Does Paul’s Christ Require a Historical Adam?

The Christian tradition has made much of Adam. We in the Western church speak regularly of the Fall of humanity that took place in Adam’s primal disobedience. Theologically, we speak of inherited sin and guilt—an original sin that renders us all complicit. We are guilty of humanity’s first great act of disobedience and enslaved to sin’s power.

Such theological claims derive more from our reading of Paul’s reflections on Adam than from the Genesis story itself. For many, the most significant theological reasons for affirming a historical Adam have to do, not with what Genesis 1–3 may or may not teach about human origins, but with the theology of Adam that Paul articulates in Romans 5 and 1 Corinthians 15. In short, if there is no historical Adam with whom we are enmeshed in the guilt and power of sin, how can we affirm that in Christ we participate in the justification and freedom of grace?

The levels of freedom (or lack thereof) that many of us experience with regard to the question of Adam as a historical person is inseparable from the theology that we see bound up with him. For some, to reject Adam as a historical person is to reject the authority of Scripture and trustworthiness of the very passages within which we learn of justification and resurrection.1 Others are concerned that to deny a historical Adam is to deny the narrative of a good world gone wrong that serves as the very basis for the good news of Jesus Christ. In short, if there is no Fall, there can be no salvation from it and restoration to what was and/or might have been.2 Even more expansively, Douglas Farrow concludes that “there is very little of importance in Christian theology, hence also in doxology and practice, that is not at stake in the question of whether or not we allow a historical dimension to the Fall.”3 High stakes, indeed. But I want to suggest that things might not be so dire. Specifically, I want to open up the conversation to the possibility that the gospel does not, in fact, depend on a historical Adam or historical Fall in large part because what Paul says about Adam stems from his prior conviction about the saving work of Christ. The theological points Paul wishes to make concern the saving work of the resurrected Christ and the means by which he makes them is the shared cultural and religious framework of his first-century Jewish context.

Christ and Adam

Paul has an important story to tell. It is the story of God’s new creation breaking into the world through the surprising mechanism of a crucified and resurrected Christ. This conviction about the new creation being brought about by Christ provides Paul with the ground to stand on as he draws Adam into the conversation in Romans 5 and 1 Corinthians 15.

Apostle-Paul-illustration-1725x2088-72dpiOne crucial dynamic of Paul’s Adam Christology is representation. Christ does, is, and becomes, what we need to participate in, be, and become in order to be God’s eternal family. For this reason, Paul takes hold of the “image of God” language with which we are so familiar from Genesis 1, and uses it to describe Jesus as he stands in relation to us: “he decided in advance that they would be conformed to the image of his Son.”4 Christ represents who we are, and who we are becoming, as members of God’s new-creation family.

This representation is focused on two particular aspects of Christ’s saving work: his death on the cross and his resurrection from the dead. Romans 5 develops Paul’s Adam Christology around Christ’s death. Throughout the latter half of Romans 5, Paul outlines how Christ’s act entails benefits for many: it brings about God’s gracious gift in a manner that more than undoes the work of Adam, even reclaiming humanity’s privilege of ruling the world for God (5:15–17; cf. Genesis 1:26).

Similar dynamics unfurl in 1 Corinthians 15, where Adam is viewed as the progenitor of death in contrast to Christ who, as God’s new representative human being, anticipates humanity’s coming resurrection life (15:21–22). A new humanity has been inaugurated by the resurrected Christ.

This theological framework positions us to step into Paul’s statements about Adam. Paul is working with the stories of Israel, as told in the Old Testament, but from the perspective of someone who knows, now, that God’s great act of salvation has come in Christ.

Christ, the Law, and History

This brings us to our central question: To what extent do we need to affirm a historical Adam in order also to affirm the saving dynamics of Paul’s Adam Christology?

Romans 5 presents us with what are arguably the most pressing reasons to affirm a historical Adam. There we find these striking words from Paul:

  • Sin entered the world through one person (5:12).
  • Many people died through what one person did wrong (5:15).
  • The judgment that came through one person’s sin led to punishment (5:16).
  • Death ruled because of one person’s failure (5:17).
  • Judgment fell on everyone through the failure of one person (5:18).
  • Many people were made sinners through the disobedience of one person (5:19).

Paul is clearly appealing to both the common experience of enslavement to sin and death and the normative narratives of Israel regarding Adam to explain the reality that Christ overcomes. Moreover, the consistent point of comparison is that one person, Adam, represents the rest of humanity in coming under the guilt, the power, or the condemnation of sin.

One of the first questions worth confronting is whether this passage allows for various understandings of how Adam might represent humanity. Thus, for example, might there be room here, not for a physical, natural progenitor of all subsequent human beings, but for a person who was chosen by God from a developing or, at any rate, numerically numerous, human race to play the role of representative in obedience and disobedience?

But the question that will clamor for the attention of many is whether such a moment in which sin’s guilt and power are unleashed as the lords of humanity is required at all. There seems to have been death in this world millions of years before human beings came on the scene. Is it possible to affirm the point Paul wishes to make—that God’s grace, righteousness, and life abound to the many because of Christ—without simultaneously affirming the assumptions with which he illustrated these things to be true?

Writing to the Romans, Paul wished to argue that God’s people are found in Christ, and thereby cut off other possible ways of construing idealized human identity and what salvation and the people of God might look like. In claiming that Christ is (un)like Adam, Paul was simultaneously taking other options off the table. What difference might it make to our discussions about a historical Adam that Paul was claiming, “Christ, is (un)like Adam, therefore God’s people are not demarcated by Torah”? This latter statement is, in fact, the point of Paul’s argument in Romans 5 (cf. 5:12–14, 20–21). Paul’s Adam theology is an avenue toward affirming that God has one worldwide people; therefore, the specially blessed people are not defined by the story of circumcision. But he does not ask the question of whether an evolutionary account of human origins might stand within the story of God’s new creation work in Christ, and his argument is not aimed at denying such an explanation of where we came from.

Retelling the Story of Origins

When the ancients told stories of human origins, it was never simply to tell people “what happened.” Instead, such narratives indicate why their particular people and their particular god played the roles of sovereigns of the world. Genesis 1 is an introduction to the covenant story of Israel, in which God promises to make fruitful Abraham, Isaac, and Jacob and also multiply them (17:6; 28:3; 35:11; 47:27; 48:4). The story of Adam in Genesis is written with the latter story of Israel in mind, so that the reader can see that Israel is destined to fulfill God’s primordial promise of not only filling the Earth but also ruling over it (cf. 17:6).

Big Bang illustration by Denise KlitsieArtistic rendering by Denise Klitsie of the “big bang,” the dominant scientific theory explaining the origins of the universe, according to which the universe came into existence 13.8 billion years ago and continues to expand.

Similarly, Paul employs the story of Adam based on his new understanding that Christ is the man through whom God has chosen to rule the world and that the churches are the people who are the fulfillment of the promise of numerous descendants. For neither Paul nor the writer of Genesis does the story of Adam exist as a standalone narrative to which later history must correspond. Instead, the convictions about what God has done at a later point in history determine how the Adam story is read.

New Testament scholarship over the past half century has developed the insight that the first data point in Paul’s Christian theologizing was his understanding that the cross and resurrection formed the saving act of God. In the 1960s, Herman Ridderbos argued that this fundamental conviction becomes the great act of God by which all other acts and ideas are understood.5 The significance of this focus on Christ is that it ripples out in all directions: not only does Paul rethink the future in light of Jesus’ death and resurrection, but he also reinterprets what came before. Thus, Ridderbos concludes that “Paul’s whole doctrine of the world and man in sin . . . is only to be perceived in the light of his insight into the all-important redemptive event in Christ.”6 A decade later E. P. Sanders concurred, claiming that Paul reasons “from solution to plight.”7 Because Paul knows that God has provided the solution to the problem of human sin in the crucified and risen Christ, he therefore reassesses the place of the Law, in particular, in God’s saving story. Romans 5 is one particular outworking of this.

Both Ridderbos and Sanders have come to the same conclusion: what is a “given” for Paul is the saving event of Jesus’ death and resurrection. The other things he says, especially about sin, the Law, and eschatology, are reinterpretations that grow from the fundamental reality of the Christ event. Recognizing this relieves the pressure that sometimes builds up around a historical Adam. Contrary to the fears expressed by Douglas Farrow, we can now recognize that Adam is not the foundation on which the system of Christian faith and life is built, such that removing him means that the whole edifice comes crashing down. Instead, the Adam of the past is one spire in a large edifice whose foundation is Christ. The gospel need not be compromised if we find ourselves having to part ways with Paul’s assumption that there is a historical Adam, because we share Paul’s fundamental conviction that the crucified messiah is the resurrected Lord over all.

Where, then, are we left, if the pressures of scientific inquiry lead us to take down the spire of a literal, historical Adam? What might it look like for us to faithfully receive Paul’s testimony not merely by saying what he said, but by doing what he did? Might it be possible that we could retell the stories of both Adam and evolutionary sciences such that they continued to reflect our conviction that the endpoint of God’s great story is nothing else than new creation in the crucified and risen Christ? For many, the cognitive dissonance between the sciences and a historical Adam has already become too great to continue holding both.8 We therefore have to carefully determine whether the cause of Christ, and of truth, is better served by indicating that a choice must be made between the two, or by retelling the narrative about the origins of humanity as we now understand it in light of the death and resurrection of Christ.

The task of reimagining a Christian story of origins for our modern era has already begun.9 As it continues, faithful articulation of our story will have to attempt to hold together for our day what Paul’s articulation held together so beautifully for his own: humanity as a whole, not one particular race or ethnicity or nationality of people, is the purview of God’s saving work in Christ; humanity’s final destiny has been determined by the advent of the new creation in Christ’s resurrection; and this solution in Christ indicates that the problem to be solved entails not only personal estrangement from God, but a whole world that fails to live up to the harmony, peace, fruitfulness, life, and eternality of the God who created it. Perhaps most importantly, we must not allow biology or physics or chemistry to have the last word about the destiny of humanity. The reality of our lives as creatures limited by death and decay must stand in subordinate relationship to the eschatological reality of new creation that God has granted us in Christ.

To accompany Paul on the task of telling the story of the beginning in light of Christ, while parting ways with his first-century understanding of science and history, is not to abandon the Christian faith in favor of science. Instead, it demands a fresh act of faith in which we continue to hold fast to the truth that has always defined Christianity: the crucified Messiah is the resurrected Lord over all. Belief in Christ’s resurrection was a stumbling block for the ancients, and it is a stumbling block for us moderns as well—and increasingly so as we learn more about our human story and the biological processes entailed in life on this Earth. We do not give up on the central article of Christian faith when we use it to tell a renewed story of where we came from. On the contrary, we thereby give it the honor which is its due.

1. E.g., A. B. Caneday, “The Language of God and Adam’s Genesis and Historicity in Paul’s Gospel,” Southern Baptist Journal of Theology 15 (2011): 26–59.
2. E.g., C. John Collins, Did Adam and Eve Really Exist? Who They Were and Why You Should Care (Wheaton: Crossway, 2011), 133–35; John W. Mahoney, “Why an Historical Adam Matters for the Doctrine of Original Sin,” Southern Baptist Journal of Theology 15 (2011): 60–78; Stephen J. Wellum, “Editorial: Debating the Historicity of Adam: Does It Matter?” Southern Baptist Journal of Theology 15 (2011): 2–3.
3. Douglas Farrow, “Fall,” in The Oxford Companion to Christian Thought (ed. A. Hastings, A. Mason, and H. S. Pyper; New York: Oxford University Press, 2000), 233–34.
4. All scriptural citations are from the Common English Bible unless otherwise indicated.
5. Herman Ridderbos, Paul: An Outline of His Theology (Grand Rapids: Eerdmans, 1975), 44–90.
6. Ridderbos, Paul, 137.
7. E. P. Sanders, Paul and Palestinian Judaism (Minneapolis: Fortress, 1977), 474–508.
8. See, e.g., John R. Schneider, “Recent Genetic Science and Christian Theology on Human Origins: An ‘Aesthetic Superlapsarianism,’” Perspectives on Science and Christian Faith 62 (2010): 196–213.
9. E.g., Daniel C. Harlow, “After Adam: Reading Adam in an Age of Evolutionary Science,” Perspectives on Science and Christian Faith 62 (2010): 179–95.

This article was published in Theology, News & Notes, Spring 2013, “Thinking Science and Christian Faith Together.”