On an early episode of Word Matters, Trevin Wax and I discussed the debate over the historicity of Adam. Was he a real, unique person created before all other people? Was he merely a poetic representation of mankind? Was he an evolved hominid? What is Genesis 1-3 trying to record for us or teach us?
This debate has been going on for some time, and others have said what I’m going to say better than I’m going to say it. This will be a very unoriginal post. But I like this topic and I think it’s a fascinating conversation, so I like to discuss it whenever I can. Let me first briefly sketch the debate.
Adam was not an historical person. The view comes in various forms, but the big picture idea is that Genesis 1-3 is not saying that Adam was a real, literal person. Instead, they would say that Genesis is in some way poetic. In other words, there wasn’t some human named Adam roaming the Earth before any other human existed. Adam, then, is a representative of humanity as a whole.
This usually comes out of a view that tries to hold what science says about evolution in tension with Scripture. Denis Lamoureux makes the case for this in the recent Four Views on the Historical Adam volume from Zondervan. He basically says that God accommodated ancient writers of Scripture by allowing them to make mistakes regarding science, because they wouldn’t have been able to comprehend all that we know now about the physical world. So it’s possible that the biblical writers thought Adam was a real, historical figure, but God wasn’t trying to trip out ancient people with 21st century science!
So, to recap this view, Adam was not an historical person, but rather a poetic representative of humanity as a whole. And most people who deny the historical Adam would say that we don’t start seeing real, historical figures in the Bible until Genesis 12, at the earliest.
Adam was an historical person. What’s interesting about this view is that there are people who affirm most of the argument against the literal historical Adam, but would say that the historical Adam was indeed a real person. They would say, however, that he wasn’t necessarily the first human being ever created. The argument would at some level accept scientific claims about evolution and age of the Earth, arguing that it’s better to conclude that Adam was a chosen man among many people, and that Genesis speaks of Adam in a poetic way as the representation of all the humans of that day. So it’s possible there were thousands or millions of humans on the Earth or even various hominids from whom humanity eventually derived, but Genesis records Adam’s reception of the image of God as an example of all mankind receiving God’s image.
The more strict version of this view would deny or strongly question the scientific element altogether, saying that regardless of what science may or may not say about Adam, we know that he was a real person and the first human God created because the Bible seems to indicate this clearly. This stricter view would deny that the Earth is billions (or even hundreds of thousands) of years old, and that the Genesis 1 teaches seven literal, 24-hour days—not gaps of time that could equal millions of years.
The defense of this view is two-fold: (1) it’s a more obvious reading of Genesis and Romans 5, and even how Jesus talks about Adam and Eve as the prototype of unique, monogamous marriage in the Gospels; and (2) there are theological issues that come with denying the historical Adam because of how the Bible talks about transmission of sin from Adam to us, Jesus as the Second Adam (going back to Romans 5 – “one man/one Man”), etc.
Debating the Debate
Here’s the deal: I don’t think the point of Genesis 1 is to make a scientific point. Oddly enough, those who critique the view that allows modern science to dictate the discussion are ultimately imposing a modern concern on an ancient text themselves. While there was some discussion in church history about the nature of Genesis 1 and the point being made, the heated debate about the age of the Earth and evolution is a modernistic concern. So even those trying to disprove science are being too modernistic in their critique by allowing science to dictate conversation in the first place.
Instead, I think we should debate the debate, recognizing that the age of the Earth and evolution are not the point of Genesis 1-3. The actual point is that God created all things, that he created mankind uniquely in his image to carry his authority into creation and to fill his earthly tabernacle with God-worshipers, and that Adam and Eve failed at this task.
A better way of arguing for a literal historical Adam is theological, not scientific. I’m not advocating for the strict “young Earth” perspective, per se, but I do think the theological concerns in that view are valid. Let me explain.
Of the many reasons I believe in an historical Adam—literally the first human being to ever live—is because Genesis seems to indicate that mankind is the pinnacle of God’s creation. This is why creation of mankind is mentioned last, why mankind is given the image of God, and why mankind is given authority over the rest of creation.
Further, the idea of creating Adam “from the dust” and giving him a helpmate to name animals and create more image-bearers gives the strong sense that neither stewardship of creation nor procreation had actually happened yet. When God tells Adam and Eve to fill the earth with image-bearers, I think he’s actually telling them that there are none on the Earth, and that he wants them to begin spreading his image across the globe. Reading the Bible theologically is key in general, and I think this method helps us understand Genesis 1-3 better.
Why It Matters
With Genesis 1, we should focus on the sovereignty of God in creation and how important mankind is both to him and to the flourishing of the world, rather than getting into the intramural debates about how old the Earth is. It’s not that those debates aren’t important, but I don’t think Genesis 1 and supporting passages should be anybody’s proof text for a science vs. religion debate. That’s simply not part of the authors’ original intent.
On Romans 5 as it reflects on Genesis 1-3, I would make the point I think Paul is making—one man brought the world into chaos through his sin; one Man brings the world out of it by reconciling all things. I do think it’s important to assume the historicity of Adam’s disobedience and to promote the historicity of Jesus’s life, death, and resurrection to undo Adam’s transgression. Why? Because the biblical truth for everyone of us is this: sin is not poetic—it’s a real spiritual and physical disease; salvation is not poetic—it’s a real spiritual and physical redemption. And one day, we will literally resurrect like Jesus, becoming the Adams and Eves our ancient parents were meant to be (1 Cor. 15; Rev. 21-22).