Historical Adam and Eve
Adam and Eve form the headwaters of humankind, specially formed to bear God’s image and to rule his world. By their disobedience they brought sin and misery into human experience.
This essay gives a summary of the traditional Christian way of understanding Adam and Eve and shows how understanding these helps in reading the Bible, living faithfully, and meeting the challenges of skeptics appealing to science.
Even people who know nothing of the New England Primer (once a standard text for education in colonial America) can recognize the terminology and theology of one of its bits of doggerel:
In Adam’s fall
We sinned all.
Traditional Christians generally, of East and West, and Jews as well, have affirmed that the story of Genesis 3 tells us how Adam and Eve, the headwaters of humankind, disobeyed God’s command; as a result, they were expelled from the Garden of Eden, and their lives and ours have been the worse for it. For all their disagreements over how that primeval disobedience affects us their descendants, they have agreed on the event itself; and they have often called that event and its consequences “the Fall of Adam and Eve.”
They have also agreed that this story is history: it represents actual persons and events (even when they have disagreed over how strictly to read it). In this essay I want to show why this belief makes sense of the Bible and of the world and why it is worthy of our confident affirmation today.
The Main Texts
The story of Adam and Eve appears in Genesis, especially chapters 2–5. After allusions to the story in the Old Testament (and other Jewish writings), the main apostolic passage reflecting on it comes in Romans 5:12–21. Some would tell us that Paul is the only apostle to make much of the story, but they are mistaken; in Matthew’s Gospel Jesus himself bases an argument on it.
Jews and Christians have usually read Genesis 1–2, not as two complementary or sequential creation stories, but as the big picture (Gen 1:1–2:3) followed by an expansion of parts of the sixth day (Gen 2:4–25). Now, the style of biblical narration tends to rely on “showing” more than on “telling,” so we have to infer from the events what we should think of them.
In its brief and understated fashion, Genesis tells us that God created humankind “after his image” (Gen 1:26–27) but never explains what that is. But this “image of God” clearly is something that makes humans different from every other living creature; we can also see, from the larger scope of the Bible, that humans were made to form communities in which the imitation of God can flourish—living according to God’s image is our calling. Then we learn that the Lord formed Adam from dust (Gen 2:7), and later made Eve to be his companion (Gen 2:18–25). He surrounded them with abundance, dignified them with good work (to rule the world and to make children), and charged them with a stern but simple prohibition (Gen 1:26; 2:15–17). Then a “serpent” convinced Eve to disobey the prohibition, by leading her to distrust God’s motives; and Adam joined her in disobedience. As a result, God judges all three parties and boots Adam and Eve from the Garden, never to return; and the human history that follows shows evil let loose from the earliest stages, with murder and bigamy and departure from God (Gen 4:8, 16, 19).
Now, a good reader will recognize, first, that this is no ordinary serpent: Israelites knew that snakes don’t talk. Second, he will recognize that what the snake says is foul, since it blasphemes the generosity of the Creator. For a snake to talk, it must be interfered with (like Balaam’s donkey, Num 22:28); and for it to say such vile things, that interfering power must be God’s enemy. (This is why Jews and Christians have understood that the serpent was the mouthpiece of Satan.) Third, the good reader will call what Adam and Eve did a “sin” or a “transgression” and will also recognize that the evil that follows affects all humans because of this first sin—it is therefore a “fall”: they fell away from their first loyalty and obedience, and they fell into misery. All humans are in some way included with Adam and Eve (by what theologians call “solidarity”).
So, it should come as no surprise that the apostle Paul uses this passage to lay the background for his message to the world, including Gentiles (Rom 5:12–21), and we should feel confident that he has read the story as it was intended. He also draws out what was implicit in Genesis, namely that this is the story of all humankind, and not just of Israel: that is why he aims to bring the message as far as he can (Rom 15:24, which to him is the “end of the earth,” Acts 1:8).
But Paul is not the only one who saw things this way: Jesus did as well. When a group of Jewish leaders put a question to him about divorce, Jesus answered by citing the creation ideal of committed marital faithfulness (Matt 19:4–6, drawing on Gen 1:27; 2:24). When the leaders came back with the suggestion that Jesus was undermining the Law of Moses, which allowed for divorce (Deut 24:1–4), Jesus explained that this law was a concession to human hardness; “from the beginning it was not so” (Matt 19:8). That is, something has come in to disrupt the pristine created condition—and that “something” is human sin and corruption. Further, John’s Revelation envisions the consummation in terms of the reversal of the bad stuff that came in due to that first disobedience (Rev 22:1–5).
Their Place in the Story
It should be clear that the “story” is one of actual persons and events, bound together by a narrative logic. As Paul tells it, Adam did something, results took place, and Jesus came to undo those results. Remove any of the parts—or render them unhistorical—and the narrative coherence disappears.
And what does the narrative coherence do for us? It gives coherence to our entire way of living in the world. It explains the things that every culture knows, and that some try to suppress: we are different from the other animals, with higher powers and higher responsibilities; we are also miserable because of evil in the world; and we share that predicament with all other human beings. As the French mathematician-philosopher Blaise Pascal (1623–1662) put it so memorably (Pensées [Krailsheimer, trans.], 117/409):
Man’s greatness is so obvious that it can even be deduced from his wretchedness, for what is nature in animals we call wretchedness in man, thus recognizing that, if his nature is today like that of the animals, he must have fallen from some better state which was once his own.
Who indeed would think himself unhappy not to be king except one who had been dispossessed? . . . Who would think himself unhappy if he had only one mouth and who would not if had only one eye?
But the story is also one of hope: what has been lost may somehow be restored—not by human effort, but by God’s generous provision. Hence, as G. K. Chesterton (1874–1936) said (As I Was Saying [Grand Rapids: Eerdmans, 1985], 160), “The Fall is a view of life. It is not only the only enlightening, but the only encouraging view of life.”
If we want to tell the truth about the Big Story of the World, we must include these elements:
- All humans are of one family, with a common source, and therefore all have an equal share in capacity and dignity;
- Humans are a special creation of God, which means that whatever materials and processes God used, the results go beyond the natural, and involve extra help from God;
- Sin is an intruder into God’s good world that disrupts and defiles lives and communities;
- All humans share the same predicament: their estrangement from God.
The place of Adam and Eve in the biblical story ensures that we get the story right!
Since this essay has focused on Adam and Eve as actual human beings at the headwaters of humankind, we have not gone into some of the obvious and important theological questions, say, about how it was right for God to have them represent us all, or how we today can be suffering for something they did so many years ago, or how sin is passed on to us. Those topics are important and are worth further consideration (see the bibliography for extended treatments of these topics).
The benefits that come from telling the story the right way go well beyond the satisfaction we derive from a tale that gives coherence to all of life. If we grasp the intrusive nature of sin, we can grieve over it and learn to be repulsed by it; we can appreciate the place of lament in the life of the faithful—lament for the wrongs done by ourselves and by others, with longing and prayers for God’s help to put things right (like those in the Psalms). We can also honestly practice human brotherhood, dealing well with all kinds of people—and especially aim to see that our churches are communities of both grace and holiness, where human life can flourish under God’s care. And finally, we can embrace our human role in the world: God made us to rule with wisdom and benevolence, and the faithful will aim to do just that—in the little things (their own households) and in the bigger ones (promoting good policies).
Adam, Eve, and Science: Freedoms and Limitations
Developments in the sciences, especially in biology, have made people wonder whether they can still affirm a traditional notion of Adam and Eve, or even whether such a notion is essential to healthy Christian faith. This essay has outlined why the traditional notion is essential. But what about the sciences?
Biologists have offered evidence both that humans share ancestors with other animals, and that the human population must always have been larger than two. Now, these are inferences, and faithful Christians have differing views on how they should respond. Some will criticize the inferences and even offer reasons to reject them; some will seek ways to revise them so that they need not be interpreted in opposition to traditional beliefs. This essay does not adjudicate those positions but rather suggests boundaries for good thinking. There are freedoms—room for various scientific theories to be tried—and limitations—boundaries imposed by good sense and by our well-grounded theological views. The bibliography includes some of the efforts to think about the sciences; some are more satisfying than others. The key is to retain the four elements of the true story listed above and to consider whether it might be possible to frame some version of the biological theories consistently with them—or at least, not to recruit the biological theories to overthrow these key elements.
In the end, it will do us good to accept what Aslan told Prince Caspian, who learned that he was descended from pirates who found their way from our world to the world of Narnia (C. S. Lewis, Prince Caspian, ch. 15).
Caspian: “I was wishing that I came from a more honourable lineage.”
Aslan: “You come of the Lord Adam and the Lady Eve. And that is both honour enough to erect the head of the poorest beggar, and shame enough to bow the shoulders of the greatest emperor on earth. Be content.”
Traditional systematic theologies and summaries
- Bavinck, Herman. Our Reasonable Faith Grand Rapids, MI: Eerdmans, 1956. See especially chapter 12.
- Packer, J. I. Concise Theology. Wheaton, IL: Tyndale House, 1993. See especially pages 79–81.
- Schmid, Heinrich. Doctrinal Theology of the Evangelical Lutheran Church. Charles Hay and Henry Jacobs, trans. Minneapolis: Augsburg, 1961 . This work does not address the topic directly, but he did not have to in his day; he could take it for granted.
- Heppe, Heinrich. Reformed Dogmatics. G. T. Thomson, trans. Grand Rapids, MI: Baker, 1978 . Similar approach to Schmid, above.
- Frame, John. Systematic Theology: An Introduction to Christian Belief. Phillipsburg, NJ: P&R, 2013. See especially pages 803–806 for a helpful discussion of the topic
- Horton, Michael. Lord and Servant: A Covenant Christology. Louisville, KY: Westminster John Know, 2005. Brief remarks.
- ———. The Christian Faith: A Systematic Theology for Pilgrims on the Way. Grand Rapids: Zondervan, 2011.
- Barrett, Matthew and Ardel Canaday, eds. Four Views on the Historical Adam. Grand Rapids, MI: Zondervan, 2013. This work contains contributions from Denis Lamoureux (evolutionary creation, no Adam), John Walton (archetypal Adam), C. John Collins (accepting old earth, historical Adam), and William Barrick (young earth, historical Adam).
- Collins, C. John. Reading Genesis Well: Navigating History, Poetry, Science, and Truth in Genesis 1–11 (Grand Rapids: Zondervan, 2018). This work addresses the Genesis narrative and Paul’s use of it in Romans.
Recent essays and collections of essays
- Collins, C. John “The Place of the ‘Fall’ in the Overall Vision of the Hebrew Bible.” Trinity Journal 40, n.s. (Fall 2019): 165–184.
- McDonough, Sean. “The Fall and Fallenness in the NT.” Trinity Journal 40, n.s. (Fall 2019): 185–195.
- Bock, Darrell. “Thinking Backwards about Adam and History.” Trinity Journal 40, n.s. (Fall 2019): 131–143.
- Collins, C. John. “May We Say that Adam and Eve ‘Fell’? A Study of a Term and its Metaphoric Function.” Presbyterion 46:1 (Spring 2020): 53–74.
- Madueme, Hans and Michael Reeves, eds., Adam, the Fall, and Original Sin: Theological, Biblical, and Scientific Perspectives. Grand Rapids, MI: Baker, 2014. These essays argue for a traditional view.
- Rosenberg, Stanley ed., Finding Ourselves after Darwin: Conversations on the Image of God, Original Sin, and the Problem of Evil. Grand Rapids, MI: Baker, 2018. This work includes entries from much more diverse perspectives, from traditional, to much less traditional, to non-traditional.
- Moreland, J. P., Stephen Meyer, Christopher Shaw, Ann Gauger, and Wayne Grudem, eds., Theistic Evolution: A Scientific, Philosophical, and Theological Critique. Wheaton, IL: Crossway, 2017. This work has several essays with a bearing on our topic. Of course, in volumes such as these, the various contributors need not endorse everything that any of the other contributors argue for.
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