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Adam: Real or Symbolic?

What do we believe about Adam?
Was Adam a real person, or was he symbolic?
Does it matter anyway what we believe about Adam?

What do we believe about the biblical Adam? Was he a real man or was he symbolic of mankind? Or are both true? And does it really matter anyway? 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.

On the other hand, if we see Adam as a symbolic person this can seriously upset how we see much of scripture:

Rejecting Adam as a real figure in history will cripple our Bible reading over time

Pastor John Piper

1. Adam: Real or Symbolic?

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 physical detail if Adam was symbolic?

Genealogy: 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” (Luke 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?

Jesus’ View: Jesus alludes to the man ‘Adam’ in Mark 10:6-8 when He refers to sexual union within marriage. This is especially true in Matthew 23:35, where Jesus refers to Cain’s murder of Abel – a real event involving Adam’s sons!


From the above discussion there is a strong biblical 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.

2. The Uniqueness of the man, Adam

Where did Adam come from?

In Luke’s genealogy we read:

… the son of Enosh, the son of Seth, the son of Adam, the son of God

Luke 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 Corinthians 15:45

How else was Adam different from us?

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:

Adam gave names to all cattle, to the birds of the air, and to every beast of the field

Genesis 2:2

How many of us could give new names to the 18,000 species of bird on the planet, link? And Adam’s body did not appear to have the built-in deterioration of our bodies – we lose perhaps 10,000 brain cells (neurons) each day, link! The Bible infers this because physical death (brain death) would only occur for Adam if he transgressed God’s commands (Gen 2:17).

What did Adam eat?


This is a painting of the Garden of Eden (see netdog06). 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.

3. What were the consequences of Adam’s sin?

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 … for dust you are and to dust you shall return

Genesis 2:17, 3:19

The Hebrew word for ‘die’ in Genesis 2 verse 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 Genesis 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

Romans 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 Corinthians 15:21
Man’s lifespan. Bible Student ChronologyEnlarge

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 Matthew 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 Knock-on Effect

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
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

Genesis 3:17-18, Romans 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. And 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 beings, why such detail?

4. The Big Question

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! Adam was created perfect. So theistic evolutionists are forced the see Adam as symbolic rather than as a real man in order to accommodate evolutionary theory.

5. Points to Ponder

  • Incorrect Theology? Our theological deductions may be incorrect. Maybe we have read into scripture something that is not there. Maybe the death referred to in Gen 2:17 is the death of the soul rather than physical death (note that Gen 1:7 refers to a living ‘being’ or ‘soul’ from the Hebrew word ‘nephesh’). In this case we might conceive of physical death before Adam, although the context of verses referring to this concept does not suggest this; ‘death’ in Gen 2:17 appears to mean physical as well as spiritual death.
  • Incorrect Genealogies? Maybe the genealogies omit many generations? But then a great many would have to be omitted to make up hundreds of millions of years of ‘mankind’. And there are a number of genealogies which agree fairly closely, suggesting there are not huge gaps.
  • Creation and Evolution? Many Christians try and blend the two concepts of creation and evolution. Maybe a form of man evolved on earth over hundreds of millions (even billions) of years. Maybe this was the biblical ‘mankind’ of Gen 1:26. Then Adam came along and God breathed His Spirit into him so that he became a living soul capable for the first time of relating to God (Gen 2:7 might imply this). Then Adam sinned and he lost his new immortality, which could only be saved through Christ. But how does this evolutionary life-death cycle agree with the concept of “perfect creation” in Genesis 1 verse 31 or with Paul’s thesis that “by one man (Adam) came death” (1 Cor 15:21)?
  • Holes in Evolutionary Theory? The theory of macro evolution also has its problems. In order for a species to change to a completely different species (say a fish to a rabbit) the theory requires a cycle of birth and death over billions of years. But despite extensive research there are still very few transitional fossils! This is one of several major holes in macro evolution theory.
  • Erroneous Scientific Dating? Maybe, just maybe, the earth is ‘young’, say less than 10,000 years old and current scientific dating has got it wrong. For instance, science assumes the principle of uniformitarianism – scientific laws have been constant for all time – which may not be true. In particular, the velocity of light might have reduced dramatically, link. So, maybe, just maybe, the earth really was created in just six 24-hour days, as implied in Exodus 20 verse 11. Maybe a simple, straight reading of the Bible is right!
  • For detailed scientific support for Adam’s world and thereafter, see A Young Earth.

Let’s 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 Genesis 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.

James Barr, Hebrew Professor, University of Oxford, 1984

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