How Big Was the Ark?
Will anyone ever find Noah’s ark? A number of people have searched for it, and some even claim to have seen it. Already before the time of Christ, there were people who said they saw a giant wooden ship high on Mount Ararat. In more recent times, during warmer periods when ice and snow on the mountain have retreated, some sightings of the ark have been reported. But various expeditions to locate the ark have not succeeded in finding it or confirming its location beyond all doubt. Glaciers, snow packs, dangerous storms, and even politics make it hard for explorers to find out whether the ark is really there.
Is the ark somewhere on Mount Ararat beneath the ice and snow? Some people think so, but others insist that the ark will never be found because there was no ark in the first place. They think the Bible story of Noah and the ark and the worldwide flood is only a legend.
I don’t know whether Noah’s ark will ever be found, but I know the ark was not just a legend. I don’t know whether anything remains of the ark after thousands of years, but I know the ark really did exist and that people and land animals and birds would not exist today if their ancestors had not been on that ark.
If someone actually found the ark, studied its structure, and got closeup pictures, it would be a triumph of archeology. But our knowledge of the ark doesn’t depend on whether people are able to find what’s left of it. Our knowledge of the ark is based on something much better: the Word of God himself.
God’s Word, the Bible, tells why the ark was built, who built it, and how big it was. The Bible’s account of the ark comes from God himself, and everything God says is true. But even if you doubt the Bible, it’s hard to deny that there was an enormous flood at some point in history which wiped out everyone on earth except for a few who survived on a boat. Cultures in all parts of the world have stories about this.
In the Middle East, the ancient Babylonians had a story about a great flood. In North America various Indian tribes have stories of a great flood in which everyone perished except a few who survived on a boat, and natives of Alaska have similar stories. The original peoples who lived in Mexico, Brazil, Peru, and Cuba had stories of a flood and a great boatload of animals. Similar stories were told by natives in Greenland, Africa, Hawaii, and other Pacific islands. In Papua New Guinea, a linguist was surprised that a tribe which had almost no contact with the outside world told stories of a flood which drowned almost everyone in the world. In Europe there are ancient flood stories among Lithuanians, Welsh, and Greeks. China and India have stories from thousands of years ago about a worldwide flood where only eight people survived (see “The Evidence of Flood Traditions” in J.M. Boice, Genesis, v. 1, p. 282-288).
More than 200 cultures have flood stories. The stories differ in some details, but most have in common a worldwide flood, a favored family that survives on a boat along with animals, and a mountain where the survivors end up. Although local traditions have their own flavor and various details have been added or dropped, there’s little doubt that the stories trace back to the same original event. The flood was such an overwhelming event that even the remote descendants of the original survivors cannot forget it completely, no matter what part of the world they now live in. Among all these stories, the Bible’s account is the one that is totally accurate. In the Bible we hear God’s own description of what happened and why, right down to God’s instructions for the dimensions of the ark.
How Big is Big Enough?
How could anyone in ancient times possibly build a boat big enough to hold a pair of every major kind of land animal? And how could they engineer it to be seaworthy enough to stay afloat and survive the worst waves in the history of the world? How could this be possible without the kind of experts we have today? Well, as the saying goes, “The ark was built by amateurs; the Titanic was built by experts.” We should be humbler about modern experts and more respectful of people who lived in ancient times.
Also, keep in mind that the amateurs who built the ark weren’t just guessing about what design might work. Noah and his family were amateur builders, but their blueprint did not come from an amateur. The instructions for how to build the ark came from the greatest of all designers, the Lord God. The Creator who designed all things in the universe and controls winds and waves knew what it would take to provide safety from the flood.
How big was the ark? Big enough! God told Noah to built an ark that would be big enough to hold Noah’s family and land animals of every kind. According to the Bible,
God said to Noah, “I am going to put an end to all people, for the earth is filled with violence because of them. I am surely going to destroy both them and the earth. So make yourself an ark of cypress wood; make rooms in it and coat it with pitch inside and out. This is how you are to build it: The ark is to be 450 feet long, 75 feet wide and 45 feet high. Make a roof for it and finish the ark to within 18 inches of the top. Put a door in the side of the ark and make lower, middle and upper decks. I am going to bring floodwaters on the earth to destroy all life under the heavens, every creature that has the breath of life in it. Everything on earth with perish. But I will establish my covenant with you, and you will enter the ark—you and your sons and your wife and your sons’ wives with you. You are to bring into the ark two of all living creatures, male and female, to keep them alive with you. Two of every kind of bird, of every kind of animal and of every kind of creature that moves along the ground will come to you to be kept alive. You are to take every kind of food that is to be eaten and store it away as food for you and for them.”
Noah did everything just as God commanded him (Genesis 6:13-22).
Some skeptics claim there’s no way the ark could have been big enough to hold land animals and birds of every kind. Sometimes children’s books have pictures of Noah’s ark that unintentionally support the skeptics. These books often picture a cute, rather small ship with huge elephants and giraffes marching on board. But that’s misleading. The ark was enormous, and most of the animals on it were not very big.
The Bible says the ark was 450 feet long, 75 feet wide, and 45 feet high—in meters, that’s about 137 x 23 x 14. That would make a total volume of over 43,000 cubic meters, or over 1.5 million cubic feet. That’s the volume of 569 railroad cars, each capable of holding 240 sheep. The ark was not a cute little boat. It could hold over 135,000 animals the size of sheep.
How big were the animals? Well, most animals and birds are small. Sparrows, mice, and frogs don’t take much space. The median sized animal on earth is roughly the size of a rat. Only 11 percent are much large than a sheep. And of the bigger animals, let’s not assume the elephants, giraffes, or bears that boarded the ark were full grown. Probably they were fairly young and much smaller than mature size. Young pairs would take less room and require less food than full grown ones. They could finish growing up after they left the ark.
How many kinds of animals had to fit on the ark? Nobody knows for sure. It depends on how many kinds had gone extinct already before the flood. It also depends on what sort of creatures needed to be on the ark. Noah didn’t take fish or any creatures that could survive in the water, and he probably didn’t need to take tiny creatures such as insects who could survive on small bits of matter that were afloat. The type of animal that died if it wasn’t on the ark was the type, says the Bible, that “had the breath of life in its nostrils” (7:22). There were many kinds of creatures that didn’t need to be on the ark.
Of those that did need to be aboard, we can’t know the exact number. It depends on what God meant by “kind” when he told Noah to take two of every kind. Using modern classifications, there are about 35,000 species of animals that breath through the nostrils. If we go by genus rather than species, the number would be about 8,000 genera. Classified at the level of family, there would be about 700 family kinds. Now, even classifying by species—taking the high number of 35,000 and doubling that to allow for pairs—It’s been estimated that 70,000 animals in cages built with enough space and air would not have filled even half the ark, leaving ample room for people, food, water, and other supplies.
I don’t want to ruin the power of the story by boring you with numbers and details, but I hope I’ve provided enough details to help you avoid the notion that the ark couldn’t possibly have been big enough to do the job. We don’t know everything about the ark, but the Bible shows that it was huge, that it had three main levels, and that God told Noah to construct rooms in it for the animals. The Bible doesn’t go into detail about the exact size and construction of these rooms, nests, or cages, but Noah got the directions from God himself, so they were surely adequate.
Modern researchers have done simulated tests in water on a box-like structure proportioned like the ark. They found it very stable. In fact, it was almost impossible to capsize, even in the worst waves. We know of nothing else in the ancient world with the size and proportions of the ark. Not until the late 1800s were any vessels of that size and dimensions built. How could Noah or anyone else in that period of history have known how to make such a seaworthy structure? God himself told Noah exactly how to do it. How safe was the ark? Safe enough. How big was the ark? Big enough.
How Late is Too Late?
The Bible says that God told Noah to take a pair of every land animal and bird and to take seven of the types of animals that were considered clean and acceptable for use as sacrifices to God. Some could be sacrificed, while others could live on and have offspring. It took many, many years to build a vessel to hold all those animals, but at last the ark was finished.
The Lord then said to Noah, “Go into the ark, you and your whole family, because I have found you righteous in this generation… Seven days from now I will send rain on the earth for forty days and forty nights, and I will wipe from the face of the earth every living creature I have made.”
And Noah did all that the Lord commanded him (7:1-5).
We might wonder how Noah could round up animals from all over and get each pair into its proper place in the ark. But Noah didn’t have to gather animals or make them go where they needed to be. The Bible says that the animals “came to Noah and entered the ark, as God had commanded Noah” (7:9). Noah did what God told him, but it was God who brought the animals and saved them.
In the six hundredth year of Noah’s life, on the seventeenth day of the second month—on that day all the springs of the great deep burst forth, and the floodgates of the heavens were opened. And rain fell on the earth forty days and forty nights.
On that very day Noah and his sons, Shem, Ham, and Japheth, together with his wife and the wives of his three sons, entered the ark. They had with them every kind of wild animal according to its kind, all livestock according to their kinds, every creature that moves along the ground according to its kind, and every bird according to its kind, everything with wings. Pairs of all creatures that have the breath of life in them came to Noah and entered the ark. The animals going in were male and female of every living thing, as God had commanded Noah. Then the Lord shut him in. (7:11-16)
How big was the ark? There was room in the ark for Noah and his family, and there was room for every kind of animal. There was also room for any other person who wanted to join Noah. Nobody was turned away from the ark for lack of space. The ark was big enough for anyone willing to enter it. But only eight people were willing. The rest thought they would be fine without it. The ark never ran out of space, but the world ran out of time. The ark was big enough for anyone seeking refuge, but they didn’t seek it soon enough. By the time they recognized their danger, it was too late. God had shut the door. The flood wiped out everybody on earth except those who were in the ark.
For real issue was never, “How big is big enough?” The issue was, “How late is too late?” God gave them a long to time repent of their sins and to join godly Noah in serving the Lord. Even in that last week before the flood, as animals streamed to the ark from every direction, there was still time and opportunity to be saved. Even on the very last day, the day the flood came, the door of the ark was still open. Any person who had wanted to enter with Noah’s family could have done so. But nobody did. Finally God shut the door and unleashed his flood of judgment. Once the door was shut, the safety of Noah and his family was guaranteed, and the destruction of everybody else was guaranteed. There would be no second chances.
Is the Door Still Open?
Does any of this matter for us? Even if Noah’s ark was real, why should we care about it? Well, the Bible’s account of the ark comes from God himself, and anytime God speaks, it matters.
One way Noah’s ark should affect us is to fill us with gratitude. We should thank God for having mercy on Noah and telling him to build the ark, because without the ark, you and I would not exist. Humanity would be extinct, wiped out completely by God’s judgment. God’s past kindness made it possible for our ancestors and for us to live, and for various kinds of animals and birds to live, and we should never forget it.
We should look back in gratitude, and we should also look ahead in preparation. The flood was God’s first worldwide judgment but not the last. The ark was God’s first refuge for humanity but not the last. A day is coming when Jesus Christ will judge the world. Those who survive that judgment will live forever in God’s new creation, but those who are not prepared will perish forever in hell. When Jesus comes as Judge, it will be too late for any more people to be saved. Jesus himself insisted that Noah’s ark was real and that the flood happened, and he explained that the end of the world would be similar:
“As it was in the days of Noah, so it will be at the coming of the Son of Man. For in the days before the flood, people were eating and drinking, marrying and giving in marriage, up to the day Noah entered the ark; and they knew nothing about what would happen until the flood came and took them all away. That is how it will be at the coming of the Son of Man… Therefore keep watch, because you do not know on what day your Lord will come” (Matthew 24:37‑39,42).
For 120 years Noah worked on the ark and urged people to turn from sin and put their faith in God. If anyone had listened, they could have boarded Noah’s ark and been saved. But they didn’t take Noah seriously until it was too late. In a similar way, God’s message still goes out today, calling people to believe in Jesus and to prepare for judgment by taking refuge in Christ and entering his church. There is room for anybody. Nobody will be shut out from salvation for lack of space. But they will be shut out forever if they do not respond within the time God allows.
The Bible says, “God waited patiently in the days of Noah while the ark was being built” (1 Peter 3:20‑21). In our own time God again waits patiently while his church is being built and while people from around the world trust Jesus Christ and seek salvation in him. In Noah’s time, only eight people entered the ark and were saved from the flood, but in our time, by God’s mercy, millions from all parts of the world are entering the church of Jesus. The door is open, and there is room for anyone who wants to enter. The place of grace has plenty of space.
But you must enter the place of grace through the only door there is. Jesus says, “I am the door; if anyone enters by me, he will be saved” (John 10:9 RSV). “No one comes to the Father except through me” (John 14:6). Just as there was only one ark and only one door into it, so there is only one place of grace and only one door into it—the Lord Jesus Christ. Jesus died on a cross and rose from the dead to provide salvation from sin, and you can enter that salvation only through faith in him.
Don’t worry that there won’t be room for you. As one song puts it, “There’s room at the cross for you. Though millions have come, there’s still room for one. There’s room at cross for you.” The Lord will never turn you away for lack of room. He never turns anyone away who comes to him, eager to turn from sin and receive his salvation. There’s plenty of room in God’s love and in his kingdom for even the worst sinner who turns to the Lord.
And don’t worry that your time is already past. You can still be saved, even if you’re approaching your very last moment. The Bible says that Jesus saved a criminal shortly before the man died and promised him a place in paradise. So it’s not too late for you. You may have wasted most of your life without God, but you can still come to him.
The door is still open, and there is still room. But you must respond. Don’t wait any longer. Someday it will be too late. God will shut the door, and you will never get in.
Jesus said the time before his second coming would be like the time before the flood, and then he told a story of a wedding banquet. In the story, some people were ready when the bridegroom showed up, but others were not prepared. They were off somewhere else when the wedding procession arrived. The banquet began without them, and, emphasizes Jesus, “the door was shut.” The people who weren’t prepared came later and tried to get in.
“Lord, Lord,” they said. ‘Open the door for us!”
But he replied, “Truly, I say to you, I do not know you” (Matthew 25:10‑12 RSV).
You must be ready when Christ comes. Don’t think there are many ways to be saved. There is only one. Don’t think you will always have time to be saved later. One day time will run out, and you don’t know when that day will be. Don’t think you’ll get a second chance to be saved after you die or after Jesus returns. There will be no second chances. The door will be shut. Once God shuts the door, it stays shut.
In the Bible Jesus says that “what he opens no one can shut, and what he shuts no one can open.” Then Jesus says, “See, I have placed before you an open door that no one can shut” (Revelation 3:7-8). The door is open. Nobody can shut it but the Lord himself. There is still time to enter through the door, and there is plenty of space in the place of grace. Don’t reject the Lord’s invitation, and don’t ignore his warning. Instead, turn from your sins. Believe in the Lord Jesus Christ. Trust him to forgive you. Prize him as your dearest treasure. Love him with all your heart. Live to please him through his Holy Spirit living in you. God’s ark of salvation in Christ is big enough to include you, and strong enough to keep you secure forever.
By David Feddes. Originally broadcasted on the Back to God Hour and published in The Radio Pulpit.