“For as in Adam all die, so in Christ all will be made alive.”
I Corinthians 15:22
What exactly did the writer of the first three chapters of Genesis mean to communicate about the origin of mankind? Views vary drastically within Christendom about where Adam came from in the material sense and even whether or not he was a historical individual at all. The debate shows no signs of abating; it is one of the hot-button topics in science and theology these days. How this question is answered has direct implications for essential Christian doctrine.
Adam…Only a Symbol?
Proponents of the “No Historical Adam” view are motivated in part, I assume, by a desire to reconcile an evolutionary origin of Homo sapiens with Scripture’s account of man’s origin. They defend their perspective by claiming that “Adam” doesn’t have to be interpreted as an actual person in human history in order to preserve Christian orthodoxy. For example, Dr. Denis Lamoureux of St. Joseph’s College in Alberta, Canada, boldly states, “Adam never existed, and this fact has no impact whatsoever on the foundational beliefs of Christianity”.
Much ink has been spilled in painstaking efforts to work out the details of a so-called “updated” Christian theology—particularly Pauline theology—that can accommodate a symbolic-only Adam. Proponents say that abandoning belief in a historical Adam does no damage to a proper doctrine of Christ. I strongly disagree with these scholars. Here I will argue that one of the fundamentals of a correct Christology—the bodily resurrection of Jesus Christ—demands the existence of a historical first man, Adam.
First: A Key Distinction
It should be noted that affirming a historical Adam doesn’t automatically preclude a biological evolutionary history of the first man. Whether or not Adam had hominid ancestry is a separate (though relevant and interesting) question. I do not mention this in order to endorse an evolutionary view, but simply to highlight the point that it is logically possible to have a historical Adam with biological ancestry, just as it is logically possible to have a historical Adam created from the literal “dust of the ground.” In the evolutionary view, an “ensoulment” event would have occurred, with God bestowing the imago Dei (image of God) upon a naturally-born creature, making him the first true human in both the spiritual and physical sense. In the non-evolutionary view (which I hold), the first image-bearing man would have been physically created in a mature state rather than being born of a mother. The theological and/or scientific integrity of either of these ideas will not be discussed here. Instead, I am making the minimal (yet vital) argument for the necessity of a historical man, Adam, who was sinless from the first moment of his spiritual awareness until his fall.
Death and the Fall of Man
The traditional Christian view of man’s mortality is that it is a direct result of the first humans’ willful disobedience. For instance, the Catechism of the Catholic Church states that:
Death is a consequence of sin…Even though man’s nature is mortal, God had destined him not to die. Death was therefore contrary to the plans of God the Creator and entered the world as a consequence of sin. ‘Bodily death, from which man would have been immune if he had not sinned’ is thus ‘the last enemy’ of man left to be conquered.
In other words, at the starting point of human history, physical immortality was a real possibility, dependent upon mankind’s perpetual obedience to God. Scripture indicates that access to the garden’s mysterious Tree of Life was a major factor. Consider Genesis chapter 3:22-24:
Then the Lord God said, “Behold, the man has become like one of Us, knowing good and evil; and now, he might stretch out his hand, and take also from the tree of life, and eat, and live forever”— therefore the Lord God sent him out from the garden of Eden, to cultivate the ground from which he was taken. So He drove the man out; and at the east of the garden of Eden He stationed the cherubim and the flaming sword which turned every direction to guard the way to the tree of life.
Clearly, there was something very different about the state of affairs within the Garden of Eden compared to the world outside. The Tree of Life was within, so physical immortality was only possible for inhabitants of the garden. My view is that the outside world was a good creation (and yes, theologians debate what “good” entails), but probably not paradisaical, hence the very need for an altogether separate place suitable for the sinless image-bearers. The garden was so distinctive, so delightful in its perfection, that being exiled from it was an unimaginably painful punishment.
But getting back to my point: physical death—not merely spiritual death—being a ramification of the original sin is a logical conclusion to draw from the Genesis 3 passage quoted above. Those who deny a historical Adam disagree, claiming that physical death was an intended part of mankind’s existence from the beginning and that the story of the fall isn’t an episode from actual human history. Rather, it is a story whose purpose is to communicate theological truths about mankind’s inherently sinful nature and his need for God. That sinful nature (they allege) is the natural result of an evolutionary process, not of an original act of disobedience.
In his book, Saving Darwin, Dr. Karl Giberson (a Christian and Founding Vice President of the BioLogos Foundation) says:
Selfishness… drives the evolutionary process. Unselfish creatures died, and their unselfish genes perished with them. Selfish creatures, who attended to their own needs for food, power, and sex, flourished and passed on these genes to their offspring. After many generations selfishness was so fully programmed in our genomes that it was a significant part of what we now call human nature.
Giberson’s claim is that humans have been sinful from the outset and physical death was part of the very creation process God used to bring them into existence. Note that this contrasts sharply with Ecclesiastes 7:29: “…God created man upright, but they have gone in search of many schemes.”
There are many other difficulties with the denial of a historical Adam, but the one that I consider the most obvious, one that I see as a fatal problem for the non-historical Adam view, is the bodily resurrection of Christ.
The Bodily Resurrection of Christ
An essential doctrine of Christianity is that Christ was raised both spiritually and bodily. Though His resurrected body has some remarkable, otherworldly attributes, the fact remains that it is material. Luke 24:36-43 describes one of Jesus’ post-resurrection appearances:
While they were telling these things, He Himself stood in their midst and said to them, “Peace be to you.” But they were startled and frightened and thought that they were seeing a spirit. And He said to them, “Why are you troubled, and why do doubts arise in your hearts? See My hands and My feet, that it is I Myself; touch Me and see, for a spirit does not have flesh and bones as you see that I have.” And when He had said this, He showed them His hands and His feet. While they still could not believe it because of their joy and amazement, He said to them, “Have you anything here to eat?” They gave Him a piece of a broiled fish; and He took it and ate it before them.
Jesus Christ took on human nature at the incarnation; He lived a sinless life and then suffered a humiliating death as vicarious atonement for mankind’s sin. Then, He defeated the physical grave. The tomb was empty. Christ’s bodily resurrection unquestionably demonstrated that mankind’s physical death was one of the sin-induced curses that needed to be overcome. Otherwise, Christ’s body could have remained in the tomb, and ethereal appearances would have been sufficient to declare His triumph over spiritual death.
In other words, why should there be a physical element to the solution (Christ’s bodily resurrection) if the problem it was intended to solve was spiritual only? I conclude that since Christ’s triumph involved being raised bodily, man’s physical death must have been a main consequence of sin. Thus, there must have been a historical man, Adam, who would not have physically died had he remained innocent.
Alas, Adam sinned, and death of his body was one of the egregious consequences. I love how simply and succinctly Dr. C. John Collins puts it. In a discussion on the intense grief we experience upon loss of a loved one, he says, “Death and suffering are intruders in God’s good world; they don’t belong here”. But God didn’t abandon us to our deserved fate; through his incarnation, innocent life, crucifixion, and bodily resurrection, he made the necessary atonement and demonstrated his defeat of the grave. Scripture tells us in I Corinthians 15:25-26 that when human history draws to a close, physical death will be obliterated once and for all:
For He must reign until He has put all His enemies under His feet. The last enemy that will be abolished is death.
Mankind will continue to experience physical death, the last enemy, until God puts an end to this creation. However, we already enjoy the defeat of spiritual death through our regeneration in Christ. Revelation 21:4 says:
He will wipe away every tear from their eyes; and there will no longer be any death; there will no longer be any mourning, or crying, or pain; the first things have passed away.
Human death is portrayed as something that causes mourning, weeping, and pain, but this passage assures us that Christ’s work will rid us of this horror. We are told how it all will end, and that sheds much light on how it all began!
Bottom line: Christ conquered spiritual and physical death, so both of those must be considered direct consequences of an original sin, a literal fall…And an original sin requires an original sinner.
 Lamoureux, Denis. Evolutionary Creation: A Christian Approach to Evolution (2008).
 Giberson, Karl. Saving Darwin (2009), 12.
 Collins, C. John. Did Adam and Eve Really Exist? Who They Were and Why You Should Care (2011), 136.