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Paul’s Adam, Part I

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March 9, 2010 Tags: Adam, the Fall, and Sin
Paul’s Adam, Part I

Today's entry was written by Pete Enns. You can read more about what we believe here.

In my last post I suggested that the Adam story could be viewed symbolically as a story of Israel’s beginnings, not as the story of humanity from ground zero.

But some might ask, “Why go through all this trouble? Why not just take it literally? The Bible says Adam was the first man. That’s the end of it.”

It’s not that simple, and if it were, people wouldn’t be talking it about it so much. First of all, reading the Adam story symbolically rather than as a literal description of history is not a whim, and it is certainly not driven by a desire to undermine the Bible. Rather, as we have seen, the Bible itself invites a symbolic reading by using cosmic battle imagery and by drawing parallels between Adam and Israel (to name two factors).

There is also considerable external evidence that works against the “just read it literally” mentality.

The biblical depiction of human origins, if taken literally, presents Adam as the very first human being ever created. He was not the product of an evolutionary process, but a special creation of God a few thousand years before Jesus—roughly speaking, about 6000 years ago. Every single human being that has ever lived can trace his/her genetic history to that one person.

This is a problem because it is at odds with everything else we know about the past from the natural sciences and cultural remains.

There are human cultural remains dating well over 100,000 years ago. One recent example is 130,000-year-old stone tools found on Crete. (Their presence on an island presumes seafaring ability at that time.) Ritual/religious structures are known to have existed as far back as 40,000-70,000 years ago. Recently, a temple complex was found in Turkey dating to about 11,500 years ago—7,000 years before the Pyramids.

In addition to cultural artifacts, there is also the scientific data from the various natural sciences that support a very old earth (4.5 billion years old) and the evolutionary development of life on it—things most readers of this Web site hardly need me to point out. Most recently, the genetic evidence for common descent has, in the view of most everyone trained in the field, lent great support to the antiquity of humanity and sharing a common ancestry with primates.

There is a third line of evidence that is a problem for a literal reading of the Adam story. Archaeological evidence gathered over the last 150 years or so has helped us understand the religions of the ancient Near East during and long before the Old Testament period. As is well known, Genesis 1 and the Adam story bear unmistakable resemblances to the stories of other peoples—none of which we would ever think of taking as historical depictions of origins. (We looked at some of this in previous posts.)

A strictly literal reading of the Adam story does not fit with what we know of the past. Some choose to ignore the data altogether. Others marginalize or interpret the data idiosyncratically to salvage some type of literal/historical reading. But, by and large, everyone—even including this latter group—has to do some creative thinking about how to handle the Adam story. A “just read it literally” mentality is not an available option. “What do I do with the Adam story?” is a real and pressing question for most people of faith.

In my experience, a lot of Christians—I might even guess most—have come to some peace with all of this. They may handle it in different ways, and some may not have arrived at a conclusion, but they at least recognize that something has to be done. They sense that a simple literal reading of the Adam story won’t work without creating a lot of cognitive dissonance, and so they are open to ideas.

But, sooner or later, another issue comes up that is hard to get around and for some simply ends the discussion entirely.


Christians have to account for more than Genesis vis-à-vis archaeology and science. They have to account for what Paul says about Adam. As I see it, this is as non-negotiable as accounting for the data mentioned above.

In Romans 5 and 1 Corinthians 15, Paul draws a parallel between Jesus and Adam: Adam disobeyed (eating of the fruit) and brought death to “all”; Jesus obeyed (in his crucifixion) and (in rising) brought life to “all.” Jesus came to undo what Adam did. He came to reverse the curse of Adam.

There is really little doubt that Paul understood Adam to be a real person, the first created human from whom all humans descended. And for many Christians, this settles the issue of whether there was a historical Adam. That is what Paul believed, and for his argument to have any meaning, both Adam and Jesus have to be real people. If there was no Adam, there was no fall. If there was no fall, there was no need for a savior. If Adam is a fantasy, so is the Gospel.

For people who take the Bible seriously, Paul’s understanding of Adam can be an insuperable obstacle to accepting what we know about the past from other sources. Some feel there is really no choice but to reject science and archaeology completely. I really don’t think this is a viable option.

Others will accept to some extent the data we have, including evolution, but will insist that at some point along the line there was a first historical pair chosen by God to bear his image and from whom all true, image-bearing, humans are related. Placing an “Adam” somewhere on the evolutionary timeline is hypothetically possible, and there are knowledgeable people who find this a good way to reconcile Paul and science. (Although for others, this kind of “Adam” is too far from the kind of Adam Paul was thinking about, so it is not much help.)

However you slice it, what Paul says about Adam is a very important point of Christian theology. Clearly, what Paul says must be addressed.

But there is a factor in all of this that does not always get as much airtime as it should. It is regularly assumed that what Paul says about Adam is rather obvious, a sure starting point from which to engage this issue. “Well, I may not know what all the scientific and archaeological data are, but I can read English and I KNOW what Paul says. That is obvious, and I have no intention of messing around with that.”

Yes, we must take Paul seriously. But what if what Paul is saying about Adam is not as straightforward as a simple reading suggests? Maybe the matter is more involved than “Paul says it, that settles it”?

Paul’s Adam is not a simple matter. There are numerous factors that come into play in gaining a broader perspective on what Paul is saying and why he says it. In my next post, I want to list what some of these factors are. This is an issue that cannot be resolved in the series of a few (or many) blog posts. I am only interested in laying out on the table the issues that need to be kept in mind as we think about what Paul says about Adam and why he says it.

The tensions between science and faith, specifically evolution and Christianity, center on the issue of Paul’s Adam. As such, I think this is where our theological energies need to be invested.

Pete Enns is a former Senior Fellow of Biblical Studies for The BioLogos Foundation and author of several books and commentaries, including the popular Inspiration and Incarnation: Evangelicals and the Problem of the Old Testament, which looks at three questions raised by biblical scholars that seem to threaten traditional views of Scripture.

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Martin Rizley - #6847

March 15th 2010

But if we want to study the history of the created world, we run into problems; for when it comes to ‘natural history,’  a commitment to strict methodological naturalism, for all practical purposes, leaves the miracle-working God out of His universe!  That is, it refuses to acknowledge the possibility that divine miracle may have played a role in the formation of some of the physical features in the world around us.  No Christian should buy that lie hook, line, and sinker—for that is to fall into an attitude of practical atheism!  God most certainly is free to perform miracles in His world, and the Bible says that He has done so.  The Flood was a miraculous event, so it is likely that some of the geological features formed by the Flood event were formed miraculously.  For example, God may have miraculously accelerated, at the time of the flood, the rate at which solidifying lavas cooled.  Finally, the concept of ‘uniformitarianism’ also conflicts with a Christian worldview, for to say “the present is the key to the past” is to overlook the fact that God did miracles in the past which He is not doing now.  If we refuse to acknowledge Him, we are bound to err in our interpretations of the created world around us.

Dale - #6849

March 15th 2010

to Gordon re: #6545 - I think you are spot on in underscoring the missional nature and purpose of Scripture.  It was not the purpose of God to set down scientific, metaphysical, or even systematic theological categories; it was his purpose to provide a revelation sufficient to accomplish his redemptive mission.  While he does not address the issue we are discussing here, i.e. Paul’s Adam, the Adam of Genesis, and the reality of human ancestry, Christopher H. J. Wright sets forth a missional hermeneutic of Scripture in his massive and magisterial The Mission of God.

You are very correct to point out that there’s really no point speculating whether or not God rose above ancient near eastern science - the text tells very clearly that he did not do so.  A missional hermeneutic is helpful in reminding us that God’s purpose in Scripture is primarily redemptive.

BK - #6923

March 16th 2010

We can miss the essential point that Paul is getting at if we focus too much on the material/scientific problems. This becomes quite clear when we consider all of 1 Corinthians 15:35-57:

“The body that is sown is perishable, it is raised imperishable; it is sown in dishonour, it is raised in glory; it is sown in weakness, it is raised in power; it is sown a natural body, it is raised a spiritual body. If there is a natural body, there is also a spiritual body. So it is written: The first man Adam became a living being; the last Adam, a life-giving spirit. The spiritual did not come first, but the natural, and after that the spiritual. The first man was of the dust of the earth, the second man from heaven. As was the earthly man, so are those who are of the earth; and as is the man from heaven, so also are those who are of heaven. And just as we have borne the likeness of the earthly man, so shall we bear the likeness of the man from heaven.”


BK - #6924

March 16th 2010

Yes, Paul considers Adam as the first man, as did just about everyone until around 150 years ago, and many still do. Also, many believers now consider Adam to represent early humanity at the time when humans first were able to use their minds to consider God. Either way, we must consider the full message from Paul in this passage. Our broken relationship with God is a spiritual reality. Our naturalness is of this earth, but, at some point, the possibility of a relationship with God became a reality. Paul tells us that the fullness of this relationship with God can only come through a spiritual relationship with Jesus Christ. We are natural creatures through Adam (or through evolution) but spiritual creatures through Christ. Can a person fully apprehend the really essential point Paul is making here, regardless of the position taken on Adam/evolved humankind?

Martin Rizley - #6940

March 16th 2010

BK,  As I see it, the gospel itself is altered when the literalness of Adam is denied, for our problem as human beings is not metaphysical.  By that I mean it is not that we have evolved to a point where we may now choose either to cling to our ‘animal’ past and go on living on a bestial level or to embrace a higher, ‘spiritual’ way of living—for in that case, we would essentially be our own saviors, with God’s help.  We would be the ones choosing to go ‘higher up’ or choosing to stay ‘lower down’—living on an animal (natural) level.  That is not man’s dilemma, according to Scripture.  Our problem is not metaphysical, but ethical.  We are born into this world as fallen sinners, alienated from God already by virtue of our having been born in Adam.  ‘In Adam’ we are born not only guilty but depraved, with a corrupt nature that is incapable of doing good.  Our problem is not simply that we are sinners, but that we are ‘in Adam,’ and as long as we are in Adam, we are hopeless.  We do not have within ourselves the power to choose to live on a ‘higher plane’—to go ‘up’ on the evolutionary scale—for we are dead in our sins (continued)

Martin Rizley - #6942

March 16th 2010

The good new of the gospel, however, is that God has chosen to send His own Son into the world to act as the last Adam.  Christ ‘undoes’ the effects of the fall by proving to be faithful where Adam was unfaithful; by choosing to submit to God’s will where Adam rebelled.  By His perfect life and substitutionary death, He has redeemed a great host of sinners from death and judgment by taking upon Himself the death and judgment they deserve.  As a result of His labors, many will be constituted righteous in the very same way they were constituted sinners—that is, through the representative action of another.  Our hope of salvation lies in our being ‘unplugged’ from Adam and ‘plugged into’ Christ.  This takes place when we are regenerated by the Holy Spirit and joined to Christ by a living faith.  So we are not at all our own saviors.  It is not a matter of us choosing to cling to an animal past or to live according to the potentialities of an ‘evolved’ nature.  That is a false gospel.  The true gospel speaks of a God who saves sinners all by Himself by unplugging them from Adam and plugging them into His Son.  We are saved through the obedience act of another, just as we were lost through the disobedience of another.

Robert - #6947

March 16th 2010

I always find it interesting when Christians refuse to believe something the Bible says something that doesn’t square with science.  It seems odd because the starting point for our faith is the resurrection!  Hasn’t science proven that people die and don’t raise from the dead?  If it hasn’t been proven, it surely goes against what has been discovered.  By the way, I do believe in the resurrection.

BK - #6973

March 16th 2010


Thanks for your response. This may surprise you but, after the first sentence, I agree with everything you said, and well said it is too. My choice of words must have been poor for you to conclude that I consider humanity’s problem to be metaphysical. My point is that the position stated in your opening sentence “the gospel itself is altered when the literalness of Adam is denied” is not really the only one, nor did you really come to grips with why you think it is. Let me try again, fully realizing that as an evolutionary biologist I don’t really have the words or theological training to avoid getting stuck in the ooze once again.  continued…....

BK - #6974

March 16th 2010

Since we got here through biological evolution, the spiritual human being had to begin sometime after our brains were capable of conceiving something like God. This spiritual side is, in fact, God breathed. We were placed by the Creator in a creation that was in some mysterious way separated from Him, even though it was His creation and He sustained it - the possibility of our sinning was there from the beginning. I suppose it to be related to free will, which is also a gift from God. Our spirit was/is divorced from God because of His holiness. The gulf between us and God is measured by His holiness and justice relative to our serious lack of the same. Indeed we must look to Him to get out of this lost spiritual state.    continued…......

BK - #6975

March 16th 2010

“First spiritual humans”, whether Adam or some discrete stage in our evolution, appeared here in this world - a place spiritually out of harmony with God (when this fault happened is another story). The nature of this “first spiritual human population” is indeed mysterious, but so is Adam’s. It seems clear from Genesis that a choice confronted humans, though this also is a mystery, just like salvation is. The potential must have been there to make the right choice, but our nature as creatures of this world led to the wrong choice. The larger point is that this mystery repeats itself for every human being, not just the first ones. We all put ourselves first, we all try to ignore God, we all need to be spiritually revived, and power for this revision is from God not ourselves. Presenting this as a story about a tree, a tempter, a man, a woman and God in a garden does not make the spiritual reality any more or less mysterious or real. continued….........

BK - #6976

March 16th 2010

Neither the nature of our biological connection to this earth nor of our spiritual relationship with God should be ignored or denied. Always, however, the timelessness of the spiritual message of the Gospel must be considered more important science’s current (ancient or modern) understanding of the natural world. As a biologist, it annoys me when believers don’t seem to be interested in the wonderful insights of modern evolutionary biology, and even feel threatened by them. As a believer, it really concerns me when Christians come to harmful misunderstandings because they appear to place too much emphasis on their own view of the natural world and too little on the essentially spiritual message of the Bible. That is why the more measured discussions of these pages are so important.

Martin Rizley - #6989

March 16th 2010

I really do appreciate your recognition of humanity’s helplessness in sin and our need of Christ’s redemption.  I agree with you that human beings were confronted with a choice at the beginning of human history in which they had to acknowledge God’s supreme authority over their lives by freely and willingly bowing to that authority.  They had to show their recognition of dependence on God by submitting to His revealed will.  Sadly, however, they rebelled against God’s authority by believing the lie of Satan and disobeying God’s will; at that point, I believe, their minds were darkened and their wills became enslaved to sin.  Moreover, the consequences of that first sin passed onto their descendants in such a way that no human being, of himself, can find his way back to God, or restore himself to a state of spiritual liberty and peace with God.  For that, we are dependent on the Good Shepherd to come and find His lost sheep.  Our condition is therefore very different from the original condition of our first parents before the fall.  (continued)

Martin Rizley - #6990

March 16th 2010

They were free not to sin, for their nature was pure; the image of God in them was by no means marred or sullied.  That is not true now.  Human beings in their natural condition are not free not to sin; the image of God in us has been vitiated; and until Christ takes the initiative in rescuing us from this condition, we remain enslaved to sin.  As Jesus put it, “Everyone who sins is a slave to sin. . .If the Son sets you free, you will be free indeed.”  So the fall is not just a story to describe the existential experience of every person who passes from youthful innocence to the adult experience of a violated conscience.  It was an actual historical event by which man’s legal status before God, as well as his spiritual nature, was radically altered.  We do not become sinners by mere imitation of our parents; we are “born in sin,” with a fallen nature inherited from our first parents.  That is why I believe the doctrine of a literal, historic fall is essential to a biblical understanding of the biblical gospel.  Because our sin problem does not begin with us; it began long before we were ever conceive, when our first parents rebelled against God.

BK - #6994

March 16th 2010

You are correct, The Fall, or perhaps more correctly our pre-Fall condition is clearly the point where I have the greatest difficulty with my case. The unbridgeable moral distance between God and humans - unbridgeable, that is, without divine intervention working through faith, is a position that could be compatible with any version of first human actors, don’t you think? No mechanism is needed to explain the faith-based position that we are not spiritually pure enough to stand before a Holy God. That boils down, I think, to our view of God. But, how did evolved humanity first come to be in a blissful relationship with a Holy God? How blissful was that relationship? Was the sin that caused Adam and Eve to fall already in them or did it only enter when they had dealings with Satan? Not that these questions are any easier to grapple with by reading the Genesis account. In Part II of his series, Dr. Enns seems to be heading in the direction of this problem by asking about our traditional views of how Paul interpreted Genesis. Let’s listen and continue to think and discuss.

Martin Rizley - #6995

March 16th 2010

BK, One further thought.  You say that you are “annoyed” by the way many conservative Christians reject the ‘inisghts of modern evolutionary biology.’  But surely you understand the reason why so many Bible-believing Christians reject belief in common descent?  It is because the Bible speaks so plainly of God creating the different basic kinds of creatures, with each reproducing ‘after its kind.’  That doesn’t preclude biological variation within limits, but it does preclude the idea that all creatures evolved from a single original life form.  Moreover, most conservative Christians (myself included) believe (as one creation ministry puts it) that “the Bible presents a simple but historical account of actual events, and therefore provides a reliable framework for scientific research into the origin and history of life, mankind, the earth, and the universe. . .”  Most reject the idea “that God’s revelation in nature can be approached independently from God’s revelation in Scripture.”  Historical research (scientific or otherwise) that ignores or contradicts biblical teaching is thus seen as unreliable, lacking empirical demonstration and (more importantly) biblical support.

BK - #7010

March 16th 2010


No problem. I gave up many years ago trying to “argue” biological facts. It’s challenge enough to teach them to a university class, despite their depth and beauty. I know lots of fine Christians, and I am sure that you are one, who do not accept the biological view of origins. I also know many fine Christians who do. This is really one of the points I was trying to make. Christian six-day creationists and evolutionary biologists, not to mention some Christian brothers and sisters who can barely read or write, can live effectively under the daily guidance of the same Savior and walk the walk full of grace. This fact can help us keep our interpretive puzzles in the proper perspective. God Bless.

Martin Rizley - #7015

March 16th 2010

Would you at least agree with me that no theory of origins which is based on the physical data found in DNA or the observable similarities of bones, organs, etc., found in different species is free of assumptions?  That is, all ‘facts’ are interpreted facts, and the interpretation always reveals certain underlying assumptions that are being made by the interpreter—assumptions that are of a philosophical or religious nature?  Would you agree with that?  Would you agree that all scientific endeavor is built on a particular philosophy of science?

Martin Rizley - #7064

March 17th 2010

BK, The reason I ask that question is to point out that one’s beliefs about the past may be quite plausible and convincing given our epistemological assumptions—but if those underlying assumptions are mistaken, what we think we “know” may not be true at all.  I believe it was Ronald Reagan who once said about his “liberal opponents” that they were not ignorant, they just happened to know a lot of things that weren’t so.  Now, it seems to me that some of the things of which you feel so certain in the realm of evolutionary biology—those things which lead you to reject a literal interpretation of Genesis—are built on the philosophical assumption that God’s revelation in nature can be approached independently of his revelation in Holy Scripture.  But what if that is a false assumption?  What if, to arrive at a true picture of earth’s past, we need to factor in—in addition to the data of DNA, homology, etc.— the simple but accurate account of primeval history given in Genesis 1-11?  We have to connect all the dots given to us by God, instead of just some of them, to get a true picture of earth’s past.  Would they not change the picture we see?

Rob Kashow - #7099

March 17th 2010

About 800 comments here, so if someone else has asked this I apologize… but, what if Paul was wrong? Will you tackle this possibility in other posts?

BK - #7248

March 20th 2010

Assumptions; of course, we make them all the time. One has to start somewhere.  Equally important are the questions we derive from our assumptions. Good assumptions usually lead to good questions. All useful advances into unknown territory are based on asking the best questions. With real assumptions, we are prepared to change them when our investigations reveal facts that seriously challenge them. If it cannot be changed, the “assumption” should be called a statement of faith. Since, through faith, we believe that God speaks through His word and has spoken by that means to widely different peoples and cultures for at least 3000 years, we really can’t call this an assumption because we are not prepared to modify it. We do, however, make some assumptions (hopefully not statements of faith) about our interpretations of Scripture and, more to the point of this blog, about the methods we us to interpret Scripture. New understanding from both biblical scholars and scientists continually challenge us to test our interpretive assumptions. So, I agree, we first need to make a list of the positions we insist on holding as statements of faith and what positions we will allow to remain “simply” assumptions. Continued…...

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