We need to face a brute fact. Evolution is here to stay. It started out as a rising tide, but now it is a tsunami. Are we going to flail and punch it–or surf it? How do we interpret the biblical passages about Adam and Eve? Five options are offered here. Part 3 of 5 in a series on Gen. 1-11.
Starting off, your and my interpretation of Gen. 1-11 is a secondary issue or even below that and is not a test for orthodoxy. Since our interpretations are peripheral, let’s remember this wise statement:
In essentials, unity; in nonessentials, liberty; and in all things charity (love)
Now let’s get started.
A full 98% (no. 2) (call it 100% if you wish) of more than 120,000 scientists connected to the American Association for the Advancement of Science believe that humans evolved over time—evolution, in other words. (I prefer to call it slow-motion creation.) Are all these scientists (and others) in rebellion? Highly doubtful.
Evolution is not “in crisis,” is not “bankrupt,” is not a “lie,” and will not go the way of the dinosaurs. It is here to stay.
None of this would pose much of a problem, were it not for the account of Adam and Eve in Genesis. Who were they in light of the human genome?
This post narrows down the question to five possible options (see Haarsma and Haarsma; and Alexander).
Before we get to the interpretations, this post assumes some starting points. The scientific points are what the human genome, molecular biology, paleontology, theology, and other areas teach us.
- All truth is God’s truth. God revealed his salvation and redemption in the Book of the Bible (or the Word or special revelation) and reveals his plan in the Book of Nature (or the World or general revelation). Call them the two Books. Therefore, no one needs to be afraid of truth.
- We do not impose modern science on Scripture (a form of scientism) or force Scripture to agree with modern science in every part (concordism or harmonization).
- Sometimes, however, the two Books can be compatible, but if and only if both are interpreted properly. Warning: imposing modern science on an ancient text could be called a category mistake. So be careful. I recommend that it not be done. However, this post does assume that a little concordism is okay (e.g. the stars exist and so do biblical domestic animals).
- Evolution may not answer every question, but it has been tested and confirmed countless times in a variety of branches of science (e.g. genetics and paleontology or fossils and primatology), so it is the best explanation for human life.
- The triune God ordained evolution. In creating the heavens and the earth, the scientific data suggest that he issued this command: “Evolve!” Through his powerful word and creative act, he fully gifted his creation to move forward within parameters (secondary causes) that can sustain human life. No need for God to “nudge” his creation along in separate creative acts, as if he did not do it right the first time (zap! zap! zap!). He fully gifted it: ZAP!!!! So Evolution = Intelligent Design. Better: Evolution = God’s Design. This is called evolutionary creationism, also known as theistic evolution.
- Atheistic or God-less evolution is inadequate and is rejected in this post.
- The universe is about 13.7 billion years old (give or take), and the earth is about 4.5 billion years old (give or take).
- The fully gifted universe and earth are divinely fine-tuned for human life, God’s highest creation. Once again, Evolution = Intelligent Design = God’s design.
- Nonetheless, science has no say over this biblical truth: due to their failing and sinfulness, humans of all times and ages needed and need God’s redemption and salvation that culminates in Christ.
Bottom line for evolutionary creationism:
Evolution ≠ Atheism
Evolution = God’s Method of Creation
Given those assumptions, how then do we interpret Genesis 2-5 and other passages that talk about Adam and Eve?
Five options follow.
Update on August 13, 2021: Listening to a discussion between Joshua Swamidass and William Lane Craig on the youtube channel “Unbelievable?” on August 13, 2021, titled “Was there a historical Adam & Eve?” I have deleted some starting points about the human genome project. The rest of the five points, below, still remain under discussion. Nothing changes there.
Option 1: Adam and Eve are our recent and only ancestors
This option fights the above science and reads Gen. 2-3 with utmost literalism. God formed Adam and Eve really and actually and literally from the dust around 6,000 to 10,000 years ago, and they are our direct and only ancestors. After all, Gen. 2:5 says there was no man to work the earth. No one else lived, until Adam and Eve came along. God offered intimate fellowship to Adam and Eve, but they broke the covenant and fell into sin and transmitted their original unrighteousness to all of humanity.
Here is an illustration of the archetypal or representative transmitting of sin or federal headship. When a president leads a nation into war, the entire nation is on a war footing, whether people like it or not, or know it or not. Let’s imagine that at least some of the Amish, not having modern communications, do not know about the war. Nonetheless, they still live in a nation at war. They certainly do not participate in it, but still feel its effect, if only by a bit of their tax money going to partly fund it. Unfair? Sure. But such is the result of one man being a representative of an entire nation. It is human solidarity, so important in all of Scripture. (Denis R. Alexander came up with this illustration, which I slightly modified and placed here to introduce the idea. Prof. Alexander prefers Option 5, and certainly not Option 1!)
- It appeals to many readers who take the text as written, no symbols or figurative language or fancy interpretations.
- It is easy to reconcile with centuries of successive interpreters (though not everyone) who also took the First Pair as literal and recent and alone.
- It preserves the Augustinian belief about the fall and original sin.
- It places a literal interpretation far above science, an interpretation that appeals to numerous Bible literalists.
- It accords with the literal interpretation of long lives of the earliest humans like Methuselah and a literal interpretation of the genealogies in Gen. 5-11.
- Therefore, it seems to treat God’s Book of the Word with the utmost respect.
- It preserves a literal interpretation of the New Testament authors and speakers who referred to Adam and Eve and seemed to have assumed that Adam and Eve existed in history and time and space (though that interpretation is debatable) (Luke 3:38; 5:12-21; 1 Cor. 11:8; 15:44-49; 2 Cor. 11:3; 1 Tim. 2:13-14; Jude 14).
- In brief, “uncompromising” literalism is very appealing to huge numbers of Christians in North America.
- It comes across as unbending and narrow literalism.
- It is unfair and unjust to impose ten tons of modern science on an ancient text that can carry only fifty pounds because the ancient authors did not know about modern science. They could only look up at the stars with their unaided eyes, or observe their domestic livestock and crops, undomesticated animals, and human nature. Apart from those straightforward observations, they could not see galaxies through a telescope or measure the real age of the universe by the speed of light or look into a microscope.
- Option One reads Gen. 2-11 (and Gen. 1) as straightforward history, whereas history is a Greek word that means “investigation” or “inquiry” (see Luke 1:1-4). The ancient author of Gen. 2-3 could not do proper research about events and persons so far back in time.
- As for Gen. 2:5, which says no one was on earth to work the ground, that claim is based on local perspectives. The author of Genesis 2 could not know about Australia, South America, or North America, for example.
- It assumes that the dust is literal, whereas it speaks of mortality (it’s hard to form something out of dust).
- The Hebrew word for “form” can be used of nonmaterial things (e.g. Is. 46:11 “planned”). Unbending literalism shuts the door to alternative interpretations.
- It ignores different genres of Scripture, like the poetic narrative of Gen. 1.
- It offers weak explanations for verses that say other humans lived when Adam and Eve lived. Cain took a wife (4:17), and Option 1 proponents have to assume she was his (unnamed and unmentioned) sister. However, Gen. 5:3-5 says Adam and Eve had Seth, when Adam was 130 years old. It is not likely that Cain waited a little less than 130 (or 800) years just to wait for his sister to grow up and marry her!
- The more natural reading of the text suggests Cain took a wife long before then, shortly after he was exiled from Adam’s domain. Therefore, there were people outside the Garden.
- Cain was afraid humans would kill him, and literalists have to believe that these were Cain’s siblings before siblings are even mentioned (Gen. 4:13-16). As noted, Adam had a son named Seth in Gen. 4:25, many years after the events in question. As also noted in the previous point, Gen 5:3-5 says Adam and Eve had Seth when Adam was 130 years old.
- Cain built a city, which assumes not a few people (Gen. 4:17), and literalists have to claim its inhabitants were Cain’s offspring and relatives, even though Gen. 5:3 says, as noted, that Adam and Eve did not have sons and daughters until he was 130 years old. (Ironically it is easier and better to interpret those texts in Gen. 4 as written or literally, because it is more likely that all these people were other than Adam and Eve’s descendants!)
- All the flow of events suggest, again, that there were people outside the Garden long before Adam and Eve had Seth at 130 years old.
- Further, Option One overlooks or downplays any literary, cultural influence from the ancient Near East, even if the borrowing is not copying, but comes from the “cognitive environment” of the ancient world (Walton coined the phrase, who is no unbending literalist).
- Option One can be accused of disrespecting the compatibility of the two Books, both properly interpreted. It separates the two much too widely.
- However, in an attempt to close the gap between the two Books, proponents of unbending literalism post science articles that contradict basic evolutionary claims, even though countless tests and confirmations have been done to establish those claims. Often the science in their posts appears substandard, when compared to the highly regarded Christian and science websites.
- Scientists who believe in the young earth and / or universe have been working for years to create testable scientific models about origins, in hopes of persuading the 98% (call it 100%) of scientists who believe in an old universe and evolution. The young earth scientists have failed to persuade them.
- See my post Christian Scientists Comment on Young Earth Creationism
- If there is any theory in crisis or about to be in one, it is unbending and narrow literalism about the first eleven chapters of Genesis, for real science is simply too strong and overwhelming, like a tsunami. (There is no wisdom in punching a tsunami with your fist. Just surf it and enjoy the ride–or at least survive it!).
Option 2: Adam and Eve were miracle creations about 150,000 years ago
God miraculously modified (zap!) the genes of a pair of hominids in Africa, a literal and actual Adam and Eve in time and space, so they alone are modern humans’ First Parents. Or God simply created them de novo (brand new, quickly and fully formed in a one-time act). Humans do not descend from other hominids. Adam and Eve enjoyed a covenant with God, but broke it, and directly transmitted their unrighteousness to their descendants (see Option 1 for how this transference works). So they are archetypes or representatives of all of humanity.
One alternative is to say this special creation happened 40,000-70,000 years ago. Yet another view, which I learned from the discussion between Joshua Swamidass and William L. Craig, says that the range is massive, all the way back to 2.5 million years ago. Dr. Craig says around 750,000 years ago.
- It is easy to reconcile this interpretation with centuries of successive interpreters (though not everyone) who believed Adam and Eve were historical figures in time and space, though these older interpreters also believed they were recent.
- It preserves a literal reading of most of Gen. 2-3, like the Garden of Eden or a covenant with God and the fall at a point in time.
- As representatives or archetypes, the Augustinian transference to us of their sin at the fall is maintained.
- It preserves science that says the universe and earth are billions of years old, and humans like us existed about 150,000 years ago.
- Therefore, it puts the two Books much closer than the first option does. Both are compatible.
- It preserves a literal interpretation of the New Testament authors and speakers who seemed to have assumed that Adam and Eve existed in history and time and space (though that interpretation is debatable).
- It maintains the larger picture in Gen. 4 that clearly says that other people lived during the time of Adam and Eve and Cain and Seth and their offspring.
- It assumes a miraculous intervention in the natural flow of evolution, as if God did not fully gift nature when he first spoke it into existence (he did not do it right the first time), so he had to “nudge” it along.
- This is the discredited god-of-the-gap explanation, which says that if we can’t figure out a natural phenomenon, then we invoke this god to fill the gap in our knowledge. So it is an appeal to ignorance, also. Its inherent weakness is that if we eventually figure out the puzzling natural phenomenon, then this god diminishes or disappears.
- Our increasing knowledge = a decreasing god = bad theology.
- It is difficult to reconcile with the genetic diversity in humans today, particularly the pseudogenes, even taking into account that the miraculous intervention happened 150,000 years ago (Haarsma and Haarsma). (This weakness gets worse if Adam and Eve are miracle creations about 50,000 years ago.)
- It takes Adam and Eve out of the context of the ancient Near East and places them in Africa, and so it abandons Gen. 2-3, which assumes that they lived in the Near East.
- The genealogies in Gen. 2-11 may be dynastic and representative and skip some generations, but it is difficult to justify extending them as far back as 150,000 (or 70,000-50,000 years).
Option 3: Adam and Eve represent or symbolize a group who lived 150,000 years ago
This option has the added benefit of preserving genetic science that says that about 150,000 years ago, several thousand and up to 10,000 people lived in diverse places, and we descend from a group of them. They are not one-act miracle creations (zap!). God then revealed himself to this group and chose them to represent the rest of humanity. In other words, they are archetypes or representatives (plural). However, these representatives chose to sin, and being archetypes, their unrighteousness was applied to all of humanity. Their descendants mixed with the large populations. Adam and Eve were symbolic representatives (symbolic means speaking of truths beyond themselves) of this group and all of humanity. And when humans did not mix with the chosen group, they still got the original unrighteousness. (See Option 1 for an illustration of how that works.)
- It comports with God’s revelation through nature, God’s Book of the World, in this case genetics and fossils and an old earth and universe.
- A covenant with God can be retained in Gen. 2-3.
- The breaking of God’s covenant (the fall) happened at a point in time and place.
- The fall and its partial Augustinian transmission as representatives or archetypes to other humans is preserved, if only a spiritual transmission, not a genetic, reproductive one.
- It comports with Gen. 4, which clearly shows that humans other than Adam and Eve and Cain and Seth lived at the same time.
- The story in Gen. 2-3 gives us a sketch of some things that happened thousands of years ago, long, long before the author of those chapters lived. The other details are to be interpreted loosely, meaning, without unbending literalism.
- The pair is extended outward to be identified as a group, while Gen. 2-3 talks only about an original pair.
- It eliminates the option that a group lived with or near a real and literal pair named Adam and Eve (see Options 2 and 5).
- It does not accord with centuries of successive interpreters (though not all) who believed the original pair was real and just two and recent.
- It does not support what the New Testament authors and speakers said about Adam and Eve; the authors and speakers seem to have assumed that Adam and Eve were real and lived in time and space (though that interpretation is debatable).
- It can be interpreted as not showing the utmost respect for the Book of the Word, since it keeps some of Gen. 1-2, but not the original pair. (However, symbolism can be respectful.) (See Option 4, next.)
Option 4: Adam and Eve are theological constructs, not literal humans
This one gets the longest treatment since it can come under attack more often or is the least known among devout Bible readers.
Let’s get real. The fact is that the author of Gen. 2-3 did not know and could not have known what happened 150,000 years ago, so his writing is a divinely inspired and infallible free interpretation or free narrative (story). His story parallels concepts in his cultural, cognitive environment of the ancient Near East. And his being divinely inspired does not mean that his intelligence or mind was cut out or short-circuited when he wrote. He was no android.
He was part and parcel of his culture, which believed, for example, that the sky was a hard vault and the lights were “set” into it; the tree of life appears in Scripture as symbolic (Prov. 3:18; 11:30; 13:12; 15:4; Rev. 2:7; 22:2; 22:19); the Garden in the surrounding culture and elsewhere in the Middle East meant a sacred space. And the snake in other nearby cultures was a chaos creature. Even Gen. 1 is really about a Sabbath lesson, so obsessing over six days of twenty-four hours or six long eons is misplaced. In other words, symbols and ancient, nonscientific beliefs about nature abound in Gen 1-3. Therefore Gen. 2-3 begs not to be taken with unbending literalism, but maybe with minimal literalism (e.g. the sun, moon and stars and animals exist and were observable to the ancient author, and Gen 1-3 agrees, so they can certainly be taken literally). It is unfair and anachronistic to impose modern science on an ancient text.
This is not a mythical interpretation, for that is a loaded term—too harsh and jangling. Rather, Gen. 2-3 is an inspired, infallible, edifying and elevated story about ultimate theological truths and moral meaning and truths. Those chapters, indeed the first eleven chapters, are “paradigmatic and protohistorical—imaginative [distinct from mythical] portrayals of an actual epoch in a never-to-be-repeated past that also bears archetypal significance for the ongoing human situation” (Daniel Harlow, emphasis original).
To read Gen. 2-3 accurately and in its own cultural context, we have to adopt the generous interpretive method of accommodationism (Denis O. Lamoureux is important here). This method says that we accommodate the ancient author in his own time, place, and limited perspective. He wrote infallibly within his own culture with its own point of view, not ours. The same goes with the authors and speakers in the New Testament. They simply took an already existing, authoritative text about Adam and Eve and drew theology from it. They were also part of their Jewish culture, though some Jews of the era did not obsess over the historicity of Adam (see Venema and McKnight). But today we accommodate their limited and cultural perspective. After all, we do this with other passages. To cite just two examples in a long list, Jesus said that the mustard seed was the smallest of all seeds (Mark 4:30-32), but we now know other seeds are smaller. The Bible in numerous places says that the sun rises and sets, but we now know this does not happen. We have to accommodate their ancient, nonscientific beliefs and instead look for theological and moral truths, which they focused on, anyway.
Therefore, accommodating ancient belief in a literal Adam and Eve is being consistent, when genetic science today says that a lone pair did not exist all by themselves on earth and that we do not descend only from one lone pair.
See my post Interpreting the Bible and Accommodation
Any sin we have was inherited from the fact that we are just humans—mammals. We sin every day. Plus, inheriting sin from one generation to the next through reproduction is not a clear teaching in Scripture, but comes from Augustine (lived 354-430) and his theological times. (Ironically, however, IF our mammal nature = our sin nature, then we do inherit it from our parents! Augustine would be right if I understand this doctrine!)
See my post Is Our Sin Nature Embedded in Our Mammal Nature?
Bottom line: This option treats Adam and Eve as theological, representative symbols—that is, figures who carry meaning beyond themselves. Now the two Books are completely compatible (after a fashion) because we have interpreted them properly. That is, they sit side by side with only a sliver of an overlap. They are certainly not incompatible.
As noted, since this option goes through severe attacks from literalists and is lesser known by devout Bible readers, a defense is provided in the “Weaknesses” section.
- It does not contradict genetics and fossils, for there is no lone, original pair, whose existence would contradict any scientific genomic claim.
- It does not accept the discredited god-of-the-gaps explanation, as if God intervened to create a pair miraculously, for such an explanation smacks too much of “protecting the hypothesis” at any cost; in this case the hypothesis is unbending literalism. Instead, God fully gifted his creation from the very beginning.
- It respects the fact that Genesis was written in its own historical context and its own “cognitive environment”; even if the author did not copy directly from other ancient writings, the concepts and stories are parallel—remarkably parallel.
- We no longer have to hyper-analyze Genesis from a modern science perspective, but can accommodate its primitive “science.”
- It treats the two Books with respect and because it does not force them to harmonize.
- It asserts that Gen. 2-3 is not history in the normal sense. How could it be, since no historical records or reliable traditions could have survived for 150,000 years? And the original author did not have the know-how to research events and people so far back.
- It removes the burden and mental gymnastics of interpreting other texts, like the genealogies in Gen. 5-11 and the people who lived during the time of Adam and Eve in Gen. 4-5, with unbending literalism.
- It is cut loose from the Augustinian belief that original sin is inherited genetically from one generation to the next, a doctrine with unclear (or no) biblical support.
- Scripture can stand without a literal Adam and Eve. They are hardly mentioned at all throughout the Old Testament, and only a few passages reference them in the New Covenant Scriptures.
- It is not absolutely clear that the New Covenant Scripture speakers and authors required Adam and Eve to be literal and historical. In other words, they did not discuss the original pair’s historicity, but went for the theological or moral meaning (just as we should do today). They simply took an existing, authoritative story in Genesis and used it to convey theology and Christian living.
- The gospel of Christ can stand without a literal Adam and Eve, despite the protests of the unbending literalists. Christ still lived, ministered, died and rose again and sends his Spirit into anyone who repents of his sins and calls on his name. All these things are based on contemporary, first-century eyewitness testimony (1 Cor. 15:2-8), while Gen. 2-3 is not or cannot be based on this.
- So this New Testament contemporary eyewitness testimony refutes any concern that if we don’t interpret Adam and Eve literally, then we cannot consistently interpret the life of Christ and his resurrection literally.
Weaknesses (with replies):
- It can be accused of not respecting God’s Book of Scripture, since Adam and Eve are merely theological symbols, when Gen. 2-3 says they were God’s special creation from the ground. (Reply: it is in fact treating Gen. 2-3 as it was intended by the original author—theological truths without imposing modern science on the text.)
- It does not accord with centuries of successive interpreters after the New Testament was written, who (though not all) believed Adam and Eve were real. (Reply: some of these interpreters used the allegorical method, and in general maybe they were wrong; they certainly lived before modern science and therefore could more easily get things wrong.)
- It is hard to avoid the conclusion that this is a mythic interpretation (though the reply is the same as above—it is a divinely inspired and infallible free interpretation of events outside of the original author’s first-hand knowledge. It is a story, albeit a sacred and divinely inspired one, which uses narrative techniques like verisimilitude to convey theological or moral truths of ultimate meaning. It is anachronistic to call it a myth from a [sneering] postmodern point of view)
- It does in fact disagree too strongly with the New Testament authors and speakers who seem to assume that Adam and Eve were real and historical. (Reply: The New Testament authors and speakers simply took an existing, authoritative story and used it. It would be foolish not to. Further, accommodationism fixes that concern.)
Option 5: Real and historical Adam and Eve were chosen by God about 8,000-10,000 years ago in the Near East.
Yes, people like us were alive about 150,000 years ago, but a real and historical Adam and Eve were chosen by God and his grace about 8,000-or 10,000 years ago. They are not miracle creations, for that would contradict genetic science too strongly (see Option 2 for why). To illustrate Adam and Eve’s calling, Abram / Abraham and Sarai / Sarah have a parallel role in Genesis, though their story reads like history in the normal sense of the term (Adam’s story does not, with its numerous symbols, though see below in this paragraph). Even though Abram / Abraham and his wife lived later, about 2000-1800 BC, they were situated not-so-coincidentally in the same region where Adam and Eve lived (Iraq today). God chose them to be the “start-up” of the flow of salvation, culminating in Christ. Paul promised that those who receive salvation through Christ become heirs of Abraham’s blessings (Gal. 3:6-18). Abraham functions as an archetype (though he was real). As for Adam and Eve, God also chose them to be in fellowship with him and to receive an additional holy calling to steward his creation. The Garden of Eden symbolizes the sacred space and their calling (or it could be a literal place made sacred by God’s calling on them). In this option the snake could be an actual satanic attack, or it could be a symbolic chaos creature.
In fact, this option says that Adam and Eve were Neolithic agrarians when God called them. Note that Gen. 2:8-9 says they tended a garden; Gen. 3:17-19 says they farmed the land through much toil; and Gen. 4:2 says Abel took care of livestock, while Cain grew crops.
By his divine choice, God also selected them to be the federal representatives of all humanity. These people are called Homo divinus, or humans in touch with the Divine through their soul, righteousness, and prayer.
Illustration of their federal headship: Imagine that the United Nations presents a contest to build and fund a university in a poor country. To determine which country, each one is required to send a male and a female to take an exam. The most successful pair wins, and the university is built in their country. All other people from poor nations around the world can now go there. All the other students around the world are not genetic descendants of the founding pair, but the original pair’s success is transferred to everyone else. (This is Alexander’s illustration, who accepts Option 5 as most likely.)
However, Adam and Eve broke fellowship with God and his covenant with them. Fair or not, their transgression is applied to everyone else, so the positive illustration of the winning pair turns negative. It’s human solidarity. (See Option 1 for an illustration of how the sin of an archetypal or representative pair is applied to everyone who did not commit the same sin.)
Finally, Heb. 9:9 says that the (real-life) ceremonies in the Sinai covenant were parables (the Greek says parabolē) or illustrations that show that the gifts and sacrifices were inadequate. Likewise, Adam and Eve’s were real, and their story was a living parable or illustration of humanity’s broke fellowship with God. Their life reveals higher moral truths.
- It does not interfere with the modern science of genetics or paleontology, for Adam and Eve were chosen by God about 8,000 (or 10,000) years ago. Homo sapiens lived before them.
- It does not invoke the discredited god-of-the-gaps explanation with a special creation miracle of a human. God’s first creative act “Evolve!” 13.7 billion years ago was sufficient.
- It preserves something of a fall, if it is defined as breaking a covenant or God’s law not to eat of the tree of the knowledge of good and evil.
- It preserves the belief that since they were a representative or archetypal pair, their transgressing was transferred to us.
- It accords with centuries of successive interpreters (though not all) who also saw Adam and Eve as real and recent.
- Their location places them in the right area—the ancient Near East (in Iraq today), not Africa.
- Their selection by God’s grace parallels Abraham’s and Sarah’s selection by God’s grace, not-so-coincidentally in the same region.
- It preserves the genealogies of Gen. 5-11, for when they are added up and dynastic “skipping” is factored in, 8,000 to 10,000 years ago matches.
- Maybe the author of Gen. 2-3 did indeed have access to traditions reliably handed down about Neolithic farmers and gave them the (anachronistic) biblical Hebrew names Adam and Eve (see Option 1, Weaknesses, second point).
- It preserves the full account in Gen. 4, which says that other people were around at the time of Adam and Eve and their two sons.
- It keeps most of the story elements of Gen. 2-3, like the Garden or the snake, or it could see them as symbols or a sacred place (except the original pair, who were real).
- So it preserves the ancient Near Eastern “cognitive environment” or context, expressed in its writings.
- Modern genetics and population studies say a group of Homo sapiens numbering a few million lived in the ancient Near East (today’s Israel, Lebanon, Jordan, Syria, and Iraq) about 10,000 years ago, a population that can then be narrowed down to a much smaller number in the flood plains of the Fertile Crescent on the banks of the Tigris and Euphrates or between them (please go offsite here and here for more information about the genetic history).
- It preserves the belief of the New Testament authors and speakers, who seem to assume Adam and Eve were real and historical (though that is debatable).
- It treats the two Books with respect, for they have now been properly interpreted.
- It supports the parallels in the religious environment around the same time as Genesis was written, as follows:
|The name means “man / human”||The name means “man / human”|
|Special creation of the god Ea||Special creation of the God Yahweh|
|Commanded about eating and not eating||Commanded about eating and not eating|
|Misses out on the chance for immortality||Misses out on the chance for immortality|
|Clothed by Anu with new garments||Clothed by Yahweh with new garments|
|Returned from heaven to Eridu [city] to die||Driven out of Eden to toil until he dies|
Old Testament scholar Daniel C. Harlow is professor of biblical and early Jewish studies at Calvin College, and he reminds us that Gen. 1-11 is not a myth, but it is a divinely inspired story, in the same way that the parables of Jesus are divinely inspired. However, even if you conclude that the first eleven chapters are straightforward theological history, you cannot fail to observe the borrowing, if only by the author of Genesis breathing in the “cultural, cognitive air” and not directly borrowing from Adapa. The author of Gen. 1-11 accepted a few elements but injected his account with calm, unconfused, relational, moralistic, streamlined monotheism.
Weaknesses (with replies):
- It can be accused of not conforming to a literal interpretation of Gen. 2-3, which says Adam and Eve were God’s special creation from dust and the only pair on earth, and we descend from them. (Reply: Gen. 4 clearly says other humans were around too, and unbending literalism is incompatible with God’s Book of Nature or the right interpretation of the Book of God’s Word in Gen. 2-3.)
- Neolithic farmers? Really? (Reply: Why not? They lived in that timeframe. And Gen. 2:8-9, 3:17-19, and 4:2 say they were farmers).
- It downplays the fall of Adam and Eve, which was applied to everyone. (Reply: humans just sinned in their mammal nature, so there is no pressing need to adopt Augustine’s model as the right and only one. And this option believes that Adam and Eve broke a covenant with God, so the fall happened.) See my post Is Our Sin Nature Embedded in Our Mammal Nature?
- Therefore, it can be accused of not fully respecting God’s Book of the Word, for it is a natural explanation of the First Pair (scientism). (Reply: This assumes that an unbending literalism is the only way to respect God’s Word.)
No option will satisfy everyone. No option answers all questions without remainders or leftovers. That is to be expected, since we are seeking to answer whether an ancient, premodern text is compatible with modern science. However, some options are better than others.
Let’s start with the worst one. Option 1 forces people to choose between real science and unbending literalism. Restricted only to those two choices, intelligent and honest seekers will probably walk away from the Bible and Christianity, and countless numbers have done just that. The substandard science of proponents of Option 1 puts too wide a gulf between the two Books. Real science cannot be ignored or explained away so facilely (and piously) with substandard science in the name of Christ, without wreaking too much damage on his cause. That’s ironical because proponents of Option 1 believe they are helping his cause.
Let’s stop flailing and punching the tsunami, but surf it instead.
Other options are better.
After listening to a discussion between Joshua Swamidass and William Lane Craig on the youtube channel Unbelievable? on August 13, 2021, titled “Was there a historical Adam & Eve?” Option 2 also appeals to me. God could have created a couple 150,000+ years ago.
Option 5 also appeals to me. It too surfs the tsunami. It preserves enough of a literal reading of Gen. 2-3 and answers more questions than are left over. The strengths far outweigh the weaknesses. It can say the snake was a satanic attack, or it symbolizes a chaos creature. It can turn the Garden into a symbol of sacred space, or it can be their “real real estate” made sacred by God. Indeed their major mission from God was to care for his creation. It keeps Adam and Eve in the ancient Near East, not Africa. The biblical genealogies in Gen. 2-11 can be interpreted accurately and sensibly back to 8,000 to 10,000 years ago. It also has at least one main parallel to Abram (whom I for sure consider historical): Both Adam and Abraham were selected by God and his grace to lead the way for humanity, towards salvation, culminating in Christ (though Adam led humanity archetypally in a negative direction!). So it preserves the New Testament authors’ and speakers’ (debatably) literal belief about Adam and Eve, as well. Finally, maybe the ancient author of Gen. 2-3 did indeed have access to reliable traditions about Neolithic farmers, who did not live so very long ago from when he wrote (not 50,000 or 150,000 years ago!). The author simply gave them (anachronistic) biblical Hebrew names and built around them inspired theological truths (not myths) from God’s original calling on them. Perhaps the divinely inspired and infallible author did borrow, conceptually speaking, from the culture of his day, when such writings describe their version of the first humans.
I definitely believe that Adam and Eve were historical figures, but I don’t know when they lived.
All humans enjoy the privilege of being within the bigger and miraculous creation of the universe. Even more personal: we today can experience the love of God and Christ’s salvation. That’s the best miracle of all.
In Bible interpretation, the plain things are the main things, and the main things are the plain things. I hope this post teaches that the details about Adam and Eve’s life are not plain or main. These details are peripheral.
Remember this wise statement:
“In essentials, unity; in nonessentials liberty; in all things charity (love).”
But you decide which option of the five is best.
Whichever option you and I land on, let’s all show the love of Christ in our various interpretations of infallible Scripture, not calling each other heretics or unorthodox, but realizing that our interpretations can be fallible.
3. Adam and Evolution: Five Options
Alexander, Denis R. Creation or Evolution: Do We Have to Choose? Rev. ed. (Monarch, 2014, orig. 2008).
Anderson, Bernhard W. “From Analysis to Synthesis: The Interpretation of Genesis 1-11.” In Richard S. Hess and David Toshio Tsumura, eds. “I Studied Inscriptions from Before the Flood”: Ancient Near Eastern, Literary, and Linguistic Approaches to Genesis 1-11. (Eisenbrauns, 1994), pp. 416-35.
Applegate, Karen and J. B. Stump, eds. How I Changed My Mind about Evolution: Evangelicals Reflect on Faith and Science. (InterVarsity, 2016).
Arnold, Bill T. and Brian E. Beyer, eds. Readings from the Ancient Near East: Primary Sources for Old Testament Study. (Baker Academic, 2002).
Barrett, Matthew and Ardel B. Caneday, eds. Four Views on the Historical Adam. Counterpoints. (Zondervan, 2013).
Berry, R. J. “Natural Evil: Genesis, Romans, and Modern Science.” Perspectives on Science and Christian Faith 68, no. 2 (June 2016) 87-98.
Collins, C. John. “Adam and Eve as Historical Persons, and Why It Matters.” American Scientific Affiliation 62.3 (Sep 2010) p. 147+.
Collins, Francis S. The Language of God: A Scientist Presents Evidence for Belief. (Free Press, 2006).
Davidson, Gregg. “Genetics, the Nephilim, and the Historicity of Adam.” Perspectives on Science and Christian Faith 67, no. 1 (Mar 2015) 24-34.
Enns, Peter. The Evolution of Adam: What the Bible Does and Doesn’t Say about Human Origins. (Brazos, 2012)
Giberson, Karl W. and Francis S. Collins. The Language of Faith and Science: Straight Answers to Genuine Question. (InterVarsity, 2011)
Halton, Charles, ed. Genesis: History, Fiction, or Neither? Three Views on the Bible’s Earliest Chapters. Counterpoints. (Zondervan, 2015).
Haarsma, Deborah B. and Loren D, Haarsma. Origins: Christian Perspectives on Creation, Evolution, and Intelligent Design. Rev. ed. (Faith Alive, 2011, orig. 2007).
Haarsma, Loren. “Where Are Adam and Eve in the Story of Evolution? Four Possibilities.” July 2017. Biologos.org.
Harlow, Daniel. “After Adam: Reading Genesis in an Age of Evolutionary Science.” Perspectives on Science and Christian Faith 62, no. 3 (Sep 2010) 179-95.
Keathley, Kenneth, J. B. Stump, and Joe Aguirre. Old-Earth or Evolutionary Creation? Discussing Origins with Reasons to Believe and Biologos. (InterVarsity Academic, 2017).
Kitchen, J.A. On the Reliability of the Old Testament. (Eerdman’s, 2003).
Lamoureux, Denis O. Evolution: Scripture and Nature Say Yes! (Zondervan, 2016).
—. “Beyond the Cosmic Fall and Natural Evil.” Perspectives on Science and Christian Faith 68, no. 1 (Mar 2016) 44-59.
—. “Beyond Original Sin: Is a Theological Paradigm Shift Inevitable?” Perspectives on Science and Christian Faith 67 no. 1 (Mar 2015) 35-49.
—. I Love Jesus & I Accept Evolution (Wipf and Stock, 2009).
Madueme, Hans and Michael Reeves, eds. Adam, the Fall, and Original Sin: Theological, Biblical Perspectives. (Baker Academic, 2014).
Middleton, J. Richard. The Liberating Image: the Imago Dei in Genesis 1. (Brazos, 2005).
Payne, J. Barton. “Theistic Evolution and the Hebrew of Genesis 1-2.” ETSJETS (no date). (The point: Hebrew words are neutral about evolution, neither supporting nor contradicting it).
Rüst, Peter. “Early Humans, Adam, Inspiration.” Perspectives and Science and Christian Faith 59, no. 3 (Sep 2007) 182-93.
Schneider, John R. “Recent Genetic Science and Christian Theology on Human Origins: An ‘Aesthetic Supralapsarianism.’” Perspectives on Science and Christian Faith 62, no. 3 (Sep 2010) 196-212.
Stump, J. B., ed. Four Views on Creation, Evolution, and Intelligent Design (Counterpoints: Bible and Theology) (Zondervan, 2017).
Walton, John H. The Lost World of Adam and Eve: Genesis 2-3 and the Human Origins Debate. (InterVarsity Academic, 2015).
Ven den Toren, Benno. “Human Evolution and a Cultural Understanding of Original Sin.” Perspectives on Science and Christian Faith 68, no. 1 (Mar 2016) 12-21.
Venema, Dennis R. and Scot McKnight. Adam and the Genome: Reading Scripture and Genetic Science. (Brazos, 2017).
Venema, Dennis R. “Genesis and the Genome: Genomic Evidence for Human-Ape Common Ancestry and Ancestral Hominid Population Size.” Perspectives on Science and Christian Faith 62 no. 3 (Sep 2010) 166-78.
Wenham, Gordon J. “Sanctuary Symbolism in the Garden of Eden Story.” In Richard S. Hess and David Toshio Tsumura, eds. “I Studied Inscriptions from Before the Flood”: Ancient Near Eastern, Literary, and Linguistic Approaches to Genesis 1-11. (Eisenbrauns, 1994), pp. 399-404.
Wilcox, David L. “A Proposed Model for the Evolutionary Creation of Human Beings: From the Image of God to the Origins of Sin.” Perspectives on Science and Christian Faith 68, no. 1 (Mar 2016) 22-43.
Williams, Patricia A. Doing without Adam and Eve: Sociobiology and Original Sin. (Augsburg Fortress P, 2001).