Picture the scene: George Whitefield has just been preaching. Everywhere, eyes are shining and people are talking of the wonderful grace of Christ. Thousands of hearts have been overthrown and melted; lives have been remade.
Now, if the church gives up believing in a historical Adam, we will never see such scenes again.
A bit strong?
Not at all. For it is not just that the biblical genealogies depict Adam as a historical figure, not just that Paul can build core arguments on his belief that Adam was as real a man as Christ (Romans 5; 1 Corinthians 15). Adam has a significance in the Bible that far outstrips the simple number of mentions he gets. In fact, he has a significance so great that without him we no longer have a recognisably Christian gospel.
Given space restraints, I will point out just two ways mythologizing Adam uproots the gospel.
(1) It Makes God Bad
Let’s put it this way: what if sin did not enter the world at a particular point in time, with a real, historic first sin? Well then we have to say that God must have created a sinful, fallen world. Sin must be a part of what God considers ‘very good’ (Genesis 1:31). Now either that is because there is some character flaw in God, some strain of evil in him, or it is the result of some compromise he had to make with pre-existent evil or with the deficient form of matter.
In other words, we are forced to deny either the absolute goodness of God or the absolute sovereignty of God. But to deny either must shake a Christian’s faith to its very foundations. And, one has to ask, what then was Jesus up to on the cross, defeating sin, death and evil? Was he defeating his very own work?
(2) It Disembowels Our Salvation
Now let’s ask: what if Adam is just a mythological figure, a symbol of how we all turn away from God? Well then sin is not a problem we are now all born with, something inherited. Sin, then, is not something which affects and shapes us through and through from birth; it is something superficial, something we freely opt into.
First of all, that goes right against the grain of everything the Bible says about sin. I do not sin because from some position of spiritual neutrality I ever choose to ‘opt in’ to sin; I sin because naturally my deepest inclinations are sinful. I sin because I am a sinner. I was born that way. A good tree bears good fruit and a bad tree bears bad fruit (Matthew 7:17), said Jesus.
Second, and more worryingly, if sin is something superficial, something I simply opt into, then my need for grace is equally superficial. If I freely chose sin, I can now freely choose Christ. In other words, I have no need for a supernatural regeneration of my heart and very being. Sin was just a bad choice. I am not that sick.
And what does all this say of Christ? Well if there is no radical problem with our very humanity, a problem that precedes our own birth, if we are as able to choose God as easily as we choose sin, then Christ could simply have called for us to repent and follow him. No incarnation, death and resurrection would actually have been needed to remake us from the bottom up. If Adam is a myth, then we hardly need a Saviour – just a teacher to show us the way.
This is why we will never see a ministry of the likes of Whitefield if the church gives up believing in a historical Adam. For, without belief in a historical Adam, Whitefield would have had no good and sovereign God to proclaim; ‘the new birth’ would not be his message. Instead of offering new life to helpless sinners, he would simply have urged those who have chosen badly to choose better.
No great good news there.