t f p g+ YouTube icon

A “Historical” Adam?

Bookmark and Share

April 15, 2010 Tags: Adam, the Fall, and Sin
A “Historical” Adam?

Today's entry was written by David Opderbeck. Please note the views expressed here are those of the author, not necessarily of BioLogos. You can read more about what we believe here.

Here on the The BioLogos Forum there has recently been a spirited discussion resulting from various posts and videos on the nature of “Adam.” I’m grateful that a forum for such open discussion exists. I find many aspects of this discussion immensely helpful. Nevertheless, I have to admit that I’m not fully satisfied. I’m prepared to accept the basic facts of human evolution. I'm also prepared to consider generously the views of the many fine theologians and scholars writing here on BioLogos concerning a non-"literal" Adam. However, I’m not prepared to suggest that these facts elide any possibility of a “historical” Adam.

My concerns are theological. Significant parts of the Christian Tradition have always taught that human beings are incapable of not sinning; that this incapability is a form of corruption and not an inherent human weakness that can be overcome by merely human effort; and that this corruption was passed on organically from Adam to his descendants. If we elide any historical Adam and any “real” mechanism for the transmission of original sin, this raises some important difficulties for many Christians. In the recent past, this move has often led to Pelagian views of human nature, and then to merely existentialist views of Christian faith that cease to be meaningfully “Christian.” In addition, whatever approach one takes to the question of Biblical "inerrancy," it seems to many Christians, including myself, that the Biblical narrative is difficult to hold together without a "real" primal event of sin by humanity's progenitors.

My own theological presuppositions, then, compel me to consider ways in which the best scientific evidence can be accepted without giving up entirely on a "historical" Adam. So how can a historical Adam be reconciled with human evolution?

The biggest problem here, in my view, is the population genetics data described in in a post by Dennis Venema and Darrel Falk. There is compelling evidence that current human genetic diversity cannot have derived from only one breeding pair. We can construct any variety of scenarios under which God "selected" some hominid pair to be "Adam and Eve," but none of those scenarios answer this population genetics data. "Adam and Eve" would have had many brothers, sisters, cousins, and so on, who also would have passed some of their genes on to us.

I've puzzled over this question for a long time, and here is an approach I believe might be fruitful: the distinction between "genetics" and "genealogy." The Biblical writers and editors did not know anything about "genetics." When Paul says in Romans 5:12 that "sin entered the world through one man," he is not commenting on the modern science of genetics. He is referring to a genealogical line in the context of ancient uses of genealogies.

A good comparison here is the Biblical notion of Abraham as the father of the Jewish people. Hebrews 11:12 says that “from this one man [Abraham], and he as good as dead, came descendants as numerous as the stars in the sky and as countless as the sand on the seashore” (emphasis added). (In fact, the word man in the translation does not appear in the Greek. Read literally, the texts says that from "one ... came descendants....")

I suspect that most of us would not be surprised to learn that, in the generations between Abraham and the first century, the Jewish gene pool would have become significantly diluted. Even if some of Abraham’s genes remained in the first century Jewish gene pool, because of intermarriage, there would have been a great deal of genetic diversity from people outside of Abraham’s line, including Canaanites, Moabites, and others.

Indeed, the Bible itself tells us that the Israelites repeatedly intermarried with surrounding people, often to their great detriment, as when King Solomon catered to the idol-worship of his foreign wives (see 1 Kings 11:1-6). Non-Jews—people who according to scripture itself were not physical heirs of Abraham—were considered by the writer of the Gospel of Matthew to be part of the Abrahamic line of redemption, to the point of being included in the genealogy of Jesus in Matthew’s Gospel: Tamar and Rahab, both Canaanite women, and Ruth, a Moabite woman. And Rahab is even mentioned again in the “Hebrews 11 Hall of Fame” (Hebrews 11:31)?

So how can the writer of Hebrews suggest that the Jews came from “one" (or "one man") when in the same passage he mentions a Canaanite woman who was not a direct descendant of Abraham? What about the progenitors of the Canaanite and Moabite family lines of Tamar, Rahab, Ruth, and of many other non-Jews who married into Abraham’s line over the centuries?

I confess I’m not a professional Biblical scholar, but from my study of scripture and its context, it seems to me that genealogy, in the ancient context, is at heart about the representative responsibility of the progenitor and of other key figures in the genealogical line. It is of course true that ancient genealogy also involves physical descent, but not every member of the progenitor’s line necessarily would have to be a direct physical descendant of the progenitor alone.

It seems to me potentially very significant for our conversation about Adam that people who were not physically descended from Abraham were included in the Biblical genealogy of redemption that derives from “one man,” Abraham. They were grafted into the Abrahamic line by marriage. Is it likewise possible that the universal genealogical line of “Adam” could include the in-grafting of physical lines of descent outside of Adam’s direct line, with “Adam” still remaining the progenitor with representative responsibility for the resulting mass of humanity?

Once again, the Bible itself seems to have no problem with this possibility. The story of the mark of Cain seems to assume that Adam and Eve were not the only humans alive in their times. (See Gen. 4:15). Apparently, Cain’s descendants intermarried with the people Cain eventually encountered. The descendants of Cain’s descendants would all have been descendants of Adam, but they also would have acquired genetic material from other people, just as Tamar, Rahab, Ruth, and others infused non-Abrahamic genetic material into the Abrahamic line.

What I’m suggesting is scientifically plausible. There is no problem at all in suggesting that every person alive today physically can trace his or her lines of descent—his or her “family tree”—to encompass a single pair in the recent or distant past. The problem arises when we try to suggest that this pair were the only humans alive at the time and that all of our present genes derive only from a single pair.

For example, I have a family tree for my father’s side that goes back to the 1600’s. If you look at the generation of Opderbecks alive in the 1600’s on that document, you’ll see that all the Opderbecks alive today can locate Johan and Christina Opderbeck, married circa 1730, in their own lineages. This does not mean Johan and Christina Opderbeck were the only Opderbecks, much less the only human beings, alive in 1730. The genetic makeup of present-day Opderbecks is quite diverse and reflects input from a wide range of other people. Nevertheless, we all share a recent common ancestral couple, Johan and Christina. (For a more technical discussion, see Rohde, On the Common Ancestors of All Living Humans).

It is true that the sort of idea I’m floating isn’t strictly biologically monogenetic. However, it seems to me that it could preserve Paul’s federal theology and provides a plausible, even Augustinian, mechanism for the propagation of original sin.

I want to be clear that this isn’t a “concordist” scenario of the sort that suggests the Bible contains “science” that was ahead of its time. I think it’s obviously right that we can’t hang on to literalism about “Adam” and the “fall” in the classical sense of Milton’s “Paradise Lost.” However, like many evangelical Christians, my theological presuppositions compel me to look for some “literalism” about the “fall” in the sense of it being a real ontological “event” in space and time. And I don’t see any reason not to say that Gen. 2-4 is at least a highly stylized literary portrayal of “real” events. Science is helping us understand the form of the Bible’s “fall” narratives, but not eliding their essential content.

In short, Biblical genealogy is in some sense about biological relationships, but it primarily concerns spiritual-representative relationships. Biblical genealogy knows nothing of genomics or population genetics. The Bible itself, in its discussion of Abraham, demonstrates that descent from "one man" cannot be a reference to genetic science. If we move the search for a “literal” Adam away from genetics and into the spiritual and relational aspects of human nature, then, we act in a way that is more faithful to the text. And science cannot comment one way or the other on whether there is a spiritual-representative “Adam” ultimately connected to everyone’s family tree. The population genetics data concerning human evolution then pose a variety of fascinating, but perhaps less theologically troublesome, open questions.

David Opderbeck is Professor of Law and Director of the Gibbons Institute of Law, Science & Technology at Seton Hall University Law School. He is also working on a Ph.D. in Philosophical Theology at the University of Nottingham and is Pastoral Science Scholar with the Center for Pastoral Science.

View the archived discussion of this post

This article is now closed for new comments. The archived comments are shown below.

Page 5 of 7   « 2 3 4 5 6 7 »
Chris Massey - #10104

April 17th 2010

dopderbeck wrote, “I think that no matter how we conceive of Adam, Christian theology absolutely cannot go in this direction.  This would make God the author of sin.”

If you accept evolutionary history then you’ve already accepted God as the author of death, disease, parasites, plagues, natural disasters and mass extinctions (all happening regularly before sin). If God is willing to create a world containing those elements, is it really that hard to think that he might permit men to evolve in an imperfect state?

Moreover, believing in a literal fall does not allow one to escape the charge that God is the author of sin. What is the difference between creating men knowing that they would fall into sin and creating a world knowing that sinful beings would evolve? I think you will say that the free choice of Adam is the difference, but if God foresaw this and created men anyhow, the result is the same.

Chris Massey - #10107

April 17th 2010

dopderbeck wrote:
“We are “present” in Adam, and as we are redeemed by Christ, we become “united” with Christ.  Therefore, original sin might be propagated laterally as well as lineally.”

You see, this is why I think the literal Adam approach is highly problematic. You’ve tied yourself up in a pretzel here. Theologically, you want sin to be the consequence of the free will rebellion of man (rather than innate to mankind), but in attempting to reconcile a literal Adam with the science you’ve had to postulate that one man’s sin spread laterally, not only to his descendants, but also to all of his contemporaries. Suddenly all of Adam’s contemporaries are sinful and NOT because of their free will rebellion.

Imagine being a perfect, sinless contemporary of Adam and waking up one day to find that you were now a fallen, corrupted sinner, not because you did anything wrong, but because some other guy, three towns over, happened to sin. So you now have God punishing the innocent and that’s a bigger problem than the one you set out to solve.

Norm - #10109

April 17th 2010

beaglelady - #10103

You might consider that the “TWO COEXISTING POPULATIONS” were simply the Jew and the Gentile in the Hebrew narrative. Ephesians 2 puts forth the Hebrew perspective of these two bodies of humanity.  The status of the Gentiles was called a mortal mode of existence of chaos and darkness and that is what Adam/Israel was created (bara) functionally out of as Walton might say.

Eph 2:3 ESV among whom WE ALL once lived in the passions of our flesh, carrying out the desires of the body and the mind, and were by nature children of wrath, LIKE THE REST OF MANKIND.

Eph 2:11-12 ESV Therefore remember that at one time YOU GENTILES in the flesh, called “the uncircumcision” by what is called the circumcision, which is made in the flesh by hands— (12)  remember that you were at that time separated from Christ,

15 BY ABOLISHING THE LAW of commandments expressed in ordinances,
that he might create in himself

Eph 5:8 ESV for AT ONE TIME YOU WERE DARKNESS, but now you are light in the Lord.

pds - #10113

April 17th 2010

David #9979,

You said,

“My understanding, based on conversations with people who study this stuff for a living, is that the kind of alteration you want would have to be dramatic—in fact, that you’d really be looking for a string of ‘miracles.’ “

I am definitely saying miracles may have happened and almost certainly did.  I am also saying that there were likely historical events that could significantly affect their calculations.  Falk and Venema are assuming that NO miracles happened, or at least that no miracles happened that could throw off their calculations, and that no natural events happened that could throw off their calculations.  You seem to be saying that there could have been miracles, but not likely a “string of miracles.”  What is your basis for this?  Throughout Scripture we see strings of miracles.

When God created the universe, was that one miracle or a string of miracles?  I see the creation of mankind as an event at least as important to the heart of God.

Mairnéalach - #10115

April 17th 2010

At Chris Massey #10104

You said “If you accept evolutionary history then you’ve already accepted God as the author of death, disease, parasites, plagues, natural disasters and mass extinctions (all happening regularly before sin).”

After Adam sinned, who cursed creation? Was it Adam? Or God?

Chris Massey - #10117

April 17th 2010


According to Genesis, God did.
But I’m not sure what you’re getting at.

Mairnéalach - #10124

April 17th 2010


My point is that your position unwittingly ascribes too much glory to man. You say man alone is responsible for every lamentable thing in creation. But God has not ascribed responsibility for these things unto man—he has taken responsibility for them all upon himself, on the cross. His curse was an instrument of discipline, not an assignment of blame. The “evil” is his doing, even if he remains morally innocent of it.

If you deny this, then you deny the mystery of the atonement. You would be forced to say that the cross of Christ is the doing of man, when in fact it is the doing of God, his glory planned before man even existed.

Creation groaned before Adam and Eve existed. Satan was prowling the earth before Adam awoke from the dust. Eve’s sin did not birth all worldly evil—it merely confirmed her participation in the evil that Satan had already begun.

God makes all things, even the wicked for the day of destruction. He delivers food into the mouths of the young lions—not with the attitude of “oh well, I was hoping they would eat clover, but I guess gazelles will do until I can figure out how to fix all this”. The bone-crushing chomp of the lion glorifies God—it does not bring him dishonor.

Chris Massey - #10136

April 17th 2010

Mairnéalach wrote:
“You say man alone is responsible for every lamentable thing in creation.”

That’s actually the opposite of what I’ve been saying. I’m saying that sickness, disease, predation and natural disasters have been around since the dawn of life on earth and are not, therefore, the result of man’s sin.

Mairnéalach - #10140

April 17th 2010

Chris, you’re right. I misread you egregiously, I’m sorry.

Chris Massey - #10142

April 17th 2010


No worries.

dopderbeck - #10144

April 17th 2010

Beagleady said:  “two coexisting populations, one of fallen men, and another of unfallen men”  of the same species.  Were they homo sapiens sapiens?

I respond:  yes, that would be a bit of a puzzle for my approach.  But I don’t see why the fixation on “species” matters.  Throughout our evolutionary history, there would have been populations of different species of humans that could have interbred with each other.  “Species” is really an anachronistic category in evolutionary terms anyway.

dopderbeck - #10145

April 17th 2010

@Chris Massey:  don’t make the mistake of equating “natural evil” and “sin.”  “Natural evil,” in fact, is not “evil”—it is simply part of how the physical creation works.  “Sin,” in contrast, is an act of will.  God did not “create” the human decision to sin.  True, God created humans with free will, and he knew they would exercise that will in rebellion, but God did not exercise the choice to rebel—man did.  There is an important distinction here even in Patrstic theology between primary and secondary causation.  And, while you are correct that original sin always poses a riddle about human responsibility after the Fall, the doctrine of original sin does not mean that people sin without willfulness.  We are both bound to sin and willful sinners.  This, in fact, is a productive area for theological evolutionary ethics—not that “sin” is just an evolutionary development, but that we are “wired” to sin just as much as we are wired for good.  But if you elide the will, you undermine any basis for normative ethics.

BenYachov - #10154

April 17th 2010

>Moreover, believing in a literal fall does not allow one to escape the charge that God is the author of sin.

I reply: This is only a problem if u believe in an anthropomorphic, temporal, theistic personalist “god”.
Two words for u my brother “Classic Theism”.

>What is the difference between creating men knowing that they would fall into sin and creating a world knowing that sinful beings would evolve?

I reply: Your assuming a “god” who exists in Time & look forward to the future.  God does not exist in Time might I suggest the writings of Botheus to start.  God sees & knows timelessly.

BenYachov - #10156

April 17th 2010

If I was a “Jedi Master” &I saw threw the “Force” my Son would rob a bank I would morally have to stop him before hand otherwise I would be responsible for his crime in some way.  OTOH if I was watching him commit a crime in the present I could hardly act to prevent his future crime now could I?  God is outside time so all time is “present” to Him & happening at once.  He deals with the choices u freely made/make/will make all at once.  So he is not an author of sin.

BenYachov - #10160

April 18th 2010

Chris Massey,

Animals have no souls so their “suffering” is morally & metaphysically not on the same level as human suffering.  Animals aren’t sentient beings at all with some sort of subjective, interior life.  Indeed one might as well weep for the planet Jupiter when it is struck by a comet because it “wounded” the planet.  Human suffering is the result of the fall.  In all likely hood the historic Adam wasn’t in a state of Original Justice for very long.


QUOTE” theistic evolution only pushes the problem back a notch, for the theistic evolutionist must now face the question, why would a good and all-powerful God choose to create life by means of a process so filled with pain and death as evolution?“END

pds - #10208

April 18th 2010

If Venema and Falk did a population genetics study on the leftover fish after Jesus fed the 5000 (without knowing where the fish actually came from), I wonder what they would have concluded.

Martin Rizley - #10301

April 19th 2010

I find it curious that those who insist that the Bible must NOT be interpreted in a ‘self-referential’ manner, but “reinterpreted” within the context of mainstream historical science are the same persons who insist that the data of the natural world MUST be interpreted self-referentially, apart from the light that special revelation sheds on that data.  Why not the other way around?  Why not interpret the Scriptures self-referentially, allowing literary clues WITHIN THE TEXT determine our understanding of the text, then interpret the data of the natural world within the light of scriptural teaching?  When you take that approach, there is no way to see Adam and Noah as anything other than historical figures (the genealogies prove that beyond all doubt); and there is no way to see the the Flood as anything other than an historical event as real as the judgment of the last day which it prefigured and confirms.  Then the possibility that God created at least some things in a mature form—the first human pair, the original ‘created kinds’—is opened up to you in a way that is not possible if one insists on interpreting all physical data by the principle of methodological naturalism.

beaglelady - #10302

April 19th 2010

If Venema and Falk did a population genetics study on the leftover fish after Jesus fed the 5000 (without knowing where the fish actually came from), I wonder what they would have concluded.

In other words, maybe God at some time in the past took a dead man and make lots of copies of him?  Maybe for feeding 5000 cannibals?

BenYachov(Jim Scott 4th) - #10331

April 19th 2010

I think he is channeling me.  I once quipped if Jesus multiplied the fish & the loaves where did he get the wheat & fish?  Did he create them from scratch or did he Teleport existing fish from the ocean and have Angel gather the wheat & make bread?  I ask that question not to be flippant since I believe in that miracle but to illustrate that the Kneejerk anti-supernaturalism found among some advocates of TE.  You can’t rule out any level of a miraculous creation of Man or a miraculous intervention in regards to biological   monogenesis.

Norm - #10339

April 19th 2010

“You can’t rule out any level of a miraculous creation of Man or a miraculous intervention in regards to biological   monogenesis.”

Nor can we rule out natural evolutionary process fof the creation of man. Maybe one can have their cake and eat it too. God’s hand is clearly seen in nature and evolutionary processes and the physical side of the earths environment appears to have developed to bring us our present state of biological adaptations. How can we judge a God who knit the Universe together in such a marvelous fashion in which the bombardment of asteroids, meteors, volcanoes and super volcanoes coupled with the rising and lowering of the oceans along with the growth and retreat of polar ice caps and glaciers have played such a corrosive and yet life producing sequence bringing us to fruition. The nature of the tectonic plates that spread and collide upon the fluid earth sphere isolates and gave rise to huge animal specimens yet to see them die off time and time again in new and vibrant species waiting their time. It is mind boggling to view the handiwork of God fashioning His Creation into the fullness of time.  We look back viewing multi colored pictures which God has drawn upon His canvas through evolution.

Page 5 of 7   « 2 3 4 5 6 7 »