“In Adam’s fall, we sinned all.” So begins the New England Primer, which taught generations of early Americans to read. In introducing our forefathers to the letter A, the primer was also administering a generous dose of biblical theology. As Paul puts it crisply in 1 Corinthians 15:22, “For as in Adam all die, so also in Christ shall all be made alive.” Through Adam, sin and death entered into the world. By Christ, sin and death were conquered. Adam forfeited life by his disobedience. Christ achieved life by His obedience. These simple, basic truths, Paul tells the Corinthians, are the very structure and content of the gospel.
In the modern world, skeptics have long questioned or denied the historicity of Adam. Neo-orthodox theologians added their voices to this chorus in the last century. More recently, and under the pressure of evolutionary theory, some prominent evangelical voices have as well. One prominent evangelical Old Testament scholar has argued that “it is not necessary that Adam be a historical individual for [Genesis 1–2] to be without error in what it intends to teach.” Another well-known evangelical Old Testament scholar denies that “a literal Adam [was] the first man and cause of sin and death.” Even so, he continues, we may retain “three core elements of the gospel,” namely, “the universal and self-evident problem of death; the universal and self-evident problem of sin; the historical event of the death and resurrection of Christ.”
It may help to pause and review what the issues in this particular debate are and what they are not. The issues do not concern the age of the earth and of the universe. Neither do they concern how we are to understand the days of Genesis 1. Reformed evangelicals have disagreed on these issues for generations, all the while affirming their common belief that Adam was a historical person.
We may frame the issue in the form of two related questions. First, does the Bible require us to believe that Adam was a historical person? Second, would anything be lost in the gospel if we were to deny Adam’s historicity?
In answer to the first question, yes, the Bible requires us to believe that Adam was a historical person. Some of the clearest testimony about Adam comes from the New Testament. When explaining Genesis 2, Jesus clearly speaks of the first man and the first woman in historical terms, and of the institution of marriage in historical terms (Matt. 19:4–6). The Apostle Paul, in referring to Genesis 2, speaks of Adam and Eve in terms equally historical (1 Tim. 2:12–14).
In 1 Corinthians 15 and Romans 5, Paul places Adam and Jesus in parallel relationship. Paul calls Jesus the “Second Adam”—there is none between Adam and Jesus (1 Cor. 15:47). He also calls Jesus the “Last Adam”—there is none after Jesus (v. 45).
This relationship requires Adam to be a historical person. Paul compares Adam and Christ in terms of what each man did. Paul speaks of Adam’s one trespass in eating the forbidden fruit, and of Christ’s obedience unto death and resurrection unto life. For the comparison to hold, Adam’s actions must be as fully historical as Christ’s actions are historical, and Adam must be as historical a person as Christ was and remains.
So then, the Bible requires us to believe that Adam was a historical person. Now, taking up our second question, what are we to make of the argument that nothing in the gospel would be lost if we were to deny Adam’s historicity? May we uphold universal sin and death while discounting the way in which the Scripture says sin and death entered the world? The answer is no. The Bible does not give us that option. It clearly teaches that sin entered the world through the one action of one historical man, Adam (Rom. 5:12). If we reject the Bible’s account of a historical point of entry for sin into human existence, then, as Richard Gaffin has rightly observed, sin is no longer a matter of “human fallenness.” It is a matter of “human givenness.” It is just the way that human beings are.
This understanding of our plight upends the gospel. Absent a historical fall, the Bible’s account of redemption through the Second and Last Adam, Jesus Christ, makes no sense at all. How can it at all be meaningful to say with the Bible that God, in His sovereign and infinite mercy, has recovered and restored what was lost in the fall? To deny the historicity of Adam is no trivial matter. It has radical implications for the way in which we look at human nature, evil, and redemption.
The second lesson of the New England Primer, teaching the letter B, is “Thy life to mend / this Book [the Bible] attend.” Having clarified our human problem in biblical terms with its lesson on the letter A, the primer then articulates the solution in equally biblical terms with its lesson on the letter B. Wise counsel indeed. And what God has joined together, let no man put asunder.