What options are available for relating the biblical account of Adam and Eve to the scientific account of the evolution of the human race?
1. The historical view
The conservative writer Norman Geisler offers ten reasons for thinking that Adam and Eve were historical persons:-
- Genesis 1–2 presents them as actual persons and even narrates the important events in their lives.
- They gave birth to literal children who did the same (Genesis 4–5).
- The same phrase (“this is the history of”), used to record later history in Genesis (for example, Gen 6:9; 10:1; 11:10, 27; 25:12, 19), is used of the creation account (2:4) and of Adam and Eve and their descendants (Gen. 5:1).
- Later Old Testament chronologies place Adam at the top of the list (Gen. 5:1; 1 Chron. 1:1).
- The New Testament places Adam at the beginning of Jesus’ literal ancestors (Luke 3:38).
- Jesus referred to Adam and Eve as the first literal “male and female,” making their physical union the basis of marriage (Matt. 19:4).
- The book of Romans declares that literal death was brought into the world by a literal “one man”—Adam (Rom. 5:12, 14).
- The comparison of Adam (the “first Adam”) with Christ (the “last Adam”) in 1 Corinthians 15:45 manifests that Adam was understood as a literal, historical person.
- Paul’s declaration that “Adam was first formed, then Eve” (1 Tim 2:13–14) reveals that he speaks of real persons.
- Logically there had to be a first real set of human beings, male and female, or else the race would have had no way to get going. The Bible calls this literal couple “Adam and Eve,” and there is no reason to doubt their real existence.
Baker Encyclopedia of Christian Apologetics
Kevin DeYoung: reasons for believing in the historical Adam
I’m not particularly impressed either by Kevin DeYoung’s ’10 Reasons to Believe in a Historical Adam’, or by T. Michael Law’s attempted debunking.
I don’t take kindly to DeYoung’s labelling as ‘self-proclaimed evangelicals’ some who have questioned the historicity of Adam and Eve. The clear implication is that you cannot be regarded as a ‘true’ evangelical unless you accept the account as strictly historical. As for DeYoung’s list of ten items, several are irrelevant, or at best inconclusive.
For me, the strongest of DeYoung’s points is his reminder that Paul seems to place considerable stress on the historicity of Adam (Rom. 5:12-21; 1 Cor. 15:21-22, 45-49).
The response by Law is, as he acknowledged, written from within a completely different theological framework. With regard to the passages just mentioned, he asserts that Paul was simply uncritically transmitting information that we now know to be historically inaccurate. But assertion is not argument. And when he cites, as an analogy, the church’s insistence (in the face of the theories of Copernicus and Galileo) that the Bible taught that the Sun revolved round the earth, he is himself guilty of uncritical transmission of received tradition (see the discussion in Sampson, Six Modern Myths, IVP, ch 1).
Law closes with an exhortation for Christians to read more widely outside his own tradition,
and to consider the vast resources available to assist in the interpretation of Scripture from the last two millenia of Christian exegesis. One should not imagine that everything of value must come from the Reformers and their theological heirs. To do so leaves one impoverished when there is so much more from the Christian exegetical tradition. We should, however, warn you, since to do so may challenge one’s long-held beliefs; may reveal that one’s interpretations are very narrowly conceived and tied to a very tiny fraction of Christian tradition; and may shine lights in dark places that one doesn’t know exist.
Well, yes. But this is a bit rich coming from someone who admits that he is ‘not familiar with the evangelical literature on Genesis 1-11’. In that case, he is not really in a position to comment on how narrowly or widely the relevant authors have read. My distinct impression is that evangelical scholars read (and, in their student days, were required to read) much more widely than their non-evangelical counterparts.
According to the young-earth creation view, the earth was created by God around 10,000 years ago, all living things were created within six literal days, and that Adam and Eve were created on the sixth day.
In the view of old-earth creationists, the first humans were the result of an act of special creation, rather than the result of an evolutionary process.
Critics argue that both young-earth and old-earth creationism are incompatible with current scientific understanding of evolution, since they deny any continuity between the animal world and humanity. Since the evidence for common ancestry is overwhelming, they make God appear almost deceitful if the is no developmental continuity between the genomes and apes and humans. It is argued, furthermore, that these models not required by the biblical text, rightly understood.
This view looks behind the text of Genesis to find two or a few Neolithic farmers to whom God revealed himself, called into fellowship with himself, and commissioned to be stewards of his creation. Genetically identical to the several million other humans living on the earth at the time, it was they who became God’s prototypical and representative spiritual family on earth. The way was thus opened up for any others to enter God’s family by faith and obedience, whether they were genetic descendants of Adam and Eve or not.
The cultural context of Genesis looks very much like that of Neolithic farmers, during the period 4,000-6,000 BC. The Genesis account implies that there were other humans around at the time of Adam and Eve (see Gen 4:12).
Lk 3:38 seems to regard Adam as a real historical figure.
The flood, in this model, can be seen as a devastating, but localised, event, out of which godly Noah and his family were saved, along with their livestock.
John Stott has some interesting comments on the historicity of Adam and Eve.
It is fashionable nowadays to regard the biblical story of Adam and Eve as “myth” (whose truth is theological but not historical), rather than “significant event” (whose truth is both). Many people assume that evolution has disproved and discarded the Genesis story as having no basis in history. Since “Adam” is the Hebrew word for “man,” they consider that the author of Genesis was deliberately giving a mythical account of human origins, evil and death. We should certainly be open to the probability that there are symbolical elements in the Bible’s first three chapters. The narrative itself warrants no dogmatism about the six days of creation, since its form and style suggest that it is meant as literary art, not scientific description. As for the identity of the snake and the trees in the garden, since “that old serpent” and “the tree of life” reappear in the book of Revelation, where they are evidently symbolic, it seems likely that they are meant to be understood symbolically in Genesis as well.
But the case with Adam and Eve is different. Scripture clearly intends us to accept their historicity as the original human pair. For the biblical genealogies trace the human race back to Adam; Jesus himself taught that “at the beginning the Creator ‘made them male and female'” and then instituted marriage, Mt 19:4 ff., quoting Gen 1:27. Paul told the Athenian philosophers that God had made every nation “from one man,” Acts 17:26; and in particular Paul’s carefully constructed analogy between Adam and Christ depends for its validity on the equal historicity of both. He affirmed that Adam’s disobedience led to condemnation for all, Rom 5:18.
Moreover, nothing to modern science contradicts this. Rather the reverse. All human beings share the same anatomy, physiology and chemistry, and the same genes. Although we belong to different so-called “races” (Caucasoid, Negroid, Mongaloid and Australoid), each of which has adjusted to its own physical environments, we nevertheless constitute a single species, and people of different races can intermarry and interbreed. This homogeneity of the human species is best explained by positing our descent from a common ancestor. “Genetic evidence indicates,” writes Dr Christopher Stringer of London’s Natural History Museum, “that all living people are closely related and share a recent common ancestor.” He goes on to express the view that this common ancestor “probably lived in Africa” (though this is not proved) and that from this ancestral group “all the living peoples of the world originated”.
The Edenic story in the rest of Scripture
Some scholars have claimed that the Edenic story cannot be particularly important, because it is referred to so rarely in the rest of Scripture (Rom 5 being the single notable exception). But, in fact, there are distinct echoes of the story in a number of OT writings. See, for example, Deut 30:18; Hos 6:7. Isaiah has a distinct motif of ‘Paradise regained’ (see Isa 11:5ff; 65:25). Ezekiel, too, has a number of allusions (Eze 28:12-19; 31:7-9, 16-18; 47). Some of the Psalms allude to Adam’s punishment (Psa 73:5; 82:7), as does the book of Proverbs (Prov 3:18; 8:36). Job 31:33 recalls Gen 3:12. And Ecclesiastes may well be thought of as an extended reflection on Gen 1-3 (cf. Eccles 12:7; 3:20 with Gen 3:19). Eccles 7:29 recalls the Fall.
In the NT references are quite plentiful. See Mt 19:4-8; 23:35; Lk 3:23-38 (which with Lk 4:1-13 constitutes an Adam/Christ typology); Lk 10:18f. The Johanine writings show interest in ‘the serpent of old’ (Jn 8:44; Rev 12:9; 20:2). Paul refers to the fate of the serpent in Rom 16:20. He stresses the tempter’s cunning, 2 Cor 11:3; 1 Tim 2:14. The creation/fall pattern is evident in Rom 8:20. 1 Cor 15:44ff elaborates the Genesis passage.
Literary features of the Eden story
That there are similarities between the Eden story and stories of origins arising from other cultures is not to be denied. But the dissimilarities are even more striking. There is no parallel in other ancient literature to the antithesis between the two trees, associated with life and death respectively, and the choice between them forming a major lesson of the entire passage. Any comparison here with the Gilgamesh epic (where a serpent steals the plant of life while the hero takes a bath) borders on the ridiculous. In the opinion of Martin Noth, ‘The author of Gen 2-3 has not followed any of the ancient Near East creation narratives, but has simply used detailed images to express what was his own creation.’ Many scholars have warned against viewing Gen 1-3 as myth. The use of some mythical traits does not turn the story as a whole into a myth. Such a combination of imagery with a message about definite events occurs also in Ezekiel’s allegories, in Jesus’ parables, and in apocalyptic visions.
The observation that Adam’s name is generic does not undermine an orthodox interpretation of the account. Indeed, orthodoxy has always maintained that Adam acted in a representative capacity as well as in a private capacity. Indeed, the name serves as generic name in Gen 1, as title for the male individual in Gen 2 (‘The Man’), and also as personal name.
More positively, Gen 2-3 stand at the head of a genealogical sequence that links Adam with the later patriarchs. More specifically, Gen 3:15 and 20 mention the first couple’s immediate descendents. These are not characteristics of mythological writing.
It is short-sighted to view the two accounts (Gen 1:1-2:3 and Gen 2:4-3:24) as separate, almost rival, accounts, clumsily arranged. They have a definite and shared purpose – to show that the goodness of the original creation was marred by man’s fall into disobedience. In the words of Paul Ricoeur:-
The aetiological myth of Adam [as he still calls it] is the most extreme attempt to separate the origin of evil from the origin of the good; its intention is to set up a radical origin of evil distinct from the more primordial origin of the goodness of things.
Theological implications of the historical view
William D. Barrick (Four Views on the Historical Adam) argues that the historicity of Adam is ‘foundational to a biblical understanding of’:-
- God’s creative activity;
- the history of the human race;
- the nature of mankind;
- the origin and nature of sin;
- the existence and nature of death;
- the reality of salvation from sin;
- the progressive account of the historical events recorded in the book of Genesis;
- (‘and perhaps most importantly’,) Scripture’s authority, inspiration, and inerrancy.
Similarly, Geoff Thomas (following Philip Ryken) suggests that the historical Adam:-
1. gives us truth at the beginning of the Old Testament. And that truth is of a powerful, wonder-working God who breaks into our lives and changes us;
2. explains why the human race is in such a sorry condition. The story of Adam explains how and why the world, created so good, has become so bad;
3. explains the biblical position on the different roles and relationships of men and women;
4. prepares us for and introduces us to the historical Christ. They are the two great federal heads of our face: the sin of one condemns us, and the righteousness of the other justifies us;
5. helps us in our mission and evangelism. All races have a common ancestor, and so all people are related to one another (see Acts 17:26);
6. encourages us to hope in our resurrection bodies. It was not in his spirit that the Second Adam was raised, but in his body. Just as in the present age we bear the image of the man of dust, so in the age to come we shall bear the image of the man of heaven.
On point 4 above, Ryken himself (The Message of Salvation) asserts that the historicity of Adam and the Fall as ‘crucial’. He agrees that the language of early Genesis is ‘artistic’, even ‘figurative’. Nevertheless, he insists the account ‘is presented as history, and it is treated as history everywhere else in the Bible.’ With scriptures such as Rom 5:15,17; 1 Cor 15:21f in mind, Ryken says that ‘when the New Testament explains what Jesus Christ has done – in history – for our salvation, it is based on what Adam did – in history – to make our salvation necessary.’
We must note how concerned the Bible is to emphasise ‘the radical strangeness of evil…it cannot be explained and comprehended as an aspect, element or entailment of the metaphysical fabric of our existence.’ Creation – including humankind – was at the first very good, and sin entered as a deeply mysterious alien. God’s world was good, and sin had no place in it.
The very notion that sin entered the world after the creation points in favour of an historical entrance of sin into the world. We should strongly resist the tendency to separate the meaning and implications of the great tenets of our faith from the empirical events underpinning them. To do so is to be satisfied with an ‘as if’ theology, to retain indeed a form of godliness while denying its power (2 Tim 3:5). It does not make sense to say that humans are evil ‘as if’ they had fallen. ‘If they did not really fall, they must be evil from creation and by creation’.
An historical Fall subsequent to creation safeguards for us the all-important doctrine of the goodness of God. God is light, and there is no darkness in him (1 Jn 1:5). He hates and abhors all forms of evil (Rom 12:9). He did not build evil into the fabric of his creation. And, if he had done so, there could scarcely be any hope for its final elimination from God’s purposes and plans.
Adam and original sin
Henri Blocher notes that it seems difficult, in the light of current scientific thinking, to regard the story of Eden as historical. Emil Brunner spoke for many when he took it for granted that this narrative ‘is no longer historically credible’. Paul Ricoeur declared: ‘What we know, as men of science, about the beginnings of mankind leaves no place for such a primordial event.’
The conclusions of critical-literary study seem to many to point in the same direction. This is the world of myth – a man fashioned from clay, trees bearing magical fruits, the Serpent gifted with speech and craftiness. Even the name ‘Adam’ (meaning ‘mankind’) seems to warn us against a naive historical interpretation.
Furthermore (it is claimed) the historical interpretation restricts the meaning and significance of the passage, whereas the symbolic interpretation opens it up.
Although as Christians we accept the primacy of the biblical revelation in understanding our faith, we do not despise the valid findings of science and history, representing as they do God’s general revelation. We will listend to the evolutionary account of origins, even if we may not accept it unquestioningly as dogma. In the present state of knowledge, we may have to be content with provisional answers to some of our questions.
Current scientific opinion would tend to support the descent of the human race from a single line, if not actually a single couple. If we allow for gaps in the genealogy of Gen 4, then we could envisage the emergence of ‘Adamic’ man some 40,000 years ago, leading to the world, some 30,000 years later, of Gen 4 with its description of what we know as neolithic culture.
There are good grounds for considering Gen 1-4 to be a literary unity, and for understanding it not as ordinary history, but as ‘a well-crafted, childlike drawing of the far-distant past, with illustrative and typological interests uppermost’. We may regard as plausible the hypothesis that
the biblical Adam and Eve were the first parents of our race, some 40,000 years ago; and we may posit an initial period of fellowship with God in their lives before they apostacized.
This model has the further advantage of focusing on God’s call of individuals to fulfil his will (just like the call of Abraham).
Stott and Alexander favour this model. Enns and Lamoureux, however, criticise this view for being driven by a perceived need to posit a first pair in order to preserve Paul’s teaching in Romans 5 and 1 Corinthians 15. We are left, however, with a pair that is quite foreign to the picture drawn in Scripture. Moreover, says these critics, this position fails to take seriously Genesis as ancient literature and Paul as an ancient writer.
2. The ahistorical view
According to this view, there is no relationship between the biological and biblical accounts. The story of Adam and Eve functions as a myth or parable setting forth the role and importance of God’s purposes for humankind. According to this view, it is impossible to identify the first humans to have spiritual awareness; the story uses the assumptions of ancient knowledge to present spiritual truths about who we are and what it means to be created in God’s image.
Denis Lamouraux, for example, argues that the early chapters of Genesis are ahistorical, and ‘Adam is the retrojective conclusion of an ancient taxonomy.’
Enns finds a number of parallels between the story of Adam and the story of Israel (created from humble beginnings, placed in a fruitful garden/land, disobedience to God’s will, banishment/exile). Moveover, he notes some striking similarities between the Adam account and the teaching of Proverbs. This latter point suggests that the Adam story falls, at least partly, into the category of wisdom literature. It then becomes a story of how Israel’s forebears failed to follow God’s way of wisdom. Enns notes that Adam is scarcely a central figure in the rest of the Old Testament (he is mentioned just one other time) and is not used to explain some universal ‘Fall’.
Critics would respond by saying that this model loses contact with any kind of historical narrative, leaves completely open the question of how and when humans began to know God, and evacuates the Fall of any historical content.
What about Paul?
To writers such as Peter Enns and Denis Lamoureux Paul (Romans 5 and 1 Corinthians 15), no less than his contemporaries, regarded Adam as an historical figure. But (they say) in this he was merely following the (mistaken) assumptions of his day. Enns says that for Paul, the death and resurrection of Jesus Christ were absolutely central to his faith. He worked back from this solution to formulate what the corresponding plight must have been. That plight was the presence of universal sin, and Paul read back into the Adam story an account of how sin first entered the human race via our original parents. In ‘reading back’ into a biblical passage meanings which it never had in the first place Paul was simply using the hermeneutical methods of his day. Lamoureux draws a parallel between this Pauline passages which imply an historical Adam and the passage in Phil 2:10 where Paul implies belief in a three-tiered universe. In both cases, the abiding message conveying spiritual truth is couched in the incidentals of ancient understandings about the cosmos and the origins of the human race.
For Lamoureux, Adam is ‘everyman’; his story is our story. The good news is that an historical Second Adam has come to set us free from our rebellion and its consequences.
This proposal has a number of attractions. However, it will come as something of a shock to many evangelicals to think that Paul could have been mistaken historically and hermeneutically and yet correct theologically. It the case of Enns, he gives too little account of both the Adam story and Paul’s teaching as divinely inspired (and this was the major flaw in his earlier book, Inspiration and Incarnation). If he had taken his own advice and proposed a ‘Christotelic’ reading of the Adam story (i.e. shown how the story truly points forward to Christ, rather than merely saying that Paul ‘invented’ a meaning that was never there in the first place), then his account would have been a little more satisfactory.
Peter Enns: nine theses
In his book, The Evolution of Adam, Peter Enns sets out his case for regarding Adam as a non-historical figure, notwithstanding the teaching of Paul. At the end of the book, Enns summarises his position in a set of nine theses. Here is my summary of his summary, with a few comments of my own by way of response.
1. ‘Literalism is not an option.’ To teach that Genesis anticipates modern cosmology and anthropology is to expose the Christian faith to ridicule. Rather than supposing that Genesis is science written beforehand, we should read it in the light of other ancient near Eastern stories of origins.
2. ‘Scientific and biblical models of human origins are, strictly speaking, incompatible because they speak a different “language.” They cannot be reconciled, and there is no “Adam” to be found in an evolutionary scheme.’ Some (and here I would name John Stott and Denis Alexander, although Enns does not name them), attempt merge evolutionary theory with the idea of an historical Adam by postulating a pair of hominids who were endowed with God’s image. But this theory, although seeming to preserve what Paul apparently teaches about an historical Adam, does scant justice to the text of Genesis.
3. ‘The Adam story in Genesis reflects its ancient Near Eastern setting and should be read that way…We do not approach these texts properly by assuming that embedded therein is some secret knowledge that corresponds to modern science, which could not have been understood until recently.’ Our approach to these texts must be guided first of all by the question, ‘What would they have meant to their first readers?’
4. ‘There are two creation stories in Genesis; the Adam story is probably the older and was subsumed under Genesis 1 after the exile in order to tell Israel’s story.’ This second story (Gen 2:4-3:24) may have originated in oral tradition early in Israel’s existence as a nation. It tells the story of Israel’s origins and, together with the flood story, contains common ancient Near Eastern themes. The story recounted in Gen 1:1-2:3 was added at the time of the Babylonian exile (although incorporating earlier material). This story stresses the sovereignty of God over all creation, and his superiority to all rival deities (including those of Israel’s captors). The Adam story – originally the story of Israel’s origins – now functions as a preview of Israel’s history, right up to the exile. It does not answer the scientific question, ‘Where do people come from?’, but rather the question of national identity, ‘Where do we come from?’
5. ‘The Israel-centered focus of the Adam story can also be seen in its similarity to Proverbs: the story of Adam is about failure to fear God and attain wise maturity.’ Seen in this light, the Adam story is not about a fall from innocence, but rather a failure to follow the path of wisdom (cf. Prov 3:18; 1 Cor 1:30; Col 2:3).
6. ‘God’s solution through the resurrection of Christ reveals the deep, foundational plight of the human condition, and Paul expresses that fact in the biblical idiom available to him.’ Following now a key theme within the so-called ‘new perspective on Paul’, Enns argues that Paul moves from ‘solution’ to ‘plight’: if the Son of God became incarnate, and died and rose for the sins of the world, then the problem he came to ‘fix’ must have been profound and universal (cf. Rom 8:19-23). Paul, as a 1st-century Jew, drew on the ancient stories of Israel, investing them with new meaning in the light of his experience of the risen Christ. The fact that Paul wrongly assumed that Adam was an historical figure, and that he ‘invents’ an historical Fall when none was taught in the Genesis text itself, does not undermine his theology at this point.
7. A ‘proper view of inspiration’ will recognise that God speaks by means of the cultural setting of the authors – and this applies as much to the writings of Paul as it does to the stories of early Genesis. The Bible is a truly human book (although it is more than that), just as Christ is a truly human person (although he is more than that).
8. ‘The root of the conflict for many Christians is not scientific or even theological, but group identity and fear of losing what it offers.’ Evangelicals and fundamentalists tend to regard matters such as the historical reliability of the Bible as a ‘boundary marker’, and feel threatened when they are asked to re-think these things. The Reformation principle of sola Scriptura does not seem to leave much room for reading the Bible in the light of ancient creation texts or modern evolutionary theory. What is needed in ecclesiastical and academic cultures is a greater openness to change, and a less dogmatic, more conversational attitude towards authority and interpretation of the Bible.
9. ‘A true rapprochement between evolution and Christianity requires a synthesis, not simply adding evolution to existing theological formulations.’ The theory of evolution challenges traditional Christian understandings of origins, or sin, and of death. We can agree with Paul about the realities of these things, but not with his assumptions about their causes. Evolution regards death, for example, not as some alien punishment for sin, but rather as inevitable or even beneficial. If so, evolution cannot simply be grafted on to Christian faith: a new synthesis is required. Much as we might wish to preserve the faith of our forefathers, we must also work to protect and nurture that of those who come after us.
I agree with Enns that
- The Biblical texts must be read in the light of the cultures and thought-worlds in which they originated.
- Evangelicals must recognise that some of their conservatism is due to fear of change, and of questioning traditional boundary markers.
However, there are a number of problems with Enns’ position:-
- In showing (convincingly, in my opinion) that the Genesis stories share common features with other creation accounts from the ancient Near East, he has not explained clearly enough how (or if) the biblical accounts actually subvert (and thus provide a divinely-inspired correction of) those other accounts.
- In demonstrating (to his own satisfaction, at least) that at least some of the Old Testament stories are not historically accurate, he has not told us how much historical core remains. He seems to think that the account of the Exodus has a very slim historical core. But a biblical faith entails a belief that God has acted in space and time; Enns needs to tell us more clearly how he thinks that we can derive a solid biblical theology from events that (in his opinion) may never have happened.
- He has not shown convincingly that if Paul inherited a belief in an historical Adam, but that belief was actually mistaken, how that leaves his theological argument intact. (See here for a more extensive discussion of this).
- He has not shown convincingly how, on the one hand, we can reject Paul’s view of the historicity of Adam, and yet, on the other hand, accept his view of the historicity of Christ’s resurrection. To attempt to explain this, as Enns does, by saying that for Paul the story of Adam was ancient but the story of Christ’s resurrection was recent, is inadequate.
- Despite his repeated assertions that, far from being undermined, the doctrine of biblical inspiration is actually enriched by these considerations, Enns has signally failed to explain what, for him, such a doctrine might look like. His ‘incarnational’ model of inspiration has its own problems, and will not bear the weight that he places on it.
Peter Enns has raised many valid questions in his book, but offered few satisfactory answers. As one reviewer put it: ‘monumental work will be required from both theologians and scientists to render these languages [of revelation and evolution] more mutually intelligible, even if not ultimately reconcilable.’
Denis Alexander, Creation or Evolution: Do We Have To Choose? 234-243
Peter Enns, The Evolution of Adam
Four Views on the Historical Adam.
Blocher, Original sin: illuminating the riddle (IVP, 1997) pp 37-62.
Stott, The Message of Romans, 162.