Our Make-Believe Parents: When Adam Becomes More Fiction than Fact

In Sunday School rooms across a wide spectrum of churches, you will find Bible storybooks that, around page one, display pictures of Adam and Eve, with illustrators using their best judgment on whether to use well-placed leaves, strategic cropping, or selective poses appropriately to censor the reality of Adam and Eve's nakedness. It's the beginning of our story, and the beginning is sometimes as important as the end. But that reality, and more importantly our first parents' existence, has been and continues to be challenged and denied by some voices even within the church.

The Problem

Mainstream natural science - human genetics, DNA coding, anthropological archeology, etc. - has been studying the origins of man for some time and it seems there is now a consensus: we can no longer believe that humanity has descended from an original pair of human beings. The evidence for original human parents, according to some, is wholly lacking and, in fact, points positively to a community of sub-human species hundreds of thousands of years ago. It is from this kind of community, the argument goes, that humans have evolved. As one Old Testament scholar puts it, "The scientific evidence we have for human origins and the literary evidence we have for the nature of ancient stories of origins are so overwhelmingly persuasive that belief in a first human [Adam], such as Paul understood him, is not a viable option." (1) 

By "historical Adam" we mean this: if there had been surveillance footage of the garden of Eden, it would have captured dust from the earth in motion, taking the form and shape of the first male human being. It would have captured a single set of footprints all over the garden and, at some point, would have captured two sets of human footprints and audio of a conversation between a couple and a serpent (among other things).

The church is faced with a range of possible responses to the scientific challenge. In the current theological climate, "science" plays the part of the cool kid, with some on the outside displaying a desperation for wanting to be in that popular inner circle, while also illustrating the difference between melodramatic (denying the existence of a historical Adam) and dramatic (being alarmed at the latest scientific challenge to Scripture).

On the other hand, those tempted to dismiss natural science as a discipline should know that is not an option, mainly because it is next to impossible, or at least is pragmatically inconsistent. Many of the same scientific laws and methodology that produce findings on genetics are also responsible for treatments of cancer, data on distant galaxies, medicinal and surgical advances for premature babies, and a host of products and technologies we consume and enjoy every day.

Prioritizing select scientific findings is often self-labeled as "progressive," though that term prematurely assumes one's view is not only correct, but is advanced beyond the opposing view. When the latest scientific findings are positioned as advances in both science and in our theological understanding of Scripture, concern inevitably grows over whether believers will be left behind if we opt to ignore recent conclusive evidence. After all, what is the point in studying Scripture if we shut out theological progress, especially when shutting out that progress leaves Christians embarrassed in the face of the scientific community and, therefore, the broader culture at large?

The Question of Authority

Christians who are aware of the historical Adam discussion now find themselves in an unsettling game of Choose Your Authority: Scientific/literary evidence vs. Scripture. Fortunately, Scripture itself has something to say about this.
For we did not follow cleverly devised myths when we made known to you the power and coming of our Lord Jesus Christ, but we were eyewitnesses of his majesty. For when he received honor and glory from God the Father, and the voice was borne to him by the Majestic Glory, "This is my beloved Son, with whom I am well pleased," we ourselves heard this very voice borne from heaven, for we were with him on the holy mountain. And we have the prophetic word more fully confirmed, to which you will do well to pay attention as to a lamp shining in a dark place, until the day dawns and the morning star rises in your hearts, knowing this first of all, that no prophecy of Scripture comes from someone's own interpretation. For no prophecy was ever produced by the will of man, but men spoke from God as they were carried along by the Holy Spirit (2 Pet. 1:16-21)

Peter is recalling one of the most earth-shattering experiences from his walk with Jesus when he was with him on the Mount of Transfiguration (see Matt. 17:1-13). In recounting the event, Peter is concerned to tell us that he was an eyewitness (v. 16) and heard God the Father's voice from heaven (v. 18). Immediately after mentioning this historical event, with what initially seems like a jarring segue into describing the process of divine inspiration, Peter tells us that Scripture is not produced from man's interpretation or will (v. 20-21) but by God himself through the Spirit. Why? The historicity of the events of Jesus' life are inseparably tied to Scripture's truthfulness.

The Apostle Paul evidences the same kind of thinking in two important passages for our purposes:
I am astonished that you are so quickly deserting him who called you in the grace of Christ and are turning to a different gospel--not that there is another one, but there are some who trouble you and want to distort the gospel of Christ. But even if we or an angel from heaven should preach to you a gospel contrary to the one we preached to you, let him be accursed. As we have said before, so now I say again: If anyone is preaching to you a gospel contrary to the one you received, let him be accursed. (Gal. 1:6-9)

Thus it is written, "The first man Adam became a living being"; the last Adam became a life-giving spirit. But it is not the spiritual that is first but the natural, and then the spiritual. The first man was from the earth, a man of dust; the second man is from heaven. As was the man of dust, so also are those who are of the dust, and as is the man of heaven, so also are those who are of heaven. Justas we have borne the image of the man of dust, we shall also bear the image of the man of heaven. (1 Cor. 15: 45-49)

Paul is clear that the gospel message is objective. The truth and objectivity of the gospel are characteristics of the message itself rather than the human agent delivering the message. The truth of the gospel does not change, not even if one who is in authority, including Paul himself or even an angel, decides to veer from the more ultimate authority of Scripture and preach what is contrary. And what does Paul say the gospel is? It is the death and resurrection of Christ according to Scripture (1 Cor. 15:3f), a historical event that had eyewitnesses (1 Cor. 15:5-8). Paul pairs this gospel event in history with Adam becoming a living being (v. 45), formed from the physical (psuchikos in the original) earth and dust (v. 47-48), and passing his dusty image to all of humanity (v. 49). Paul assumes and argues for the historicity and historical implications of Adam and the events surrounding his life, inseparably linking and contrasting him to the historical existence of Christ and the events surrounding his life.

Returning to Peter, he writes, 
This is now the second letter that I am writing to you, beloved. In both of them I am stirring up your sincere mind by way of reminder, that you should remember the predictions of the holy prophets and the commandment of the Lord and Savior through your apostles, knowing this first of all, that scoffers will come in the last days with scoffing, following their own sinful desires. They will say, "Where is the promise of his coming? For ever since the fathers fell asleep, all things are continuing as they were from the beginning of creation." For they deliberately overlook this fact, that the heavens existed long ago, and the earth was formed out of water and through water by the word of God, and that by means of these the world that then existed was deluged with water and perished. But by the same word the heavens and earth that now exist are stored up for fire, being kept until the day of judgment and destruction of the ungodly. (2 Pet. 3:1-7)

Generations of Christians have faced the scientific challenge/assumption that the "laws" of nature necessarily never bend. Even in the first century, though, Peter knew the challenge would be posed to the early church: the promise of Christ's second coming looks unlikely. Laws of nature have not deviated (v. 4). Peter answers this charge by reminding his readers that it is God's word that caused the heavens and earth to exist in the first place and his word that caused a deluge over the whole earth with the Flood. That same word will bring an end to the present age when Christ returns at a point in human history, Peter says. God's word not only causes historical events to occur, but also has authority to cause events that deviate from the otherwise regular pattern and laws of nature.

In denying a historical Adam, what kind of historical protection is offered for biblical passages that include events like the virgin birth of Christ, or events in the Old Testament like Balaam's talking donkey (Num. 22:22f)? Where is the scientific evidence for the burning bush or the parting of the Red Sea? Under what we could term "theological scientism," there are a number of alarming consequences.

First, divine authorship offers no guarantee of truth. If we allow that Paul is simply wrong on the historicity of Adam, it does us no good to quarantine Paul's mistake to his historical belief, while arbitrarily affirming the truthfulness of Paul's "theological beliefs" recorded in Scripture. 

Second, divine authorship carries no more authorial weight than mainstream scientific conclusions. If scientific consensus determines which events are historical, the possibility of Christ (or Lazarus, for that matter) truly dying and truly being raised to life is denied before the question can be raised (no pun intended). The church is put in the position of being dependent on the scientific community to inform us about which portions of Scripture, if any, are valid.

The words of the writer of Ecclesiastes are perennially wise: "there is nothing new under the sun" (Ecc. 1:9). As long as science and theology remain disciplines, challenges to Christian belief will appear from pockets of science. The same brand of science that has no room for a historical Adam has no room for a virgin birth. Or miracles. Or bodily resurrection. Or ascension. Some current theologians seem to exhibit selective amnesia, forgetting that this brand of liberalism that denies the supernatural and subordinates Scripture to particular streams within science has already been ably answered in the church.

Those searching for confidence in Scripture under this method of interpretation will be left wanting. The half-hearted explanations given for why, in the face of denying a historical Adam, we should still trust Scripture sound like the hazy non-logic of a college student discovering Zen - there are abundant references not to truth but a "conversation," along with an unwavering certainty on some things and suspicion of others' certainty about anything. Under the theological accommodation of scientism, though Paul got this one wrong, and the Chronicler (1 Chr. 1:1), and Hosea (Hos. 6:7), and Luke (Lk. 3:38), and Jude (Jude 1:14), and Jesus (Mark 10:6-9), we are still assured that somehow Scripture is still trustworthy and inspired. We are still assured that God's character remains intact.

Fortunately, there are Christians who do not reject science as a discipline but instead use it to God's glory in demonstrating the truth about his world. They are looking at the same scientific data regarding the origins of life and coming to orthodox conclusions in ways that do justice to the appropriate parameters and integrity of the scientific disciplines. If anything positive emerges from the recent scientific challenges, it may be prompting believers to defend afresh God's truth with Scripture in hand. Such challenges can be used by God to speak the truth of his word into the current scientific context. The question we hear from those who deny what is expressly set in Scripture is the same question asked in Gen. 3:1, "Did God actually say there was an Adam?"

For some helpful resources on digging deeper into this issue, here is one place to start: "Resources on the Historical Adam."

Jared Oliphint is Regional Coordinator at Westminster Theological Seminary. He blogs regularly here.

1. Peter Enns, The Evolution of Adam: What the Bible Does and Doesn't Say About Human Origins (Grand Rapids: Bazos Press, 2012), 122.