In response to my article on Young earth creationism and old things Walter asks:
Now that we have established that YEC is a pile of baloney, could you point me to a prior post or article of yours that explains the biblical Fall as you understand it? Was there a single pair of humans that failed an obedience test, spawning the need for a redeemer to show up a couple hundred thousand years later?
First, let’s establish that I didn’t say YEC is “a pile of baloney”. I just pointed out that it makes claims woefully inconsistent with the widely accepted ages of living things on the earth. I know it can be more satisfying to call it “a pile of baloney”, but doing so only serves to irritate and alienate those committed to the position.
Second, two years ago I offered an exploratory dialogue between two individuals rather uncreatively called Mr. A and Ms. B over a series of articles at The Christian Post. I have reproduced that series of articles here with some slight editing into one continuous narrative.
Finally, a warning: when reading a narrative like this readers often assume that one voice is the voice of the author. In this case, the identification would likely be made between my views and those expressed by Ms. B. Please don’t make that leap.
Mr. A: Do Christians need a historical Adam and Eve?
Ms. B: Need them for what?
Mr. A: To be good Christians.
Ms. B: How do you mean?
Mr. A: Well, if a Christian interprets the creation and fall of Adam as a mythic story rather than a broadly historical one, what else might a Christian be giving up?
Ms. B: Oh, I see. You’re worried that if you conclude Adam and Eve are not real, historical figures, then this will have some unforeseen, perhaps even heretical consequences. Correct?
Mr. A: Basically yes. I mean, for starters, how can you believe in scriptural authority if Adam and Eve are not historical?
Ms. B: That seems a bit strange to ask frankly. When you ask whether Adam and Eve are historical you’re really asking a more basic question: Are we obliged to interpret the Genesis creation story literally? But why think that only a literal interpretation of the Genesis creation narrative can maintain scriptural authority? Take the psalms. Nobody today believes the psalms have to be interpreted literally in order to be authoritative.
Mr. A: Well of course, they’re poems or songs.
Ms. B: But in the seventeenth century, many Christians interpreted key portions of the psalms literally. As a result, they believed that the psalms taught geocentrism, the view that the earth is fixed at the center of the universe. After all, we read in Psalm 93:1 that “the world is established, firm and secure.” So one could say: aren’t we undermining the authority of scripture unless we take this passage literally?
Mr. A: Okay, but they were just wrong. When it comes to narratives however, they need to be interpreted historically.
Ms. B: What about the parable of Lazarus and the rich man, or of the sower and his seed? Those are narratives. Do you take them literally?
Mr. A: No, of course not. They’re parables. They’re not meant to be taken as literal, historical descriptions.
Ms. B: And so we come back to the question of interpreting Genesis 1-3. There are many non-historical or non-literal types of narrative. Can’t one interpret this narrative as non-historical in nature as well and still maintain its authority?
Mr. A: But isn’t this a slippery slope? What about Noah? And Abraham? And Moses? And Jesus? Once we start where do we stop?
Ms. B: You say it is a slippery slope. I suspect, however, that you are proposing a slippery slope fallacy. We need to take each narrative on its own terms. We cannot just assume that every narrative text from Adam to apocalypse must be literal or the whole Bible becomes a myth. After all, most Christians have no problem distinguishing between the resurrection and ascension as historical, even as they note that Jesus did not literally sit down at the Father’s right hand.
Mr. A: What do you mean?
Ms. B: Uh, well the Father doesn’t have a right hand or a throne on which he sits. Those are metaphors.
Mr. A: Oh. Well it still seems dangerous to me.
Ms. B: Whether you like it or not, we’re all interpreters of the text. Nobody is above the danger of misinterpretation. We must recognize that the “literal” meaning is not a presuppositionless interpretive position. And the fact is that many Christians have concluded after careful study that the Genesis creation and fall narrative, like other such narratives of the ancient near east, is not historical in nature. They may be wrong, but do we know that their interpretation cannot in principle be reconciled with the recognition of these texts within Jewish and Christian communities as revelation? I mean what’s the problem with God appropriating a non-historical account of human origins and fall as part of his inspired revelation?
Mr. A: So to sum up our conversation thus far, you’re saying that Genesis 1-3 could be a myth that God appropriated as part of his divine revelation.
Ms. B: Emphasis on could be, so long as you recognize that “myth” here does not mean “not true” but rather true in the way that myths are true.
Mr. A: Hrumph. Sounds like double talk to me. How are myths true?
Ms. B: Imagine you’re telling one of Aesop’s fables to some children, perhaps “The Tortoise and the Hare.” After you finish, one child looks at you quizzically and asks whether the story really is true. When he asks that he is really asking whether the story happened just as it was narrated. And of course the answer is no, it didn’t. But that doesn’t answer the question of whether it is true. Indeed it is, for it illustrates the principle “slow and steady wins the race” and that is a true principle indeed.
Mr. A: So you’re saying the account of creation and fall in Genesis should be understood as a fable?
Ms. B: A myth, like a fable, uses vivid story to communicate universal truths. I’m saying that Genesis creation-fall could be this kind of literature which teaches important truths. Remember I made the point that there is no risk-free interpretive position. Thus, if the creation-fall account is indeed mythic then to interpret it as literal is to do it a grave disservice.
Mr. A: We all know the moral of “The Tortoise and the Hare.” But what do you propose is the moral of the Genesis creation-fall?
Ms. B: Well first off, it is just very naïve to think that people living three thousand years ago in a culture and with a language vastly different than our own asked the same questions and sought the same answers that we do. They didn’t. Unfortunately we often suffer under the illusion that our reading of texts as literal narrations is a universal default position. As a result, today many people are like that little boy, thinking that stories are only truth bearers if they communicate what literally happened.
Mr. A: Aren’t you just stepping back from a literal reading because science has forced you to?
Ms. B: No, because Christians have always held to widely divergent readings of the Genesis creation narrative. It is a staggering anachronism to think that ancient near eastern cosmogonic creation narratives muts be read like a newspaper article or a report in “Nature”. It is also important to observe the diversity of ways the texts were read in the Christian tradition. Try reading Augustine’s sixteen hundred year old “On the Literal Meaning of Genesis” for starters and you’ll see I offer no new innovation here. But even if it were true that Christians all interpreted Genesis literally until science made certain advances, so what? Why couldn’t science yield new insight into how a revelatory text is to be read? If all truth is God’s truth, why couldn’t truth in one area illumine truth in another? Indeed, shouldn’t we expect such cross-fertilization?
Mr. A: So basically you’re saying that the ancient Hebrews were not asking the questions of the contemporary physicist, geologist or biologist.
Ms. B: That’s correct. When they told a story like Genesis creation-fall it would have been concerned primarily with establishing a sense of God’s sovereignty over creation as well as the universal estrangement of creation that we recognize as suffering and sin. In order to communicate these truths, the text narrates a vivid story.
To get a sense of how ridiculous literalists look at this point, imagine two hermeneutically challenged biology students who read poet Robert Burns’ claim that “My love is like a red, red rose”. One rejects the text by averring that love really is a complex neurochemical reaction between serotonin and oxytocin. The other defends the text by arguing that the text is presenting a synesthetic account of the nature of emotional bonding associated with light in the wavelength range of roughly 630-740 nm. What would you think of that debate?
Mr. A: I think it would leave poor Bobby Burns spinning in his grave. I see your point, that kind of treatment of the text would really be missing the point. But how is the narrative of creation and fall true if it is understood as a myth?
Ms. B: Perhaps you’re familiar with the quote of Cardinal Baronius, made famous by Galileo: “The Bible was written to show us how to go to heaven, not how the heavens go.” That’s a good starting point.
Mr. A: So the narrative of creation tells us how to go to heaven?
Ms. B: Not in itself, but it gets the story going. Most scholars believe that Genesis chapters 1 and 2 were originally two separate accounts of creation, chapter 2 being the much older account. Certainly any literary critic who reads chapter 1 will quickly recognize the highly complex literary structure of the work. For instance, the first three days of creation provide form whilst the latter three days provide filling of the form, all in a detailed, highly stylized matching sequence.
Mr. A: I had no idea that kind of literary structure went into the narrative.
Ms. B: So just think, if Bobby Burns would be aghast at people reading his poetry in order to extract a scientific theory of love, how much more horrified would the writer of Genesis 1 be at people reading his literary artistry as if it were an article in “Scientific American”?
Mr. A: I agree, that is a misbegotten way to approach the text. But I’m still left wondering, once we have recognized the literary artistry of Genesis 1 and 2, what truth does the text establish?
Ms. B: To begin with, that God alone is creator. In contrast to the Ancient Near Eastern creation myths, the story of Genesis does not portray God as struggling with a primal chaos. Rather, God alone is portrayed as creator through his sovereign word. Another way to look at it is that Genesis 1 disenchants the world.
Mr. A: Disenchants?
Ms. B: Right. Throughout history people have thought of the world as itself divine or at least as full of spirits, as enchanted. And if you think that, then you are less likely to subject the world to the careful critical study that is the hallmark of modern science. By affirming that creation is the product of a sovereign God, the Genesis creation narrative takes the divinity out of the world, thereby making it a legitimate object of scientific study. And because it is believed to be the product of a rational divine mind, we can expect creation itself to be a rational system which is open to empirical study.
Mr. A: Fascinating. If you’re right then you might even say that the Genesis narrative set the stage for the advancement of modern science.
Ms. B: Is it any coincidence that the scientific revolution arose in Western Europe within a worldview that disenchanted the world of divinity while affirming its fundamentally rational structure?
Mr. A: It brings to mind Einstein’s famous quip that the most incomprehensible thing about the universe is that it is comprehensible.
Ms. B: Yes. Against the backdrop of a Genesis worldview a comprehensible universe is not itself that incomprehensible at all. Rather, it is what you should expect from a world created by God.
Mr. A: So even if we view Genesis as broadly mythical, it still establishes a whole lot of truth. Still, this leaves me with many questions. For instance, are Adam and Eve real people?
Ms. B: The word “Adam” means “man”, the word “Eve” means “life” or “living”. While these are treated as proper names in the story, they also clearly function symbolically as references to the whole human race. In some way we are all to find ourselves in Adam and Eve. To treat the story as possibly mythical is to see its primary function as residing not in what it tells us about two historical persons named Adam and Eve who lived long ago, but rather in what it tells us about all human beings.
Mr. A: And what does it tell?
Ms. B: That all have sinned. There is no one righteous. All are alienated from God. This is the universal human condition and dilemma.
Mr. A: Let me get this straight. You think the fall narrative could teach a doctrine of original sin even if there was no historical Adam and Eve?
Ms. B: I am simply asking you to consider that the text is not as concerned with the original pair of humans so much as it is concerned with the condition in which we all find ourselves.
Mr. A: Hmmm. So in your view the text is not as concerned with telling us how the human race fell as it is with establishing that it is fallen.
Ms. B: Bingo.
Mr. A: This still leaves me with a bunch of questions. For instance, fundamental to the text is a move from innocence to guilt. When is that supposed to happen? The first time a two year old says “no”? Is that when they fall?
Ms. B: Ahhh, now we’re getting to a really interesting question….
Mr. A: Before I consider further your attempt to read the Genesis creation and fall narratives as mythical, I need to get something off my chest.
Ms. B: Go ahead Mr. A. There are no secrets here.
Mr. A: Okay, how can you suggest that Adam might not be a historical figure when he is treated as such in the New Testament? Luke’s genealogy of Jesus ends with Adam “the son of God.” (Luke 3:38)
Ms. B: True.
Mr. A: And even more importantly, the historical Adam seems to have some theological importance. When Paul discusses male/female relationships he asserts a male priority of sorts by saying that “Adam was formed first, then Eve.” (1 Ti. 2:13)
Ms. B: True as well.
Mr. A: Even more importantly, a historical Adam seems to be linked to the fall and the atoning work of Christ. Paul declared in 1 Corinthians 15:22 that “as in Adam all die, so in Christ all will be made alive.” Doesn’t this imply that Adam is a historical person who has brought the fall to all humankind? So how can we mythologize Adam, unless we’re going to mythologize Christ as well?
Ms. B: Good points Mr. A.
Mr. A: Recently I read John Piper. This is what he said: “I think that it’s very important that Adam be a historical figure, because that’s the way he is treated by the other biblical writers. The heart passage in Romans 5 collapses, and the whole nature of God’s making with Adam a covenant and then him failing and then Christ being a second Adam comes to naught, if he’s not a historical person.” I think he’s right.
Ms. B: Hmmm, so you’re saying it is time for me to pay the Piper?
Mr. A: How very droll of you Ms. B. But seriously, Romans 5:19 echoes the message of 1 Corinthians 15:22 by tying a universal fall to Adam and universal atoning work to Christ. So how can you suggest that there might not be a historical Adam? Isn’t that like saying that we don’t need a historical fall or a historical Jesus?
Ms. B: Mr. A, if you would be so kind to take a seat while I brew some rooibos tea. This might take awhile.
[Muzak while Ms. B makes the tea] [Note to reader: Please allow for the full 2 1/2 minutes of the Muzak excerpt to play so as to allow sufficient time for Mr. A’s tea to be brewed.]
Ms. B: Here’s your rooibos tea Mr. A.
Mr. A: Thank you, Ms. B. You’re very kind. Now, you were going to explain why you think the Christian doesn’t need a historical Adam.
Ms. B: Yes, down to business. Are you familiar with the concept of accommodation?
Mr. A: I’m not sure what you mean. Like hotels and motor lodges?
Ms. B: Accommodation refers to the process of communicating ideas in a framework or worldview apprehensible to the person you want to teach. It simply involves making an idea or concept accessible to a person.
Mr. A: Oh right, sure.
Ms. B: Let’s say that your father is diagnosed with a basal cell carcinoma. If you want to break the news to your three year old, you don’t read to your child a medical dictionary definition of the condition’s pathophysiology, epidemiology and prognosis.
Mr. A: No, of course not. You tell her “Grandpa has an owie but the doctor will make it all better.”
Ms. B: Yes, and if your child pressed you for more details, you might accommodate a bit further like this: “Remember when you stayed out in the sun and your arms were burned? And remember how we put that cream on the burn to help you get better? Well Grandpa has a little burn on his nose and the doctor will help him to get better.” Technically it is not really correct – basal cell carcinoma is not a skin burn and it obviously requires a different treatment- but this is sufficient for your child to understand that grandpa is sick and will need a doctor to help him get better.
Mr. A: Indeed.
Ms. B: Now the gap in understanding between a child and adult is large, but it is nothing compared to the gap between God and human beings. Consequently, when God communicates he too brings things down to our level, he accommodates himself to human limitations. This means that when we read the Bible we should read it in the awareness that God has brought himself to the level of particular individuals in history, accommodating to their worldview so that they could understand the main point he wanted to communicate.
Mr. A: Can you give a specific example?
Ms. B: Sure. Consider what Paul says in Philippians 2:9-11:
“Therefore God exalted him [Jesus] to the highest place and gave him the name that is above every name, that at the name of Jesus every knee should bow, in heaven and on earth and under the earth, and every tongue acknowledge that Jesus Christ is Lord, to the glory of God the Father.”
Mr. A: Ahh yes, a great passage.
Ms. B: Did you notice Paul’s reference to three spheres, heaven, the earth and under the earth?
Mr. A: Hmmm, I never really thought much about it before.
Ms. B: When Paul uses that tripartite formulation he is summarizing Hebrew cosmology which taught that God created a three-storied universe of heaven above, earth, and hades or sheol below, and that he interacts with us through that universe. But when we read that passage, do we find ourselves obliged to accept Paul’s three-storied universe? In order to get what Paul is saying about Jesus, do we have to accept that the earth is a flat disc, with hades below and heaven above?
Mr. A: No, of course not. The point is that Christ will be glorified throughout all creation. And that is true whether you think creation is a three-storied universe or a three hundred billion galaxy universe.
Ms. B: Well said Mr. A. So we can strip away the accommodation to three-storied universe in order to get at the main theological point.
Mr. A: Let me guess: you’re going to say that a historical Adam might also be an accommodation to human understanding of the time but that it is not necessary to maintain the theological point of the Bible?
Ms. B: Again, well said Mr. A. Would you care for another cup of rooibos?
Mr. A: So Ms. B, let me get this straight. You are suggesting that in Genesis 1-3 God may have accommodated to Ancient Near Eastern cosmology which assumed a first human person – an “Adam” – in the same way that God accommodated to the three-storied cosmology of the ancient world that is assumed in Philippians 2. Correct?
Ms. B: It is a possibility to be explored, yes.
Mr. A: Forget the “possibility to be explored” stuff. Do you believe this is the case?
Ms. B: I think it is likely true, but I am not sure of all the implications that flow from it. And Mr. A, I will ask you not to raise your voice to me again, sir.
Mr. A: My apologies ma’am. Let me point out one implication that makes me uncomfortable. How can you have a fall into sin on your view? If there is no Adam, then there is no fall. Right?
Ms. B: Wrong. But before we talk about sin, I think we need to talk about evil.
Mr. A: Come again?
Ms. B: Do you hold to young earth creationism?
Mr. A: Define it.
Ms. B: The earth is young, perhaps six to ten thousand years old. It was created in six literal days. All the animals lived with one another. Humans schmoozed with T-rex and brachiosauraus as surely as cats and kangaroos. And everyone ate from a giant salad bar (more or less).
Mr. A: Wait. That sounds like the Flintstones.
Ms. B: Well except that there were no stone-age drive-ins or ped-powered cars. But basically yes. On this view it is only after Adam and Eve sinned that some animals became carnivores or omnivores and predation, carnivory and death (along with fossilization) entered the world.
Mr. A: No, I certainly don’t believe that. You just have to look at the fossil record. You don’t ever find a human femur lodged in a bed of trilobite or T-rex fossils, do you?
Ms. B: No I don’t think you do, at least not that I’ve seen pass muster in a peer-reviewed journal (though anecdotes do tend to get passed around).
Mr. A: So I guess I have to accept that there was death in the world prior to the fall of Adam and Eve.
Ms. B: Not just death but a whole lot of death, it would seem. You mentioned trilobites. One bed of trilobite fossils can contain millions of specimens of a creature that was extinct a quarter billion years before Adam purportedly came on the scene.
Mr. A: Where you going with all this Ms. B? My rooibos tea is growing cold.
Ms. B: Let me read Genesis 1:29-30:
“Then God said, “I give you every seed-bearing plant on the face of the whole earth and every tree that has fruit with seed in it. They will be yours for food. And to all the beasts of the earth and all the birds in the sky and all the creatures that move on the ground-everything that has the breath of life in it-I give every green plant for food.” And it was so.”
Now Mr. A. Before you oblige me to discuss the fall, I’d like to know what you think of this passage. How can it be that the text says all fauna were given flora for food when we know that predation, carnivory and death were the state of the world for millions of years?
Mr. A: Well Ms. B perhaps the Garden of Eden was a special place in the world.
Ms. B: Come again?
Mr. A: Perhaps it was only within the garden that animals vegetarian whereas outside the garden the world was full of carnivorous animals.
Ms. B: Fanciful, Mr. A. But the text says something different. The Hebrew word “‘erets” refers to the whole earth. That is, every plant on the whole earth and every tree that has fruit had been given for food, not just those which were within the garden. Nor does the text allow for carnivorous animals outside the garden: “to all the beasts of the earth and all the birds in the sky and all the creatures that move on the ground-everything that has the breath of life in it-I give every green plant for food.” The writer could not have been more clear. According to the text, God created the entire world without death, predation or carnivory.
Mr. A: I must admit then that short of embracing young earth creationism, I’m not sure what to do. But what does that have to do with your view of the fall?
Ms. B: It has everything to do with it, Mr. A. Before I explain what I think the fall means in light of our understanding of the world, I want to know what you think it means. Let me ask you another question.
Mr. A: Must you?
Ms. B: Do you accept the theory of plate tectonics?
Mr. A: Of course. While the details may be disputed, the framework is clear enough. This is one of the most well established theories in the earth sciences.
Ms. B: So there were volcanoes and earthquakes prior to the Adamic fall?
Mr. A: There must have been. Yes, there certainly were.
Ms. B: But not in the garden?
Mr. A: Come Ms. B, I think you’re poking fun at me.
Ms. B: No really, Mr. A. We live in a vicious world of volcanoes that blast boiling mud, lava, ash and steam for miles, devastating earthquakes that can trigger a massive landslide even as they displace enough water to launch a thirty foot tsunami that washes away an entire beach front. Massive meteorites have slammed into our puny world causing mass extinctions. The sedimentary layers are packed with the skeletons of poor, miserable creatures. And underlying it all is the fact that entropy – disorder and chaos – is ever increasing. In what sense was this ever a good world to begin with? Once you’ve answered me that, you can explain what you mean by the fall of Adam. And then I’ll be most happy to explain what I mean.
Mr. A: Ms. B, your questions disturb me. It seems like whatever the fall is, it must be reconciled with the presence of a whole lot of prior suffering in the world. It seems like creation was groaning long before there was any Adam and Eve.
Ms. B: Suffering and groaning yes, and as the philosophers say, natural evil as well.
Mr. A: Natural evil?
Ms. B: Yes, suffering and evil that arises from natural processes rather than the intentions of any agent. For instance, if a person is swept away in a tsunami or a baby dinosaur is eaten by a T-Rex, that’s a case of natural evil. This contrasts with moral evil, the kind of evil that arises from a willful choice on the part of an agent to do wrong.
Mr. A: So if I reject young earth creationism I guess I have to accept that when God created his world millions of years ago, it manifested a striking level of natural evil, even before human beings came on the scene.
Ms. B: It would seem that you have to argue that. In light of that point, how then do you understand the nature of the fall of Adam and Eve?
Mr. A: I’m not sure. How do you handle it Ms. B?
Ms. B: Well here’s one possibility. We could say that human beings are the first species who act with a will in such a way that we commit morally evil actions. When a lion kills a gazelle, that event is a case of natural evil, for the lion is not acting as an intentional agent that desires to commit an evil act. But human beings are different. We are moral agents and thus we commit acts that can be moral or immoral.
Mr. A: Where does the fall come in?
Ms. B: How about this: at some point in evolutionary history, our pre-human ancestors were just on the threshold of evolving a moral nature. At that point their actions, which caused suffering and evil, were still instances of natural evil. For instance, some pre-human cave man, let’s call him Zorg, stole his neighbor Grog’s flint knife. This may be an evil, but if Zorg still does not have a moral nature evolved, then his crime is only a natural evil.
But at some point one or more mutations occurred, bringing one individual over that threshold to the point where they became a moral agent. Maybe that individual was Zorg Jr. Suddenly at this point the same actions of stealing Grog’s flint knife which was once only a natural evil has now become a moral evil. And for the first time, with Zorg Jr.’s first action as a moral agent, sin has entered the world. With that, actions which had once been merely natural evils were now moral evils.
Mr. A: So you’re saying that the story of the garden could represent the point in our evolutionary history when our ancestors moved from being agents of natural evil in the world to being agents of moral evil?
Ms. B: Obviously that wasn’t the original human writer’s understanding. But for those of us who understand the text to have been appropriated into a divinely authorized mode of authoritative, revelatory discourse (aka the Bible), that could be part of the “sensus plenior” or deeper meaning of that text.
Mr. A: Interesting. It seems like there still is an Adam of sorts on that view (aka Zorg Jr.), though it is very different from the Adam I learned about in Sunday school.
Ms. B: True enough. And the story may look very different tomorrow, for as our picture of natural science changes, so will details in our theological understanding change.
Mr. A: Okay, but why is it always the Christians that are changing?
Ms. B: That’s not correct Mr. A. The advance of our scientific understanding has an impact on the Christian worldview but it also has an impact on the worldview of naturalism and on any other worldview that wants to be conversant with our understanding of the natural world.