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Was Adam a historical figure?

Category Articles
Date December 22, 2014

Therefore, just as sin came into the world through one man, and death through sin, and so death spread to all men because all sinned (Romans 5:12).

Many people are fascinated with their family trees. There are hundreds of websites, and an active department in the National Library of Wales in Aberystwyth that are dedicated to tracing our ancestries. Forty years ago in 1974 a scientist named Donald Johanson discovered in Ethiopia 40% of the remains of a skeleton that was three and a half feet in length and considered to be over 3,000,000 years old. These pieces of bone were quickly nicknamed ‘Lucy’ because in the celebrations that night after finding those remains they ate and drank and played the Beatles’ song, ‘Lucy in the sky with diamonds.’ One of the books Donald Johanson has written is called Lucy’s Legacy: The Quest for Human Origins. Donald Johanson believes that we are all descended from Lucy. We are not descended from the Neanderthals as John Stott suggests in his commentary on Romans; that is now a discredited theory in Johanson’s eyes. The new theory is that we descended from Lucy, but not all archaeologists are convinced that that is true. Johanson points out,

We are all united by our past. We all have a common history, and though we may be vastly different, our origins all lead back to the crucible of human evolution that is Africa. Lucy is saying to us, ‘You are all my descendants’ and regardless of who we are, we are all in fact today Africans . . . If I had the ability to travel back in time, with only one choice of a place to go, my answer is quite simple, I’d want to be standing on the hill overlooking where Lucy and her cohorts were living.

In the last half of Romans chapter five there are many references to Adam. How would you think the author of this letter, the Apostle Paul, would consider Adam? Would he think of him as being a real historical man, or did he see him just as a symbolic figure? If Paul did think of him as someone as real as Abraham or as Moses then did he teach Christians that they were to have the same view of him? Paul’s understanding of the speed of light or of gravity or of the solar system or the atom would certainly have been primitive, but he didn’t teach us to believe his views on any of those things. It is only when he preached through the inspiration of the Spirit, or wrote his letters that God led him into all truth. What about Adam? Should we believe that Adam was a real historical figure, that he was the actual federal head of all mankind, the first man who fell into sin, who defied God’s prohibition not to eat the fruit of one tree? So let’s begin by examining this question.

1. How did the Apostle Paul consider Adam?

I suppose this text is as good a place for us to start asking this question as anywhere in the New Testament. Paul is telling us in our text that sin came into the world through one man, and death through him, and that in this way death came upon all men, me and all of you, we are going to die because in Adam we’ve all sinned. In other words Paul is referring to the Adam of Genesis one and two, the first man, created by God, and the father of the human race. He was placed under probation by God, and the focus of the probation was obeying God concerning one simple test, not eating of a specific tree in Eden, the tree of the knowledge of good and evil. It was a wise, simple, public test of whether his life was going to be one of trusting and obeying God or not. But sadly our father, Adam, failed the test and chose to defy God; he did what the Serpent suggested and ate the forbidden fruit.

So we are being taught here in Romans 5 that sin entered the world through one man, and death came through that rebellion of our first parents, and that was the way that death came to all men, because in Adam our federal head and representative we all sinned. We have all become natural born sinners; as I often tell you my daughters never sat the children down and taught them how to misbehave. They did this naturally enough. A bias to sin has come upon every one of us. ‘The judgment followed one sin and brought condemnation’ (verse 16).

Hitler became the fuehrer – the lord – of Germany, its federal head. He sent the German army into Poland and Germany was soon at war with many countries in Europe. The Emperor of Japan declared war on the USA. Men were conscripted into the Japanese army, the German army, husbands and fathers were called up, they fought, and millions died because their head, the fuehrer, or the Emperor of Japan took a nation into war. Again, another Prime Minister declared war with Iraq and so we fought Iraq and men died. Those prime ministers are our federal heads. Prime ministers have authority to act in that way. So Adam was our head as the representative of the human race, made perfect in character and wisdom by the creativity of Jehovah. He heeded the Serpent, took the forbidden fruit and he died. We have all become guilty before God in Adam and we also die. You can imagine a German looking at a photo of Hitler and shouting in his rage, ‘You ruined our country.’ Philip Ryken tells of a little girl, the daughter of a friend who is a professor in Wheaton College in Illinois, and this girl saw a painting of Adam and Eve and she actually shook her fist in anger at the painting saying, ‘You ruined everything!’ She is reflecting what Paul is teaching in this chapter.

But Paul is not introducing him merely to strike a negative note. Do you see exactly where this section on Adam’s sin and fall occurs in the argument of Romans? It occurs at the conclusion of this powerful declaration of the glory of God’s free justification of favoured sinners through faith alone in Christ alone. This section is the climax, the clincher of the argument for justification by faith. These verses in the second half of Romans chapter 5 are really the heart and centre of the letter. In the next chapter, chapter 6, Paul is moving on from justification to sanctification. But here in chapter 5 he is still speaking of the great achievement of Christ in accomplishing our pardon, and so his reason to appeal to Adam is to teach us more clearly the saving truth about Jesus Christ. He is showing us here that salvation is through the last Adam, through Christ alone. So we are being told firstly that all of us stand today before God really guilty men and women, condemned to death on the basis of the disobedience of Adam and our own sins. Then, secondly, we are told the gospel, that we can be justified, declared righteous, solely on the basis of the holy obedience unto death of the last Adam, Jesus Christ.

2. There are other places where Adam is referred to.

You might be tempted to object, ‘This is the one place in the New Testament where Adam and Christ are linked together.’ And complain, ‘It’s possible to make too much of a few verses in one place.’ No, you’re wrong. This is not the only place where Adam is used as a type of Jesus Christ. If you turn to the great chapter on the resurrection, First Corinthians 15 and to verse 22 then you read these familiar words, ‘as in Adam all die, so in Christ all will be made alive.’ It is very straightforward. Almost every word is of one syllable. By that one head Adam sin and death entered the world. By the other head Christ sin and death were conquered. But then later in that same chapter of 1st Corinthians, verses 47 to 49, we read more about these two heads,

The first man was of the dust of the earth, the second man from heaven. As was the earthly man, so are those who are of the earth; and as is the man from heaven, so also are those who are of heaven. And just as we have borne the likeness of the earthly man, so shall we bear the likeness of the man from heaven.

There again is this parallel between Adam and Christ, two federal heads.

Again there is another reference to Adam in one of the last letters Paul wrote, his first letter to Timothy. Right there at the end of his life he was still insisting on the significance of this historic figure Adam, and in this letter to Timothy he is speaking of the different roles of men and women and appeals to how they were created: ‘For Adam was formed first, then Eve. And Adam was not the one deceived; it was the woman who was deceived and became a sinner’ (1 Tim. 2:13, 14). But there is yet another reference to Adam again when Paul met the philosophers on Mar’s Hill in Athens and he debated with them. Paul told them plainly that God created all mankind over the entire face of the planet from one man (Acts 17:26), and so all men fallen in Adam and sinners by their own deeds needed to repent. God commands all the fallen sons of Adam everywhere to turn from unbelief to the living Saviour. So there are other places in the New Testament where we are being confronted with Adam as a historical figure.

But you might inwardly complain that I’m quoting the Apostle Paul, and you say, quite rightly, that your salvation does not rest on the life and death of Paul but on the life and death of Jesus Christ. So, I ask you, if the Son of God who said ‘I am the truth’ believed in Adam then that would settle the issue for you, would it? If the infallible Son of God said that there was a historical Adam and Eve then we would accept it, yes? Then listen to what Jesus said, when teaching about the nature of marriage in Matthew’s gospel, chapter 19 and verses 4, 5, and 6:

At the beginning the Creator made them male and female, and said, ‘For this reason a man will leave his father and mother and be united to his wife, and the two will become one flesh’? So they are no longer two, but one. Therefore what God has joined together, let man not separate.

Jesus is quoting from Genesis chapter 2.

So I would think from all of this, from the teaching that comes both from an appointed, accredited, and gifted apostle of Christ, and also from our Lord himself, if for us they can say nothing wrong, that we also are to believe that Adam and Eve were real historical persons (by the way the genealogies in 1 Chronicles and in Luke also treat Adam as historical as any of the other people named in those family trees). So Scripture wants us to believe that Adam and Eve were real people.

3. What if the beginning of Scripture is erroneous?

If Adam did not exist then Paul’s whole argument in Romans chapter 5 and 1 Corinthians 15 falls apart. Paul spoke about two great covenant giants, Christ and Adam, and that all mankind was hooked by unbreakable threads to the belt of one giant or to the other. The Corinthian church and the Roman church believed that and the Holy Spirit has taught it to every gospel church ever since and everywhere today. For us (if Jesus Christ is our Saviour and we are joined to him as our federal head) the heart of Romans chapter 5 is that the Lamb of God has delivered us from the consequences of the Fall, from sin and death coming upon us through Adam’s defiance.

In Romans 5 and 1 Corinthians 15, Adam and Christ are clearly in view both as individual persons, and also as heads. The first Adam by his disobedience has brought sin with all its consequences into the originally good creation both for himself and for all those who are ‘in him.’ The last Adam, Christ, by his obedience has brought salvation from sin and all its consequences for those who are ‘in him.’ He is in full solidarity with them. Adam is the alpha-point in the history of redemption while Christ is the omega-point of redemptive history. If Adam were not the first man, who fell into sin, then the work of Christ has lost much of its meaning. Without the ‘first’ man, Adam, there is no place for Christ as either ‘second man’ or ‘last man.’ There had to be this contrast. Here in Romans 5 Paul turns to Adam, and to what he did, and the effects of it for everyone everywhere, but he never leaves it like that. The apostle is a messenger of good news and so Paul turns to the Lord Jesus Christ and again he is similarly clear: by this last Adam we are saved.

Let us imagine that the opening chapters of Genesis were not true, that Eden and Adam and Eve are simply a saga, and their activities to be put into the same category as the antics of the Greek gods or Hindu deities, a mere myth. What would be the implications of that? The biggest implication I believe is this, that what we are observing around us today of man’s cruelty and wickedness and death is how it’s always been. It’s never been any better. This is how it was in the very beginning, and that is an utterly despairing belief. But the atheist also goes on to say that this is how it always will be. Remove Adam and Eden and the Fall out of human history and what’s left is unoriginated and unbegun depravity. In the beginning was depravity.

But I would think that the only reasonable conclusion one would get from reading these verses in Romans 5 is something very different, something far more hopeful, that the Apostle Paul believed not only in the historical and originally sinless character of Adam (made in the image and likeness of God); he believed in another Adam too, the second Adam or the last Adam. Each one of you saw your image this morning as you washed or as you men shaved, so God looked at Adam and he saw a man who exactly reflected his image. That is how mankind began, in hope and promise.

4. Can we re-interpret Adam as a figure standing for ‘Everyman’?

Paul is also making an important distinction in Romans 5 between how we sin – how we 21st century men and women fall into sin – and the way that Adam sinned and fell. Paul isn’t giving us some symbolical interpretation of Adam. It seems quite clear that he’s not telling us that Adam is the picture of ‘Everyman’ and his behaviour. Paul is not saying that the story of Adam represents a simple truth that all men sin. No. There is a very significant difference between Adam, and all the men that followed him from Adam to Moses. In verse 14 Paul makes that distinction between the first man Adam and then all the thousands of men who followed him from his time to Moses’ time. Isn’t that clear in verse 14? Whatever it means, it certainly says all the rest of mankind did not fall as Adam had fallen; ‘death reigned from the time of Adam to the time of Moses, even over those who did not sin by breaking a command, as did Adam, who was a pattern of the one to come’ (v. 14). Not one of the millions of anonymous people who sinned after Adam was the federal head of the human race. Not one of them was sinless. With none of them did God walk and talk at the end of each day. None of them was married to a sinless wife. None of them was a pattern of the Messiah, Jesus. After they had been tempted to sin and fell into sin then the person tempting them to sin did not crawl on his belly for the rest of his life. After they had sinned the people of the next generation did not inherit pain, toil, and death. After they sinned God did not expel them from his presence. That happened only to Adam. Adam alone was all those things in his life. He alone was the federal head of mankind.

So the Bible teaches that there was a first man; he was especially created by God; he was morally perfect in knowledge, righteousness, and holiness. By his own free action for which he alone was responsible (not God, not Satan) he sinned against his Maker. He brought sin and death upon all his progeny. When we speak of ‘the Fall’ we are speaking of this first man, and the consequences of that first sin for all that race of men and women who are viewed by God as being in that first man, joined to him, in solidarity with him. We are all in him because Adam was ordained by God to be our representative, our covenant head, so that the guilt of that first sin was imputed to our account. There is also its punishment – death – and that is conveyed to us, as well as a corrupted, depraved nature, or heart, from which all our thoughts, words, and actions flow, so that all are defiled by sin.

So this question – was Adam a real historical person? – is really asking this, whether the fall was a real event in the history of mankind. If the fall did not, strictly speaking, occur as Genesis 3 describes it; if it is really a symbol standing for a very general truth about every person who has ever lived; then if Genesis chapters 2 and 3 were making some observation like ‘from the very beginning of each person’s life he’s falling from what he should be,’ then that is a very, very different observation. Sin is no longer a matter of ‘human fallenness.’ It is a matter of ‘human givenness.’ It means that sin is simply a part of what it means to be human. People shrug and say, ‘Well, we are all sinners.’ So can we speak of the guilt of sin? If it is the case that to err is simply human then there is nothing whatever for which we’re to be forgiven. We are simply being what God created us to be – weak human beings.

5. What about Lucy?

I don’t know. Who knows? I would think far more evidence than these scraps of bones is needed to make anyone a believer. When we are asked in a course we are taking in geology or archaeology what the latest theories are about Neolithic man then we need to be aware of those theories and to tell our lecturers and examiners when we are being examined or when we are writing various projects what those theories are. We say ‘It is believed’ and then we give the various beliefs that men have, and then if we can raise a pertinent objection our examiners will appreciate the fact that we have read outside the confines of the lectures and the textbooks that we’ve been given. If you go to the web and print out ‘Lucy’ you will find other scientists who don’t buy everything that an enthusiastic advocate like Dr. Johanson claims about those bits of bone and fossils. Some scientists who are Bible-believing men have worked alongside fellow scientists for half a century. You’ve not been overwhelmed with the detached insights and total integrity and purity of thought and modest humility of many scientists. We chuckle at the hoax of the Piltdown skull, manufactured by a ‘scientist’ by joining part of an ape’s jaw and a human head. Scientists are not unbiased men. So I am not a believer that we are descendants of so-called ‘Lucy.’ I don’t mind being an African. That would be terrific, but that my great grandmother was Lucy, well I don’t receive that and rest in it, even if she were in the sky with diamonds.

Let us end by suggesting what a historical Adam gives us as believers. I am using an approach of Philip Ryken.

6. What the historical Adam gives us.

i] It gives us truth at the beginning of the Old Testament.

It gives us truth at the beginning of the Old Testament just like the virgin birth narrative gives us truth at the beginning of the New Testament. The Scripture is about God breaking into our lives and changing us, a powerful, wonder-working, supernatural God. When we read those opening chapters of Genesis we are reading vital narrative and history concerning the actions of the representative of humanity, Adam – what my father did. Without the truth of Genesis then we are left perplexed as to how man was made.

ii] The historical Adam explains why the human race is often in the sad condition it is in.

People often complain about the God of Christianity, that if he is so good and so powerful they can’t understand why disaster and mayhem and murder occurs. ‘If God had made the world then it should be perfect.’ But Genesis chapter 3 describes how our father Adam acted, what he did, and the consequence for the world today. Take Adam out of the equation and you have to explain why God made such a bad world. With Adam we understand that the problem facing every single person is the depravity of the human heart, that men love darkness rather than light. Men who descend from Adam sin because they are sinners.

iii] The historical Adam and Eve explain to us the biblical position on the different roles and relationships of a husband and a wife.

The two become one flesh in marriage. Jesus and the New Testament writers do not regard Adam and Eve as characters like those in Aesop’s fables, but as persons who lived in history, in space and time, and that is why their relationship is normative for blessed and happy marriages today between one man and one woman for life. We do it the Maker’s way.

iv] The historic Adam prepares and introduces us to the historic Christ.

It is as if these two were the only men who ever lived. They are certainly the only mega-federal heads. The sin of the one condemns us, while the righteousness of the other justifies us. The sin of Adam is described and mapped out for us. We are in a mess, under judgment. The righteous life and death of Jesus Christ is also mapped out, even what he actually did and said when he was under the anathema of God, in the darkness on the cross for us. Jesus addressed the problem that Adam had caused. They were both representatives, one of dying mankind and the other of regenerate, recreated mankind.

v] The historical Adam helps us in mission and evangelism.

Even the genealogies of Matthew and Luke and Chronicles are an actual help in touching many civilizations in the world where ancestors and genealogies are thought of as something very significant, where people can chant their family trees back hundreds of years. Adam does not tell someone else’s story. Adam tells my story, and the story of all of us here – Asian and African and American and Aboriginal. Here is the true story of Adam and so here is also another true story of the Lord Jesus Christ. We all have a common ancestor. Two years ago at Christmas Iola and I were staying in one of the Holiday Inns in Cardiff, and a woman my age was helping people to get their breakfasts. She had a delightful Welsh accent and when I asked her whether she spoke Welsh she told me she did and came from Onllwyn. ‘Onllwyn?’ I said. ‘Do you know it?’ she asked me eagerly. I said, ‘My cousin, Onllwyn Brace, played rugby for Wales.’ She said, ‘He’s my cousin too!’ So I discovered a new cousin in a Holiday Inn in Cardiff and many other things about her. But I am also a cousin or a distant relative to every one of you. In one definite sense God is the divine Father and Maker of all of us, and also Adam is the father of us all. He is the head of our family tree. We have a common creation in the image of God – every one of us – and so there is no place for racial prejudice here. As Paul told the thinkers of Greece on the Areopagus in Athens, God ‘made from one man every nation of mankind to live on all the face of the earth’ (Acts 17:26).

vi] The historic Adam encourages us to hope in our resurrection bodies.

So in the mighty and magnificent fifteenth chapter in 1 Corinthians we have the description of our futures, which are our resurrection bodies. Our bodies are so very important. Christianity does not teach, ‘John Brown’s body lies a-mouldering in the grave, but his soul goes marching on.’ It teaches us that God formed Adam from the dust of the earth and Eve from his side. God breathed into Adam’s dust the breath of life. It was not the second Adam’s spirit that survived death but Christ’s body was raised, a real body that could eat and drink and be touched and be kissed, but nevertheless a glorified body, more glorious than Adam’s had been before the fall because it will be impossible for our Christ-like bodies to defy and rebel against the loving God. We have borne the image of the man of dust, and we shall also bear the image of the man of heaven.

So we are not ashamed or embarrassed about believing what the Bible says about our father, Adam. The whole structure of the Bible’s teaching on sin and redemption takes the facticity of Adam for granted. It strengthens Christianity – and Christian witness and testimony and evangelism – to affirm our faith in Adam. We will not understand our plight, our sin and guilt, the reality of justification, and the hope of resurrection without taking into consideration our union with our father Adam and what happened to the human race. Then we will rejoice, most fervently, that God by the Holy Spirit created a second Adam who to the fight and to our rescue came.

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