Culture At Large

Historical Adam: One possible scenario

Alvin Plantinga

Editor’s note: This is the third in an ongoing Think Christian series. Look for previous installments by Deborah Haarsma, Dennis Venema and Daniel Harrell.

How should Christians read the Bible in this science-dominant age, especially the account of Adam and Eve?

This is a non-trivial problem for Christians who take the Bible to be God’s word to us human beings, but also take contemporary science seriously. There are many sides to this question: in the brief space allotted to me, I’ll mention just four.

First, it’s important to see that current science ought not to be taken as an infallible oracle. For one thing, science is constantly changing its mind. That’s as it should be with science: when you find new evidence, you may have to come up with a new theory. But it also means that if you hitch your epistemic wagon to the star of contemporary science, you’ll be constantly changing your mind (“blown about by every wind of doctrine”). It’s worth remembering the “pessimistic induction” with respect to science. Most scientific theories of the past have been given up. Therefore, probably most theories of contemporary science will be given up. It follows, I think, that when there is conflict between current science and what the Bible seems to teach, it isn’t always the latter that has to give way.  

Second, it’s important to remember that serious Christian thinkers as far back as Origen (185-254 AD) have doubted that the Lord intends us to take the first couple of chapters of Genesis as stating the literal, historical truth. These chapters are indeed divine revelation. The Lord certainly cannot make a mistake; but we can make a mistake in what we take the Lord to be teaching. Perhaps the Lord does not intend these chapters to be taken literally, as sober historical truth.

It certainly seems that there is no conflict between current science and a literal Adam and Eve who fell into sin.

Third, suppose we do take these chapters to be more like poetry, or perhaps parable, than history. How do we decide which elements are to be taken literally and which not? That God created the world and created humankind, certainly. But how about the six days, the order of creation (light before sun and moon), the garden, the talking snake, Adam and Eve, the apple, the Fall? One constraint: what is taught elsewhere in the Bible, particularly in the New Testament, is crucially important. It seems that Paul, in more than one place, teaches that there was an original human pair who fell into sin. Another constraint: the effect on major Christian doctrine. Suppose you reject Adam and Eve and a literal Fall. How then do you construe the doctrine of original sin? More important: how do you understand the necessity for incarnation and atonement, the very center of the Christian faith?

Finally, it certainly seems that there is no conflict between current science and a literal Adam and Eve who fell into sin. Some scientists speak of a bottleneck (perhaps 160,000 to 200,000 years ago) in the line leading to current humans, when the relevant population dwindled to 10,000 to 12,000 individuals. Here’s a possible scenario. At that time God selected a pair of these individuals, bestowing on them a property in virtue of which they are rightly said to be made in the image of God. This pair was wholly innocent, with properly directed affections. Nevertheless, they fell into sin, which in some way altered their natures (original sin). Furthermore, both the image of God and original sin were heritable, and also dominant in the sense that if either parent has either of these properties, their offspring will also have those properties. In this way both properties spread through the whole population, so that at present all human beings are descendants of this original pair, and all human being possess both the image of God and original sin.

Topics: Culture At Large, Science & Technology, Science, Theology & The Church, The Bible