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.