Tim Keller on Adam & Eve – Part II

June 19, 2011

In my first post on this topic, I discussed whether it made sense to think of the Adam & Eve story as “mythologized history”. In this post, I want to tackle something else from Tim Keller’s post in defence of a literal Adam.

Keller is convinced that in order for Christ’s salvation to work covenantally, Adam’s sin had to spread covenantally. In other words, just as Christ died for the benefit of all, so too must the sin of Adam have been laid to the account of all.

My initial reaction is to ask, “Why?”. Why must the cause of sin work the same way as the remedy? Sure, it makes for nice parallelism. I imagine that’s why Paul made the analogy. But there’s no logical reason why it has to work that way and Keller doesn’t offer one.

What really troubles me about Keller’s argument is how he goes about justifying the idea that sin works covenantally. He writes:

As a pastor, I often get asked how we can get credit for something that Christ did. The answer does not make much sense to modern people, but it makes perfect sense to ancient people. It is the idea of being in “federation” with someone, in a legal and historical solidarity with a father, or an ancestor, or another family member or a member of your tribe. You are held responsible (or you get credit) for what that other person does. Another way to put it is that you are in a covenant relationship with the person. An example is Achan, whose entire family is punished when he sins (Josh 7.)

It is telling, I think, that in support of his argument that God attributes individual sin guilt covenantally, Keller relies on one of the more disturbing stories in the OT. Joshua and his men have just finished putting the city of Jericho to the ban. That is, God has allegedly ordered them to slaughter everything that breathes and to devote the entire city to destruction. When Joshua attempts to take the city of Ai, his men are defeated. Why? Because God is angry that they didn’t devote the entire city of Jericho to destruction. Turns out some guy named Achan had helped himself to some booty (the pirate kind, not the other kind). The response was a little draconian, to say the least:

Then Joshua, together with all Israel, took Achan son of Zerah, the silver, the robe, the gold bar, his sons and daughters, his cattle, donkeys and sheep, his tent and all that he had, to the Valley of Achor. Joshua said, “Why have you brought this trouble on us? The LORD will bring trouble on you today.” Then all Israel stoned him, and after they had stoned the rest, they burned them. (Joshua 7:24-25)

Imagine the scene. “Little girl, I’m afraid your daddy has disobeyed God’s command. While we were busy running babies through with swords, your daddy was stuffing gold bricks down his pants. I’m sure you’ll understand that the only just thing to do is to stone him … oh and you as well. And your brothers. And your cat.”

Remarkably, according to Keller, this is a principle of general application for God. Immediately after referencing the stoning of Achan’s family, Keller writes as follows:

The ancient and biblical understanding is that a person is not “what he is” simply through his personal choices. He becomes “what he is” through his communal and family environment. So if he does a terrible crime—or does a great and noble deed—others who are in federation (or in solidarity, or in covenant with him) are treated as if they had done what he had done.

The great thing about proof-texting is that you can find an isolated story in support of your point, claim that it represents THE “biblical understanding” and then ignore other passages like Ezekiel 18:20:

The one who sins is the one who will die. The child will not share the guilt of the parent, nor will the parent share the guilt of the child. The righteousness of the righteous will be credited to them, and the wickedness of the wicked will be charged against them.

If you have a moment, read all of Ezekiel 18. The entire chapter is a refutation of the sort of thinking that Keller describes as the “biblical understanding” of the imputation of guilt.

For Keller, there’s no problem at all with the idea that all of humanity should be condemned for the sins of one man. He was our federal head and we get thrown in the stoning pit with him.

But it gets worse. It’s one thing to conceive of sin entering the world through the sole progenitors of the human race. In some way (if I turn my head sideways and squint) I can kind of see how it might be that once man had fallen, his offspring might then inherit that fallen nature and the consequences that go with it. But the whole point of Keller’s post is to contend for a historical Adam & Eve who are not the sole progenitors of the human race. Keller realizes that he must come to grips with the fact that the human population has never been smaller than several thousand. But he still wants to make us all vicariously liable for the actions of one man.

Keller provides no explanation as to why Adam would be in federation/solidarity/covenant with the rest of the existing human population of his day. Why should the thousands of other humans who co-existed with Adam be covenantally linked with Adam? Even Joshua didn’t stone the entire Israelite camp, just the responsible family.

Since Keller hasn’t attempted to guesstimate where Adam might fit into history, it’s hard to tell just how many contemporaries would have been stuck with the consequences of Adam’s sin. Was Adam a neolithic farmer in the middle east, as some have suggested? If so, that was rotten luck for the people in the Americas. They didn’t know Adam existed, their lineages had diverged thousands of years earlier, yet God thought it just to treat them “as if they had done what [Adam] had done.”

You can push Adam as far back into the Stone Age as you wish, but you will never eliminate the problem. It will always be patently unjust to hold an entire population of thousands of individuals liable for the actions of one of their contemporaries. It offends our most basic sense of justice. You wouldn’t do it. I wouldn’t do it. Why would God do it?



  1. The story of Achan always reminds me of “The Lottery” by Shirley Jackson.


  2. I believe the answer is “God’s ways are mysterious and not our ways.”

    I’ve always thought the Original Sin myth was pretty whacked. I mean God created Adam & Eve and gave them their natures, so, being omnipotent and omniscient, he knew what they were going to do in any circumstances. Then he sets Adam and Eve up by putting the tree in the Garden and creating the snake to tempt them. Before they eat the apple, they don’t know good and evil so how can they know that it’s bad to disobey god? Tell me again, how is this Adam’s fault?

    But the crux (pardon the expression) of the matter is that, if you don’t have Original Sin, the whole Jesus myth doesn’t play out that well.

    • Annie, my present inclination is to view the Fall narrative as an early attempt at theodicy. And it’s probably one that requires rethinking in light of what we now know. But I don’t see Jesus’ role as contingent on original sin. The need for redemption arises from the fact of sin, not so much its particular origin.

  3. You write so well. This is thought-provoking stuff!

  4. […] 1Tim Keller on Adam & Eve – Part II « Cognitive Discopants SUBMIT […]

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