A new, definitive introduction to the Adam/evolution problem in Christian theology

If I’ve said it once, I’ve said it a thousand times: devout evangelicals will never be able to come to terms with evolution as long as they believe that it denies the existence of an historical Adam with an historical Fall. As goes creationism, so goes Christianity. Some will cling to their Christianity so tightly that they will never entertain any beliefs that contradict it; others cannot live with the cognitive dissonance and will eventually call it quits on Christianity once they recognize that universal common descent is, for all intents and purposes, indisputable.

The issue is why Jesus had to die if there were no original sin. Why do we need the second Adam if there was no first Adam? What did Jesus do if he didn’t undo the sin that came in because of Adam? At various times and places on this blog I have offered my answers to those thoughts, which include understanding the nature of the Bible and alternative views of the atonement, most especially. But I have often felt and occasionally expressed exasperation that there were no high profile Christians grappling with this problem, which is surely on the short of list of the most problematic issues in Christian theology.

The BioLogos Foundation has done a good job of turning that around, especially since bringing on Dr. Peter Enns as senior fellow. But he has really outdone himself this time. The next time I have someone ask me about the Adam problem for evolution, I will ask that person to carve out 50 minutes to watch the following presentation. In it, Pete Enns manages to lay out the finest explication of the narrative motivations behind Genesis and Paul’s use of the Adam story that I’ve heard in quite some time. Enjoy, and spread it around.

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H/T I Think I Believe

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  • I watched the entire lecture. It gives rise to two questions for you:

    1) In the conflict between the scientist’s understanding of creation and the biblicist’s (for lack of a better word) view of creation, why is it that the biblicist must accommodate his view to the scientist’s rather than a) the other way around, or b) a movement to the middle by both sides?

    2) What is the indisputable truth of evolution. I hear it proclaimed incessantly, but is there some simple way of explaining why it is indisputable?

    • Mike, the first problem is you’ve created a false dichotomy. There isn’t a conflict between the way a “scientist” and “biblicist” see creation. The evidence is actually the same for everyone. Any apparent conflict only arises when someone, upon viewing the evidence, comes to a patently absurd conclusion.

      It would be like two policeman arriving at a crime scene where a man lays shot dead on the ground. The man is obviously dead. There’s a bullet in his forehead. One cop, based on the scene, declares the man dead. The other, looking at the evidence, claims that there’s no way he could be dead and he might still be alive. The evidence doesn’t conflict, the poor interpretation does.

      Accordingly, the person who is looking at the evidence and claiming something obviously contrary must adjust their argument. The second cop has to admit that the guy is dead. Claiming that he’s only “mostly” dead or “appears dead” is nonsensical. This isn’t “The Princess Bride.”

      Furthermore, there is less evidence that the Genesis account is now, or ever was, intended to be a scientific account, a “white paper” if you will, than there is to support the age of the earth. To start with you’d have to admit that God is a liar -that he made the earth to “appear” old- which surely can’t be the case. Then you’d have to read all sorts of things into the text that simply aren’t there, including, but not limited to, an account for the relations of the species, the similarities in DNA across species and the entirety of the fossil record.

      With regards to the “indisputable truth” that’s something that is simply too long for a blog comment response. Technically, entire college courses are taught on the subject. It’s something you can get a PhD in! So I would suggest you start with Google, avoid Answers in Genesis at all costs, and read up on the available information. I would also recommend leaning toward the multitude of peer-reviewed journals and university research. Or, watch a few episodes of Nova on PBS.

    • Mike,

      Even if one starts with the unwarranted and problematic presupposition that the biblical authors were prevented from expressing misconceptions when writing Scripture, it is clear that all available evidence needs to be brought to bear on how we interpret Scripture. No one, not even creationists, approach the text with a magic decoder ring that allows us to see exactly what Scripture teaches. In interpreting Scripture, we not only cannot avoid but should strive to integrate the understanding we glean from the outside world.

      I think the evidence for common descent at very least is practically indisputable, especially considering DNA evidence (if you’re interested in seeing the evidence explained by Christians, camp out at the BioLogos site for a while).

    • I recommend the book Why Evolution Is True by Jerry Coyne. It’s a comprehensive review of the evidence, written at a level that is easily understood by any college-educated lay person. Amazon link: http://bit.ly/htrWEh

      • Thanks, uh…F.S.? (Hard to refer to you without insulting you!) I’ve been wanting to read that book for some time. Am I correct in my impression that it is, on the whole, free of Coyne’s characteristic anti-accommodation invective?

        • No problem Steve. The “handle” is meant to be self-referentially insulting, so use it with abandon!

          I hadn’t read any Coyne before reading this book, so I have nothing to compare it to. In the book he certainly doesn’t hide his disdain for creationists, although his rants are short and the vast bulk of the book is concentrated on positive evidence for evolution. Unfortunately, I’ve had creationist friends reject the book simply because they think Coyne is nasty and insulting. But the positive content is so worthwhile, I would urge anyone sincerely interested in the truth to try to look past the negatives stuff.

          • Well, I would expect him to be hard on creationism, but on his blog he’s
            well-known for criticizing theism in general. You’re right that they should
            (but will they?) not let criticism of their currently held position stop
            them from taking seriously the arguments presented on their own merit.

  • I don’t think there’s a way (other than conjecture) to solve the question of whether there ‘had to be’ multiple evolutions of human beings from various primate stocks. So the religious believer does not have to take guff from wannabe scientists if we posit a ‘first man and woman’ for theological purposes.

    Not sure we need to, however, and I think it would be silly to insist they were named Adam and Eve, but not silly to posit an animal inheritance in humanity which represents an ‘original’ propensity to be unfree – i.e. to follow impulses and vanities, inordinate pleasures, rather than moral duty, supervenient endowments, indwellings, helps, callings, etc.

    Now, if there is no real moral fault behind our original animal propensity, what’s up with the death of Jesus? He answers that himself in John’s gospel (which I endorse to greater extent than the majority). It’s about making Pentecost possible – the new Spirit was not to be poured out until after Jesus has left the apostles behind (for reasons also implied in John). This tells me that some form of death would be neccessary for the Son before this final and adequate bestowal of universal grace.

    How did Paul miss that and start going on about Adam? Ask any preacher of his caliber why he/she uses certain figures to get certain points across (but don’t turn those figures into inerrant theology).

    • Hi, John!

      Having two people or any small subset of human population “fall” before their contemporaries seems rather problematic, does it not? How was sinfulness communicated? Was it handed down only in the physical descendants of those people? Was it a (for a while) avoidable? Did Jesus have to die for the humans who were contemporaries of those first sinners? I’m glad you’re “not sure we need to” posit that problematic theory (which also happens to conflict with current theorization about the evolution of religion)!

      I think evolutionary theory weighs in heavily on the ancient question of how God looks at sin. Is it a culpability/blame issue in the Augustinian sense, or is it, as the Orthodox have affirmed since early on, a matter of sickness? The rest of your comment gets into the issue of the need for and nature of the Atonement, which might I say conflicts with my own feelings on the matter but which would take more than a blog comment to engage! Suffice it to say that I don’t think that, whatever significance Jesus’ death did have, it was necessary to pay the debt of moral perfection demanded from humanity since the first decided to disobey God; I’m not too sold on “transactional” theories of the Atonement. I am certainly still inclined to think that Jesus’ death was an agent of the healing of humanity that results in our repentance and forgiveness. Just how that happens is…well, too much to get into right now!

      • Steve, I didn’t have time to view the Pete Enns lecture when I commented, but have just done so and agree that it is a worthwhile thesis he presents.

        Thanks for pointing me to it.

  • Though I would take a similar approach to Enns (basically a metaphorical reading of Gen 2) he seems to think that death, physical death, really began with the disobedience of the first pair because their exile meant a loss of access to the Tree of Life which presumably kept them immortal. This reeks of allegory but if biological death really did not occur before the Apple Inicent this would imply a lot of magic to keep the garden functioning pre-Fall. Did we have no bacteria in our stomachs for digestion? Did elephants tread lightly so that they didn’t step on ants? Did crocodiles graze?

    • Anonymous

      I haven’t watched the entire video yet, but I’m pretty sure that Enns would consider the entire Eden scenario allegorical.

    • I think Tenorikuma’s right. He views it as a literary construct meant to prefigure and typify Israel’s propensity for disobedience.

  • Wally

    This lecture is dopey, and some of his interpretations are downright laughable. Because there’s a genealogy that starts with Adam and ends with Israel we’re to believe that Adam didn’t exist? Ummm . . . does that mean that when I look at my family tree that my great-grandpa is a non-historical literary construct of me? Really though, thanks, because this lecture made me laugh more than many stand-up comedians do.

  • Paige

    I’m just not in Enns’ place, (as he said, “We are all in different places.”)

    I ‘m on board completely with his description of Gen. 1 and 2, but when he begins to frame the “problem” in Gen. 2 around the issue of mortality, he’s lost the synthesis he is seeking between the bible and evolution (IMO). The evolutionary process itself, includes mortality and physical death. For his “Adam and Eve” to have been drawn out from among the people, it is unthinkable (to me) that they would have been completely unacquainted with this reality.

    He rightfully points out the connection of ego with the “problem” of sin and death toward the end of this lecture. I think this is where he needs to go to find some better answers to these theological questions. The ego is fixated on sin and death, which keeps the cycle of judgment (many times faulty) in play. Look at the stories that begin to develop about the afterlife and the bible story progresses. First, we have Sheol, which is the unseen. IMO, there is a measure of humility in early Semite thinking on this concept. Yet, as humanity’s ego begins to grow and feed off that ToKGE, the concepts concerning the afterlife get fancier and fancier, (scarier and scarier). Israel begins to adopt these concepts (and other concepts) as she interacts with other nations through the process of exile. Anyway, I digress…

    I don’t believe God solves the “egoic” problems of sin and (physical) death by ultimately removing physical death, and it seems as if Enns theology has him linking the resurrection of Jesus with with that in mind. This is (in my mind) God solving the ego run amok by stroking it.

    On another side note, early on he makes the statement (to the effect) that God is not concerned with the other people. Personally, I feel it is a mistake to buy into a tribal consciousness in the first place.

  • Norm

    As I watched Dr. Enns through the first half of his presentation I likewise was very pleased with his Adam as Israel presentation. However when he entered into the NT and Romans 5 is where he fell flat. His problem is that he hasn’t recognized Paul’s collective view of Adam as Israel in Romans and 1 Cor 15. Pete like Denis Lamoureux believes Paul understood Adam as completely literal yet they fail to recognize Paul is not a Genesis Literalist as they posit. If he had grasped that Paul was projecting Adam as Israel and National corporate resurrection then he would have had a perfect blending of Genesis and the NT. His missing Paul’s NT concept of Israel in bondage to Adam limited the benefit of his presentation. He misses a grand opportunity to really blow the doors off the subject IMO.

    • So Enns and Lamoureux are anachronistically thinking Paul has a modern day traditionalist view on Genesis… Adam represents Israel and the whole corporate resurrection of Israel. If he mentioned Paul’s concept of Israel in bondage to Adam, he could have made a more effective argument.  I just paraphrased what you said so I could understand it.  Interesting!

  • Some might suggest that there could be an evolution of languages from apes to human languages.  Discuss.
    Refer to the website address for the derivation of modern English as follows:
    No doubts English language has its derivation from Germanic languages due to their invasion during 5th centurary A.D., many of the modern English words have the same written and spoken words from old English.  Or in other words, modern English words might turn up to be the mixture of native languages and Germanic languages as a result of invasion.  However, no matter how English languages change, it has still been from human languages since it is the mixture of English languages and Germanic languages.  American languages might well be mixed with Latin words and some of their words might have the prefix or roots words to be derived similarly from Latin words.  Thus, English languages have not been evolving instead, they tend to borrow from foreign human languages to form part of their languages so that the languages would be changed from time to time.  No matter how it changes, it still adheres with the principality that one language might adopt foreign human languages to be added to be part of their languages.  The same is in Malaysia.  Some like to use Allahmad to be part of their English word and it means Oh!  My God. since Allah is the God of Muslims.  They simply borrow word from other foreign human language to be part of their English.  
    The same as Spanish.  Refer to the website address for the derivation of Spanish as follows: http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Spanish_language
    Spanish has its derivation from Roman languages and many of Spanish words are quite similar to Roman languages.
    From the extracted examples, it gives a clear picture to us that human languages have not been evolved themselves.  The reason why there would be change of languages has been merely due to one country’s language has adopted words from another country to form part of their languages so as to cause the change.  However, bear in mind that despite there could be change of human languages, it is simply due to one country’s language adopts another country to be part of their languages.  Or in other words, no doubt how the human languages have been transformed, it would still be human languages since it tends to use foreign words to form part of their languages so as to create new languages.
    All the apes’ languages, whether they are in Africa, Eastern Countries or Western or etc., sound alike and none of them sound like human languages.  Even if there would be change of apes’ languages from Africa due to the influence of apes from Eastern Countries, the change could be within the spoken apes’ languages since none of them could speak human languages.  As apes’ languages are entirely different from human languages, how could apes be evolved from human beings then?
    Even if you would try to train any apes in any region to speak in human languages, none of the apes could be able to learn that type of skill to speak in human languages.  As that is so, how could human beings be evolved from apes unless there would be a proof that apes could be trained to speak human languages?
    If human languages could be evolved from apes’ languages, some spoken words from human languages would have identical sounds as apes due to the borrowing of words from apes from another from other regions or countries for the transformation.  As none of the spoken words from human languages would have the identical sounds as apes, how could human beings be evolved from apes?
    If human languages cold be evolved from apes’, many languages should have certain similarity with apes’ languages.  Not only that, some human beings might understand apes languages due to the similarity of their languages with apes.  Why is it that none of the human beings could understand apes’ languages?  As that is  so, how could human beings be evolved from apes?

    • I must say, I think your choice to post this on my blog was fortuitous for your personal development. How many other blogs have you posted these contentions on in which the author did not happen to be an historical linguist who specializes in the common descent and evolution of human languages, and was thus less equipped to challenge your misconceptions? 😉

      Apes have only the most rudimentary communication systems that can in the rarest of cases only hardly be considered a primitive language — and then only when humans teach it to them. Apes did not develop language: the ancestors of humans did. This development was almost definitely a major factor in the divergent paths our families have taken since our last common ancestor.

      And yes, human languages do evolve rather dramatically, often over short periods of time. Languages as different as modern Hindi to Icelandic to Lithuanian to ancient Hittite can definitively be demonstrated to have a common source (Indo-European).

  • Nathan Jonfield

    Genesis 1:27, “So  God created man in his own image, in the image of God created he him…”  Genesis 2:21-22, “And the LORD God caused a deep sleep to fall upon Adam, and he slept…and the LORD God had taken frrom man, made he a woman, and brought her unto the man.”