You Don’t Need Adam to Need a Savior: You Just Need Sin

The issue of the “historicity of Adam” (and Eve–why do we always forget Eve?) is becoming a flashpoint in evangelical theology. Books are being published, conferences are being held, and major money is being doled out by grant funders like Templeton to deepen the conversation and pursue theological solutions to the vexing questions. It’s no surprise that the issue is generating such interest. One one side, conservatives argue that if you lose a historical Adam and Eve, you lose–all at once–the weight of tradition, the authority of Scripture, and the gospel itself. Without Adam, no sin. No sin, no need for a savior. On the other side, theistic evolutionists (or “evolutionary creationists”) argue that the conservatives force a false choice: you can affirm both science and Scripture (for all truth is God’s truth); you can affirm Scripture’s authority and interpret Genesis 1-3 in ways that do not require a historical Adam and Eve (or a literal six-day creation, for that matter). As N.T. Wright notes, the question is not “Is the Bible authoritative? but how is the Bible authoritative? Not is the Bible true? but how is it true? What is its truth about? This is an issue with no less force than that which Galileo and his opponents faced: Scripture or science? Here we are again (though Christianity has been “there” since Darwin).

For a great example of the state of the debate, read Peter Enns The Evolution of Adam and then read (or vice versa) Hans Madueme’s meticulously crafted review of Enns’ book. (To round it out, then read Enns’ response to Hans review). Hans is a friend and a former colleague of mine at Trinity Evangelical Divinity School. I admire his intellect and appreciate the care with which he engages this issue. He represents the “conservative” side outlined above. Hans is worried that the loss of a historical Adam will result in a major theology FAIL for the church and for the gospel. The Bible is either inerrant or it isn’t. If there are errors somewhere, then there could be errors everywhere–and how then would you know the difference? (The slippery slope is a common conservative evangelical anxiety and it’s an understandable one, given the relation between psychology and belief). He also wonders how, if you jettison Adam, can you theologically account for the reality of sin? And he concludes that when faced with a choice between science and the “dogmatic tradition,” he’ll choose dogma every time. (Enns astutely points out that, when that’s the default position, there’s not much point in discussing the issue further). He asks many more questions and raises some penetrating points, but this is a brief blog post so I’ll just add a few thoughts to the conversation.

At a recent conference on the question of origins, I heard a young earth (six-day) creationist, who is scientifically trained, proudly declare that what separates young earthers like him from the rest of the crowd is that, when science and Scripture come into conflict, they go with Scripture every time. Of course, what he really means is that when science and their interpretation of Scripture conflict, they go with their interpretation of Scripture every time. So back to Madueme’s review of Enns: Why would someone who argues in a slippery slope way about the authority of Scripture stop at the historicity of Adam and Eve? (and maybe he doesn’t?)  Surely the six days of Genesis 1 could be taken at plain face value, as the young earth creationists urge. In other words, the slippery slope argument loses its force if you’re not willing to go all the way. And if you are, you find yourself not only at odds with the scientific consensus (if you care about that), you’re also at odds with Scripture itself. For example, Genesis 1 and Genesis 2 are quite distinct creation accounts that cannot easily be reconciled with each other, at face value. Further, Genesis 1 contains within itself some elements that have to be explained in very strained (and strange) ways if you want a literalistic (scientific-historical) interpretation.

Moving on to the gospel issue: I simply do not feel the domino-effect in the notion that if you lose a historical Adam and Eve, you lose sin, and thus the need for a savior. To need a savior, you just need sin. Sin is an empirical reality. To repeat a reference from last week’s post, as Reinhold Niebuhr said, original sin is the only empirically verifiable Christian doctrine! Granted, “sin” is a theological category that requires divine revelation to know what it is, but I would think that had Genesis 3 and Romans 5 (and all references to Adam and Eve) been snipped from all our Bibles, we’d still have a pretty good understanding of what sin is, that it disrupts our relationships with God and others, and that we’re in dire need of redemption.

I affirm that sin has a historical (even “primal” basis). That is, I believe that there was a time when homo sapiens had emerged in their conscious lives–their awareness of the world and of God–and subsequently “fell.” Their reach exceeded their grasp and they perverted their proper place as creations of God. Kenneth Miller, in his persuasive book Finding Darwin’s God, suggests that a historical “fall” (quite apart from any “primal pair”) might even be supported by archeological data. For example, findings reveal a marked increase in violent, human-on-human death about 10,000 years ag. That’s an interesting suggestion–though it’s solely speculative–and as Miller acknowledges, it doesn’t alleviate challenges to the traditional view of the “fall” in light of scientific evidence. Science tells us death and suffering preceded human life (which raises the vexing “problem of evil” for theistic evolutionists–who is responsible for death?). In any case, theologically and biblically it is right to affirm that sin has a long history–and it has affected how people have related to each other, to God, and to our environment for thousands of years. We are now experiencing the snowball effect of sin’s influence: the “sins of the fathers (and mothers).” So yes, what Hans declares is true: “I am a son of Adam (and of Eve).” But it’s true in a figurative and theological way — “Adam” is humankind.

Original, or “inherited” sin is a root the refusal to be what we were (and are) intended to be: bearing the imago Dei in relationship with God and others. The story is the story of all of us. It is an ‘archetypal’ story. The theological message of the doctrine of original sin is more pressing (and I think more interesting) than discussions about its historicity and textual development. It’s canonical, it’s authoritative, and it’s true. And we don’t even need to know the mechanism that brought sin into being or the moment at which it emerged to appreciate its present reality.

If Adam and Eve stands for humanity in a theological (and archetypal) way, and if that’s what God as the ultimate author of Scripture intended to communicate to us, then we can feel the force of a need for a savior in Jesus Christ without recourse to a single, primal historical pair called Adam and Eve. We just need sin to need a savior.


Churching Alone
Adam and Science: A Possible Compromise
Young Evangelicals and the “Nones”: Jumping Ship
Don’t Ask How to Grow Your Church
About Kyle Roberts
  • Shamgar 600

    Bravo to Dr Doubt for turning wine into water once again by asking along with Pilate, “What is truth?”

    • Kyle Roberts

      So…seeking after the truth is the same as doubting? Odd logic, there.

  • Aaron

    My question would be: do we need adam to maintain the goodness of God’s Character? In other words without Adam how did sin enter the human race? Without an Adam, who had the “potential” to sin and who chose bring sin into God’s good creation , wouldn’t we have to conclude that God then created the world/humans sinful? And wouldn’t that mess with the character of God?

  • Aaron

    As I read this closer you may have answered my concern… I need to wrestle with this more

  • Brian Bram

    If I’m reading this right, Kyle is not so focused on “What is true?” regarding the Genesis story so much as he’s affirming the need for Christ’s atoning work regardless of the view we hold of the historical Adam and Eve. He seems to offer up “vexing” theological problems that each side will have to think about. However, what is true regardless of the scenario is that sin entered the world and the world was in need of a solution. There seems to be a way that theology can work with science that puts theology at risk of being hung out to dry. We find a scientific question, in this case “how old is the world and were Adam and Eve historically two individuals?” and we build theology around it too fast, not paying attention to certain details (like when the sun and moon were created?). Then science comes along and figures something out that throws off our hasty theology and we have to break our backs to keep our theory, sometimes looking irrational in doing so, or we discard the whole thing and lose our faith. Theological Jenga!

  • Glen McGraw

    I see this post calls for something we lack: a true conversation about two different. Kyle gives us very valid to reexamine our position, regardless which “side” we lean towards. People of faith tend to argue without listening and then considering the other sides evidences before declaring we hold the “Biblical” position. If we would extend grace into our conversations regarding things such as the age of the earth and Adam & Eve, we might be able to get along better as brothers and sisters in Christ.

  • T. Webb

    Thanks for this post; I read this post yesterday and thought quit about it before deciding to comment on it today. I think about and wrestle with these issues quite a bit as well. The rest of this comment has some honest questions, some of which may be construed as being somewhat critical, but I’m trying to ask them in a charitable spirit of honest conversation, so please take them as such.

    I’ll be honest, I’m not sure how much time you have spent studying the nature of sin in the history of Christian theology. True, must of that theological thinking is before Darwin, so perhaps we can just cast it out, I dunno.

    We need a Saviour because we sin. But how does the Saviour save us? For Christians the answer to these questions has something to do with Jesus and a cross, a bloody torturous death, and later a supernatural bodily resurrection. But again, how does all of this save us from sin? Furthermore, the answers to these questions relate to the nature of how one is “saved” from that sin, by ‘grace’ or by ‘works,’ and/or how that sin affects each person (the New Testament says things like “dead to sin”, “enslaved to sin”, “hating God (in sin)”, etc).

    Also, why does the Saviour save us? The answer to that question has to do with the nature of God, and the nature of humanity.

    Moreover, in the history of Christian theology, especially Protestant theology, emphasis and much thought has been placed on whether sin is merely inherited from our immediate parents, as I have the same bad teeth exactly matching my father’s, or whether it was imputed from the head of the race, Adam.

    So please beware that your answer to the question of the nature of Adam, that is, that he (and Eve) are mere myths and that we must be agnostic about the origin of sin raises enormous questions about the nature of essential issues in the Christian faith. And I’ve only scratched the surface.

    I’m open to accepting evolution. But a few things from that perspective: naturalists don’t have a problem with what you are calling “sin”… it’s just the nature of the (literal) beast. “Sin” is natural; it is the preserving of the life of the self so I can reproduce. It’s in my genes. So I disagree with you that we’d have a good ideal about what sin is, and how it affects our ‘relationship’ with the ‘god’. Honestly, I could say that while I might do some bad things, God can just overlook those, if he’s even worried about them. That is very straightforward and rational.

    (As a Christian, I may point out the almost overwhelming amount of suffering in the world, and how much of it is purposefully perpetuated, how creative humans have been in finding ingenious ways to inflict pain and suffering on others, often with glee.)

    Moreover, by way of the vexing problem of theodicy, suffering and pain has been present since the beginning. It is a part of nature. It is as natural as the birds and the bees. God is therefore directly responsible for suffering, death, and therefore evil. In theological parlance, God is the direct and primary origin of evil, and moreover, God created us this way; we were created with a bent for evil.

    In this perspective, we did not fall from a “state of innocence and blessedness” into a “state of sin and death” into which a Saviour entered to rescue us out of it and return us to a state of blessedness. No; I was created this way, and for me to be ‘sinful’ is to do what I was created to do.

    This all may be true; I’m trying to understand more, and I’m honestly a moron. But please be aware that saying, “It’s no problem… Eve & Adam are just a myth or a fairy tale, but everything else with the Christian faith is just fine and dandy otherwise” is ignoring a host of other major issues. Perhaps we can, with glee, abandon many of those older conversations. Perhaps you can start to ask some of those questions on this blog, or start reading the Patheos Progressive/Liberal Christian pages to get an idea of how others are answering them (I say that only because I read numerous blogs on that channel).

    Again, I say these things in a spirit of peace an charity in an honest attempt to converse. Peace in Christ.

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  • Patrick

    You need an Adam&Eve for there to have been a Cain and Abel though and Jesus pronounced the most significant and harsh judgment on Jerusalem and executed it within that generation utilizing Abel’s murder as partial cause celeb.

    In the OT, Yahweh never needed a myth as cause for His judgments, so a reasonable question is, why would Yahweh in the flesh do so out of the literary unity method within the rest of His documented word He endorsed?

    My answer is He would not have. So, mythologizing Adam is a loser if we think Jesus is a unique man and God.

    There are better answers and approaches than this. I am an amateur, I’d start with the weird “other people” in the Cain narrative myself.

    This mythologize Adam thing just isn’t going to work, it says Jesus was also either a fraud( if He is speaking their as Yahweh in His judgments on Jerusalem) or He is more ignorant as Messiah of biblical genre than we enlightened Americans are or for whatever reason, Yahweh in the flesh uses myths to pronounce judgments when Yahweh out of the flesh never did and I find these prospects unreasonable.

  • CJ

    Much of this resonates with my own perspectives on the matter, yet I find the historicity question the most significant stumbling block to TEACHING an alternative view. More specifically, the theological framework that depends on the historicity of Adam is the hardest thing for my students to swallow. It is outside the scope of plausibility for them and so they respond with visceral shock. “Perhaps Adam was not a historical figure” is received in the same way as “perhaps God does not exist.” What I appreciate here is the focus on the primacy of the role of Christ as Savior, regardless of the origin of our current sinful condition.

    • T. Webb

      As I tried to charitably ask in my post above, in the history of Christian theology the origin of sin is important for this reason: whatever it was that Christ did to save us from our sin is related to the origin of sin itself. If there isn’t an origin for sin, or if were were created by God purposefully to be sinful, that changes what it _means_ for Christ to be a saviour. It is not the same as saying “perhaps God did not exist” (so I agree with you that much), but rather, “perhaps Adam was not a historical figure, and the meaning of the Christian faith is radically different than catholic/orthodox Christianity has understood it for 2000 years”. Maybe so, but I want to be careful not to tread to quickly. In other words, for example, perhaps we should become Muslims (and I mean that honestly) as a result. That much of a difference.

  • Nate Sauve

    My takeaway here is that we can all just believe whatever we want and pretend like we are having a real conversation as long as we put quotes around terms like “fall” and “sin” and “God” and “Savior”. Then The Fall can become, one time when things maybe, apparently got worse a bit…or maybe our historical records suddenly got better, or maybe there was a battle for control or territory, but whatever it was let’s claim it was a “fall” kind of thing.

    This article does nothing to address the concerns raised by Madueme and other conservative evangelicals.

  • Andrew T.

    Ok, to need a saviour we need sin – that’s pithy, and true – fair enough.
    Doesn’t that beg the question, where did sin come from, who sinned first ( pointing back to Adam ).

    It’s not clear we can have sin without a first rebellion.

  • Brian

    The trouble with this article is that the author seems to think that no real paradigm shift in theology is needed if we cease to affirm a historical Fall. The idea that we can hold onto “Fall” as a theological category by imagining a sinless, evolving proto-humanity misses the point of the story told by the paleontologists. Death goes all the way down, and violence and sexual promiscuity do too.

    Both the more conservative evangelicals, and liberals (and post-liberals) understand this. The only ones who don’t are those who are thinking through these things either for the first time or without enough boldness, and who have not realized that a paradigm shift is necessary if the Fall is given up.

    Interestingly, Enns says something of the sort towards the end of Evolution of Adam: (assuming that evolution is RIGHT, and God created it) we may have to rethink the ethical status of violence and sexual promiscuity, as these are essential parts (he thinks) of the evolutionary story. You don’t get “sin” from looking at the evolutionary story. Rather, you get Alexander Pope’s quip: “whatever is, is right.” And that makes a big difference if your prior theology has been “Creation, Fall, Redemption.”

    Also, be careful of relying too much Niebuhr – there’s a reason why Stanley Hauerwas has spent his career “turning Niebuhr into a historical figure.” Niebuhr doesn’t mean by “original sin” what one might think.

  • mark

    There appears to be an assumption that the bible works like a modern historical text, only one wherein God is the author. What would that mean and how would it work? This is the difference between “The Book of Mormon”, which is said to be the product of supernatural methods and interpretation—and “The Bible” which comes to us through actual historical methods; linguistics, archeology etc. in order to obtain its probable meaning.

    As much as we might want to simplify the process, the problem of dealing with genuine evidence forces us to approach the Bible differently. And, it’s this difficulty that is inherent in interpreting evidence through scientific means, that separates the two, indicating that the one (The Bible) is a historical document and the other (The Book of Mormon) isn’t.

    In order for a book to be authentic history there must be footprints in the sand to be interpreted, with all of the problems that this implies. Thank God for those problems! They may make understanding what you’re reading more complex, but, it also means that what you’re reading is more likely rooted in truth.

    It should also compels us to recognize that the Bible represents the historical methods of an ancient Asian culture living on the cusp of Africa, not a Western or European, post enlightenment one.

    Until Christians are willing to work to understand the unique culture and people that produced the Bible; Its history and worldview—any attempt at interpretation will come up against problems. Without these problems there would no Bible to begin with, no written word or account, no King James or concordances to study—and no Christianity either.

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