Must Adam Be a Historical Person?

June 22nd, 2015 / 13 Comments

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.giberson

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.

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Comments

Curtis

Good review. I read the book in a weekend, a very rare feat for me, which is testimony to the quality of the book. I am looking forward to reading Zondervan’s “The Historical Adam: Four Views” book.


Phil Michaels

Thanks for this look into Giberson’s book, Tom. I think it is so important that we take a balanced approach to these issues. While many no longer feel the need to hold to a historical Adam and Eve, some still do. But either way we all ought to be able to look at the bigger issue of sin and, as you said, frame our understanding in “theological language that makes sense of life.”

Regardless of the point of view one takes on a historical Adam and Eve, the theological understanding we come to must make sense in a way that is spiritually formative and encourages people to become more like Jesus. Theological understanding that does not or cannot do that isn’t helpful to advancing the Kingdom, but theological understanding that does enables us to better live lives of love that live more and more into the fullness of God’s Kingdom. Hopefully regardless of one’s position we can all do just that!


Jono

My struggle with this perspective is that if there was no ‘fall’ then how does that affect the way we view the Jesus as the agent of redemption/restoration? I’d love to hear your thoughts on that.


Gregory Laughery

Thanks for this review. Karl is doing excellent work on this controversial topic. I’d wager the early Genesis stories are more an exploration than an explanation – promoting a ‘possible’ world and not fixed on the actual world. We need the freedom to reflect on these issues and to see where a dialogue between the ancient text and contemporary science takes us. I concur with your last sentence prediction.


thomasjayoord

Jono – Great question! To answer it well would take a book. But let me say quickly that Christians can still believe Jesus is the way for redemption and restoration of sin. And they can still believe sin is real. But the reality of sin and of Jesus’ salvation don’t require the story of Adam and Eve to be historically/literally accurate.


Jono

Thanks for responding Dr Oord! If I might try and sharpen my question a little…I definitely believe that sin is real, and I do believe that Jesus is the way for redemption and restoration. I also understand that Adam and Eve most probably weren’t literal historical people who disobeyed God by literally eating a fruit. But doesn’t Christianity require some sort of “fall event” in order to make sense? Isn’t the big story of Christianity one of Creation-Fall-Redemption-Renewal? If Jesus wasn’t fixing an overall ‘fracture’ in humankind’s relationship with God which happened at ‘the fall’ then I find it hard to understand what the cross/resurrection achieved.
Also- if you do ever write a book about this, I would buy it!
Thanks!


Chuck

I’ve never been satisfied with the notion that a choice made by Adam and Eve somehow corrupted the DNA of their children to such an extent that the first choices of humans are sinful. I don’t honestly have a fully developed theory for the origin of sin, but the traditional one is not satisfying or consistent with the whole of Scripture…in my personal opinion.


Bob@RealScienceRadio.com

I was invited to give a talk in Malibu this summer at a protest conference on the Pepperdine campus regarding the university’s theistic evolution. Title Trading Genesis, we listed the specific Bible teachings that Christians have given up in exchange for a secular theory of origins. The list was long. For ex., http://rsr.org/trading-genesis


Bob Enyart

Oops. Put the mfasis on the wrong cilobl. Sorry for the too long username. 🙂


Fred

I used to be a Nazarene and mourn, increasingly, the falling away of the denomination in which I was raised. Adam did not have to be real? Everybody starts things with “I think,” and “I feel.” Billy Graham became a game-changer among clergy with his moniker, “The Bible says.” This allegory-making in Genesis is a slap in the face of Orthodox Jews and over a thousand years of Christian tradition and true scholarship. Genealogies are not symbols. They are public records of births. Jews track their years from Adam to the present using those family records. The Gospels present the family lines of Christ for a real reason – to show Jews their Messiah’s scriptural resume, in the line of Adam and the line of David. That’s real stuff. It is written from the point of view of being real stuff. To say that we don’t need to contend for the history of mankind ,as presented in the Word, is to tell God to shut up about the nuts and bolts, and get to the hugs and kisses. It is supreme arrogance and those in my (former) church who click “like” on these things on Facebook are doing damage to the Gospel because they discount the Gospels. Enough with what philosophers think and feel. Get back to what God has said, and led the Spirit guide you into truth. We should not be ashamed of any aspect of His word, be it creation, flood, Babel, Exodus, or the birth of Jesus in God’s timeline from Daniel. His imminent return should make all of us nervously careful when we put it out there what WE think about His word.


KhalidS

To Jono. “But doesn’t Christianity require some sort of “fall event” in order to make sense? Isn’t the big story of Christianity one of Creation-Fall-Redemption-Renewal?” Everything you asked in your question is true. And you will never get a straight forward answer, not even an explanation to why there is no explanation. Adam & Eve might have existed historically, they might even had the same names. but they were definitely not the first humankind, and there was never a paradise somewhere else than here on earth. isn’t paradise suppose to be God’s kingdom, sin free, then where did the devil come from who made Adam commit the sin? It happened all here on earth.
In short. the whole Adam & Eve story tells us how the devil made Adam & Eve (humankind) realize what Sin is. And once they committed a certain sin ( they went to a certain tree, ate apple, fruit, etc) are all metaphors, then they realized they’ve gone beyond their limits. they repented, and were forgiven.
What is a Sin, going beyond prescribed limits for something.


gary

My dear friend, you are following the teachings of scientifically ignorant, middle-eastern, Bronze Age goat-herders. You live in the modern, educated, 21st century. Educated people should NOT believe in:

-walking/talking snakes that tempt women to eat forbidden fruit.
-donkeys that talk.
-virgins being impregnated by ghosts.
-human beings walking on water.
-dead people walking out of their graves to eat broiled fish with their former fishing buddies.

All this is ignorant, superstitious nonsense. You have no proof that any of it is true other than to quote an ancient, middle-eastern holy book that is riddled with scientific and historical errors. The Bible, the Koran, the Hindu Scriptures: all superstitious, ignorant nonsense concocted by scientifically-ignorant peoples as a means to make sense of a scary, dangerous world.

Wake up friend. You have been sold a wagon-load of snake oil.


John

I have found plenty of debate concerning Adam and Eve, being historical or not. One thing I cannot find however is what are we to do with the genealogies that follow Adam and the long age spans, etc… But yeah, even Abraham’s genealogy that is given goes back to Adam, is the whole genealogy of Abraham myth? I could be wrong, but I’d assume that to consider Adam a theologically significant myth, one would need to conclude the genealogies that follow to all be myth. if myth, I am curious what do these list of names represent? The story of Adam and Eve definitely has significance and meaning to us, whether it actually happen or not, but to do with what follows which is presented as history? If we reject a literal Adam and Eve are we also dismissing that Abraham was historical, and so on? If we do away with most of story of the Israelites, does Christianity have a leg to stand on?


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