Did Adam and Eve Really Exist?

Many people on both sides of the evolution debate believe that theistic evolution and an historical Adam cannot be reconciled. However, Dr. C. John (Jack) Collins disagrees. In his latest book, Did Adam and Eve Really Exist?, Dr. Collins, Professor of Old Testament at Covenant Theological Seminary, explains how theistic evolution and an historical Adam are fully compatible.

Dr. Collins begins his book by explaining his purpose in writing: “My goal in this study is to show why I believe we should retain a version of the traditional view [of Adam and Eve], in spite of any pressures to abandon it.” (C. John Collins, Did Adam and Eve Really Exist?, [Wheaton: Crossway, 2011], 15, emphasis added).

Basic to Dr. Collins’ defense of a version of the traditional view is properly identifying the genre of the Genesis creation account. Collins states that “certainly the book of Genesis includes Adam and Eve in its story, using a narrative . . .” According to Collins, this narrative is at least “‘history-like’ in its form.” For Collins, the fact that the Genesis creation account is “history-like” does not immediately establish the genre of the Genesis accounts. There are at least four sub-genres in history-like narratives:

  1. The author intended to relay “straight” history, with a minimum of figurative language.
  2. The author was talking about what he thought were actual events, using rhetorical and literary techniques to shape the readers’ attitudes towards those events.
  3. The author intended to recount an imaginary history, using recognizable literary conventions to convey “timeless truths” about God and man.
  4. The author told a story without even caring whether the events were real or imagined; his main goal was to convey various theological and moral truths. (18)

In his defense of a version of the traditional view, Collins believes that option # 2 captures what we find in Genesis including the real historical existence of Adam and Eve.

Dr. Collins goes on to explain that Genesis 1-11 should be considered in light of the Mesopotamian stories of origins. Both are attempts to explain real events in a way that captures the imagination and teaches people what their part is in their overarching story or worldview (30). On the one hand, Dr. Collins believes that the Genesis account presents an alternative worldview story to the Mesopotamian stories. The Genesis story’s “purpose is to shape Israel’s view of God, the world, and mankind, and their place in it all” (31). On the other hand, he believes the Mesopotamian stories are useful for helping us understand how best to read Genesis 1-11:

If, as seems likely to me, the Mesopotamian origin and flood stories provide the context against which Genesis 1-11 are to be set, they also provide us with clues on how to read this kind of literature. These stories include divine action, symbolism, and imaginative elements; the purpose of the stories is to lay the foundation for a worldview, without being taken in a “literalistic” fashion. We should nevertheless see the story as having what we might call an “historical core,” though we must be careful in discerning what that is. (33)

In other words, the genre of the early Genesis accounts is the same as those of Mesopotamian origin and flood stories. In both cases, there is an “historical core” combined with “symbolism” and “imaginative elements” that should not be taken in a “literalistic” fashion. For Collins, this means that the Genesis account does aim to “tell the true story of origins” but that we also should be “very wary of being too literalistic in our reading” (57).

So, what does this mean concretely? Collins gives us a clue on pp. 63–64. When we look at the rest of the Bible, we see the assumption of the historicity of Adam (e.g., 1 Chronicles 1:1 and Luke 3:38). However, because the “historical core” is surrounded by “symbolism” and “imaginative elements,” we cannot be sure about the historicity of some of the details of the Genesis account:

Similarly, although the style of telling the story may leave us uncertain on the exact details of the process by which Adam’s body was formed, and whether the two trees were actual trees, and whether the Evil One’s actual mouthpiece was a talking snake, we nevertheless can discern that the author intends us to see the disobedience of this couple as the reason for sin in the world. (63-64)

This can help us understand what he means when he says, “In sum then, we have plenty of reasons from the text itself to be careful about reading it too literalistically; and at the same time we have reasons to accept an historical core” (63). It is crucial to understand this framework because it is this understanding of the Genesis account that Collins believes can incorporate various views of biological, geological, and anthropological history without sacrificing an historical Adam and Eve and fall.

Having made his defense for an historical Adam and Eve, Dr. Collins then lays out criteria for what he’s termed “mere Adam-and-Eve-ism” after C.S. Lewis’ Mere Christianity. What are the common grounds that all believers should agree on? Here is his list:

  1. To begin with, we should see that the origin of the human race goes beyond a merely natural process. This follows from how hard it is to get a human being, or, more theologically, how distinctive the image of God is.
  2. We should see Adam and Eve at the headwaters of the human race. This follows from the unified experience of mankind, as discussed in chapter 4: where else could human beings come to bear God’s image?
  3. The “fall,” in whatever form it took, was both historical (it happened) and moral (it involved disobeying God), and occurred at the beginning of the human race . . .
  4. If someone should decide that there were, in fact, more human beings than just Adam and Eve at the beginning of mankind, then, in order to maintain good sense, he should envision these humans as a single tribe (preferably produced before the others), and Eve would be his wife. This tribe “fell” under the leadership of Adam and Eve. This follows from the notion of solidarity in a representative. (119-120)

While it is clear from Dr. Collins’ writings in other books that he believes that Adam and Eve were the very first humans created specially by God and not the product of purely natural processes, he acknowledges that the criteria he sets out can allow for a range of opinions on how God created Adam and Eve:

The standard young earth creationist understanding would have Adam and Eve as fresh, de novo creations, with no animal forebears. Some old earth creationist models share this view, while others allow for God to have refurbished a preexisting hominid into Adam. . . . This common ground matters more than the differences over where God got the raw material, because either way we are saying that humans are the result of “special creation.” (121, emphasis added)

In other words, according to Dr. Collins’ criteria, it is not important how God did it, only that God did it supernaturally.

Dr. Collins explains that his purpose in creating these criteria was to show what is necessary to hold on to and what is more open to interpretation regarding the traditional views of Adam and Eve:

This is why I have sought ways to allow advocates of these conclusions to stay within the bounds of sound thinking. In other words, even if someone is persuaded that humans had “ancestors,” and that the human population has always been more than two, he does not necessarily have to ditch all traditional views of Adam and Eve, and I have tried to provide for these possibilities more than to contend for my particular preference on these matters. (119)

Dr. Collins’ purpose in writing this book was to defend the historicity of Adam and Eve. However, his approach serves to provide a theological safe space for those who believe that Adam was a preexisting hominid refurbished by God to become human. According to Dr. Collins’ criteria, it’s not important how God brought Adam into existence, only that Adam did exist.

2 thoughts on “Did Adam and Eve Really Exist?

  1. Eileen says:

    Rachel, does Dr. Collins set forth his view of the inspiration of scripture in this book? It seems from his list of possibilities, including his favored #2, that he does not hold to a traditional form of the doctrine of inspiration, or at least his view seems to diminish the Holy Spirit’s role and magnifies the role of the human authors and what they intended/knew/believed.

  2. Rachel Miller says:

    Eileen~ I don’t remember him going into that in any great detail. I’ll skim through it again later to be sure. But, I do remember a lot of emphasis on what the “author of Genesis” knew or believe or intended, etc.

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