Recently Dr. William Lane Craig has published a book, In Quest of the Historical Adam, in which he argues that Adam was historical and mythical. By that, he means that there really was a man named Adam but that the details in Genesis 2–3 about the origin of Adam and Eve and the nature of their fall in sin are symbolic myths.
Here I respond to some of this thinking about Adam as expressed in an interview with Christianity Today magazine. The article is blockquoted (indented) here in full, with the introduction in italics, the interviewer’s comments in bold, and Dr. Craig’s replies in regular text. My comments are interspersed.
As head of the ministry Reasonable Faith and a prolific writer on topics of philosophy and theology, William Lane Craig has spent decades staking out sophisticated positions on the toughest questions of Christian faith. But for a long time, his beliefs on one controversial topic—the place of Adam and Eve in biblical and biological history—have remained unsettled. Craig considers this matter at length in his latest book, In Quest of the Historical Adam: A Biblical and Scientific Exploration. Science and religion scholar Melissa Cain Travis spoke with Craig about his views on Genesis, human origins, and the historical Adam.
You describe Genesis 1–11 as “mytho-history,” arguing that an ancient-Near-Eastern audience would not have understood this text as a literal historical narrative. How do you define mytho-history, and how does it function in divine revelation?
I’m not using the word myth in the popular sense of a falsehood, but rather in the folklorist’s sense of a traditional, sacred narrative explaining how the world and humanity came to be in their present form. History is a narrative concerning real people and events, and so a mytho-history would be a sort of fusion of the two: a narrative concerning real people and events told in the language of myth in order to ground a culture’s identity and institutions in events of the primordial past.
But clearly, for Dr. Craig this “mytho-history” is not historically accurate in all its details. Therefore, it is false in some details. Therefore, despite Craig’s denial, it is (in his mind and published conclusions) indeed myth in the popular sense of falsehood.
One reason you support the mytho-history classification is the presence of what you call “fantastic elements” in the text. What are these, and how do they differ from supernatural elements?
I define “fantastic elements” as those which, if taken literally, are so extraordinary as to be palpably false. Myths are typically characterized by these sorts of fantastic elements. For example, in the Mesopotamian myth The Epic of Gilgamesh, there’s a story of how the bull of heaven—that is, the constellation Taurus—comes down to Earth and rampages through the town of Uruk until Gilgamesh and his cohort grab the bull by its tail, slay it, and distribute its meat to the town’s citizens.
Similarly, the primordial history of Genesis 1–11 includes elements which, if taken literally, would be so extraordinary as to be clearly false. Take, for example, magical trees with fruit that, if eaten, would impart the knowledge of good and evil or immortality, or the presence of a talking snake that tempts the man and woman to sin. Now, these are different from supernatural or miraculous elements, which concern events God brings about directly. Given the existence of a transcendent creator and designer who established the universe and its laws, it’s perfectly plausible that such a person could work in ways unexplainable by natural causes.
Dr. Craig says Genesis 1–11 is mytho-history because it contains “fantastic elements” that, “if taken literally” (i.e., if taken as accurate history), can’t be true but are “palpably false” and “clearly false.” So, they must be myth in the popular sense of myth. His examples to support his assertion are “magical trees” and “a talking snake” in Genesis 2 and 3.
But the Bible doesn’t say that the tree of life and the tree of the knowledge of good and evil are “magical trees.” Unique trees for sure, but not magical.
But the Bible doesn’t say that the tree of life and the tree of the knowledge of good and evil are “magical trees.” Unique trees for sure, but not magical. Why is the tree of life so “fantastic” when today we have many kinds of plants with healing properties, and in the new heavens and earth, there will be a tree of life whose leaves are “for the healing of the nations?” And why is it unbelievable that a supernatural being (Satan) can make a snake talk when another supernatural being (God) made a donkey speak to the prophet Balaam (Numbers 22:28)? Does Craig think that description of divine action is palpably false, too?
Furthermore, in this line of reasoning, Craig must label as myth (clearly, palpably false) other details in subsequent chapters of Genesis. For instance, in an article summarizing the argument in his new book on Adam, he scoffs at the longevity of the patriarchs in Genesis 5 and 11, calling their ages at death “fantastic” (i.e., palpably false).1
But Genesis 18:11 says that Sarah was past the age of childbearing (at 90 years old), yet a year later she gave birth (Genesis 17:17 and 21:2). “Modern science” (i.e., what the scientific majority says is true) says this is impossible. Genesis 25:7 says that Abraham died at the fantastic age of 175 years. Does Craig say those statements about Sarah and Abraham are myths also? Does he believe it is a myth that the Red Sea parted for 2,000,000 Israelites to walk on dry ground and that subsequently the whole Egyptian army was drowned by the collapsed sea walls? Did Elisha not make an ax head float (2 Kings 6:1–7)? Is it a myth that Jesus was born of a virgin (Luke 1:26–35)? That he walked on water and enabled Peter to do the same (Matthew 14:25–32)? That Jesus made a fish cough up a Roman coin to pay taxes (Matthew 17:24–27)? That he fed 5,000 with two loaves and five fishes (Mark 6:30–44)? That he bodily rose from the dead (John 20:19–31)? All of these events are equally “fantastic” and contrary to “modern science.”
I assume Craig believes that at least all these New Testament miracles literally happened as described. But, if so, he has no logically or biblically consistent basis to doubt the statements about the supernatural events, unusual trees, or ages of the patriarchs as described in Genesis. He is simply picking and choosing which supernatural or unusual events to believe as historical fact and when to bow the knee to the claims of the godless scientific majority (whose evolutionary, millions-of-years dogma is based on the philosophy of naturalism) and thereby label the Bible passage as myth.
Should we be troubled by the idea of a single book of Scripture containing two significantly different literary genres?
People might be uncomfortable with the idea that the first 11 chapters of Genesis are mytho-history while the remaining chapters are ordinary history. But I don’t think we should be troubled by this, because having mixed genres in a single book of Scripture is actually rather commonplace. For example, the Book of Revelation contains both apocalyptic literature about the end times but also epistolary literature—letters to the various churches of Asia Minor. Or, think of the Gospels, which include both historical narratives and parables told by Jesus. In fact, Genesis 1–11 contains poetry as well as mytho-history—think of Lamech’s boasting (4:23–24) or Adam’s response to meeting Eve (2:23).
There are indeed different kinds of genres in the Bible: historical narrative, parable, poetry, proverb, prophetic vision, and epistle. And a single book of the Bible can contain two or more genres, such as the two examples of poetry in the historical narrative of Genesis that Craig cites (as well as Jacob’s prophecies about his sons, in Genesis 49:2–27) or the examples of the parables that Jesus spoke as recorded in the historical narrative of the gospels (e.g., Matthew 13:1–53).
But there is no mythology in Scripture, except the briefly mentioned myths that are exposed as false (e.g., the myth that Jesus’ disciples stole his dead body: Matthew 28:11–16). Jesus is the truth (John 14:6), and he declared that God’s Word (referring to the Old Testament) is truth (John 17:17) and promised that the Holy Spirit would lead his apostles into the truth (John 16:13). Jesus could never use a myth (what is false) to teach truth. Jesus used historical events in the Old Testament as a basis for his ministry and teaching. He said that as Moses lifted up the serpent in the wilderness, by which believing Israelites could be healed, so Jesus would be lifted up on the cross so that believers could be saved (John 3:14–15). He said that as godless people behaved at the time of Noah before the flood, so would people behave before the second coming of Jesus (Matthew 24:37–39). These comparisons have no force if the Old Testament accounts are myths. It would be like saying, “Just as Santa Claus came last year bringing gifts for all, so Jesus is coming again.” With such a comparison, no one (at least no teenager or adult) would believe in the second coming of Christ.
The apostles clearly knew the difference between truth and myth and always taught the truth (e.g., 1 Timothy 1:3–4, 2:7, 3:15, 4:1–3, 7; 2 Timothy 2:15–17, 3:7–8, 4:1–4; Titus 1:13–14; 2 Peter 1:12–16, 2:1–3; 1 John 2:21). Paul stressed that the many miraculous events associated with the leadership of Moses really “happened” (1 Corinthians 10:1–11). And just like Jesus, Paul and Peter drew parallels between historical events in the Old Testament and the spiritual realities in their day (e.g., 2 Corinthians 11:3; 2 Peter 2:1–9).
There is no reason to think that Jesus and the apostles considered the events that they specifically referenced to be the only ones that actually happened as described in the Old Testament but that the description of other events was not historically accurate.
There is no reason to think that Jesus and the apostles considered the events that they specifically referenced to be the only ones that actually happened as described in the Old Testament but that the description of other events was not historically accurate. Likewise, there is no evidence in the New Testament that Jesus and the New Testament writers took Genesis 1–11 as anything other than straightforward, literal, and completely accurate history, just as the rest of Genesis is.2 This is clearly shown in my chapter on Jesus3 in Coming to Grips with Genesis and in Ron Minton’s chapter on the teaching of the rest of the New Testament regarding Genesis 1–11 in the same volume. I give an extensive argument that Mark 10:6 shows that Jesus believed Adam was created in the beginning (on the sixth day of creation), not billions of years after the beginning. In his in-depth treatment of Romans 1:20, Minton demonstrates that Paul believed the same about Adam and the age of the creation. Craig doesn’t reference this 2008 scholarly, 14-author, biblical, and historical defense of young-earth creation at all. And he fails to discuss Mark 10:6 and Romans 1:20 and what they reveal about Jesus’ and Paul’s views of Adam and the age of the creation.
The fact that Lamech and Adam spoke poetry or that Jacob spoke his prophecies about his 12 sons in poetry (in Genesis 49) does not change the fact that Genesis accurately records their poetic statements made in literal history just as it does the rest of the historical events in Genesis.
Many Christians fear that a nonliteral understanding of the early chapters of Genesis is incompatible with the doctrine of inerrancy. You disagree. Why?
The doctrine of inerrancy states that Scripture is truthful in all that it teaches, and that teaching can be expressed via literary forms —poetic, apocalyptic, mythological, and so on. Certainly there are statements in Scripture that do not represent the teaching of Scripture. A clear example is Jesus’ saying that the mustard seed is the smallest of all seeds (Matt. 13:32). Scientifically, that would be false, but nobody thinks Jesus is teaching botany. He’s teaching a lesson about the kingdom of God. So, it would be wrong to regard that as an error in Scripture.
The Bible is indeed inerrant, but nowhere does it teach truth by myth. That is Craig’s unproven assertion. But as we have seen, he has already said that several statements in Genesis are “palpably false.” Jesus did not speak error in Matthew 13:32—Craig’s explanation is false. See “Are Mustard Seeds the Smallest or Was Jesus Wrong?”
In examining the relevant scientific data, you accept the theory of common descent—the belief that life on earth, including human life, evolved from a common ancestor. As for the “founding pair,” you propose that God might have “lifted them to the human level” through a “radical transition” that “plausibly involved both biological and spiritual renovation.” Why is this scenario a better explanation than a de novo (“from scratch”) creation of Adam?
Several questions here need to be teased apart. First, it’s very important to understand that this book is not concerned with how man came about, but when. I assume, for the sake of argument, common descent. But that isn’t to say that I defend or propound it. Given the assumption of common descent, I ask if we can identify when human beings first appeared in the process.
Moreover, I think that the question about the first appearance of man is not equivalent to when the genus Homo appears on the scene. Early hominins were lumped into that category rather artificially, so we shouldn’t assume some form is human simply because it’s classified as Homo. We need other criteria for humanity. In terms of the biological and spiritual renovation that lifted these prehuman hominin forms to a fully human status, I assume the evolutionary scenario simply to show that there isn’t any incompatibility between it and the existence of a primordial human pair from whom all humanity is descended. We can identify when in human history this original human pair probably appeared. I argue that Adam is plausibly to be identified as Homo heidelbergensis (Heidelberg man).
First, if you don’t know how Adam came into existence, you can’t possibly know when. Craig is assuming an evolutionary how and when for the origin of the first human and then trying to relate that to the biblical statements about Adam. But Genesis most definitely does tell us how and when Adam and Eve came into existence. We will consider how in the next point, but I discuss in-depth the biblical evidence of the when and how of Adam and Eve’s creation in chapter 5 of Searching for Adam.4 That book was written by 16 contributing biblical, scientific, and historical scholars (who wrote in their field of expertise). Though it was published in 2016, Craig does not even mention it, much less interact with its arguments, in his book on Adam. Chapter 10 of Searching for Adam, written by two genetics experts, shows that the genetic evidence (specifically the mutation rate in the human genome) confirms the biblical chronology (as determined by taking Genesis 5 and 11 and other chronological information in the Bible literally) and refutes the evolutionary timescale for the origin of man. So scientific research confirms the literal account in Genesis of when Adam was created. The idea of millions of years doesn’t come from science but from anti-biblical, philosophical assumptions imposed on some of the scientific observations of nature.5
But secondly, Homo heidelbergensis lived from 700,000 to 200,000 years ago, according to evolutionists at the Smithsonian. In his book (p. 363), Craig says Adam lived at least 500,000 years ago. But placing Adam and Eve anywhere in that time range makes the genealogies of Genesis 5–11 ludicrous and total mythology. Since the Bible clearly teaches (and orthodox Christians and Jews have always believed) that Abraham lived about 4,000 years ago, even putting Adam at 200,000 years ago would require inserting nearly 10,000 years, on average, between each patriarch in those two Genesis genealogies! If Adam lived 700,000 years ago, you must insert approximately 35,000 years between each of them. What’s the point of telling us that Seth was born when Adam was 130 years old, if 10,000–35,000 years separated them? What is the point of such a mythological genealogy?
Craig’s notion of mytho-history is contrary to and an assault on the character of God.
And let us not lose sight of the fact that the Bible is first and foremost the Word of God, though written by men (under the inerrant guidance of the Holy Spirit, 2 Peter 1:20–21; 2 Timothy 3:16). What kind of a God would inspire such a fallacious genealogy? What kind of God6 would tell us myths about creating distinct kinds of plants and animals to reproduce “after their kind” and about creating Adam from dust and Eve from his rib when in fact all plants, animals, and people are descended biologically from a single-cell creature over billions of years of death, violence, disease, and extinction? Certainly not the God of truth revealed in the Bible, who cannot lie or mislead or deceive. Craig’s notion of mytho-history is contrary to and an assault on the character of God.
Would you say that evolutionary history, up until Adam, was divinely guided or naturalistic?
It’s important to understand that these are not mutually exclusive alternatives. I believe God can have providential control over both human history and evolutionary history without the necessity of miraculous interventions. But I do defend the view that in order to have a human being you need to have the infusion of a rational soul into some preexisting hominin form. What I suggest is that God may have brought about both a biological and spiritual renovation of a hominin form that would make it truly human, biologically capable of sustaining a rational soul.
So, it is possible to have a divinely guided, providentially directed evolutionary process that is purely naturalistic but under God’s sovereignty.
What Craig asserts here is not possible biblically if we pay careful attention to and believe the biblical text! Genesis 2:7 (and similarly 2:22) absolutely rule out Craig’s suggestion. Perhaps, that is why in his book on Adam, Craig only makes a passing reference to these critically important verses but does not carefully discuss them.
Genesis 2:7 says, “Then the Lord God formed the man of dust from the ground and breathed into his nostrils the breath of life, and the man became a living creature.” The words “living creature”7 are a translation of the Hebrew words נֶ֫פֶשׁ חַיָּה (nephesh chayyah). Those same two words are used to describe sea creatures, birds, and land animals in Genesis 1:20–21, 1:24, 2:19, 9:10, and elsewhere. Those animals are also living creatures, though they are not made in the image of God as Adam and Eve and all their descendants were and are (Genesis 1:26–27, 9:6).
So, Genesis 2:7 says God made Adam from the dust of the ground, then added the divine breath, and man became a living creature. Paul takes that as a literal statement of fact when he says, “the first man, Adam, became a living soul” (1 Corinthians 15:45). To believe that Adam is biologically descended from prehuman hominins (as Craig does) is to believe the exact opposite of what Genesis 2:7 says, in English or Hebrew or any other language. God did not take a pre-existing living creature (a non-human animal) and transform it into Adam. He supernaturally created Adam’s body from literal dust (non-living matter), added the divine breath, and Adam became a living creature. Genesis 3:19 confirms this, for God says that just as Adam was made from dust, he would return to dust after he died (because of sin). And being sinful descendants of the first sinner, Adam, we will also eventually return to dust after we die (Job 34:15). It is impossible to harmonize Genesis 2:7 with the myth of human evolution. But just as Craig ignores this verse here, he also does not discuss this verse in his book.
It is equally impossible to harmonize the Bible’s account of the origin of the first female human with the myth of evolution. In this case, Eve was made from a pre-existing living creature, Adam. Genesis 2:21–22 says, “So the Lord God caused a deep sleep to fall upon the man, and while he slept took one of his ribs and closed up its place with flesh. And the rib that the Lord God had taken from the man he made into a woman and brought her to the man.” But this is describing supernatural surgery on Adam while he slept. God did not take a female ape-like creature that had evolved a body like he wanted for a woman and genetically transform her into Eve. Paul clearly believed these words in Genesis 2 were literally true when he affirmed in 1 Corinthians 11:8–9, “For man was not made from woman, but woman from man. Neither was man created for woman, but woman for man.” But Craig neutralizes those verses (and a few other verses by Paul) by saying (in his book) that Paul is only referring to the “literary Adam” (the one described in Genesis 2–3), not the real historical Adam that Craig thinks was a heidelbergensis man. So, he is just picking and choosing which verses of Scripture and which details in Genesis he will believe, based on what the scientific majority says.
Did you encounter any surprises during your research?
One big surprise involved changing my mind on an important question. Previously, I had thought that physical mortality was the result of the Fall. But I’m now convinced, based on my reading of Genesis 3, Romans 5, and 1 Corinthians 15, that Adam and Eve were created mortal. That’s why the Tree of Life was necessary in the [mythological] Garden. They would have naturally died even if they had not fallen.
Again, Craig is not reading Genesis carefully. Nowhere in Genesis 2–3 or the rest of the Bible does it say that eating from the tree of life in the Garden was necessary for Adam and Eve to be immortal. God does not say, “Unless you eat from the tree of life, you will surely die.” But there was no command in Genesis 2 regarding the necessity of eating from the tree of life in order to live and not die. Rather, God said Adam would die when he ate from the tree of the knowledge of good and evil (2:16–17). Thus, it is the rebellion, the sin, that made him mortal. Romans 5:12 does not say God’s creative work introduced death into Adam. It says through sin came death.
How do you hope your book will benefit the church?
I recently received a question of the week through our Reasonable Faith website: “Don’t you think that it’s time we denounce the literalistic interpretation of the first 11 chapters of Genesis, because what it’s leaving in its wake is apostasy and faithlessness, and causing people to turn away from Christianity?” It’s my hope that, by showing there is no incompatibility between contemporary evolutionary science and the affirmation of a single human pair at the headwaters of the human race, we can prevent that obstacle to faith.
It is not young-earth creationism that turns people away from Christianity. It is sin that causes people to suppress the truth (Romans 1:18–20). They choose to walk in the darkness because of their sin (John 3:19–20). They don’t want to bow the knee to their Creator and submit to the authority of his Word (the Bible). And what causes young people to leave the church and the faith they were taught growing up? As national research has shown,8 the single most influential cause is the brainwashing of evolution and millions of years the children receive in their schools, in TV science programs, in natural history museums, and at state and national parks even when on vacation.
Most sadly, Craig’s book may cause others to have doubts about their faith, and it may push more people to reject more and more of the Bible and ultimately Christianity altogether.
This brainwashing is coupled with the fact that in most churches that do believe Genesis 1–11 is literal history (a minority of churches today in America and in the rest of the world), children and their parents are not taught any biblical and scientific apologetics to defend that belief. It is also doubtful that most of those who “fell away from the faith” were truly born again (i.e., they had personally repented of their sins and trusted in Jesus Christ alone for their salvation); rather, they were likely just church attendees. Craig’s book, because he has blindly accepted what the scientific majority says about origins (ignoring or rejecting what they say about the virgin birth and resurrection of Jesus while also rejecting or ignoring reasonable, well-researched answers to his objections to young-earth creation), will undoubtedly give comfort to those who have rejected the Lord Jesus and his Word and will allow them to think that they are being intellectually and scientifically respectable in their unbelief. Most sadly, Craig’s book may cause others to have doubts about their faith, and it may push more people to reject more and more of the Bible and ultimately Christianity altogether.
Craig’s version of theistic evolution, like all other theistic-evolution views, does not persuade unbelievers. As atheist and famous evolutionary biologist Jerry Coyne said in a review of two theistic evolution books (one by a Roman Catholic and one by an evangelical),
It is truly sad that Craig, who has two PhDs (one in philosophy and one in theology) and who claims to believe in the inspiration and inerrancy of Scripture, has almost completely ignored what inerrantist, young-earth, biblical, and scientific scholars have to say about the literal truth of Genesis 1–11 and particularly about Adam. In his book and his First Things article10 summarizing his book, he has failed to deal with critically important verses such as Genesis 2:7 and 2:22, Mark 10:6, and Romans 1:20, and he attempts to neutralize other important verses (e.g., 1 Corinthians 11:8–9) by his fallacious distinction between a literary Adam and a historical Adam. Also, the 23-page bibliography in his book contains plenty of books and articles by theological liberals, secular scientists, and theistic evolutionists but cites only two book chapters by two leading young-earth Old Testament scholars11 and two books by two leading young-earth scientists.12 But as noted above, the 14-scholar, in-depth biblical and historical defense of young-earth creation, Coming to Grips with Genesis (2008), and the scholarly 16-author, biblical, historical, and scientific defense of the literal truth about Adam, Searching for Adam (2016), are not cited or discussed. So, his book In Quest of the Historical Adam is not as scholarly as his extensive footnotes and bibliography imply and is not a model of Christian scholarship.
Finally, one other point should be made about a critical omission in his book. Because he has accepted the evolutionary idea of billions of years of cosmic and earth history, he has thereby accepted billions of years of animal death, disease, and extinction before Adam. This evolutionary story massively conflicts with the biblical teaching about the curse at the fall of Adam and the final redemptive work of Christ. This conflict is apparently not even on Craig’s radar. In his book, he doesn’t discuss the critically important truth in this regard in Romans 8:19–23 and Genesis 3:14–19. But this biblical truth is a major reason why Christians must reject the myth of evolution, including its billions of years of earth and cosmic history.13
Much more could be said about Craig’s disastrous book on Adam. Christians must cling to the authoritative and clear Word of God and not follow this brilliant scholar whose reasoning about Adam is sadly undermining the inerrant Bible and gospel that he professes to believe.14