On yesterday’s Morning Edition show on National Public Radio, religion correspondent Barbara Bradley Hagerty did a piece on biblical literalism: “Evangelicals question the existence of Adam and Eve.” (The link contains not only the broadcast piece, but its full transcript). I’ve always maintained that this piece of the Old Testament, which is easily falsified by modern genetics (modern humans descended from a group of no fewer than 10,000 individuals), shows more than anything else the incompatibility between science and faith. For if you reject the Adam and Eve tale as literal truth, you reject two central tenets of Christianity: the Fall of Man and human specialness. These can then be saved only by post facto theological rationalizations about why humans are special in an evolutionary sense, and also sufficiently sinful to require salvation.
It’s a pretty good piece given that it’s only about eight minutes long, and accurately portrays the controversy. Here is the cast of characters:
The diehards (Biblical literalists):
Fuzale Rana, president of Reasons to Believe. “But if the parts of Scripture that you are claiming to be false, in effect, are responsible for creating the fundamental doctrines of the Christian faith, then you’ve got a problem.” . . . “I think this is going to be a pivotal point in Church history because what rests at the very heart of this debate is whether or not key ideas within Christianity are ultimately true or not.”
Albert Mohler, president of the Southern Baptist Theological Seminary.
“When Adam sinned, he sinned for us,” Mohler says. “And it’s that very sinfulness that sets up our understanding of our need for a savior.
Mohler says the Adam and Eve story is not just about a fall from paradise: It goes to the heart of Christianity. He notes that the Apostle Paul (in Romans 5 and 1 Corinthians 15) argued that the whole point of Jesus’ crucifixion and resurrection was to undo Adam’s original sin.
“Without Adam, the work of Christ makes no sense whatsoever in Paul’s description of the Gospel, which is the classic description of the Gospel we have in the New Testament,” Mohler says.
Dennis Venema, a senior fellow at BioLogos who has written there about the genetic problems with the Adam and Eve story.
Asked how likely it is that we all descended from Adam and Eve, Dennis Venema, a biologist at Trinity Western University, replies: “That would be against all the genomic evidence that we’ve assembled over the last 20 years, so not likely at all.”
John Schneider, former teacher at Calvin College.
“Evolution makes it pretty clear that in nature, and in the moral experience of human beings, there never was any such paradise to be lost,” Schneider says. “So Christians, I think, have a challenge, have a job on their hands to reformulate some of their tradition about human beginnings.” [JAC: What he means is that they have to make new stuff up.]
Daniel Harlow, religion professor at Calvin College.
“Evangelicalism has a tendency to devour its young. You get evangelicals who push the envelope, maybe; they get the courage to work in sensitive, difficult areas, and they get slapped down. They get fired or dismissed or pressured out.”
“Uncle” Karl Giberson, former vice president of BioLogos.
“When you ignore science, you end up with egg on your face. The Catholic Church has had an awful lot of egg on its face for centuries because of Galileo. And Protestants would do very well to look at that and to learn from it.”
Why is this important? Because it strikes at the heart of the debate between science and faith. Here is a case in which science has absolutely falsified a major tenet of a major religion. (This isn’t new, of course, for the Biblical Flood never happened either. But the flood is nowhere near as important in Christian theology as is the Adam and Eve tale.) This shows, first of all, that the accommodationist claim that science and religion aren’t in conflict is flatly wrong. The only way to save the comity of science and religion is to assert, hypocritically, that Biblical literalists simply have the wrong faith.
Second, it will force believers to choose one path or another: they can be literalists, and look really dumb to thinking people, or they can be accommodationists, and make stuff up to save the Adam and Eve story. Fuzale Rana, literalist though he is, is correct when he says, “But if the parts of Scripture that you are claiming to be false, in effect, are responsible for creating the fundamental doctrines of the Christian faith, then you’ve got a problem.”
Yes, you’ve got a problem. Because if Adam and Eve didn’t really exist in the way the Bible describes them, maybe Jesus didn’t either. And if he didn’t, there goes Christianity. For even non-literalist but evangelical Christians, like Francis Collins, hold fast to the literal truth of the divinity and resurrection of Christ. Why does that story bear more veracity than Adam and Eve? If it doesn’t, there’s simply no good reason to continue being a Christian.
Few religious accommodationists, including those at BioLogos, have the stomach to dismiss the Adam and Eve story as complete fiction. Rather, they concoct all sorts of convoluted stories about how there could have been a literal Adam and Eve but that the two weren’t really the genetic ancestors of all humanity. Or there was some point in which God instilled a pair, or a small band of humans, with some inherent sinfulness. But of course that looks pretty bad, too, for it becomes palpably clear that “sophisticated theology” is just a rearguard action against the advances of science. As I always say (and I want some credit for my quote!):
“Theology is the art of making religious virtues out of scientific necessities.”
I suspected that BioLogos wouldn’t like the NPR story, for Dennis Venema, its own guy, was on record as dissing the historicity of Adam and Eve but not trying to save the story in some other way, which of course is a major goal of Biologos‘s attempted rapprochement with evangelical Christians. So today Linda Applegate and Darrel Falk (president of BioLogos) issued a response to what I saw as a fairly evenhanded story on NPR. They’re trying so save some historicity of Adam and Eve, and it’s worth quoting in extenso just to show the tortuous ways accommodationist Christians try to save the story:
While we at BioLogos appreciate many aspects of the story, we need to make one all-important clarification: the debate over the historicity of Adam and Eve is primarily a theological debate, one that is more complex than the story lets on. All science can say is that there was never a time when only two people existed on the earth: it is silent on whether or not God began a special relationship with a historical couple at some point in the past. This subtle but extremely important point was missed entirely in the NPR story. It is a consideration that we raise repeatedly at BioLogos. See, for example this article by Daniel Harrell and this series by Denis Alexander. . .
It is important for Evangelicals to know that science is silent on the historicity of two people named Adam and Eve, just as it is silent on the existence of persons named Abraham, Isaac, and Moses. Adam and Eve may well have been two real people, who through the grace of God entered into a paradisiacal relationship with him, until—tragedy of tragedies— they allowed their own self-centered desires to reign in their hearts, instead of their love for God. Although genetics convincingly shows that there was never a time when there were just two persons, the Bible itself may even provide hints of the existence of other people—likely we’ve all wondered about those hints since we were children. “Did Cain marry his sister?” we want to know. “Who were the people that Cain was afraid of as he wandered the earth after killing Abel? If they were his brothers or nephews, why didn’t the author refer to them that way?” The author doesn’t seem to be as puzzled by this as we are. We’ve always known about those little pointers—in fact, ancient interpreters wrestled with them too, long before Darwin or modern genetics appeared on the scene. So it ought not to necessarily surprise us for genetics to come along and confirm that, sure enough, there were others around at the time of Adam and Eve.
The NPR story, as much as we appreciate it, implies that, according to science, there are only two options for Christians—dismiss the conclusions of science, or dismiss the notion of a historical couple named Adam and Eve. This is simply not the whole story. Any dismissal of a historical couple, who entered into relationship with God only to sin and break that relationship, is going to have to come from theology. There is no scientific reason to upset that theological apple cart. Indeed as scientists, we must respect the theological diversity of Evangelicalism.
Cain and Abel, of course, were the sons of Adam and Eve, not just “others who were around at the time of Adam and Eve”. And their existence wouldn’t change the fact that humanity was, according to that story, genetically descended from Adam and Eve, because Cain and Abel (and any sister they had), were genetic descendants too.
BioLogos says that “any dismissal of a historical couple” who broke a convenant with God “is going to have to come from theology.” But of course theology isn’t capable of dismissing or verifying a historical couple. That’s the purview of science, and science already tells us that the whole story is bogus. We’re not descended from two people, and there’s not the slightest evidence that there were ever any two people who caused humanity to be sinful, or that humans suddenly started behaving badly only about 10,000 years ago. The Adam and Eve story is bunk, the fictional remnants of a superstitious and prescientific age, and theologians who want any credibility (is that an oxymoron?) should admit as much.
Was the serpent really a kitteh? Remember, these stories are metaphorical.
h/t: Uncle Karl