Considering an ancient Adam

The Genealogical Adam and Eve paradigm, as described in my book and that of Joshua Swamidass, makes a recent Adam plausible in the context of the mainstream sciences. Some objectors to this “recent Adam” interpretation wants to put Adam and Eve much further back in the past (which is equally compatible with GAE), and their main reason is the status of the “people outside the garden” in our scenario.

It’s interesting to speculate that, had archaeology been on the scene earlier than geology and palaeontology, and the literature of the Sumerians discovered before deep time and evolution, the world would have immediately noted the literary connections between that literature and Genesis 1-11. The “proto-history” would have been firmly welded in the public mind to the third and fourth millennia BCE, and the arguments would have all been about which literature came first and to what extent both are historical recollection. The subsequent discovery (in my counterfactual universe) of fossil hominins would, in all likelihood, have focused attention entirely on the meaning of Genesis 1 with respect to the human race, probably generating a Gap Theory like that which actually did gain consensus support before Darwin, leaving the garden of Eden undisturbed in its late setting.

One old form of the Gap Theory

As it is, ancient chronology and Neanderthal man came first. All attention became focused on the emergence of the species, rather than on an Eden in a known historical period, and so speculation centred on whether Adam lived way back in the Palaeolithic or was fictional (all the cultural details of Eden, and the subsequent narrative, becoming sidelined in both strategies).

This was not too troublesome when little was known of ancient culture: the old view of the brutish and stupid cave-man gave some leeway for the sudden emergence of a truly intelligent species in, say, Cro-Magnon man, in the person of Adam and Eve. But the more that was discovered, the earlier sophisticated culture became, and the less likely speciation in a single pair. Not only is Homo sapiens far older than was suspected, but evidence for art and careful funerary customs goes back to Neanderthals, and Homo erectus is a far more intelligent tool-maker than was ever believed possible. Even the reality of the “great leap forward” in culture, dated to around 50,000 years, has come into doubt in recent years, and apart from culture, the possibility of true speech has been pushed earlier and earlier. We now know of extensive interbreeding between H. sapiens and Neanderthals and Denisovans. We also know that the worldwide coming and going of cultures reaches back pretty well as far as we can discern from the artifacts and fossils in the ground: even the fairly recent “Out of Africa” hypothesis seems to require revision on a regular basis.

In such an expanding view of the human past, basing a primordial couple on discernible attributes becomes very difficult, especially if conventional evolutionary gradualism is accepted. Genealogical science allows any such universal ancestors as Adam and Eve plenty of time to become universal ancestors, but says nothing about what distinguishes them from… all the other hominins outside the garden. Proponents of ancient Adam are left with exactly the same problems they have with a Neolithic or Chalcolithic Adam and Eve, except that they can make the problems disappear in the unknowns of deep time. They also need to explain why the problem of human sin they attribute to such deep roots was left unaddressed by God for so many tens of thousands of years until historical times, in the person of Abraham.

What are the problems that leads people to reject a recent Adam living alongside others, given that science certainly allows it, and Scripture, in my view, supports it too (as I discuss in The Generations of Heaven and Earth)? My understanding of their objections, broadly, is this: if there were people apart from Adam and Eve’s line who were rational and cultured, then what makes the latter special? Why should not outsiders too bear the “image of God” of Genesis 1 as much as Adam? And surely they should not be denied such benefits as fellowship with God and eternal life, if God is just?

I think part of the problem is the residuum of mediaeval Catholic Thomistic thought on what constitutes “humanity.” I am very sympathetic to Aquinas’s Aristotelian idea of the hylemorphic nature of the human soul, but Aquinas defined humanness, in contradistinction to other animals, as “animal possessing a rational soul.” Furthermore, in order to comply with Catholic dogma on the immortality of the soul, he said that since the intellect is immaterial, it must also be imperishable. On that reasoning, any rational animal is a human being with eternal life, and becomes a theological problem if not included “in Adam.”

But as ever, our theological touchstone should always be Scripture, with philosophy only in second place as its servant. The Bible does not define humanity by its rationality or by any other specific attribute. Furthermore the totality of Scripture, including Genesis 2, casts doubt on the intrinsic immortality of the soul, unless in the most shadowy of states in Sheol. Adam and Eve only gain access to immortality through the tree of life, and once excluded from the garden, they become liable to death. It is only because God himself actively raises the dead to life, at the return of Christ, the righteous to reward and the wicked to judgment, that the dead cease to be dead.

Nothing is said in the Eden narrative about Adam and the image of God. If, as I have suggested in my book, Genesis 2 follows sequentially from Genesis 1, which is in literary terms the setting for the drama, then the race of “men” which we may take as those “outside the garden” were created “in the image of God.” Adam and Eve share in this as true people, but are not unique in that respect. So why should it be a problem for humans to be in the image of God back to deep time? We need to consider the nature of that image, and how Adam and Eve differ.

There is an increasing, and I think correct, tendency to view the “image of God,” in a text with clear temple imagery, in terms of representation (like the image of a king of deity), rather than of “similarity,” though the two should not be completely divorced.

In Genesis 1, adam is one of the creatures of the animal creation, but made uniquely in God’s image. If I were an oil painter specialising in landscapes and animal studies, no doubt my character would be reflected in all my work. A self portrait, though, would represent me in a unique way. It might be a physical likeness (though less so were I a Cubist like Picasso, for example), but it would certainly be intended to say something about me directly. Yet it would still only be an oil painting, like all my other work. A TV documentary about me would perhaps reveal more about my appearance, my voice and my activities. But the painting would not thereby cease to be a true image of me – just the limit of what the medium can portray.

In the context of his creatureliness, rather than his sinfulness, Paul in 1 Corinthians 15 describes Adam as a “natural” man “of the earth,” and the Christian, “of heaven,” as a “spiritual” man. I take it that, had Adam not sinned, the latter would have become true of him as well, eventually. Somebody recently pointed me to a great quote from C. S. Lewis in Mere Christianity:

God became a man to turn creatures into sons.

I therefore see no problem with the idea of “scientific humans” (those outside the garden as far back as you wish to trace them) being (mere) creatures, though created in the image of God, especially when that creation is viewed christologically: “in the image of the Image” to use Philip Edgcumbe-Hughes’s phrase. Genesis 1 describes that entirely in terms of ruling and subduing the earth, and perhaps in the complementarity and mutuality of the sexes too. We may suppose that humanity’s creaturely endowments included whatever was suitable for that purpose, including rationality, culture, and even the ability to recognise their debt to their Creator. If we see signs of all this in the remains, it is no surprise.

But Adam was called to be more than merely an earthly creature. There is nothing creaturely about dwelling in intimate relationship with God, or being the recipient of a covenant of obedience with him (creating thereby the possibility of sin), or ruling even the angelic realm (as Psalm 8, interpreted by Hebrews 2 and 1 Cor 6:3, intimate), or living eternally in his presence, or receiving his wisdom, “the knowledge of good and evil,” albeit in the event they gained it illicitly. Yet that was what was offered to Adam and Eve, and lost by them for their descendants, creating what we now call, ruefully, “the human condition.” All that is supernatural.

But why were these things not made available to the people outside the garden, both before Adam and after, prior to his becoming a universal ancestor of us all? Well, who fully understands the distinguishing grace of God? Why am I not a billionaire or a President, and why is my neighbour poorer than me? But as far as the Bible is concerned, God’s grace is always selective. During the whole Old Testament period, from Abraham to John the Baptist, covenant relationship with God was limited to Israel and a few proselytes: even many of Abraham’s descendants were excluded. And under the New Covenant, “he who has the Son has life. He who does not have the Son of God does not have life”: and yet even after 2,000 years much of the world has still not heard the gospel.

And so it is that many Christians have speculated (and it can be no more than that) that people are judged only on what they have heard, and that similarly the Old Testament pagans will be judged on their lights, although accounted sinners as children of Adam. Recently, writers like John R. Schneider and Robert J. Russell have even speculated that the work of Christ will bring eternal life to every sentient creature that has ever lived, in compensation for their suffering . And so one could by all means, if one had a mind to, imagine God’s grace of eternal life being extended, somehow, to every palaeolithic human who ever lived, and even to the Australopithecines, if you like. But your speculation would have no actual support from Scripture, any more than does the idea of judgement being conditional on having heard the gospel and actively rejected it.

But for me, just as there seems no injustice in God judging people by their inbuilt (?Adamic) consciousness of sin, as described in Romans 2, there also would appear to be no injustice in his giving a purely creaturely, mortal, existence to our ancient forbears before Adam. If, as seems entirely plausible, those who unlike Adam had never been offered eternal life didn’t even consider it, and those whose natural religion was the highest that the earthly nature can express whilst not being a son, then where is the problem? To be the pinnacle of the natural creation is a considerable privilege in itself.

Admittedly, to be a son bound for paradise is a far greater privilege: “See how great a love the Father has bestowed on us, that we would be called children of God; and such we are” (1 Jn 3:1). But those of us who are Christians know that we are only such by the undeserved grace of God, not because he owes it to creatures to adopt them as sons. If God’s freedom in such matters were not the case, then the Neanderthal would have a claim on God for not being H. sapiens, H. erectus for not being a Neanderthal, and so on back to the sponge that begrudges the trilobites their mobility.

“To be yourself is beautiful;
To be something else is strange.” (Daltry/Pumer, The Magic Zoo)

About Jon Garvey

Training in medicine (which was my career), social psychology and theology. Interests in most things, but especially the science-faith interface. The rest of my time, though, is spent writing, playing and recording music.
This entry was posted in Adam, Creation, Genealogical Adam, Science, Theology. Bookmark the permalink.

7 Responses to Considering an ancient Adam

  1. Hanan says:

    “But those of us who are Christians know that we are only such by the undeserved grace of God, not because he owes it to creatures to adopt them as sons. If God’s freedom in such matters were not the case, then the Neanderthal would have a claim on God for not being H. sapiens, H. erectus for not being a Neanderthal, and so on back to the sponge that begrudges the trilobites their mobility.”

    This is a question I constantly think about and the question of whether God owes something. We aren’t earthworms or algae. Believing humans (and I mean from all religions) have insisted there is something unique to being a human. ID articles always talk about how humans are unique in their ability to think of their existential issues and everything else that make us completely different from other animals. Think of the concept of “hope”. This is something all humanity share and no animals do. Imagine how much suffering has fallen on humanity both by our hand and by the hand of “God” and the only thing that helped people was the hope that there would be some semblance of justice or new life after. My point is, I feel – given the TYPE of creature humans are – that God DOES owe us something. Or else all these gifts of traits he gave ALL humans whether they believed in Him or not was an unfair waste. That hope God gave them, was no hope at all.

    • Jon Garvey says:

      Hi Hanan

      In general, the “ultimate” question is whether God provides the ends towards which he directs the natures of his creatures. And that is a question one can only really answer by faith, since we have no real idea of those ends and to what extent, or not, he meets them. One can only say, “My God is the kind of God who would not create a creaturely need without its fulfillment.” If one requires further that all those fulfillments be manifest to oneself, one is desiring to be God.

      Mediaeval philosophers went further in suggesting that God “owed” existence to every species he was capable of creating on the principle of plenitude, but nobody believes that now, suggesting that much of our human reasoning on such matters is purely cultural.

      In the present context (Adam and other hypothetical hominins) we only actually know, in detail, the kind of creatures Adam’s chillun are, which is my point. If in some way Adam alone was suited to eternity, then the sponge or Neanderthal who, let’s suppose, was not so endowed has not been deprived in any way. In human terms, the fact that I might have an inner drive to control others does not mean God owes me my desire.

      Once we come to the case of Adam and his kind – our people – then we not only have people with a sense of eternity, but people with a capacity for accountability before God. That’s been endlessly discussed by the theologians and philosophers for good reason – we know what it’s like to be human, and we’ve sensed the appropriateness of divine judgement even long before Christianity: remember Tityus, Tantalus, Sisyphus, and Ixion in Homer.

      • Hanan says:

        There is still something I think is being left out. This isn’t so much about neanderthals, but about all humanity that God has created and all of them are created to be his imagers. It’s about that innate quality we all have that our existence is not meaningless in the grand scheme of things. Like I said, how much of humanity has suffered cruelty only to at least hope there is something else waiting for them. In the end, what is the difference to the myriad of humanity if there is a a god or there isn’t, if their good works were not worth something more than what it is meant on earth. That God ultimately can have a relationship with each one no matter what and that soul is worth something in the end to God.

        • Jon Garvey says:


          Big question, of course, but that’s one that’s been grappled with down history and in hell-holes around the world today. Does God know his job with regard to justice, or does he not?

          In other words, people outside the Garden of Eden raise no new problems, and possibly fewer, given that the children of Adam have not only gained a higher view of themselves (including, perhaps, hopeful expectations), but a peculiar sinful cruelty that may well have been absent from our distant forebears.

          • Hanan says:

            What I fear is that we may misunderstanding his justice.

            After all, had man stayed in the garden, what would the rest of man outside of the garden (that are also created in the image of God) been for? Background creations? Or maybe taking the Adam=Israel metaphor further, it was in order for Eden to be a “light to the nations”. But that still does not respond to everything. If mankind was put on earth against his will, given a particular “introspective soul” against his will, and told to spread all over, well the natural consequence of culture of different faiths are all in likelihood. In Genesis when God sets his covenant with Abraham, he doesn’t say the Amorite lacked proper faith, but lacked a certain moral character.

            In other words, the Eskimo, the Aboriginee or Incan are all created in the image of God an are where they are against their will but yet still possess a quality that any children of Adam were born with.

            • Jon Garvey says:


              You can’t be created against your will, by the nature of things, and there’s nothing in the Bible or history to suggest man is here against his will, apart from the sinful (and minority) suicidal impulse which, one way or another, arises from the Fall.

              To be an Eskimo, Aborigine or Inca involves, I’m sure, the same sense of belonging to a people and place that being American does (probably more) – the fact that sin makes some situations intolerable does not arise from place or race, but from human evil.

              Crucial to understanding Eden is that it was never an end in itself, but the beginning of the transformation of the cosmos. Nevertheless, the idea of “background creations” (much used by Creationists to ask what use dinosaurs were without man) ignores the fact that all that is created has its own, unique, “good.” It is, of course, up to God to decide what that “good” should be when he creates a cactus rather than a coyote, but it is not the “Adamic good” of being vice-regent of creation with God.

              The idea that a radiation of “Edenic life” would lead to a fragmented religion doesn’t take into account the nature of that life as intimacy with the true God, and its disruption through the breaking of the Covenant.

  2. Hanan says:

    But I do understand your point at how far can God “owe” his creatures. Does the earliest sponge also deserve a place by God’s side? Seems like in this instance it is a lot easier to be an atheist.

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