Was Adam for Real, and Does It Matter?
Pastor John, as you know, there is an ongoing debate about the historicity of Adam. Did Adam really exist or not? And of course, if Adam existed and if he was created from the dust, that creates all sorts of tensions in the world. Before we get into the theological implications for pastors and for missionaries, explain more about why there is so much debate over the historicity of Adam.
First of all, I recently got a letter from a scholar who has been asked to write for a new book that is coming out on the four views of the historical Adam, who just wanted to get my take on the pastoral implications of the issue. So there is just a front-burner example of how pressing it is.
Before you called, I pulled up Wikipedia and typed in something like “Humanity.” Consider this sentence: “The splitting date between human and chimpanzee lineages is placed around 4.8 million years ago during the late Mycean epic.” That is just stated as a pure fact right there in the Wikipedia article that first, human beings are the present — though not the final — capstone of an evolutionary process lasting millions or billions of years from inanimate, raw matter to what we have as human beings today. And the emergence of what we call “human” happened millions of years ago. So, there is part of the origin for why there is a debate.
When you go to the Bible, the picture you have is of an Adam and Eve created specially by God, not from preceding forms of human or animal life, and created a good bit more recently than millions of years ago. You might stretch the genealogical tables out to ten thousand years, if there are some missing links, but not much further than that. So, the debate comes from this contrast between the world’s view of God either not being, or being, involved in an evolutionary process that goes on over millions of years, and what the Bible presents as Adam and Eve created in a special way, directly by God, more recently.
The Historical Adam and Practical Ministry
Pastor John, so what would you say to the pastor of a local church who says, “You know, I do not really care about how humanity started. I am just called to preach the gospel to the people in my church right now.” What would you say to him?
I think I would probably start by asking him how important the Bible is in his ministry. If you tend to minister with a kind of canon within a canon — if you pick out a center that you love and you just make that your Bible, rather than the whole of the Bible — then I am probably going to have a hard time answering you.
But if you care about the whole Bible as God’s inspired Word, and if you believe that whatever center you identify is centered in the whole of revelation — because God thought it wise to give us the whole book in order to protect the center — then I think I would say, “You have to care about the way the whole Bible characterizes human beings and the origin of human beings.”
"Rejecting Adam as a real figure in history will cripple our Bible reading over time."
Furthermore, the Bible presents a view that if you deny the historical Adam, you are probably going to set your people on a trajectory of understanding the Bible or how to read the Bible that could undo the things that you think are more central. So, the first answer is hermeneutical: what are you doing to the Bible when you neglect or disregard the teachings of the Bible? What are you going to do when Luke 3 traces Jesus’s genealogy all the way back to Adam, not just to Abraham? What are you going to do when the prophets themselves, like Hosea, refer to the covenant with Adam? What are you going to do when Jude refers to Enoch as the seventh from Adam? What are you going to do with Genesis 2 and 3, where the foundational nature of our problem in sin is drawn from the disobedience of our original father?
Adam and Justification
Finally, I think the most important thing I would say to him is that when you get to Romans 5:12–21, the way that Paul sets up the whole problem with humanity and the whole resolution of the problem in Jesus is by saying that Adam disobeyed God, and in him we were all counted as sinners. And Jesus obeyed God perfectly, and all who are in him are counted as righteous. So, the whole structure of salvation — particularly justification — in Paul’s mind is rooted in the way humanity relates to a single father, Adam. And the way the new humanity relates to a single Father, Jesus.
So, hermeneutically, it is going to be damaging for his people and they will not learn how to read their Bibles and they will start undermining teachings of the Bible. And then, as far as salvation goes — as far as justification goes — you are going to undo the Pauline structure of biblical theology if you do away with the historical Adam.