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.

Here’s DeYoung:

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.


13 thoughts on “Is belief in a historical Adam a “gospel issue”?

  1. I wonder what people who hang everything on the existence of Adam do when science shows a single couple could not have been everyone’s parents and that there never was a peaceful Eden-like place where they supposedly lived. I’ve seen some extreme run-arounds to explain this – I guess for some there’s a serious investiment in original sin.

    1. It’s a good question–I haven’t personally delved very deeply into the literature of trying to explain away scientific findings that seem to contradict a historical interpretation of the Fall story. But my impression is that there’s quite a bit of it out there.

  2. Marvin

    He’s one of those House of Cards Theologians, the “My Theology Is So Fragile If I Have To Change My Mind About JUST ONE THING (but especially anything pertaining to the historicity of the Bible or traditional gender roles) The Whole Effing Edifice Will Come Tumbling Down” theologians.

  3. Imagine a news story that begins with a kidnapping and ends with a rescue.

    A day later you read there wasn’t actually a kidnapping at all and the victim was just shopping at the mall.

    You say to yourself, “No kidnapping, no rescue,” and don’t bother to read the few inches of text headed “No rescue, either.”

    No Adam, no Christ.

    Which is not to say, of course, no historical Jesus.

  4. Lee

    But of course that’s just what I’m disputing. The traditional story about Adam and the Fall is an attempt to offer an etiology of sin, so to speak. But sin itself (along with suffering, sickness, and death) is a palpable reality from which people seek deliverance, whatever its origin.

  5. The doctrine of Jesus being sent by the Father to die for the sins originated by Adam does seem to me to be reverse engineering – a construct created to make sense of Jesus being murdered.

    To say that if there was no kidnapping there could be no rescue is to assume first that Jesus was here to rescue. Maybe the incarnation wasn’t a reaction, a fix, but something else.

  6. Lee

    There is–which I’m sure you’re familiar with–the Franciscan tradition that the Incarnation would’ve happened even if sin hadn’t occurred. Of course, given that it did occur, even this tradition attributes saving significance to it.

    For what it’s worth, I don’t think “salvation” should be confined to what happened on the Cross. Clearly in the gospels Jesus is saving people before he is killed. At its best, the tradition has seen the entire “Christ-event”–birth, life, ministry, death, and resurrection, plus the sending of the Spirit–as God’s act of salvation.

  7. I haven’t been a Christian all that long and I guess in a way I’ve never really understood the significance of the salvation event. I know this must be a dumb question, but how are we and how is our situation different now than before Jesus was here? What have we been saved from or for?

  8. I don’t think it’s a dumb question, but it’s a pretty big and complicated one that’s been given a lot of different answers throughout Christian history.

    If I were to try to put it in a nutshell I’d say that salvation refers to God’s action to liberate creation from evil. And “evil” here includes guilt, suffering, sin, and death.

    The Christian view is that in the life, death, and resurrection of Jesus, God has “dealt with” evil. How that works is where various theories of salvation/atonement come in, and there’s no universally agreed-upon account. But as C.S. Lewis said, you can believe that it happened without understanding how it works.

    But I think your comment also points to another important, but frequently overlooked, aspect of the issue: the world just doesn’t look like it has been redeemed. People still sin and suffer; creation’s still a mess; death stalks the land, etc.

    This is where I think Christians can learn something from the Jewish tradition. One key objection Jews have offered to the idea that Jesus was the Messiah is that, if the Messiah had come, evil would’ve been vanquished. But it manifestly hasn’t, so Jesus must not have been the Messiah.

    What I think Christians should take away from this is that Jesus provides a promise, or a foretaste, of what the Kingdom will look like when it comes in its fullness (however we might imagine that). In other words, it’s God’s down payment on something that has yet to be fully realized. Christians do believe that, in some sense, we already participate in that redeemed form of life, but as yet only in a partial and incomplete way. So salvation will only be fully realized in the age to come.

    Does that help at all?

  9. Thati is what I was wondering about – how we’ve been saved since sin and suffering and death (and according to some, hell as punishment for participants in sin) still exist.

    But seeing Jesus as a kind of promise and example of what’s to come is interesting. He saved us in that he’s the assurance that ultimately all will be well? In a way, that makes “faith” more understandable to me – it’s like trusting someone.

    Thanks, Lee – you’ve given me a lot to think about 🙂

  10. Pingback: Evolution, Adam, Paul, and the Gospel | A Thinking Reed

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