understanding in our country,'' said Clark Stevens, co-director of DEFCON.
Russell Moore, dean of the School of Theology at Southern Baptist Theological Seminary, disagrees. He traveled from Louisville, Ky., with his wife and four young children to the ribbon-cutting ceremony.
"I want to raise children who are able to understand Darwinism and to be able to see the alternative to it,'' said Moore, a proponent of creationism. "We have a biblical text that reveals the universe as it is and I believe in raising children who understand the authority of the word of God and who also understand all of the alternatives ... and are able to make informed, educated analysis of those things.''
One room in the museum features two paleontologists -- both as sculptures and as actors in a brief video -- examining dinosaur bones.
One declares them to be thousands of years old; the other says they are millions of years old. The first paleontologist appears again in the last theater presentation, Bible in hand, declaring that every word of the holy book is true.
Just outside that last theater, members of a "CARE team'' are ready to answer questions about the video, which begins with the paleontologist holding the bone of an ancient animal and ends with the story of Jesus' resurrection. The team's acronym stands for Compassion, Acceptance, Respect and Encouragement, said Cecil Eggert, the museum's "creation evangelism'' director.
He said the 30-member CARE team, which was trained over several weekends, will offer everything from informative pamphlets to praying with someone who has decided to become a Christian.
"We know that the bottom line in all of this is to show them that the Bible is truly the word of God, but also (that) the creator God wants to have a relationship with them through his son Jesus Christ and we are here to help them in that journey,'' said Eggert, who has worked at independent Baptist churches in youth and evangelism ministries.
The biblical message will extend to the gardens of the museum, which feature sculptures of Tyrannosaurus rex and herons along with waterfalls and bridges over a manmade lake. Signs will link nature to the Bible.
"People who come just to the gardens are going to get the Gospel,'' said Tim Schmitt, the museum's horticulturalist.
John Haught, a research professor at Georgetown University who is an expert on science and religion, said it's "not terribly surprising'' that a museum would be created to shore up creationists' arguments about the origins of life.
"It's important for them to deny evolution because ... if evolution happened, then there was no original perfection,'' said Haught, a Roman Catholic who believes in evolution. "It's absolutely essential for them that there be some fall. Otherwise the whole significance of Christianity gets lost.''
For his part, Haught doesn't see much merit in the museum and expects it will cause an "impoverishment'' of both theology and religion.
"It's hard for me to come up with a single reason why we should be doing this,'' said Haught. "It's theologically problematic to me, as well as scientifically problematic.''
Ham, who once was a science teacher in his native Australia, said the museum's exhibits on creation explain the basis of the Christian faith by linking the first sin by Adam to the sacrifice of the "last Adam,'' Jesus.
"If you want to go and tell someone about Jesus Christ and about sin and about the need for repentance ... you really can't do it without the foundational history of Genesis,'' he said. "Without the history of Genesis, you have no basis for any Christian doctrine.''