Paul and the Fall: What About Adam?

| By and (guest author) on Reading the Book of Nature

Introduction (by Ted Davis)

Original sin and the Fall of Adam and Eve pose major challenges to proponents of Evolutionary Creation, both at the level of theology and also at the level of biblical interpretation. BioLogos does not endorse any one response to those challenges: our view is that the church deserves a serious, pluralistic conversation about evolution and original sin. In an effort to help foster that conversation, we already provide numerous resources, among them these:

Further resources are being developed by some recipients of The BioLogos Foundation’s Evolution & Christian Faith program.

This series offers yet another perspective, as we serialize a paper by philosopher Robin Collins, entitled “Evolution and Original Sin.” Today’s column concludes his discussion of Romans, by focusing on Paul’s overall view of Adam.

Jan van Eyck, detail of Adam from the Ghent Altarpiece (1432), St Bavo’s Cathedral, Ghent

Paul’s View of Adam in the Book of Romans

Our next question is, How can we fit these passages in Romans 5 together with what Paul says in Romans 1 as explicated above? The traditional doctrine of original sin says that our bondage and condemnation are solely or almost entirely the result of Adam’s first sin: once Adam sinned, human beings were from then on in bondage to sin. If we adopt the traditional interpretation, however, there is an immediate tension, if not conflict, with Romans 1. As we discussed above, the account in Romans 1 seems to imply (when extended to all humanity) that our bondage to sin was not simply a result of a single act of Adam, but a collective suppressing of the truth by the human race.

One plausible way to avoid this tension, I suggest, is to understand Adam, in light of evolutionary theory, as theologically representing both everyman and the very first members of the evolving group of hominids that had gained moral self-consciousness. (Of course, this is not to say that Paul intended for “Adam” to represent these hominids, or that the readers at the time would have understood it in that way. Rather, just as the meaning of a poem can transcend its meaning for the author or the people at the time, what a term such as “Adam” represents or means can transcend that given by its historical context.) This combines both the understanding of Adam as representing “everyperson” [Collins will develop this in the next installment of this series], with one in which Adam has an historical reference. Given this understanding, one of the main theological truths underlying this passage, or to which this passage points, is that sin entered the world from the very beginning, as soon as the evolving group of hominids leading up to human beings became morally conscious. Further, this sin of “suppressing the truth” and turning away from God was imitated by other members of the evolving group of hominids, and thus effectively snowballed until we all became deeply in bondage to sin.

Admittedly, this last move in which Adam represents the very first members of self-aware, free-willed hominids instead of a single human being living in some state of spiritual and moral rectitude is not an interpretation that one would come up with apart from modern science. Nonetheless, it certainly seems to be a plausible reading, and a reading that retains the core theological idea that our human condition of spiritual darkness and bondage to sin was largely the result of free choice, not the way humans were created (or made by nature). Moreover, there is some basis in the text itself for thinking that Adam is being used to represent the first acts of disobedience, not merely the first human being. As Paul certainly would have been aware, in the Genesis story the disobedience is a joint act of both Eve and Adam, yet Paul never mentions Eve. This suggests that within the text, Adam’s disobedience implicitly represents the disobedience of both of them, not just a singular Adam. The idea of Adam representing the first self-aware hominids, therefore, could plausibly be considered a natural extension of this representative role already implicit in the text. (I should finally note that I deal with the other texts that suggest a singular Adam, such as 1 Cor. 15:22, in the same way as I do the text in Romans 5, though I am not sure what to say about 1 Timothy 2:13-14.)

Jan van Eyck, detail of Eve from the Ghent Altarpiece. Whereas van Eyck makes Eve as important as Adam, placing them prominently in opposing upper corners of the fully opened altarpiece, she disappears from view in Paul’s rendering of the story. As Collins points out, in Genesis “the disobedience is a joint act of both Eve and Adam,” suggesting that “Adam’s disobedience implicitly represents the disobedience of both of them, not just a singular Adam.”

Finally, this whole passage can be viewed as leading up to Romans 6, where Paul emphasizes that it is through our unity or connection with Christ, particularly in his death, that we are redeemed. In light of this, the point of Romans 5:12-19 can be thought of as drawing a parallel between the transmission of sin from Adam and the transmission of righteousness from Christ. If Adam is viewed as single individual, however, our connection with him seems very remote, and hence it becomes difficult to see how or why his sin would have such devastating consequences on us. Was there some spiritual “gene” that got mutated with Adam’s sin that was then passed on to all succeeding generations? And even if there was, why would an all-good God allow this “gene” to be passed on to the rest of us? Further, God’s failing to prevent this corruption from occurring, or spreading, does not fit well in the singular Adam scenario, since within that scenario God is already pursuing an interventionist policy: why not go all the way and intervene some more to stop the effect of Adam’s sin, or give Adam and his children a strong and resilient disposition not to sin?

However, if viewed as representing our ancestors, particularly our remote ancestors, our spiritual connection with Adam suddenly makes sense as part of the interconnectedness of all human beings. As explained above, just as we inherit from our ancestors physical and cultural characteristics, it also makes sense that we would inherit their spiritual characteristics—in this case, the accumulated weight of spiritual darkness and bondage to sin. To eliminate such an inheritance, God would have had to eliminate human spiritual interconnectedness in general, not simply the effects of a single act of sin. Accordingly, this interpretation makes sense of why God would not eliminate the deleterious effects of the sin of “Adam” (as representing our remote ancestors). Further, in the process, it deepens the theological import of the idea of original sin by linking it with the fundamental interconnectedness of all human beings.

Looking Ahead

Having finished with Romans, Genesis awaits. Join us again to see how Collins approaches that foundational text.





Collins, Robin. "Paul and the Fall: What About Adam?" N.p., 9 Feb. 2015. Web. 16 February 2019.


Collins, R. (2015, February 9). Paul and the Fall: What About Adam?
Retrieved February 16, 2019, from /blogs/ted-davis-reading-the-book-of-nature/paul-and-the-fall-what-about-adam

References & Credits

Robin Collins’ chapter from Perspectives on an Evolving Creation, ed. Keith B. Miller (Wm. B. Eerdmans Publishing Company, 2003), is reproduced by kind permission of the author and the Wm. B. Eerdmans Publishing Company. We gratefully acknowledge their cooperation in bringing this material to our readers.

All Scripture quotations in this paper are from the NRSV translation.

About the Authors

Ted Davis

Ted Davis is Professor of the History of Science at Messiah College. A former high school science teacher, Ted studied history and philosophy of science at Indiana University, where his mentor was the late Richard S. Westfall, author of the definitive biography of Isaac Newton. With the English historian Michael Hunter, Ted edited The Works of Robert Boyle, 14 vols. (London: Pickering & Chatto, 1999-2000), but his interests include the whole 2000-year interaction of Christianity and science. Author of dozens of scholarly articles and essays, Ted is one of few historians who have written extensively about both the Scientific Revolution and modern America. He and his wife Kathy enjoy theater, music, and traveling to new places.

More posts by Ted Davis

Robin Collins

Professor Robin Collins, Ph.D., is Distinguished Professor of Philosophy and Chair of the Department of Philosophy. He specializes in philosophy of science, philosophy of religion, metaphysics, and philosophical theology. He is well-versed in issues relating to science and religion, with graduate-level training in theoretical physics. He has written almost forty substantial articles and book chapters in these areas with some of the leading academic presses, such as Oxford University Press, Cambridge University Press, Blackwell, and Routledge. He has also spoken on issues relating to God and the cosmos at many colleges and universities (including Oxford University, Cambridge University, Yale University, and Stanford University) and has appeared in the popular Christian and secular media – for example, in Christianity Today, Lee Strobel’s Case for the Creator, and Robert Kuhn’s PBS series Closer to the Truth.

More posts by Robin Collins