Reading Genesis 1-3 Pt. 4 – Adam, Eve and the Meaning of the Fall

In this installment, we look at some typically sensitive questions: did Adam and Eve really exist and what does it mean for the Fall narrative if they didn’t and/or evolution is true?

Adam and Eve in paradise (The Fall), by Lucas Cranach the Elder

Adam and Eve

In the second creation narrative, it is stated that Adam and Eve were special creations of God. Adam was formed from the earth and Eve from Adam’s rib. Evolution paints a different story with regards to our human ancestry. Ostling quotes Dennis R. Venema as saying that Homo sapiens are not “biologically independent, de novo creations, but share common ancestry.” This common ancestry is not only with hominid and hominin species, but with all life, when traced back to the origin of the first living organisms. In the common ancestry it could still be asked whether there existed a first human couple, Adam and Eve, or a factual couple that they were based upon. Here comes the answer that many are uneasy with: That human beings originated with one original couple is highly unlikely. Population genomics is a discipline that sought to establish the size of the first human populations. The genetic diversity present in modern humans was utilized in the study. Researchers found a “bottleneck” at about 150,000 years ago and every human being is descendent from the small group that existed at that time. This population consisted of several thousand individuals and two starting individuals would not have been able to produce the genetic diversity found in modern humans.

What do we do now? As with the other themes in the first chapters of Genesis, the unlikely historicity of Adam and Eve do not strip them from meaning. Peter Enns states that “The Bible itself invites a symbolic reading by using cosmic battle imagery and by drawing parallels between Adam and Israel,” he sees the narratives in Genesis as only pertaining to the origin of the Israelites and not to humanity as a whole. For Robert Davidson, Adam “is not the first man who lived at a particular place and time in human history; he is ‘Everyman,’ the ‘Everyman’ in us.” Denis Lamoureux is unapologetic and direct when he states that “Adam never existed, and this fact has no impact whatsoever on the foundational beliefs of Christianity.” According to Lamoureux, “the Holy Spirit descended to the level of the biblical author of Genesis 1 and used his incidental ancient science regarding biological origins” to disclose “infallible messages of faith about the human spiritual condition.”

Michael Ruse explains it clearly:

Humans are not all bad. We cooperate and work together. Humans are not all good. We are selfish and serve our own ends rather than the needs of others. This is our nature, and it is precisely the nature that we find supposed at the heart of Christianity. We are born this way, and it is no chance – it is part of our heritage. Not a literal Adam who ate an apple, but proto-humans forged by natural selection who survived and reproduced by being both cooperative and selfish. And we are not going to change, whatever our intentions. It is as silly to think that we are all going to do good because of some internal motivation or external exhortation, as to think that always and in every way we are going to be mean and selfish. In this respect, there is a perfect consilience between the Darwinian human and the Christian human.

The Fall of Man by Titian

The Meaning of the Fall

Now that the literal historicity of the Fall has been examined, we turn to the meaning of the Fall. John A. Bloom states that if the Genesis narratives of the first two humans and the Fall are mere myths, “then the theological foundation for the nuclear family, sin and death appears to be eroded. The credibility of the Bible when it speaks on these issues seems to be damaged: If it does not correctly explain the origin of a problem, why should one trust its solutions?” Richard Phillips, an evangelical pastor, states that “The hermeneutics behind theistic evolution are a Trojan horse that, once inside our gates, must cause the entire fortress of Christian belief to fall.” Paul A. Zimmerman writes that “[u]nder evolutionary philosophy there is no such thing as original sin, therefore there is no need of a Redeemer. This undercuts the essence of Christology; nothing is left.” Henry Morris states that “[w]ithout a literal Fall, there is no need for redemption and thus no need for Jesus or Christianity.” The Catholic Cardinal Christoph Schönborn admitted that original sin is a “particularly delicate subject.”

This delicate subject is called into serious doubt by the natural sciences. Christopher Southgate points out that “the scientific record of the Earth’s long history before the advent of human beings calls into profound question any account that regards human sin as the cause of struggle and suffering in the nonhuman creation in general. Predation, violence, parasitism, suffering, and extinction were integral parts of the natural order long before Homo sapiens.” In the science-religion journal Zygon, Southgate states more plainly that the “evolutionary narrative of the long history of life on Earth banishes forever the notion that it was human action, human sin, that caused the presence of violence and suffering in nature.” Referring to the theology of Andrew Elphinstone, where Elphinstone states that the travail of humankind is a result of aspirations to reach higher than we can, Southgate comments that he would read the story of the Fall as a “description of humans as a species that never knows its place.” The account of the Tower of Babel also drives this point home. The Fall narrative provides a model of humankind’s fallen nature.

Southgate furthermore argues that we cannot read Genesis 3 in a literal sense about a “Fall-event,” but rather about “fallenness.” It is interesting to note that the Hebrew word for fall is not used in this scripture. Jesuit theologian Jack Mahoney sees the account of Adam and Eve as an etiological narrative which “teaches that sin has been around as long as humanity has: its genesis and origin are not in God, but from human beings.” Mahoney continues to say that “[i]t may well be true that at some stage in human evolution something went badly wrong, morally speaking,” but that there is not one original sin that is passed on from generation to generation and that there is no biblical warrant for such an idea. Gordon Wenham states that the second and third chapters of Genesis offer “a paradigm of sin, a model of what happens whenever man disobeys God. It is paradigmatic in that it explains through a story what constitutes sin and what sin’s consequences are.”

Robin Collins sums up the meaning of original sin in what he terms is the Historical/Ideal view, which “denies that human beings were ever in a paradisal state, it nonetheless holds that the Garden story in Genesis 2-3 is rich in theological meaning along several dimensions.” According to Collins, original sin refers to three things:

  1. The sinful choices of the first hominids, or group of hominids, that possessed consciousness and the capacity of making free choices.
  2. The continuing sinful choices of the succeeding generations including ourselves as we come into self-consciousness.
  3. The resulting bondage to sin and spiritual darkness that is inherited from our ancestors and generated by our own choices.

What is important to note from Collins’ three points is that sinful choices were made and propagated. Humans are free to make choices, but there are always consequences to choices. Conor Cunningham remarks that “[c]ognition and freedom on the one hand, and error and guilt on the other … belong intrinsically together…” This error and guilt is part of the human condition. Mark Isaak, with regards to the arguments that without a literal Fall, there is no Christianity, points out that it is “sin in general, and not merely one particular instance of sin, that makes redemption necessary. If you can find any sin in the world then the claim is baseless,” he goes on to say that claiming that without a literal Fall, there is no need for Jesus and redemption “implies that sin and redemption are about things that happened thousands of years ago, not about anything happening to us today. It makes religion less relevant to people’s lives.” Michael Ruse states that regarding “our fallen nature and our human need for redemption in some way, Genesis is not false, but it is not something that can be read straight off. One must delve into the deeper, more profound meaning…”

This deeper meaning of our fallenness does not stop at the human species, but, like ripples in a pond, the consequences are carried further into the world we live in. Southgate states that we can see the fallenness of human nature from our “snatching at resources, and humans’ admiring of their own image and ingenuity at the expense of truly working to understand the nonhuman world,” with the implication that “[h]umans can be thought of as fallen, not only in interpersonal relationships but in relation to other creatures and our environment as a whole.” Human fallennes extends to relationships between people, but also the relationship between us and the environment. Mahoney explains sin as “humanity’s yielding to evolutionary selfishness and declining to accept the invitation to self-transcendence; it is a refusal to transcend oneself in the interest of others.” To deny the historical factuality of the Fall event is not to deny that human beings have a nature that can be thought of as fallen. It does not deny that humans sin and need divine forgiveness. 

Sources:

Collins, R 2003. Evolution and original sin. In: Miller, K B (ed). Perspectives on an evolving creation. Grand Rapids: William B Eerdmans: 469-501.

Cunningham, C. 2010. Darwin’s pious idea: Why the ultra-Darwinists and creationists both get it wrong. Grand Rapids: William B Eerdmans.

Davidson, R. 1973. Genesis 1-11. Cambridge: Cambridge University Press.

Isaak, M. 2007. The counter-creationism handbook. Berkeley: University of California Press.

Mahoney, J. 2011. Christianity in evolution: An exploration. Washington: Georgetown University Press.

Ruse, M. 2006. Darwinism and its discontents. New York: Cambridge University Press.

Southgate, C. 2002. God and evolutionary evil: Theodicy in the light of Darwinism, Zygon 37(4):801-824.

______2008. The groaning of creation: God, evolution, and the problem of evil. London: Westminster John Knox Press.

______2011. Re-reading Genesis, John, and Job: A Christian response to Darwinism, Zygon 46(2): 370-395.

Wenham, G J. 1987. Word Biblical commentary. Volume 1: Genesis 1-15. Waco: Word Books.

Zimmerman, P A. 2009. Darwin at 200 and the challenge of intelligent design. CTQ 73: 61-75.

Also see:

The Historical-Ideal View of Adam and Eve by Ted Davis and Robin Collins and other articles in their series.