Evolution, Evangelicals, the Historical Adam, and NPR

I read the Bible literally. Which is why I don’t believe in an historical Adam and Eve.

NPR ran a long piece yesterday morning about the controversy among evangelicals regarding the historicity of Genesis 2. I commend Barbara Bradley Hagerty for even-handed coverage of the story, and yet I listened with alarm to the arguments proposed by evangelicals on both sides of the debate.

On one side are people who believe that there can’t be an historical Adam because the scientific data disproves it. According to them, the human genome couldn’t have developed from two individual humans in so little time:

Asked how likely it is that we all descended from Adam and Eve, Dennis Venema, a biologist at Trinity Western University, replies: “That would be against all the genomic evidence that we’ve assembled over the last 20 years, so not likely at all.”

I assume that Venema got his science right. And yet in his comment he essentially pitted Genesis against modern evolutionary biology and decided that evolution wins. Another scientist makes a similar point:

“Evolution makes it pretty clear that in nature, and in the moral experience of human beings, there never was any such paradise to be lost,” Schneider [who taught theology at Calvin College in Michigan until recently] says. “So Christians, I think, have a challenge, have a job on their hands to reformulate some of their tradition about human beginnings.”

Then there’s the other side, the people NPR says read the Bible “literally.” This group asserts that the entire Christian faith hinges upon the historicity of the Genesis account:

“From my viewpoint, a historical Adam and Eve is absolutely central to the truth claims of the Christian faith,” says Fazale Rana, vice president of Reasons To Believe, an evangelical think tank that questions evolution.

Here, if Adam and Eve weren’t real people in a garden thousands of years ago, then we’ve lost our bearings as Christians now. If they weren’t real, then we aren’t created in the image of God. If they weren’t real, then there is no such thing as original sin. If they weren’t real, then everything falls, including Jesus’ death on the cross for the forgiveness of our sins and his resurrection from the dead in triumph over the grave.

Both of these arguments stem from fear instead of faith, fear that the Bible can’t stand up to scientific inquiry, fear that our faith rests upon a particular reading of Scripture rather than upon the historical reality of Jesus Christ, who died and rose again.

We need to get some English majors involved in this debate. Reading Genesis literally does not necessitate an historical Adam and Eve. It does necessitate respect for the text itself. It requires us to let the text tell us how to read it. 

Take Oliver Twist. Reading Dickens’ novel literally does not mean believing that a little orphan named Oliver lived in England two centuries ago. Reading it literally does mean believing that the conditions in which orphans lived in England two centuries ago were often cruel. Moreover, reading it literally means receiving truths about human nature in all its harshness and all its potential for redemption. Then take Stephen Ambrose’s Band of Brothers, an account of the 101st Airborne Division in World War II. Reading this book literally does mean believing that these men, with these particular names and stories, lived and fought and died. Both of these books when read literally tell us the truth about human beings. But a novel is not the same as a work of history.

In understanding Genesis, the first thing we need to do is ask what Genesis tells us about itself. I am an evangelical Christian. I believe that these particular books were set apart by God through the community of faith because their writing was inspired by the Holy Spirit. I believe that Scripture is one of God’s gifts to the church, and that Scripture ought to have authority over the lives of those who believe.

And when I turn to Genesis, the first thing I find is a poem. Genesis 1 has a rhythm. It has repetition, almost like a chorus. It speaks in grandiose terms about the creation of the universe. It records truth about God: that God is the Creator of all life, that God brings order out of chaos, and that God has established a particular relationship with human beings, created in his image. Genesis 1 is not a science textbook, nor is it trying to be. And reading Genesis 1 as a science textbook instead of a poem is to ignore the literal purpose of the text.

Similarly, Genesis 2 is a story. It offers clues that at the very least open up the possibility that it is not intended to be historical. Adam, for instance, is not so much a personal name as it is a representative type. In the Hebrew, the word Adam means, simply, “man” or “human.” Similarly, Eve means “living.” The text itself tells us that this is a story. Reading it literally means paying attention to the truth contained in the story—that God initiates a relationship with human beings and desires humans to flourish, that humans want to become their own gods instead of living under God’s direction, and that this rebellion results in pain, separation, and even death.

A literal reading of Genesis 1 and 2 need not be afraid of scientific inquiry. It never pretended to be a science textbook. But reading Genesis 1 and 2 as poems and stories instead of history does not do away with the authority of Scripture or the central premises of evangelical theology. As Christians, we need to let Scripture speak for itself.

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About Amy Julia Becker

Amy Julia Becker writes and speaks about family, faith, disability, and culture. A graduate of Princeton University and Princeton Theological Seminary, she is the author of Penelope Ayers: A Memoir, A Good and Perfect Gift (Bethany House), and Why I Am Both Spiritual and Religious (Patheos Press).