Is belief in a historical Adam a “gospel issue”?
I came across this post by James McGrath–”Ten Really Bad Reasons to Believe in a Historical Adam“–which was a response to a post by Reformed blogger Kevin DeYoung arguing for the necessity of belief in a historical Adam.
One reason DeYoung offers that I’ve seen emphasized elsewhere is that without belief in a historical Adam and a historical “Fall,” there is no need for the gospel.
9. Without a historical Adam, Paul’s doctrine of original sin and guilt does not hold together.
As James McGrath points out, there’s a bit of sleight-of-hand going on here when DeYoung refers to “Paul’s doctrine of original sin and guilt.” The traditional Reformed doctrine of original sin and guilt is one–and certainly not the only–interpretation of what Paul thought.
That traditional Reformed view holds that from Adam’s original sin of disobedience the rest of humanity has inherited both a propensity toward sin and the guilt of that sin, which merits eternal damnation. Only, the story continues, by pleading the Atonement of Christ can we be delivered from that guilt and its attendant punishment.
But if you don’t think this is an appropriate interpretation of the biblical teaching, then the alleged necessity of positing a historical Adam disappears. For example, the Eastern Orthodox churches don’t teach the doctrine of “orignial guilt” as formulated by, say, Augustine and the Reformers. They acknowledge that humanity has an innate tendency toward sin, but this isn’t the same thing as saying that we’re guilty for something Adam did.
In fact, even leaving aside historical or biological considerations, the idea that God “imputes” Adam’s guilt to the rest of humanity is objectionable on moral grounds. How can it possibly be just for God to hold people accountable for–to the extent of condemning them to eternal hellfire–something over which they had no control and in fact happened before they were even born? You can avoid this problem by embraciing a voluntarist conception of divine goodness, but that’s a price many people aren’t willing to pay.
What’s really puzzling to me about a view like DeYoung’s, though, is that it seems to imply that we need a historical Adam in order to recognize our need for salvation. But people don’t respond to the gospel because they’ve already accepted some theory about original sin; they respond to it because it addresses our experience of evil, suffering, and guilt. In other words, if someone asks “How do you know we need saved?”, the answer is “Look around!”
You don’t need to believe in a historical Adam to see that the human situation is in need of healing. The human predicament is one of subjection to suffering and evil, and complicity in the ongoing cycle of victimization and violence. And the Christian gospel is that, in Jesus, God has done something about this situation: specifically, God has revealed and enacted the divine love and forgiveness, has come to share our life and our sufferings, has reconciled humanity to the divine nature, and has raised human nature to eternal life. As far as I can see, the truth of this doesn’t depend on accepting a particular theory about the historical existence of Adam or the origin of sin.