If the Apostle Paul Believed in the Historical Adam, Must We?

Recently Kevin DeYoung offered 10 reasons to believe in the historical Adam, in which he cited the apostle Paul’s belief in the historical Adam. Even more poignantly, Tim Keller has previously argued, “If you don’t believe what he believes about Adam, you are denying the core of Paul’s teaching.”

Peter Enns, author of The Evolution of Adam, is not convinced. “This is an unfortunate quandary, for to take this admonition seriously, one has really little choice but to turn a blind eye to the scientific investigations of human origins.”

Enns continues:

Paul’s view on Adam is perhaps the central issue in this debate among evangelicals. But the entire question turns on whether Paul’s comments on Adam are prepared to settle what can and cannot be concluded about human origin on the basis of scientific investigation.

Enns agrees with DeYoung that Paul did indeed believe in the historical Adam. But he does not believe we must, nor does he see Paul’s view of creation as the basis for our conclusions about human origins.

But I’m not sure Enns quite answers the objection. DeYoung and Keller contend that Paul’s belief in the historical Adam is critical to how Christ and Adam relate to humanity. If Paul is wrong about Adam, then he is wrong about Christ.

That’s a problem far more serious than simply allowing Paul’s old-fashioned, traditional beliefs on creation to affect ours.

Same Questions

Back in 1980, D. A. Carson responded to arguments much like the ones Enns poses today.

The question that concerns us at this juncture is whether Paul’s argument entails a historical Adam. I do not ask simply if Paul believed in a historical Adam: there is little doubt about that. But someone might argue that Paul’s belief regarding the historicity of Adam is irrelevant to his own argument. Adam might stand as a mythological construct which, to modern readers, finds its appropriate equivalent in some notion such as “humanity bound by mortality” or the like. Will the text allow such a view? Several features argue a strong negative.

Below are his three points, based off of 1 Corinthians 15:44-49:

  1. The Adam/Christ contrast found earlier in the chapter requires a historical Adam [1 Corinthians 15:20-27]; and it is difficult to think that Paul has changed to some other perspective when in the same context he returns to this contrast here. This does not prove that Paul’s argument in 15:44-49 requires a historical Adam; but it ought to make us [cautious] about jettisoning the idea too quickly.
  2. When Paul in 15:45a cites Gen. 2:7, he inserts the words first and Adam. These additions make it clear that Paul does not intend to refer to man generally, but to one specific man, the first one, Adam by name. It is on this basis that Paul can refer to a second man, a last Adam, as an individual figure. The argument is greatly weakened if the first Adam may be construed as a reference to all humanity; for the last Adam must be an individual and not a reference to the new humanity, since the last Adam has become a life-giving (not a life-receiving) spirit. Only about Jesus Christ, the individual Jesus Christ, could this be said. Moreover, Paul says that “we have borne the likeness of the earthly man” (15:49), not that we are the earthly man; and in the same way we shall bear the likeness of the man from heaven, which clearly cannot mean we are the man from heaven. The language is reminiscent of the “in Adam”/”in Christ” contrast of 15:21. Clearly, neither Adam nor Christ is here presented in a purely private capacity. Both function as representative heads, the one of the earthly humanity, the other of the heavenly humanity; and it is difficult to perceive exactly what Paul could be saying if this parallelism is destroyed. The cogency of his argument for a resurrection body of a nature like Christ’s resurrection body is destroyed if there is no representative entailment from Christ to us; and there is no reason to think such entailment must exist unless the historical representative entailment from Adam to us also exists.
  3. We may put this in a slightly different fashion. As Ridderbos writes, “The anthropological contrast is anchored in the redemptive-historical.” The “natural” mode of existence which springs from participation in Adam is succeeded by the “spiritual” mode of existence which springs from participation in Christ. But Christ in this passage appears not as an a- temporal parallel to Adam, but as the later figure, the eschatological figure, the antitypical figure, the figure who comes in fulfillment. Such categories are meaningful only if the first figure is a figure in history. One cannot fail to be reminded of the argument of 2 Peter 3:1-7. There we are told that those who scoff at the prospect of the second coming have two historical examples of God’s cataclysmic intervention to stand as witnesses to what God can do—viz, the creation and the flood. But to a generation which disbelieves heartily in both of these historical events which God has designed at least in part to serve as pointers to the far greater cataclysm of the second coming, what can we possibly offer by way of assurance that Christ’s coming will not be forever delayed? In the same way, we may ask ourselves: To a generation which disbelieves in the historicity of the individual Adam who stands as representative of the race and who introduced both death and a certain kind of body into that race, a man designed by God to serve, at least in part, as a pointer to the second Adam who brings a new, “spiritual” body and escape from death, what can we possibly offer by way of assurance that there is reality to these promises and not just pious talk?

The concern, then, is not whether modern evangelicals’ view of Adam should hinge on Paul’s view of Adam—though I suppose we could be accused of worse things—but whether Paul’s view of salvation, the forgiveness of sins, and the resurrection hinges on his view of Adam.

Requiring Adam

Carson develops similar points in other Pauline passages concerning Adam, which are relevant. But he offers five reflections on Paul’s understanding of Adam to summarize:

  1. [N]ot only must we conclude that Paul himself believed in the historicity of Adam, but that the structure of his argument requires the historicity of Adam. In other words, for Paul Adam is more than an optional extra, a mythological accretion which may be excised without loss. Far from it; Paul so tightly relates the saving cross-work of Christ to the significance of historical Adam that it is difficult to see how one can preserve the former if the latter is jettisoned.
  2. Paul’s reference to the time period from Adam to Moses (5:13-14) certainly presupposes a historical figure (i.e. Adam) at the beginning of the period, corresponding to a historical figure at the end of the period (Moses). Moreover, this period in world history is not simply an abstract, bounded, temporal entity—we are not dealing with a “time” in the abstract; rather, this period is portrayed as a time during which (a) the “law” (of Moses) had not yet been given; (b) sin was in the world; and (c) death reigned. This threefold description can only refer to the Old Testament period stretching from the fall of Adam to the giving of the law to Moses; and it treats the period as real history inasmuch as all die within it.
  3. Not only does Rom. 5:12-14 lay considerable emphasis on the one sin, one trespass, or one act of disobedience which brought ruin to the race; but implicitly the argument depends on the notion that before that one act of disobedience there was no sin in the race. This accords very well with Gen. 1-3; it cannot be made to cohere with any evolutionary perspective which denies the centrality of a fall in space-time history.
  4. Adam is portrayed as the “type” (tupos, NIV “pattern,” 5:14) of one to come. The relationship between type and antitype in the Scriptures is complex; but Ellis correctly insists that New Testament typology cannot be thought of apart from God’s saving activity in redemptive history, as determined by God’s definite plan of redemption which is moving toward a predetermined goal from a specific point of beginning. As Versteeg comments, “Thus a type always stands at a particular moment in the history of redemption and points away to another (later) moment in the same history. . . . To speak about a type is to speak about the fulfillment of the old dispensation through the new.”
  5. Adam is not portrayed as the first sinner, of which other sinners are later copies; but as the representative sinner, whose first sin affected the race. This distinction is crucial if the parallel between Adam and Jesus is to be maintained; for Jesus is certainly not portrayed as the first man to perform some definitive righteous act, but as the representative man whose definitive righteous act affects those who are in him. Preserve this parallel between Adam and Christ, and the historicity of Adam cannot simply be pro forma, as far as Paul is concerned.
  • http://bibliatheologica.blogspot.coom A. B. Caneday
  • PuritanD

    Thank you for the article. We need to keep up the pressure on those who desire to attack the Gospel through their relentless distortion of the Genesis account.

    It is sad that many do not see the damage caused by questioning the historicity of Gen 1-3

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  • jtd123

    I think we need to be careful about saying [Enns] anyone has a desire to attack the Gospel or that he, in fact, is attacking the Gospel. Whether or not someone believes in a historical Adam should not be the litmus test for residing in the Christian covenant. Maybe a little more charity should be given here.

    Until we have read Enn’s book and/or gone through the arguments with the people who actually hold the position you deny, we should be slow to speak.

  • John S

    Very good, thank you Dr. Carson and all. I see the other side of the coin, the science, washing away any unpacking of the Scripture. The argument may be convincing, but Science is ‘more convincing’. So many people, brought through a secular education and society, are stuck feeling like they have to decide between Scripture and Science. They might say, This makes sense but the science still stands to contradict it. The power of scientific consensus is so strong today, it is a god. So many pastors have been swayed by it’s seeming power how is the layman to withstand?

    I think we need as much help in this issue on the apologetic end as the polemic. Where is the help from our spiritual leaders in understanding how we deal with the Science? People are being picked off b/c they are made to be, not just weaklings using a faith crutch, but an idiot who denies science facts. I’m not asking pastors to become scientists, but for help shepherding us through this. These issues of Science are being addressed by para-church ministries, but I don’t hear much from the Church. I’m not sure what it would look like but i think it should be addressed more vocally. Perhaps this is happening somewhere and somehow but I’m not aware of it.

  • http://justaftersunrise.wordpress.com/ Stan McCullars

    How long will those who deny the first Adam be considered by the church to be in the second Adam?

    The most charitable thing Christians could do regarding those who deny the first Adam is to call them to repentance.

  • Jordan Morris

    1. Paul’s thought constructions that he uses to draw anologies for teaching the gospel stand independently of the reality to which they refer and function analogically regardless of their veracity or accuracy. The reality of Christ as Paul teaches it need not be brought into question simply because Paul draws analogies to untrue beliefs. Paul was commissioned and inspired as an apostle to propogate the gospel of Christ ennerantly; this does not necessarily imply that he was incapable of holding untrue beliefs.
    2. All finite beings are subject to errors of belief and understanding brought on by the limitations of their knowledge.

    • http://bibliatheologica.blogspot.coom A. B. Caneday

      “The reality of Christ as Paul teaches it need not be brought into question simply because Paul draws analogies to untrue beliefs.”

      What a remarkable claim! I’m speechless!

    • http://blogs.thegospelcoalition.org John Starke

      Jordan, You’re missing the point of the article. The point isn’t that since Paul believed in the historical Adam, therefore we should. The point is that Paul’s view of salvation depends on a historical understanding of Adam. Without a historical Adam, Paul’s understanding of salvation doesn’t work. Here’s the main point of the article:

      “The concern, then, is not whether modern evangelicals’ view of Adam should hinge on Paul’s view of Adam—though I suppose we could be accused of worse things—but whether Paul’s view of salvation, the forgiveness of sins, and the resurrection hinges on his view of Adam.”

    • Robert D. Rea

      Adam was a real man, living and breathing, and his sin in the Garden of Eden is a historical fact, based on God’s Word.

      What matters is God’s perception of man, not ours. Our duty is to bring our perception of the first Adam and of Jesus Christ into closer–and more accurate–alignment with His.

  • http://www.tonyandkaylene.com Tony Feiger

    An excellent science resource on this topic is Should Christians Embrace Evolution?, edited by Norman Nevin. They writers answer with a resounding “No!” The first half of the book is theology, the second is science. The book was World Magazine’s book of the year last year, and all who are interested in this topic should read it.

    Please remember, scientists in academia today assume there is no God and attempt to tell history from that bias. I think they are wrong but don’t expect them to agree with the Bible.

  • Jordan Morris

    John, I do indeed see the point of the article and it appears to me a fallacious argument. My contention is that the veracity and coherence of Paul’s understanding of the gospel is not dependent on the veracity of his understanding of human origins. His thoughts about human origins as portrayed by Genesis are coherent and logical and serve proficiently to accurately portray the inner workings of the gospel. That afterall is the ultimate purpose of Genesis (as with all scripture) – to prepare the human mind to receive the gospel of christ. This is the case wether or not the creation story was originally intended to convey literal empirical explanations or spiritual and teleological explanations or both.

  • Ryan Over

    I have two comments:
    The first is regarding my brother Stan who said, “The most charitable thing Christians could do regarding those who deny the first Adam is to call them to repentance.”
    I understand that this is important, but to a scientist these questions are important in a different way. Our perception of the world is based on science. When that is challenged, our hold on reality slips and it is hard to really go deep in the faith. What am I to do with carbon dating? On the one hand it supports the age of manuscripts and on the other hand it gives the age of a bone to be 50,000 yrs. Or what am I to do with the new sequence of the Neanderthal put online on February 6th and being published soon? So, I would ask you and those like you to please try to bear with our weaknesses (Romans 14) rather than stunt our faith. We need Christians in all fields and to support them there.

    Second, we may be asking the wrong questions. For all those that haven’t yet read John Walton’s book: http://www.amazon.com/Lost-World-Genesis-One-Cosmology/dp/0830837043#reader_0830837043 , I recommend reading it. He offers/summarizes an interpretation of Genesis One that DOES NOT deny a historical Adam, but it does allow for an evolutionary view by putting Genesis One (and Two) in the context of near-eastern religious thought ideas, etc. A good read.

    • JA

      That as exactly what I was thinking.

      This article failed to answer the question,

      What should we do when we believe that the historicity of Adam is essential to the Gospel teaching of Paul, yet scientific research about human origin is in contrast to the Genesis account?

      I hope some one please answers that question honestly, reasonably and lovingly.

      • http://justaftersunrise.wordpress.com/ Stan McCullars

        What should we do when we believe that the historicity of Adam is essential to the Gospel teaching of Paul, yet scientific research about human origin is in contrast to the Genesis account?

        Believe God rather than men.

        “Science” isn’t the objective, observable field a lot of people think it is. There are a lot of assumptions that go into it. Opinions change. Take global warming. The “science” seems to be going back to global cooling which is where it was back in the 70s. A few decades before that is was warming. And so it goes.

        First century Christians faced similar problems. Paul wrote to the Colossians:

        Be careful that no one takes you captive through philosophy and empty deceit based on human tradition, based on the elemental forces of the world, and not based on Christ. (2:8, HCSB)

        Paul also warned Timothy:

        Timothy, guard what has been entrusted to you, avoiding irreverent, empty speech and contradictions from the “knowledge” that falsely bears that name. By professing it, some people have deviated from the faith. (1 Timothy 6:20-21, HCSB)

        Hang in there. If God said he created the heavens and the earth in six days, that’s what he did. If he said Jesus was born of a virgin, that’s what happened. If he said Jesus was raised from the dead, that also happened.

        • JT

          Science though us that the earth was not flat. Yet the Church did believe that the earth eas flat. Was Coopernico wrong in challenging the Church’s interpretation of Scripture?

          • Andy

            The Church never believed the Earth was flat. There have been times where the church supported one scientific theory over another, and ended up wrong, like geocentrism vs. heliocentrism, but that was based more off of Greek Philosphy then the Bible.

            There were also scientific theories that Christians opposed (i.e. spontaneous generation, an eternally old univerise) that ended up completely falling apart.

          • Ryan Over

            A well made point JT. I think it is instructive to point out that the church at large has been wrong in the past. We will not someday discover that we are wrong about the gospel, but each generation views the bible using their cultural lenses which are hard to throw off. The best solution is to approach what we think we know with humility. While at the same time approaching deviations with caution.

      • Ryan Over

        JA, I would check out Walton’s book. From his book: (p. 53-55) Why does God in verse five call the light, “day” and the darkness “night”? He doesn’t call the light, “light”. Why? And what does it mean that God separated the light from the darkness? You realize off the bat that in verses 3-5, light is a period of time. The sun and moon or stars are not even mentioned until day 4. I hope that perked all of your interests to read the book.

    • Barry

      Ryan- I appreciate your comments & will consider obtaining the book you cited. It seems that God is providing ample Christian Apologists today to address and combat a diversity of scepticism some warranted and some not. The church is not defenseless. Our mind-worship (of God) entails a like application of our minds to the difficult harmonization (sometimes) of science and scripture.

      A host of Christian philosophers/scientists continue to grapple with such matters, e.g., William A. Dembski “The End of CHristianity” et al. (don’t be mislead by the title)

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  • Robert Fretz

    I recommend Jack Finegan’s book, “In the Beginning: A Journey Through Genesis” (1962). He writes, “… the story of Genesis 1 tells about an event or events in our language, but at the same time points to something which goes beyond our full knowing. Indeed, is it not the very genius of poetry to do this very thing?”
    Instead of the singular man, the plurality reveals our participation in the creation (and Fall). The entire world as Eden identifies our destructive behavior on the planet because we have been cast out. We are not passive victims of the past. Our only hope in life and in death is that we belong body and soul to our Lord Jesus Christ.

    • http://justaftersunrise.wordpress.com/ Stan McCullars

      That should be categorized under the philosophy and empty deceit based on human tradition, based on the elemental forces of the world, and not based on Christ (Colossians 2:8, HCSB).

      It also qualifies as irreverent, empty speech and contradictions from the “knowledge” that falsely bears that name. By professing it, some people have deviated from the faith. (1 Timothy 6:20-21, HCSB)

      • Robert Fretz

        Former Dean of Hebrew Union College, Rabbi Herbert C. Brichto wrote about Genesis: “Nor may we summarily rule out the possibility, nor even the likelihood, that an ancient author may have formulated a message in such a way as to be addressed simultaneously to the most naïve and most sophisticated of his generations, to be comprehended by each according to his level. That Gulliver’s Travels is read by children as naïve fantasy leads no one to exclude a deeper, more serious intent on the author’s part. It is not the reputation of the biblical authors but our own understanding of them that suffers when we arbitrarily accord them less of a hearing than we grant Jonathan Swift.”

        In layman’s terms, if the only tool you have is a hammer, everything looks like a nail. Given time, experience, and study you will mature past your concrete absolutes to abstract concepts (see Jean Piaget) which will open you to a much richer and deeper living trust in God through Christ.

        • http://justaftersunrise.wordpress.com/ Stan McCullars

          Unbelief, even when couched with fancy terms, is on no interest to me.

  • http://LostCodex.com DRT

    The article says “If Paul is wrong about Adam, then he is wrong about Christ.”

    If the bible says the earth is on foundations, or the sun goes around it then it is just plain wrong too? How can you possibly think that just because one this is not right that the whole thing is wrong? This is just not rational.

  • http://www.thinkpoint.wordpress.com Steve Cornell

    Purely for the sake of discussion and for those who wrestle with the scientific investigation of human origins:


    Why can’t there be one pair to whom we all trace our ancestry even if it is also true that we all trace our ancestry to a pool of homo sapiens that numbered many thousands of years ago? Where is the logical problem with this explanation?

    Let’s say that there was some time in the past where, according to the genetic data, we (humans) collectively can trace our ancestry to 10 individuals. It can still be the case that descendants of TWO of those individuals are in the ancestry of ALL of us because the offspring of those two at some point interbred with the offspring of the other 8, at least when it comes to our ancestry. Put that way, it is perfectly logically possible that for all of the other EIGHT individuals, at least one of their descendants AND one of the descendants of the TWO interbred in the ancestry of every living Homo sapien. And so we all (also) trace back to the original TWO.

    There is a strange consequence of this IF you hold that every Homo sapien and their descendants are made in the divine image and are capable of a relationship with God. It is this: all of those descended from the OTHER EIGHT who did not yet interbreed with the descendants of the TWO would be without original sin. So why not just annihilate the TWO and allow the descendants of the EIGHT to carry forward the divine image without sin? The answer would have to be: those OTHER EIGHT were NOT made in the divine image and were NOT capable of a relationship with God. The result? Being made in the divine image is something more than JUST being a Homo sapien. What is it? Who knows–maybe: having an immortal soul! In any case, there is nothing inconsistent, impossible, or improbable here, and it preserves an original pair for all of us, and thus a historical Adam.

    Who holds this view?

    I am not sure that anyone affirms this but I also suspect that no one has thought of it. The only ones who would be motivated to look for such a view would be those who, for theological reasons, are looking for a unique ancestral pair. I suspect that Christian evolutionary theorists have not considered it because it has one implicit assumption that makes it hard to first entertain. That assumption is that not all homo sapiens are necessarily persons made in the divine image. In other words, on this view, it would only be the initial pair among the large group, and their descendants, who are divine image bearers. So the remainder who have no ancestral connection to that pair might well be homo sapiens, but would not be divine image bearers. That is not so strange if becoming a divine image bearer means having something special conferred on you over and above your animal species. There is one other strange consequence and that is that, on this view, no descendants in the present generation would have ancestors in that ancestral generation that do not include “Adam and Eve.” So if there were the original ten, NO present homo sapiens would descend from the other EIGHT exclusively. It is odd that the exclusive descendants of the eight never made it to the present. But it is not a barrier to the plausibility of the view.

    • http://LostCodex.com DRT

      Steve Cornell, there are two people who have existed that are in all of us, though they did not exist as a pair in history. Actually they are thousands of years apart from each other.

      Mitochondrial Eve is the one on the woman side (about 200k thousand years ago), and Y-chromosomal Adam is the one on the male side (about 100k years ago).


      But, this is nothing like Adam and Eve. The human population has never been below the thousands, maybe only a couple thousand, but certainly not 10.

      • http://www.thinkpoint.wordpress.com Steve Cornell

        You took the number 10 literally? The number was just for illustrative purposes. And couldn’t the mates of Mitochondrial Eve or Y-Adam count as Adam and Eve since presumably we all trace our ancestry to those pairs(!)?

        These two individuals are bottlenecks which means that that individual is a the single individual in a generation from which all subsequent generations spring. But that is not the issue. The pair in the group of 10 is not a bottleneck because on that view it might be that some people can trace their ancestry to all ten of those people (How can that be so? — because of downstream inter-breeding among the descendants of those 10). So there is no bottleneck here.

  • http://apostlepaul.net ApostlePaul>net

    I think that is absolutely redicoulous that we are even having this discussion. Of course Paul believe in Adam, and so should we. If you have Faith of the bible then you must believe in Adam. How is this concept so hard?

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