Thursday, August 11, 2011

Questioning Adam and Eve: An Evangelical Galileo Moment?

At the beginning of June I linked a post to a Christian Today article outlining how some Evangelicals are questioning whether Adam and Eve were real people of a mythical couple.

This week NPR featured a story on this topic. Some Evangelicals are saying that they can no longer believe in the Genesis account of creation. One such person is Denis Venema, a biologist at Trinity Western University. Who says he wants his faith to enter the 21st century. He says:
Venema says there is no way we can be traced back to a single couple. He says with the mapping of the human genome, it's clear that modern humans emerged from other primates as a large population — long before the Genesis time frame of a few thousand years ago. And given the genetic variation of people today, he says scientists can't get that population size below 10,000 people at any time in our evolutionary history.To get down to just two ancestors, Venema says, "You would have to postulate that there's been this absolutely astronomical mutation rate that has produced all these new variants in an incredibly short period of time. Those types of mutation rates are just not possible. It would mutate us out of existence."
Others argue, however, that rejecting a historical Adam and Eve means rejecting faith. One such person is Albert Mohler, President of the of the Southern Baptist Theological Seminary in Louisville. He believes that to not believe in an historical Adam is to undermine the major tenets of Christian faith.

"When Adam sinned, he sinned for us," Mohler says. "And it's that very sinfulness that sets up our understanding of our need for a savior. Mohler says the Adam and Eve story is not just about a fall from paradise: It goes to the heart of Christianity. He notes that the Apostle Paul (in Romans 5 and 1 Corinthians 15) argued that the whole point of Jesus' crucifixion and resurrection was to undo Adam's original sin. "Without Adam, the work of Christ makes no sense whatsoever in Paul's description of the Gospel, which is the classic description of the Gospel we have in the New Testament," Mohler says.

But others say Christians can no longer afford to ignore the evidence from the human genome and fossils just to maintain a literal view of Genesis.

"This stuff is unavoidable," says Dan Harlow at Calvin College. "Evangelicals have to either face up to it or they have to stick their head in the sand. And if they do that, they will lose whatever intellectual currency or respectability they have."


The story is well done. You can either read it or listen to an mp3 version.

So what do you think?

Does it matter if Adam was a historical figure or not?

Does it undermine the point and theology of the creation story if Adam and Eve are a religious myth?

Update: over at Jesus Creed Scot McKnight is running a similar discussion this topic as well and has some good insights.

40 comments:

  1. "Does it undermine the point and theology of the creation story if Adam and Eve are a religious myth?"

    This is an interesting question to ask, but ultimately I think it's the wrong one. A theological construct that conflicts with reality is an incorrect one, wouldn't you say?

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    1. to reject the biblical account of creation means to reject pretty much the whole bible. if u dont believe he created the world how can u believe he came to save it. Im not saying i don't believe, because i put my absolute trust in the bible as the infallible and inspired word of god

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    2. Paul,
      I love your reasoning. We don't start by asking, "Can I afford to believe truth?" We believe truth, and then let it take us where it has to take us. To only decide to believe what we can immediately make theological sense out of is to be dishonest. God doesn't need us to justify Him by dishonesty.

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    3. To the "Anonymous" person who commented above me:

      To not believe the Biblical account of creation is a "scientific" account is not the same as not believing the Biblical account of creation. The Bible talks about the Earth having four corners - do you reject the idea that the Earth is a sphere (a sphere doesn't have corners) or do you let your understanding of natural and scientific reality affect how you approach Biblical language? Most of us assume that "the four corners of the Earth" is poetic, metaphoric language. This is not demeaning to the Bible, it's simply allowing the Bible to be read through a lens of common sense.
      Even Jesus praised the Pharisees because they were able to look at the sky and tell things about the natural world - and then he rebuked them for not taking the same ability to understand the natural world and apply it to their understanding of spiritual things.

      "Ye hypocrites, ye can discern the face of the sky and of the earth; but how is it that ye do not discern this time? Yea, and why even of yourselves judge ye not what is right?"

      Our ability to perceive basic realities around us is not at odds with being able to accurately approach the Bible as God means it to be understood - rather, it enhances our ability when we approach the Bible with the full benefits of natural observation.

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  2. Perhaps the church needs to re-examine its position on sin, fall, paradise, etc. I seem to remember Jesus talking to some folks about abandoning the scripture to maintain their own traditions. Letting the text drive the discussion rather than what has been maintained be theologians, even what has been considered "orthodox" would be a helpful corrective.

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  3. Paul,

    I am not sure that Adam and Eve being a myth is in conflict with reality. Can you explain more what you mean?

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  4. This is actually something I've wrestled with on and off. I feel like the conversation can be a continuation of the issue of trying to hold onto Genesis 1 and 2 with the same authority. If we say that both are equally true in the exact way they are presented, then we have issues because the creation events take place on different days. This is why folks like Tim Keller suggest that chapter one is supposed to be understood as a poetic version of creation (which can answer Smerdyakov's question in Brothers Karamazov about where light comes from before the sun is created), and chapter two a more historical version. But it seems as if within that, there is room to question and argue. The point, however, seems to be getting at saying, "Creation happened, here is how we put it into the context of understanding God and our world." If the early writers were trying to discuss creation from a God-centered perspective, I don't know if having a literal Adam and Eve is important (not that I am ready to say that I no longer believe in Adam and Eve). If the main point is saying humanity has sinned and broken its fellowship with God, perhaps Adam and Eve are nothing more than mythical beings who serve to represent all of humanity? But as I said, I'm not quite ready yet to make the leap.

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  5. I fail to see how a “mythical” Adam and Eve undermines Christian faith. However, I would turn the tables and ask if a historical view of Adam and Eve undermines faith. In my experience, a historical/scientific understanding of the early chapters of Genesis has led to the false dichotomy of science vs. religion, where only one of these two can be accepted and the other completely rejected. A literal understanding of Adam and Eve is naturally included in this. When faced with the science vs. religion dichotomy, it seems that many former Christians have abandoned following Jesus at the expense of following science. So, back to my main point: is it more dangerous to say that the stories surrounding Adam and Eve are to be understood as primarily theological, i.e. saying something about God and humans (and their relationship), or is it more dangerous to say that Adam and Eve were absolutely historical?

    Given that the ancient writers were not scientific in the modern sense (an impossibility, since modern science was not invented), given that historical writing in the ancient world was quite different than historical writing today, given that Genesis has clear parallels with other ANE texts, and given the fact that the way we designate the text in regards to genre can have a major impact on the acceptance of Christian faith, I think we must be careful and discerning when considering the perspective shared by Albert Mohler.

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  6. I think there is a historical Adam and Eve because there is a historical Jesus. Adam and Eve are both responsible for getting the sin-ball rolling; they are the actual humans who started it. If they were not real, then why would God send his Son into the world to save the world? It would be pointless. Unless Jesus is just a myth as well...

    So yes, I believe Adam and Eve's historicity matters.

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    1. You have been washed in the blood of Jesus. Wait - were you LITERALLY washed in the blood of Jesus, or is this something you received in a more spiritual sense? Did you actually have red, physical blood poured over you to be cleansed from your literal sin inherited by a literal Adam? Or is there some mixture between a LITERAL Jewish man spewing LITERAL blood on a cross, and you receiving that blood in a very non-Literal way?
      Point being, the Bible does take liberties in symbolic interpretation, even where physical literal things are involved such as "being cleansed by His blood." The closest you have gotten to anything physical cleansing you from the sin you "physically" inherited by direct lineage with the supposed physical Adam and Eve, is the waters of baptism, and we know that is just a symbol too.

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  7. I think that the problem with stating that Adam and Eve were mythical does not necessarily undermine the theology of creation, but tears apart the validity of Christianity. Here is my explanation: Let's say that Adam and Eve are mythical. Well as we know the biggest problem with atheism is that if you keep going back into history (billions upon billions of years ago), at some point something had to be created out of nothing. Atheist who believe that everything is held within the constraints of science cannot explain this because this is a direct contradiction to the second law of thermodynamics (as is other theories). Christians who believe in evolution; no big deal because God created it.

    The problem lies with the validity of our church fathers who directly reference Adam as a real person in other scriptures: Luke 3:38, Romans 5:12, 1 Corinthians 5:22, 1 Timothy 2:13, & Jude 1:14. Not to mention a direct reference that Jesus made in Matthew 19:4. If these men were wrong about Adam, maybe they were wrong about Jesus? Houston now we have a problem!

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    1. Actually, some of the church fathers didn't believe in a literal reading of Genesis 1 and 2. Read the writings of Origen, for an example.

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  8. Chromosome study supports biblical origins at http://www.reasons.org/human-origins/adam-and-eve/chromosome-study-stuns-evolutionists

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  9. Study of languages also support mans biblical origins at http://www.reasons.org/speaking-adam-and-eve-study-languages-supports-biblical-account-human-origins

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  10. Re: Venema at http://www.reasons.org/dna-comparisons-between-humans-and-chimps-response-dennis-venemas-critique-rtb-human-origins-model-

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  11. I consider myself to be an uneducated Christian who has been outside the walls of traditional Christianity for some 40 years. I have long understood the story of Adam and Eve as myth and symbolism (in much the same way as described by C S Lewis and J R R Tolkein). I have felt for a long time that there is an enormous difference between the Christian RELIGION and the Christian FAITH.

    This topic is being discussed across the web and I picked up the following quote from Albert Mohler:
    "If we do not know how the story of the Gospel begins, then we do not know what story means. Make no mistake; a false start to the story produces a false grasp of the Gospel".

    This leads me to ask, "Could it be that the traditional belief in the "Fall of Adam" is a false foundation?"

    I have expanded on these thoughts in a new blog.

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  12. I actualy think its rather funny the question posed and the picture used... Did anyone notice both Adam and eve have belly buttons? Think about it!!!!

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  13. http://www.reasons.org/bioinformatics-and-literal-adam-and-eve

    There are good articles at reasons.org. Be reasonably skeptical of conclusions based on computer modeling.

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  14. I find it Funny ( The Fall of Adam & Eve ) What a load of crap. lets get it strait, God said no flash shall inherit the kingdom of Haven. RIGHT!! Then Adam & Eve Was not going to inherit the kingdom of Haven in the flash to start with.

    Anonymous1964

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  15. Will an erudite professor please explain how an all knowing God failed to notice He was speaking to and giving instructions to mythical beings? I get it, this all knowing God is also mythical, right? On second thought, don' t bother to tell me,
    "For I know that My Reedemer liveth".

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  16. I think the storie of Eva and Adam is religious Poetry-just.
    in the same way as Jesus was declared as Gud in the year 325 of Catholic Bishops.

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  17. I'm not a scholar in either science or theology, just a well-read Christian believer, but I want to chime in:
    First, evangelical and fundamentalist are not necessarily the same. A person can be an evangelical without believing that every story in the Bible is literally true.
    Two, most Christians are not theologians or even very good bible scholars. Most are Christians based on faith. And faith is based on spiritual experiences that are intangible and not evidence that would hold up in court.
    Three, there is more than one kind of faith. An analogy: Shortly after I was divorced, I spent time with a support group for newly-divorced people. One thing (among many) that I learned was the different kinds of faith people had in their spouses. I had never thought that my husband would have an affair with another woman, although I always knew it was a possibility. Some of my acquaintances, however, had placed such faith in their husbands (or in love?) that it was inconceivable to them that their husband would have an affair -- until they were proved wrong. They were shattered -- to the extent that their faith in other people and even in God was shattered. Even their faith in themselves was shattered, because they had been wrong.
    Having pondered that, I realize that my Christian faith is a choice I have made. It is not in competition with my belief in evolution or other branches of science. I don't have to choose one or the other!
    I enjoy reading about Bible scholarship, faith, archaeology, and evolution. I enjoy blogs such as this one until the discussion turns into accusations and name-calling. Then it's time to move on.

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  18. Did you ever wonder why Adam & Eve have navels?

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    1. If God created instantaneously, why wouldn’t the proto-types of humans have all the parts? But whether through a long process or instantaneously it would be miraculous either way. On the other hand, for those who believe in a six day creation, it could be said for all we know Adam and Eve did not have belly buttons. Another interesting question is how instantaneous was the faculty of language bestowed on Adam and Eve. Was it downloaded instantaneously into their brains or did God have to teach them like children. As for me, I lean toward the notion that everything in nature occurs as part of a process and seems to indicate extended time is involved as opposed to an instantaneous creation. But that does raise interesting questions for the special creation of Adam & Eve and the claim that they were intentionally made in the image of God. If Adam and Eve came from a wasteful roundabout evolutionary process , it seems rather inefficient for an all knowing deity, but on the other hand, nature despite it’s remarkable designs, seems to testify to processes that rule out an instantaneous creation.

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  19. I mean belly-buttons by navels ;-)

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  20. Part of me is inclined to think that Adam and Eve are important to the Christian faith and our OT writers even link their lineage back to the original couple.

    Could it be, however, that Adam and Eve are just a small part of God's creation? Couldn't he populate other parts of the planet?

    On the scientific side of things, I am not sure the great variation in genetic material should come as a surprise. In just a short time period, we have taken the current dog breeds and more then quadrupled them. Since the renaissance we have created 500 or more dog breeds. So what could creation do with 6-7K years at their disposal??

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    1. We haven't created new dog genes. (Well, there was that glow in the dark litter of puppies that was recently created with gene insertions from other creatures, but we'll ignore that for now.) We simply used the variety that was already in the species.

      There is no way we could have all the variety in dogs that we currently have if you started with only two dogs 6000 years ago. It's just genetically impossible. There are many, many more dogs than that involved in the dog genome (more than two) and it goes back a lot farther than 6000 years.

      And the same is true of humans.

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  21. Let the whole world get this fact:At the time of creation GOD did not create only Adam and Eve as the only couple in the whole earth as reflected in Genesis 4:14-16.At the time of Cain's punishment,they were other people God created.
    Perhaps now you would wonder, why only Adam and Eve? Its because God Has a genealogy His interested in through which His Son (Jesus) would be traced with the sole purpose of undoing what Adam did to his nature.

    Therefore,my dear colleagues one ought not to doubt the word of God and its practice evidence.Be spiritual and you will appreciate truth of the Bible.Adam and Eve existed!!

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    1. I appreciate your view here Francis. I also believe in a literal Adam and Eve, I just don't believe they were the first humans or only humans. Rather, they were the "type" or "figure" in which God created a story and from which the Jewish race (and ultimately the Messiah) were to descend from.

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  22. John Walton's work tends to ameliorate this problem, IMO. I for one don't care how old anthropology says humanity is, philology and archaeology have not necessarily seen the same time frames of human development.

    The genome is not problematic because, there always were "other people" in the narrative we for whatever reason have ignored. Everyone does not need to be from Adam, sin may easily have been his "baby", yet everyone was not his child.

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  23. If Adam wasn't real, Abel wasn't real. If Abel wasn't real, why would Jesus as Yahweh pronounce judgment on Jerusalem utilizing Abel's murder as a cause celeb there?

    Yahweh never used myths to judge anyone previously in the text.

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    1. An appeal to Abel as the rationale for judgment is an appeal to the concept of every righteous person throughout history that have been murdered for being more righteous than those around them.

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  24. b"h

    One must not overlook an additional aspect of the Genesis 1 account that has to do with "who" preserved the text. In other words, Genesis 1-3 was not recently unearthed in the desert as some extra-cannonical text, but rather has been preserved with the rest of the Tanakh (OT) by Israel since (at least ?) the Babylonian exile (if you're a critic) and at least back to Moses if you're any kind of conservative. And that's not to mention the likelihood of incorporation of previously existing texts, including Genesis 1-3, into the Torah by Moses.

    As Adam and Eve go, so goes the Israelite Exodus from Egypt. As the Exodus goes, so goes the authority of Moses. As Moses goes, so goes God's covenant with Israel, upon which the New Covenant is based.

    If Israel was indeed liberated from Egypt, and if the liberated nation indeed heard the Voice of God at Mt. Sinai (as the text says they did) then Genesis 1 has to be viewed from a particular paradigm that was understood by newly liberated Israel.

    Giving of the Ten Commandments - Exodus 20:8-11. 18-19

    “Remember the Sabbath day, to keep it holy. Six days you shall labor, and do all your work, but the seventh day is a Sabbath to the Lord your God. On it you shall not do any work, you, or your son, or your daughter, your male servant, or your female servant, or your livestock, or the sojourner who is within your gates.

    "For in six days the Lord made heaven and earth, the sea, and all that is in them, and rested on the seventh day. Therefore the Lord blessed the Sabbath day and made it holy."

    "Now when all the people saw wthe thunder and the flashes of lightning and the sound of the trumpet and the mountain smoking, the people were afraid and trembled, and they stood far off and said to Moses, 'You speak to us, and we will listen; but do not let God speak to us, lest we die.'”

    According to the text, Almighty God spoke vocally to Israel and said the day of Shabbat is directly linked to six days of identical character which are reserved for work, and in which the Almighty created all things. Under what understanding did "Israel" preserve Genesis 1-3? As a myth? I was once a naturalist who believed the standard evolutionary paradigm. IMHO the question of literal Adam and Eve pales in comparison to evolutionary biology which has its own severe (fatal) problems.

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  25. We take the parables of Jesus to be Truth without having any concern for whether or not they are literal. Why is it so hard to see Yahweh speaking in parables as well?

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  26. So if Adam and Eve were the very first people on Earth,how come they have belly buttons?

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  27. so it means that the Adam and Eve story is the initiation of the whole world...?

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  28. I'm late here, but wanted to opine that there may be an answer that we haven't explored yet. Sometimes we can say, "I don't know how there can be [a literal Adam and Eve] in light of your data.

    Here's a thought, just meant as an example. In quantum physics (I'm about to butcher this explanation, since I am not a physicist), there is no determinate reality until there is observation - in effect, everything in the universe is just "possibility soup" until consciousness appears to observe it. The zillions of years of universe and life creation are there - and NOT there..."without form and void, and darkness was over the face of the deep" ...until conscious beings exist to observe it. (Or to "name" it?)

    Is consciousness more than six thousand years old? (See for example, "The Origins of Consciousness in the Breakdown of the Bicameral Mind by Julian Jaynes.)

    I'm just using this as an illustration to say we shouldn't be so sure...that we surely know the answer to why scripture and data don't appear to line up!

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  29. Just to point a probably understood fact - that variation and mutation are often interchanged and misunderstood. But synonymous they are not.

    Really the whole saga of scripture not reconciling with scientific evidence is a farce generated for its own end. Yes, mutation is a fact. But it certainly occurs within well-observed definite limits. But now, as en passant, what and where are the purported fossil and other evidence so often cited in these discussions?

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  30. Funny how every painting of Adam and Eve show their belly buttons... Think about it. :)

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  31. I used to say that Adam and Eve did not have belly buttons since they did not have a natural birth. Then I thought about it further and came to the conclusion that they did have belly buttons since God created a universe already mature as though the light from millions of stars had already traveled their long distance to earth. If Adam and Eve were created as mature adults, they would have had evidence of a "past" that really had not happened. The evidence was the result of the creation of a process that had to begin with causes already in place. I considered the same thing about the earth and the universe. God created it mature, with evidence of a past (billions of years) that really had not happened since the universe was created in the "midst" of the process. Now I have changed my thinking about Adam and Eve's belly buttons again. The reason they had belly buttons was because to have children with belly buttons you need to be a parent with the genetic DNA of a belly button to produce a child with a belly button. In regards to the universe being billions of years old, who is to say that six days of creation by God cannot be scientifically understood by Einstein's Theory of Relativity as taking only six days in God's time frame while taking billions of years in earth's time frame. After all, no humans were present until the sixth day. Perhaps the record reflects the account from God's time frame. In all of this changing of my opinion from one position to another, it has become evidence that what I believed most strongly at one point became untenable to me at another point. This should say something to us about holding our opinions about reality a little more loosely and let our faith in a God who has intervened in our lives a little more strongly. I now take the position that the scriptural revelation of God and the natural revelation of God through creation are both his revelations, are both true, and each agrees with the other. The only problem is our faulty interpretations and perspectives colored by our motivations, our experiences, and our pre-conceptions.

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