Were Adam and Eve Real People?

How History Hangs on Their Story

Article by

Professor, Westminster Theological Seminary

The teaching of Scripture on the subject of human origins is foundational to the rest of the Bible. It is also vital to our understanding of who we are as humans in relationship to God and to the rest of creation. This should not be surprising, as every culture in history has had a set of origin stories that answer similar questions. The theory of evolution functions in this role for many modern people — as an explanatory story of origins rather than as a technical account of scientific processes.

Did mankind gradually evolve from various lower life-forms, rising by a purely naturalistic process until finally reaching our present state (as taught by naturalistic evolution)? In that case, the biblical account of the creation of Adam and Eve is, at best, a figurative myth that may describe the human condition, but has no connection with actual events.

Or was the slow onward and upward progress toward humanity steered by God and perhaps decisively directed by him, as he took a pair (or clan) of hominids and endowed them with something special (a “soul”) that made them an entirely new species (as maintained by theistic evolution)? In that case, the Genesis stories may represent historical events, but only in a rather stylized form.

Or do our origins stem from a unique instantaneous act of special creation from the dust of the earth on the part of God (as argued by special creation)? This last view interprets the events of Genesis as an accurate rendition of actual historical events.

The answers to these questions are vital in shaping the rest of our understanding of the meaning and destiny of the cosmos.

Sons and Daughters of Adam

The biblical data consistently understands Adam and Eve to have been real individual human beings from whom all humanity’s descent may be traced. This representation begins as early as Genesis 4, where Adam and Eve have sexual relations and produce children, one of whom kills another. In Genesis 5, there is a lengthy genealogy of Adam’s descendants, whose offspring eventually form all the nations of the world listed in Genesis 10. The contents of these stories are reproduced in similar genealogies in the books of Chronicles and Luke, which trace Adam’s descendants down to those who returned from the exile (1 Chronicles 1–9) and to Jesus Christ (Luke 3:23–38).

Likewise, Jesus treats the account of Adam’s and Eve’s initial union as forming a historical basis for the sanctity of marriage (Matthew 19:5–6), while Paul’s line of argument in Romans 5 and 1 Corinthians 15 rests not only on the real existence of Adam and Eve but also on their unique fall into sin. Also several New Testament texts refer to Cain and Abel, the first sons of Adam and Eve, as real historic individuals (Matthew 23:35; Hebrews 11:4; 1 John 3:12; and Jude 11).

In Romans 5:12–19, Paul’s argument rests on Adam as a particular historical individual whose personal choices have governed all of subsequent humanity. According to Paul, Adam was our covenant head, whose disobedience in the fall brought sin into the world, and with it, death (Romans 5:12). Every human being who has died did so because of Adam’s sin and the impact that it has on us all. His original sin means that we all enter this world with depraved and spiritually dead natures, unable to choose what is right. Because of that first sin, we no longer have the same kind of unfallen will that Adam had.

The Shape of Scripture

This brief look at Scripture’s witness to Adam and Eve also reveals a shape to the Bible’s storyline that is at odds with the evolutionary story — whether of the naturalistic or theistic varieties. Augustine, for example, mapped the history of the human will in four stages based on the Bible’s description of creation and redemption. In the beginning, before the fall, humans had a genuine choice to sin or not to sin. That freedom was lost after the fall: now we are not free not to sin.

We may have the ability to choose to sin in different ways — for example, by proudly building a repertoire of self-righteousness rather than plunging into every form of evil — but the thoughts of our hearts and the fruits borne by those thoughts are fundamentally evil (Romans 8:5–8). Only with new birth do we have the ability to begin to do what is right for the right motivation — to the glory of God. And it is not until we are fully redeemed in heaven that we will be free to the point where we can no longer sin — which is to be free indeed.

Augustine’s understanding of the biblical narrative thus assigns a particular shape to cosmic history: a good creation, fall into sin, redemption, and consummation. This is quite a different perspective on the nature of history from the understanding of an evolutionary view, which (in its religious versions) typically anticipates the upward and onward progress of the soul.

The evolutionary origin story begins with a chaotic world that slowly and gradually either self-organizes (on a naturalistic view) or is slowly organized by God (on a theistic view) until it finally reaches a state of order and “goodness.” On either view, however, this state of goodness is necessarily reached only toward the end of the story, after a long history of struggle and conflict.

Good in the Beginning

Compared to the evolutionary origin story, the biblical creation narrative has a distinctly different shape: it begins with a world about which God can say, “This is good” (Genesis 1:18). Subsequently, because of human sin, we encounter the world in which we now live, a chaotic and broken creation that is groaning under the effects of sin’s curse, waiting for its redemption by God (Romans 8:19–22). The down payment on this new creation has arrived with the coming of Christ, such that anyone who is in him has begun to share in its effects (2 Corinthians 5:17). Nevertheless, the fullness of that new creation will not arrive until Christ’s return.

This is how the writers of Scripture articulate the story (see, for example, 1 Corinthians 15:21–24, 45). It is clear that God could have revealed a creation story with a shape more consonant with the evolutionary narrative, had he chosen to do so. Indeed, it is striking that most ancient Near Eastern creation stories have a shape similar to that modern evolutionary narrative, beginning with chaos and ending with (a fragile) cosmos.

Yet the shape of the narrative in Genesis, and the one articulated elsewhere in Scripture, is quite different, and ultimately incompatible with the evolutionary account. Humanity, along with the rest of creation, did not gradually evolve from chaos to goodness. Rather, creation, with Adam and Eve as the capstone, was good in the beginning.

New Creation and the Gospel

Understanding Adam’s and Eve’s role in history is also foundational to understanding the gospel. Without understanding the problem that started in the garden, we do not have a proper framework to understand the solution of God at Calvary.

Paul articulates our present state in this world in Romans 3:23: “All have sinned and fallen short of the glory of God.” In Ephesians 2:1–2, Paul says, “You were dead in the trespasses and sins in which you once walked, following the course of this world.” Because of our descent from Adam, as Paul explains in Romans 5, we are all by nature sinners, guilty before God. As the prophet Isaiah reminds us, it is not just our obviously sinful acts that are the problem; apart from Christ, our very righteousness is as unclean rags in God’s sight (Isaiah 64:6). Because a real Adam plunged us, his descendants, into guilt and sin, we need another representative, a second Adam, to stand in our place.

In contrast, evolutionary religion has no original good state of creation. Human “evil” is simply part of the chaotic brokenness and disorder of the universe that will eventually be overcome by progress. On that view, Jesus did not come to undo Adam’s fall and to live the perfect life for us. Rather, it declares that Jesus shows me a model of what new creation life looks like. I should try to live in imitation of that example, saving myself through my good works (perhaps with a little help from God).

New Paradise for New People

What is more, the fallenness that stems from Adam’s sin has a profound impact not merely on humanity but on all creation. In Romans 8:19–25, Paul describes creation eagerly waiting with anticipation for God’s sons to be revealed. This is the hope that we have as believers in Christ: not merely individual salvation, but the renovation of all creation, which was subjected to frustration through Adam’s sin.

Just as the historical Adam was our covenant head by virtue of creation, from whom we inherit a sinful nature that leads to physical and spiritual death, so too Jesus Christ has come in history to be the covenant head of a new humanity, the church, which receives a righteousness reckoned to us by faith in him, which leads to life in God’s presence forever.

The issue at stake in the historicity of Adam and Eve and their immediate creation from the dust of the earth is thus not merely creation versus evolution in terms of the origin of the universe; it is ultimately evolution (salvation by works) versus new creation (salvation by grace) in terms of our salvation. The historicity of a unique first couple, Adam and Eve, is foundational to a proper understanding of our redemption and the universe’s consummation as well as of our beginnings.