by Kevin L. Hester
I have the privilege of working at Welch College which is nestled in the historic Richland Village neighborhood of Nashville, Tennessee. Every fall I am greeted with the brilliant yellows and bright reds of the neighborhood’s American maples. The beauty of this time of year always brings me back to the glory of God’s creation. My Christian worldview understands the beauty, intricacy, and order of this world within the context of God’s creation as outlined in Genesis 1-2. Sometimes I take this worldview for granted. After all, it isn’t the only one, and it certainly isn’t the predominant view in this country.
Modern science has argued for an alternative worldview story of accident and happenstance. Since Darwin, Christians have wrestled with the implications of his theory for Christianity. At times the Church has incorporated the view by reading “gaps” in the Genesis narrative or epochal “days” of creation. Still other parts of the Church have rejected naturalism entirely, preferring the “literal” interpretation of Genesis. This latter view has been the predominant evangelical view until recently. But more and more evangelicals have embraced forms of “theistic evolution” in an attempt to reconcile science and theology. This has led them to reread or reinterpret the Genesis narrative according to a scientific framework.
While many evangelical Christians have done an exemplary job responding to the challenge of Darwin’s thought, others have embraced it. New “advances” in the study of genetics promise to raise similar questions. Recently, Francis Collins and Karl Giberson of the BioLogos Forum have questioned the existence of a historical Adam and Eve as presented in Genesis. Their position was heavily covered both in Christian media and in secular news programs.
The appearance of a book covering this topic in Zondervan’s Counterpoint Series indicates that such thinking is infiltrating a number of branches of evangelicalism. Yet what is sometimes overshadowed or overlooked by these discussions are the implications of the loss of a historical Adam and Eve for the Church, for the Christian worldview, and for the gospel.
I am sure that technical answers from Christian scientists will be forthcoming. Already advances in discoveries about what was previously thought to be “junk DNA” are promising that there is much more to the story of human diversity both in reference to other species and variety in our own (see here).
Those technical answers will not come from me. I am not a scientist. Rather, I am a Christian theologian who knows what it is like to live in a beautiful, broken world. It is the story of Adam and Even that holds the key to the beauty, the brokenness, and the promise of redemption.
This promise lies in a historical Adam and Eve. Rather than reading Genesis 1-3 according to a scientific preconception of what it must mean, perhaps we should attempt to read it according to the narrative of the book in which it is found. In this case, the Bible is thoroughly historical in nature. Even books that are not strictly historical are set within a historical framework. Some books such as Kings, Chronicles, and Judges are historical in the highest degree. Others like prophecy occur in the context of historical disobedience or punishment. The wisdom literature is tied to historical authors striving to live their faith out in community. Likewise, the Psalms are linked to human authors, attest to human events, and cry out for lived experience in the present and future communities of faith. The Gospels describe the incarnation of Christ in historical detail dating the events by Roman rulers. Acts and the Epistles relate the growth of the Church in time and narrate its experience of living out the faith until Christ’s return. The whole scope of Scripture is historical in nature. Why should we expect anything different from the book of Genesis?
Genesis itself reads as a historical narrative starting as it does “in the beginning.” The ordered arrangement of the creation days speaks to temporal flow. The genealogies and events described all function to set the narrative firmly in the historical genre. The author clearly intends the text to be taken as history. Jesus and Paul likewise understood and presented the story of Adam and Eve as a literal event (cf. Rom. 5:12-14).
The events of Genesis 1-3 tell the basic worldview story of Christianity. Christianity is a historical religion. It preaches a historical gospel about a historical Jesus crucified under Pontius Pilate. But the events of Jesus’ incarnation, death, and resurrection have no meaning without the creation and fall of Adam and Eve. Paul, in Romans 5, outlines that it was Christ who came to set right all that had gone wrong because of Adam’s sin. The effects of the fall are being undone as we are recreated in God’s image as sons and daughters of God, and it is these effects that will be finally undone at the restoration of all things in the new heaven and the new earth. The Christian doctrine of the atonement, of salvation, and the eternal state–of the Gospel itself–are rooted in the historical Adam and Eve.
The story of Adam and Eve also explains human culture and relationships. According to Genesis 1, humans were designed, we did not simply come to be. Things that are designed have a purpose and this purpose is likewise described in the first few chapters of Genesis. Humans were created in God’s image so that they might have a relationship with God and with all the rest of creation. Genesis 2 points out how Eve was created to govern the world together with Adam and to be his partner establishing marriage and the nuclear family as the basis for human culture. Jesus himself makes precisely this point when he discusses the importance of marriage in Matthew 19:4-6. Without the story of such a design, there is no basis for societal norms and no standard for human relationships.
Genesis 1 tells us that what God created was good, but in Genesis 3 we see what humanity has done to God’s creation. Original beauty is marred and relationships are broken by sin. Consistent human experience tells us this is true. We inherently “feel” that something is wrong with the world. Evil exists and we are uncomfortable with it. We recognize beauty, but all too often see the grotesque creeping in around us. But where can such ideas of beauty and brokenness, of right and wrong come from?
The naturalistic worldview has no basis for such categories. In naturalism there is only good and bad for me but human experience consistently tells us that there really are such categories. The story of Adam and Eve, of a good creation corrupted by an evil use of free will explains the categories and promises a way back to the garden.
We need a historical Adam and Eve. The story’s historical reality is confirmed by the literary genre and by its use in Scripture. The historicity of the narrative from Genesis best accords with the historical faith of the Christian Church doctrinally expressed in the atonement as found in evangelical Christianity. It best explains the human desire to love and be loved and the human experience of good and evil, beauty and brokenness. Without Adam and Eve there is no Christianity, and without Christianity there is no hope.
This hope is also promised in the narrative of Adam and Eve. In Genesis 3:15, in the midst of the curses that came as a result of original sin, there is a promise. This promise shines a glimmer of hope in a dark world broken by sin with the story of the defeat of sin and death. You see this is why I can enjoy those autumn leaves. I know they are dying and will fall. I know that there will be months of cold and days with more darkness than light. But because of Adam and Eve, I have hope. I know that what appears dead and broken can be made new again. I know that a beauty lost can be regained.