What do we believe about the biblical Adam? Was he a real man or was he symbolic of mankind? Or are both true? Perhaps mankind evolved and at some point an actual man called Adam came along?
It turns out that what we believe about Adam has serious implications when it comes to our worldview! If we believe Adam was an actual person and was the first appearance of man (no evolutionary predecessors) it can throw a spanner in the works when it comes to what we believe in the creation-evolution debate. Our theology may lead to a worldview that appears to clash with current scientific understanding.
Linguistically, the term 'Adam' sometimes means the species 'mankind' (Gen 1.26). When the noun occurs with the definite article ('ha adam') it has to be translated mankind. But sometimes it is also translated as a proper name Adam. The first permissible use of the proper name (a person, Adam) occurs in Gen 2.20.
Let us accept the historicity of the Bible; it is well attested to. In Genesis 3 we read of what appear to be two real people, Adam and Eve. They recognised their nakedness and did something about it (v7). In Genesis 4 we read of these two people, Adam and Eve, starting a family. And in Genesis 5 we read that the man, Adam, died at the age of 930 years (v5) - why such detail if Adam was symbolic?
In the New Testament the name Adam occurs 9 times, and 8 times in reference to the first man - an actual man. Luke's genealogy refers to Seth as "the son of Adam" (Lk 3.38), Paul seems to refer to an actual man (Rom 5.12,14)(1 Tim 2.13,14), and Jude counted Enoch as "the 7th from Adam" (v14). Now, if Adam was merely a symbolic person, at what point in Luke's genealogy does the symbolism morph into reality and real people? Are Adam, Seth, Enosh Cainan, Mahalalel and Jared all symbolic men, but then Enoch was a real man?
The term 'Adam' does not appear in the gospels but is alluded to e.g. Mk 10.6-8.
Conclusion: From the above discussion there seems a strong case for claiming that an actual man called Adam lived, and died. Attempts at dating Adam from genealogies suggests that he lived some 6,000 years ago.
In Luke's genealogy we read:
"... the son of Enosh, the son of Seth, the son of Adam, the son of God." (Lk 3.38)
Adam was not the son of human parents; he was the son of God! Adam was made from 'the dust of the ground' (Gen 2.7)(1 Cor 15.47) and had no biological parents. In fact Adam was uniquely related to Christ in the sense that neither had biological parents! Paul underscores this unique relationship by saying:
"The first man Adam became a living being. The last Adam became a life-giving spirit." (1 Cor 15.45)
Everything God created was 'very good' (Gen 1.31). So we might conclude that Adam was made 'very good'; good in mind, spirit and body. We get a hint of his mental ability when he named all the birds and animals (Gen 2.19). And his body did not appear to have the built-in deterioration of our bodies - we lose 10,000 brain cells each day! The Bible infers this because death would only occur for Adam if he transgressed God's commands (Gen 2.17).
Adam was created a vegetarian - a herbivore rather than a carnivore. His diet was fruit and herbs (Gen 1.29,30)(Gen 2.16) and meat from animals, birds and fish was off the menu! The concept of killing for food is absent from the early world of Genesis. And it is interesting to note that a 'herbivore existence' and the emphasis on 'no harm' re-appears during the Millennium, when the lion eats straw rather than kills for food (Isa 65.25). So Tennyson's phrase 'nature red in tooth and claw' does not appear to be God's ideal and certainly did not exist in God's 'very good' creation (Gen 1.31) - which included man.
A look into the original meaning of the text implies that Adam's sin resulted in physical death:
"... in the day that you eat of it you shall surely die." (Gen 2.17)
"... for dust you are and to dust you shall return." (Gen 3.19)
The Hebrew word for 'die' in Genesis 2.17 is 'muwth (pronounced 'mooth'), meaning to kill or destroy with reference to a dead body. It refers to mortality and does not primarily imply spiritual death (separation from God), although theologically it must include it (see below). The introduction of physical death is strongly suggested in Gen 3.19 - 'to dust you shall return'.
Paul, God's chosen servant, also takes this view:
"... through one man sin entered into the world, and death through sin ..." (Rom 5.12)
Here, the Greek word for 'death' is 'Thanatos', the ancient Greek personification of physical death. And Paul's writing in 1 Cor 15.20-58 is in the context of physical death leading to the resurrection and a new, immortal body:
"For since by man came death, by Man also came the resurrection from the dead." (1 Cor 15.21)
From the context of these verses it seems clear that Adam's sin led to physical death. Moreover, since Adam was made 'in the image of God', then he was also 'triune' in nature. So we might conclude that as a result of rebellion against God (sin) the whole man would die - body, soul and spirit. Jesus suggests this in Mat 10.28, where He says God can destroy both body and soul in hell.
It is interesting to note the age of Adam and other patriarchs at death. From Adam to Noah man lived some 900 years or more, but then his age-span dropped exponentially to that of today. An explanation is given in A Young Earth.
The effect of Adam's disobedience was wide-ranging. Not only did Adam suddenly have a limited lifespan, but the whole of God's creation was suddenly affected:
"Cursed is the ground for your sake ... thorns and thistles it shall bring forth ..." (Gen 3.17,18)
"For the creation was subjected to futility... because the creation itself also will be delivered from the bondage of corruption ... for we know that the whole of creation groans ..." (Rom 8.20-22)
It seems that universal death, decay and corruption started after Adam sinned. Creation, followed by physical corruption is all around us and scientifically we say that the universe exhibits increasing entropy or disorder. For example, trees sprout and grow, but eventually fall and decay. A garden left unattended goes to chaos!
Note that Adam and Eve first wore fig leaves to cover their nakedness but from here on they wore 'tunics of skin' (Gen 3.21), implying the death of animals. Again, if they were symbolic, why such detail?
It appears that it was only Adam's disobedience that brought physical death to God's creation. Prior to this the animals and birds appeared to live in harmony without devouring one another; they ate vegetation rather than each other (Gen 1.30)! And we have seen that, before his sin, Adam seemed to have an unlimited lifespan; he appeared to be mentally, spiritually and physically 'very good'.
The point of conflict is that the theory of evolution assumes the cycle of birth and death over billions of years, but our theology says that death probably did not exist before the man Adam, say before some 6,000 years ago!
We end with a scholarly comment. In a letter dated 23 April 1984 to David C. C. Watson, Hebrew Professor James Barr at the University of Oxford wrote:
"... probably, so far as I know, there is no professor of Hebrew or Old Testament at any world-class university who does not believe that the writer(s) of Gen. 1-11 intended to convey to their readers the ideas that (a) creation took place in a series of six days which were the same as the days of 24 hours we now experience (b) the figures contained in the Genesis genealogies provided by simple addition a chronology from the beginning of the world up to later stages in the biblical story (c) Noah's flood was understood to be world-wide and extinguished all human and animal life except for those in the ark. Or, to put it negatively, the apologetic arguments which suppose the "days" of creation to be long eras of time, the figures of years not to be chronological, and the flood to be a merely local Mesopotamian flood, are not taken seriously by any such professors, as far as I know. The only thing I would say to qualify this is that most such professors may avoid much involvement in that sort of argument and so may not say much explicitly about it one way or the other."
Bible quotations are from the New American Standard Bible