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Does It Really Matter Whether Adam Was the First Man?

Does It Really Matter Whether Adam Was the First Man?

It has been my contention that the identity of Adam, and his role as the physical progenitor of the human race, are not such free or detachable doctrines. The historical reality of Adam is an essential means of preserving a Christian account of sin and evil, a Christian understanding of God, and the rationale for the incarnation, cross, and resurrection. His physical fatherhood of all humankind preserves God’s justice in condemning us in Adam (and, by inference, God’s justice in redeeming us in Christ), and it safeguards the logic of the incarnation. Neither belief can be reinterpreted without the most severe consequences.

Evangelical Christians have generally resisted the demythologization of the Gospels whereby, for example, the resurrection of Jesus is interpreted as a mythical portrayal of the principle of new life. Indeed, they have argued strongly that it’s the very historicity of the resurrection that is so vital. However, when it regards the biblical figures of Adam and Eve, there has been a far greater willingness to interpret them as mythical or symbolic.

The simple aim of this article is to show that, far from being a peripheral matter for fussy literalists, it is biblically and theologically necessary for Christians to believe in Adam as a historical person who fathered the entire human race.

Adam Was a Historical Person

Textual Evidence

The early chapters of Genesis sometimes use the word ’ādām to mean “humankind” (e.g., Gen. 1:26–27), and since there is clearly a literary structure to those chapters, some have seen the figure of Adam as a literary device, rather than a historical individual. Already a question arises: must we choose? Throughout the Bible we see instances of literary devices used to present historical material: think of Nicodemus coming to Jesus at night, or the emphasis in the Gospels on Jesus’s death at the time of the Passover. Most commentators would happily acknowledge that here are literary devices being employed to draw our attention to the theological significance of the historical events being recounted. The “literary” need not exclude the “literal.” 

The next question then must be: does the “literary” exclude the “literal” in the case of Adam? Not according to those other parts of the Bible that refer back to Adam. The genealogies of Genesis 51 Chronicles 1, and Luke 3 all find their first parent in Adam—and while biblical genealogies sometimes omit names for various reasons, they are not known to add fictional or mythological figures. When Jesus taught on marriage in Matthew 19:4–6, and when Jude referred to Adam in Jude 14, they used no caveats or anything to suggest they doubted Adam’s historical reality or thought of him any differently than they did other Old Testament characters. And when Paul spoke of Adam being formed first, and the woman coming from him (1 Cor. 11:8–91 Tim. 2:11–14), he had to be assuming a historical account in Genesis 2. His argument would collapse into nonsense if he meant Adam and Eve were mere mythological symbols of the timeless truth that men preexist women.

Theological Necessity

We can think of these passages as circumstantial evidence that the biblical authors thought of Adam as a real person in history. Circumstantial evidence is useful and important, but we have something more conclusive. The role Adam plays in Paul’s theology makes Adam’s historical reality integral to the basic storyline of the gospel. And if that is the case, then the historicity of Adam cannot be a side issue, but part and parcel of the foundations of Christian belief.

The first exhibit is Romans 5:12–21, where Paul contrasts the sin of “the one man,” Adam, with the righteousness of “the one man,” Christ. Paul is the apostle who felt it necessary to make the apparently minute distinction between a singular “seed” and plural “seeds” (Gal. 3:16), so it’s probably safe to assume he was not being thoughtless, meaning “men” when speaking of “the one man.” Indeed, “the one man” is repeatedly contrasted with the many human beings, and “oneness” underpins Paul’s very argument—which is about the overthrow of the one sin of the one man (Adam) by the one salvation of the one man (Christ).

Throughout the passage, Paul speaks of Adam in the same way he speaks of Christ. (His language of death coming “through” Adam is also similar to how he speaks of blessing coming “through” Abraham in Galatians 3.) He is able to speak of a time before this one man’s trespass, when there was no sin or death, and he is able to speak of a time after it—a period stretching from Adam to Moses. Paul could hardly have been clearer: he supposed Adam was as real and historical a figure as Christ and Moses (and Abraham). Yet it is not just Paul’s language that suggests he believed in a historical Adam; his whole argument depends on it. His logic would fall apart if he was comparing a historical man (Christ) to a mythical or symbolic one (Adam). If Adam and his sin were mere symbols, then there would be no need for a historical atonement; only a mythical atonement would be necessary to undo a mythical fall. With a mythical Adam, then, Christ might as well be—in fact, would do better to be—a mere symbol of divine forgiveness and new life. Instead, though, the story Paul tells is of a historical problem of sin, guilt, and death being introduced into the creation, a problem that required a historical solution.

To remove that historical problem of Adam’s sin wouldn’t just remove the rationale for the historical solution of the cross and resurrection; it would transform Paul’s gospel beyond all recognition. Where did sin and evil come from? If they were not the result of one man’s act of disobedience, there seem to be only two options: either sin was there beforehand and evil is an integral part of God’s creation, or sin is an individualistic thing, brought into the world almost ex nihilo by each person. The former is blatantly non-Christian in its monist or dualist denial of a good Creator and his good creation; the latter looks like Pelagianism, with good individuals becoming sinful by copying Adam (and, presumably, becoming righteous by copying Christ).

The second exhibit that testifies to the foundational significance of a historical Adam to Paul’s theology is 1 Corinthians 15:21–22 and 45–49. Again, Paul unpacks a tight parallel between the first man, Adam, through whom came death, and the second or last man, Christ, through whom comes new life. Again, Adam is spoken of in the same way as Christ. Again, Adam is seen as the origin of death, as Christ is the origin of life.

At this point in 1 Corinthians, Paul is at the apex of a long argument dealing with problems the Corinthian Christians had with the body. As the ultimate answer to their pastoral problems, Paul set out to give them confidence in the reality of their future bodily resurrection by demonstrating the historical fact of Jesus’s bodily resurrection. The historical reality of Jesus’s resurrection is the linchpin of his response. That being the case, it would be the height of rhetorical folly for Paul to draw a parallel between Adam and Christ if he thought Adam was mythical. For if the two could be parallel, then Christ’s resurrection could also be construed mythically—and Paul’s whole letter would lose its point, purpose, and punch.

If I have accurately represented Paul’s theology in these passages, then it is simply impossible to remove a historical Adam from Paul’s gospel and leave it intact. To do so would fatally dehistoricize it, forcing a different account of the origin of evil requiring an altogether different means of salvation.

Is There a Third Way?

Denis Alexander has proposed—substantially elaborating on a theory put forward by John Stott (Understanding the Bible, 49)—that there is a way of avoiding the sharp dichotomy between the traditional view of a historical Adam and the view that such a position is now scientifically untenable (Alexanderchs. 9–10). That is, while we should definitely see Adam as a historical figure, we need not believe he was the first human. According to Alexander’s preferred model, anatomically modern humans emerged 200,000 years ago, with language in place by 50,000 years ago. Then, around 6,000 to 8,000 years ago, God chose a couple of Neolithic farmers, and to them revealed himself for the first time. Thus he constituted Homo divinus, the first humans to know him and be spiritually alive. 

It is an ingenious synthesis, to be sure, deftly sidestepping the theological chasm opened by denials of a historical Adam. But it has created for itself profound new problems. The first is raised by the question of what to make of Adam’s contemporaries, those anatomically modern humans who, Alexander says, had already been populating the world for tens of thousands of years. He wisely maneuvers away from understanding them as anything less than fully human, emphatically affirming that “the whole of humankind without any exception is made in God’s image, including certainly all the other millions of people alive in the world in Neolithic times” (238). To have stated otherwise would have landed him in a particularly unpleasant quagmire: the aboriginal population of Australia, who, according to Alexander, had already been living there for 40,000 years before Adam and Eve were born, would otherwise be relegated to the status of non-human animals. And presumably the parents of Adam and Eve, also being non-human animals, would then—along with the Australian aborigines—be a legitimate food source for a hungry Homo divinus.

In avoiding all that, Alexander’s proposal founders on, if anything, even more hazardous terrain. The crucial move is made when he explains what exactly set Adam and Eve apart from their contemporaries. When they were born, he suggests, there was already a vast Neolithic population to be found in God’s image. What then happened to set Adam and Eve apart as Homo divinus was simply that “through God’s revelation to Adam and Eve . . . the understanding of what that image actually meant, in practice, was made apparent to them” (238). It was not, then, that Adam and Eve were now freshly created in God’s image; they had already been born in God’s image, children of a long line of bearers of God’s image. The difference was that they now understood what this meant (a personal relationship with God).

The first problem with this is biblical. In Genesis 1 and 2, it is quite specifically Adam and Eve who are created in God’s image (the event of Gen. 1:27 being presented afresh in Gen. 2:18–25). It is not just that some beings were created in God’s image, and that this could later be realized by a couple of their descendants. Quite the opposite: Genesis 2:7 seems to be an example of the text going out of its way to emphasize a direct, special creative act to bring the man Adam into being. That problem might be considered surmountable, but it has created a second theological problem that seems insurmountable. It is that, if humans were already in the image of God before Adam and Eve, then we are left with one of two scenarios.

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