Should We Believe Adam and Eve Really Existed?

Should We Believe Adam and Eve Really Existed?

Section 3: Humanity

Digging Deeper Topic 1: Should We Believe Adam and Eve Really Existed?


Does It Matter Either Way?

An increasing number of scholars argue Adam and Eve couldn’t have actually existed because the scientific evidence suggests the genetic diversity within the human race couldn’t have sprung from just one human pair. Not surprisingly, many within the Church strongly disagree. Before we dive into that debate, there’s another issue we should address first: Does this issue make any difference for those of us who aren’t scientists or scholars? Can’t we just go on loving God and loving others and leave stuff like this to the experts? Although it would be nice if we could, the debate over Adam and Eve is one we all need to pay attention to because it’s part of a larger debate over the proper roles of Science and Faith in general. And that larger debate is shaping the way our culture looks at religious faith, especially Evangelical faith.

Caught Between the Bible and Science

The prevailing view is that Faith and Science ought to operate in different spheres of life. Each has authority in its own sphere, but not in the other. So, as far as most people are concerned, Faith ought to give way to Science in scientific matters. Evangelicals, however, tend to take a different view. The Bible is the Word of God, and thus correct in everything it says. Therefore, to the extent that it speaks on scientific matters, it is the final authority, not Science. The problem is such a view of Scripture tends to be labeled as backward today, especially when it comes to defending some of the biblical accounts in Genesis. And that puts Evangelicals in an intellectual bind.

There’s a classic episode of Star Trek: Next Generation where Captain Picard is captured by the Cardassians. A Cardassian interrogator tries to break Picard down psychologically by setting up a series of lights and asking him how many lights he sees. Although there are four lights, Picard is repeatedly told there are five. He’s also cruelly tortured each time he tries to say there are only four lights. Even though he’s told the torture will end if he admits there are five lights, Picard stands firm. In a dramatic scene after his release has finally been arranged, a weak and disheveled Picard defiantly turns to his captor and bellows, “There. Are. Four. Lights!” Later, however, he privately admits the pain was so bad that he actually wanted to see five lights; at the end, he even started to believe he could see five lights.

Evangelicals find themselves in a similar situation. We don’t want to fight Science. After all, in most instances we accept what Science tells us about our world. And we certainly don’t want to get labeled as backward. Yet, because we believe the Bible is inspired, we feel compelled to accept what it says, no matter how uncomfortable that makes life at times. Like Picard, we’re told we ought to see the world one way, but we’re not sure we can. I admit, though, there are times when I wish that weren’t the case. It would be nice if we could be committed to Scripture without having to get crushed under the weight of scientific opinion.

Is There a Way Out?

That’s what makes certain interpretations of Genesis so attractive. They seem to offer a way out of our intellectual bind. Some scholars, for example, claim we find ourselves in a conflict with Science only because we’re not reading Genesis correctly. They point to similarities between Genesis 1–11 and certain ancient Near Eastern creation myths. In light of those similarities, they argue the author of Genesis wasn’t trying to write history. He was using figurative or symbolic language simply to express spiritual truths. That’s significant because, if he wasn’t writing history, there’s no compelling reason to assume he thought Adam and Eve were real people.

If that’s an accurate interpretation, it would appear to pave the way for Evangelicals to accept the current scientific views on human origins. We could affirm Scripture insofar as it expresses the spiritual truths about our origins while at the same time affirming Science insofar as it expresses the scientific details. Perhaps our faith doesn’t require that we be crushed under the weight of scientific opinion after all.

We need to be careful, though, precisely because the symbolic interpretation promises to get us out of a tough spot. We need to make sure the prospect of escaping an uncomfortable situation doesn’t cause us to see something in Genesis that isn’t really there. Having said that, we’d be fools to expose ourselves to ridicule if the Bible doesn’t say what we thought. We applaud Picard’s courage in refusing to say there were five lights, but that’s because there really were only four. What if there had been five lights? Would we expect him to have continued to insist there were only four? In that case, wouldn’t it have been better to admit there were five and be done with it? In a similar way, I’m not sure we would gain anything by continuing to insist Adam and Eve really existed if that’s not what the Bible actually meant to say.

Where Do We Go from Here?

So which is it? Is the symbolic interpretation a valid means by which we can escape the intellectual bind we’re in, or is it merely a pain-induced mirage? It makes a difference where we come down on the issue. That’s why we’re going to delve into the debate. And the place to start is the similarity between Genesis 1–11 and ancient Near Eastern myths, since that’s the basis for the argument that the author of Genesis wasn’t trying to write history. We’ll pick up there in the next section.

How Closely Do Near Eastern Myths Match Genesis?

Many Old Testament scholars draw connections between Genesis 1–11 and certain ancient Near Eastern myths. In light of those connections, they believe it’s a mistake to interpret these early chapters in Genesis literally. On the issue of Adam and Eve’s existence, for example, which we broached last time, they’d say there’s no reason for us to think Adam and Eve were real people. Most of us, however, aren’t familiar with ancient Near Eastern myths. As a result, we don’t have any way of assessing the strength of the connections. To help with that, let’s briefly summarize three of the key myths and the similarities between them and the Genesis accounts.

Summary of Atrahasis

Before the creation of humans, the lesser gods are forced to do the physical labor. Eventually they tire of the work and rebel against the other gods. To bring peace, the higher gods create mankind to take on the work. But human beings prove to be too noisy, so the gods decide to destroy them all in a flood. One man, Atrahasis, is tipped off by the god Enki and rides out the flood in a large boat.

 

Summary of Enuma Elish

The goddess Tiamat, who represents the primeval sea, rebels against the other gods. She is ultimately defeated in battle by Marduk. Marduk then cuts Tiamat in two, using her to create the sky and the earth. Having defeated Tiamat, Marduk becomes the chief god. Humanity is then created out of clay mixed with the blood of one of Tiamat’s companions and the spittle of the other gods.

 

Summary of Gilgamesh

Gilgamesh, the king of Uruk, meets an old man named Utnapshitim who describes the time when the gods decided to wipe out humanity in a flood. One of the gods, however, warned Utnapshitim and he survived the flood in a large boat. Because he survived, the gods decided to make Utnapshitim immortal. Gilgamesh himself later has an opportunity to become immortal by eating a plant, but a serpent beats him to it.

Where Do We Go From Here?

Even if we grant certain similarities exist, not everyone agrees that means we’re forced to assume Adam and Eve didn’t exist. Some scholars believe Genesis 1–11 falls into the same genre as the ancient Near Eastern myths, but still argue there’s reason to believe a historical core lies behind Genesis. We’ll take a closer look at this view in the next section.

Using Myth To Set the Record Straight

In the previous section we looked at the similarities between Genesis 1–11 and three ancient Near Eastern myths: Atrahasis, Enuma Elish, and the Gilgamesh epic. What are we to make of those similarities? Peter Enns argues they allow us to “calibrate” the genre of Genesis.[i] In other words, Genesis looks like a Near Eastern myth because it is, in essence, a Near Eastern myth. So we ought to interpret accordingly. For skeptics, that means we can safely dismiss Genesis. After all, we don’t put any stock in other Near Eastern myths, do we? It’s not surprising skeptics would look at the similarities that way. But what should someone who believes in the inspiration of Scripture do with these similarities?

First off, it’s important to realize there are significant differences between the Genesis accounts and Ancient Near Eastern (ANE) mythology. In fact, many scholars argue the differences are so significant that the author of Genesis couldn’t have had ANE mythology in mind at all. But let’s assume for a moment, for the sake of argument, Genesis does contain mythological imagery. Does that automatically mean we have to throw history out the window? Couldn’t the author have used mythological imagery to describe actual historical events?

If you feel your blood pressure rising, don’t worry. You don’t have to actually agree that Genesis uses ANE mythological imagery. We’re just doing a little thought experiment to examine the potential consequences of this view. And as we’ll see, even if it were shown beyond a doubt that Genesis contained mythological imagery, that wouldn’t mean we’d have to give up the belief that Genesis is recounting actual events.

Why Would the Bible Use Mythological Imagery?

Mythological imagery shaped the ANE worldview

If the author of Genesis wanted to describe historical events, why in the world would he use mythological imagery? To answer that, we need to understand the role myth played in ancient Near Eastern culture. Stories capture our imagination and that makes them powerful tools. The ancient Near Eastern mythmakers used that power to shape the way their listeners looked at the world.

Stories do the same thing in our own culture. Consider how much of our views on romance, for example, are shaped by the movies we watch. No matter how many bad relationships we’ve been in, many of us still believe we’re destined to meet our soul mate. Why? Perhaps we know someone who found love against all odds or perhaps we’ve experienced it ourselves. But a lot it comes from watching movies like Say Anything, Sleepless in Seattle, and the Twilight series. We live in a world where most relationships don’t make it and many of them end badly. Yet we still believe love conquers all. That’s the power of story.

Ancient myths capitalized on that power by crafting stories that shaped the way people looked at the distant past in order to get them to see the present in a certain light. Look at the Atrahasis myth. Human beings are created only when the lesser gods go on strike and refuse to do the work the higher gods give them. That says something about the significance and purpose of human beings. The hierarchy of gods may also have provided an explanation of and justification for the divisions within society. Some are meant to be kings and some are meant to do the work. That’s just the way of things.[ii]

The author of Genesis may have wanted to use the same imagery to set the record straight

The ancient Near Eastern myths represented a culturally shared way of looking at the world. So why might the author of Genesis have wanted to use that mythological imagery? To challenge the very worldview that imagery helped create.

That shouldn’t surprise us. If you wanted to challenge the preconceptions about romance in our culture, you might make a movie that used some of the standard romantic symbols: A quiet and demure woman, who has never been loved, locks eyes with Tall Dark and Handsome across a crowded room. They have their first kiss on New Year’s Eve on top of the Empire State building accompanied by fireworks, and they both swear the earth moved a little bit. Rather than giving them a fairytale ending, though, you might have things go rapidly downhill. Tall Dark and Handsome turns out to be a lazy no-good bum and the quiet and demure woman turns into a nagging shrew.

A tall dark and handsome man, seeing someone across a crowded room, and a kiss on the Empire State building are all well-known romantic symbols that we’ve invested with meaning. They say something about what we think the perfect man and the perfect relationship look like. Based on that, we expect this couple to live happily ever after. But they don’t. That gets our attention. The very symbols that shaped our views on romance can, thus, be effectively used to challenge those views.

That’s what some believe the author of Genesis was doing. By utilizing certain symbols and images, he was able to capitalize on a shared cultural understanding. And by turning those symbols on their heads, he challenged that same cultural understanding and set the record straight.[iii] In Genesis 1, for example, the sky holds back the waters just as it does in Enuma Elish. But in Genesis, the sky is not made out of the carcass of one of the gods; it is created by the one true God who himself is separate from his creation. Adam may have missed out on an opportunity for eternal life just like Gilgamesh, but in Genesis the loss of eternal life doesn’t happen merely as the result of an unfortunate event; it happens as the result of Adam’s sin. Genesis thus capitalizes on the mythological imagery of the ancient Near East, but it invests that imagery with new meaning.

Does That Mean Genesis 1–11 Is Devoid of Historical Value?

If Genesis 1–11 is using mythological imagery, does that mean it’s devoid of historical value? On the issue of Adam and Eve, for example, are we now forced to say they didn’t really exist? Not necessarily. For one, we need to remember many of the Near Eastern myths had a historical core. A cataclysmic flood, for instance, features prominently in a number of the Near Eastern myths. Yet ancient Near Eastern scholars generally have no problem accepting the likelihood that some sort of historical flood lies behind those myths.[iv]

In a similar way, it’s entirely possible a real Adam and Eve lie behind the account in Genesis, even if it contains mythological imagery. In fact, when we look at the overarching storyline of Genesis, there’s reason to believe that’s exactly how the author of Genesis saw Adam and Eve. He may have used symbolic imagery to tell the story, but he assumed Adam and Eve were real people and the Fall was a real event. So let’s take a look at the rest of Genesis and ask whether a historical Adam and Eve and a historical Fall are required to make sense of it.

Three Reasons to Take Historical Adam and Eve Seriously

In the previous section, we discussed why the author of Genesis might have wanted to use mythological imagery to correct the surrounding culture’s worldview. What impact does that have on the issue of Adam and Eve? At first glance, it seems natural to conclude that if Genesis uses mythological imagery, Adam and Eve themselves must also be mythological. As we’ll see, though, we shouldn’t jump to that conclusion—not if we accept the inspiration of Scripture, anyway. From a biblical perspective, there are at least three reasons why we ought to take a historical Adam and Eve seriously.

God’s Calling of Abraham Presupposes an Actual Fall

In Genesis 12, God tells Abraham to leave his home in Ur. In return, he promises to bless Abraham. More importantly, God promises to bless all the nations through him. Why do the nations need blessing? In context, the need stems from what’s gone on in Genesis 1–11. Originally, everything God created was good. Adam and Eve’s sin changed that. Like a plague, sin spread throughout God’s creation. Adam and Eve’s sin in chapter 3 leads to the first murder in chapter 4. As the story continues to unfold, sin continues to spread until the wickedness of mankind gets so bad, God is compelled to send a flood to deal with it. He spares Noah and his family, but things don’t improve. The downward spiral just starts over again, culminating in the nations turning from God in Genesis 11. So, by the time we get to chapter 12, it’s clear the world has gotten off track. God, however, has a plan to fix it. And Abraham has an important role to play in that plan.

The Fall and its aftermath as described in Genesis 1–11, thus, serve as the foundation for Abraham’s calling. If you remove that foundation, you remove Abraham’s significance.[v] Abraham is part of God’s solution to a specific problem, but that problem doesn’t really exist if the Fall didn’t actually happen. Without the Fall, Abraham is just another guy. From a biblical perspective, however, it’s clear Abraham wasn’t just another guy. That means we have to take the reality of the Fall seriously. You can’t erase the Fall from history without also erasing the biblical assessment of Abraham’s role. The author of Genesis may have used mythological imagery to describe the Fall, but it appears we’re still supposed to see it as real event.

Genesis’ Focus on Abraham’s Genealogy Presupposes a Specific Line

Someone might object that doesn’t mean Adam and Eve themselves were real. If the author of Genesis was comfortable using mythological imagery, maybe the Adam and Eve story is just a symbolic way of affirming that the Fall happened, without necessarily specifying how it happened. If that’s the case, aren’t Adam and Eve just two more symbols in the story? But notice the way Genesis traces Abraham’s genealogy. The author goes to great pains to draw a line from Adam to Abraham.[vi] In chapter 5, he includes a genealogy that runs from Adam to Noah, and then in chapter 11 a genealogy that runs from Noah’s son Shem to Abraham. The author’s point isn’t simply that the nations will be blessed through Abraham. His point seems to be that the nations will be blessed through Abraham because Abraham stands in a particular genealogical line. The theme of a particular line being particularly important carries on with Abraham’s children and grandchildren. God’s covenant with Abraham is passed on to Abraham’s son Isaac, not Ishmael, and to Isaac’s son Jacob, not Esau.

If the historical connection between Adam and Abraham weren’t important, the author could simply have painted the picture of the emergence of sin in the past and then moved on to God promising to remedy it through Abraham. But he didn’t do that. The historical connection is important because God intends to work through a specific line. Therefore, whether or not Abraham stands in that line is important. As with the Fall, if we erase that line, we erase the author’s assessment of Abraham’s importance.

Paul’s Understanding of Jesus Presupposes a Real Adam

On top of all that, in the New Testament, Paul draws a connection between Adam and Jesus. We’ll investigate that connection in more detail in the next section. For now, look at Romans 5:17. Paul says, “If, by the trespass of one man, death reigned through that one man, how much more will those who receive God’s abundant provision of grace and of the gift of righteousness reign in life through the one man, Jesus Christ.” It’s clear from Genesis 3 that Adam is the one man through whom death reigned. What does that have to do with Jesus? Jesus’ ability to save us is based on the same principle that allowed Adam to screw everything up for us. In God’s plan, Adam and Jesus in some sense both act as our representatives. According to Paul, that’s how Jesus’ death on the cross is able to save us. As our representative, Jesus died in our place. Adam’s role in getting us into this mess is, therefore, vital to Paul’s understanding of how Jesus gets us out of it. If you erase Adam, you erase Paul’s understanding of what Jesus did for us.[vii]

So, we shouldn’t be too quick to dismiss Adam and Eve. If we take the inspiration of Scripture seriously, we have to take the historicity of Adam and Eve seriously as well.


[i] Peter Enns, The Evolution of Adam: What the Bible Does and Doesn’t Say About Human Origins (Grand Rapids: Brazos Press 2012), 36.

[ii] C.f. John C. Collins, Did Adam and Eve Really Exist?: Who They Were and Why You Should Care (Wheaton: Crossway 2011), 147.

[iii] See Ibid., 149.

[iv] Ibid., 145.

[v] Ibid., 59.

[vi] Ibid., 57.

[vii] Ibid., 82-84.

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