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No Adam, No Eve, No Problem

June 6, 2011

The recent cover story in Christianity Today about the historicity of Adam and Eve has spawned a lot of discussion.

Today, Biologos President Darrel Falk discussed the Christianity Today editorial piece that accompanied the cover story. Falk is encouraged by the willingness of the CT editors to accept the conclusions of modern genetics. Specifically, the editors acknowledge the compelling data that the human race cannot trace its roots back to a single couple, but, rather, evolved from ancestral hominid populations that were never smaller than several thousand. (For more on the science behind these conclusions, you’ll want to read Dennis Venema’s paper in the ASA journal, Perspectives on Science and Christian Faith.) This is, indeed, a courageous move for the editors of so prominent an evangelical publication.

What should we make of the story of Adam & Eve in light of this knowledge? Upon discovering that the Genesis creation account is a highly symbolic piece of literature that sits comfortably within the well-attested ancient near eastern genre of creation mythology, many Christians (and not a few biblical scholars) have drawn the natural inference that the characters in this highly symbolic story are almost certainly symbolic as well.

But here is where the CT editorial piece is far less encouraging. The editorial is titled, “No Adam, No Eve, No Gospel.” Not a lot of nuance in that position, is there? Here are a few excerpts:

Christians have already drawn the line: there must be an original pair of humans endowed with souls—that is, the spiritual capacity to relate to God in the special way Genesis describes.

What is at stake? First, the entire story of what is wrong with the world hinges on the disobedient exercise of the will by the first humans. 

Second, the entire story of salvation hinges on the obedience of the Second Adam. The apostle Paul, the earliest Christian writer to interpret Jesus’ work, called Adam “a type of the one who was to come” (Rom. 5:14, ESV), and wrote that “[j]ust as we have borne the image of the man of dust [Adam], we shall also bear the image of the man of heaven [Jesus]” (1 Cor. 15:49, ESV). He elaborated an “Adam Christology” that described a fallen humanity, headed by Adam, and a new, redeemed humanity with Christ as its head.

The editorial is sparse on detail when it comes to providing a workable solution, but it does say, “we can still conceive of Adam and Eve as leaders of that original population” and observes that there is biblical precedent for God holding “groups of people morally responsible for the actions of some of their members.” The editors seem to be proposing that God either breathed souls into or specially created two prehistoric humans of unspecified vintage who were prominent members of a larger population. This couple was made perfectly righteous, but chose to sin (no indication of whether the gospel requires a historical talking snake to make this happen). Because Adam & Eve were leaders of this early human population, the whole lot of them were deemed to have fallen. I’m not certain what the others would have fallen from if only Adam & Eve had been given the special relationship with God at that point. In any event, that’s their proposal for maintaining a historic Adam & Eve while accepting the genomic data.

The CT editors are insistent on maintaining a historical role for Adam & Eve because, as the editorial title implies, they feel that too much doctrine is at stake. They have basically posed three main objections to a non-literal Adam & Eve:  Souls, the Fall, and Paul. Let’s consider them in turn…

Objection #1: SoulsOur animal ancestors didn’t have souls. Humans do. Therefore, there must have been a specific point in history in which God endowed homo sapiens with souls.

I suspect that this argument would make little sense to the authors of Genesis. It hinges on the dualistic presumption that man is composed of two (or more) distinct components: a corporeal body and an incorporeal soul. Evangelicals may be accustomed to thinking this way, but it is by no means the only Christian viewpoint, nor would it have been the viewpoint of the authors of Genesis.

But even if one accepts that humans have a unique thing called a soul, why does this necessitate a first couple? Couldn’t God just as easily hand out souls to the entire hominid population? Can’t Adam & Eve just be symbolic representations of that population? Frankly, this seems far more reasonable to me than the idea of giving souls to just two lucky people. Can you imagine being their neighbors? “Hey Urzug, have you noticed Adam and Eve in the cave down the block? They think they’re soooo cool with their new souls. Makes me want to wipe the grin off their faces with a hand axe.” Seriously though, what kind of scenario are the CT editors envisioning? How do souls spread throughout the population? Maybe Adam and Eve’s kids inherited souls, but what happened when they interbred with their non-souled neighbors? Did soulishness spread through the population like a gene? Wouldn’t geographic isolation have meant lingering pockets of non-souled humans all over the world until modern times (unless you imagine Adam and Eve going back some 50,000+ years to predate global human migration – an impossibly long time for oral tradition about Adam & Eve to survive)?

Once you’ve acknowledged that Adam & Eve are not the progenitors of the entire human race, the original pair of souls idea becomes highly problematic.

One does not need an original pair of first soul recipients in order to believe that at some special point in history God endowed humans with souls. God is perfectly capable of providing an entire extant human population with the “capacity to relate to God in the special way Genesis describes.” He doesn’t need to pick favorites.

Objection #2: The FallGod must have made us in a state of original righteousness. We aren’t righteous now. Therefore, there must have been a point at which men fell into sin and Adam is the prime culprit.

Part and parcel of coming to grips with the implications of evolutionary history is the realization that disease, predation, pain and death have been with us from the beginning (i.e. hundreds of millions of years before the first hominids). “What is wrong with the world” cannot be attributed to the disobedience of human beings who only appear on stage at the tail end of the planet’s history. If it is essential to you to be able to blame earthquakes, cancer and those little fish that swim up your urethra on “the Fall”, then I strongly recommend you stick with Young Earth Creationism.

If, like the editors of CT, you realize that YECism is intellectually untenable, then you have to adjust your theodicy. Period. Adam and Eve and the Fall simply aren’t going to explain it all anymore, whether they’re historical or not.

Perhaps the CT editors meant only that the Fall was necessary as an explanation for moral evil (as distinct from natural evil). The idea of God creating morally perfect people only to have them rebel and permanently corrupt their lineage makes some sense if these are the prototypical people. But where does this state of perfection fit in an evolutionary narrative in which our ancestors were anything but perfect? There is no reason to think that the inclination to violence, licentiousness and self-centered behavior that characterizes our sinful nature was not also characteristic of our hominid ancestors. When men commit evil acts in pursuit of wealth, sex and power, is there really all that much of a discontinuity with the australopithecine competing for limited resources, mating opportunities and dominance within his herd? We may wish to appeal to being “made in the image of God” to explain our most noble qualities, but we need look no further than our lowly origins to explain our base qualities. To paraphrase a certain chanteuse: I evolved this way.

Did God take a pair of hominids out of a population with this base animal nature and make them morally perfect, only so that they could immediately return to the same behavior as their ancestors (and non-souled contemporaries)? What would be the point? Do you take a pig out of the mud and give him a bath when you know he’ll be back wallowing in the mud before the tub has finished draining?

Unless you’re content with postulating a paradise that was a brief (and seemingly pointless) aberration, evolutionary history leaves little room for a state of perfection from which men could “fall”.

To move beyond Augustinian notions of the Fall and original sin – as I believe we must do – does not mean that we deny sin as the central problem. As a dysfunctional part of a pain-filled world, we are as much in need of redemption as the rest of creation. But it may be that the hope of the gospel is not that Christ’s death and resurrection allow us to return to a paradisaical state we once enjoyed and lost, but rather that it opens the door to a state of righteousness and freedom from sin that we have never known.

Objection #3: PaulPaul describes Christ as a second Adam who, through the cross, undoes the effects of Adam’s sin. Therefore there must have been an Adam who sinned or Christ is out of a job.

Pete Enns has addressed this issue thoroughly in a series at Biologos: (Part I, Part II, Part III, Part IV). So I’ll be brief.

For the most part, Paul is using Adam typologically. There it no need for a figure to be historical in order to be used in this analogical way. Is Christ incapable of being our high priest if Melchizedek turns out to be a figure of legend rather than history? Or what about Jonah? Jesus himself said, “For as Jonah was three days and three nights in the belly of a huge fish, so the Son of Man will be three days and three nights in the heart of the earth” (Matt. 12:40).  Is Easter undone if we recognize the story of Jonah as a heavily ironic fictional tale (as most scholars do)? Surely not.

Paul most likely believed Adam to be a historical person; he had no reason not to. And it does appear that Paul took at face value the account of Adam’s disobedience as the means by which “sin entered the world”. But Paul doesn’t have to be right about the origin of sin (an incidental point) in order to be correct about God’s solution to sin (the central point). Regardless of where our sinful nature originates, the fact and problem of sin remain. So, no, Christ is not out of a job without Adam.

Like Darrel Falk, I applaud the editors of CT for acknowledging that “sometimes, Christian ways of thinking must adjust” in light of the discoveries of science. But I am saddened by the kneejerk response of simply drawing new lines in the sand – lines which exclude all sorts of devout Christians, scholars and scientists who do not find the idea of a historical Adam & Eve probable or necessary.

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11 comments

  1. Nice post. I agree (see here: http://www.tgdarkly.com/blog/?p=2079)

    BTW, you’re a trial lawyer? I’m a law professor. And we have had many similarities in our faith journeys.


    • Hi David. I saw your comments on Darrel Falk’s Biologos post and found that I heartily agreed. In fact, it was probably your comment that prompted me to wade into the discussion here. Go lawyers!


  2. The CT editors are insistent on maintaining a historical role for Adam & Eve because, as the editorial title implies, they feel that too much doctrine is at stake.

    Yeah, i mean it’s obvious that Jesus and Paul and all the rest of the prophets and apostles were taking Genesis allegorically when they referred to specific historical events in Genesis… wait a minute…


    • Paula, I wouldn’t contend that Jesus, Paul, etc. interpreted the events in Genesis allegorically. They were likely influenced by the Jewish interpretive traditions of their time, as we are influenced by those of our time.


  3. Very nice analysis of the article. It’s a fascinating topic.

    Christianity eventually adjusted to the Copernican revolution. Time will tell whether it will adjust to the Darwinian revolution.

    At first blush it seems impossible. But the more time goes on I see evangelicals somehow still clinging to inspiration and inerrancy in spite of more and more scripture that needs “reinterpreted” in light of historical and scientific data.


  4. […] Magazine: “Creationism creeps into mainstream geology”Chris Massey @ Cognitive DiscopantsNo Adam, No Eve, No ProblemMason @ New Ways ForwardEvolution and the difference a decade makes.Chris Massey @ Cognitive […]


  5. Thank God there are intelligent christians in the world willing to dig, and to question, and to reassess their viewpoints. Good for you all.


  6. Thanks for your excellent posts on evangelicalism and science. My childhood Christianity was similar to yours, I think.

    It’s odd (and sad) that the CT editorial’s rhetorical maneuvers exactly reproduce the rhetorical maneuvers of ’80s creationism. “Without historical, 6-day creation as Genesis records it, you have no Christianity” has merely become “Without Adam and Eve’s historical sin, as Genesis records it, you have no Christianity.”


    • You’re quite right. Evangelicals don’t seem to mind moving the lines in the sand, so long as they get to draw a line.


  7. Interesting ideas. The fundamental difference between the fundamentalists and you, is that you dont feel the need for the need. By this i mean many evangelicals think that they have to show a point in the narrative that demands God’s intervention, or without it their faith is pointless. You seem to have no problem with this. But they have a point. Science models our origin with no intervention, soul-less consciousness emerging as a property of the brain, and cultural/biological origins of morality. Why do you feel the need to theologically defend your faith if these were independent events anyway?


  8. It looks like that you have no idea what “soul” is.
    Soul means life, so you are wrong by saying that animals have no souls. Of course they have, they LIVE.



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