The conversation regarding the historicity of Adam and Eve, described so clearly in the cover story of the June issue of Christianity Today, continues in an unlikely place—at National Public Radio. If you haven’t already heard it, you’ll want to listen to this story. BioLogos Senior Fellow Dennis Venema does a beautiful job summarizing the genetic data in a non-technical way, and Karl Giberson addresses the serious danger to the Church if we ignore this data. While we at BioLogos appreciate many aspects of the story, we need to make one all-important clarification: the debate over the historicity of Adam and Eve is primarily a theological debate, one that is more complex than the story lets on. All science can say is that there was never a time when only two people existed on the earth: it is silent on whether or not God began a special relationship with a historical couple at some point in the past. This subtle but extremely important point was missed entirely in the NPR story. It is a consideration that we raise repeatedly at BioLogos. See, for example this article by Daniel Harrell and this series by Denis Alexander.
Evangelical Christians have long suspected there are allegorical components to the Genesis story—a talking snake, for example—but as to whether Adam and Eve were not real people, there has been much more hesitancy—and for theologically important reasons. The science itself is silent—the most it can say is that there were never just two individuals who were the sole genetic progenitors of the entire human race. Several independent lines of genetic evidence unambiguously point to this conclusion. Science also make it very clear that humans developed through an evolutionary process. As Christians, we interpret all this in light of our belief in God as Creator.
It is important for Evangelicals to know that science is silent on the historicity of two people named Adam and Eve, just as it is silent on the existence of persons named Abraham, Isaac, and Moses. Adam and Eve may well have been two real people, who through the grace of God entered into a paradisiacal relationship with him, until—tragedy of tragedies— they allowed their own self-centered desires to reign in their hearts, instead of their love for God. Although genetics convincingly shows that there was never a time when there were just two persons, the Bible itself may even provide hints of the existence of other people—likely we’ve all wondered about those hints since we were children. “Did Cain marry his sister?” we want to know. “Who were the people that Cain was afraid of as he wandered the earth after killing Abel? If they were his brothers or nephews, why didn’t the author refer to them that way?” The author doesn’t seem to be as puzzled by this as we are. We’ve always known about those little pointers—in fact, ancient interpreters wrestled with them too, long before Darwin or modern genetics appeared on the scene. So it ought not to necessarily surprise us for genetics to come along and confirm that, sure enough, there were others around at the time of Adam and Eve.
The NPR story, as much as we appreciate it, implies that, according to science, there are only two options for Christians—dismiss the conclusions of science, or dismiss the notion of a historical couple named Adam and Eve. This is simply not the whole story. Any dismissal of a historical couple, who entered into relationship with God only to sin and break that relationship, is going to have to come from theology. There is no scientific reason to upset that theological apple cart. Indeed as scientists, we must respect the theological diversity of Evangelicalism.
Science is an amazing tool that gives insight into our world, one which is so effective that it is allows us to become virtually certain about some things. The earth does revolve around the sun. The universe was created over 14 billion years ago. All species came about through a gradual process that included natural selection, genetic drift and sexual selection. Christians should see all of this as the product of God’s masterful plan and ongoing activity. Christians should also see that science is silent on the existence of a specific first couple who enjoyed a special relationship with God. Exploring that is beyond the purview of science.