Culture At Large

Historical Adam: Wrestling with Romans 5

Daniel Harrell

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

When it comes to trying to make the historical Adam cohere with scientific evidence (presuming both the Bible and scientific findings to be revelations of God), the easiest out is to label Adam and Eve figurative. But is that too easy, especially given the emphasis Paul places upon Adam in Romans 5?

Paul, Jesus and others throughout Scripture appear to treat Adam and Eve as historical figures. As such, there are basically two options for their existence within an evolutionary rubric. The first is that God created them supernaturally, midstream in evolution’s flow. To create in such a way would require that God also wire in place a DNA history, since human origins genetically trace back to earlier, common ancestors. Conceptually, this presents the same problems as creating the universe with apparent age. God would seem to be tricking us into thinking things are older than they are with no clear reason for doing so.

Nevertheless, given that Adam and Eve are both introduced in Genesis, presumably as adults rather than children (even if they acted like children), it could be that in their case, God’s creating with age (and a history) would apply. While we might not necessarily understand why God would do that, He could do that (being God and all).

However, another option might be to have Adam and Eve exist as among the first Homo sapiens, specially chosen by God as representatives for relationship with Him. Drawing from Romans 5:12, we often speak theologically of Adam as serving as humanity’s representative in matters of original sin, so the idea of Adam as representative already exists in Christian theology. Moreover, Biblical history is rife with specifically representative figures: from Noah and Abraham to Jesus Himself, who embodies Israel and by extension the entirety of humanity.

Perhaps what Paul meant by death was not the inevitable cessation of life on this earth but rather the eternal death of a relationship with God for those who have no faith in Christ.

If Adam and Eve evolved into moral creatures chosen by God to represent humanity, it still leaves open the question of where their will to sin came from. I could project all sorts of psychological rationales backwards onto the first couple - like how nothing is more attractive than something that’s taboo, or how the grass is always greener on the other side of the fence (which would clearly make paradise problematic). Many figure that Satan’s fall would have happened prior to Adam’s sin, which if correct, at least accounts for the serpent’s presence in the garden. But that doesn’t explain the first couple’s succumbing to the serpent’s wiles. What was there in early human nature that would have fed any willingness to defy God? Biologically speaking, does our evolutionary past in any way contribute to our proclivity to sin?

Natural selection does promote self-preservation, which could certainly give way to selfishness (a contemporary sin-onym). Natural selection also rewards aggression for the sake of survival. It’s not hard to imagine how the will to survive could distort any will to obey. St. Augustine taught that evil derives its existence and energy from the goodness it perverts. Thus, aspects of evolution created by God as good (such as the survival instinct) deviously warp to suit ulterior purposes. The self-interest that serves to benefit life deforms into the self-obsession that debases life. That our biological makeup can be bent toward self-obsession and violence suggests that the notion of original sin may be even more sinister than originally thought. Such distortion of our biological predilections could account for the capacity to choose wrong in the first place. Freedom to thrive becomes corrupted through exposure to temptation. Satan’s enticement fueled Eve’s twisted logic (“the woman saw that the fruit of the tree was good for food”). The wrong choice suddenly made sense. This infected free will propagates into the exponentially more radical evil that defines human history.

What about death on account of Adam’s sin? In Romans 5, Paul does write that death entered the world through Adam. But again, if evolution is the way God works, then perhaps what Paul meant by death was not the inevitable cessation of life on this earth but rather the eternal death of a relationship with God for those who have no faith in Christ. Note that Adam and Eve ate but didn’t drop dead at the foot of the tree after they ate its fruit. They got kicked out of the garden, yes, but they were still breathing on their way out the gate. It could be that the Bible is making a distinction between biological death and the death humans suffer as alienation from God.

We are left to wrestle with the necessity of death for the sake of biological life, but pondered in light of the cross, we might view such death as an aspect of God’s sacrificial character writ large across the entirety of creation. As for the emergence of evil, part of its character remains its vicious incomprehensibility. Nevertheless, for there to be legitimate relationship of love between Creator and creature, the genuine possibility of rejection must be present. Love is a gift given and cannot be coerced. Such relational space, if Augustine is right, means room for relational ruin. Such are the costs of creation.

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