Adam, Death and the Age of the Earth
by Paul Priest | 27 September 2019 |
I was born a third-generation Seventh-day Adventist. I grew up being taught the traditional Adventist creation paradigm, which is based to a large extent on Ellen White’s interpretation of Genesis. I taught this paradigm for 22 years in Adventist academies.
Today I’m an evolutionary creationist.
I’m an evolutionist because science has built a compelling case that the earth is old—about 4.6 billion years old. Paleontologists find a sequence of fossils providing compelling evidence of evolution. Analysis of the human genome has shown beyond any doubt that chimpanzees and humans share a common ancestor.
Yet I am also a creationist because I see order, function, and beauty in all of nature.
Proponents of the evolutionary creation paradigm are Bible believers and creationists, as is evident in the name. Scripture asserts that if a thing has ever existed, God created it (Jn.1:3; Col. 1:16). They see evolution and creation as the same thing: that is, evolution is God’s method of creation.Here I will address but a small aspect of the Adventist creation paradigm: specifically, the genealogy of Adam and its relation to the age of the earth, and Paul’s use of Adam’s sin in Romans 5 and 1 Corinthians 15 as the origin of sin and death.
Creation and Evolutionary Creation Paradigms Compared
Most proponents of the Adventist creation paradigm assume that the creation stories are literally true because they are inspired by the Holy Spirit. In their opinion the inspired Bible writers could not articulate a mistaken view because God is not a God of deception (Titus 1:2; Heb. 6:18). This is the rationale for a literal reading of Genesis. However, a literal reading requires one to ignore the differences between Genesis 1 and 2 and reject the scientific evidence for an old earth and evolution.
The evolutionary creation paradigm embraces both scripture and modern science. It is based on scientific evidence that is repeatable and interpretations that are testable. Furthermore, the evidence for an old earth and evolution comes from multiple lines of research fields such as physics, biology, geology, astronomy, paleontology, etc., which converge on the conclusion of evolution and an old earth. This convergence points to the reliability of these conclusions.
A Literal Reading of Genesis Is Not an Option
In today’s scientific world, one cannot read Genesis literally—that is, as an accurate description of physical or historical reality. Consider the following points:
- Reality as seen by the Bible writers is very different than today’s view. To them the earth appeared flat when in fact it is a sphere. They thought the sun revolved around the earth; it is really the earth that is turning. They thought the earth was the center of the solar system; it’s actually the sun.
- Genesis 1 and 2 are similar to ancient Mesopotamian myths: Genesis 1 to Enuma Elish and Genesis 2-8 to Atrahasis. The similarities suggest that the biblical stories cannot be historical because of their mythical roots.
- Genesis 1 and 2 are two different creation stories. Genesis 1 addresses God as Elohim and Genesis 2 addresses God as Yahweh.
- The stories have mutually exclusive elements. In Genesis 1 mankind was created, male and female together, while in Genesis 2 mankind is created in two separate creative acts—Adam first, then Eve.
- In Genesis 1, man was created on the 6th day, after the animals. In Genesis 2 he was created before the animals.
- In both creation accounts man was created separate from the animals—there is no common ancestor. However, the genome shows that chimps and humans share a common ancestor.
Genesis reflects an ancient understanding of the physical world. It is phenomenological in that it describes things as they appeared to an earthbound observer, and reflects the cultural views of ancient Israel and the surrounding nations. To read Genesis literally ignores the context in which they were written.
The Biblical Age of the Earth
Neither Genesis 1 or 2 gives an age for the earth. The young earth chronology is based largely on the genealogy of Adam in Genesis 5. But this chronology could date the age of the earth only if it is assumed that Adam and Eve were the first humans.
The Cain story contradicts this assumption. Cain was banished to Nod and took a wife. This implies that she was living in the land of Nod. Cain feared he would be killed, so there must have been people in Nod that he should fear. He also built a city, which implies a populace, not just his family (Gen 4:13-17). This suggests that Adam and Eve were not the first humans; there were others, at least in the land of Nod.
The genealogy of Adam does not date the earth, but only the time from Adam to the present.
Death Before Adam
Death began at creation. One reason for death before Adam is expressed in the second law of thermodynamics: entropy (disorder). Entropy always increases. Consequently, what is formed will eventually perish. Astrophysicist Arnold Benz asserts, “Decay is the counterpart of formation.” This is seen in the nova and supernova deaths of stars which have occurred long before there was ever an earth. He says, “There are no eternal objects in the universe.”
So death did not originate with the sin of Adam. It is the consequence of entropy.
Genesis 1 is a description of the creation of an ecosystem earth. The earth is covered with a variety of smaller ecosystems: forest, grassland, ponds, deserts, etc. All ecosystems consist of abiotics (air, soil, water, light energy), producers (mostly plants), consumers (chiefly animals) and decomposers. The consumers—animals—are herbivores and carnivores. The carnivores are necessary to control the herbivore population. The command given in Genesis 1:22 is for all living creatures to “be fruitful and multiply.” If the herbivores multiplied as instructed, at some point they would overpopulate their ecosystem, overgraze the vegetation, and cause an ecological disaster. The carnivores control the herbivore population and maintain a healthy balance. Then the decomposers return the dead to dust.
So death is necessary for the survival of the ecosystem.
Death is also necessary for speciation—the creation of new species. It is the physical changes in the abiotics of the ecosystem that lead to evolution. Nothing much happens in biological evolution until extinction claims the species before it.
Species extinction results from the disruption, degradation and destruction of the abiotics of the ecosystem. It is the stimulus for speciation, the formation of new species better adapted to the new abiotic conditions. As long as life includes heredity and reproduction, it is inevitable that living things will evolve.
Death, the ceasing of life functions, has existed from the beginning of life. It did not begin with Adam.
What Does the Bible Say About Adam?
The Adam and Eve story is not historical in the sense of their being the first parents, and the origin of sin and death. But it is in the Bible, so there is something for us to learn from it.
Adam is a Hebrew word meaning “human” and eve means “life.” But Adam can also be a proper name. According to John Walton, the difference is in the presence of a definite article: “Hebrew does not use a definite article on personal names.” When the definite article is present, adam is generic—it refers to humans as a group, a species. Walton asserts that generic man is referenced twenty-two times in Genesis 1 and 2. Adam in Genesis 2:7 is generic because it has the definite article: it refers to the formation of mankind as a species, not to Adam as an individual. In this sense it is parallel to Genesis 1:26.
The only time Adam is used as a personal name in the Old Testament is in the genealogical section of Genesis 5:3-5 and the genealogies of 1 Chronicles. However, the Genesis 2 story reads as if Adam is a person even though it retains the definite article. Here, Adam the person becomes a personification of mankind. He is in this sense an archetype, the embodiment of mankind. What is true of Adam is true of all mankind.
If this is true, then the statements made of Adam and Eve must be true of all mankind, not just of Adam, the man, and Eve, the woman. These statements must have a symbolic rather than a literal meaning. “Made of dust” shows we are all made of dust; it is a statement of our mortality. “Bone of my bone, flesh of my flesh” is a statement of the unity of man and wife in marriage. The loss of the clothes of light when Adam sinned represents the loss of countenance, and the guilt we experience as the result of sin. The fig leaves sewn to cover their nakedness are the excuses we make to cover our sins. The talking snake represents thought patterns that lead us into sin. That Adam sinned means that we have all sinned like Adam.
Although Genesis 2 presents adam with the definite article, adam (humanity) seems to morph to Adam the man in the Garden of Eden story. The writer seems to designate both adam the species and Adam the man in a purposeful way. Peter Enns suggests this signals Adam the man is a subset of adam of humanity. There is a humanity outside the garden (gentiles) but inside the garden there is only Adam, the man.
This would explain the anachronistic details in the Cain story.
The Adam Story Parallels Israel’s History
God created Adam and Eve, placed them in the garden, and said Don’t eat the fruit of the tree of knowledge, or else on that very day you will die (Gen. 2:17). They disobeyed and were immediately exiled from the garden. However, the Bible says Adam did not experience physical death until 900 years later.
This is significant. Israel was created at the exodus and brought to the land of Canaan “flowing with milk and honey.” They too were given a law at Mt. Sinai, but they continually disobeyed and were exiled from Canaan. Exile is a type of death. Israel’s dry bones (Ezek. 37) are a metaphor of Israel’s death at the exile. The exile of Adam and Eve was also a type of death. The Bible seems to be presenting two types of death: a physical death and an exilic death. Paul refers to physical death as sleep (1 Cor. 15:6, 18). The Tree of Life was an antidote to physical death.
The Adam story plays out Israel’s history in type. Adam is proto-Israel. Proto-Israel Adam is Paul’s Adam, while adam, the archetype, is the adam of all humanity. Both Adam and Israel had access to sacred space: Adam to the garden of Eden which was a temple, Israel to the tabernacle/temple. At their exile each lost access to that sacred space. They were separated from God, a type of death, which is worse than any physical death. That is the death described in Genesis 3, the separation of man from God. That is the death that Paul’s Adam gave to humanity.
It is also the death that Christ experienced on the cross. “My God, my God, why have you forsaken me?” (Matt. 27:46 NIV). We have been reconciled to God through the death of Christ (Rom. 5:11). In Romans 5 and 1 Cor. 15 Paul draws an analogy between Adam and Jesus. Just as Adam the first man brought death (separation from God) to all humanity by his disobedience, Jesus the second Adam, brought life by his obedience.
Consequently Paul can assert that “in Adam all die, so also in Christ all shall be made alive” (1 Cor.15:21).
- Gopalan, Kunchitapadam. Principles of Radiometric Dating. Cambridge U.K.: Cambridge University Press. ↑
- Prothero, Donald R. The Story of Life in 25 Fossils. New York: Columbia University Press. ↑
- Venema, Dennis and Scot McKnight. Adam and the Genome. Grand Rapids: Brazos Press. ↑
- Benz, Arnold. Astrophysics and Creation. New York: The Crossroad Publishing Company, 76-77. ↑
- Walton, John H.. The Lost World of Adam and Eve. Downers Grove: IVP Academic, 59. ↑
- Walton, 61. ↑
- Enns, Peter. The Evolution of Adam. Grand Rapids: BrazosPress, 66. ↑
Paul Priest earned an Ed.D. from Loma Linda University with emphasis in science education. He taught for 22 years in Adventist academies, and 22 years in public school.