Was the Biblical Adam Real?

Daniel Darling
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Let’s think about what it was like to be Adam. Before we can do that, we must deal with the elephant in the room. Do we really believe Adam was a real person or is he just a kind of figurehead, a symbol illustrating the concepts of creation and the fall and the preciousness of human life? There is quite a debate among Bible scholars. Many find the idea of a real Adam hard to square with modern science.[1]

The Historicity of Adam

However, I find it hard to read the rest of Scripture and come away with the idea that Adam was a mere figurehead or myth. For one thing, Moses and other Old Testament writers, under the inspiration of the Holy Spirit, write as if Adam was a real person, both describing his behavior and actions, but also listing him in genealogies as if he was a real human being and not a mythical figure. And when you get to the New Testament, you find Jesus and Paul both assume Adam is a real person.

Jesus, referring to Genesis in a question from the Pharisees, responded:

“Haven’t you read,” he replied, “that he who created them in the beginning made them male and female and he also said, ‘For this reason a man will leave his father and mother and be joined to his wife, and the two will become one flesh’? So they are no longer two, but one flesh. Therefore, what God has joined together, let no one separate.” (Matt. 19:4–6)

Jesus preached from Genesis as if the narrative in Genesis was true. I think we are on dangerous ground if we, in the twenty-first century, presume to know more than Jesus knew! And then there is Paul, one of the foremost Hebrew scholars of his day, trained under the great Hebrew teacher Gamaliel, and inspired by the Spirit of God to write much of the New Testament. Paul didn’t hesitate to point to Adam as the very first human whose sin plunged humanity into darkness. Paul referred to Adam multiple times in his New Testament letters (Acts 17; Rom. 5; 1 Cor. 15; 1 Tim. 2). To a pagan audience, Paul declared, “From one man, he has made every nationality to live over the whole earth and has determined their appointed times and the boundaries of where they live” (Acts 17:26). Theologian Millard Erickson writes, “not only did the New Testament writers like Paul believe that an actual Adam and Eve existed, but it was an indispensable part of their doctrine of humanity.”[2]

For most of church history, Christians have debated specifics on the age of the Earth or the details of the process of creation described in Genesis. But a literal Adam is essential for the central storyline of Scripture to hold together. Scholar Philip Ryken writes why this is important: “To deny the historical Adam is to stand against the teaching of Moses, Luke, Jesus and Paul . . . Given his recurring presence in the biblical narrative, the logical and long-term effect of denying the existence of Adam is to weaken the church’s grip on central biblical truths that make a difference in daily life.”[3]

Perhaps you find the idea of humans originating from one central figure named Adam a bit far-fetched. Some Christians have found ways to reconcile a belief in Adam as a myth with a faithful reading of Scripture. But I can’t do that. What’s more, I don’t find it impossible that God could create the human race from one single person, a special creation at a specific time and place. After all, I believe even more scientifically implausible things, like a man getting swallowed by a great fish, a body of water being divided so a nation can cross, and, the most implausible of all, that a man from Nazareth was both God and man who was killed by Romans and then walked out of a rich man’s tomb three days later. Yes, I believe all of those things.

I think this plain reading of Genesis is not only the right way to read our Bibles but has profound implications for how we see our world. It is a radical idea that every single person on this earth, regardless of their ethnicity, their social status, their family heritage, was both created in the image of God and also draws from the same family tree. Understanding Genesis helps us see our neighbors the way God sees them, helps us build bridges across racial and socioeconomic lines, helps us resist the evil prejudices that so tempt every generation of fallen humanity. We live in a world laden with perverse incentives to divide along racial, social, economic, and political lines. We are daily tempted with rich opportunities to see other people as less than human.

This is why I believe so strongly in the truth as we see it in Genesis, why I chose to write this book in the first place, and why I think it’s important to understand who Adam is.

Who Was Adam?

Adam, as the very first human to walk the earth, experienced a supernatural kind of birth and was created to live out a calling unlike any other human being in history. He was alone in the world, born with no history and no parents. Every other person born would have come from another person—by birth. Even his wife, Eve, was created from Adam’s rib. But Adam was formed from the dust of the ground by God’s hands.

“Understanding Genesis helps us see our neighbors the way God sees them.”

Imagine that. Each of us first opens our eyes to the world when we are born; gradually, we grow and mature. There is nothing I delight in more than seeing my children grow up before my very eyes. But for Adam, his was a unique kind of existence. He had no earthly mother or father to guide him, no template of experiences passed down through history. Can you imagine what his first moments of reality must have been like, imagine that first breath? His first thoughts? His first time using his eyes to behold the beauty of Eden and his mouth to communicate with the Creator? What was it like to be “walking in the garden in the cool of the day” with God (Gen. 3:8 KJV)?

Adam’s Miraculous Birth

Adam was the first, but his would not be the last miraculous birth, born for a special God-given purpose. Isaac was born to a couple whose childbearing years were long in their rearview mirror, born to birth a people and a nation out of whom the Messiah would come. Samuel, a prophet, priest, and judge in Israel, was conceived in the womb of Hannah, whose faithful prayers for a child reached heaven. John the Baptist was born to an aging priest who doubted the word of the angel who promised his wife would give birth to a prophet, one whose life would pave the way for the coming of Jesus. And of course, Jesus, called the second Adam by the apostle Paul in Corinthians and Romans, whose birth was not only supernatural but also conceived by the Holy Spirit in the womb of a common peasant girl. In a way, God’s breathing of life and creating Adam from dust foreshadows the breath of new creation God would breathe into His new people through the power of the Holy Spirit, in the salvation that Jesus would bring by His life, death, and resurrection.

In a sense, every one of us is the product of a supernatural birth. Every birth, King David reminds us in Psalm 139, is the product of God’s careful handiwork and every spiritual birth is the result of the miraculous power of the Holy Spirit and the sacrifice of Jesus on the cross.

[1] To read the best arguments on this, check out Four Views on The Historical Adam, edited by Matthew Barrett and Ardel B. Caneday and published in 2013 by Zondervan. I found myself especially resonating with the arguments by John Collins. I also highly recommend the final chapter by Phil Ryken on how a literal Adam is essential to understanding the entire gospel narrative in Scripture. You might also check out Collins’s work, Did Adam and Eve Really Exist? (Crossway, 2011).

[2] Millard J. Erickson, Christian Theology, 3rd edition (Grand Rapids, MI: Baker Academic, 2013), 442.

[3] Ardel B. Caneday, Matthew Barrett, and Stanley N. Gundry, eds., Four Views on the Historical Adam (Grand Rapids, MI: Zondervan Academic, 2013), 268–270.

For Further Reading:

The Characters of Creation

by Daniel Darling

Most Christians are familiar with the opening words of Genesis: “In the beginning, God created the heavens and the earth.” But push...

book cover for The Characters of Creation