Theological implications of evolutionary creationism

June 17, 2020

Theological implications of evolutionary creationism

Chris Mulherin

The evolutionary creationist[1] is committed to both evolution and creation. So, they are rightly called a creationist because they affirm that God is the ultimate first cause of all that science investigates. They take the Bible as the word of God seriously and they recognise that Genesis is indeed about the creation, which is a historical event (the first!) when God brings space and time and all there is into existence. And the evolutionary creationist is also committed to science; in particular they accept the broad picture of biological evolution.

Affirming the sorts of assumptions I outlined in my previous article, the evolutionary creationist weighs up both how to interpret God’s revelation in Scripture and what we learn of God’s creation through science, and they seek to reduce the tensions that arise.

Before continuing, a comment on ‘evolution’—a loaded and misused word. I use the word to describe the broad picture of changes in biological populations over generations due to genetic variation and natural selection. These changes result in new species including Homo sapiens. However, ‘evolution’ does not deal with how life began, about which science knows little. Nor does ‘evolution’ imply any worldview such as naturalism, because the scientific theory of evolution is agnostic about the existence of God or of any reality beyond the ‘natural’.

Adam and Eve, sin and death
The history of interpretations makes clear that, in the absence of scientific evidence, the most obvious way to understand the biblical depiction of Adam and Eve is as de novo sole progenitors[2] of all humans. That is to say, they were created ‘anew’ (Adam out of the dust and Eve from his rib, without ancestors), and they were the only historical couple from whom all human beings are descended. However, this view is not a biological or genetic possibility: Homo sapiens go back some 200,000 years and hominins millions of years further.

So, the key question for the Christian who takes the scientific consensus seriously is this: Does evolutionary science, which is overwhelmingly supported by the findings of genetics this century, cast a reasonable and theologically possible doubt on the way Christians have traditionally understood Adam and Eve? In other words, is it possible, while being faithful to Scripture, to revise the traditional understanding of Adam and Eve, which sees them as de novo sole progenitors of every human being?

To answer this question it is not necessary to prove that the Bible teaches that Adam and Eve were not de novo sole progenitors of all human beings, or to identify the ‘correct’ view. What does have to be shown is that there is theological and biblical room for the possibility of a non-traditional interpretation consistent with the science.

There are two main stumbling blocks for non-traditional views. One is the question of ‘the historical Adam’ (and Eve): What is the relationship between the biblical Adam and a historical Adam? Since Francis Collins and his team mapped the human genome in 2013, this is a much-debated topic amongst Christians. The other question is that of our understanding of the Fall and the place of death in the history of life on earth.

On the one hand, when taking only Genesis into account, the question of the historicity of Adam and Eve (Did they exist? Were they the first humans?), is like the question of the age of the earth; it turns on what we think about the literary nature of the early chapters of Genesis. The evolutionary creationist does not expect those chapters to reveal much, if any, ‘scientific’ truth—it was written to convey theological truth, not science—and so is probably not committed to a historical Adam solely on the grounds of the Genesis text.

On the other hand, and unlike the question of the age of the earth, Eve, Adam, and the Fall are significant to Christian theology. For example, Paul uses Adam as a representative man in contrast to Jesus Christ: just as Adam brought sin and death into the world, Christ brings justification and redemption (Romans 5:12-21). Paul also uses Genesis in his discussion of resurrection in 1 Corinthians 15 and in the notoriously difficult passage about head coverings and gender roles in 1 Corinthians 11. Is it possible that Paul was mistaken, or that he was not ‘teaching’ that Adam was a historical figure?

With respect to death and ‘the Fall’, the most popular traditional view is that death (physical and spiritual) came into the world through the rebellion of the first humans and that, as a result, all humans are born into a state of sin. Romans 5:12, says ‘sin came into the world through one man, and death came through sin, and so death spread to all because all have sinned’ (see also 1 Corinthians 15:21–22). However, according to science, death has been part of the history of life since the beginning and long before the first Homo sapiens appeared on the scene relatively recently.

So, what options are open to the evolutionary creationist?

Possible solutions to the historical Adam problem
Alternative scenarios proposed by evolutionary creationists are of two sorts: some include a historical Adam and Eve, while others suggest that the role Adam plays in the New Testament is a theological one that is not tied to any specific humans in history. However, accepting the scientific consensus means that any evolutionary creation (EC) scenario must include a wider population (‘people outside the garden’) in which Adam and Eve found themselves; historical Adam and Eve created de novo as the first and only Homo sapiens is not scientifically possible.

Historical Adam scenarios
A number of EC scenarios affirm a historical Adam. One possibility is that God chose a particular stone-age African couple (perhaps around 200,000 years ago) and entered into relationship with them.[3] This couple was part of a larger group of Homo sapiens and the Genesis narrative recasts this history in the cultural forms of the Ancient Near East of a few thousand years ago. Perhaps this couple were infused with ‘the image of God’ and immediately became the first ‘humans’ (in the moral and theological sense).[4] Or perhaps the process of becoming human (theologically speaking) was gradual: as Homo sapiens matured there was a development of the image of God and along with that also came the Fall as a growing and conscious rejection of God’s call on their lives.[5] A further ‘historical Adam’ view sees God entering into a special relationship with a Neolithic farmer in the Ancient Near East who became the federal head or spiritual representative of all human beings.[6]

Playing into the above scenarios is an important discussion in recent years that draws the distinction between genealogy and genetics. While genetics makes it clear that Homo sapiens arose from a larger population, not a single couple, it is hypothetically possible that a single couple living as recently as 6000 years ago were the genealogical ancestors of all humans alive today.[7] Due to the dilution of genetic material every generation—we receive half of our genes from each parent, a quarter from each grandparent etc.—it is possible that we have received no genetic material from someone who is, nevertheless, a genealogical ancestor. This ‘genealogical Adam’ proposal allows for the possibility of a Neolithic Adam and Eve being genealogical progenitors of all humans alive today; however, because there is not a genetic link, it would not allow for the passing on of original sin[8] through a biological mechanism. This view of one couple amongst the wider population of ‘people outside the garden’ may well have been the understanding of the Bible’s authors and hinted at in the Genesis account (which, for example, makes no attempt to tell us where Cain’s wife came from).

Non-historical Adam scenarios
Some evolutionary creationists argue that historical Adam is not essential to theological Adam, and there is no absolute biblical necessity to hold onto a historical Adam. C. S. Lewis, Alister McGrath, and Denis Lamoureux[9] propose such views. For them, Genesis uses the Adam and Eve story to teach theological truth about the creator God and humanity, made in God’s image yet fallen.

For Lamoureux, Paul was in fact mistaken; he was a man of his time and undoubtedly believed many things that today we would say were wrong. For example, he apparently believed in a three-tiered universe (Philippians 2:10-11). What matters is not whether Paul believed that Adam was a historical figure, but whether Adam’s historicity is essential to Pauline theology. [10]

But do we need to assume Paul was mistaken? In commenting on Romans 5:12, James Dunn says ‘an act in mythic history can be paralleled by an act in living history without the point of the comparison being lost’.[11] What is important is that the story was able to be used (in this case by Paul) because it was well known. Similarly, in his commentary on Romans, C. K. Barrett says, ‘It need not be said that Paul, a first-century Jew, accepted Gen. i–iii as a straightforward narrative of events that really happened.’ And, with respect to the passing on of original sin and death, ‘Paul does not add here that they sin or that they die, because they are physically descended from Adam. Nowhere, even in v.19, does Paul teach the direct seminal identity between Adam and his descendants.’[12]

For many Christians, this idea that there may not be a historical Adam is disconcerting. One way to explain how Paul could use the Genesis creation narratives in a way that appears to take them as historically true is to draw a parallel with a parable such as that of the Prodigal Son.

The story of the Prodigal Son is a narrative conveying theological content. Although Jesus begins with ‘There was a man who had two sons’ (Luke 15:11), the Christian church has never found it necessary to take the narrative as historically true. We do not take Jesus’ words at face value (‘There was a man …’) because we understand that he was telling a story to teach profound theological truth. So too, one possible way of understanding biblical references to Adam and Eve is to assume that the historicity of Adam is neither here nor there for the point that the author or speaker was making. And, if this were the case, then we can have no idea if Jesus or Paul were making a comment about the historicity of Adam.

Making sense of death and the results of the Fall
Let me now briefly address the question of physical death, and indeed suffering, of both animals and humans. If death has been part of the story of life on earth since it began, then EC must affirm that the death resulting from the Fall was not biological death. Adam and Eve did not physically die ‘on the day’ (Genesis 2:17) that they ate the forbidden fruit, but they did fall out of relationship with God and were cast out of the garden. The wages of sin is the spiritual reality of alienation from God (both before and after physical death).

What’s more, the Old Testament seems to have no trouble with the normal cycle of life and death. In Denis Alexander’s words, ‘nowhere in the Old Testament is there the slightest suggestion that the physical death of either animals or humans, after a reasonable span of years, is anything other than the normal pattern ordained by God for this earth’.[13] And, while the New Testament does see physical death as having no place in the future kingdom of God, the common description of death is ‘falling asleep’. As well, the New Testament uses life and death language specifically to describe being in or out of relationship with God (e.g., Ephesians 2:1–5; Colossians 2:13).

The view that physical death (and suffering) existed for Homo sapiens as well as the rest of God’s creatures before the first humans sinned is challenging to both the traditional view and to our sensibilities about the evils of death and suffering (although, Thomas Aquinas, 800 years ago, thought the original creation included animal death).[14] Again, we are forced to ask if our received understandings are necessarily demanded by the Scriptures. Perhaps ‘original (physical) death’, in the manner of death when described as ‘sleep’ in the New Testament, was not a result of sin, and perhaps physical immortality was only going to be a possibility for Adam and Eve through eating of the tree of life. If so, we know how that went for them: their sin resulted in being banished and prevented from eating of that tree, ‘lest he … live forever’ (Genesis 3:22). Only in the new creation will the fruit of that tree once again offer entry into the eternal city (Revelation 2:7; 22:2,14,19).

With respect to creation being ‘subject to frustration’, evocatively described in the difficult passage in Romans 8:18–27, it is very hard to determine what the physical effects specifically due to human sin are. Yes, creation is in bondage to decay and awaits liberation. However, while Paul might seem to be thinking of the results of Adam and Eve’s rebellion, other interpretations are possible.[15] Richard Middleton highlights that ‘while life outside the garden is clearly difficult (the human–earth relationship has been somehow disrupted) the text does not say that “nature” was changed because of the fall.’[16]

The challenge for the evolutionary creationist who takes the science seriously it to rethink some traditional understandings and to work out if those understandings are essential to a high view of Scripture. As a result, and recognising with humility that ‘we see in a mirror dimly’ (1 Corinthians 13:12), the evolutionary creationist claims that there are ways of reading Scripture faithfully that allow us to affirm mainstream science. No, there are no easy solutions, and yes, many questions remain for investigation. However, with all Christians, the evolutionary creationist knows where the answers to all our questions lie: in God we trust and to him we give thanks for the glorious plan of creation and redemption that he has revealed in Jesus Christ. Amen!

To read the next article in our Origins edition, click here
To see all articles in this edition, click here

[1] Note that there are many views among evolutionary creationists, and I do not pretend to speak for all.

[2] ‘Progenitor’ is an ambiguous term because it could refer to genetic inheritance or to genealogical descendants (see below).

[3] See, for example, Henri Blocher, Original Sin: Illuminating the Riddle (InterVarsity Press, 2000)  and Henri Blocher, In the Beginning: The Opening Chapters of Genesis (InterVarsity Press, 1984).

[4] Old Testament scholar Richard Middleton argues that the imago Dei consists in a calling on humanity to image God rather than in characteristics of human beings that make them distinct to other animals. Richard Middleton, The Liberating Image: The Imago Dei in Genesis 1 (Brazos, 2005).

[5] Although he does not accept even a very early historical Adam, Denis Lamoureux captures this gradualist position: ‘Humans evolved from pre-human ancestors, and over a period of time the Image of God and human sin were gradually and mysteriously manifested.’ Denis Lamoureux, ‘Evolutionary Creation: Moving Beyond the Evolution Versus Creation Debate’. Christian Higher Education Vol.9(1) 2009, p28.

[6] For example, see Denis Alexander, Creation or Evolution: Do We Have to Choose? (Monarch Books, 2008), pp236–239.

[7] S. Joshua Swamidass, The Genealogical Adam and Eve: The Surprising Science of Universal Ancestry (InterVarsity Press, 2019). A shorter exposition is found in this online article, ‘The Overlooked Science of Genealogical Ancestry’ However, this possibility is subject to the scientifically implausible assumption that there was no geographical isolation (for example, in Tasmania), discussed by Swamidass (2019), pp71–74.

[8] The state of sin all humans are now in due to the sin of Adam.

[9] Matthew Barrett, Four Views on the Historical Adam (Zondervan, 2013). McGrath at Lewis’s works and thinking on such matters can be found in this survey essay: ‘Surprised by Jack: C.S. Lewis on Mere Christianity, the Bible, and Evolutionary Science’

[10] ‘Was Adam a Real Person?’

[11] James D. G. Dunn, Romans 1-8 Word Biblical Commentary 38a (Word, 1988), p289.

[12] C. K. Barrett, The Epistle to the Romans (BNTC)  (A. and C. Black, 1971), p111.

[13] D. Alexander, Op.cit., pp246–7.

[14] Aquinas, Summa Theologica, I, q. 93, art. 1, r. 2. (

[15] Jonathan Moo believes that Paul has in mind Isaiah 24–27, where the earth suffers due to God’s judgement on human sin. On this basis, Moo suggests that Paul ‘considers creation to be enslaved to the effects of ongoing human sin and divine judgment. This slavery itself can be considered the result of God’s decision to link the fate of the natural world and humankind through what Isa 24.5 calls an “eternal covenant”.’ Jonathan Moo, ‘Romans 8.19–22 and Isaiah's Cosmic Covenant’. New Testament Studies Vol.54(1), 2008.

[16] J. Richard Middleton, ‘Reading Genesis 3 Attentive to Human Evolution’. William T. Cavanaugh and James K. A. Smith (eds.), Evolution and the Fall (Eerdmans, 2017), p95.



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