Squaring the Bible with the evidence

Christians coming to terms with evolution, including many ID advocates who acknowledge common descent, will often arrive at a midpoint of sorts between denial of evolution and all-out theistic evolution (or evolutionary creation) that acknowledges that we are by-products of evolution and seeks to hold the line on the most theologically problematic aspect of evolutionary theory: the historicity of Adam and Eve. For many, this is a comfortable resting place and they remain content acknowledging the deafening scientific consensus of common descent on one hand and believing in a literal first human pair on the other.

This is often done by positing a bottleneck of the population down to two individuals, often misunderstanding the unfortunately ambiguous terms Mitochondrial Eve and Y-chromosomal Adam. The more sophisticated (but odd) way of doing this is to allow there to have been more than two at the time of Adam and Eve, but to posit that the Fall event occurred to them uniquely, and that the effects have passed down to later humanity through descent from them.

From Denis Venema and Darrel Falk at BioLogos comes a handy explanation of the relevant genomic evidence.

Attempting to square the Genesis account and common ancestry by positing a literal Adam and Eve who were the progenitors of the entire human race is, biologically speaking, looking for the most extreme population bottleneck a sexually reproducing species can experience: a reduction to one breeding pair.

Is there evidence that such a bottleneck has ever occurred?

The short answer is no, and that there is much evidence against it.

This leaves those seeking to maintain both common descent and theological concordism advocating one of the following positions (as best I can tell):

  1. defining the pair as a literary representation of the entire human population at the time of an historical Fall (as C.S. Lewis did)
  2. defining the Fall as something not passed down genetically, but as a metaphor for something that happened within a group of our race’s representatives (possibly even a literal pair)

Any other options I’m missing?

I prefer to just embrace the idea that the Jewish religious leaders who compiled Genesis from earlier stories used those stories to teach various theological concepts, including an etiology for sin, death, toil, the excruciating pain of childbirth, and the pitfalls of trying to live life doing “what seems right in [one’s] own eyes” without due dependence on the system prescribed by those leaders. There’s more there of course, but I want to emphasize that our fundamental task in interpreting Scripture has to be to put ourselves in the minds of its human authors as best as we can given the tools of literary and historical research rather than read into Scripture all kinds of theological beliefs we already hold.

With evolution and with Scripture, we aren’t pushing God out of the picture to say that He in some sense authored both via natural processes. A committed affirmation of God’s creation by general Providence doesn’t selectively comb nature for divine signatures or other Easter eggs that will prove His authorship of it; we accept the whole creative process, warts (death, pain, etc.) and all as finding its source and being in God, with all the mysteries and difficulties this creates, resisting the urge to say, “God doesn’t do things that way, so science must be wrong here.” In the same way, we shouldn’t posit theological gems of special revelation throughout every passage of Scripture, somewhere between the lines, redeeming otherwise problematic passages. Rather, we simply do our best to uncover what it says, warts and all, and acknowledge that whatever it says, it was meant to be that way. Most of us already accept that David wasn’t speaking with the ideal level of faith, understanding, and resignation to the Golden Rule in the cursing Psalms; I’m merely saying that we should carry out that sort of evaluation consistently.

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  • drcheard

    I recommend a variant on the first option: the primordial couple stand in for all of us, the entire human race, not in a particular time-slice (an “historical Fall”) but in all times and places. Hubris knows no temporal or geographical limits.

  • Smacking my forehead. How silly of me to omit the option I have customarily advocated!

    This option is the only really tenable concordist position I am aware of. To my mind, it is only truly concordist if you maintain that the authors were trying to teach this universally recurring Fall. I happen to be more convinced that they were teaching an actual etiology for sin and death rather than just describing “the way of all flesh” in literary fashion.

    Thanks for commenting! BTW, whatever happened to your wonderful podcast?

  • jonathanrobinson

    not that i am advocating this, but Adam and Eve could have been the ones that fell and then by virtue of breeding with other humans outside the garden eventually became the ancestors of us all. They do not have to be the only breeding pair to have become ancestors of the whole human race. They just wouldn't be the only progenitors of the human race (cf. gen 6:4) and those contemporaneous with them would have to be excluded from the human race that we are part of by virtue of not being the descendants of Adam and Eve. just a thought.

  • This is what I meant when I wrote, “The more sophisticated (but odd) way of
    doing this is to allow there to have been more than two at the time of Adam
    and Eve, but to posit that the Fall event occurred to them uniquely, and
    that the effects have passed down to later humanity through descent from
    them.”

  • jonathanrobinson

    sorry! [note to self, must read slower, :-)]

    it is odd, but it also explain (sort of) where Cain and Seth got wives from, and who might have been the other inhabitants of Cain's “city”.

    I think we have to reckon with the fact that these sort of issues just didn't bother the author/s of Genesis, which probably does give us (authorial) permission to read the account of Adam and Eve as typological rather than factual.

  • Arcamaede

    I really see no need to make this more than an etiology — that is it has no basis in Science or History. It's just a story attempting to explain why we are so messed up as a species.

    Of course, this means that we have to be wary of what is etiology.

    I'm still grasping the nuances of the terminology. I think you could really benefit all of us by making a post detail the consequences of each viewpoint on the rest of the Bible.

  • jonathanrobinson

    sorry! [note to self, must read slower, :-)]

    it is odd, but it also explain (sort of) where Cain and Seth got wives from, and who might have been the other inhabitants of Cain's “city”.

    I think we have to reckon with the fact that these sort of issues just didn't bother the author/s of Genesis, which probably does give us (authorial) permission to read the account of Adam and Eve as typological rather than factual.

  • Arcamaede

    I really see no need to make this more than an etiology — that is it has no basis in Science or History. It's just a story attempting to explain why we are so messed up as a species.

    Of course, this means that we have to be wary of what is etiology.

    I'm still grasping the nuances of the terminology. I think you could really benefit all of us by making a post detail the consequences of each viewpoint on the rest of the Bible.