“He’s been described as evangelist, an inspiration, a creationist, a Christian apologetic, dangerous religious fanatic, a science-denier and the Australian Noah.
Ken Ham used to be a Brisbane science teacher. Three decades on, he’s one of the most polarising and powerful religious leaders in America’s Bible Belt.
Ham believes evolution is a fraud, the world is only 6000 years old and was created in six days, the Book of Genesis is historical fact and homosexuality is a sin.
Now, the founder and president of Answers In Genesis (AiG) has built a life-size Noah’s ark.
The privately funded $100 million monolith in Kentucky is seven storeys high, about 200m long and the biggest timber-framed structure on the planet.
Ham says Ark Encounter is “one of the greatest Christian outreaches of our era” and will attract up to two million Christians and non-Christians a year when it opens in July.
Call Ken Ham crazy if you like. Just don’t call him the messiah.
Sunday Night journalist Steve Pennells learned that when he met Ham and toured his controversial creation.
“This has been his obsession. A lot of people thought he was crazy. A lot of people still think he’s crazy, but now he’s a crazy guy with a $100 million ark,” Pennells says.
Ham’s critics say he’s a fanatic selling a dangerously mind-bending view of world history. His fervent supporters — and in Middle America’s conservative Christian Bible Belt there are many — believe he is Christian warrior in a spiritual war who can lead people back to a fundamentalist way of life.
When asked if he was a messiah, Ham, 64, didn’t quite bristle, but “he was taken aback”, Pennells says.
In a blog post, afterwards, Ham, 64, fired up.
“I’ve never in my life been asked anything like that. The Messiah is our Creator and our Saviour, Jesus Christ,” he wrote.
He said the blasphemous statement had come from one of his most vocal critics, Bill “the Science Guy” Nye, who says Ham is “scientifically illiterate” and challenges him at every turn to debunk his teachings.
The pair famously squared off in a fiery evolution versus creation debate which went viral two years ago.
“Bill Nye falsely accuses me of being “The Messiah” cause he doesn’t like me proclaiming the message of the Messiah,” he continued.
His ark may be a build of biblical proportions, but Ham isn’t the evangelistic, fire-and-brimstone personality you’d expect.
He advocates Biblical literalism. He genuinely believes Noah marched in those animals two-by-two, but Pennells says “he is a straight-talking Australian bloke from Queensland”.
“I wouldn’t even say he very charismatic. He’s an everyday bloke from Australia who believes in the literal interpretation of the Bible. It’s his rule book for life,” says Pennells.
“And in conservative America, he has found a lot of kindred spirits. That is a mainstream view over there, not a fringe movement over there — they are rooted in conservatism and their Christian roots.
“Whatever you think of what he says, he believes it and he’s got an army of people behind him who believe it too. In that scene, he’s a rock star.”
One thing beyond doubt is Ham’s business acumen.
He might have used the Bible and the cubit measurements chronicled in it as his instruction manual for the ark — but we’re betting Noah’s original didn’t include a 1500-seat restaurant and gift shop for tourists and shuttle-buses like Ham’s version does.
“Someone said to me: ‘In America one of the biggest sins is not being good at business’. Ken Ham is not guilty of that sin,” says Pennells.
The ark has been very deliberately positioned in the middle of Kentucky, near the major interstate highway, and a 90-minute flight away for most middle Americans.
It’s Christian missionary strategy, with a 2016 twist.
“In the battle for souls in this era, you go big, Hollywood-style,” says Pennells.
The ark is the biggest monument in Ham’s multi-million religious empire — Ham is also an author, has a radio show, and is the darling of the Middle America homeschooling sector.
Those who work with Ham must sign a statement of faith, indicating they believe the same as AiG: in creationism, the earth is only 6000 years old, the Bible is fact, the lot.”
Ham says the ark is “the most wholesome, family-friendly God-honouring facility around”.
His critics say it is yet another monument to a belief they says is increasingly permeating the community as fact, and eschewing and mocking scientific fact.
Debate aside, the ark is impressive.
“No matter what you think of the guy, you walk through the bowels of that ark and you think this is phenomenal,” Pennells says.
No, it doesn’t float although when it began to rain during his tour, Pennells asked: “does this thing work?”.
Ham referred to Genesis in his answer.”