A Book Review of Did Adam and Eve Really Exist?
Anyone who is serious about grappling with the question of how science and religion interact must at some point address creation. Setting aside all the different models of how they have interacted in the past or how they should interact now, science and religion virtually collide when considering the existence of the universe. While the Bible stands alone as the one document that claims the universe had a beginning, its unique truth claims about many other subjects cannot be sustained on that one fact from cosmology. If the Christian theist is to be properly equipped to defend the truth claims of the Bible she must be able to defend Genesis against other, purely naturalistic, views of human origins.
But before Christians can defend Genesis, one should know what it actually says about the origins of humanity. It is at this point that everyone interested in this topic runs into a brick wall. Over the last two hundred years, a lot of unnecessary and even harmful ideology has accumulated on the creation narrative found in Genesis 1-4. Christians have become so adept at arguing about secondary issues, that we have lost sight of the primary ideas we should defend.
It is at this point that C. John Collins’ book, Did Adam and Eve Really Exist? Who They Were and Why You Should Care provides invaluable analysis in defending what he refers to as the “traditional view” of Adam and Eve. In the tradition of Lewis’ term “mere Christianity,” Collins calls his position “mere historical Adam-and-Eve-ism” that simply asserts “…Adam and Eve as our first parents who brought sin into human experience.” In adopting this “mere historical” view Collins deliberately avoids topics that are not essential to this view.
The most useful arguments in this book are those that adjust or revise how we view the creation narrative. The “protohistory” (chapters 1-11) of Genesis must be read and understood differently from the categories that science, concordism, young earth creationism, etc. impose on the text. It must be understood in terms of different categories that allow for it to be truthful without being accurate in terms that modern western society would assume. In other words, Genesis should be read in light of its intended audience (descendants of Israel who had lived in slavery to a pagan, polytheistic culture) and not in terms of any categories of thought today. Genesis explains a worldview in which a single omnipotent and loving God is creator and sovereign over all things. This worldview shows how God wants to restore and redeem humanity from the consequences of the rebellion of Adam and Eve.
One of Collins’ stated goals is to show how the traditional view of Adam and Eve does the best job of explaining the rest of the Bible and the universal experience of humanity. That experience not only includes the reality of sin as something we all experience and from which we desire relief, but also the idea that humans have unique capacities that set them apart from everything else. Whatever theory of human origins one adopts, it must account for the common experiences of humanity as more than just a mere illusion.
The Bible must be read as a single story of God’s plan to redeem humanity. We deprive the Bible of its power to transform and shape our lives if we do not see the Bible from a holistic point of view. Collins argues compellingly that the story of the entire Bible requires the traditional view of Adam and Eve. Any view that rejects Adam and Eve or their rebellion against God as being real is not just at odds with Genesis, but also with the rest of the Bible, including the Gospels as well.
There are three criteria for evaluating creation models in light of the Genesis narrative. First, Adam and Eve, the first humans were specially creation by God. Their bodies were not developed from previous animals and then en-souled by God. The “image of God,” whatever meanings might be drawn out of that phrase, is expressed in the combination of soul and body that is unique to humanity. Second, the entire human race descended from that “primal pair.” This follows from the first criteria and best explains the capacities and unified experience of humanity. Third, and perhaps most controversial, is the reality of “the fall.” Adam and Eve were created holy and capable of remaining that way, if they obeyed God. They rebelled against Him and therefore all of humanity, with Adam as our Federal head, share in the guilt of their original act and in the rebellious nature that resulted from it. These criteria leave some room for theories of origins that point to an original human group. This would be more compatible with a representative view of Adam. However Collins argues that Adam would necessarily be the “chief” or leader of that primal group.
If there is a weakness in the entire book, it is how thoroughly it treats the concept of myth. Collins argues, via quotes from Richard Purtil in chapter 2 that myths should be understood based on the purpose of the original authors. In this context, myths are the method of transmitting a worldview. Purtil argues that “original myths” meet a deep longing in human beings, he writes “I think it might be called the need for significant form in our experience. We want to be able to relate the things that happen to us as parts of an understandable whole.” However there are many examples throughout human history where myths were created to fulfill that very purpose and now these stories are known to be completely false. In short, there is nothing about the purpose or meaning of a myth that has anything to do with whether or not it is true.
The following is a quotation transcribed from a short video by N.T. Wright found on the Biologos forum under the title “Meaning and Myth.”
When anthropologists talk about myth, what they mean is not an untrue story. What they mean is a story which is full of power for how we understand ourselves individually, for how we understand ourselves as a community, for how we understand what the human project is all about and some its paradoxes and tragedies. The mythological element however, has got misunderstood to be ‘if its myth therefore it isn’t history’ and vice versa, and that just for starters. We need to lighten about these words and maybe find some other words, because I do think it matters that something like a primal pair getting it wrong did happen, but that doesn’t mean I’m saying therefore Genesis is kind of positivist, literal, clunky history over against myth.
Dr. Wright also describes the first three chapters of Genesis as one of the “most explosive” parts of the Bible. If we merely read the text or describe what it literally says, we are completely missing the point of what is being described. Yet with all due respect to Dr. Wright, it is difficult to “lighten up” against a backdrop of so many myths being false. It is this type of rhetoric that seems to dismiss concepts of true or false that alarms many who think the authority of the Bible is important.
Finding myself disagreeing with the likes of N.T. Wright is one indication that the word “myth” is worth some future discussion. For now, such disagreements are a necessary part of a conversation that Collins has started with Did Adam and Eve Really Exist? Who They Were and Why You Should Care. It is a thought provoking and accessible introduction into an important discussion.
Ken Mann is a graduate student in Biola’s Science and Religion program. Ken is a software engineer by way of vocation, a physicist by way of education, and a devout follower of Jesus Christ, in his words, by necessity. Ken is the Chapter Director of Ratio Christi at the University of Colorado, Boulder. You can also connect with Ratio Christi at CU on Facebook and follow him on Twitter at @gadgetmann.