“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).