Did the human race really start with two people, one made from clay and the other from bone, as the creation story in Genesis 2 suggests? Was the story designed to portray an accurate history of creation, or to use metaphor in testifying to the belief that humans have been sinful from the beginning?
There’s nothing new about the question or the debate, but it’s been much in the news lately, following an NPR report by Barbara Bradley Hagerty in which opinions were expressed on either side of the issue. In the course of that interview, and in a follow-up blog, Southern Baptist Theological Seminary president Albert Mohler declared that “Without Adam, the work of Christ makes no sense whatsoever in Paul’s description of the Gospel, which is the classic description of the Gospel we have in the New Testament.” Mohler then amplified his views in his blog, arguing that
The denial of an historical Adam and Eve as the first parents of all humanity and the solitary first human pair severs the link between Adam and Christ which is so crucial to the Gospel.
If we do not know how the story of the Gospel begins, then we do not know what that story means. Make no mistake: a false start to the story produces a false grasp of the Gospel.
Christianity Today also recently featured the debate in an issue that includes an editorial suggesting that if there was no historical Adam and Eve, there can be no gospel.
In both places, part of the argument is a tiff between religious dogma and scientific discoveries, a historical belief in a literal “first pair” as opposed to genomic evidence that suggests a larger population.
Genomics aside, none of the recent arguments I’ve seen take note of the obvious fact that the first two chapters of Genesis include two very different creation stories. Though some contend that Gen. 2:4b-25 is simply a more detailed view of human creation as told in Gen. 1:1-2:4a, no honest reading of the two can support such an idea. The first story poetically describes a seven-day creative sequence in which an unseen God speaks a creative word and light, the earth, the seas, plants, the heavenly bodies, fish, fowl, and humans come into existence, with humans being created on the sixth day.
The clear implication is that humans were created en masse in the same way that plants, fish, creeping things, wild and domestic animals were created. I don’t know anyone who thinks that Genesis 1 suggests the original creation of just one pair of butterflies, or one pair of cows, for example. The creation of humans, with the exception of their being made in God’s image, is told in the same way, in the plural, and with the added note that the initial creation of humans included both males and females.
In contrast, the second story describes a one-day event in which a very anthropomorphic God makes a man (Adam) from the dust of the earth, even before God created plants by “planting a garden” in Eden. Animals were created, according to this story, in an effort to find a suitable partner for the man, who named them, but found no mate. At the very end of the story, God gives Adam divine anaesthesia, surgically removes something from his side, and uses it to make (the Hebrew word usually means “build”) a woman, who Adam later names Eve. Only when both man and woman exist is humanity complete.
These two stories are told in different styles, using different grammar, different names for God, and very different literary styles. The second story is almost certainly much older than the first. Both stories are testimonies: declarations of Israel’s belief that God created humankind. The very presence of two different stories suggest that, for the Hebrews, the testimony to God as Creator was much more important than the details of how creation came about.
Genesis 3 — the infamous story of the fall — is a continuation of the second creation story, and in it we find the familiar account of Adam and Eve choosing to disobey God by eating from a forbidden tree. The testimony, then, is that humans have been prone to sin from the beginning.
This is reinforced by further stories in Genesis 4 (Cain murdering his brother Abel), in Genesis 6-9 (heavenly beings mating with human women and a world so corrupt that God regrets making it, followed by the story of the flood and the account of Noah’s drunkeness and his son’s offense shortly afterward), and in Genesis 11 (the story of the tower of Babel).
In other words, Genesis is filled with stories in which humans demonstrate a proclivity toward sin, and the stories do not presume that all would have remained righteous if only Adam and Eve had held firm against the serpent’s probing questions.
Mohler and others cite as a doctrinal core Paul’s contention that the saving work of Christ reversed the sinful fall of Adam (Romans 5:12-21, 1 Corinthians 15:21-23), thus insisting that if there was no historical Adam, then the work of Christ makes no sense.
This is what happens when you insist on always interpreting the Bible literally — you get backed into a corner and have to defend an argument that makes no sense. Can humankind not be sinful and in need of a savior without blaming it on a single man? For all we know, even Paul may have been speaking metaphorically.
The clear testimony throughout the Bible is that humans have always been sinful and God has always sought ways of repairing the breach in that relationship. This redemptive effort culminated in the advent of Christ. To make the need for or value of Christ’s atoning work subject to a literal interpretation of Paul, thus claiming that Christ’s work is pointless without a historical Adam, is a fine way to miss the point entirely.
Professor of Old Testament at Campbell University Divinity School in Buies Creek, North Carolina, and the Contributing Editor and Curriculum Writer at Good Faith Media.