Must Adam Be a Historical Person?
In his new book, Saving the Original Sinner, Karl Giberson looks at how Christians have understood the Bible’s first humans. The range of understandings may surprise many readers. What the range means for Christians today might be even more surprising.
Many Evangelical and Fundamentalist Christians worry that without a historical Adam and Eve, the Christian gospel is undermined. Without a first pair of historical people as described in Genesis, they say, we have no explanation for sin and therefore no need for redemption. In fact, some believe a historical Adam is as important as a historical Jesus.
Of course, some Evangelicals are fine with the Bible being inaccurate on various matters of science and history. They are not absolute inerrantists. But many still feel the need to believe in a historical Adam prior to whom there was no death, evil, or sin.
Fundamentalists, by contrast, worry that saying the Bible is wrong on science begins a slippery slope toward believing the Bible untrustworthy on all matters. For them, the Bible must be true as a source for science as well as for theology.
Christians throughout history, argues Saving the Original Sinner, have not shared present-day Fundamentalist and Evangelical worries about a historical Adam. Leading Christians of yesteryear explored a diversity of ways to think about Adam and Eve and what their story means for creation. Adam could be representative, for instance, without being actual.
Moving more or less chronologically, Saving the Original Sinner starts with ancient Hebrew Scripture, moves to the Apostle Paul, explores Augustine and the Middle Ages, and finishes with how those in recent centuries have dealt with key first human issues. Along the way, Giberson points to creative ways ancient Christians dealt with perplexing questions raised by a literal readings of Genesis. For instance, Christians have posed various answers to the question of where Cain found his wife.
Giberson notes that contemporary science places into question a literal reading of various biblical stories. To quote Saving the Original Sinner:
“As the theory of evolution progressed from its fitful beginnings in the decades before Darwin down to the present, the Bible’s authority on natural history declined. Geologists noted that portions of the planet had never been flooded, ruling out a worldwide flood. Zoologists determined that Noah’s ark was far too small to house the vast menagerie that inhabits the earth. The oldest human fossils were discovered in Africa, not the Middle East. Evidence for the five-billion-age for the earth became so strong that claims it was six thousand years old sounded as preposterous as claims it was flat” (165).
Although Giberson does not spend much time on this, I have found that the vast majority of contemporary scholars do not embrace a literal reading of Genesis. Most do not share the worrries of many Evangelicals and all Fundamentalists.
In the book’s final chapters, Giberson’s own perspective comes out. He tells a bit of his own journey in relation to young-earth creationism and Adam, including his becoming unsatisfied with a literal reading of the Genesis text. He also grew deeply dissatisfied with pseudo-scientific attempts to reconcile various sciences with a literal reading of Scripture.
Giberson suggests that we should affirm the reality of sin and evil even after abandoning the idea of a historical Adam. Perhaps instead of building sin into the created order, speculates Giberson, God provided freedom to creation. The evolutionary result, he says, was “an interesting, morally complex, spiritually rich, but ultimately selfish species we call Homo sapiens.”
Readers of Saving the Original Sinner will discover Giberson is not a naively optimistic liberal. He does not deny sin or evil. He points to deep and seemingly intractable problems among humans. However, Christianity’s long conversation about sin “was primarily about what was wrong with us,” he says, “and only secondarily about how we got to be that way” (176).
Most educated people today now believe themselves to be evolved creatures, says Giberson, shaped by natural selection and other forces. What this means in terms of overcoming sin – if that is possible – must now be framed in theological language that makes sense of life, including what science has demonstrated to be likely true.
Scripture and Christian tradition still provide valuable insights into our condition. But we should not worry that a growing number of Christians no longer affirm a historical Adam and Eve. Christian theology can still make sense — as it has for generations of Christians — without our knowing if Adam was an actual person.
I predict that contemporary theologians will need to continue to synthesize ancient Christian wisdom with the best of contemporary science.