This is the sixth post in a series I’m writing about science and Christianity. The others so far were:
In my last post, I tried to show that Genesis 1 does not communicate the kind of scientific information that modern readers tend to assume, and that the text can be read without scientific implications, but without giving up its inerrancy or theology. However, the Christian’s difficulties with science don’t stop with the first chapter. If anything, the conflicts with Genesis 2-4 are even more controversial than those with Genesis 1. In these chapters, we introduce the person of Adam and a story which has profound theological implications to the entire gospel.
Theologians sometimes refer to the “two books” of God’s revelation: the Bible (his special revelation) and creation (his general revelation). Creation can give us a sense of God’s power and character (Romans 1:20), but only the Bible teaches us theology in detail and gives us the gospel. As such, the Bible holds priority–it gives us the “spectacles” (as John Calvin put it) that allow us to understand the world and our place in it.
Science, therefore, must never overthrow the theological truths of the Bible. If we find ourselves reasoning, for instance, that Christ could not have been raised from the dead because it is scientifically impossible, then either our science or our reasoning is wrong. However, there have been many times in the past (as I described in my first post) where Christians have understood the Bible to be making claims, not about theology, but about science, based on cultural assumptions they bring to the text rather than on what the text actually says. Insisting too strongly on a given scientific interpretation of a text is dangerous; if science then shows the interpretation to be wrong, many will conclude that it is the Bible itself that has been disproven. Resistance to the theory of evolution may be such a situation.
Let’s consider first what science has to say on this subject. Science tells us that man is an animal in every physical sense of the word. We share the same bones, organs, nerves, and major blood vessels as other mammals. Tear the flesh off of the chicken wing you ate for dinner, and you can identify the same set of bones as in your own hand. Man is hot-blooded, has hair, sweat and mammary glands, specialized teeth, and gives birth to live young (we are mammals). We have large brains, color vision, and opposable thumbs (we are primates), we have flattened fingernails, forward-facing eyes, and no tails (we are apes), and we use tools, have thirty-two teeth, and spend many years raising our young (we are great apes).
Not only can we be classified as animals, but we fit neatly into the evolutionary tree, both in terms of the fossil record and genetics. It is a common misconception that “missing links” are, in fact, missing. On the contrary, transitional forms between major groups of species are often a focus of paleontology, since such fossils can answer questions about why certain body characteristics evolved. As a result, expeditions are formed to search rocks of specific ages where such transitions must have taken place, and many examples have been found. Eels with hardened growths of skin in their mouths (the first teeth), are followed by boneless fish with rudimentary skulls (originally formed of thousands of fused teeth!), followed by the first bony skeletons. Fish with weight-bearing fins and elbow joints have been uncovered, developing in parallel with early evidence of the ability to breathe air. Therapods (dinosaurs) have been found demonstrating feathers and bird-like skeletons. In each of these cases, it is not a matter of random discovery, but of intentional and successful expeditions to find fossils in rocks from a specific age.
The hominid fossil record is no different. Over fifteen separate species have been identified, and although there is endless disagreement about the details, the overall picture is clear: a gradual development over the last six million years from traits much closer to modern chimpanzees (shorter legs; shoulder and hip joints oriented for walking on all fours; a longer skull connected in the back instead of on the bottom; longer, curved fingers and toes) to those of modern homo sapiens. Some of these early human species lived at the same time as each other. When the ancestors of modern humans spread from Africa into the rest of the world, they encountered Neandertals, who had already been living in Europe, Asia, and America for tens of thousands of years. Ultimately, only one species of human survived: us.
At first glance, this science seems entirely at odds with the story of Adam and Eve. The traditional understanding of Genesis 2-4 holds that Adam and Eve were the first man and woman, had no parents, were created distinct from the animals, and all humans are their biological descendents. Adam was the first and representative member of the human race. He was made in the image of God and given the task of ruling and bringing order to creation. Instead, he sinned, bringing death and a sinful nature to all of his descendents, thus requiring Christ’s sacrifice to redeem sinners. The entire theology of the Bible is wrapped up in the story of Adam and Eve. If Adam never lived, then he never sinned, Christ’s sacrifice was unnecessary, and the whole gospel comes crashing down.
However, I suggest there is a scientific assumption at work here. The assumption is that Adam’s role as representative of the human race (the first man) requires him to be the biological parent of the human race (the first homo sapiens). But being made in the image of God and having a sin nature are spiritual concepts, not biological ones. There is no gene for sin, nor a biological analog for the soul (in fact, the soul outlives the body). This suggests a possibility: that the Bible presents Adam as the first man in the theological sense–the first with an eternal soul, the first to be given God’s image, the first given a role of rulership, the first to be held accountable for his actions, and the first to have a relationship with God. In short, the first hominid who is not an animal. This would mean that, just as we saw in Genesis 1, the Bible tells us nothing about biology, and allows us to make no scientific conclusions from its text, either in support of ancient science or today’s science, nor does it give us clues for the science of the future.
This suggestion, however, must be borne out by the text if we are to accept it. There are three major passages we need to examine: the story of Adam and Eve in Genesis 2-4 and Paul’s two major theological references to it in Romans 5 and I Corinthians 15.
Romans 5:12-19 establishes the significance of Adam’s representative role. “For as by the one man’s disobedience the many were made sinners, so by the one man’s obedience the many will be made righteous.” Paul compares Christ’s representative role to Adam’s, and tells us that, as the first man, his disobedience placed all of us under the curse of sin. This requires a real, historical Adam who chose to disobey God. But Paul doesn’t teach us that we share Adam’s genes; just that we are the spiritual inheritors of his sin. If the human race is descended from a variety of hominid ancestors, Adam’s spiritual and representational role need not be threatened. In fact, Christ himself demonstrates that biological descent and sin nature need not be connected: he was a physical human being, complete with homo sapien genes and DNA, yet without sin.
I Corinthians 15 makes a similar comparison, in verses 22-23: “For as by a man came death, by a man has come also the resurrection of the dead. For as in Adam, all die, so also in Christ shall all be made alive.” Here we see not just a sin nature being passed to humanity through Adam, but also death. This seems to cause a scientific problem: if death began with sin, how could there have been millions of years of prior hominids living and dying, not to mention all the animals that came earlier? If, however, Paul is speaking of spiritual death and resurrection, then the problem disappears. I suggest that rather than making a scientific claim (i.e. “there was no biological death before Adam sinned”), Paul is telling us that just as spiritual death (alienation from God) was introduced through Adam, so spiritual life (restoration with God) was introduced through Christ.
But isn’t Paul talking about the physical death of Christians and the resurrection of their bodies in this passage? He is. His main point was to answer those who were saying that physical death was the end, and there would be no resurrection. But even here, it is not biological death that is the issue. Paul does not claim that Christians do not experience biological death, or that Christ’s sacrifice saves them from physically dying. Instead, Christ’s sacrifice restores their relationship with God, allowing their eternal soul to be resurrected and given a new, spiritual body. Paul makes this distinction himself in verses 35-59, when he speaks of the “natural” body we have now, and the “spiritual” body we will have when we are raised. After Paul himself died and his body decayed, it mixed with the soil and ground water, fertilized plants which were then eaten by animals, and by now has passed through and become part of countless other animal and human bodies. This scientific knowledge, however, does not threaten the idea that Paul will be raised again at the last day. It is not the collection of atoms that happened to be part of his flesh at the moment of his death that will be raised, but a new, spiritual body, imperishable and glorious.
Support for this idea can be found in Genesis 2 as well. In verse 17, God warns Adam and Eve, “but of the tree of the knowledge of good and evil you shall not eat, for in the day that you eat of it you shall surely die.” In Genesis 3, Adam and Eve do eat the fruit; however, they do not physically die on that day. God’s promise that they would die “in the day that you eat of it” doesn’t seem to come true, if one understands death in this context to be biological. The traditional response to this is that they began to die on that day (i.e. that they became mortal), as did all the plants and animals, thus introducing biological death into the world for the first time. But this is a scientific reading that the text does not require and that makes no biological sense. Death is inherent to how biology works. All living things–herbivores and carnivores, plants, bacteria–survive on the death of others. The whole ecological system is designed to work through death. Rather than taking the spiritual concept that “death came into the world through Adam” and trying to devise a scientific understanding of it (imagining the pre-Fall utility of a tiger’s teeth and claws, for instance, or how trees could thrive without dead plants fertilizing the soil), we should accept that the Bible gives us no modern scientific information and understand “death” in this passage as it was intended: as a spiritual alienation from God that marks a spiritual death for our souls and gives physical death its horror.
As an aside, this also allows for a simpler reading of some references in Genesis 4. When Cain is punished with exile, he complains, “I shall be a wanderer on the earth, and whoever finds me will kill me.” God responds by putting a mark on him, “lest any who found him should attack him.” There is no indication given of the nature of this mark, but one wonders why a mark was needed if the only people in existence were in his own family. Cain then settles in Nod, where he has a wife and a son, and builds a city. Again, one wonders where his wife came from, and why a place populated only by Cain’s own children could be described as a city. None of these questions are insuperable–the traditional understanding is that Cain married his sister and lived long enough to see many generations of his descendents populating his city–but the possibility that Adam was not the first biological homo sapiens provides a simpler reading.
I am not seminary-trained, nor an expert in ancient languages, so I don’t present these thoughts as convictions as much as suggestions. However, even if someone shows me errors in my understanding of the above texts, I think it is beneficial for Christians to consider this subject seriously. Science tells us little about theology, but in the material realm it is a powerful tool for the discovery of truth, and its findings should not be easily dismissed. We should never allow science to govern our theology, and it is possible that some science may need to be rejected in light of the Bible, but the church should consider both the science and the Bible carefully, to be certain that what we are rejecting is based on what the Bible actually teaches, rather than assumptions we bring to the text from our own traditions. If we do not, we impose a needless barrier to faith that discourages non-Christians from taking the Bible seriously and encourages young people raised in the church to reject it as they grow older.
But why, a Christian might ask, should science be taken so seriously? Aren’t scientists mostly atheists whose conclusions are driven at some level by their rejection of God? After all, I’ve never used a mass spectrometer or found a fossil; I rely on the findings of others, most of whom do not acknowledge Christ. Why give the word of secular scientists so much weight that we must look for new ways to understand the Bible? I’ll consider this question in my next post.
The Bible, English Standard Version
Human Origins and The Bible, by John Walton, Zygon: Journal of Religion and Science
All Mankind, Descending From Him, by Richard B. Gaffin, Jr.
Did Adam and Eve Really Exist?, by C. John Collins
Why Evolution is True, by Jerry Coyne
The Fossil Trail, by Ian Tattersall
The Origin of Humankind, by Richard Leakey
The Neandertal Enigma, by James Shreeve