Were Adam and Eve Biologically Immortal?

There are few areas within the field of faith and science studies that are more controversial, and more important, than the study of Adam and Eve. Some of the debates, and the positions argued for or against, are truly framework shifting. Major theological implications and positions flow from one’s views on Adam and Eve. Most notably on whether or not they are considered historical people or if they are treated as merely figurative archetypes. 

Other controversies, while important, are not on the same level as the historicity debate. Were Adam and Eve created from physical dust and a literal rib? Could they have come from a long line of humanlike beings who were “immature” until God breathed into them, thereby stamping his image upon them? Were there other image bearing humans created alongside Adam and Eve whom the text does not discuss but perhaps implies? These questions are very important, but it should be noted that theologians as popular as J.I.Packer1, C.S. Lewis, and John Stott have not only entertained them, but at times embraced them. For instance, one can see the balanced approach of Stott as he recognizes the importance of historicity, while remaining open to other factors as he states:

It seems perfectly possible to reconcile historicity of Adam with at least some (theistic) evolutionary theory. Many biblical Christians in fact do so, believing them to be not entirely incompatible. To assert the historicity of an original pair who sinned through disobedience is one thing; it is quite another to deny all evolution and assert the separate and special creation of everything, including both subhuman creatures and Adam’s body. The suggestion (for it is no more than this) does not seem to me to be against Scripture and therefore its possible that when God made man in His own image, what He did was to stamp His own likeness on one of many “hominids” which appear to have been living at the time.2

This highlights the fact that it must be recognized that even with our opening first tier controversy, we must be extremely careful to actually understand what a person is claiming, rather than forcing their views into an unnecessary false dichotomy. This so easily leads to a misrepresentation of that individual’s views by doing no justice to what they actually believe, as has recently been done to William Lane Craig as it relates to this exact issue.3 

So when an individual like Craig, or myself, states that they believe that Adam and Eve were true historical people, yet that they are figuratively (i.e. non-literally, but rather literarily4) being represented in Scripture, we must honor what that person is affirming, even if those who oppose such a view believe that these two ideas cannot be wed.5 Regardless of its merits, such an interpretation has affirmed both the figurative use of language and imagery surrounding the persons of Adam and Eve, while also affirming their historicity. Even if one disagrees with the interpretation, they must still recognize the distinctions and deal with the actual belief that is held. Such attention to nuance, on all matters of faith and science, would go a long way in building more bridges of unity and tearing down misplaced walls of division.

Now, all of this bring us to a much simpler area of Adam and Eve studies, areas in which there is a just a general, and rather obvious, misperception of what the Christian Scriptures actually teach about them. The misperception is in the idea that Adam and Eve were created biologically immortal. While it is understandable how and why someone could have this idea, it is demonstrably false. This misperception is very similar to the belief that the pre-fallen world was entirely Edenic. Such a belief arises quickly within the imagination, but dissipates like vapor once what the text is actually describing is examined. 

Once that is done, it becomes obvious that Eden is a localized spot that stands in contrast to the wider world. Eden is tame, as the rest of the world waits wild. It is the very purpose of Adam and Eve to spread Eden to the rest of the earth. And as simple as that, we see our misperception of a “perfect” pre-fallen world disappear, even while it remains very good and filled with perfect purpose.

Returning to the immortality of our first couple, and the actual depiction of them in the text, we all know that immortality is present in the text. That is, that Adam and Eve were meant to live on without death. But also held clearly in view is that theirs is not a biologically necessary immortality, but rather an environmentally dependent immortality. At first hearing this, there is the temptation to push against it. Didn’t the curse that God placed upon them turn them from an immortal state of being to a mortal one? 

In one way, yes, that is very true. Nevertheless, we must ask, how did that change in immortality take place? Was their humanity radically altered at a biological, or even ontological, level that then resulted in them being susceptible to death? Often, that is the belief.6 

But that is not what Scripture says. Rather than their humanity being altered, it is actually their location which is changed. What they are physically as it relates to death is not significantly changed (let me emphasis we are speaking strictly at the biological level), but where they are, or better yet, where they are not, is where the major shift actually occurs. When thinking about what it is that actually leads to their death, we must see that it is the fact that they no longer have access to the Tree of Life. This has the crystal clear implication that it was not their nature, but the nature of the tree that was keeping them from death. Therefore, we have every reason to believe that the biology of pre-fallen Adam and Eve was not inherently immortal, though capable of it.

For those who have previously held the wrong view here, as I had at one time, it is humbling how something so clear can be so widely misunderstood. Yet, we can be even further humbled when we recognize that what we were believing was closer to Gnosticism than orthodox Christianity.7 It is the Gnostic who looks on the physical created being of humanity with disgust. It is the Gnostic who views the body as a cage and clings to any interpretation or belief that reaffirms this. It is the Christian who looks upon their fleshly body, and while recognizing the horror of its sinful nature and the curse of physical death, cannot help but celebrate that down to the last rib such a body is fearfully and wonderfully made. It is the Christian who knows their Savior took on our very own humanity, in all of its biological complexity, richness, and dependency. We have no need for misperceptions about what we are supposed to be, they merely distract from who it is, and from what it is, that Christ is making us to be. 

Let us be humbled by the majesty and wonder of our humanity and all of its biological and created goodness. Let us also be humbled by the limitations of our humanity, and particularly our failings and misinterpretations this side of Eden. Such a humbled state can be useful in helping one approach more important matters with, at the very least, a heart angled to listening and learning rather than mischaracterizing or recklessly defending. 

Notes:

  1. Lewis is perhaps most known for this but Packer’s views are fleshed out a bit, or at least the implications and justifications of his views are, in his very insightful article on hermeneutics and Genesis. J.I Packer, “Hermeneutics and Genesis 1-11,” Southwestern Journal of Theology 44.1 (2001), https://preachingsource.com/journal/hermeneutics-and-genesis-1-11/  
  2. John Stott, The Church of England Newspaper, June 17, 1968, as quoted by N.M. de S. Cameron, Evolution and the Authority of the Bible (Exeter: Paternoster, 1983), 63; sourced from: Gavin Ortlund, Retrieving Augustine’s Doctrine of Creation: Ancient Wisdom for Current Controversy, (Downers Grove, IL: IVP Academic, 2020), 228
  3. For an excellent discussion as to why this happened and why it is a very obvious error as it relates to Craig’s actual view see: Gavin Ortlund, “On Owen Strachan, William Lane Craig, and the Historical Adam,” Youtube, Truth Unites, September 23, 2021, https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=OD6gjdiIomA 
  4. This “literary reading” in no way disrespects the authority of Scripture, as Tim Keller writes: “The way to respect the authority of the Biblical writers is to take them as they want to be taken. Sometimes they want to be taken literally, sometimes they don’t. We must listen to them, not impose our thinking and agenda on them. The way to take the Biblical authors seriously is to ask ‘how does this author want to be understood?’” Tim Keller, “Creation, Evolution, and Christian Laypeople”, BioLogos, February 23, 2012, https://biologos.org/articles/creation-evolution-and-christian-laypeople
  5. For an excellent treatment and defense of both my and Craig’s position for both nonliteral, but historical persons see: C. John Collins, Reading Genesis Well: Navigating History, Poetry, Science, and Truth in Genesis 1-11, (Grand Rapids, MI: Zondervan, 2018)
  6. The question of their, and our, biology as it relates to pain is an entirely different matter, though at minimum it should be remembered that the focus on increased pain was related directly to child birth. Further, pain is not inherently bad. In fact, at least in the present, pain’s purpose can be a very good thing, keeping us from injury and deterring risky behavior.
  7. This tendency toward more Gnostic like beliefs is an unfortunate trend within Creation studies, where sometimes the “conservative” reasoning is at odds with the historical orthodox mentality. See Kenneth Keathley and Mark Rooker’s reference to this trend in their critique of the “Appearance of Age Argument” being “uncomfortably gnostic.” Kenneth D. Keathley and Mark F. Rooker, 40 Questions About Creation and Evolution (Grand Rapids, MI: Kregel, 2014), 222-24

Photo by Fey Marin on Unsplash

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