by Craig Carter; WORLD MAGAZINE

Can Christian theology make do with the kind of “historical Adam” that is just an evolved hominid with a nickname? That is the question arising from a recent headline in Christianity Today: “Evangelicals Have Four Proposals for Harmonizing Genesis and Evolution.” Progressive evangelicalism continues to lobby the rest of us to jump on the Darwinism bandwagon, but are they advocating a “historical Adam” or merely a “mythological Adam”? 

The article’s premise is that evangelicalism is in big trouble because the culture is becoming more and more offended at our “anti-science” stance. Young people, we’re told repeatedly, are leaving the evangelical church because of its supposed Darwin denialism. This is supposed to alarm us, even though the fact is that the most Darwin-affirming churches are losing members the fastest and dying out. So, maybe this isn’t the whole story. 

One does get weary of hearing how orthodox Christianity will expire any day now unless it openly embraces evolutionary ideology. This has been breathlessly proclaimed for 150 years, and it has not happened. On the contrary, what has happened is that the forms of Christianity least receptive to the Darwin myth have grown in numbers and influence all over the world, while those most receptive to it are rapidly shrinking into insignificance. But why get all fussy over the facts when there is a bandwagon to jump on? 

If you look at the four options discussed in the article (a rehashing of a book by Calvin University physics professor Loren Haarsma), they boil down to two possibilities: Adam and Eve did not exist, or Adam is just a nickname we give to one of the early hominids who evolved into modern human beings. There is no special creation of Adam, no special creation of Eve from Adam, no original sinlessness, and no historical fall into sin. Human beings just evolved naturally from lower life forms, precisely as naturalistic evolution says. Nothing changed ontologically either for human beings or for creation as a whole as a result of a fall into sin. The world today is exactly as it always was; death and the struggle for survival determine our nature. Death has always been part of the world.

The author of this article seems not to grasp what concerned early church theologian Irenaeus as he observed the Gnostic mythology that was infiltrating the church in the second century. The problem with Gnosticism, vigorously resisted by orthodox Christians like Irenaeus, was that it denies the Christian doctrine of creation. The issue is whether humans were specially created by God and then fell into sin, thus plunging the entire race into damnation and subjecting the cosmos to the curse imposed by a holy God on a fallen creation.

The Gnostics held that the cosmos is eternally comprised of two kinds of “stuff”: matter and spirit, which war with each other. Matter is evil, and spirit is good. The Gnostics defined evil not in moral terms as law-breaking or rebellion but in ontological terms as a deficiency in being. Thus, for all forms of Gnosticism, the cosmos never fell. It has always been this way. 

Christianity, however, begs to differ. The Bible says that God created the cosmos, and it was very good. It is in a bad way now, admittedly, but the evil in the world is not native to the good creation—it was introduced into the cosmos after creation. This makes it feasible to conceive of a redeemed cosmos, a new heaven and a new earth freed from the curse of sin and death. This is the basis of the gospel; the world is bad, but the world has not always been this way, and it won’t always be this way because of Jesus Christ. 

Into human cultures dominated by mythology, the Bible reveals the novel idea of history. History is the idea that the cosmos had a beginning (creation) and is going somewhere (eschatology). Mythology says that matter is eternal and everything goes in endless cycles. Darwinism is outdated mythology dressed up in modern, scientific jargon and recycled for those who no longer believe in historic orthodoxy. 

The issue isn’t just whether a man named Adam lived a long time ago. The issue is whether humans were specially created by God and then fell into sin, thus plunging the entire race into damnation and subjecting the cosmos to the curse imposed by a holy God on a fallen creation. 

If Irenaeus could come back to life today and speak to contemporary progressive evangelicals, he would tell them that although standing up to the dominant mythological culture may seem like a losing strategy, it is still the right thing to do because Christianity is not just another myth. It is true, and that is very good news for sinners. 

Craig A. Carter

Craig A. Carter is the research professor of theology at Tyndale University in Toronto, Ontario, and theologian in residence at Westney Heights Baptist Church in Ajax, Ontario.