Were Adam and Eve real people? Or were they just literary devices and poetic images?
This question of the historicity of Adam and Eve is important because it’s the foundation of the biblical story. Without a real Adam and Eve, the Bible loses its basis for the fall, sin, the need for redemption, and the need for Jesus and atonement. Many scholars—including some who are professing Christians—who are rejecting the biblical account of Adam and Eve as historical recognize this fact.
The Authority of the Bible
One of the central tenants of Protestant Christianity is sola Scriptura. Simply said, sola Scriptura states that there is no higher authority for belief and practice in this life than Scripture.
This is not to be confused with solo Scriptura, which wrongly says that the only place that has truth is the Bible. Certainly there are truths about life and this world that we, by God’s common grace, can discover and that Scripture itself doesn’t address. For instance, a mechanic doesn’t need to consult the Bible to figure out how to fix a car. This is knowledge that we gain from life experience that is true, not addressed by Scripture, and which Scripture doesn’t address for obvious reasons. Likewise, a doctor can use modern science to determine things about our bodies that are not taught in Scripture and still talk of those things as truth.
Problems arise, however, when we find truths that seemingly contradict the truths of Scripture and, rather than subject those truths to the authority of Scripture, instead consider those truths to invalidate the truths of Scripture.
What the Bible says About Adam and Eve
While the issues at stake are often quite confusing, it’s apparent as we look at Scripture that it teaches the truth that Adam—and by extension Eve—were the first persons and that they were also the first persons.
Adam as the first person
One of the main reasons that Christians need to affirm that Adam was the first human being to exist is the doctrine of the fall and original sin.
Genesis 3:17 says, “And to Adam he said, ‘Because you have listened to the voice of your wife and have eaten of the tree of which I commanded you, “You shall not eat of it,” cursed is the ground because of you; in pain you shall eat of it all the days of your life.’” Here we see that God, as a result of Adam’s sin, pronounces a curse upon Adam and all humanity after him.
Christians take seriously the fact that God made all things good and without sin (Gen. 1:31), and this has important ramifications for the consummation and new creation (Revelation 21). Yet Adam, as the first person, brought sin into the world and tainted God’s perfect creation. Romans 5:12 says that “sin came into the world through one man [Adam], and death through sin, and so death spread to all men because all sinned.” And Romans 6:23 says that “the wages of sin is death, but the free gift of God is eternal life in Christ Jesus our Lord.”
Based on what Scripture itself teaches, the Christian must be able to affirm the truth that Adam was the first person, through whom sin entered into the world, in order to speak of Christ as the “last Adam,” through whom sin and its curse—death—were vanquished (1 Cor. 15:45).
Adam as the first person
There are at least five scriptural arguments that affirm the truth that Adam was not only the first person but also that he was the first person—a real human being: the Genesis account, Luke’s genealogy, Paul’s theology, and Christ’s statement on Adam in Matthew and Mark.
The Genesis Account
Genesis affirms Adam and Eve as real people in the creation account of chapters 1 through 3. Additionally, Genesis affirms the reality of Adam as a person by giving us the number of years that he physically lived, “Thus all the days that Adam lived were 930 years, and he died” (Gen. 5:5), and by giving an account of Adam fathering other figures in the Bible who are treated as real and physical people and not mythical constructs (Gen. 4:1, 25; 5:3–4). It’s impossible to take the Genesis account of Adam as one of him being a mythical representative of humanity since he fathers singular children who are part of a historical genealogy. To do so clearly divorces the creation account from the context of the rest of the book and ignores the intent of the author of Genesis and—as we shall see—the rest of the biblical accounts regarding Adam.
Luke’s genealogy in chapter 3 of his gospel is often recognized as one that explicitly expresses the humanity of Jesus Christ. While Matthew’s genealogy ties Christ to Israel and John’s prologue refers to Jesus as God, Luke’s intention is to give an historical account of the life of Christ. So, he links Jesus to Joseph, David, Abraham, and, ultimately, Adam. It would make no sense for Luke to mention real person after real person only to come to the climax of his genealogy by mentioning a mythical figure. One who denies that Adam was a real person has reason to also question whether the rest of Luke’s figures are actual people as well.
Further, if one denies that Adam was a real person, it is difficult to make sense of Paul’s analogy of the relationship between Christ and Adam. For one, as we’ve already mentioned, sin came into the world through one actual person (Rom. 5:12). But more than that, in both 1 Corinthians 15:22, 45 and Romans 5:12–21, Paul makes a direct connection between Adam and Christ.
In 1 Corinthians 15, Paul says that Adam was the one person who brought sin into the world, and Jesus Christ is the one person who brings life where death previously reigned. It would be odd for Paul to compare something that he knew was an actual human person (Christ) to a literary figure.
In addition, in 1 Timothy 2:14, Paul says, “and Adam was not deceived, but the woman was deceived and became a transgressor.” It is incredibly difficult to argue that Paul did not view this deception as an actual historical occurrence. Again, in Acts 17:26, Paul says, “And he made from one man every nation of mankind to live on all the face of the earth, having determined allotted periods and the boundaries of their dwelling place.” Here, once more, Paul talks about actual nations descending from one human person.
Christ on Adam and Eve
Even if one passes over Luke and Paul, one must deal with Jesus and his teachings. In Mark 10:6 and Matthew 19:4, Jesus refers to Genesis, speaking of God’s order in creating Adam and Eve and relating that literal act to the institution of marriage. It’s difficult to think that God himself (Jesus) could be wrong about his own creative event, since he was there as the Creator when it happened (John 1:1–2; Col. 1:15–17).
When we look at Scripture itself, it’s clear there are numerous biblical reasons why Christians should affirm that Adam was both the first person and the first person—and there is no textual evidence to support a denial of this truth. Rather, to deny this historical teaching of the church undermines the clear teaching of the Bible and fails to make sense of its storyline, as without a historical Adam and Eve, there is no fall and no need for redemption and no need for Jesus. The very basis of Christianity is effectively undermined.