Sin and Salvation
Some may respond, “Even though we don’t think there was a literal Adam, we can accept the teaching of Genesis 2 and Romans 5, namely that all human beings have sinned and that through Christ we can be saved. So the basic Biblical teaching is intact, even if we do not accept the historicity of the story of Adam and Eve.” I think that assertion is too simplistic.
The Christian gospel is not good advice, but good news. It is not directions on what we should do to save ourselves but rather an announcement of what has been done to save us. The gospel is that Jesus has done something in history so that, when we are united to him by faith, we get the benefits of his accomplishment, and so we are saved. As a pastor, I often get asked how we can get credit for something that Christ did. The answer does not make much sense to modern people, but it makes perfect sense to ancient people. It is the idea of being in ‘federation’ with someone, in a legal and historical solidarity with a father, or an ancestor, or another family member or a member of your tribe. You are held responsible (or you get credit) for what that other person does. Another way to put it is that you are in a covenant relationship with the person. An example is Achan, whose entire family is punished when he sins (Joshua 7.) The ancient and Biblical understanding is that a person is not ‘what he is’ simply through his personal choices. He becomes ‘what he is’ through his communal and family environment. So if he does a terrible crime—or does a great and noble deed—others who are in federation (or in solidarity, or in covenant with him) are treated as if they had done what he had done.
This is how the gospel salvation of Christ works, according to Paul. When we believe in Jesus, we are ‘in Christ’ (one of Paul’s favorite expressions, and a deeply Biblical one.) We are in covenant with him, not because we are related biologically but through faith. So what he has done in history comes to us.
What has all this to do with Adam? A lot. Paul makes the same point in 1 Corinthians 15 about Adam and Christ that he does in Romans 5:
For 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)
When Paul says we are saved ‘in Christ’ he means that Christians have a covenantal, federal relationship with Christ. What he did in history is laid to our account. But in the same sentence Paul says that all human beings are similarly (he adds the word ‘as’ for emphasis) “in Adam.” In other words, Adam was a covenantal representative for the whole human race. We are in a covenant relationship with him, so what he did in history is laid to our account.
When Paul speaks of being ‘in’ someone he means to be covenantally linked to them so their historical actions are credited to you. It is impossible to be ‘in’ someone who doesn’t historically exist. If Adam doesn’t exist, Paul’s whole argument—that both sin and grace work ‘covenantally’—falls apart. You can’t say that ‘Paul was a man of his time’, but we can accept his basic teaching about Adam. If you don’t believe what he believes about Adam, you are denying the core of Paul’s teaching.
If you don’t believe in the fall of humanity as a single historical event, what is your alternative? You may posit that some human beings began to slowly turn away from God, all exercising their free wills. But then how did sin spread? Was it only by bad example? That has never been the classic teaching of the Christian doctrine of original sin. We do not learn sin from others; we inherit a sin nature. Alan Jacobs’ great book on Original Sin: A Cultural History says that anyone who holds to the classic Augustinian view of original sin must believe that we are ‘hard-wired’ for sin; we didn’t just learn sin from bad examples. The doctrine also teaches that it was not originally in our nature to sin, but that we have fallen from primal innocence.1 Another problem arises if you deny the historicity of the fall. If some human beings began to turn away from God, why couldn’t some human beings resist so that some groupings would be less sinful than others? Alan Jacobs in his book on original sin insists that the equal sinfulness of the entire human race is foundational to the traditional view.
1. Alan Jacobs, Original Sin: A Cultural History (Harper Collins, 2008), p. 280.
This is a companion discussion topic for the original entry at https://biologos.org/blog/tim-keller-on-original-sin-atonement-and-evolution-part-1