Christian Perspectives on Human Origins
As discussed in the preceding pages, 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 interpreted in ways compatible with the possibility 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 meanings of these verses are far from obvious, and I do not think the exegetical questions can be settled decisively on either scriptural or scientific grounds. For this reason, I believe it is appropriate to heed insights from both Bible scholars and scientists as we seek to understand what scripture reveals about human origins.
Most contemporary Christian views of human origins 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 within each of those main categories:
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:
- A few progressive creationists and nearly all young-earth creationists hold that Adam and Eve were sole progenitors who lived approximately 6,000 years ago.Some young-earth creationists place the date of the creation week slightly further in the past, up to 10,000 years or so. Old-earth (progressive) creationists typically place the age of humanity closer to 100,000 years (see below), but there are exceptions. For example, geologist H. Donald Daae accepts mainstream chronologies for most of geological history and the fossil record, but he agrees with young-earth creationists that Adam and Eve were sole progenitors who lived only a few thousand years ago. See Daae, Bridging the Gap: The 7th Day (Bloomington: Westbow Press, 2010) and Bridging the Gap: The First 6 Days (Bloomington: Westbow Press, 2012). In addition to rejecting evolution, this view also rejects the timeline of mainstream archaeology, 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.
- Many progressive creationists see Adam and Eve as sole progenitors who lived further in the past, tens or
even hundreds of thousands of years ago. Hugh Ross, a leading exponent of progressive creationism, sees a crucial clue in the second chapter of Genesis:
Genesis 2 describes four known rivers flowing out from named locations—in the mountains of Arabia and the mountains surrounding Mesopotamia—and meeting together in the Garden of Eden. … The only time these rivers can join together on dry land is when most of the Persian Gulf is dry. The drying up of most of the Persian Gulf requires that Earth be in an ice age.Hugh Ross, “When Did God Create Adam and Eve?” (Reasons.org, 2016)
Fitting scriptural clues like this together with several lines of geological and archaeological evidence, Ross suggests that “the most likely biblical date for the creation of Adam and Eve … would lie between 55,000 and 120,000 years ago. However, the date could be stretched as far back as 230,000 years ago.”Hugh Ross, “When Did God Create Adam and Eve?” (Reasons.org, 2016) Others have suggested even earlier dates for Adam and Eve.For example, in their paper “A Single-Couple Human Origin is Possible” (BIO-Complexity 2019: 1-20), Intelligent Design advocates Ann Gauger and Ola Hössjer use mathematical models of population genetics to show that the genetic diversity of the present human population could have originated from a single couple who lived 500,000 years ago. William Lane Craig suggests an even earlier date of approximately 750,000 years ago, though he argues that Adam and Eve may have shared ancestry with other primates. His view is briefly described below.
- Some 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 de novo 100,000 years ago or more, but Adam and Eve lived just a few thousand years ago.
Evolutionary creationists accept the prevailing scientific account of human origins, which says that our species (Homo sapiens) evolved via natural processes from other primates between 500,000 and 200,000 years ago. Some Intelligent Design theorists also accept common ancestry, though many believe that God employed more than merely natural processes to bring about major evolutionary transitions, including the emergence of human beings. (God may have supernaturally infused new genetic information into the first human being’s genome, for example.) Similarly, although evolutionary creationists typically accept a naturalistic 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 evolutionary history 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. (An exception is William Lane Craig, whose proposal is listed as view number 7, below.) However, there are numerous perspectives on where Adam and Eve fit into the picture:
- Some believe that Adam and Eve are symbolic figures rather than historical individuals. (To reconcile such ahistorical interpretations with the appearance of Adam’s name in biblical genealogies, the names “Adam” and “Eve” are considered place-holders for the unknown ancestors of Cain and Seth. See the discussion of genealogies on the previous page.) This view regards the story of the Garden of Eden non-literally, as an allegory or a parable of some kind.As we saw previously, some of the early church fathers held a similar view. Origen (AD 185-254) wrote that “if God is said to walk in the paradise in the evening, and Adam to hide himself under a tree, I do not suppose that anyone doubts that these things figuratively indicate certain mysteries, the history having taken place in appearance, and not literally.” Origen, On First Principles, Book 4, translated from the Greek in Coxe and Clark (eds.), Ante-Nicene Fathers, vol. 4, available online here.
For example, theologian Karl Barth (1886-1968) saw the story of Adam and Eve as a non-historical “saga” intended to teach important theological truths about humanity, rather than as a literal account of human origins.Barth wrote: “We miss the unprecedented and incomparable thing which the Genesis passages tell us of the coming into being and existence of Adam if we try to read and understand it as history, relating it either favorably or unfavorably to scientific paleontology, or to what we know with some historical certainty concerning the oldest and most primitive forms of human life.” Karl Barth, Church Dogmatics: IV.1 The Doctrine of Reconciliation, Study Edition, translated by G. W. Bromiley, edited by G. W. Bromiley and T. F. Torrance (London: T & T Clark, 2009), 508. See here for further discussion of Barth’s perspective on Adam. Bible scholar Peter Enns, an advocate of evolutionary creationism, similarly argues that the story of Adam and Eve is intended as a theological allegory for the history of Israel. Noting salient parallels between the history of Israel and the story of the Garden of Eden, Enns suggests that “Israel’s history happened first, and the Adam story was written to reflect that history. In other words, the Adam story is really an Israel story placed in primeval time. It is not a story of human origins but of Israel’s origins.”Peter Enns, “Adam is Israel” (BioLogos.org, 2010). Emphasis in original.
- Others believe Adam and Eve were real, historical individuals selected by God to represent all of humanity, though they were not the only people living at the time. (This is the same as view 3, above, except in this case humanity shares ancestry with other animals.) Old Testament scholar Derek Kidner proposed a view of this sort in his 1967 book Genesis: An Introduction and Commentary. Kidner argued that God had appointed Adam as “federal head” over all of humanity, thus explaining how Adam’s sin—the fall of man—could affect not only his descendants but also his contemporaries:
On this view, Adam, the first true man, will have had as contemporaries many creatures of comparable intelligence, widely distributed over the world. ... Adam’s ‘federal’ headship of humanity extended, if that was the case, outwards to his contemporaries as well as onwards to his offspring, and his disobedience disinherited both alike.Derek Kidner, Genesis: An Introduction and Commentary (1967), reprinted as Kidner Classic Commentaries: Genesis (Downers Grove: InterVarsity Press, 2008), 31-32.
- Still others believe Adam and Eve were the first two members of our species to come alive spiritually, or the first to be given the image of God. For example, evangelical theologian John Stott wrote:
My acceptance of Adam and Eve as historical is not incompatible with my belief that several forms of pre-Adamic “hominid” seem to have existed for thousands of years previously. ... It is conceivable that God created Adam out of one of them. You may call them homo erectus. I think you may even call some of them homo sapiens, for these are arbitrary scientific names. But Adam was the first homo divinus, if I may coin the phrase, the first man to whom may be given the specific biblical designation “made in the image of God.”John R. W. Stott, Understanding the Bible: Expanded Edition (Grand Rapids: Zondervan, 1999), 55-56.
This view is compatible with the previous one and is often combined with it. In his book Creation or Evolution: Do we have to choose?, biologist Denis Alexander combines Stott’s idea of Homo divinus with Kidner’s suggestion that Adam and Eve were chosen to represent all of humanity. Alexander agrees with young-earth creationists that Adam and Eve lived relatively recently—perhaps as recently as 6,000 years ago. In his view, Adam and Eve were “a couple of Neolithic farmers in the Near East” whom God called into fellowship with Himself, making them the first members of God’s spiritual family on Earth:
Adam and Eve, in this view, were real people, living in a particular historical era and geographical location, chosen by God to be the representatives of his new humanity on earth, not by virtue of anything that they had done, but simply by God’s grace. When Adam recognised Eve as ‘bone of
my bones and flesh of my flesh’, he was not just recognising a fellow Homo sapiens—there were plenty of those around—but a fellow believer, one like him who had been called to share in the very life of God in obedience to his commands.Denis Alexander, Creation or Evolution: Do we have to choose?, Second Edition (Oxford: Lion Hudson, 2014), 236-237.
- Christian philosopher and apologist William Lane Craig has proposed a way of reconciling common ancestry with the traditional view that Adam and Eve were sole progenitors of humanity. He suggests that the species ancestral to human beings experienced an extreme population bottleneck—that is, a near extinction event—so that only two individuals remained: Adam and Eve were the only surviving members of the species. (Although mainstream evolutionary theory recognizes no such bottleneck in the ancient human population, genetic and fossil evidence about our distant ancestors is limited.The genetic diversity of human beings today suggests that the human population has not experienced an extreme bottleneck for hundreds of thousands of years. However, this recent study published in the leading journal Science suggests that there may have been an extreme bottleneck during the middle of the Pleistocene. (See also this article by biologist Jonathan McLatchie for some brief but helpful remarks on the significance of that study.) Similarly, in their paper “A Single-Couple Human Origin is Possible” (BIO-Complexity 2019: 1-20), Intelligent Design advocates Ann Gauger and Ola Hössjer use mathematical models of population genetics to show that the genetic diversity of the present human population could have originated from a single couple who lived at least 500,000 years ago, provided the couple had sufficiently diverse genomes. Craig argues that Adam and Eve may have lived over 700,000 years ago, perhaps as members of the human subspecies Homo heidelbergensis.) Thus, according to Craig, God created Adam and Eve via evolutionary processes; yet He chose them to be His image-bearers and made them sole progenitors of all humankind.William Lane Craig, In Quest of the Historical Adam: A Biblical and Scientific Exploration (Grand Rapids: Eerdmans, 2021). Craig leaves open the possibility that Adam and Eve were created de novo in the distant past, but he takes genetic similarities between human beings and other primates to be strong evidence of common ancestry.
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 of 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 take only a few thousand years of interbreeding (given 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. Nevertheless, 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 insight helpful in understanding passages like Genesis 3:20, Acts 17:26, and Romans 5:12, even if the hybrid view is incorrect.