Thoughts on Adam and Eve


I just read and very much enjoyed Jack Collins’ recent book on Adam and Eve.  One of the things the book did for me is help me reflect more upon attempts to uphold the historicity of Adam and Eve and some form of human evolution.  I used to think about this issue basically in terms of two options: (1) Adam and Eve are de novo creations of God, without any prior ancestry; and (2) human being evolved from primates.  The first of these options is broken down into the young-earth and old-earth subdivision camps, and the second is quite diverse, embracing everyone from Richard Dawkins to Francis Collins.  So, adding in these two subdivisions, you’ve got basically four options: (1) young-earth creationism; (2) old-earth creationism; (3) theistic evolution; (4) non-theistic evolution.

I was and am in the second of these categories, the old-earth creationist camp.  However, over the past several months I’ve realized that boundaries between (2) and (3) are not necessarily non-porous.  What brought this on my radar was reading several months ago Tim Keller’s Creation, Evolution, and Christian Laypeople, which argues that belief in a literal Adam and Even and a historical fall is not necessarily at odds with some versions of human evolution. Though it is not his own preferred view, Collins also leaves room for this possibility: “even if someone is persuaded that humans had ‘ancestors,’ and that the human population has always been more than two, he does not necessarily have to ditch all traditional views of Adam and Eve” (121, italics his).  The great challenges to opting for a Adam and Eve + human evolution view, it seems to me, concern how original sin, human death, and the Imago Dei entered the world.  What would such a scenario look like?

Collins himself sees a high degree of human solidarity as necessary to any Adam and Eve + human evolution view:

“If someone should decide that there were, in fact, more human beings than just Adam and Eve at the beginning of mankind, then, in order to maintain good sense, he should envision these humans as a single tribe. Adam would then be the chieftain of this tribe (preferably produced before the others), and Eve would be his wife. This tribe ‘fell’ under the leadership of Adam and Eve. This follows from the notion of solidarity in a representative. Some may call this a form of ‘polygenesis,’ but this is quite distinct from the more conventional, and unacceptable, kind” (121).

Collins then charts various views in which God miraculously created Adam and Eve somewhere alongside the history of other hominids. In some cases Adam and Eve were the first members of the genus Homo, which may seem initially attractive because such a hypothesis is able to account for Adam and Eve’s parentage of all the human race.  Its great weakness (which Collins sees as fatal, 122) is that the earliest Homo appeared about 2 million years ago, which is too far in the past to be plausible.  Another possibility is that Adam and Eve were de novo creations alongside other hominids in the more recent past, and the descendants of these two individuals formed a small community that eventually eclipsed all other hominids.  So far as I can tell, this is the view, for example, of Fazale Rana of Reasons to Believe (a ministry at my church connected to the apologist Hugh Ross), who dates the creation of Adam and Eve to around 50,000-70,000 B.C. Gavin Basil McGrath has a similar view and dates them around 45,000 B.C., give or take 20,000 years.

At times intermingled with such views is the idea that God created Adam and Eve from already existing hominids by sort of refurbishing them and implanting the divine image and a rational soul in them.  John Stott was one of the first to suggest this view in his Romans commentary.  He dated Adam and Eve much more recently, somewhere around 10,000 B.C., but this is a good while after the dispersion of modern humans to Australia and the Americas, which makes it unlikely. Another interesting alternative is the (very tentative) view of Derek Kidner in his Genesis commentary.  Kidner draws attention to Cain’s fear of others in Genesis 4:14 and his finding a wife in 4:17 as suggestive that there were other humans even at the early stages of human history.  He suggests that perhaps God created Adam by refurbishing an already existing hominid, and then miraculously created Eve from Adam, thus establishing these two as God’s vice-regents over creation.  Then God conferred his image from Adam and Eve laterally, to their already existing contemporaries.  Thus when Adam and Eve sinned, their contemporaries were likewise disinherited, as his federal headship extended outwards to them as well as downwards to his descendants.

Denis Alexander’s view advocated recently in this book that Adam and Eve were two neolithic farmers to whom God chose to reveal himself in a special way relatively late in the process of human evolution, around 10,000 B.C.  This view labors under the difficulty of how the image of God and original sin were transmitted to the rest of the human race. C.S. Lewis’ tentative proposal in chapter 5 of his The Problem of Pain is similar to several of these, but he does not consider whether Adam and Eve were historical figures or simply represent early humanity to be important to the issue.  All of these views, it seems to me, must explain the death of the our alleged sub-human ancestors – but then, this is a larger problem in old-earth creationism.

For me, the DNA and fossil evidence in favor of human common ancestry with primates is not conclusive (as I talked about here), so at this point in my thinking I am not compelled to perceive of any of these scenarios as necessary. I nevertheless find it helpful to simply recognize that its possible (with some scenarios perhaps working much better than others) to believe in a historical Adam and Eve, and simultaneously believe in some kind of human continuity with primates. This, it seems to me, puts the entire conversation in a more helpful context. The most basic divide is not between creation and evolution, but rather between teleology and a-teleology. Evolution can either be an all-encompassing philosophy or a limited biological process. The latter is one mechanism of creation, to God be the glory for it, whether it explains little or much. The former is an anti-Christian worldview.  It is between these two worldviews, it seems to me, that the ultimate battle lies.

My final thought after reflecting on these issues over the last few weeks is, what a gift the story of Genesis 1-3 is.  It gives us the true account of our origins that science never could, even if the science about human origins were fully advanced, because it speaks at a deeper level.  God gave us a picture in these chapters that answers the deepest questions in our hearts, that explains the kind of world we live, that provides hope and meaning and context to our existence.  I don’t need to know how literally to take it – I don’t need to know exactly how it all happened. Taking the Genesis on its own terms, according to its own purposes, delighting to submit to it as the arch-explanation, itself ruling over and interpreting all other (valid) points of data, I am liberated from uncertainty and I discover, again and again, the true meaning of my existence in this world.  I’ve quoted before Kidner’s statement in his Genesis commentary:

“The accounts of the world [of science and Scripture] are as distinct (and each as legitimate) as an artist’s portrait and an anatomist’s diagram, of which no composite picture will be satisfactory, for their common ground is only in the total reality to which they both attend…. [Scripture’s] bold selectiveness, like that of a great painting, is its power” (31).

To put what I am trying to say in these categories: I don’t need to figure out the anatomist diagram in all its details in order to fully bow before the artist’s portrait.  Whatever that anatomist diagram may or may not say, the artist’s portrait needs no further confirmation than the ring of my own heart and conscience, and already stands sufficient to teach me how to live in the world. Its bold selectiveness is its great power.

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  1. There is a reason why creation and evolution are at odds in the classroom. Science, the self-correcting, trusted discipline of discerning fact from fiction, consistently is favored time and time again. Why? Because it does not start with a false premise or a presupposition. It starts with observable, testable data, first verified by many other sources before becoming what we call “today’s version of the truth”. As a christian, I’m sure you are very aware of what the biblical account has been reduced to since science, logic and rationality have broken through the chains religion once had firmly secured to them.

    To paraphrase Dawkins, who you mention (and wish you quoted more), the test of a good theory is to take the ratio of the assumptions vs. the number of things it predicts. If you apply this test to Christianity, the book of Genesis starts with an huge assumption, which states that God created everything, including man. It does not do itself any favors by first defining what exactly God is, which might be important considering the millions of different things God could be and is, according to the 6 billion+ people on the planet. I’d like to leave out the atrocity God commits to the first humans by condemning them and their offspring (who, according to many evangelicals, are products of incest). The ‘loving god’ theory does not hold water here, nor does it hold water in many of the old testament stories. You don’t support your argument when you offer references that suggest “Adam and Eve were neolithic farmers” or “Adam and Eve were refurbished hominids”, because assumptions have no room in debates and they certainly don’t advance our understanding of the real truth.

    Conversely, evolution does not claim to explain the creation of anything. It simply explains the engine (Evolution) and the driver (Natural Selection). It is wonderfully parsimonious and offers a real, testable conclusion for the diversity of life. The assumption for evolution is that Natural Selection weeds out the unfavorable traits that make an organism unsuitable for its environment, but even that assumption is testable and can be demonstrated. The God claim is not testable. It is why you must have ‘faith’ (belief without evidence) in order for it to have any weight.

    Evolution, Sorry to say, does not separate human beings out as being “Special”, as the God claim requires. In fact, it does not guarantee any organism will survive at all. Compared to the biblical view, the evolutionary view thrives on death and renewal with each passing of traits from one generation to the next. However, In my opinion, I think the evolutionary view enhances your perspective on life: All life, from bacteria, to plants to humans, all share this small world together, each needing each other. Manna, after all, does not sprinkle down from heaven to feed only us.

    Perhaps we may argue over it, but evolution and the scientific understanding delivered to us through not just biology, but geology, cosmology, and even philosophy and history, have all but annihilated the Adam and Eve myth. It boggles me that the topic even be brought up. Frankly, if the first chapter of a book on the truth of all things gets it completely and utterly wrong, I would have serious doubts as to the veracity of such a book.

  2. Good thoughts Gavin and thanks for posting. I’ve been lightly wrestling with this issue over the last year or so. Your thoughts were helpful