Any Christian that chooses to adopt the idea of an earth which is older than the direct numbers presented in the Bible, roughly six thousand years, will need to account for several things, one of which is the fact that it would be difficult to accept a claim which agrees with the estimated age of raw materials, rocks, water, and so on, but does not agree with the estimated age of human remains. This is, of course, resolved if one accepts the idea of divinely controlled evolution, but that too comes with its own set of challenges. Those challenges are what I would like to focus on right now. Can evolution and Adam be reconciled?
Let’s start with the most obvious hurdle. Many Christians believe that the earth is roughly six thousand years old. This age is obtained by working backwards from the birth of Jesus through the genealogies provided in the Bible. While the Old Testament does appear to document the patriarch of each generation, starting with Adam and ending with Jesus, it does not state that it is a complete record of every generation. In Genesis 5, what is commonly translated to English as “begat”, or “became the father of”, is actually the Hebrew word Yalad. Here is an excerpt about Yalad from Abarim-Publications:
Yalad – The verb ילד (yalad) is not limited to individual birth. In Hebrew thought, parents bring forth not only their own children but also their grandchildren and even all further generations (also see the verb זרע (zara’), meaning to sow).
Essentially, the genealogy given in Genesis 5, as well as other places in the Old Testament, might not be a direct record from generation to generation, as implied by the English translation. For the sake of saving papyrus, the genealogical record may have been reduced to merely those of significance rather than stating the patriarch of every individual generation. This makes considerable sense when one considers that there may have been fifty thousand years, or longer, between Adam and Jesus, or even Adam and Noah for that matter. Of course, if one were to adopt this line of thinking it may be important to ask why the names mentioned in Genesis 5 are in any way significant, since so little is said about them. I have covered this in my article on the Symbology of the Patriarchs if you would like to read more about it.
Now we have to tackle the main point of contention with evolution. There is an idea circulating that there was no “first human”. Richard Dawkins postulated this idea at that 2011 New Yorker Festival and used images from his book as an example. His claim is that evolutionary changes are so small, so miniscule that when shown images of each generation of humanity starting with your mother or father and going back about 10,000 years, you would not be able to point a single individual picture and say “This was the first human”. While I certainly agree with this statement, there remains a clear difference between modern humanity and our supposed common ancestors, and while I may not be able to point a specific generation of humanity and call them the first humans, I can certainly state that there was a first creature to swim, or fly, or walk. Even if they only walked a few steps, they were the first. The same can be said for any human trait.
In order to reasonably claim that there was a first “human” in evolutionary theory, we would need to define what specific traits make us human to begin with. So what are those traits? Obviously we have physical traits which we can use to quickly distinguish ourselves from other animals, and if we were very specific about the physical traits of humanity, we could likely use the fossil record to point to a specific set of human remains as the “first human”.
While we could go on about how it is possible to identify a first human, it is important here to point out that it is not absolutely necessary to do so. The creation language in Genesis 1 is much more elegant than simply saying that God made the animals, or God made a single person. The words Asah and Bara’ are used to describe the creation process of land animals and people respectively. So let’s define these words.
Asah – accomplish, advance, appoint, apt, be at, become, bear, bestow
Bara – choose, create, cut down, dispatch, do, make fat
In Genesis 1, when God creates living things for the first time we see that Genesis uses the word Bara to describe this action. Early Jewish writers considered Bara to mean “to create something new”. An important distinction about this definition, is that it does not mean “to create something new from nothing”. To say that God created something from nothing, would imply that nothing is capable of existing somewhere. If we accept that God is everywhere and that God qualifies as something, then it is a logical fallacy to imply that God creates from nothing. Therefore, even when creating the universe, God always creates from something.
So God created the great sea creatures and every living thing that moves, with which the waters teemed according to their kinds, and every bird of flight after its kind. And God saw that it was good.Genesis 1:21
This is the moment in Genesis when God creates life for the vary first time. The word created in this verse is translated from Bara, which we will assume is taken to mean that God is creating something new. If we look at the definition of Bara it is ultimately a combination of select and create, which is precisely what anyone does when they create something new. They select materials from which they are able to fashion or shape something new. The thing that we create does not just pop into existence, but is molded from something at already existed. Evolutionary theory presumes this very concept in regards to early life on the planet as well.
God made the beasts of the earth according to their kinds, the livestock according to their kinds, and everything that crawls upon the earth according to its kind. And God saw that it was good.Genesis 1:25
Here we have God making the “land animals”. The Hebrew word choice here is interesting because it does not use Bara, but rather Asah which early Jewish writers consider to mean to fashion. We see that the definition provided earlier is not to create, but to advance or to accomplish. This seems to imply that God advanced an earlier species, or fashioned an earlier species into a different form. This new form is not necessarily something new to the world, as we already have seen animals capable of walking on land and breathing air at this point, but it is a new shape of something that already exists.
So God created man in His own image; in the image of God He created him; male and female He created them.Genesis 1:27
In this verse, when God creates man Genesis again uses the word Bara, indicating that God is creating something new. Again, it is important to clarify that Bara does not mean that something is created from nothing, but instead that something was used in order to create something else. When God created the first living creatures, He took something which already existed, presumably plant life, and created conscious life. Looking at it from this perspective, we must accept the possibility that what makes humanity unique is not necessarily a physical attribute, but possibly a non-physical one. The same way that God took life and gave it consciousness, thus creating living creatures, in Genesis 1:27 God takes early man and selects them to be in the image of God.
What does it mean to be made in the image of God? There have been many ideas about what this means. Some early theologians took it to mean that mankind was literally created in the physical image of God. Others have taken it to mean that man was blessed with the ability to reason like God. Others still, took it to mean that our ability to speak is what separated us from the other animals. I think that we are reading far too much into it. I believe that the answer is in both the preceding and succeeding verses.
Then God said, “Let Us make man in Our image, after Our likeness, to rule over the fish of the sea and the birds of the air, over the livestock, and over all the earth itself and every creature that crawls upon it.”Genesis 1:26
What God created in Genesis 1:27 was not new physical being, although that may have been part of it, but just as when God created living creatures, the ultimate achievement was not the respective form of the created creatures it was, instead, consciousness itself. So it is with humanity, the ultimate achievement was not the physical form of man, but rather our likeness to God. Our likeness, as stated in Genesis 1:26, is not a unique physical or mental attribute, but a culmination of various attributes to such a degree that we are able to hold dominion over all of the earth. Just as God holds dominion over all things, mankind is like God in the way that we hold dominion over all things on earth. While all of the other theories regarding our likeness to God are debatable, our status as the dominant species on earth most certainly is not.
If the quality that makes us “human” in the eyes of God is the degree to which our attributes set us apart from the other animals, then it would be reasonable to assume that this could be a slow transition, happening in multiple areas of the planet around the same time period, and ultimately resulting in a single, dominant species. In this way, there would be no single, identifiable, first human, much as Dawkins suggests, but like I said earlier, if we were to be really specific about the degree of physical and mental attributes which constitute a human being I am quite confident we could point at a single human being as the “first”, and I am confident that history would refer to that human being as Adam.