Debating the Historical Adam Debate

by Brandon D. Smith November 4, 2019

One of the most prominent aspects of the science-and-faith debate centers on Adam. Was he a real, unique person created before all other people? Was he merely a poetic representation of mankind? Was he an evolved hominid? What is Genesis 1-3 trying to record for us or teach us?

While much has been said on the matter, it’s a conversation that often flies over the heads of pastors and laypeople. After all, most of us are not trained scientists. We can’t converse knowledgably about genomes and carbon dating. However, there are some basic textual and theological threads in Scripture that can help us have a foundation settled within these conversations. But first, let’s discuss the debate in basic, understandable terms. We are going to cover two views here that are put forth by professing Christians, along with a few nuances within those views.

The Debate

One view says that Adam was not an historical person. The view comes in various forms, but the big picture idea is that Genesis 1-3 is not saying that Adam was a real, literal person. Instead, they would say that Genesis is in some way poetic. In other words, there wasn’t some human named Adam roaming the Earth before any other human existed. Adam, then, is a representative of humanity as a whole.

This usually comes from a view that tries to hold what science says about evolution in tension with Scripture. For reference, Denis Lamoureux makes the case for this in Four Views on the Historical Adam. He basically says that God accommodated ancient writers of Scripture by allowing them to make mistakes regarding science, because they wouldn’t have been able to comprehend all that we know now about the physical world. So, it’s possible that the biblical writers thought Adam was a real, historical figure, but God avoided weirding out ancient people with 21st-century science.

So, to recap this view: Adam was not an historical person, but rather a poetic representative of humanity as a whole. Most people who deny the historical Adam would say that we don’t start seeing real, historical figures in the Bible until Genesis 12, at the earliest.

On the other side, some say that Adam was an historical person, though in a few different ways. There are some who affirm most of the argument above against the literal historical Adam, but who would also say that the historical Adam was indeed a real person. They would say, however, that he wasn’t necessarily the first human being ever created. He was an archetype or chosen representative. The argument would, at some level, accept scientific claims about evolution and age of the Earth, arguing that it’s better to conclude that Adam was a chosen man among many people, and/or that Genesis speaks of Adam in a poetic way as the representation of all the humans of that day. So, according to this view, it’s possible there were thousands or millions of humans on the Earth or even various hominids from whom humanity eventually derived, but Genesis records Adam’s reception of the image of God as an example of all mankind receiving God’s image.

Another version of this view says that regardless of what science may or may not say about Adam, we know that he was a real person and the first human God created because the Bible seems to indicate this clearly. This view would doubt that the Earth is billions (or even hundreds of thousands) of years old and that Genesis 1 teaches seven literal, 24-hour days—not gaps of time that could add up to millions of years.

The defense of this view is two-fold: (1) it’s a more “plain” reading of Genesis and the New Testament and (2) there are theological issues that come with denying the historical Adam because of how the Bible talks about transmission of sin from Adam to us and Jesus’s role as the Second Adam (going back to Romans 5—“one man/one Man”).

Debating the Debate

To start, we should acknowledge that Genesis 1 isn’t seeking to make a scientific point. Oddly enough, those who say that modern science shouldn’t dictate the discussion are in some ways imposing a modern concern on an ancient text themselves. While there was some discussion in church history about the nature of Genesis 1 and its implications, the heated debate about the age of the Earth and evolution is primarily a modernistic concern. So even those trying to disprove science are being too modernistic in their critique by allowing science to dictate conversation in the first place.

Instead, we should debate the debate, recognizing that the age of the Earth and evolution are not the point of Genesis 1-3. The genre of this passage appears to be a type of historical narrative with theological and literary wrinkles. In other words, Genesis 1-3 tell us a story that really happened, but is structured in such a way that we will notice the beginning of a story—a story about creation and its subsequent fall through Adam and Eve’s disobedience. This story is then picked up by the Gospel writers and Paul, who in various ways seem to assume the historicity of Adam and Eve, while also building upon the theological implications of their story (Matt. 19:4-6; Luke 3:38; Rom. 5:12-21; 1 Cor. 15:22).

The actual point of the text, then, is that God created all things, that he created mankind uniquely in his image to carry his authority into creation and to fill his earthly tabernacle with God-worshipers, and that Adam and Eve failed at this task.

To put my cards on the table, I affirm a literal, historical Adam along with the conviction that Genesis 1-3 is an historical account of actual events. Textually speaking, we can’t know for sure how old the universe actually is; however, we can conclude from the text that God spent six actual days preparing the earth for life and ultimately the mission set before Adam and Eve. So, to me, a better way of arguing for a literal historical Adam is textual and theological, not scientific. That said, it is worth noting that my view would rule out any form of evolutionary process with respect to Adam’s creation. There are scientists who are far more able to debate Petri-dish concerns; however, I’m a theologian and my lab is the world of the Bible.

Of the many reasons I believe in an historical Adam—that he was literally the first human being to ever live—is because Genesis seems to indicate that mankind is the pinnacle of God’s creation. This is why creation of mankind is mentioned last, why mankind is given the image of God, and why mankind is given authority over the rest of creation.

Moreover, the idea of creating Adam “from the dust” as a potter forms clay seems to indicate a special, unique creative act that starts with Adam. Further, giving him a helpmate to name animals and create more image-bearers gives the strong sense that neither stewardship of creation nor procreation had actually happened yet. When God tells Adam and Eve to fill the earth with image-bearers, he’s actually telling them that there are none on the Earth, and that he wants them to begin spreading his image across the globe.

Why It Matters

So, for the pulpit and pew, why does this matter? How should we handle it? What are some basic principles, even for those not trained in biology or geology?

When teaching or reading Genesis 1, we should focus on the sovereignty of God in creation and how important mankind is to him and to the flourishing of the world. It’s not that the ancillary debates aren’t important, but Genesis 1 and supporting passages shouldn’t be anybody’s proof text for a science versus religion debate. That’s simply not part of the authors’ original intent. These are important, but secondary concerns.

On Romans 5, as it reflects on Genesis 1-3, I would make the point I think Paul is making—one man brought the world into chaos through his sin; one Man brings the world out of it by reconciling all things. It’s important to assume the historicity of Adam’s disobedience and to promote the historicity of Jesus’s life, death, and resurrection to undo Adam’s transgression. Why? Because the biblical truth for every one of us is this: sin is not poetic—it’s a real spiritual and physical disease; salvation is not poetic—it’s a real spiritual and physical redemption. And one day, we will literally resurrect like Jesus, becoming the Adams and Eves our ancient parents were meant to be (1 Cor. 15; Rev. 21-22).