A friend in a Facebook group asked this question. I normally try to avoid questions like this, but I gave my answer. The friend wanted to know why. That could take a while, certainly more than an instant message. So I’m going to answer as concisely as possible, keeping in mind when you are messing with people’s theology (as one of my former pastors would say), you need to tread lightly.
They say we have to believe it
I used to believe they were. Not only that, I believed they had to be real people. Within the Bible, the central narrative begins with the creation of the first man and woman in the Garden of Eden. Life was perfect until they ate the forbidden fruit, lost their innocence, and were exiled from the Garden. This one act tainted the entire human race with Original Sin.
But God promised them one day, a Messiah would come who would defeat the serpent who had tempted them into disobedience, and restore God’s favor to the human race (Genesis 3:15). Christians believe Jesus was that Messiah. Jews are still looking for that Messiah. But either way, the promise of a Messiah was first made to Adam and Eve.
As a Christian, the implications of Adam and Eve not being historical were disturbing at first. The reason Jesus came to earth and allowed himself to be crucified was supposed to be to remove Original Sin. If Adam and Eve weren’t “real people,” there was no Fall. If there was no Fall, there was no Original Sin. If there was no Original Sin, why did Jesus have to be crucified? And that begs the question, was Jesus really crucified, and does it matter? Questions like these make some people go through faith deconstruction, so I understand the resistance of some of my fellow Christians to a non-literal reading of Genesis 1-2.
To answer that, I’ll say that whether Adam and Eve were “real people” or not does not change my views about Jesus. I don’t need a literal Adam and Eve in a literal Garden eating a literal fruit to know I am a sinner in need of a savior. I just have to read the teachings of Jesus to see that I fall short of the glory of God. How did I get this way if Adam and Eve were not “real people”? I don’t know. I just know this sin nature is in me, and it’s real. And to me, Jesus offers the only hope of overcoming it. That’s why I’m a Christian.
I’ve been through a whole lot of deconstruction and reconstruction. I know how scary it can be when you’re in the middle of it. Along the way, I’ve learned not everything in the Bible should be read literally. Reluctantly, I had to acknowledge that scientific evidence does not support a literal reading of Genesis 1-2. I’m also afraid that unless we make peace with science, the church will not last through the end of the century. So I’ll start with the scientific evidence and why I could and needed to accept evidence over dogma.
Perhaps the biggest challenge to Adam and Eve is the Theory of Evolution, which many Christians just flat out reject. An entire industry has been built around denying evolution. I remember in college someone telling me how the suborbital ridges of Neanderthals, or something like that, proved evolution. I said, “So you’re saying I’m supposed to believe in suborbital ridges more than the Bible?” If it had been only suborbital ridges (don’t quote me on that term), I could have kept my belief.
But even if you remove the Theory of Evolution, there are more differences between science and Genesis you have to contend with. Here are a few.
|The earth is approximately 6000-7000 years old||The earth is approximately 4.5 billion years old|
|The universe is approximately 6000-7000 years old||The universe is about 14 billion years old|
|There is a dome above the atmosphere and a large body of water above the dome||No water, no dome, just dark empty space (or dark matter) above the atmosphere|
|The moon, sun, planets, and stars all move under or inside the dome||The moon is about 238,000 miles from earth, the sun 93,000,000 miles, the planets millions/billions of miles, and the stars light years away. Again, no dome.|
|The moon, sun, planets, and stars all orbit around the earth||The moon orbits the earth, the earth and other planets orbit the sun, and the stars are all outside the solar system|
|The earth is flat, there are pillars at the ends of the earth that hold up the sky-dome||The earth is a sphere, there are no ends of the earth|
|The first humans appeared 6,000-7,000 years ago||The first humans appeared anywhere from 300,000 to 700,000 years ago|
|No other hominid species are mentioned||Fossils of several other hominid species have been uncovered|
|The first life was plants. Microorganisms like bacteria, viruses, and amoebae are never mentioned||The first life was microorganisms like bacteria, viruses, and amoebae. Over time, they gained complexity to evolve into the forms of life named in Genesis 1|
|Adam lived to the ripe old age of 930||No 900+ year-old skeletons have ever been uncovered|
That’s a whole lot more than suborbital ridges. Add all of this up (this is actually just skimming the surface) and I just can’t accept a literal reading of Genesis 1-11 anymore. I tried. I really did. I thought if anyone or anything contradicted the Bible in any way, I had to believe the Bible, no matter what. But while the Bible is based on belief, science is based on evidence. That is why science works.
Everything in the right column of the table above is based on evidence, not belief. Anyone who wants to investigate the evidence can do so. If anyone has evidence to change anything in the right column, and not just Bible verses, show it. The scientific community has adjusted its views whenever evidence demanded it. The way they view dinosaurs today is not the same as what I learned in school. Why? New evidence demanded they adjust their views. Scientists can adjust their views in light of new evidence, and the church needs to do the same. If we don’t, I believe we will lose credibility with future generations.
But the Bible says …
Why is there such a discrepancy between the Biblical account of creation and science? The Bible was written at a time before telescopes, microscopes, the fossil record, the scientific method, or the thousands of satellites we have put into orbit that did not crash into a giant dome and are not swimming through water. It was written before knowledge of DNA, the speed of light, tectonic plates, and atomic theory. The way they described the structure of the heavens and the earth was basically “common knowledge” at the time. If we had lived back then, no one would have had any problem believing the Genesis account of creation.
At some point, that began to change. It probably started when Galileo looked through the telescope and said, “Hey, we were wrong. The earth revolves around the sun, not the other way around.” For that, he was threatened with excommunication for contradicting the Bible. He officially recanted because he couldn’t stand being separated from the church, but he could not unsee what he saw. And millions of people since have looked through telescopes and confirmed he was right.
Galileo’s view of the Bible had to adjust to account for this new evidence. And so did everyone else, because anyone could look through the telescope and see what Galileo saw. Today, we readily accept that the earth revolves around the sun, so it’s hard to understand just how upsetting this was to people at the time. If you try to debate evolution with a creationist, you’ll get an idea.
But Galileo never stopped believing the basics of his Christian faith. Go through the tenets of the Apostle’s Creed, and he would have checked every box. I believe in God the Father Almighty, maker of heaven and earth. Check. And in Jesus Christ his only Son our Lord. Check. Who was conceived by the Holy Ghost and born of the Virgin Mary. Check. Suffered under Pontius Pilate. Check. And so on. Go through the whole list, and he would have said, “I believe all of that. All I’m saying is when I look through the telescope, I see something different from what you’re telling me.”
The church’s response was, “Don’t look through the telescope.” That approach did not work then, and it won’t work now.
There is a lot more I could say, but I’ll try to sum things up. Some people cling to the left side of the table because they are afraid if it is not true, then nothing else in the Bible is true. Some people think because the left side is not true, nothing else in the Bible is true. I think they are both making the same mistake.
The Bible is not and should never be used as a science textbook. It is a book to help us begin to understand the nature of God and teach us how to love our neighbor as ourselves. Questions about the origins and nature of the Universe should be left to science. Scientists have much better tools for answering those questions than any religious texts. If science says the earth revolves around the sun, believe it because they have the evidence to back it up.
If science disproves a particular religious belief about the physical universe, then I recommend following Galileo’s example. Take in the new information and determine if it is compatible with your old beliefs. If not, then adjust accordingly. Maybe it simply means you don’t read it literally but metaphorically. I think the story of Adam and Eve is true in its portrayal of human nature. You tell your children not to go somewhere, and suddenly they want to go there. What do they do when they screw up? Cover their butts and blame someone else. And when you compare it with other creation myths in that part of the world, you learn a lot about how they viewed their relationship to God.
The good news is science has never disproved anything in the Apostle’s Creed, at least as far as I can tell. So let science do what science does. The Bible is not a substitute for a telescope.
I know it sounds good to say you believe the Bible over science or evidence. But denying evidence is denying reality, and I don’t think that’s how God wants us to live. Our medical technology is so much better today than in Biblical times. Why is that? Because modern medicine is based on science.
Would you trust a doctor whose medical textbook was written before the discovery of viruses, bacteria, or other microscopic pathogens? I guarantee if they tell me they don’t believe in viruses or bacteria because they aren’t mentioned in the Bible, I’m walking out.