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Book Review: Did Adam and Eve Really Exist? by C. John Collins

Did Adam and Eve really exist? Of all the things that are in the Bible, does this one really matter? After all, it is a huge barrier to people coming to faith, particularly for people living in a culture heavily influenced by our culture continues to become increasingly pluralistic. Christian scientists who advocate for a sort of theistic evolution such as Francis Collins would content that traditional beliefs about Adam and Eve are no longer viable. So, really, what’s the big deal? Would we lose anything if we decided that Genesis 1-11 was mythological rather than historical?

Yes, argues C. John Collins in Did Adam and Eve Really Exist?: Who They Were and Why You Should Care.¬†¬†Collins aims “to show why I believe we should retain a version of the traditional view, in spite of any pressures to abandon it” and argues that “the traditional position on Adam and Eve, or some variation of it, does the best job of accounting not only or the Biblical materials but also for our everyday experience as human beings” (p. 13). Collins makes his argument in four parts, dealing first with the shape of the biblical story and particular texts that speak of Adam and Eve before moving to human uniqueness and dignity and the question of whether or not science can help us “pinpoint” Adam and Eve.

Perhaps what I appreciate most about this book is its commitment to good critical thinking. For those of us who do hold to the traditional view (including this reviewer‚ÄĒwhich is fitting, I suppose, given that I grew up strictly learning evolution in school and had no background in Christianity to speak of), it can be really easy to give a simple “yes” to the question that the book asks and leave it at that. So I really appreciated Collins not wanting to fall into that trap but being willing to thoughtfully examine what the Scriptures have to say, as well as arguments that are counter to the traditional view. As he puts it himself, if we examine the position and find difficulties, it “may mean that we should try to make some adjustments to the traditional view, but it does not of itself mean that we ought to junk [it] altogether” (p. 15).

And Collins does do an excellent job critically examining the issue. He carefully looks at the biblical storyline, noting that while some would suggest that Genesis 1-11 in particular offer “an ancient, premodern, prescientific way of addressing questions of ultimate origins and meaning in the form of stories,” Genesis itself doesn’t allow for that. It is written as “history” meaning that its author intended it to be read as actually having happened, arguing that “we might do best if we think of ‘history’ less as a literary genre . . . and more as a way of referring to events” (p. 35). This is particularly important when we look at the issue of sin. The alternative views all wind up “telling a very different story from the one we find in the Bible,” if for no other reason that sin ends up being “natural.” Yet the Bible and its authors consistently “portray sin as an alien intruder in God’s good creation. The story of Adam and Eve, and their first disobedience, explains how this intruder first came into human experience, though it hardly pretends to explain how it is that rebellion against God . . . came about in the first place” (p. 49).

This he also illustrates well as he examines the biblical passages referring to Adam and Eve, asking if this is a “forest for the trees” or “trees for the forest” problem. Basically, the question here is what happens when we remove a historical Adam and Eve from the Scriptures. What happens to Hosea 6:7, Ecclesiastes 7:29, Matt. 19:3-9, 1 Cor. 11:7-12, 2 Cor. 11:3, Romans 5:12-19 and so many other passages that either directly or indirectly refer to them or rely on the historicity of Genesis 1-11? We lose them completely. There are some passages that do not necessarily require a historical Adam and Eve, but many others where it is an absolute necessity.¬†Likewise, he argues well that if we abandon the historicity of Genesis 1-11, we abandon any inherent dignity and value among humanity, which is inextricably tied to our being made in the image and likeness of God.

His final chapter addresses the relationship between science, faith and the historicity of Genesis. Can science help us pinpoint Adam and Eve? This is the chapter over which I believe many who hold to the traditional view will have the most contention if for no other reason that it’s kind of messy. While I couldn’t tell for certain, it appeared as if he was arguing for an old-earth view of creation (based on the fossil record in particular) with the possibility of there having been more than one man and one woman being created. In the end, it’s a view filled with a number of uncertainties, although Collins believes that these uncertainties “in no way undermine our right to hold fast to the Biblical story line with full confidence. In fact, this holding fast actually helps us to think well about the scientific questions” (p. 131). Now there’s a sense in which I certainly agree with this. There is a great deal of uncertainty that comes from trying to figure out how the Bible and science work together on these issues. Yet, I wonder if this has more to do with us making things more complicated than they need to be? When our explanations become so convoluted that we don’t know whether we’re coming or going, we’ve got to start asking if we’re overthinking things a bit and as if, perhaps, the simplest explanation of the events is not the most accurate one.

There is much to like about Did Adam and Eve Really Exist, however it is incredibly dry. Collins is an academic, and his writing clearly reflects this reality. In some ways this is good because you know he’s not just some schmoe (like, say, me). Unfortunately, it does result in a very dull reading experience.¬†Did Adam and Eve Really Exist¬†is a good book for the more academically inclined, but would not be my first choice for the average reader.

Title: Did Adam and Eve Really Exist?: Who They Were and Why You Should Care
Author: C. John Collins
Publisher: Crossway (2011)

A complimentary copy of this book was provided for review purposes by the publisher

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