Historical Adam: One possible scenario

Editor’s note: This is the third in an ongoing Think Christian series. Look for previous installments by Deborah Haarsma, Dennis Venema and Daniel Harrell.

How should Christians read the Bible in this science-dominant age, especially the account of Adam and Eve?

This is a non-trivial problem for Christians who take the Bible to be God’s word to us human beings, but also take contemporary science seriously. There are many sides to this question: in the brief space allotted to me, I’ll mention just four.

First, it’s important to see that current science ought not to be taken as an infallible oracle. For one thing, science is constantly changing its mind. That’s as it should be with science: when you find new evidence, you may have to come up with a new theory. But it also means that if you hitch your epistemic wagon to the star of contemporary science, you’ll be constantly changing your mind (“blown about by every wind of doctrine”). It’s worth remembering the “pessimistic induction” with respect to science. Most scientific theories of the past have been given up. Therefore, probably most theories of contemporary science will be given up. It follows, I think, that when there is conflict between current science and what the Bible seems to teach, it isn’t always the latter that has to give way.  

Second, it’s important to remember that serious Christian thinkers as far back as Origen (185-254 AD) have doubted that the Lord intends us to take the first couple of chapters of Genesis as stating the literal, historical truth. These chapters are indeed divine revelation. The Lord certainly cannot make a mistake; but we can make a mistake in what we take the Lord to be teaching. Perhaps the Lord does not intend these chapters to be taken literally, as sober historical truth.

Third, suppose we do take these chapters to be more like poetry, or perhaps parable, than history. How do we decide which elements are to be taken literally and which not? That God created the world and created humankind, certainly. But how about the six days, the order of creation (light before sun and moon), the garden, the talking snake, Adam and Eve, the apple, the Fall? One constraint: what is taught elsewhere in the Bible, particularly in the New Testament, is crucially important. It seems that Paul, in more than one place, teaches that there was an original human pair who fell into sin. Another constraint: the effect on major Christian doctrine. Suppose you reject Adam and Eve and a literal Fall. How then do you construe the doctrine of original sin? More important: how do you understand the necessity for incarnation and atonement, the very center of the Christian faith?

Finally, it certainly seems that there is no conflict between current science and a literal Adam and Eve who fell into sin. Some scientists speak of a bottleneck (perhaps 160,000 to 200,000 years ago) in the line leading to current humans, when the relevant population dwindled to 10,000 to 12,000 individuals. Here’s a possible scenario. At that time God selected a pair of these individuals, bestowing on them a property in virtue of which they are rightly said to be made in the image of God. This pair was wholly innocent, with properly directed affections. Nevertheless, they fell into sin, which in some way altered their natures (original sin). Furthermore, both the image of God and original sin were heritable, and also dominant in the sense that if either parent has either of these properties, their offspring will also have those properties. In this way both properties spread through the whole population, so that at present all human beings are descendants of this original pair, and all human being possess both the image of God and original sin.

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Solid piece overall, especially given the space constraints. The key to this all really is the historicity of Adam because, as the author here points out, if Adam is thrown out as being real then Christians have a lot of backtracking to do.
I'm really glad to see this topic get some serious, thoughtful discussion, and this piece does the series justice. One thing that troubles me about this issue is that, even as I grow more comfortable taking the early chapters of Genesis literally, how does this particular issue affect our later theology? If there were many humans are we to assume they each sinned? If so, what does that tell us about the weakness of human nature, that it is so easily corrupted? And if not, if this is a parable for something about human nature, how do we justify hell as just punishment for sin if we do not accept God's gift of salvation?

I have no answers on these points. That doesn't mean the science is wrong, and we must make our peace with it. If anything, it is an opportunity for deeper thought that is quite exciting.

I did have a quibble with your view of science. While it is always progressing, "changing its mind" makes it sound a bit fickle. In some cases science has been wrong, but in many cases these changes are more about fine-tuning. For instance, Einstein doesn't mean Newton was wrong; it's just that Einstein extends it and develops it for contexts Newton never dreamed up. It is important to talk precisely about this, or else we risk being dismissive of science's potential to help us understand God's creation.
Amazing writeup! This has always been an evergreen topic, a delight for philosophers because it's something that's beyond human comprehension in its entirety. The plausibility of the sea of endless options and possibilities that can be conjured up by the human mind to explain Biblical mysteries is easily intoxicating and that's why this would always be recurring converse amongst Christians, scientists and philosophers.
While science may be relevant to providing some empirical and tangible evidence or explanation to some of these mysteries, we must be careful not to put the cart before the horse. The Godhead and Christianity was not founded or birth on/by science rather the former was before the later became. The Christian way of life is based on Faith and faith defies science. Science could never explain how God's spoken word gave existence to the entire flora and fauna population without chemical, physical or biological precursors. What I'm trying to say is, in essence Christians should not be lured into looking up to science to explain Biblical mysteries rather Scientists have to ask God for revelation and wisdom to reveal or guide them towards discovering secrets that were before man walked the earth.
'My ways are higher than your ways and my thoughts are higher than your thoughts', our knowledge is finite and the efficacy of the practice of science is proportional to the purview of man's finite knowledge. I think it's safe to say that it's like attempting to catch the wind to try to obtain logical explanations to most Biblical mysteries. I think what God expects from us is just to believe that Scripture is verity in literal or figurative context. Like the Government tells intrusively curious people, 'you would be given information on need to know basis', so as it pleases the Lord, He would reveal certain things to us as He deems necessary but until then we must not approach scripture with skepticism like those who do not have His spirit.
This is all very interesting. But I’m increasingly falling on the side of science. Sure the findings of science do change. But most of science is not willy-nilly in the changes it is making. The change is more in the direction of progress. Sure, ideas set forth by Darwin in regard to evolution have changed, but that change, as documented and discovered by science, has not been a reversal of direction. Evolution is not the doubtful and unbelievable theory Christians took it for in the past. And so increasingly we have to come up with explanations of the creation account of Adam and Eve, such as the one suggested by Alvin Plantinga. Or Christians have to assume that Adam and Eve are metaphorical figures, rather than literal. And as Plantinga explains that can lead to other problematic questions in regard to the Bible’s fundamental teachings.

It may be true that some serious early Christian thinkers (Origen) have questioned whether the early chapters of Genesis should be taken literally. Serious early Christian thinkers also came up with different ideas as to how the Trinity should be understood, or whether the Trinitarian concept is truly inferred from the New Testament. But just as most orthodox Christian thinking has taken a position on the Trinity, so also historic Christianity has chosen to understand the opening chapters of Genesis as literal. The change away from the literal has been only recent and gradual, within the last 60 or so years. And in some Christian circles (Reformed) the change is even more recent and difficult.

This change from a literal to poetic/parabolic understanding of Genesis requires a different hermeneutic for the interpretation of Genesis. But now, with this new hermeneutic, we no longer have to accept what Christians have believed from the time of Moses (a literal interpretation of Genesis 1-11). But you see, in reality, it is the discoveries of science that have necessitated the change in Christian teaching. We cannot simply throw out the discoveries of science, unless we want to look totally foolish, so let’s adjust our thinking in regard to Genesis.

But does this gradual change in Christian teaching mean that Christians have been wrong throughout history in believing the historicity of Genesis 1-11? To those who are not Christian, it says the Bible is not the book that Christians make it out to be. Like other primitive religions that claim divine inspiration for their authoritative writings, the Bible (the early chapters of Genesis written by Moses) is an early (and primitive) explanation of what people didn’t understand. They could see the hand of God in nature around them and wanted to somehow explain Him. And it seems obvious to the non-Christian that such an account has come from the imaginations of a much earlier civilization. Increasingly the Genesis account, along with other early accounts for the beginnings of the world and human race, don’t fit well in a scientific world. And gradually (and increasingly) the Christian world is facing a difficult dilemma, what to do with science and the Bible.
To me the answer is simple: this is one of those dabatable things we are not supposed to waste our time on! Either the Bible IS the Wholly, inerrant word of God or it is not. Either it is all true or it is all false. You cannot pick and choose. The important thing to consider is your relationship with Almighty God, the creator of ALL things including the sciences. What, do you really believe we did that? Your relationship with God is the most important thing in time and space and if it's not growing, if your not looking more like the Savior you claim to believe in than that is most definately what you need to be concerned with, not the veracity of Adam and Eve.
Steve, I appreciate your desire to have us focus on growing closer and closer in our relationship with God. What we must understand, however, is that for many people (not limited to, but certainly including most professional scientists) this is an issue that creates a barrier to growing in love. For the We also see more and more young people coming to college who, having only ever heard one perspective on how to interpret the Bible, are inadvertently led to believe that they have to either accept the Bible or the teachings of science. These are questions of key relevance for so many people in the world today.

In reference to the article, I find myself hesitant to challenge someone so eminent as Alvin Plantinga, but I have a few qualms with this article.
First, as Marta pointed out, I think we have to be careful with the language of science 'changing its mind' - this kind of language paints a picture of scientific inquiry that is misleading and leads many in the church to rule out the relevance of scientific discovery for the Christian faith.
Second, I think that the constraints that Plantinga mentions in his third points need to be applied with more discernment. I recognize the space limitations that would limit such discussion in this article, but, do we necessarily need to believe in a literal Adam and Eve because Paul (and most likely all of the Biblical authors) believed that Adam and Eve existed? The cosmology of the Biblical authors would have had no reason to challenge the idea of two literal human ancestors - looking around at the world around them (children are born from parents), the most natural explanation would be that, following the process further and further back into history would lead to one pair of humans. While Paul's theology is certainly normative for Christians, I don't believe we need to limit ourselves to Paul's cosmology.
Similarly, while we must certainly do so with caution, we should not necessarily view 'major points of doctrine' as constraints - such theological perspectives were not decided in a vacuum and I don't believe we ought to assume that such major doctrines are the only way we can interpret a passage. Always, of course, with slow and serious caution before challenging the weight of the history of the Christian tradition.

Finally, while we can appreciate the idea of Adam and Eve being literal representatives as part of a larger population, this brings along its own host of philosophical and theological questions. What happened to the rest of the humans? Are we genetically altered by original sin? These questions are the same kinds of questions that need to be asked no matter how one explains why Adam and Eve could be symbolic and not literal historical figures.
"The cosmology of the Biblical authors would have had no reason to challenge the idea of two literal human ancestors - looking around at the world around them (children are born from parents), the most natural explanation would be that, following the process further and further back into history would lead to one pair of humans."

Abosolutely, K, and this is the problem with reading the text literally. Our understanding of origins is shaped in ways that early Jews and Christians could not possibly understand (i.e. science), so we should not expect Genesis to account for those ways.
Plantinga is trying to make the first chapter of Genesis speak the language of science. I think he's wrong to do so. The fourth suggestion he makes is way off base. Evolutionary theory takes place across populations, not in individuals, or individual pairs. It's a mistake to try to fit the historical into a natural historical account of the evolutionary origins of life.

My extended thoughts can be read here: http://rgrydns2.blogspot.ca/2013/02/the-historical-adam.html
It only makes sense that Moses (supposed author of Genesis) had a different cosmology than we have today, especially with the advances of evolutionary science. Evolution is no longer a doubtful theory, as Christian scientists claimed in the not so distant past. And it seems as though these more recent findings of science are causing us to reevaluate our cosmology, and also reevaluate how we interpret some portions of Scripture. It’s like saying we have to understand Scripture from the cultural context in which it was written. That can lead to a multitude of problems when it comes to other issues. Let’s no go there.

But when we acknowledge that Adam and Eve were not the historic first parents, but only the metaphoric first parents, Christians have to be careful. Historically, the human race evolved very slowly (perhaps millions of years) from less developed life forms, and humans developed in population with other early humans (or subhumans). So by the time there was a human race as we know it, there was not just one or two but many. So Alvin Plantinga has God selecting a pair of humans to fulfill the role of Adam and Eve.

And from these two is recorded the fall from innocence and the resulting fall of humanity with the need of redemption for all mankind. That’s the major message of the Bible - God’s plan of redemption. But if evolution is true, as most will acknowledge today, then sin was present long before the fall. There never was a time when the animal kingdom was a peace loving kingdom. Amongst the animals and the early development of humans it was the “survival of the fittest.” Animals had to fight and kill to survive. This is well documented and is not disputed. It also was true, especially in the early development of humans from lower forms. Self preservation is obvious throughout the animal kingdom today. Humans, without question, have developed intellectually, therefore can find better and smarter ways of preservation. With the advance of the human race and mind, we even understand that often survival is best accomplished by loving our brothers and sisters. But when our own survival is put in jeopardy all bets are off. But the self centeredness of the human race and of individuals without exception goes back to the “survival of the fittest” long before a historic or metaphorical Adam and Eve or their supposed fall. The desire to survive, to live, was not and is not a sin against God. It might even seem that God made us with a survival instinct. It would seem that human sin (survival techniques) is more of a human problem than a God problem. Death in the animal kingdom is not a sin against God, and our desire to survive isn’t either.

This really plays havoc to the core teaching of the Bible. Maybe Moses was not writing under inspiration from God, but was only expressing the thoughts of his generation to explain the God that they saw in the natural world. “Why are there floods and thunderstorms that kill people? Have we displeased the gods of heaven? How can we get on the good side of God? How can we get our God to take the side of our nation and people? Moses and numerous others from other cultures tried to explain God. But maybe they all are but a primitive attempts to explain the God that is obvious in the created order. Seeing as there are so many religions that claim divine inspiration, just like Christianity, maybe we need to ask if the Bible is really what Christians have thought of it all along.
Exactly. Among non-Christains and Christians alike the ramifications of "current science" - code for Darwinian Evolution - being a "fact" is that the Bible really is called into question.
After all, it seems that the New Testament writers were referring to a mythological figure as though he were real.
But Plantinga's "possible scenario" is supposed to solve that problem.
However, his version of Adam and Eve is at odds with the biblical first couple.
They were born - I guess to subhumans ? - not created instantaneously.
Also, they must have inherited some of their selfish, rebellious tendencies from their animal forbears. Ultimately animals, not Adam and Eve, become the source of human sinfulness.

On evolution being settled scientific "fact".
Do we really believe that non- human creatures mated and produced human beings somehow - thousands of them?
Going back from that point in history, evolution requires that one organism give birth to a different type of organism through genetic mutation -millions of times - (this also defies Genesis, which explicitly teaches that organisms - specifically plants, and by implication living creatures - reproduce "according to their kinds" Gen 1) producing the staggering variety of life forms that exist or have existed. By chance.

Study the universal probability bound and you will discover that the number of mutations necessary (happening in the correct order, assuming an 18 billion year old universe) to pull this off is not only improbable - it's impossible.

Credible objections to the major tenets of evolutionary theory have been well documented by credentialed scientists in both the Intelligent Design and Creation Science movements. In fact, it has been noted that the biblical framework of special creation, fall of Man, and subsequent judgement by worldwide Flood provides a better explanation of the fossil record than the idea of millions of years of evolution.

All this is to say that Evolution is far from "fact" no matter how insistent its proponents are. Study the difference between historical/forensic science and hard/observational science and you will find that the predictions you make and the conclusions you draw from the evidence are largely based on the assumptions you base your investigation on.
Evolution is a purely naturalistic explanation of the development of life - it assumes no Creator. Even some "theistic evolutionists" hold to abiogenesis - i.e. life from non-life. Any notion of intelligent design in the evolutionary process is anathema to evolutionists - even "theistic" ones.
Plantinga's article suggests that God intervened in the evolutionary process and bestowed the "image of God" on "Adam and Eve". As soon as God interfered, it was no longer evolution by genetic mutation and natural selection.
And so, attempts to put Adam and Eve into the evolutionary story will ultimately fail.
So will attempts to put evolution into the Adam and Eve story. (and there is no need to try - we have God as eyewitness to Creation, and evolution is untenable)

 

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