Adam and Eve really existed, and why that mattersWritten by Subby Szterszky
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Adam and Eve have a long history of being scoffed at by skeptics. Almost from the beginning, opponents of Christianity have dismissed the opening chapters of Genesis – including the story of our first parents – as pure myth, on par with other creation myths from the Ancient Near East.
Over the past century or so, with the advent of Darwinian naturalism, these assertions have grown more insistent, buttressed with bold claims that “science has proven” Adam and Eve could never have existed.
And in comparatively recent times, even believers in growing numbers have come to question the historicity of the first human couple. They’ll suggest Adam and Eve were never real people, just metaphorical stand-ins for humanity. Or else they’ll speculate that God may have plucked a pair of hominids from the evolutionary stream, named them Adam and Eve, and infused them with souls and with his image.
In some cases, these efforts stem from an earnest desire to resolve a perceived conflict between science and Scripture. In others, they’re essentially an attempt to avoid looking ignorant in the eyes of secular culture. But whatever the motive, they wind up undermining the actual pursuit of science, to say nothing of the Gospel narrative of Scripture.
The genre of Genesis
When approaching any text, especially one as significant as the creation account, it’s vital to get the genre right. Genesis is not a modern textbook of history or science. It was written in elevated, stylized language, the first chapter in particular built around an artful pattern of repetition. However, that first chapter isn’t Hebrew poetry either, any more than the rest of the book is. There’s none of the two-line parallelism that’s a defining feature of Hebrew verse found in Psalms and elsewhere. Rather the text is in the form of historical narrative, composed to recount actual occurrences, even though its style is in keeping with the literary conventions of its time.
As apologist Alisa Childers points out, “Although the story is told in a poetic way, the Genesis account mainly exhibits the characteristics of narrative prose, which describes a series of events.”
To be sure, the proper name “Adam” is also a general term for humankind, as “Eve” is for “life” and “Eden” is for “pleasure” or “delight.” Nevertheless, the text presents Adam and Eve as actual people in a specific place and time. And they do actual people things like marrying, having children, making choices, tending a garden, giving names to animals, and conversing with each other and with God.
Moreover, Adam’s genealogical record lists his exact age when his son Seth was born, the fact that he had other sons and daughters, and the exact age when he died. In fact, the entire book of Genesis is built around a series of genealogies that connect Adam to Noah, and then to Abraham, Isaac and Jacob, and ultimately to Moses and the people of Israel. Moses, who wrote the book, treated Adam and Eve as real historical figures, no less than anyone else in that family tree.
Blurring the Imago Dei
The first chapter of Genesis states that God created humanity, both male and female, in his own image. The second chapter provides more detail, describing how God formed Adam directly from the dust of the earth and breathed life into him. God then created Eve, also directly, from one of Adam’s ribs.
It’s difficult to square an honest reading of this narrative with the idea that Adam and Eve were merely metaphorical, or else a pair of hominids elevated to human status. The text says that when God breathed life into Adam, the man became a nephesh chaya, Hebrew for living creature. That same phrase is used throughout the account to describe other living creatures, like birds and animals. So, if Adam were a divinely mutated hominid, he would have already been a nephesh chaya before God ever breathed life into him.
But beyond that, the story of Adam and Eve is vital to a proper understanding of the nature of humanity. As God’s unique image bearers, created specifically by him for that purpose, humans possess a dignity and value distinct from the rest of creation. And because all people are descended from that first couple, every individual, male and female, has an equal share of that value and dignity.
If Adam and Eve were pre-existing hominids transformed by God, then humanity’s unique reflection of the Imago Dei is blurred at best and may not even be present to the same degree – or at all – in every individual. And if our first parents never existed, then any objective basis for inherent – and inherited – human worth doesn’t exist either.
Scripture after Genesis
Adam and Eve are mentioned only sporadically in the rest of Scripture after Genesis. But when they are, they’re always presented as actual historical figures. The first book of Chronicles opens with a genealogy of Israel, starting with Adam. In similar fashion, the Gospel of Luke traces the ancestry of Jesus all the way back to Adam. In the book of Acts, Paul tells the skeptical Athenians that God made all human nations from one original man. And when writing to Timothy, the Apostle again refers to Adam and Eve as historical people, as does Jude in his short letter when he quotes Enoch, a seventh generation descendent of Adam.
Jesus himself, while teaching about marriage and divorce in the Gospels of Matthew and Mark, alludes to Adam and Eve as real people. Later, as recorded in Matthew and Luke, the Lord also speaks about the literal murder of Abel, Adam and Eve’s second son. And along the same lines, the writer to the Hebrews describes Abel’s sacrifice as an actual event, and places Adam’s murdered son at the head of his list of heroes of the faith.
It would be hard to deny that the authors of Scripture – and the Lord himself – read the Genesis account as historical narrative and viewed Adam and Eve as historical people. But that hasn’t stopped critics from trying. They’ll argue that these authors and their original readers knew they were talking about ancient myths to convey spiritual truth. Or else they’ll claim that the apostles and evangelists – and even Jesus – were simply wrong.
Such claims, however, don’t bear up under serious scrutiny. Reading these texts honestly and in context makes it clear that the authors intended their audience to know they were talking about real people and real events. In each case, the spiritual truth they were trying to convey falls apart unless rooted in historical fact. It’s hard to imagine a rigorous thinker like Paul or a careful historian like Luke getting their facts wrong and using myths to make their case. It’s harder still – in fact impossible – to think of Jesus, the divine author of all truth and reality, making the same mistake.
Dire Gospel implications
From a Gospel perspective, the most significant discussion about Adam and Eve outside of Genesis is found in Paul’s letters to the Roman and Corinthian churches.
In the fifth chapter of Romans, Paul presents Adam and Jesus as the two representative heads of humanity. He spells out in detail how sin and death entered the world through Adam and spread by inheritance to the entire human race. But through Jesus, who took on human nature, Adam’s fallen descendants can receive grace, righteousness and eternal life.
The Apostle reiterates and distills this core Gospel truth to the church at Corinth via a series of vivid contrasts: “For as by a man came death, by a man has come also the resurrection of the dead. For as in Adam all die, so also in Christ shall all be made alive. . . . Thus it is written, ‘The first man Adam became a living being’; the last Adam became a life-giving spirit. . . . Just as we have borne the image of the man of dust, we shall also bear the image of the man of heaven” (1 Corinthians 15:22, 45, 49).
There can be no doubt that Paul understood Adam to be just as real as Jesus. But if in fact Adam never existed or was just a hominid plucked from the evolutionary tree, then Paul’s entire case for the Gospel makes no sense. There’s no fall of humanity, no original sin, and no need or possibility of redemption.
Tim Keller addresses the inconsistent idea that Paul’s argument holds up even if he got his facts wrong: “[Paul] most definitely wanted to teach us that Adam and Eve were real historical figures. When you refuse to take a biblical author literally when he clearly wants you to do so, you have moved away from the traditional understanding of the biblical authority. . . . If Adam doesn’t exist, Paul’s whole argument – that both sin and grace work ‘covenantally’ – falls apart. You can’t say that ‘Paul was a man of his time’ but we can accept his basic teaching about Adam. If you don’t believe what he believes about Adam, you are denying the core of Paul’s teaching.”
Old Testament scholar Richard Belcher adds: “If all human beings are not descended from Adam, there is no hope of salvation for them. Christ does not and cannot redeem what he has not assumed. What he has assumed is the human nature of those who bear the image of Adam by natural descent. If there is no redemptive history that is credible, then redemptive history is lost in any meaningful sense. Thus the historicity of Adam has implications for the Gospel.”
And theologian Richard Gaffin is quite blunt in summing up these dire Gospel implications: “The truth of the Gospel stands or falls with the historicity of Adam as the first human being from whom all other human beings descend. What Scripture affirms about creation, especially the origin of humanity, is central to its teaching about salvation.”
The frontiers of science
Naturally none of this has deterred skeptics (and sadly many believers) from assuming that “settled science” has ruled out the possibility of Adam and Eve ever existing, never mind being the progenitors of the entire human race. But science – which at its heart is about discovery and not consensus – has done nothing of the sort. In reality, these bald assertions aren’t based on objective investigation, but on materialist assumptions that dismiss out of hand any non-natural explanations for the origin of life.
Science, of course, can neither prove nor disprove whether Adam and Eve existed, nor does it need to. But studies of genetics, linguistics and the spread of pathogens at least suggest the likelihood that humanity arose relatively recently, in one location, and from a small population, perhaps even from a single pair.
And from the field of population genetics, cutting-edge research published in the journal BIO-Complexity has lent strong support for the possibility that humans descend from a single couple, despite frequent claims to the contrary. The authors of the paper, biologist Ann Gauger and mathematician Ola Hössjer, used sophisticated computer modelling to trace the diverse branches of the human genetic tree back to a statistically probable point of origin. Their findings indicate that humanity could easily have originated from a single ancestral couple, as recently as the time when Neanderthals are commonly believed to have appeared on the scene.
Once again, this doesn’t prove the Genesis account, and that was never Gauger and Hössjer’s intention. What they set out to do – and accomplished brilliantly – was to show that contrary to materialist orthodoxy, Adam and Eve are indeed a scientifically feasible explanation for the origin of humanity. Both researchers were forthright about why such a study as theirs had never been pursued before.
Hössjer explained: “Well, the reason is philosophical rather than based on empirical facts. Modern science is very secular. Typically, only those hypotheses are allowed to be tested that can be framed in purely natural terms (i.e. methodological naturalism). A model with a first couple implicitly requires an Intelligent Designer or a Creator in order to answer how this first couple was generated in the first place. Modern science will therefore rule out a first couple model from the start (even if one leaves it to the reader to answer how the first couple originated), before data has been analyzed.”
Gauger was even more to the point: “First of all, who gave scientists the right to interpret Scripture? Why should they care if we believe that we came from a literal first couple? They stuck their noses in where they didn’t belong. Second, they actually didn’t test the thing they were claiming.”
To paraphrase Mark Twain, the reports of Adam and Eve’s non-existence have been greatly exaggerated. As one might expect, nature and Scripture are never at odds with each other. God is the author of both, so there can be no hidden secret, lurking in the natural world, waiting to come to light and prove God’s Word wrong. Of course, it’s vital to interpret both correctly, a truth worth remembering by scientists and theologians alike.
But the historicity of Adam and Eve reaches far beyond drawing proper lines between science and metaphysics. The question impacts the truth of the entire Gospel narrative of Scripture. The creation, fall, redemption and restoration of humanity, the intrinsic value of human life and salvation through Christ, the second Adam, all hinge on the literal existence of the first Adam and his wife Eve, created directly by God in his own image.
Adam and Eve may have borne the shame of plunging humanity into sin and death. However, believers need not be ashamed of the existence of our first parents in the face of skeptical opinion. Quite the contrary, a literal Adam and Eve give us a sense of grounding, humility and assurance for our faith. Their story forms the opening chapter of God’s real, historical narrative through which he’s redeeming his people as well as his entire creation.
Sources and further reading
Alisa Childers, “Did Adam and Eve really exist? Does it matter?” author’s blog, October 26, 2016.
Kevin DeYoung, “10 reasons to believe in a historical Adam,” The Gospel Coalition, February 7, 2012.
Ann Gauger, “New BIO-Complexity paper: We could have come from two,” Evolution News and Science Today, October 21, 2019.
Wayne Grudem, “What we lose if we deny a historical Adam,” Crossway, February 04, 2018.
Ola Hössjer and Ann Gauger, “A single-couple human origin is possible,” BIO-Complexity, 2019 (1): 1-20.
Michael J. Kruger, “The historical Adam: Why it really matters,” Canon Fodder, August 28, 2013.
Albert Mohler, “Adam and Eve: Clarifying again what is at stake,” author’s blog, August 31, 2011.
John Piper, “Was Adam for real, and does it matter?” Desiring God, January 14, 2013.
Mike Reeves, “Do we need to believe in Adam and Eve?” Be Thinking, 2009.
Justin Taylor, “Does science disprove Adam and Eve? An interview with a biologist and a mathematician,” The Gospel Coalition, October 28, 2019.
Guy Waters, “Was Adam a historical person?” Ligonier, August 08, 2014.
Jonathan Witt, “‘Unique Human Origins’: Explained,” Evolution News and Science Today, November 4, 2019.
“Historical Adam,” Reasons to Believe, accessed November 5, 2019.
© 2019 Focus on the Family (Canada) Association. All rights reserved.
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