All content authored by Fred Zaspel > Copyright Fred Zaspel
Did Adam And Eve Really Exist?
by C. John Collins
Crossway Books, 2011
by Fred G. Zaspel
Attacks on the teachings of Scripture have come and gone since the outset of the Christian era, and by this point in history we are never surprised to see its critics come against it once again. But - even though we should know better on this score also - somehow we are sometimes surprised to see, 1) old attacks presented as something new or, 2) old attacks coming not from the unbelieving world but from those within the professing church. Such is the case with the current buzz over the question of the historicity of Adam and Eve, fostered perhaps most prominently by Biologos, Francis Collins, Pete Enns, as well as others.
Yet by this point in history we have also learned not to fret. Inevitably such controversies result not in a weakened faith but in a strengthened faith brought about again by an increased and closer understanding of Scripture. We may be sure that God causes even the wrath of men to praise him.
Such is the significance of C. John Collins’ Did Adam and Eve Really Exist? Who They Were and Why You Should Care. Collins (professor of Old Testament at Covenant Seminary and evidently no relation to the Francis Collins, whose work he criticizes) approaches the question with obvious concern for truth and a fair and balanced evaluation of the attending arguments, and he shows himself to be well acquainted with all sides of the discussion, both biblical and scientific. And in the end he proves himself a reliable guide and has provided a helpful and very accessible introduction to the debate.
The Bible Story
Collins helpfully uncovers illegitimate deductions from statements that are otherwise true. For instance, whatever symbolism is involved in Genesis 3 and the story of Adam’s sin - and there is surely plenty! - it would be an ungrounded presupposition indeed that demands that where symbolism is employed the account cannot therefore convey real history. Similarly, the claim that “The Bible is not intended to teach science but ‘timeless theological truths’” is an acceptable characterization of Scripture. The Bible is not meant to be a textbook of science. But by no reason of logic can this be made to mean that various historical and/or “scientific” claims by the biblical authors are therefore unreliable. The Bible story is presented as real history in the real world, and (unlike other religions) its teachings presume the truthfulness of its historical claims. Indeed, Scripture’s “timeless theological truths” are historically grounded, and their usefulness and reliability depend upon the truthfulness of those historical claims.
In few places is this more evident than in the case of Adam. The question of his historical existence shapes the very storyline of Scripture. Adam is presented in Genesis as the head of the human race, our father into the consequences of whose sin we have all fallen, awaiting a New Adam who, unlike Adam the first, obeyed God faithfully and as a true representative of us all offered himself in sacrifice for our sin. The Bible story is a story of sin and redemption - the sin of Adam and the redemption by Christ - and in the Biblical story the latter rests on the former. Beyond serious question, this is the teaching of the apostle Paul in Romans 5:12-21 (cf. 1 Cor. 15:22, 45), a doctrine it would seem he learned, simply, from a careful reading of the Genesis narrative. No one, understanding the Bible story, can deny that a denial of the historical Adam carries serious gospel consequences. The question is fundamental to the Bible story and, therefore, to Christianity itself.
The Genesis account of Adam (chapters 1-5) is plainly intended as historical, a history taken up in the larger historical narrative of Genesis 1-11 and its portrayal of the continued moral decline of humanity born in Adam’s image (Gen. 5:3), the answer to which is given first expression in God’s promise to Abraham (Gen. 12:3). Luke adds his affirmation of Adam in naming him as the primal ancestor of Jesus (Luke 3:38), and our Lord himself expresses this conviction in Matthew 19:4-5 (cf. Gen. 2:24) and John 8:44 (cf. Gen. 3). And of course the apostle Paul several times over affirms the same, often resting his theological argument on it (Acts 17:26; Rom. 5:12-21; 1 Cor. 15:22, 45; 1 Tim. 2:13-14).
Collins combs the Scriptures in careful detail (both Old and New Testaments) to demonstrate the shared conviction among the Biblical writers concerning the historicity of Adam and Eve, who were very clearly understood by them as historical figures, even if historical figures with theological significance. Certainly it would be impossible to understand Acts 17:26 in any other sense, where Paul affirms that God made all the nations “from one man.” These passages and many others Collins adduces to establish his argument firmly.
What makes this point such a serious one is that it necessarily entails questions of the very nature and character of Scripture. Simply put, the basic question at issue is, Does the Bible teach that Adam really existed? If so, then if we will call ourselves Christian we are bound to believe it. We welcome challenges, and we are happy to re-evaluate our interpretations. Christians have often erred in their understanding of Scripture, just as scientists have often erred in their interpretations of “natural” phenomena, and our love of truth necessarily leaves us willingly open to challenges both from within the professing church and without. But having established a given claim of Scripture, we are bound to believe it. At the end of the day we do not measure Scripture by the “findings” of a given “scientist” whose most recent studies have led him to make certain pronouncements. As Christians we just cannot think or work in that direction. Given the doctrine of Scripture - “What Scripture says, God says” - we acknowledge its priority in measuring all other truth claims. We measure every “new thought” against what God has said, and once we are assured of a given Biblical claim we are equally assured of its truthfulness and that every opposing thought is necessarily mistaken (1 Tim. 6:20-21). What Scripture claims is true, and all contrary claims are false. This is but an entailment of the doctrine of inspiration taught us by our Lord and his appointed apostles. And on this issue in particular we are forced - if we are indeed in pursuit of truth - to acknowledge that the Biblical writers and our Lord Jesus himself were united in their understanding and teaching of an historical Adam and Eve. And we remain confidently committed to the proposition that while the teaching of others err in many ways, this and every claim of Scripture will always prove to be fully reliable.
Instinctively we are aware that God is, that he is our creator, that there is a right and a wrong to which we are obligated, and so on. Intuitively we understand ourselves to be creatures that are both dependent and obligated. That is to say, we are both religious and moral beings. And with all this there is the recognition that things are not the way they ought to be. We share a sense of loss, a recognition of a certain fallenness both in ourselves and in the world around us. We recognize both “natural” and moral evil - that the created order is out of sorts and that humanity itself, with all its injustice, falls far short of its created ideal.
Scripture easily accounts for this common human experience in its teaching of the imago Dei, that God created Adam and Eve, and through them all humanity, in his own image. It is because we bear God’s image that we share this awareness of our creator, a conscience, a sense of justice and injustice, and so on.
Collins insists that apart from the Genesis account of Adam there is no way to account for this shared human experience. Certainly “science” cannot provide an alternative answer. Apart from the truthfulness of an historical Adam created in God’s image, the Bible story not only falls apart at its outset, but humanity itself is stripped of its uniqueness.
We might press further. If this is the case - if humankind is not united in father Adam and therefore does not bear the image of God - then what, exactly, is man? Just what is it that makes us superior to the animals? And for that matter, apart from a human race united in an historical Adam, what comes of the brotherhood of man? It would seem that without Adam racism is suddenly rendered defensible. In its teaching of Adam and humanity created in God’s image Scripture has a robust answer to racism of all varieties. But with this ground pulled out from beneath us, the question is again up for grabs.
Questions of Science
Collins interacts with questions regarding DNA in his final chapter, and his leading arguments here fall primarily along three lines. First, he argues that such scientific approaches that are used to affirm multiple human origins (polygenism) cannot account for all the relevant data, particularly the commonality of human experience and sense of loss, fallenness, and so on. Clearly, failing to account for all the relevant data no theory can claim a hearing. Second, the “findings” of this branch of scientific investigation are too uncertain to be admitted. Collins cites here the learning that continues to re-shape our understanding of what was previously called “junk DNA,” now found to be useful after all! And third, population-size studies stemming from the human genome project whose claims did not take into account the growing body of evidence of various mechanisms by which human genetic diversity can be increased at a faster rate than the models had predicted. Throughout he argues that there is yet to be offered a better explanation for human origins and the common human experience than what is given us in Scripture.
Collins demonstrates a firm grasp of his subject and in particular of the early chapters of Genesis. His evaluations of various arguments and approaches reflect mature considerations at each step. The book is brief (about 160 pages of text) yet relatively comprehensive. I would like to have seen a fuller development of some of the gospel/Christological implications and of the scientific dimensions of the question, but these are by no means absent. And it might have been good to explore at least a bit the implications of this question in regard to the doctrine of inspiration. Still, this work is of great value, and I cannot think of a better resource for an introductory study of the various questions involved.
The question Collins has taken up is one of no small significance. Despite assurances to the contrary, the denial of the historical Adam and Eve leaves us without a reliable word from God, without a single, united human race, without the imago Dei, without a Bible story, without a gospel, and without a reliable, trustworthy word from God. Collins has not lost sight of any of this, and his work is, then, a valuable service to us all.