Adam and Eve: Literal or Literary?

| By Daniel Harrell

As many of our readers know, the historicity of Adam and Eve is a critically important topic in the discussion of Christianity and human origins. Although BioLogos takes a firm stand on the fact that Adam and Eve could not have been the sole biological progenitors of all humans (seehere), science does not rule out the possibility of a historical Adam and Eve, which opens this interesting discussion.

The range of Christian perspectives on this topic is introduced in our FAQ on Evolution and the Fall. Harrell’s entry below follows several other recent posts presenting different views on the topic, including those from Tom Wright (here and here), Pete EnnsDavid Opderbeck, and Alister McGrath.

Update 6/24/2010: Darrel Falk has also written a response to this blog here.

Any discussion about evolution and faith quickly polarizes when it comes to Adam and Eve. Do we understand the Bible’s first couple as literal people or literary figures?

If they are literary people, then that raises questions about the rest of the Biblical cast. Are Moses and Jesus fictional characters too?

If they are literal people, then the trove of evolutionary and DNA evidence can’t be right. It’s impossible for the human race to trace back to a single pair of parents (and this without mentioning a talking snake and God creating Adam out of the dirt and Eve from his rib). For the serious student of Scripture and science, making a choice between literal and literary is impossible too. Can’t there be a middle option?


Can we read Adam and Eve’s origin as a poetic reference to God’s involvement in the evolution of humanity while still regarding them as historical people (as do Jesus and Paul)?

To regard Adam and Eve as historical figures leaves us with basically two options within an evolutionary rubric. The first is that God created them supernaturally, midstream in evolution’s flow. To create in such a way would require that God also put in place a DNA history, since human origins genetically trace back to earlier, common ancestors. Conceptually, this presents the same problems as creating the universe with apparent age. Apparent age is how some square a literal Genesis with scientific evidence. Stars that appear to be billions of years old (according to cosmological measurements) are in reality only a few thousand years old (according to literal biblical reckoning). God created the stars with age.

The problem is that creating with age makes God seem to be tricking us into thinking things are older than they are with no clear reason for doing so. Nevertheless, given that Adam and Eve are both introduced in Genesis, presumably as adults rather than children (even if they acted like children), it could be that in their case, creating with age (and a history) would apply. While we might not necessarily understand why God would do that, he coulddo that (being God and all).

Another option might be to have Adam and Eve exist as first among Homo sapiens, specially chosen by God as representatives for a relationship with him. We often speak of Adam theologically as serving as representative of humanity in matters of original sin (his sin affects us all; Romans 5:12), so the idea of Adam as representative already exists in Christian theology.

Science asserts that evolved brain capacity and function are part of what set Homo sapiens apart from previous hominids. It is this same capacity and function that make relationship possible and, particularly in the creation account, covenantal relationships between humans and God and between humans and each other (i.e., marriage). An advantage of this interpretation is that God’s natural processes marvelously work without the need for any ancestral or genetic fabrication. Also, you’d finally be able to explain where it is that Cain found his wife (answer: from the other humans walking the earth east of Eden; Genesis 4:16-17).

However, this view would require a reinterpretation of words like “formed” and “breathed into his nostrils the breath of life” (Genesis 2:7 KJV). Can we use “formed” and “breathed” to mean created through the long and continuous history of biological evolution (as were the other living creatures in Genesis 1)? If so, then perhaps “the Lord God formed the man” could be read emphasizing the novelty and uniqueness which humans inhabit.

Similarly, the “breath of life” would not signify simply oxygenated animation (surely Genesis isn’t simply speaking in that sense), but that breath which set humans apart as inspired by God (the Hebrew word for breath here is different than the word used for oxygen-intake by living creatures as a whole).

There are those who would object to such a reading since the Biblical author would not have had knowledge of evolutionary biology. And yet just because the author of Genesis wasn’t a scientist doesn’t mean that evolution wasn’t happening. We still describe babies’ births as “miracles” even though they’re among the most natural occurrences in nature.

Whether specially created or specially selected, humans constitute an interruption in the evolutionary process. Before people showed up, evolution’s potential pathways were invisible. But once humans appear, human volition entered with it. The human capacity to choose replaced randomness with intentionality. We have developed enough mastery over our environment (Genesis 1:28) that natural selection, in the strict Darwinian sense, no longer really applies to us.

We now control our own evolution, capable not only of self-awareness, but of self-determination too. Qualities that make relationship with God and others possible also made the breaking of relationship possible. This is a sad reality expressed throughout human history. The brokenness of human relationship affects, not only the relationship with God and our relationships with each other, but our relationship with the rest of creation. Even if humans were specially created, we were still made out of the dust of the ground, the same ground from which all other living things emerged.


About the Author

Daniel Harrell

Daniel Harrell is the Senior Minister of Colonial Church in Edina, Minnesota. He is the author of the books Nature’s Witness: How Evolution Can Inspire Faith, How To Be Perfect: One Church’s Experiment with Living the Book of Leviticus, and the forthcoming Wisdom of the Saints (And Near Saints): Christian Inspiration from A-Z. He also teaches theology at Bethel Seminary in St. Paul.


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