Historical Adam: Embracing the questions

Editor’s note: This is the first in an ongoing Think Christian series. Look for other installments by Dennis Venema, Alvin Plantinga and Daniel Harrell, as well as a concluding piece by Deborah Haarsma.

For Christians who follow science, the issue of the historical Adam is a hot topic. Did you know that paleontologists date the earliest human remains to about 200,000 years ago in Africa? And that archaeologists find evidence of humans in the Americas by 15,000 years ago? These discoveries fly in the face of the conventional reading of Genesis, in which Adam and Eve lived just 6,000 years ago in the Middle East and were the progenitors of all humankind. Plus, there’s a wealth of genetic evidence about human origins. How is a scientifically curious, Bible-believing Christian supposed to deal with this?

A helpful strategy is to reexamine God’s two books, side by side. God has revealed Himself in the book of nature as well as the book of Scripture (see Psalm 19 and Belgic Confession Article 2). These are both revelations from God, so we can take hope that they do not conflict. Considering both of God’s books means that we don’t throw out Bible verses just because they seem to conflict with science. But neither do we ignore evidence in nature that seems to conflict with our reading of the Bible. The conflict is not between the Bible and nature, but at the human level: between our human interpretation of the Bible and our human understanding of nature (i.e. science). Even when we don’t agree on what the best interpretation is, we can hang on to both books, in the good hope of discovering the truths that God is revealing. God is the ultimate authority in these debates, not science or a certain interpretation of Scripture.

Underlying the issue of the historical Adam are the issues surrounding evolution of all life forms. Some atheists claim that evolution has somehow replaced God, but Christians can view evolution as a scientific description of the means God used to create the species, in the same way that Christians view gravity as the means God uses to govern planetary orbits. While biological evolution is not inherently atheistic, it does raise issues for Christians, such as randomness and purpose. Scientifically, randomness refers to unpredictability, not to a lack of purpose or meaning. A Christian can view random mutation as a process governed by God, in which he intentionally uses randomness to create an extravagant variety of individuals and species.

The questions surrounding the historical Adam go far beyond evolution, however. Who were Adam and Eve? When did they live? Were they African hunter-gatherers or Middle-Eastern farmers? Where they two individuals, or leaders of a group or a symbol for all early humans? Did God create them with a special miracle? Or did God create them in continuity with animals using natural processes? What does it mean to be made in the image of God? How did sin and death enter the world? How did sin spread to the rest of humanity? What is the Tree of Life all about? What did Paul mean by the first and second Adam?

Some Christians look at this list of questions and see an exciting area of investigation, but most find it daunting! And risky - there is a lot of potential to lose the core beliefs of the faith we hold dear. Yet the authors in this series, and many Christians who study these issues, are still committed to essential beliefs of Christianity:

  • God (Father, Son and Holy Spirit) is the Creator of all.
  • God proclaimed humanity “very good” and calls us to bear His image.
  • Scripture is inspired by God and authoritative for us.
  • All people have sinned; Christ’s death on the cross is the only path to salvation.  


Follow the rest of this series to see ways to fit these beliefs with various approaches to the historical Adam.

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I love the concept of “God’s two books,” as its foundation mirrors very closely the manner in which I reconcile science with the Bible.
That is, any reading of Genesis 1 and/or 2 must take into account issues of literary form and genre.

First of all, we must take into account that the creation narrative would have been passed down orally for generations before it was written down. A detailed (and scientific) explanation of creation would not have been appropriate in that form. But this leads to a more important observation: we must read the “books” of nature and science because in them God writes in ways that he could not have in Genesis. Imagine, for example, that Genesis 3 included a detailed account of biological evolution. How would that have been received by early Jews and Christians? The answer is that the Bible does not include any mention of evolution and/or science because it could not have done so and still have been meaningful to those who would have read it when it was first written. This is why we need to look to the “book” of nature, one which provides new and developing evidence of God’s power as we learn more properly how how to read it.

“Underlying the issue of the historical Adam are the issues surrounding evolution of all life forms.”
This statement begs the question (“begs” us to consider something to be true which has not been conceded) in assuming the the validity of evolution as THE explanation for the development of life.  This point has not been conceded - in fact there are serious flaws with the theory which have been well documented, in spite of the spurious claims of “everyone” accepting evolution as “scientific fact”.
“A Christian can view random mutation as a process governed by God, in which he intentionally uses randomness to create an extravagant variety of individuals and species.”
Simple:  If God supernaturally guides the evolutionary process, then it is no longer “random”, neither is it a purely natural process. Any direct intervention or guidance by God is by definition SUPERNATURAL. Evolution cannot remain evolution in such a scenario.
“Follow the rest of this series to see ways to fit these beliefs with various approaches to the historical Adam.”
The biblical authors seem to have ONE prevailing approach to “the historical Adam”: He existed.  He is not a mythological invention of the writer of Genesis designed to teach us a theological lesson. He is the “one man [from whom God] made all the nations, that they should inhabit the whole earth; and he marked out their appointed times in history and the boundaries of their lands. (Acts 17:26)
If we stray from this view of Adam, our motivations better be utterly pure and our reasons iron-clad.  The supposed “truth” of evolution is not an airtight motive.
Radio-metric dating methods and the theory that all life developed from a one-celled organism (which some - even Christians - hold might have arisen from some form of ABIOGENESIS) through genetic mutation and natural selection have both been faced with credible challenges from credentialed scientists who hold to the biblical authors’ view of Adam.  These challenges have been largely shoved aside because they come from “those Creationists”, not because the challenges themselves lack merit.
This move to cast doubt upon the opening chapters of the Word of God reminds me of something someone said once:
“Did God really say…?”

Not quite sure of the distinction you’re making in your second point, 2cortenfour. It seems to me a matter of semantics. If a Christian scientist believes that God created and governs the universe, what is the proper way for her to describe the processes by which that universe functions? The limits you seem to want to place are problematic for me even in the case of evolution, yet they’re even more so in a less controversial scenario: If we observe an apple fall from a tree, is it OK to describe how the force of gravity works, or are we only allowed to say God knocked the apple down?

“The biblical authors seem to have ONE prevailing approach to ‘the historical Adam’”

But this is my point. The transcribers (would not God be the author?) wrote the way they did in part because they had to, as writing otherwise would have been both out of context and confusing at the time in which the text was written. It seems ridiculous to dismiss the possibility of something like evolution based on nothing more than its absence in a narrative written to be understood by an audience of middle-eastern Jews thousands of years ago.

I agree:  What a great way for us to view nature, as a parallel revelation with the scriptures!

As a biology-degree holder with feminist leanings, it’s hard for me to read too many “Historical Adams” without demanding Eve take center stage as well.  Scientists typically referee to the primordial Eve.

Scientific American has been doing really interesting reporting on the evolutionary development of the human brain and our ability to comprehend emotions, reason, and think cognitively.  It opens up great debates over whether these first “humans’ were even capable of the same thoughts we have today.

Thanks for launching this series.  Looking forward to more to come.

I think Dr. Wayne Grudem in “Systematic Theology” can clarify the distinction I’m trying to make better than I can.
(Before I ran across this, I came to the same conclusions by simply looking at nature and reading the Bible.)

“... the theistic evolution view has to understand events to have occurred something like this:

And God said, ‘Let the earth bring forth living creatures according to their kinds.’ And after three hundred eighty seven million four hundred ninety two thousand eight hundred seventy one attempts, God finally made a mouse that worked.

That may seem a strange explanation, but it is precisely what the theistic evolutionist must postulate for each of the hundreds of thousands of plants and animals on the earth: they all developed through a process of random mutation over millions of years, gradually increasing in complexity as occasional mutations turned out to be beneficial to the creature.

A theistic evolutionist may object that God intervened in the process and guided it at many points in the direction he wanted it to go. But once this is allowed then there is purpose and intelligent design in the process - we no longer have evolution at all, because there is no longer random mutation (at the points of divine interaction)....we may as well have God immediately creating each distinct creature without thousands of attempts that fail.” (emphasis mine)

In other words, might as well admit that the “god” of Evolution is foreign to the True God described in the Bible, especially in Genesis.

Hmm. It seems a bit presumptive to describe the process of evolution as “thousands of attempts that fail.” If evolution via random mutation is indeed how God decided to bring this world into being - and prevailing scientific opinion currently suggests it was - then who am I to question the wisdom of His choice (much less call it a series of failures)?

Main Entry: 2random
Function: adjective
Date: 1632
1 a : lacking a definite plan, purpose, or pattern b : made, done, or chosen at random

If I throw a deck of cards up in the air and all 52 land on the floor with no interference from any human being, it can be said that the resulting configuration of cards all over the floor is RANDOM.
But if I intervene and catch even one of those cards and place it where I want it, I have contaminated the whole process. It cannot be deemed random any more, because an intelligent agent has intervened and placed the Ace of Spades perfectly in the corner of the room.
I don’t expect that as a result of this conversation you will abandon Deistic Darwinism, but would you at least concede that if God intervenes in the process of evolution even ONCE, the whole process can no longer be considered purely haphazard?
I would ask further that you would agree that if Evolution is true, it has severe ramifications for biblical theology.
Food for thought:
If God built death, disease, mass extinctions, bloodshed, etc. into creation at the start, and used this “survival of the fittest” driven system to produce the diversity of life we see today (including mankind), then who is to blame for sin?  Didn’t we humans just inherit our selfishness and rebelliousness from our animal ancestors? Couldn’t we just look at God and complain, “You made us this way!”?
Evolution has no room for Adam and Eve. Therefore the blame for our sin nature must find another source. Are you ready to blame God? Or will you believe your Bible?

I never really considered it “haphazard,” so sure, let’s say we agree on that point. As for your theological questions, those are exactly the sorts of tough issues we mean to explore with this series, so I hope you’ll continue to do that along with us.

Hi Josh
Thanks for continuing this discourse.
Couple of points:
If you view evolution as being driven by mutations that are not “haphazard” (i.e. random), then you do not believe in Evolution as defined by Dr Haarsma. Your evolution is a form of intelligent design.
And then regarding the theological issues: they are only “tough” when we stray from the Scripture. A truly historical Adam and Eve (not merely archetypal or metaphorical),a real Devil who tempted them, a real Fall of Man, etc., as is clearly taught in God’s Word, lays the groundwork for our understanding of the human condition and our need for redemption - for Jesus. Sin and death came into the world through the one man Adam, forgiveness of sin and the defeat of death (which is the “last enemy” - check Revelation) came through Jesus Christ. I’ll stop now, but my hope and prayer is that those who follow this series will be spurred on to study the Word more deeply (Genesis cf. Romans is a good idea) and realize that the “prevailing opinions” of scientists about the distant past are just that - opinions.
But God was eyewitness to Creation.

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