Having looked briefly at three areas of scholarship, we can now describe a few potentially viable scenarios for interpreting Genesis 2–3. Each agrees with the scientific consensus on human evolution that our ancestral population was never as small as two individuals. These scenarios are also consistent with core doctrinal commitments regarding humans being created in the image of God and the reality of sin as disobedience to God’s revealed will.
- Adam and Eve as a transformed pair of ancient representative-ancestors of all humanity. At some early point when our ancestral population was only a few thousand individuals, perhaps about two hundred thousand years ago in Africa, God specially selected a pair not only to receive special revelation but also to be miraculously transformed—perhaps by a superabundant gift of the Holy Spirit—to make it possible for them to be truly holy, capable of obeying all of God’s spiritual and moral requirements. While they were for a while able not to sin, nevertheless they sinned, and the special grace that allowed them to be sinless was withdrawn. In the centuries following their revelation and disobedience, that group and their descendants mixed culturally and eventually genetically with other groups of humans alive at that time, and in this way the spiritual, psychological, and cultural effects of sin eventually spread to the entire population.
- Adam and Eve as a small group of ancient representative-ancestors of all humanity. At the point when our ancestral population was only a few thousand individuals, God specially selected a small family group of a few dozen individuals to receive special revelation. Although they potentially could have lived according to God’s expectations for them, they chose to sin. We might picture the fall as a singular event, or we might picture it as a process taking place during a probationary period for this group. That first small group who sinned are among the ancestors of all humans today, but not the sole ancestors. In the centuries following their revelation and disobedience, that group and their descendants mixed culturally and eventually genetically with other groups of humans alive at that time, and in this way the spiritual, psychological, and cultural effects of sin eventually spread to the entire population.
- Adam and Eve as a pair of recent representatives of all humanity. Somewhere between forty thousand and eight thousand years ago, God specially selected a pair of individuals to receive special revelation and to act as representatives (but not ancestors) of all human beings. They disobeyed God and so fell into sin in a concentrated historical event. Because they sinned as representatives of all humanity, all of humanity fell into sin. The opportunity for the rest of humanity to receive additional spiritual gifts and to enter into a state of sinless grace before God was lost.
- Adam and Eve as literary figures in a highly compressed history of all our ancestors. Over their long developmental history, whenever our ancestors became sufficiently advanced, God used both general and special revelation to tell them how they ought to behave and the consequences of disobedience. They chose disobedience again and again. Through their disobedience they damaged their relationship with God, damaged their relationships with one another, and damaged themselves. These consequences were passed from generation to generation. The sciences of genetics and archaeology are not able to show how our ancestors transitioned from animal self-interest to human sinful disobedience, although God does know.
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The Problem with Trying to Read Science Out of Scripture
Biblical scholar John Walton defines “concordism” and explains why disagrees with this interpretive approach.