Adam and Eve

The first chapter of Genesis provides little detail about the process by which God created humankind, revealing only that He made us in His image. The second chapter of Genesis, on the other hand, is (quite literally) another story. In Genesis 2:7, we read: “Then the LORD God formed man of dust from the ground, and breathed into his nostrils the breath of life; and man became a living being.” Old Testament scholar C. John Collins, an expert in biblical Hebrew linguistics, argues that this verse should be understood in its literal sense:

I am inclined to take the ‘dust’ of Genesis 2:7 in its ordinary sense of ‘loose soil,’ that is, it wasn’t a living animal when God started to form it into the first man. I think this makes the best sense in view of the way ‘the man became a living creature’ after the operation—that is, he wasn’t a modified living creature.C. John Collins, Science and Faith: Friends or Foes? (Wheaton: Crossway Books, 2003), 269.

However, if we understand the “breath of life” as a spiritual imbuement rather than a biological change (as implied by the spiritual resemblance interpretation of Imago Dei, discussed on the previous page), then the sense in which the man became a living creature likewise could be spiritual. Perhaps, as some evolutionary creationists have suggested, this verse describes a moment when a man—or all of mankind—came alive spiritually.C.S. Lewis suggested a possibility along these lines in his 1940 book The Problem of Pain: “I offer the following picture—a ‘myth’ in the Socratic sense, a not unlikely tale. For long centuries God perfected the animal form which was to become the vehicle of humanity and the image of Himself. He gave it hands whose thumb could be applied to each of the fingers, and jaws and teeth and throat capable of articulation, and a brain sufficiently complex to execute all the material motions whereby rational thought is incarnated. The creature may have existed for ages in this state before it became man: it may even have been clever enough to make things which a modern archaeologist would accept as proof of its humanity. But it was only an animal because all its physical and psychical processes were directed to purely material and natural ends. Then, in the fullness of time, God caused to descend upon this organism, both on its psychology and physiology, a new kind of consciousness which could say ‘I’ and ‘me’, which could look upon itself as an object, which knew God, which could make judgements of truth, beauty, and goodness, and which was so far above time that it could perceive time flowing past.” (New York: Simon & Schuster, 1996), 68.

Moreover, similar language elsewhere in scripture is clearly intended metaphorically. For example, Job describes himself as having been formed as clay in God’s hands, even though he was born of human parents in the ordinary way: “Your hands fashioned and made me altogether, And would You destroy me? Remember now, that You have made me as clay; And would You turn me into dust again?” (Job 10:8-9) Likewise, the psalmist David sings: “For you created my inmost being; you knit me together in my mother’s womb. I praise you because I am fearfully and wonderfully made” (Psalm 139:13-14). David is not suggesting that God literally knit his body together as a tailor sews of piece of cloth, nor is he denying that God has ordained natural processes to form a child in a mother’s womb. David’s poetic language is readily understood to have a deeper meaning. God is the one who creates a child in a mother’s womb, though He does so by ordaining natural processes to carry out His bidding. The way in which God performs His creative work is fearful and wonderful indeed!

The language of Genesis 2:7 might be intended in a similar way. Perhaps this verse does not mean that God literally scooped up some dust and made a clay figure of a man which he then miraculously brought to life. Instead, it may be intended to emphasize the fact that we are made of dirt—earthly matter, the same stuff animals are made of. The Hebrew word translated “man” in this context, 'adam, is the very same word used a few verses later as the proper name Adam. Suggestively, the Hebrew word 'adam—used for both “man” and “Adam”—is closely related to the word 'adamah, which means “ground” or “soil.”The association between these two words is illustrated earlier in the same passage. Genesis 2:5 mentions that “there was no man ['adam] to cultivate the ground ['adamah].”

The second half of the verse could be intended to highlight the fact that human beings are not merely dirt. The “breath of life” mentioned here might refer to something spiritual rather than biological. Unlike the animals, we have a spiritual nature as well as a physical nature. When God breathed the “breath of life” into him, man became spiritually alive, though he may have been biologically living already. Thus, a proponent of evolutionary creationism could understand Genesis 2:7 to mean that God took a creature made of physical matter (all biological creatures are made of the same dust) and made it spiritually alive.

What about Eve? Her name, too, is significant. The Hebrew name for Eve, Chavvah, means “life” or “living.”The meaning of her name is emphasized in the biblical text itself. Genesis 3:20 says, “Now the man [or Adam] called his wife’s name Eve, because she was the mother of all the living.” So, Adam and Eve together represent living dust, which is precisely what human beings are, according to scripture.See for instance Genesis 3:19 and Psalm 103:14, in addition to the aforementioned passages. So far, none of this directly contradicts the idea that God used evolutionary processes to create the first human beings. However, the details of how Eve was created may appear to rule out that possibility:

So the LORD God caused a deep sleep to fall upon the man, and he slept; then He took one of his ribs and closed up the flesh at that place. The LORD God fashioned into a woman the rib which He had taken from the man, and brought her to the man. The man said, “This is now bone of my bones, and flesh of my flesh; she shall be called Woman, because she was taken out of Man.” (Genesis 2:21-23, NASB)

Is there any plausible interpretation of this passage that could be reconciled with an evolutionary account of human origins? At least two suggestions have been put forward. First, some Christians propose that the description of Eve’s creation should be understood symbolically rather than literally. For example, drawing upon an insight from Karl Barth, evolutionary creationist Darrel Falk suggests that the formation of Eve from Adam’s side is a symbolic prefiguration of the relationship between Christ and the church: “Just as the rib coming from Adam’s side became the life of Eve, so the blood that came out from Jesus’ pierced side became our lifeblood. By the act of the first piercing, life began for Adam’s bride. By the act of the second piercing, life began for the bride of Christ.”Darrel R. Falk, Coming to Peace with Science: Bridging the Worlds Between Faith and Biology (Downers Grove: InterVarsity Press, 2004), 221.

John Walton suggests a second possibility. He points out that the word translated “rib” (tsela`) normally doesn’t refer to a bone; in fact, it’s not used in any anatomical reference anywhere else in scripture! Instead, the word usually refers to an entire side or half of something. In light of the word’s ordinary usage, Walton says, “we would have to conclude that God took one of Adam’s sides—likely meaning he cut Adam in half and from one side built the woman.”John Walton, The Lost World of Adam and Eve: Genesis 2-3 and the Human Origins Debate (Downers Grove: Intervarsity Press, 2015), 78. That could have happened: God can do anything, so He surely could have created Eve using half of Adam’s body. However, Walton proposes a different interpretation. He argues that Adam’s “deep sleep” (verse 21) may indicate that the subsequent events in verses 22-23 occur not in physical reality but in a dream, a dream in which God showed Adam the spiritual significance of his relationship with Eve.

This interpretation is further supported by the observation that the word translated “deep sleep” (tardemah) doesn’t refer to ordinary sleep, but is used in numerous other scripture passages where someone receives a vision or revelation from God. Thus, according to Walton:

From these data it is easy to conclude that Adam’s sleep has prepared him for a visionary experience rather than for a surgical procedure. The description of himself being cut in half and the woman being built from the other half (Gen 2:21-22) would refer not to something he physically experienced but to something that he saw in a vision. It would therefore not describe a material event but would give him an understanding of an important reality, which he expresses eloquently in Genesis 2:23. Consequently, we would then be able to conclude that the text does not describe the material origin of Eve. The vision would concern her identity as ontologically related to the man. The text would therefore have no claim to make about the material origin of woman.John Walton, The Lost World of Adam and Eve: Genesis 2-3 and the Human Origins Debate (Downers Grove: Intervarsity Press, 2015), 80.

If Walton’s interpretation is correct, then even the literal meaning of this passage may be compatible with the idea that God created Eve’s physical body, like Adam’s, via ordinary natural processes.

As explained above, numerous Christian scholars have argued that the crucial passages in Genesis concerning the creation of human beings (viz., Genesis 1:26-27, 2:7, and 2:21-23) can be plausibly interpreted in ways compatible with the claim that God created our species via natural, evolutionary processes. Whether such interpretations are correct, however, is a hotly disputed matter in the church today. My own opinion is that the true, intended meaning of these verses is far from obvious, and it is appropriate to heed insights from both Bible scholars and scientists as we seek to understand what scripture reveals about human origins.

Before outlining several Christian perspectives on this issue, two further points of exegetical disagreement are worth mentioning. First, many Christians understand verses like Genesis 3:20, Acts 17:26, and Romans 5:12 to indicate that Adam and Eve were sole progenitors of the human race—i.e., they were the very first human beings who ever lived, and all other people descended from them. Other Christians have argued against that view, citing passages such as Genesis 4:13-17. Adam and Eve’s oldest son, Cain, expresses concern that someone will kill him when he is driven away from the family farm (verse 13). In the next two verses, we learn that Cain has found a wife and settled in the land of Nod, where he builds a city. This passage implies that there were other people living in the surrounding areas. (Possibly all of these people were descendants of Adam and Eve, though it seems unlikely that their progeny already were numerous enough to populate a city.)

Second, Christians also disagree on the interpretation of biblical genealogies. (The earliest churches, apparently, engaged in similar debates. See 1st Timothy 1:4.) In particular, Christians disagree about the historical time period when Adam and Eve lived. Some even question whether Adam and Eve were historical individuals at all. Few would deny the historicity of the genealogies as a whole, but it has been suggested that the historical record extends back only to Cain and Seth, while the names “Adam” and “Eve” are place-holders for their unknown parents or previous ancestors. On this view, the story of the Garden of Eden is understood symbolically rather than literally: Adam and Eve represent everyone’s biological and/or spiritual ancestors.

Assuming Adam and Eve were historical individuals, as I believe to be true, how long ago did they live? Many Christians think the biblical genealogies enable us to approximate the historical time period when Adam and Eve were created: sometime around 4,000 B.C., by typical estimates. However, comparisons between biblical genealogies reveal that they sometimes omit numerous generations—a feature known as telescoping. (For an example, compare the genealogies in 2nd Chronicles chapters 22 - 26 with Matthew chapter 1. In verse 8, Matthew omits three generations between Jehoram and Uzziah.)According to 2nd Chronicles, Jehoram was the father of Ahaziah (22:1), who fathered Joash (22:11), who fathered Amaziah (24:27), who fathered Uzziah (26:1). Matthew omits Ahaziah, Joash, and Amaziah from his genealogy. This doesn’t mean that the genealogies contain errors. The Hebrew words translated “son” (ben) and “father” ('ab) can also mean “descendent” and “ancestor,” respectively. Similarly, the word translated “begat” (yalad) does not always refer to immediate offspring; it can also be used for remote descendants. This ambiguity permits the writers of scripture to highlight noteworthy individuals in a lineage while seamlessly skipping over others. In the example mentioned above, Matthew intentionally omits several generations in order to make an important theological point.See this article for one plausible explanation of Matthew’s theological purpose here. For a quick summary of alternative interpretations, see this. The ubiquity of telescoping in biblical genealogies makes it difficult to infer from them any confident estimate of the time when Adam and Eve lived.William Henry Green’s 1890 essay “Primeval Chronology” provides a careful examination of the biblical genealogies and the telescoping phenomenon. For a more recent discussion, see this blog series by Hugh Henry and Daniel Dyke; also this essay by John Millam.

In view of the many disagreements and plausible interpretations mentioned above, it should come as no surprise that many differing perspectives can be—and have been—defended by Christians who take the truth and authority of scripture seriously. Most views can be classified into one of two main categories: de novo views and common ancestry views. There is also a newcomer on the scene which combines elements of both. Here’s a brief outline of several popular perspectives:

De Novo Creation

Many Christians believe that God created the first human beings de novo (Latin: “of new”). That is, mankind was created separately from the animals, and we do not share ancestry with any other primates. Several popular views of Adam and Eve fall within this camp:

  1. Young-earth creationists typically hold that Adam and Eve were sole progenitors who lived approximately 6,000 years ago, though some young-earth creationists place the date of the creation week slightly further in the past (up to 10,000 years or so). In addition to rejecting evolution, this view also rejects much of the chronology developed in mainstream archeology, which dates the first major civilization to approximately 7,000 years ago and the oldest human remains and artifacts to over a hundred thousand years ago.

Most (not quite all) progressive creationists agree that human beings were created de novo, and most also accept mainstream archeology. However, progressive creationists hold differing views about Adam and Eve:

  1. Many agree with young-earth creationists that Adam and Eve were sole progenitors, but place them further in the past in order to accommodate the time frame of archeology.
  2. Other progressive creationists deny that Adam and Eve were sole progenitors, instead viewing them as relatively recent historical individuals who were selected by God to represent all of humanity, though they were not the only human beings living at the time. On this view, God may have created the first human beings 100,000 years ago or more; but Adam and Eve lived just a few thousand years ago.

Common Ancestry

A few progressive creationists and nearly all evolutionary creationists accept the prevailing scientific account of human origins, which says that our species (Homo sapiens) evolved from other primates between 500,000 and 200,000 years ago. Although these creationists accept an evolutionary account of our biological ancestry, some believe that God did something supernatural to distinguish human beings from other animals. In particular, many believe that at some point in time God made our species spiritually alive in a way that animals are not (e.g. by endowing each human being with a non-physical spirit). Among those who accept an evolutionary account of our biological origins, nearly all reject the idea that Adam and Eve were sole progenitors of humanity. However, there are numerous perspectives on where Adam and Eve fit into the picture:

  1. Some believe Adam and Eve were the first two members of our species to come alive spiritually.
  2. Others believe Adam and Eve were historical individuals selected by God to represent all of humanity, though they were not the only human beings living at the time. (This is the same as view 3, above, except that in this case humanity shares ancestry with other animals.)
  3. Still others believe that Adam and Eve are symbolic figures rather than historical individuals. (Perhaps they are place-holder names for the unknown ancestors of Cain and Seth, as suggested above.) This view regards the story of the Garden of Eden non-literally, e.g. as an allegory of some kind.

The Hybrid View

In his 2019 book The Genealogical Adam and Eve: The Surprising Science of Universal Ancestry, computational biologist S. Joshua Swamidass brings some intriguing ideas into the conversation. He proposes a unique account of human origins that doesn’t fit neatly into either the de novo or common ancestry categories, but combines aspects of both. Swamidass suggests that the two main views are not mutually exclusive. Specifically, he argues that God created the human species, Homo sapiens, via evolutionary processes; but then God also created Adam and Eve in a separate (and relatively recent), de novo creation event!

Thus, for a period time, two distinct lineages of humanity co-existed on Earth: Adam and Eve’s lineage, and the human beings who had been created via evolutionary processes—the “people outside the garden,” as Swamidass calls them. Importantly, Swamidass makes use of his expertise in computational biology to argue that it would only take a few thousand years of interbreeding (given some reasonably conservative assumptions about migration rates, etc.) before every single human being on the planet would have Adam and Eve among their ancestors. Thus, by the time Paul wrote his letter to the Romans, it would have been true that “through one man sin entered into the world, and [spiritual] death through sin, and so death spread to all men” (Romans 5:12).

I’ll call this the hybrid view, which seems fitting for two reasons. First, Swamidass’s view hybridizes the other two views mentioned above, incorporating elements of each. Second, the hybrid view holds that all human beings alive today are essentially hybrid creatures, sharing ancestry with a naturally-evolved lineage of human beings and also with a supernaturally-created lineage.

I confess that I personally find the hybrid view less plausible than either of the other two main views, but I have no decisive argument against it, so I felt it should be included here for the sake of completeness. Moreover, Swamidass’s crucial conclusion from computational biology—namely, that everyone alive by the time of Christ would be genealogical descendants of Adam and Eve, regardless of whether Adam and Eve were sole progenitors—could have interesting implications for some of the other views listed above. In particular, views denying that Adam and Eve were sole progenitors (views 3 – 6) may find Swamidass’s argument helpful in understanding passages like Genesis 3:20, Acts 17:26, and Romans 5:12, even if the hybrid view is incorrect.