A historical Adam

Biblically, I have no problem with an old Earth and most of biological evolution (i.e. the science of evolution, not the flaky philosophy that athiests such as Dawkins attach to it). Biblically, I also believe in a real individual Adam who was in some very real sense the ancestor of us all. My answer to how that all fits in to paleoanthropology at this time is “I’m not entirely sure.” But that doesn’t really bother me.

Kevin DeYoung, on his Gospel Coalition blog DeYoung, Restless, and Reformed, writes on the topic of 10 Reasons to Believe in a Historical Adam.

In recent years, several self-proclaimed evangelicals, or those associated with evangelical institutions, have called into question the historicity of Adam and Eve. It is said that because of genomic research we can no longer believe in a first man called Adam from whom the entire human race has descended.

I’ll point to some books at the end which deal with the science end of the question, but the most important question is what does the Bible teach. Without detailing a complete answer to that question, let me suggest ten reasons why we should believe that Adam was a true historical person and the first human being.

1. The Bible does not put an artificial wedge between history and theology. Of course, Genesis is not a history textbook or a science textbook, but that is far from saying we ought to separate the theological wheat from the historical chaff. Such a division owes to the Enlightenment more than the Bible.

2. The biblical story of creation is meant to supplant other ancient creation stories more than imitate them. Moses wants to show God’s people “this is how things really happened.” The Pentateuch is full of warnings against compromise with the pagan culture. It would be surprising, then, for Genesis to start with one more mythical account of creation like the rest of the ANE.

3. The opening chapters of Genesis are stylized, but they show no signs of being poetry. Compare Genesis 1 with Psalm 104, for example, and you’ll see how different these texts are. It’s simply not accurate to call Genesis poetry. And even if it were, who says poetry has to be less historically accurate?

4. There is a seamless strand of history from Adam in Genesis 2 to Abraham in Genesis 12. You can’t set Genesis 1-11 aside as prehistory, not in the sense of being less than historically true as we normally understand those terms. Moses deliberately connects Abram with all the history that comes before him, all the way back to Adam and Eve in the garden.

5. The genealogies in 1 Chronicles 1 and Luke 3 treat Adam as historical.

6. Paul believed in a historical Adam (Rom. 5:12-211 Cor. 15:21-2245-49). Even some revisionists are honest enough to admit this; they simply maintain that Paul (and Luke) were wrong.

7. The weight of the history of interpretation points to the historicity of Adam. The literature of second temple Judaism affirmed an historical Adam. The history of the church’s interpretation also assumes it.

8. Without a common descent we lose any firm basis for believing that all people regardless of race or ethnicity have the same nature, the same inherent dignity, the same image of God, the same sin problem, and that despite our divisions we are all part of the same family coming from the same parents.

9. Without a historical Adam, Paul’s doctrine of original sin and guilt does not hold together.

10. Without a historical Adam, Paul’s doctrine of the second Adam does not hold together.

Christians may disagree on the age of the earth, but whether Adam ever existed is a gospel issue. Tim Keller is right:

[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. (Christianity Today June 2011)

If you want to read more about the historical Adam debate, check out Did Adam and Eve Really Exist? by C. John Collins.

For more on the relationship between faith and science, you may want to look at one of the following:

HT: Cyberbrethren

Grace and Peace

11 thoughts on “A historical Adam

  1. Martin Lack


    Many thanks for posting this. As you know, I think you and I are pretty much on the same page on this issue. However, here is my response to DeYoung’s 10 points:
    1. I agree that the Bible cannot be treated uniformly as a science or history textbook (and that science textbooks should not be treated as Bible’s) but I do not think it is fair to blame the Enlightenment for any dangers inherent in such a dichotomy. St Augustine (354-430 AD) and Thomas Aquinas are just two examples of a long tradition of such falsifiable theology.
    2. I agree that Gen 1-3 was not merely mimicking other ANE creation myths but the fact remains that Gen 1 and Gen 2 are mutually incompatible. That is – with one seeing Creation from God’s perspective and the other seeing Creation from a human perspective – they cannot both be literally true.
    3. Ditto.
    4. Arguing for the necessity of a more literal interpretation of Gen 1 to 12 on the basis of ANE understanding (i.e. that of NT authors) is no better than any other “argument from silence”. If we believe in Christ as the Incarnation of the Creator of the Universe, there must have been many, many things that Jesus chose not to tell people because it would have been beyond the comprehension of ANE minds.
    5. Ditto.
    6. Ditto.
    7. The First Century Church no doubt believed that the Sun revolved around the Earth; but this did not make them right. Tradition, in this respect, is irrelevant.
    8. All very true, but science continues to show us that we are not so very different from sentient animal, e.g. we share 98% of our DNA with some Primates.
    9. I agree but, my own experience confirms that I am a sinner; I am not perfect; but I do have an inner moral compass. Where did that come from; is it just a social construct? I don’t think so.
    10. I appreciate that only sinners need a saviour; and without The Fall there would appear to be no theological need for an Incarnation but, again, my experience of being human tells me I do have such a need.

    In the final analysis, I do not believe that God is in the business of deceiving people and, although the Bible says that the Devil is, I am not prepared to thus presume that all scientific inquiry is in danger of being so deceived. Anthropologists tell us that modern-day Homo sapiens are all descended from as little as a few thousand breeding pairs that survived the last Ice Age (70,000 years ago). I personally believe that these people are our common ancestors.

    I understand the theological problems of denying that Adam and Eve existed, but God gave us intellects; and does not demand that we deny them. This is where faith comes in. My God is bigger than this debate; and he is not demanding that I have a frontal lobotomy.

    Many thanks as always for all that you do to shed light into the darkness of the modern mind.



  2. This is an important topic and I appreciate your post and Martin’s comment. John Collins posted a summary of his book in a discussion on Adam for the ASA. It’s interesting to also read the non-historic Adam articles that follow. Here’s one, and the others can be found through this page: link.

    I would have to agree with Martin and scholars like Peter Enns on this one, though I understand the difficulty. The problems are not only genetic, but pertain to picture that paleontology shows and other sciences. Then there are the textual problems and parallel ANE stories. Aside from that, we only have the theological significance. Adam has become more important over the years because Christians have built much more theology upon Adam than Paul and the rest of the Bible ever did. (my blog post on that topic). It’s interesting to see how often the gospel is preached and sin addressed in the Bible and not Adam’s complete absence. Today, Adam comes up first in many of these discussions, but the Apostles apparently didn’t apply Adam in such a theologically forceful way. Not even Paul. He used Adam in Romans and Corinthians, but not exactly in the way Augustinians do today. It’s also interesting to note there are several failed analogies in the Bible, but we’ve dealt with them – like a mustard seed being the smallest and a seed needing to die to bring forth new life.

    The Adam constructed by Collins, Hugh Ross, Denis Alexander and others is meant to balance the data with the Bible, but it also involves hypothesizing an Adam that’s so much different than the Genesis account and Paul’s first human who introduced death. Although it’s worth attempting, the results thus far have tended to be rejected by both sides.


  3. WebMonk

    There are a couple questions that come up if there are “partial” interpretations – interpretations falling between the first part of Genesis being entirely true myth or entirely literal history.

    Was there a Garden of Eden? Did Adam really name all the animals? Talking snake? Tree of Knowledge and Tree of Life? Etc.

    That’s not a criticism of “partial” interpretations, though perhaps some might view it as such. There are lots and lots of areas of the Bible where Christians differ on how exactly something was intended to be taken.

    So, that said, I don’t get too bothered over the details of the “partial” views. I have yet to be particularly convinced of a specific set of “partials”, and I don’t find DeYoung’s reasons particularly compelling. Some are better and some are pretty weak (his “Paul” reasons are weak).

    I can’t say I have too much trouble with an a-historic Adam. The historicity of Adam has a lot less impact on things than many differences of interpretation.


  4. Charles Kankelborg

    Great discussion.

    It seems on the face of it that Paul’s references to Adam are typological in nature. Does Adam need to be historical to have a typological function in Paul’s theological explanations? Strictly speaking, I think not. Though of course, there are many possible senses in which a person named Adam might play the role assigned by Genesis even if he was one of a community. The CT article repeats some speculation along these lines. One fact that seems to have been overlooked in the debate is that any prominent individual in such a small initial community would probably be an ancestor of us all, albeit not our only ancestor of that antiquity. Under this explanation, even the genealogies would remain intact, provided we are willing to hypothesize some gaps to increase the timeframe by an order of magnitude.

    And yes, I think humans are special. God worked something in our species that is unique, even though our DNA apparently has little to show for it. That, I think, is a key to understanding original sin. It isn’t that selfish behavior is unique to humans (nor is altruism, apparently). But God’s fingerprint on our soul and his promise to us is unique. It is his image that we are damaging when we turn away from his calling. Adam puts a name to the source of that rebellion, even if we can’t quite put our finger on exactly who he was.


  5. Martin Lack

    Thanks guys, I would echo Charles’ opening remark: Your responses are all very incisive.

    I’m still waiting, then, for the YEC fight-back (or does that not happen on this site?). I would like to think I would have disarmed them with my intellectual and emotional honesty; and my acknowledgment of the theological difficulties my defence of science entails?

    I would love things to be black-and-white but they are not. I would love to believe the Grand Canyon was excavated – and 18,000 metres of Mississippi basin sediment laid down – in 40 days but, my brain tells me they were not.

    However,at the end of the day, even though I am sure he is saddened by it, I believe God is bigger than this “debate”… As He no doubt is over that raging over climate change too…


  6. Wm Tanksley

    It seems clear to me that Adam existed, and was a deliberate creation of God. At the same time, I’m not so sure that Adam was the ancestor of all humans. The only passage I find is actually Adam’s naming of Eve, which is explained as being because she is “the mother of all living.” Is there any other reason to take Adam and Eve as being mother and father of all humans?


  7. geochristian

    Martin (#1):

    I would word #2 a little differently myself, in that I don’t believe that Genesis 1 and 2 are “incompatible” with each otehr. What is true is that they cannot both be in strict chronological order. Some have compared the relationship between the first two chapters of Genesis as like that between Exodus 14 and Exodus 15. Both tell the same story, but one is a chronological narrative of the crossing of the Red Sea, and the other is a poetic retelling of the same event. One would go crazy trying to harmonize the two as “history”, and there is no need to, because they are different types of literature.

    There are other approaches to the relationship between Genesis 1 and 2, but I think this works well.


    Modsynth (#2):

    I lean more towards the Collins side — I believe in a literal Adam who was in some way the ancestor of us all. Having said that, I won’t throw those who take Adam more figuratively, such as Enns or C.S. Lewis, under the theological bus, or label them as less than orthodox. They still believe that sin is the basic problem and that Christ is the solution.


    Charles (#4):

    You make an excellent point regarding the “Adam as part of a community” hypothesis: One fact that seems to have been overlooked in the debate is that any prominent individual in such a small initial community would probably be an ancestor of us all, albeit not our only ancestor of that antiquity. Thanks.

    P.S. I’ll be on your campus on Thursday.


    Martin (#5):

    Sometimes the YECs comment here (see here for example), and sometimes they don’t.


    Wm Tanksley (#6):

    Acts 17:26 — From one man he made every nation of men, that they should inhabit the whole earth; and he determined the times set for them and the exact places where they should live. (NIV84)


  8. Wm Tanksley

    Thank you, GeoChristian. I should have mentioned that one, because it’s commonly mentioned. The problem is that the word “man” is not present in the Greek, either explicitly or by clear context. The KJV puts in “blood”, although I admit that most modern translations do insert “man”, for reasons none of the footnotes discuss.

    But here I have to admit an error on my part, in terms of science. According to the following paper it’s mathematically likely that any human living a certain time ago would have either NO surviving descendants or all living humans would be their descendants. http://languagelog.ldc.upenn.edu/nll/?p=3755

    So there’s no currently valid numerical objection to a universal Adamic ancestry.

    My main worry was that there would be a plausible argument that some people are NOT descended directly from Adam and therefore not actually in the image of God even if they were biologically human. I’ve read a little too much history.

    My main Biblical objection, on the other hand, is that the argument you’re using doesn’t seem to me to be supported in the Bible. The consistent Biblical justification for mankind not hurting one another isn’t “you’re all scions of Adam”, but rather “you’re all in the image of God”.



  9. Kenny Johnson

    Just saw a couple responses/rebuttals to Kevin’s post, so I thought I’d share them. I consider myself fairly open and not convinced of either case. I’m willing to accept a historical Adam — but I’d probably lean more towards a “proto-Israel” Adam and would still not read Genesis 1-3 as a historical account (even if it contained some history). But I’m also willing to accept that Adam is not a historical person.

    With that said:


  10. Pingback: AN HISTORICAL ADAM? « Fr. Orthohippo

  11. reyjacobs

    Everyone knows nobody cares whether Adam is historical or not. The whole debate is about original sin. Adam is treated as historical in 1 Chron 1:1, the only passage to make any mention of the loser after the end of his story in Genesis. There is no theory or doctrine of original sin in the Old Testament. There is not talk at all in the Old Testament about Adam’s eating the apple, except for the spot where that myth is actually found. Even in the New Testament, you go through 4 gospels and the book of Acts with no mention of Adam’s sin as a foundation for ANY of the theology. Not until Romans 5 is Adam’s sin made a foundation for theology, and then it is clearly a huge blunder on Paul’s overconfident part.

    If you define sin in the idiotic Christian way where everything is a sin then you can make a baby a sinner. Being selfish is a sin? Well then babies are sinners. But where the hell does the Law say being selfish is a sin? Thus Christianity falls apart (as always) when someone who interprets the Law properly comes up against it. Christianity is nothing more or less than Paul’s messed up misinterpretation of the Law. Nowhere does the Law say selfishness is sin; nowhere does the Law say if you commit one little sin God condemns you to burning fiery torment for all eternity; nowhere does the Law say if you commit a non-mortal sin you can’t just repent and instantly be forgiven (in fact it implies that very thing!)! By non-mortal sin, obviously I mean one which the Law does not impose a death penalty on. For again, nowhere does the Law say that the wages of every sin is death! Paul might have misinterpreted it that way, but the Law didn’t say it. You didn’t get put to death for lying under the Law, just for murder, adultery, beastiality, homosexuality, idolatry, and yet not for incest, and pre-marital sex between singles would only get you a fine from the chick’s dad. So Christianity falls apart because its built on horrible misinterpretation of the Law.


Leave a Reply

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in:

WordPress.com Logo

You are commenting using your WordPress.com account. Log Out /  Change )

Twitter picture

You are commenting using your Twitter account. Log Out /  Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out /  Change )

Connecting to %s