Doing without Adam and Eve

One argument you sometimes hear for the necessity of a “historical” fall and a “historical” Adam and Eve goes like this: if there was no historical first couple and fall into sin, then we are in no need of a savior and therefore the entire gospel loses its raison d’etre.

This seems odd to me. That human beings need liberation from sin, guilt, anxiety, the threat of meaninglessness, the fear of death, and other forces that oppress and harass us–in short, our need for salvation in its most comprehensive sense–isn’t something we infer from the story of the Fall. It’s an evident fact about the world, one that we need only to look around us to discover.

I see the story of Adam and Eve and the Fall as a vivid portrait of the human condition: our alienation from God, from each other, and from the world in which we live. This is why “Adam” is such a potent symbol in Paul’s theology: it encapsulates everything that’s wrong with us–everything that God in Christ comes to save us from. (Whether or not Paul himself thought of Adam as a historical person, it seems undeniable to me that “Adam” still functions in a more-than-historical way in Paul’s theology.) How we got the way we are is a distinct issue from that we are the way we are.

I’m not saying anything here that others–like Reinhold Niebuhr–haven’t said better. And skepticism about the strictly factual-historical nature of the Genesis creation stories isn’t the only reason for rejecting this account of the Fall. Before Darwinism was even on the scene, a number of people had come to question the traditional interpretation. The idea that Adam’s sin and guilt was a quasi-physical substance that could be transmitted to all his descendents, or alternatively, that his guilt was somehow imputed to the rest of humanity down through the ages, had come to seem metaphysically fishy or morally objectionable. And it had consequences that even those committed to the traditional view found troubling, such as that unbaptized infants would be damned. This didn’t stop people from believing in the need for salvation though.

By insisting on a historical Adam and Eve (even a semi-“demythologized” version), Christians risk backing themselves into the corner of denying well-established findings of biological science and preaching a gospel that many people will find unintelligible.

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