Must Adam Be Historical? An Interview with John Collins

Debates over evolution aren't new. But lately evangelicals have been thinking hard about the implications of this debate for the historical Adam and how the rest of the Bible and humanity relates to him. In the past few months we've seen a surge of discussion over this topic. Here at The Gospel Coalition, Tim Keller and Mark Coppenger both commented on the consequences of abandoning Adam as a man who existed in history. Peter Sanlon explored Augustine's evolving, influential views. June's cover story at Christianity Today looked into the debate, centering on the conclusions of Francis Collins, director of the National Institutes of Health and founder of the BioLogos Foundation. World magazine's two books of the year for 2011 were Should Christians Embrace Evolution and God and Evolution, both dealing thoroughly with the problem of abandoning the historical Adam.

Also this year, Covenant Theological Seminary Old Testament professor C. John Collins has published Did Adam and Eve Really Exist? (Crossway). Working at the center of this debate, Collins answered several questions about his contribution, including how our conclusions about Adam affect how we read Paul and Jesus.

What leads some Christians to abandon a belief that Adam and Eve were real, historic people?

Different people will be moved by different factors. Generally speaking, there are three factors that can lead people to doubt that Adam and Eve were real people at the headwaters of the human race—or at least to doubt that it matters one way or the other.

First, there is the fact that the themes in Genesis parallel themes that we find in stories from other Ancient Near Eastern cultures. This leads some theologians to conclude that Genesis is just as “mythical” in its intentions and meanings as these other stories are.

Second, recent advances in biology seem to push us further away from any idea of an original human couple through whom sin and death came into the world. The evolutionary history of mankind tells us that death and struggle have been part of existence on earth from the earliest moments. Most recently, discoveries about the features of human DNA seem to require that the human population has always had at least as many as a thousand members.

One factor that allows these appeals to the biological sciences to get serious attention from traditionally minded theologians is the work of Francis Collins, the Christian biologist who led the Human Genome Project to a successful conclusion. Collins has written about how his faith relates to his scientific discipline, advocating a kind of theistic evolution that he calls the “Biologos” perspective. Collins agrees with those biologists who contend that traditional beliefs about Adam and Eve are no longer viable.

Third, some theologians and philosophers—and lots of “ordinary” people—think it is impossible that you and I could be affected at our deepest level by anything done long ago.

When did some Christians begin to doubt Adam and Eve’s historicity? Or is it common in church history to read Genesis 2 and 3 in a non-literal fashion?

Through most of church history, Christians have quite firmly believed that all humankind descends from the original couple, whom the Bible writers call Adam and Eve. They have also believed that this couple were created morally innocent, and that their disobedience is at the root of everyone else’s sin and dysfunction. You can find this in Christian writers from the earliest stages of church history, writers from both the Eastern and Western branches of the church. Now these writers do not all agree on just how that initial sin affects all the rest of us, and how it is passed down. But on the basic historical event they are at one. You will find the same belief in Jewish writers as well.

Of the reasons for doubting the actuality of Adam and Eve that I gave above, the third one has always been with us. The first and second reasons, however, have come to prominence in the 20th and 21st centuries.

You argue that we should retain a traditional understanding of Adam and Eve being historical. What is the most compelling argument in support of your case?

I am one of those for whom “the Bible says so” is a compelling argument! However, things aren’t really that simple for most people. After all, the obvious retorts are along the lines of, How do we know that it really is the Bible that says so, as opposed to our interpretation of the Bible that says so? Besides, the biblical authors lived so long ago, and knew so much less about the world than “we” do!

So I have addressed myself to showing why I think that the Bible does in fact say so, both as to the individual passages of the Bible, and as to the overall storyline of the Bible. Then I have argued that the biblical picture of humankind actually does the best job of accounting for our everyday observations about how human beings are distinct from the rest of the animal world, and how all humans share things in common—things such as a yearning for just communities, and a sense of something being amiss about life as we know it.

At the pastoral level, I do not know how, without the story of Adam and Eve, I could expect people to embrace the biblical teaching that humankind is one family, and that the church is the place where human divisions are healed.

Further, when people grieve, they are feeling especially keenly that things are amiss. They really want to know whether God intends to do anything about it. And my experience is that there is indeed comfort in the biblical story that has a real Adam and Eve at its front end: the comfort of finding assurance that we will indeed receive relief and healing and restoration and final bliss, when God has finally banished the intruder (sin and dysfunction) forever. This comfort helps us to live fully human lives, as God’s beloved people, even now.

If we do not believe Adam and Eve were historical, how does this affect our understanding of the presence of sin and death in the world?

In the Bible, sin and evil are intruders into God’s good world. Without Adam and Eve and their first disobedience, we have no explanation for how sin, evil, and dysfunction came to be a part of our experience. We are left with the idea that somehow they are a part of how God made us to begin with. But then we really have no explanation for why God is reasonable in being angry at our sin; nor does his gracious forgiveness of sins have any meaning.

The biblical sacrifices treat sin as an alien element, something that defiles human life and that endangers humans in God’s presence. The sacrifices are the way of removing this alien element. And these sacrifices provide one of the standard New Testament ways of describing what Jesus achieved in his dying on the cross.

How does this debate affect the way we understand Paul’s conclusion that we are all “in” Adam (Rom. 5)?

Some commentators suppose that when Paul compares Adam and Christ in Romans 5 and 1 Corinthians 15, it is possible that Adam is a purely literary figure even though Jesus is historical. Now if these passages were just comparisons, this argument might get some traction. However, the word comparison is simply inadequate to describe what Paul is actually saying in these places. First, his argument contains a narrative component: someone did something, and as a result something happened, and then Jesus came to deal with the consequences of it all. And second, Paul portrays Adam and Christ as doing what they did as in some way representing those who are included. In 1 Corinthians 15:22 he uses the expressions “in Adam” and “in Christ.” To be “in” someone is to be a member of that people for whom that someone is a divinely appointed representative. And all the evidence that we have indicates that only actual persons can function as actual representatives.

Since humans are created in the image of God, does the imago dei give some difficulties for “polygenesis” (many origins) conclusions?

Yes, the distinct features of the image of God are a burden for most “polygenetic” scenarios for how modern humankind came to be. In these scenarios, the different varieties of human beings arose separately in different parts of the world.

A purely evolutionary polygenesis would hold that human capacities are a natural development of capacities that existed in our hominid predecessors. But this founders on what seems to me to be pretty plain, namely that it is confoundedly hard to get the distinctively human capacities (such as language, reasoning, and the moral sense, all of which work together to make us what Aristotle called the “political animal”) from those we find in any other animal. It really beggars belief to suggest, not only that human beings are a natural development from earlier animals, but also that this development was so easy that it could happen more than once.

Now there has been what we can call a “creationist polygenetic theory,” namely that the different kinds of humans are separate creations on God’s part. This gets around the difficulty of how the distinctively human features came about but really does nothing to help us with the plain observation that human beings really are one family, with a common set of capacities, and a common predicament (both of which point to a common origin), and to whom the gospel offers a common solution.