Adam and Eve Didn't Exist. Get Over It!

06/10/2011 05:15 pm ET | Updated Aug 10, 2011
  • Michael Ruse Professor of Philosophy, Florida State University

The cover article of this month's Christianity Today is on the subject of Adam and Eve. Could humans be descended from one single pair or not? Really, Christians should be over this one by now. They should have been over it by Christmas of 1859, a month after Charles Darwin published his "Origin of Species." As he said there, "light will be thrown on the origin of man and his history."

It sure was! Organisms evolved from simple forms by natural selection. This includes humans. We are the end result of a long, slow, natural process of development. Moreover, there never was an original pair. It may be that at some point in our past -- a hundred thousand years or so ago -- humans went through some kind of bottleneck, but we are still looking at a population of 10,000 or so. Moreover, even if all humans are descended from one woman -- "Mitochondrial Eve" -- no one thinks that we are descended only from one woman. Or that that woman and her mate were in any significant sense different from their parents or their contemporaries.

In other words, science tells us that Adam and Eve are fictions. That Saint Paul or Uncle Tom Cobley and all thought otherwise is irrelevant. They were wrong. This is not to say that they were stupid or careless. Two thousand years ago, for a Jew to believe in Adam and Eve was perfectly sensible. But time moves on and with it our understanding of the world around us, and old beliefs have to give way to new ones. Aristotle thought that some people were born to be slaves. He was wrong. St. Paul thought we are descended from Adam and Eve. He was wrong.

Not everyone is happy with this conclusion. At Calvin College in Michigan, two very eminent professors -- deeply sincere Christians -- are in very hot water with their president for doubting the historical veracity of the early chapters of Genesis. But whatever the outcome of the president's bullying, apart from the fact that already he is making one of the best liberal arts colleges in America seem ludicrously out of step with science, it is they who are on the side of the angels not he.
What should be the attitude of the Christian faced with clear evidence that some part of the Bible cannot be taken literally and that this must have consequences for hitherto-accepted theology? Clearly, some alternative theology must be sought. This is not giving up or mere ad hoc responding. The great British theologian John Henry Newman saw clearly that the essential truths of the Christian faith remain unchanged, but that, given new knowledge in each age, they need constant reinterpretation and updating.

God is creator, Jesus is his son who died on the cross for our sake, this act of sacrifice made possible our eternal salvation -- these claims are unchanged. But what exactly this all might mean is another matter.

Augustine thought that we are all tainted (original sin) because of actual act of disobedience by a real Adam. This cannot be so. But there are alternative theologies at hand. Irenaeus of Lyon (before Augustine) worried that everything rested on the fault of one rather naive man faced with a wily serpent. Instead, he interpreted original sin as part of our general incomplete nature, something that was completed by the Christian drama. Jesus was never "Plan B," in the sense of sent to earth to clean up the mess created by Adam. His coming and sacrifice were always part of the divine intention.

Given a theology like this, the disappearance of a literal Adam and Eve is not only possible but something of a relief. This is not to say that this theology is now the only right one for evermore, but rather that giving up some thoughts in the face of science is not necessarily the end of faith. And there may well be religious (and not just scientific) advantages. The Augustinian scenario always leaves the bad taste about why we should be blamed for the sin of someone else.

But is there not the uncomfortable worry that religion -- theology -- is always going to play second fiddle, having to give way in the face of science? And never the other way around. When did a Nobel Prize winner ever change his or her mind in the face of a reinterpretation of the Trinity? It may be true that this is a one-way process, but in no way does this imply that theology is inferior. The changes are part of theology. If we are made in the image of God (and Augustine was right here), then we have the power of reason and the ability to learn and understand the world that God created. We have the ability and the obligation. This means doing science, however uncomfortable it may be. We see through a glass darkly. At some point, we will see face to face. But not without a lot of effort by us.

Christianity Today should quit fretting. The President of Calvin College should be proud of his faculty. That is not only the right way to behave. It is the Christian way to behave.