The Proof of Adam’s Non-Existence (?)

Move over Hell, the historicity of Adam is back as the du jour controversy in evangelicalism. At least, I hope so. The next issue of Christianity Today features an excellent cover article by Richard Ostling, “The Search for the Historical Adam.” If you subscribe to CT, like I do, then you can read the article online; everyone else will have to wait until CT decides to post it for free, which usually doesn’t take too long. In the meantime, yours truly will provide an overview:

Ostling does a fine job summarizing the current state of the debate, which has shifted from geology, astronomy, and biology, to genetics. In the past, the debate over evolution was largely focused on the massive demonstrative evidence for an ancient and evolving creation. In particular, the age of the universe is settled in favor of an old earth. The details of evolution have been more difficult to assimilate, but many evangelicals have been happy to affirm some measure of evolution, so long as the historicity of Adam and Eve remains intact. Well, now that’s getting harder to do. With the huge advances in genetic research, including the complete map of the human genome, the historicity of Adam is on very shaky grounds, if there’s even any ground remaining. Ostling surveys the key players bringing this evidence to light within the evangelical community, including Dennis Venema’s articles published in the journal, Perspectives on Science and Christian Faith. In particular, you should check out this article by Venema on the genetic evidence for ancestral population sizes. The September 2010 issue of PSCF is dedicated to the topic. The second portion of Ostling’s article covers the exegetical debate: since the biblical authors assume a historical Adam, what are we to do as evangelicals committed to inerrancy or, at the least, infallibility of Scripture? Isn’t Romans 5 meaningless without a historical Adam? Ostling rightly recognizes that we need both players in this debate — the exegetes/theologians and the scientists — to come to the table and hear each other out.

As for myself, I don’t want to make a decisive judgment, one way or the other, at least not yet. The dogmatic questions and concerns are indeed important and not easily dismissible, yet we can’t take the position of Al Mohler, who judges empirical research altogether as inadmissible (as I discuss here and here). If the genetic evidence (against the historicity of Adam) is as strong as the astronomical and geological evidence (against a young earth), then we could see a rather large shift in evangelical intellectual opinion on the question of Adam. However, the age of the earth does not share in the importance of Adam to the biblical story line.



  1. I cannot myself follow either a Neo-Orthodoxy, or a Theistic Catholic Evolution position. I am working on the Young Earth position again. We shall see? I have not ruled out the older gap theory either. I have found a few Roman Catholic theolog’s (older) who even held to that position. And then of course there is Augustine’s creation view. But myself, there simply must be a historical Adam & Eve!

    • While I’m definitely not working with a young earth view, I do sympathize with all the arguments for the necessity of Adam and Eve. Of course, then there’s the problem of the genealogies extending back to Adam and Eve, which indicate human origins in the fairly recent past. If we are required to follow these genealogies as truthful, then it seems we have to say that humans were specially created, distinct from the evolutionary process. So, yeah, there’s a lot of issues involved in this debate, and I don’t know where I stand. Thankfully, my salvation does not depend on it. 🙂

      • Awe! But indeed how we approach scripture really can have a salvific quality! As you mention the Genesis genealogies, Eleven btw. And the Generations of Aaron and Moses (Num. 3:1); and The Generations of Pharez (Ruth 4:18-22). Note the Generations of Jesus Christ (Matt. 1:1). And indeed Genesis is the Book of Beginnings. We must keep our spiritual sense here, 14 altogether in the Bible. A number of spiritual perfection, (2×7=14).

        In reality there is no debate, just the Word itself! And yes mystery also! (1 Cor. 4:1-2) 🙂

  2. Do you think it’s a knock-out blow to belief in an historical first couple if the human race derives genetically from a population of several thousand?

    • The dogmatic importance of a first couple is the unity of the entire human race: united in a common ancestry from Adam and Eve and, thereby, united in the consequences from a singular fall from grace. If we derive genetically from a population of several thousand, then there are multiple first couples and no single first couple from which we all derive. So, yeah, it does seem to be a knock-out blow.

      • Interesting. It would rule out the naive monogenism that has Cain marrying his sister, but I’m not sure the case for an historical first couple at the head of humanity requires inbreeding in early generations.

  3. Does it really have that big an effect? Seems to me that Adam and Eve are more historical, not less, by having mankind’s history of turning from God compacted in them. It’s likely that the first sin was social in nature, however many early humans were there, and I have no problem believing that God would have granted the early humans immortality if they would have obeyed Him. God knows the details.

    • But it really comes down to the biblical assumption of a united humanity, united in a corruption that extends back to the fall of Adam and Eve. Hence, Paul establishes a parallel between Adam and Christ: in a single historical instance, humanity receives death and condemnation (the Fall of Adam) and in a single historical instance, humanity regains life and eternal blessing (the Cross and Resurrection of Christ).

      I think you’re probably right, Ben, that we could just extend the number of first couples and multiply the scope of the fall, but that’s not what Paul, Jesus, and the OT teach. So, it comes down to how we view inspiration/infallibility and whether the particulars of an ANE creation myth (Genesis 1-3) are historically flexible on this point. If we follow the genetic research, Paul is wrong to assume a single first couple, from which we all receive genetic coding. Genetics is saying that’s impossible. So, that’s the difficulty for many evangelicals, saying, “Paul is wrong” or “Scripture is wrong” et cetera.

      • Kevin,

        So its not really a debate, but whether we believe the Word of God? The Judeo-Christian revelation is God’s! (Heb.12:3) And we can also note that St. Paul himself uses the creation truth in very spiritual fashion or example,(2 Cor.4:6).

        We can also note 2 Peter 3:4-5-6. “Peter cites creation and the Flood as prime examples of God’s intimate involvement and intervention in the process of history.” And obviously too the Savation History and the Covenant/covenants of God.

      • Then the question is: to what extent is the Word of God made understandable to humans by taking on a finite and limited form? Is the Word of God (i.e., knowledge of Himself) really compromised by moving from monogenesis to polygenesis?

      • I suppose it depends in which sense Paul is ‘wrong.’ I think he’s absolutely ‘right’ that we’re all ‘in Adam’. But then, I believe in an inherited sin nature and physical death rather than inherited guilt, so perhaps it’s easier from my perspective.

      • I think an inherited sin nature implies an inherited guilt. The former entails the latter.

        Thus, even for the infant who dies, he will need the removal of his guilt (through the sacrifice of Christ freely bestowed). I believe this grace is indeed given to an infant who dies, but it is no less the pardoning of a guilty sinner.

      • Do you mind if I post a link to a very good discussion of the whole ‘inherited guilt’ thing. Kevin? Don’t know if you’re okay with that or not on your blog.

      • “Thus, even for the infant who dies, he will need the removal of his guilt (through the sacrifice of Christ freely bestowed). I believe this grace is indeed given to an infant who dies, but it is no less the pardoning of a guilty sinner.”

        Amen! This is why we rush to the baptismal font.

  4. Kevin, the genetic evidence seems like a defeater only if monogenesis implies that the human race is inbred, with early generations begetting children by siblings and cousins. Does the scriptural case for that proposition really have the same degree of cogency as the case for an historical Adam? If it doesn’t, multiple genetic lines could enter the family tree gradually, as God bestowed his image on other hominids whom Adam’s descendants then married.

    • But wouldn’t these other hominids, who are bestowed with the image of God, then exist apart from the curse of Adam and Eve, i.e., unfallen?

      Moreover, for this theory to work, the only hominid-turned-humans are those that marry into the Adamic line. That seems a bit odd, a sort of requirement for becoming human is marrying into the family of Adam.

      Though, I do like how polygenesis solves the problem of inbreeding and other quandaries, like Cain fearing for his life as he is cast out of his family.

      • It’s hard to say. As a thought experiment: If Adam had sinned before God formed Eve, and if God still wanted Adam to populate the earth, would God in making an Eve be obliged to make her unfallen?

        Marriage into the house of Adam wouldn’t itself be the requirement. The idea is that God would make hominids into humans before presenting them to the descendants of Adam. Over time, hominid populations would be absorbed into a growing human household.

        Anyhow, I seem to remember John Stott suggesting something like that. I’m not attached to the theory, but thought it interesting and worth mentioning.

      • It is a very interesting proposal. As far as I can tell, it seems to be the only way to affirm both the unity of all humans in Adam and the vastness of ancient population sizes. I have never heard it before; it’d be interesting to know if Stott did teach it. The more I think about it, the more I like it as a hypothetical solution, worthy to be put on the table of options.

        As for the problem of the curse (fall) extending to these other hominids-come-humans, I’m reminded of Pannenberg’s claim that Adam and Eve were, in a sense, created as fallen because their wills were not perfected (i.e., the ability to sin). Plus, the existence of the Tempter in the Garden indicates a fallen element already in creation before Eve’s sin. Perhaps this would bolster your hypothesis.

      • I’m clearly late to this party, judging by the dates of these comments. I began reading your blog just today, Mr. Davis, and have enjoyed the reading the conversations very much. Truly, the forum you host models ecumenical charity and courtesy.

        Just to continue with the thought experiment that y’all got started:

        If God bestowed his image on unfallen hominids, thus humanizing them, and they married fallen humans, their progeny would be fallen (you know like the Dunedain in Tolkien’s mythos — living a long time isn’t the same as being immortal; almost doesn’t count, etc.); however, unfallen hominids-come-humans could marry each other, and have unfallen children, right? There’s the hole in that theory, though from a supralapsarian perspective (which I do not possess) might see God ensuring over time that all were polluted, all guilty, in order to atone for the universal contagion/trespass of sin by means of the second Adam…

        Of course, this is all so much theologoumena.

      • Trent,

        I agree with your speculation about non-fallen hominids, which is exactly the sort of “holes” that make me hesitate to come down with any definitive answer to this quandary. However, as a (broadly) evangelical and Reformed guy, I want to see more irenicism toward these sort of speculations, which are necessary and are born out of a deep faith and deep concerns.

    • Ken,

      I, too, recognize the deep faith and concerns that are behind these postulations. I’m not judging, just trying to think out loud about this question. I agree that we ought to treat of this question with as much irenicism as possible. My statement “this is all so much theologoumena: was meant to refer to my own speculations which I had just written, and none other.

  5. If the genetic evidence (against the historicity of Adam) is as strong as the astronomical and geological evidence (against a young earth), then we could see a rather large shift in evangelical intellectual opinion on the question of Adam.

    You’ll definitely see an even bigger wave of converts to Rome.

    • I’m curious as to why that would be the case. Most Catholics — including conservatives in the Wojtyla-Balthasar-Ratzinger school — have embraced theistic evolution for quite some time now. Of course, many of these conservatives have made an exception for Adam and Eve, but I think they’ll mostly be fine with polygenesis. They’re not too concerned about inerrancy in the way that evangelicals are.

      This really isn’t the sort of issue that would compel evangelicals to seek the security of Rome. Moral issues are what get people excited and concerned. To be sure, the doctrinal diversity of Protestantism isn’t as attractive as the (supposed) unity of Catholicism, but a particular doctrinal issue that is relatively obscure (like monogenesis) isn’t gonna make Rome look like a safe haven…especially when Rome herself is about as open as it gets when it comes to contemporary science.

      • Interesting. Perhaps Rome’s perspective has developed since I left her fold. When I was still there, however, it was permitted to believe in a theistic evolution, but there were certain boundaries that were given to the faithful that were not negotiable. One of those was the historical existence of Adam and Eve, that is, a single couple from whom the human race came forth.

        This was seen, and I would suspect still is, as a good example of the benefit of having the papal magisterium. The Spirit guides it’s teaching for the nations on difficult matters in the realm of faith and reason, religion and science.

        Unless this has developed, then I would suspect that whatever battles Evangelicals begin having over the historical existence of Adam, will only serve to direct the simple faithful, who are wondering what other aspect of fundamental orthodoxy is going to corrode, to Rome. This is yet another opportunity for Rome to step up and play the defender of widely held, authoritative beliefs concerning fundamental teachings of Christianity that have been held for millenia.

      • You might be right, but I have a hard time seeing Rome defending monogenesis with any great resolve, though she has defended it in the past. I doubt the CDF will take it up. Moreover, a sizable number of Catholics — especially the Western educated ones — wouldn’t see the historicity of Adam and Eve as a fundamental doctrine. They would separate the theological content of the Eden myth, as they already do to a great extent in order to allow for theistic evolution. So, they would say something like, “The anthropology is valid, not the science, in Genesis 1-3 and Romans 5. This anthropology, together with the doctrines of the Trinity, atonement, sacraments, et cetera are the fundamentals of Catholic orthodoxy.” Precisely because the magisterium protects the fundamentals, Catholics are given more freedom to re-contextualize the biblical creation story, without worrying about affirming faith-threatening heterodoxy.

  6. The CT article was interesting, but it left the impression than only a marginalized few are left clinging to either an Intelligent Design or biblical creationist view. This is clearly the intent of those at BioLogos, who have contempt for some truly brilliant people, William Dembski and Jonathan Wells, to name two. We’ve only heard one interpretation of the human genome data, and that interpretation presupposes a Darwinian trajectory. I’ll be waiting for CT to give a good, fair hearing to the other side on whether or not the data really give macroevolution a leg up.

    • To be fair, it is a marginalized few. Within the evangelical community, it’s not a marginalized few, but it is in the larger academy and society. For every Dembski or Wells, there’s tens of thousands of trained scientists, including Christians, who reject Creationism or the aims of ID.

      Regardless, the point of the CT article was to cover the state of the debate, and the state of the debate is centered on the historicity of Adam and the scientific (genetic) issues and the biblical (dogmatic) issues involved with the historicity of Adam. The CT article did a very good job of covering these issues in a journalistic fashion (i.e., he was not demonstrating or arguing for one view over the other).

  7. What other interpretation of the genome data could there be?

    The human genome has undergone intense study over the past decades, this will only continue and what we learn and know will only grow. This is how we know that modern humans stepped out of Africa and this is how we know the various routes that different populations used to populate the rest of the planet.

    If there is any presupposition going on, its by those who refuse to accept the scientific evidence because it doesn’t match what they want it to say.

  8. One last thing: I must recommend a provocative popular-level book by a British writer, Charles Foster, called ‘The Selfless Gene.’ It has a very convincing reading of Genesis in light of evolution and polygenesis that adds more meaning to it, not less. One good point he makes: Adam wasn’t the first to sin… it was Eve. So perhaps Paul is making a broader point in Romans 5 than we think? Doesn’t mean he knew polygenesis happened, of course, but it does perhaps point to Paul seeing the story as typological in a broader sense.

  9. What do you think about the idea that Adam and Eve literally existed, but they were chosen as the heads of the first humans rather than being the singular ancestral pair of everyone? In some ways it makes more sense of the biblical data, since it explains why Cain was worried about people killing him and and how Adam and Eve’s children got married (the answer that “incest was okay back then because they didn’t have to worry about shallow gene pools” has always bothered me). My theological views are far from settled, but this seems like a viable option to me.

  10. Having not read through all the comments, my gut reaction to the ever-harder to maintain position that Adam and Eve were the historical first pair, from which homo sapiens sapiens generated, is that possibly Adam and Eve were proto-Israelites, the first historical pair imbued with the imago dei with the express duty to represent humanity and exercise wise stewardship over God’s creation.

    This would keep the historicity in check, and also allow for the relatively recent time the genealogies of Adam point to.

      • Only problem is that that means all pre-Adamic men weren’t responsible before God for their choices if God never made them to be his imagers.

        To me, Adam and Eve just cry out to be interpreted as the first humans in general. I mean, as well as the name ‘Adam’ meaning ‘man’, you have symbolic people representing the rise of civilization right after them: the musician, the craftsman, etc.

    • Is there anything in particular on the subject that we should read at the BioLogos Foundation website? Or just read the whole website? I’m not sure I have the time for the latter.

      Perhaps you could be a little bit more specific in your recommendation.

  11. Limey – I apoligize for placeing a mere recommendation. You do not have to read the entire website, but you can read “The Questions” page – which has frequently asked questions regarding faith and science, and specifically one on Adam and Eve. I hope that my reply has become less vague. Take care.

  12. There is literal and non-literal points of view on Adam. The author made that clear in his writing. Though I’m not sure of his definitive stance on Adam – I think that the quote by Lewis on placing a different understanding on A beyond literalism was interesting. My reason for suggesting the site was because on reading the comments that were being posted – I saw that it was important to several individuals. Faith without reason is like asking a blind man if he can see. You are correct in saying that religion should be put to test, but I think that it can only be done properly if one is serious about understanding R, than just making assumptions on what R is independent of understanding the belief itself. If one does not have actual knowledge when discussing R then animosity rises, and when that happens the arrogance of ignorance forgets that there is such a thing as being humble in not knowing.

    • Are we Christians the silly story? If so, I am only too happy to be part of it.

      Lewis, on what it means to believe:

      “In actual modern English usage the verb ‘believe,’ except for two special usages, generally expresses a very weak degree of opinion. ‘Where is Tom?’ ‘Gone to London, I believe.’ The speaker would be only mildly surprised if Tom had not gone to London after all. ‘What was the date?’ ‘430 B.C., I believe.’ The speaker means that he is far from sure. It is not the same with the negative if it is put in the form ‘I believe not.’ (‘Is Jones coming up this term?’ ‘I believe not.’) But if the negative is put in a different form it then becomes one of the special usages I mentioned a moment ago. This is of course the form ‘I don’t believe you.’ ‘I don’t believe it’ is far stronger on the negative side than ‘I believe’ is on the positive. ‘Where is Mrs. Jones?’ ‘Eloped with the butler, I believe.’ ‘I don’t believe it.’ This, especially if said with anger, may imply a conviction which in subjective certitude might be hard to distinguish from knowledge by experience. The other special usage is ‘I believe’ as uttered by a Christian. There is no great difficulty in making the hardened materialist understand, however little he approves, the sort of mental attitude which this ‘I believe’ expresses. The materialist need only picture himself replying, to some report of a miracle, ‘I don’t believe it,’ and then imagine this same degree of conviction on the opposite side. He knows that he cannot, there and then, produce a refutation of the miracle which would have the certainty of mathematical demonstration; but the formal possibility that the miracle might after all have occurred does not really trouble him any more than a fear that water might not be H and O. Similarly, the Christian does not necessarily claim to have demonstrative proof; but the formal possibility that God might not exist is not necessarily present in the form of the least actual doubt. Of course there are Christians who hold that such demonstrative proof exists, just as there may be materialists who hold that there is demonstrative disproof. But then, whichever of them is right (if either is) while he retained the proof or disproof would not be believing or disbelieving but knowing. We are speaking of belief and disbelief in the strongest degree, but not knowledge. Belief, in this sense, seems to me to be assent to a proposition which we think so overwhelmingly probable that there is a psychological exclusion of doubt, though not a logical exclusion of dispute.”

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