Category: Bible Written by Jim Denison
Were they symbols?
Some people, anxious to bridge the perceived chasm between science and faith, are quick to suggest that Adam and Eve were not real persons at all. Perhaps they were mythical figures, symbols for humanity in general. When Robert Frost writes of two roads diverging in a yellow wood, I don't need to know where the wood is located, because I understand that he's using poetic language. Maybe the same is true with the first humans.
The Hebrew word adam simply means "man." Nowhere does Genesis say that God or anyone else gave him the proper name Adam; you can translate the Hebrew as "man" everywhere "Adam" appears and be correct. The New International Version follows most translations in rendering Genesis 1:20, "for Adam no suitable helper was found." But there's no change in the Hebrew from earlier references to him as "the man" (cf. 1:27, 2:7, 15, 18).
Similarly, "Eve" doesn't make her appearance by name in the NIV until Genesis 3:20; previously she is "woman" (2:21, 23, etc.). Her name probably means "living," pointing to her status as the first mother of humanity. So perhaps "Adam" and "Eve" are symbols for "man" and "life."
This wouldn't be the last time Scripture uses symbolic language to make its point. Jesus called himself the "true vine" and his Father the "gardener" (Jn 15:1), but no one thinks he is describing botanical truth. Earlier he described himself as "the gate for the sheep" (Jn 10:7), and his disciples knew he was not speaking as a carpenter.
Could it be that the writer of Genesis used "man" and "life" to make larger symbolic statements about humanity? Perhaps their temptation narrative is meant to describe such experience as we all face it. Perhaps the later narratives which describe the Tower of Babel and Noah's flood, equally troubling to some who wish to reconcile Genesis with current scientific knowledge, are equally symbolic in nature.
How does the rest of the Bible see them?
The first question to ask in interpreting any piece of literature is to ask what its author intended to say. If the text is clearly poetic or symbolic in nature, we can know that the writer wants us to avoid literalistic interpretation. If the text is clearly historical and narrative in nature, giving places and dates and events, we can know that the writer wants us to treat the literature as factual rather than symbolic.
There is poetry to be found in the Genesis records of Adam and Eve. Note the man's ecstatic reaction to the creation of woman (Gen 1:23), and God's condemnation of the snake's deception and the couple's sin (Gen 3:14-19). But the rest of the text is written in straightforward, historical narrative. Nothing here causes us to believe that the writer intended us to view his writing as mythical or symbolic.
Now let's consider how Adam is regarded in the New Testament. In Romans 5, Paul wishes to explain how sin entered the human race. He begins: "sin entered the world through the one man, and death through sin, and in this way death came to all men, because all have sinned" (v. 12). As a result, "death reigned from the time of Adam to the time of Moses" (v. 14). Then he compares the "trespass of the one man" to the life given "through the one man, Jesus Christ" (v. 17). Clearly Paul treats Adam and his sin as factual events in history.
In 1 Corinthians he expands the argument: "since death came through a man, the resurrection of the dead comes also through a man. For as in Adam all die, so in Christ all will be made alive" (1 Cor 15:21-22). He treats Christ and Adam in equivalent ways—either they are both historical figures, or neither is. Later the apostle reminds Timothy, "Adam was formed first, then Eve" (1 Tim 2:13).
It seems clear that Paul, writing under the inspiration of the Holy Spirit, considered Adam and Eve to be real figures of history. For that reason, I see them the same way.
What difference does it make whether they were actual or symbols? I have seen no list of truths fundamental to the faith which makes the historicity of Adam and Eve a crucial litmus test for genuine salvation. When I baptize new believers I do not ask what they believe about Adam and Eve, but about Jesus. So where is the larger relevance of the issue? It is found at two points.
First, we should interpret Scripture as it interprets itself. If Paul sees Adam and Eve as historical, his inspired opinion should guide mine. We are not free to treat the Bible as a work of modern art, projecting our own thoughts onto its canvas. Those who believe that Adam and Eve were symbols should give us biblical reasons for their position.
Second, we should interpret science through Scripture, not the reverse. Current opinion regarding the age and origin of man must not determine how we read the Bible. We'll say more on this subject when we get to science and faith questions.
Here's one more reason why I think Adam was real: I see him in me. I have his eyes for forbidden fruit, his ability to blame others for my sins. Does he live in your mirror as well?