What is "the fall" when I can't accept a historical Adam and Eve?

(Sue) #1

I’m new here, and I’m struggling with understanding and maintaining my faith. I have long been accepting of theistic evolution, but now feel that perhaps my understanding of faith may be incompatible with my understanding of evolution.

One of my hurdles is how to understand “the fall of man”, if I am not accepting the idea of a historical Adam (or even if I were accepting of that idea). As I look at evolution, I understand it as being intrinsically reliant on death, disease, violence as mechanisms that drive it forward. These factors not only played a part, but were and are driving factors in the development of mutations and evolutionary development, previous to, during, and since the evolution of man. How do I have an understanding of what the fall of man and man’s need for redemption looks like, when it seems that what some might understand as “sin”–the systemic brokenness of the world as evidenced by death, disease, violence, injustice–has always been present.

I’m certain this question has been asked many times before, so links pointing me in the right direction are appreciated, as are responses.

(Connor Mooneyhan) #2

Hey Sue! Yes, sin always existed. This is revealed in Romans 5:13; “For until the law sin was in the world, but sin is not imputed when there is no law.” So yes, people did things that were sinful, but it wasn’t judged because God hadn’t yet let them know that what they were doing was wrong.

Also, I suggest you read The Lost World of Adam and Eve by John H Walton. It shows how Adam and Eve can still be understood as historical figures even if there were humans before them.

Also, surf around this website and you will find that we are a very loving community with some very helpful resources for you.

(Christy Hemphill) #3

I’m sure different people explain this in different ways and I think it is one of the main theological questions that is being worked out in light of the evidence for human evolution. Here is a link to the question “Did death occur before the Fall?” and the sidebars have links to some articles that discuss some of the themes you have brought up. http://biologos.org/questions/death-before-the-fall

What I have heard most often from those who do not take Adam as a literal figure is that the concept of the Fall is less a historic event than a theological reality that is re-enacted by every human with free will since God initiated a relationship with humanity and began to hold them morally responsible for obedience.

As for death, disease, and violence being present before the fall, that just echos the problem of evil that has troubled theologians for ages. If Satan was in the world before sin, as the biblical account implies, then evil and rebellion and corruption existed in our world before human sin. I think it is pretty difficult theologically to tie all evil and all death to sin entering the world through human rebellion. What makes death, disease, and violence “bad” is our human capacity to envision and long for a world without it, a world we are promised in the New Creation. I don’t know that we would have this longing apart from God choosing us to bear his image.

I think a lot of times we unjustifiably impose our ideas of perfection on a pre-fall world. Scripture says God’s creation was good, not that it was perfect. I believe the death that came into the world because of human sin was a spiritual death that applied only to humans, the only creatures that God had breathed spiritual life into in the first place.

(Brad Kramer) #4

@sue I think this is one of the most profoundly difficult questions for evolutionary creationists to answer. There are many ways to harmonize evolution with an understanding of the Adam/Eve story, and not all of them involve a non-historical Adam or Fall or Eden (see John Walton’s recent book for a historical perspective on Adam that allows for evolution, or just read our Common Question page on the different options). However, there is absolutely no way to reconcile evolution with a belief that creation was perfect (meaning no death, suffering, or decay) until humanity sinned. The problem is that much of contemporary (and historical) Christian theology, particularly from conservatives, is founded upon a deathless creation—even among those who affirm an old earth. I think the reason this question is so difficult is because it ultimately makes the origin of death and evil a mystery. Scripture’s clear testimony is that death, suffering, and decay are not meant to be permanent features of creation. The new creation described in Revelation (and hinted at throughout the Bible) does not have these things. So I think ultimately the answer to death and suffering is the hope of new creation, not simply a restoration of a past perfection in Eden. The story of the whole Bible is how God is triumphing over the powers of chaos and death in bringing about newness and life. It’s not just a story of Adam ruining things and Christ un-ruining them. It’s how the redemptive work of Christ, accomplished through his incarnate ministry and death/resurrection, is the capstone on God’s mission to unite Earth and Heaven. All of history gets its ultimate meaning in that trajectory.

Here’s some thought-provoking scriptural evidence: In Genesis 1, the creation story starts with a dark ocean, which symbolizes chaos and hostility to life (it never says where this comes from). In Revelation 21, darkness is gone—and so is the ocean. We’re in the middle of the story right now, experiencing light and darkness, ocean and dry land. So the key point is that history is going somewhere: the triumph of God. This is, I think, the beginnings of an answer to your question, but unfortunately there has not been enough good theological work done on this question yet because of conservative resistance to mainstream science.

(Christy Hemphill) #5

Here is something else that is thought-provoking about the account of the New Creation in Revelation: Paradise, the location of the Tree of Life, is not a garden, it is a heavenly city. I think a city is symbolic of the peak of culture, innovation, ingenuity, and even technology. To me it says that all the good and beautiful products of our creative human work on this earth will be redeemed and given their place in the Eschaton, we won’t be restored to a new Eden. So, I agree with Brad that the Bible does not direct us to look back to an un-ruining of perfection, but forward to an eschatological reality that was always part of God’s plan for his good, though not yet perfected,creation,

I was recently reading The God I Don’t Understand by Christopher Wright and he discussed the question, “Would the Son have become incarnate if there was no need to redeem humanity, if there was never a Fall?” Interesting question I had never considered before. Wright thought yes, because it was always God’s plan to unite himself with his creation and bring his Kingdom in all its fullness to humanity.

Michael Bird pointed out in Evangelical Theology that orthodox Christianity teaches that Jesus rose from the dead and ascended into Heaven as a human. He will return as a human. The reigning Lord of the Universe is a human. That is a very deep thought for me. The idea the it was God’s plan to dignify humanity for eternity by permanently uniting himself with humanity is amazing. It is my answer to all the people who think evolutionary theory debases humanity by linking us to lower organisms. Who cares? God himself permanently exalted humanity when he revealed it was part of his eternal plan to become human forever. Enough theological rambling… the kids are calling for bedtime stories.

(Brad Kramer) #6

Thanks for your thoughts, @Christy. Glad to see you back on our discussion boards.


Well put, Christy. Even though I have worked out at least some of my own answers to the question, I’m always interested to see how other believers have worked through this and similar issues. And I’m very interested to see what will come out of the Templeton Project at Trinity International University. (No doubt, everyone at Biologos is well aware of that recent grant but many readers probably do not.) They received the grant for several million dollars and will be focusing on not just one “everybody should agree on this” answer but some carefully-defined hermeneutical boundaries to help Bible readers think through which interpretations provide a range of reasonable, Biblical answers to how believers can regard the scientific evidence while fully respecting the teachings of scripture. (I hope I have summarized the project prospectus reasonably well without missing the point.)

I considered the founding of Biologos an important milestone in helping believers grapple with origins issues and I think the Templeton Project at Trinity [I’m not certain of the official name] is going to be yet another, very valuable step forward. They are engaging so many outstanding evangelical theologians in devoting hundreds and hundreds of scholar-hours to the hard questions. The three-year project will also develop training/Bible study curricula for churches and the funding includes evaluating those courses in various participating churches’ Sunday Schools classes and home Bible studies.

I think a very large percentage of believers are looking for a consistent hermeneutic to fit the science. Once some well-developed outlines and expositions are published, I think we are going to see a lot of on-the-fence and frustrated evangelicals finely feeling comfortable leaving behind the narrow traditions of their childhood which stopped them from fully affirming evolution and billions of years.

(George Brooks) #8

This is such a great thread … I thought I would bump it again. Here, @sue wonders out loud where is redemption, if evolution has always been informed with death, disease, etc. …

Is this not exactly as it should be? The Eden story attempts to say all is well … what … for a day or two at most? And so was the world … as long as there was no life… or just one or two life forms.

And then the imperfections of the material world began to become manifest in manifoldly plentiful ways!

Redemption is putting the soul in a right relationship with the DIVINE, is it not? It’s not about perfecting the food chain on earth. It is Heaven … it is the Bosom of God. Only the Divine is perfection.


(George Brooks) #9

Last year, this column appeared at the Internet Monk site which mentioned a BioLogos scholar, John Walton!


The page made special mention of Walton’s response to the Ham-on-Nye debate!

"In the end, then, while Ham kept challenging Nye about whether he was there to see this history that he claimed, Nye should have been challenging Ham about what makes him so certain that the Bible is making the claims that he thinks it is. What appears to Ham as a “natural” reading, is extremely debatable if one attempts to read the text of Genesis as the (God-inspired) ancient document that it is. . . . "

"The fact is that Ken Ham rejects scientific findings because he believes the Bible offers claims that contradict science. He believes that he can add up the genealogies to arrive at the need for a young earth. He never stops to ask whether it is “natural” to read ancient genealogies in that way. In the ancient world genealogies serve a very different function than they do today, and numbers may well have rhetorical rather than strictly numerical value. He believes that there could be no death before the fall because [Ham] has interpreted the word “good” as if it meant “perfect.” That is not what the Hebrew term means. "

“Furthermore, if there was no death before the fall, people would have little use for a tree of life. What is a “natural” interpretation—our sense of what it means or the sense that an ancient reader would have had? Ham actually made the statement that we have to read the Bible “according to the type of literature” that it is. Yet it was clear that he has done no research on ancient genres and how parts of the Bible should be identified by the standards of ancient genres…”

(nicolas andulsky allen) #10

they represented us when they did it in that each of us would make the same choice. This is God’s way of proving to us that he is not evil for creating us. Because we are not God, we are not perfect and therefore we will sin, and some of us will choose to reject God. Without the experiment of Adam and Eve, we could argue that God is the author of evil. Because of Adam and Eve, we can see that we are culpable. We can see that given the choice of living in a perfect garden, vs. being able to choose right from wrong for ourselves, we each would choose to have knowledge of good and evil. The result is that we require a world to live in that challenges us, and is difficult, and is filled with other people who have the freedom to make the wrong choices and hurt us. So, sin is just the necessary logical result of free will. Adam and Eve are the answer to the Problem of Pain. Jesus is the solution to the Problem of Pain.

(Roger A. Sawtelle) #11


The problem with having no Fall, no origin of sin, is that it make Nature inherently evil, which is the Gnostic view. It means that humans have no responsibility for restoring God’s order to Creation, because it was never there.

The other problem with having no Fall is that it makes humans inherently evil, so we look for some magic way to become good, as the Gnostics did. God’s plan is to forgive humanity its sin, so we could be united with God the Father through God the Son and God the Spirit.

There is no purpose for forgiveness if their is no sin and no responsibility. There is no need for forgiveness and salvation if there is no need for humans to change their relationships with other and God.

Sin is a real human condition, as opposed to a natural condition, which does exist and therefore sin had a beginning. When and how, just like the origin of wheel, but Genesis 3 is a good explanation as any and better than most.

(Jon) #12

Only those who have known God’s law and are therefore under it, are judged by it.

Romans 2:
12 For all who have sinned apart from the law will also perish apart from the law, and all who have sinned under the law will be judged by the law.

Sin is not counted where there is no knowledge of law.

Romans 4:
15 For the law brings wrath, because where there is no law there is no transgression either.

Romans 5:
13 for before the law was given, sin was in the world, but there is no accounting for sin when there is no law.

The law which was “given” here refers to the law of Moses.

Romans 7:
7 What shall we say then? Is the law sin? Absolutely not! Certainly, I would not have known sin except through the law. For indeed I would not have known what it means to desire something belonging to someone else if the law had not said, “Do not covet.”

Acts 17:
30 Therefore, although God has overlooked such times of ignorance, he now commands all people everywhere to repent,

Adam and Eve, as historical figures, were the first to whom divine law was revealed, and consequently became the first to be responsible to it. They were therefore the first in a position to actually sin.

(Michael Peterson) #13


I, like you, do not believe in the historical Adam. When I read the second creation story in biblical Hebrew it’s pretty apparent that the narrative is an allegory (more info on this at the links referenced below). But let me just provide a short comment of the use of the word ‘fall’ and ‘sin’.

As many have noted these words (actually their Hebrew counterparts) do not appear in the story. The root of the Hebrew word for sin, chet, means separation, in its masculine form. Now, this is exactly what happens. By their choice the primordial couple were separated eternally from God by God Himself (Genesis 3:24).

This may come as a surprise to you, but many of today’s scholars argue that Adam and Eve were not expelled as a result of disobedience. They were expelled because they made a conscious, willful choice to accept mortality in exchange for sexual procreativity.

For a verse-by-verse translation and commentary you can check out this link. If you want, you should skip to the commentary of 2:16-17… Finally, I’ve written a draft of an essay titled, Knowledge of Good and Evil that address most of your questions.

Bottom line: The story of Adam and Eve is perfectly consistent with evolution (theistic or otherwise).



(Christy Hemphill) #14

What does one flesh mean in Gen 2 if not sex? And how were they to act on the explicit command “be fruitful and increase in number” “fill the earth and subdue it” without procreation? (Gen 1:28)

(Michael Peterson) #15

Thanks for the questions, Christy. I was initially confused by your questions and then went back and read what I wrote. I wrote in haste and completely misrepresented what I meant to write. I apologize for the confusion. As such, your questions were welcome and I am grateful you thought to ask or I wouldn’t have caught the error. Anyway, what I meant to convey was that Adam and Eve exchanged their immortality and the banality of Eden for mortality and sexual procreation.



(Christy Hemphill) #16

I still have the questions though. When I read the account in Genesis, Adam and Eve are placed in the garden, given to each other to become one flesh (which I take to mean a sexual relationship) and commanded to procreate. Willful, conscious rebellion and expulsion from Eden comes later in the narrative. If the choice to procreate was in essence original sin, why is an increase in the pain of childbearing part of the curse? Doesn’t that presume that less painful childbearing was normative or at least possible pre-curse? I’m curious who these scholars you are referring are and what religious tradition they represent?

(Michael Peterson) #17

Hi Christy,

I’ll try to be more careful in my response. The answer is complex but straightforward.

First, verse 2:24 is an editorial comment/explanation inserted by the author and not, strictly speaking, a part of the narrative. Mothers and fathers do not yet exist hence the need for the author to break out of the story in order to emphasize the priority of the man’s devotion to his woman over that of his parents. Put another way, it is completely appropriate to consider 2:24 to be a footnote explaining to the reader that the bond between spouses takes priority over the male’s bond with his parents. As for “one flesh”, as explained earlier, sexuality is manifestly in view, but the emphasis is on the devotion of the man to his woman. Sex is secondary.

Second, in this creation narrative the primordial couple is not commanded to procreate. In fact, at the conclusion of chapter 2 the author is at pains to inform us that the couple feel no sexual or erotic urge towards each other. Sexual awareness does not enter the narrative until verse 3:7 after both ate of the fruit of the Tree of Knowledge.

Third, in verses 3:14-19 only the serpent and the ground is cursed. As for the woman and man, God is conveying to them the grimness of the mortality that await them AND that they chose. As an aside, being cursed and being punished are often used synonymously in English. But it’s important to note that the Hebrew is much more subtle. The root of the verb, arur (=curse), means literally to bind, restrain, or restrict. In the case, the serpent is restricted to slithering and the soil (outside of Eden) is not so easily cultivated.

As for who the scholars are, I usually start with these three books: first, you might want to check out Nahun’s Sarna’s book, “The JPS Commentary on Genesis”; second Richard Eliott Friedman’s Commentary on the Torah; third is Claus Westermann’s “Genesis 1-11 - A commentary”. The latter includes citations and references to numerous scholars. I use this particular book very heavily to chase down references I do not have at hand. The other two sources I use extensively are Gordon Wenham’s WORD Biblical Commentary: Genesis 1-15, and the “Theological Wordbook of the Old Testament” by Harris, et al (to which Bruce Waltke is a major contributor).

On the other hand, my translation and commentary for both creation stories can be found here (Genesis 1) and here (Genesis 2-3). Both contain footnotes and citations. Of course, if you have additional questions about the sources just let me know and I’ll get 'em for you.



(Christy Hemphill) #18

So basically, this is a Jewish scholarly take on Genesis?

(Andrew M. Wolfe) #19

Not so fast, necessarily, on this one. “One flesh” seems to refer to kinship, not sexuality. This blog post (thank you, Google) explains it pretty clearly in the first couple paragraphs: https://jimbrownson.wordpress.com/2013/02/04/genesis-224-and-the-meaning-of-one-flesh/. (Edited to include the link!)

Not saying I agree with Michael’s approach. Just offering a footnote for those interested. :slight_smile:

P.S. This word study comes up occasionally in discussions of same-sex marriage, but we’re not talking about that here because if I do, Brad will delete me! :smiley:

(Christy Hemphill) #20

Fair enough. I will re-state. “One flesh” seems to refer to marriage, which in almost every culture I am aware of entails a sexual relationship and children.