The Case for Adam and Eve: Our Conversation with C. John Collins

According to author and Covenant Theological Seminary professor C. John Collins, “We need a real Adam and Eve if we are to make sense of the Bible and of life.” In his recent book, Did Adam and Eve Really Exist? Who They Were and Why You Should Care, Collins sees the Adam and Eve narrative as the “worldview story” of the people of God. He illustrates how that story presupposes a real first couple, and how modern life brings us to the same conclusion. This isn’t just the tale of two people, Collins says; it is fundamentally the story that explains who we are, how we got this way, and what hope we have for any relief. ByFaith Editor Richard Doster asked Collins why the truth about Adam and Eve is so important.

Why do we need this book right now? What’s the problem this book solves?

This book began as an invited paper: I was asked to present the case for an actual, historical Adam and Eve at the headwaters of the human race — in other words, the traditional Christian view of our origins. Of course that means that people have come to doubt the tradition — to doubt whether it corresponds to the facts of our origins, or even whether its factuality is important. What leads to such doubts? Of course, different people will be moved by different considerations; but generally speaking there are three factors that are currently leading people to doubt that Adam and Eve were real people at the headwaters of the human race — or at least to doubt that it matters one way or the other.

First, there is the fact that the themes in Genesis parallel themes we find in stories from other ancient Near Eastern cultures; this leads some theologians to conclude that Genesis is just as “mythical” in its intentions and meanings as these other stories are.

We might add to this the feeling that many people have, that since the Bible is such an “old” book, we do it and ourselves a disservice if we use it as a source for information about the prehistoric past.

Second, recent advances in biology seem to push us further away from any idea of an original human couple through whom sin and death came into the world. The evolutionary history of mankind tells us that death and struggle have been part of existence on earth from the earliest moments. Most recently, discoveries about the features of human DNA seem to require that the human population has always had at least as many as a thousand members.

One reason these appeals to the biological sciences get serious attention from traditionally-minded theologians is the work of Francis Collins, the Christian biologist who led the Human Genome Project to a successful conclusion. Collins has written about how his faith relates to his scientific discipline, advocating a kind of theistic evolution that he calls the “Biologos” perspective. Collins agrees with those biologists who contend that traditional beliefs about Adam and Eve are no longer viable.

The traditional narrative of our first parents, who were created morally innocent but came to disobey God, and thus brought sin and death into the experience of all humankind, does the best job with both the Bible and with the data of human life. Third, some theologians and philosophers — and lots of “ordinary” people — think it is impossible that you and I could be affected at our deepest level by anything done long ago.

In the introduction you address nonbelievers, saying, “But think about the deepest intuitions you have about your own existence: … that there is something wrong at the heart of things, … .” You criticize nontraditional interpretations of the Genesis story because they fail to address our deepest intuitions. Still later you reference Pascal and G.K. Chesterton, who both described the Fall as capturing …our hope for something better. Why, in an investigation of objective truth, do you so heavily weigh things as ambiguous as intuition, hope, and nostalgia?

To begin with, these intuitions are, objectively speaking, part of the data that any good story of human life will have to account for. And it’s not just the “scientists” who have an interest in the story of human life; we all do. Indeed, we should rest our story on things that are accessible to all people, things that we all encounter every day — much as C. S. Lewis did in Mere Christianity.

The account of Adam and Eve is not just a tale of two people; the question of their historicity is not just a matter of whether these two people really lived. Rather, it is fundamentally the story that explains who we are right now, how we got this way, and what hope there is of any relief. Humankind is one family, and we must know whether our yearning for justice and compassion among human beings corresponds to anything real. Human beings are noticeably distinct from any other animals, and at the same time our best moralists tell us to treat other animals well — never dreaming of telling the animals to treat us well! Humans generally have some notion of an ideal state of things, an awareness that we don’t always find that ideal realized, and a set of remedies for the lack of realization of the ideal.

Some people in the sciences seek to account for these features of human behavior by explaining them away. I want to insist that these features join other aspects of human behavior found everywhere — like language, moral reasoning, and artistic experience, which make us unique among the animals and bestow on us a distinctive dignity and responsibility. These cannot be explained away. The Christian message claims to contain the true story of the world, and thus to set all human life in its proper context.

The author of the Adam and Eve story, you believe, wrote about actual events but also used rhetorical and literary techniques to shape his readers’ attitudes. Later, you explain that the Bible’s authors aim to give us more than facts; “they want to capture our imaginations, and to convey a particular worldview.”

Genesis, then, is not a literal history book; it’s obviously not a science book. When we read the first book of the Bible what, exactly, are we reading?

Well, the original purpose of Genesis was to provide the ancient Israelites the true story that explained both where they came from and what God had in mind in calling them; they were the heirs of God’s promises to Abraham. And we find in Genesis 12 that God called Abraham so that his family would be the vehicle of blessing to “all the families of the earth” — to all Gentile peoples everywhere. So Genesis 1–11 clarifies that the God who has called Abraham is in fact the one true God, the Maker of heaven and earth, for whom all humankind yearns.

This is a form of what we can call worldview formation. We Christians are the heirs of Abraham; as a Gentile believer I have been adopted into Abraham’s family (Romans 4:11–13). This means that Genesis forms part of my story, too, and I get to share in the indescribable privilege of being a vehicle of God’s blessing to all the families of the earth.

You critique theologians who view the creation story as philosophical — as a story that conveys only “timeless truths” as opposed to actual history. A lot of cynics would find that more plausible than the interpretation that takes the story as “historical.” Why won’t it work?

Well, I would first say that nowadays lots of philosophers are coming to recognize that we should never drive a wedge between “history” and “philosophy”; the preference for the purely timeless is seen as a futile aspiration. We humans learn our values and attitudes from stories that we think are about actual events.

I was in a discussion not long ago with a theologian who prefers the timeless over the historical. Since he is a Christian, he described the mission of Jesus as “fixing what is broken.” What he could not see is that calling human life “broken” entails a narrative — not only is there a standard of wholeness against which we measure our lives, there was an event, or cluster of events, that did the breaking.

Another alternative, which some theologians prefer, would be to say that human life isn’t really “broken”; it’s just “incomplete.” Of course that means that humans first came into the world with a bent toward what the Bible calls “sin” and “evil,” which either means that God is at fault for our condition, or else that He couldn’t help it. Quite apart from whether these are good theological positions, there is the simple fact that they both involve a narrative. The real question becomes, which narrative is right?

I would insist that the traditional narrative of our first parents, who were created morally innocent but came to disobey God and thus brought sin and death into the experience of all humankind, does the best job with both the Bible and with the data of human life.

To make the case for a literal Adam and Eve you take an entire chapter to explain how the whole of the Bible — Old Testament writers, New Testament writers, and even Jesus Himself — assumes their existence. Skeptics, I imagine, would point to a dearth of scientific knowledge and to a general lack of sophistication in an earlier era.

Yes, indeed they would, and do. Of course for Christians, our confidence that God “breathed out” his Word in “all Scripture” gives us the confidence as well that He would not allow his Word to mislead us, especially on something as important as the beginning of our story.

Nevertheless, someone might argue that God accommodated his communication to the understanding of the biblical writers, since teaching them science or world history wasn’t really His goal. I am sympathetic with the second part of that argument (see Shorter Catechism 3) but do not always know what people mean by the first part. In any case we have to ask, how does this particular passage fit in with the whole story of the Bible? I devoted a chapter to showing why the events of Adam and Eve underlie the whole sweep of the Bible in such a way that nothing makes sense without these events.

Now, the skeptic who is not yet a committed Christian believer needs more than that. That is why I spent another chapter on what is really an apologetic, showing that the things we can see in humans all over the world surely require a story that is along the lines of the Adam and Eve narrative. And I spent another chapter on how we might relate the biblical story to science and history.

Toward the end of the book you summarize several Adam and Eve “scenarios.” A number of them imagine that Adam and Eve were not the only two humans on Earth at the time of the Fall. In your view, is it possible for Adam to be the federal head of creation — to be the man through whom sin entered the world — if he didn’t physically precede the rest of humanity?

Here is how I would summarize what the Bible is expecting us to believe: The notion that humankind is actually one family, with one set of ancestors for us all. God acted specially (or “supernaturally”) to form our first parents. Our first ancestors, at the headwaters of the human race, brought sin and dysfunction into the world of human life.

So the short answer to your question is that Adam is presented to us as having preceded the rest of humankind.

Now, I hold to a scenario that is simple, namely that God formed Adam by scooping up some loose dirt and fashioning it into the very first man, and then God formed Eve using a part of Adam’s body; there are no other humans around when they sin. I also recognize that Genesis 1–11 works by presenting us with both actual events and the divinely-authorized way of picturing its events, but it doesn’t answer all of our questions. Thus it seems reasonable to me to allow for some differences of opinion on some of the details. The late Francis Schaeffer offered an approach that he called “freedoms and limitations”: We have some room to imagine various scenarios, and at the same time we have boundaries on just what sorts of scenarios are worth considering.

The late English evangelical scholar Derek Kidner, in his commentary on Genesis, was struck by things in Genesis 4 (such as Cain’s fear that someone would take vengeance on him) that seemed to imply that there were more humans around than just Adam, Eve, Cain, and Abel; perhaps there was even a community by the time Cain killed Abel. Kidner suggested that maybe, after God had formed Adam and then Eve, he also formed a larger community. (He supposed that perhaps God did this “forming” by operating supernaturally on pre-existing hominids.) This is not my view, and in my book I offer some reasons why I don’t think Genesis 4 suggests what Kidner thought it does. But I hold Kidner in such high regard that I also gave some guidelines, and some fences, to anyone who finds his argument persuasive. Further, there are some genetics researchers who think that the diversity we find in human DNA around the world is too large to be the result of only two first humans. Again, I have mentioned some scientific papers that I think this line of thinking has overlooked, which may undermine its credibility. But I do not think I should be telling geneticists what they may or may not find in the human genome. Rather, I must insist that they reason well with what they find. So again, I have given some guidelines and fences to people who might think that this genetic reasoning undercuts the credibility of the biblical story, to help them keep their heads and to keep hold on biblical truth.

These guidelines are four; the fourth covers the specific topic of your query.

(1) To begin with, we should see that the origin of the human race goes beyond a merely natural process. This follows from how hard it is to get a human being or, more theologically, how distinctive the image of God is.

(2) We should see Adam and Eve at the headwaters of the human race. This follows from the unified experience of mankind: Where else could all human beings come to bear God’s image?

(3) The “Fall” was both historical (it happened) and moral (it involved disobeying God), and occurred at the beginning of the human race. Our universal sense of loss makes no sense without this. Where else could this universality have come from?

(4) If someone should find himself persuaded that there were, in fact, more human beings than just Adam and Eve at the beginning of humankind, then, in order to maintain good sense and a biblical mind, he should envision these humans as a single tribe. Adam would then be the chieftain of this tribe (produced before the others), and Eve would be his wife. This tribe “fell” under the leadership of Adam and Eve. This follows from the notion of solidarity in a representative.

You will notice that, by the fourth criterion, Adam is still the first-formed man (as the ancient Jews would call him), and God’s appointed representative who acts on behalf of all humankind, and with whom all human beings are in solidarity. (This is what our being “in” him means.) If he were not the first formed, I am at a loss to account for this representation and solidarity.

C. John Collins is professor of Old Testament at Covenant Theological Seminary in St. Louis. he has degrees from MIT and Faith Evangelical Lutheran Seminary, and holds a doctorate from the University of Liverpool. collins pursues research interests in Hebrew and Greek grammar, science and faith, and biblical theology. He is the author of The God of Miracles.

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