No Adam, No Christ?

No Adam, No Christ? July 3, 2015

I was asked a question on Facebook, and thought I would share the answer I gave. Here’s the question:

I was hoping for a little clarification on how one might reconcile a non literal first Adam with Paul’s gospel. 

In Paul’s mind Christ is the “second Adam,” having succeeded where the “first Adam” failed. According to Paul, it is precisely because of the failure of the first that the second was required.

Can anyone point me in the right direction to help me resolve these complex theological challenges?

Here is what I wrote in response:

This is a great question. What I would note is that, if Adam in Genesis 2-3 is simply a symbolic depiction of what is typical of humanity in general, then the comparison still works just fine: Jesus succeeded where human beings in general failed, not just where one failed.
The contrast seems to me to be between two ways of being human, and just as being in Christ is not about being descended from Jesus, there is no obvious reason why being descended from Adam is crucial to the comparison.
I would also note that Paul plays fast and loose with the details in Genesis in order to make the contrast he does. If he were a literalist, he would have said “just as through two human beings sin entered the world…” The story as read literally is about a man and a woman who eat what they are not supposed to. Clearly Paul’s aim is not to stick to the details of Genesis as literal fact not to be tampered with, but to say something about Jesus.

See also a couple of older posts of mine on this topic – why Jesus and Paul were not literalists, and Genesis 2 is not literal (the Bible tells me so) – as well as one by Pete Enns.

Origen on Adam

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What Are Your Thoughts?leave a comment
  • Very nice explanation, James.

  • Thanks for a good explanation.

    I remember reading the Adam and Eve story at around 12 years of age. And my reaction was “surely this is not supposed to be literally true.” So I took it as metaphor, as a kind of “Just So” story intended to say something about the human condition. I never saw that as a problem for Christianity.

    And then, more recently, I have come across creationists insisting that Jesus believed A&E were real people so it must be true. I found that puzzling. We talk in metaphors all the time. We make allusions to tradition. We talk about Sherlock Holmes as if he were real, knowing that he was a fictional character. I wonder why creationists cannot recognize that people at the time of Jesus used allusions and metaphors in much the same way. They almost talk as if Jesus was autistic, unable to use such figures of speech.

  • Andrew Dowling

    Hard to argue with the above. Paul uses a LOT of “not meant to be taken literally” language in his epistles; that was his rhetorical style.

  • summers-lad

    I agree – a great question and a great answer. I would add that your line about two ways of being human fits well with 2 Cor 5:17 – anyone in Christ is a new creation.

  • [James wrote: “The contrast seems to me to be between two ways of being human…”]

    This seems right to me. Adam is the archetype of humanity formed out of the dust of the ground (individual body/minds who become preoccupied with “the story of ‘me’ ” inclduing “my good” and “my evil”). Christ is the archetype of humanity in the image of God (atOne with the Father, atOne with nature, and members one of another).
    Adam is characterized by sin and separation (darkness and death). Christ by righteousness and reconciliation (light and life by way of the cross).

    Here is something that I recently posted elsewhere that is relevant:

    “Myth is the primordial language natural to . . . psychic processes, and no intellectual formulation comes anywhere near the richness and expressiveness of mythical imagery.” ~ C.G. Jung

    “Myth is much more important and true than history. History is just journalism and you know how reliable that is.” ~ Joseph Campbell

    If this is the case, how are we to make sense of scripture? How do these quasi-mythical, quasi-historical stories track with reality as we experience it? It seems to me that these stories continue to be meaningful insofar as they reflect (at the very minimum) a number of profound insights into the human condition, for example:

    1) the innocence of infancy and early childhood (cf. the garden of God).
    2) the formation of the egoic mind, our perception of duality, and our growing sense of alienation (cf. eating the forbidden fruit)
    3) our egoistic pursuit of happiness and/or security in some combination of:

    * sensual indulgence
    * material prosperity
    * social recognition
    * legalistic (and/or ascetic) ideals

    4) the possibility of a moment of clarity that reveals the emptiness and/or futility of # 3 (cf. the prodigal son waking up and remembering his Fathers house)
    5) the possibility of recognizing the light of the world aka the Way, the Truth, and the Life through which we are reconciled to God (by way of the cross)
    6) the possibility of finding perfect peace and rest in aware presence and alert stillness (cf. the peace of Jesus)
    7) the possibility of participating fully in the flow of life, here and now (one life, transcendent and immanent¦ A new creation that is at once holy human and wholly Divine).

    That is the “map” or “schema” or “gestalt” that scripture supplies, consciously or unconsciously. Initially, the scripture narratives are taken literally by the newly formed “ego” (having just partaken of the forbidden fruit, mind you, and just beginning to embark on its prodigal pilgrimage). With threats of hell and hopes off paradise — and lots of community encouragement — the ego learns to behave as if all this was “literally” true. I put “literally” in scare quotes because while I do not believe these narratives to “report” what “actually” happened in antiquity, I do believe that they have something to tell us about ourselves that is very literally true (true on the inside, but not necessarily on the outside).

    https://jeshua21.wordpress.com/additional-essays/the-order-of-being-and-the-life-of-faith/https://jeshua21.wordpress.com/additional-essays/the-order-of-being-and-the-life-of-faith/

  • charlie

    We always put the emPHAsis on the wrong sylLABle.

  • Ryan Calhoun

    Excellent point! As an agnostic who believes exactly what you presented here, what is the difference between you and i? If Adam and Eve are a representation of how evil humans can be, and Jesus is a representation of how good humans can be, then why the need to be saved? Couldn’t I just go by Jesus’s moral teachings and live a “life of righteousness” and not accept the belief of the divinity of Jesus? Or am I missing the point? I know this isn’t directly related, but this point in particular feeds into my overall question of “how are progressive Christians and theist-based agnostics different?”

    • Marissa van Eck

      The progressive Christians have their heads further up their butts, and are more enamored of what they find therein. That’s been my observation anyway, put in crude terms.

      • This is not a blog for hurling insults but for substantive discussion. Would you be so kind as to elaborate on what exactly your criticism is? Your comment isn’t just crude, it is altogether lacking in specificity.

        • Marissa van Eck

          Certainly…though I don’t have any more hope of having my points honestly considered and addressed here than the other places I’ve specified the problems.

          Liberal Christianity is an oxymoron. It’s such a self-serving, dishonest crock of crap. In my experience, and this coms partly from when I was one, liberal Christianity does with the Scriptures what people do with the embassassing, slightly-senile racist old uncle who comes to visit every Thanksgiving: shove him into the closet and mutter apologies and try to “reinterpret” what he said to what he “really means.”

          Yahweh is not a good being. Jesus was not a good man, though I will credit him with being less of a complete bastard than, say, Muhammad. The plain reading of the Gospels, the Epistles, and Revelation, and it is plainer in Koine than English, is that Jesus and his followers expected the end of the world Any Day Now (TM). The underlying theme is all of these is “Yahweh is going to have a reckoning Real Soon Now and he is right pissed off and most of you are going to Hell.”

          You refuse to acknowledge this. You have replied to similar posts of mine with the equivalent of the schoolyard “Nuh-UH, you’re wrong because you’re wrong so nyerrrr~h!”

          Take your God at his Word. He is a corpse, it’s true, and the corpse of a demon moreover, but it’s really disrespectful of the dead to stick your hand up a corpse’s ass and flap its jaws and make it say what you want it to say.

          • I suspect that if you gave the reasons for your disagreements, rather than merely saying something is an oxymoron or crap, you might find your points taken more seriously. Conservative religious people tell us the same thing, but with no more substance and thus no more persuasively.

            Jesus was clearly wrong about the end. But predicting a kingdom in which the victims of injustice will be comforted and the perpetrators punished, and the situation of rich and poor reversed, does not seem as morally abhorrent to me as it apparently does to you.

          • Marissa van Eck

            Did you know if you burn enough strawmen, they’ll come for you in Hell?

            Seriously, where do you get the idea that I have some kind of problem with the greedheads getting theirs and the poor finally having a decent time of it? I *am* poor! I was homeless a few years ago, I *still* eat out of trash cans as a habit, I’ve stocked enough canned food and dry beans to kill a Depression-era grandmother…you are *terrible* at this whole making assumptions thing!

            I have stated my reasons several times. You are missing a very large problem with the liberal Christian worldview: Your God, being omniscient, knew very well that for almost 2000 years, until the True Prophets (TM) such as yourself arrived, people would use the…shall we say, *conservative* interpretations of his doctrines to cause untold suffering. He knew ahead of time about every massacre, every persecution, every witch burning, every inquisition, he heard every single agonized, whistling-teakettle scream from the torture chambers of his partisans here on earth before they happened.

            Have you ever heard the sound a human makes when on fire? I have.

            And for these entire almost 2000 years he has said and done somewhere just south of jack diddly squat about it. Not once did he part the clouds, point a 40-mile-wide hand down and boom “CUT THAT SHIT OUT AND DON’T MAKE ME COME DOWN THERE” at 300 decibels. Not once. Not once has he ever personally intervened to put a stop to all these supposed abuses of his word. Instead, he waited 2000-some-odd years for, apparently, you and Spong to be born. Odd, that.

            Sounds almost like he doesn’t care. Or doesn’t exist. Or does care, does exist, and approves heartily of all this.

            Incoming free-will theodicy in 3…2…1…

          • You seem to be the one projecting, in this case onto me a belief in an anthropomorphic deity of a theistic sort.

          • Marissa van Eck

            So…your God is *not* omniscient, omnipotent, etc? What Godlike qualities *does* it have?

          • God for me denotes the Ultimate – whatever the most transcendent level of reality is, or infinity if reality is infinite.

            You are aware, I hope, that the Bible does not depict God as infinite in power – the deity can force back the waters of chaos, and unleash them again in the flood, but they have existed from the beginning, and merely eliminating all the evil people in a snap of a finger does not seem to be an option for him. And so the classical theism you are referring to treats the Bible non-literally at this point, too.

          • Marissa van Eck

            Oh yes. Yes I am aware of that. And that is why I give people like Larry both barrels, full-bore, to the face: his God, if it exists in ANY form other than conceptually, is either an alien, an evil spirit, or a demon, and in no case does it mean us good.

            And this is the same God Jesus worshiped. Face it; Jesus was much more like Larry than he was like either you or me. We are Deists.

    • Progressive Christians are as broad a group as agnostics. I am not sure what you mean by “theist-based agnostics,” but most progressive Christians are (or should be) aware of the many things we do not know, and so tend to be agnostic about many things. Whether “theist” is an apt label depends. For some, the word applies and the thinking about God is still fairly traditional. For others, panentheist and/or mystic would be a better label. And for some, God is simply a way of talking about the greatest mysteries, hopes, and values, in language that is recognized as symbolic, but which we nonetheless find we cannot do without, as a pointer to something that we intuit but cannot hope to know or express about the nature of reality.

  • arcseconds

    That’s a lovely piece of hermeneutics, James.

    Is it original with you?

    Not, of course, that I doubt your ability to come up with something that good, but if it’s someone else’s idea or even inspired in some way by someone else, I’d really like to know who that was 🙂

    • The points I made in the post are indeed my own, although I am sure I am building on the foundation of others.