Transitional Fossils of Hominid Skulls
This page contains a reprint from TIME Magazine; August 23, 1999, pp. 54-55. The display below represents the "state of the art" of fossil anthropology in 1999. Various skulls are shown along with the current best educated guess as to where they fit on the tree of primate descent. I have followed the illustration with my secular commentary, then with a theological commentary. (These images are copyrighted 1999 by TIME Magazine.)
Scroll to: Family Tree, Smithsonian, A. gahri, Secular Commentary, Linking the Skulls, Theological Commentary, Further Reading
The link below is another display of fossil hominid skulls, with front and side views. It contains many of the same species shown in the lineup above. This illustration is taken from an article "29 Evidences for Macroevolution" by Douglas Theobald. Click on the link below and look at Figure 1.4.4. The side views are very helpful in determining the full picture of the skull. Theobald's article also provides links to more detailed information about each specimen. The images are from the Smithsonian Institution.
Figure 2. Reprinted by permission from Dr. Douglas Theobald. (Images copyright 2000 Smithsonian Institution.)
I am going to do this commentary deliberately as an amateur, to demonstrate that it's not difficult to recognize these skulls as transitional fossils. (If any professional paleontologists visit this page they can see how the general public views their life's work!) I'm also going to make it conversational so that you can follow how I think this through. The first step is to define what is meant by "transitional fossils." I will define "transitional fossils" to mean a fossil sequence through history that shows one older form tranforming or morphing into a newer and different form. I would like all the examples to be in the direct line of biological descent that leads to - me, but I will settle for fossils close to "my" own line of descent.
The second step is to spend some time looking at them and becoming familiar with the details of each one. Consider downloading this page and printing it out on a color printer. Or better yet, save the JPEG image to your hard disk by right-clicking on it, and make it your screen background for a few weeks. The eye takes a while to recognize and adjust to new patterns.
One of the first things we notice is that several of the skulls here are quite incomplete. "Skulls" 1 and 2 consist only of the jaw. Probably a trained paleoanthropologist can determine something from these jaws, but we're amateurs and we can't. So those two specimens have to be eliminated from further consideration here. 15 skulls are reduced to 13.
The blue stuff doesn't count. Blue molded material is used these days to fill in the missing portions between skull fragments. The blue material is shaped according to an expert's best educated guess regarding what the original skull looked like. I think that the color blue is used to mark clearly which parts are added; note that skull 12 uses white material because it was reconstructed many years ago before this convention.
Skulls 3 and 6 contain a lot of blue stuff. Shall we remove them from consideration? Not so fast! Skull 3 (Australopithecus afarensis, known as Lucy) contains some interestingly wide cheekbones even if we amateurs can draw only limited conclusions about the skull cap. We know from other sources that the important thing about Lucy is her knee joint, not her skull. Hmmm . . . Let's ignore the skull cap, but keep that upper jaw in reserve.
What about all that blue stuff in skull 6 (A. garhi)? We can take a closer look at skull 6 because it appears on the front cover:
Every incomplete skull is a shame; look at all that missing terrain around the eye sockets! However, note the distinct eyebrow ridge on our left side of the skull (in front of the letters T and I). That's an eyebrow ridge that you and I don't have. (Go ahead, feel your own eyebrows!) Notice also that the outlines of the skull cap on either side travel upward behind the eyebrow ridge. That contour (completed by the blue material) implies a larger brain cavity than a chimpanzee (450 cubic centimeters versus 380 cc). The Theobald article supplies a modern chimpanzee skull for comparison purposes. Skull 6 seems to have a smaller eyebrow ridge than the chimpanzee. This creature was neither a chimpanzee-like animal nor a human; it was something in between. So - even though we are missing a lot of fragments, we can still draw some useful conclusions from skull 6.
Remember also that skulls are symmetrical about the center plane. So any missing pieces from one side can be filled in accurately from the other side. In theory we need only 50% of the skull to get a 100% accurate picture. Lots of blue stuff isn't so bad after all.
Onward! Skulls 5 and 8 look fairly similar, making us wonder why they are placed fairly far apart on the ancestry chart below. Skulls 6 and 7 look like decent transitions to the bigger-brained creatures that came later. To me, skull 7 looks like it should come after 8. Looking at the dates, there is some overlap between those. Furthermore, they were found on opposite ends of the African continent. Now we remember that the descent tree is not a single line, but more of a many-branched bush.
Great! Now we've got a bunch of Homo skulls 9-15 along the bottom row, nicely lined up. Except there is a glaring error; namely, skull 4 along the top row looking for all the world like a Homo skull. Why did whoever wrote this article not put A. africanus with the rest of the Homo genus? Skull 4's cranium looks big and round enough for me!
The answer to the skull 4 puzzle is to look at the Theobald illustration, especially the side view. A. africanus has a tilted facial angle unlike the vertical face of the Homo series, and it belongs with the rest of the Australopithecus on that basis. This difference doesn't show up well in the frontal view. Furthermore, the brain capacity of skull 4 is smaller than any Homo. If we could turn these specimens over in our hands the difference would have been obvious. Fortunately we have several pictures and independent witness.
We're on the home stretch (literally)! Note that Lucy's wide cheekbones in skull 3 are fading into history. Skulls 10, 12, and 13 have distinct eyebrow ridges that modern humans don't have. Other than that they look . . . well . . . familiar. Compare skull 12 Homo erectus with skull 15 Homo sapiens though, and you'll see that Homo erectus still has a ways to go before matching our modern brain capacity. The cranial dome of skull 15 is plainly much higher above the eye sockets than it is on skull 12. Only skull 14 Homo neanderthalensis can match sapiens in terms of cranium capacity. If we were real scientists we would measure the cranial capacity of each skull and plot them on a graph versus the likely date of the fossil. But we're not real scientists. (Fortunately for us, real scientist H.M. McHenry has already done this. Go to http://www.talkorigins.org/faqs/homs/a_brains.html and scroll down to the graph of brain size vs. time at the bottom of the page. The illustration is from McHenry H.M. (1994): Tempo and mode in human evolution. Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences, USA, 91:6780-6.)
I think these are transitional fossils because it's difficult to draw a clear line between humans and the other species. We have in front of us an obvious and steady progression of features from ape-like creatures to modern man. There are debates among scientists over the classification of these fossils into genus and species. That's exactly what we would expect from transitional fossils, because there are no obvious divisions that we can draw among them.
In 2000 I was given an audiotape of creationist Hank Hanegraaff ("The Bible Answer Man"). This talk was on "The F.A.C.E. That Demonstrates the Farce of Evolution." FACE was an acronym that Hanegraaff had chosen for his four main arguments against evolution:
For the Ape-men section, Hanegraaff spoke about Piltdown Man (a hoax), Nebraska Man (a mistake), and a couple of other similar examples. From these he confidently concluded, "There are no ape-men.", meaning transitional forms between prehistoric apes and humans that demonstrate our lineage from a common ancestor.
Hank Hanegraaff is wrong. There are ape-men, and we have the fossils to prove it in Figure 2. There are transitional forms between ape-like creatures and modern humans. Come to think of it, these illustrations refute his F point about the lack of transitional fossils, too.
The TIME article notes that most of these specimens are not directly on the human line of descent; they are cousins instead of direct ancestors. That's okay. Close relations still tell us about our own history, on the assumption that "the apple does not fall far from the tree." Your aunts and uncles are more like you than unrelated people, even though they are not your parents. Sure, we all would like to see many more fossil skulls, some from currently-missing sections of human history, and all along the line of direct human ancestry. We'll just have to keep on digging.
The hominid skulls in Figure 3 do prove that there are fossils intermediate in physical form between chimpanzees and modern humans. That great creationist claim goes up in smoke. But beyond that, what can we say about the skulls? Is there evidence to link them together in some kind of biological sequence of descent with modification?
For starters, Figure 2 shows the skulls arranged from B to M by physical form; the skulls at the beginning of the list look more like chimpanzee skull A, and the skulls at the end of the list look more like the human skull N. There is a progression of appearance from B to M. Here are the skulls listed by species and date:
[Douglas Theobald, 2002. 29 Evidences for Macroevolution, Part 1: The Unique Universal Phylogenetic Tree. At http://www.talkorigins.org/faqs/comdesc/hominids.html, retrieved July 4, 2011.]
- (A) Pan troglodytes, chimpanzee, modern
- (B) Australopithecus africanus, STS 5, 2.6 My
- (C) Australopithecus africanus, STS 71, 2.5 My
- (D) Homo habilis, KNM-ER 1813, 1.9 My
- (E) Homo habilis, OH24, 1.8 My
- (F) Homo rudolfensis, KNM-ER 1470, 1.8 My
- (G) Homo erectus, Dmanisi cranium D2700, 1.75 My
- (H) Homo ergaster (early H. erectus), KNM-ER 3733, 1.75 My
- (I) Homo heidelbergensis, "Rhodesia man," 300,000 - 125,000 y
- (J) Homo sapiens neanderthalensis, La Ferrassie 1, 70,000 y
- (K) Homo sapiens neanderthalensis, La Chappelle-aux-Saints, 60,000 y
- (L) Homo sapiens neanderthalensis, Le Moustier, 45,000 y
- (M) Homo sapiens sapiens, Cro-Magnon I, 30,000 y
- (N) Homo sapiens sapiens, modern
The list above shows that the skulls also progress in time as well as in physical form. Figure 2 is not a random collection of physical characteristics. There is a temporal (time-based) sequence that corresponds to the physical sequence. This coincidence is best explained by a biological sequence of descent. Time and morphology together suggest that the skulls are indeed linked.
What happens if we plot the geographical data? If we display on a map where each specimen was found, will we see a random distribution, or some kind of pattern? I plotted the site location of each hominid skull with Google Earth, and created the global map below. The capital letters B-M each refer to a single hominid skull.
Figure 4. Geographical distribution of hominid skulls.
You may also download the KML file and view it with Google Earth yourself.
Figure 4 shows an origin in southeastern Africa, followed by a pattern of radiation outward to the north. Note that hominids continue to live at the likely region of origin and continue to evolve there. We see not a random placement of skulls, but a geographical distribution that shows branching evolution from a point of origin, then the daughter species radiating outward. It would be better to plot the location and dates of 100 hominid skulls, but the evolutionary pattern is apparent even in this small sample. Geography is the third variable that supports the idea that the skulls are linked.
The fossil sequences shown on this page (especially Figure 2) are consistent with:
It would be nice to have a complete DNA sequence from each of the skulls, and thus obtain a fourth variable to test the hypothesis that the skulls are linked in a sequence of biological descent. An obstructive person could still claim that we can draw no firm conclusion, that the evidence could still be explained by coincidence. However, refusing to formulate a reasonable hypothesis is refusing to do science. God has given us clues to our human origins in the Bible and in the earth. I believe that those clues point to the same conclusion: That God has exalted a humble bipedal primate with a well-developed central nervous system, and has given him a soul and dominion over God's creation.
I'll begin with some definitions. According to "The Hebrew-Greek Key Study Bible" (1991) edited by Spiros Zodhiates, Genesis uses the Hebrew word Nephesh in reference to humans and animals, meaning "that which breathes" (page 5). This word is usually translated "soul." The human soul is our personality, our behavior, our intellect, our desires. Humans also have an immortal "spirit" (sometimes Hebrew Ruach) in the image of God (Hebrew Tselem) that animals don't have. The human "spirit" is our immortal essence in the eyes of God, our sense of responsibility, our capacity for real love, the spiritual thing that goes to heaven or hell when a person dies. Thus we can make the following inferences:
Anyone who has read the first chapters of Genesis probably wants to know the answer to the Big Question: Which one is Adam? How does the lineup of fossil hominid skulls above fit with the creation accounts given in the Bible? Either Adam has a biological ancestor, or the intelligent designer has come up with some near-human special creations that have greatly confused us! Why create near-human creatures if we Homo sapiens are to understand clearly our special status? I don't think that God is in the business of confusing or tempting us (James 1:13). I prefer to believe that Adam has a biological predecessor.
Adam is the adopted son of God, adopted from a biological line of descent. God raised Adam, provided for him, taught him, cared for him, and gave Adam His love. That's what matters. Have you ever spoken with adoptive parents? Have you ever made the mistake of asking who are the "real parents" of their child? Adam is truly the son of God in every way that matters.
Still, this is not the creation process that I learned back in Sunday School. My childhood impression was that God took a lump of clay and formed it into a human shape, much like I would have made mud pies out in the back yard. God breathed life into it, and the "man" ran off like the proverbial gingerbread man.
The childhood impression takes us only so far. For starters, my body is more than just animated clay. I have veins, organs, bones, a heart, a brain, lungs, and lots of other useful innards. We adults understand the creation process as more complex than the childhood story. When God tells Adam in Genesis 3:19 "You are dust, and to dust you shall return.", we understand that the first "dust" is symbolic of the temporary and frail nature of our physical bodies. When Adam dies and is buried, his body will turn into literal dust.
Genesis 1:11, 20, and 24 do not specify direct creation; those verses state that life forms shall arise from the earth at God's command. That's exactly what theistic evolution says. Genesis 2 says that life forms were created from dirt, from the soil, and given life. Evolution says that life arose from the soupy seas, from dirt, from nutrients, from decaying organic matter, from previous less-developed creatures. That's dust! That's dirt. That's the earth.
One may ask if this process is truly Creation, or merely Conversion of a previous life form? Biological evolution doesn't sound spectacular enough to warrant the treatment that Genesis gives it.
It's not. However, biological evolution is the smallest part of what Genesis is describing. Genesis is primarily a faith account. The human spirit did not evolve. It was created by God in a sudden, miraculous, and creative act of supreme love! That's what Genesis 1-2 is all about. The Author of Genesis does not care very much about the musty old bones pictured above, because He has much greater truths to impart. The creation of humans does involve our long descent from previous and lower life forms, but the most important aspect is our spirit and our relationship with God Almighty! God stepped into a biological line of succession and made something spiritually special happen. When Adam's spirit was created and somehow infused with his soul and physical body, at that moment the earth saw something new that had not been witnessed in 4.5 billion years of history. A new creature lived in the spiritual image of God; capable of talking with God, walking in His ways, and returning God's love freely and joyfully. That is spectacular!
St. Paul writes in 2 Corinthians 5:17 "Therefore, if anyone is in Christ, he is a new creation; the old has gone, the new has come!"(NIV). We may say that the person has been converted, not created, but the Apostle Paul uses language of creation to describe the transformation. It's a big deal! We pray with the Psalmist in 51:10 "Create in me a clean heart, Oh God, and renew a right spirit within me." The cells of our heart organ do not get replaced, but instead we pray for a brand-new life of righteousness. When we are born again, we are truly a new creation.
The feline theologian Hobbes (in the comic strip "Calvin and Hobbes") says to the boy Calvin with disdain, "Your fingernails are a joke, you've got no fangs, you can't see at night, your pink hides are ridiculous, your reflexes are nil, and you don't even have tails!" [There's Treasure Everywhere, by Bill Watterson, 1996, page 157] All true, and from the perspective of a Bengal tiger we are pretty pathetic. And yet - it is the Bengal tiger Hobbes that is now in danger of extinction, not humans. Yes, we are much smarter than other animals. But it seems that we have humble beginnings, as a bipedal primate in some corner of Africa.
Is that a problem? Would people rather draw their ancestry from something as physically majestic as an elephant, as powerful as a lion (the "King of Beasts"), or as comfortable in the wild ocean as a porpoise? Quite frankly, many people think that apes are hairy, ugly, and smell bad! The little orphan orangutans that I met at Camp Leakey in Tanjung Puting Reserve on Borneo were all that, but they were also endearing and in great need of affection. That's why they climbed up the legs of a tall jet-lagged tourist and snuggled into my arms. God also has great regard for the lowly and the humble. I learned it from Him.
In the Virgin Mary's song of praise to God (The Magnificat), she emphasizes how God has brought her up from lowly stature and exalted her to high degree (Luke 1:46-55, especially 48 and 52): "so tenderly has He looked upon His servant, humble as she is. ... He has brought down monarchs from their thrones, but the humble have been lifted high." I believe that God also exalted Adam, because (like Zaccheus) God knew that Adam had a curious nature and a willing heart. Christians do not glory in our physical or mental prowess, nor in our privileged position at the top of the food chain. We glory in what God has done for us.
I will close with Psalm 8, that great hymn of praise to the Creator for His wondrous creation and for mankind's place in it. The Psalmist indicates in verse 4 that without God we humans don't amount to much. It is God in verses 5-6 who has lifted us up from our lowly position and made us stewards of His marvelous creation: "You have made him little less...", "You made him master...", "You put everything under..." God did all that, and not we ourselves (Psalm 100:3). Praise God!
3 When I look up at the heavens, the work of Your hands,
The moon and the stars that You set in place,
4 What is man that You are mindful of him?
Mortal man that You care for him?
5 Yet You have made him little less than a god,
With glory and honor You crowned him;
6 You made him master over all Your creatures,
You put everthing under his feet.
7 All sheep and cattle, all the wild beasts,
8 The birds in the air and the fish in the sea,
And all that moves along the paths of the ocean.
9 Oh Lord our sovereign,
How glorious is Your name in all the earth!
I favor the view that Adam and Eve were historical individuals and the federal head couple of all modern humans. They are the historical and spiritual representatives of the entire human race, but are not necessarily the biological ancestors of all of us. Paul's comments in Romans 5:12-14 ("sin entered the world through one man") and 1 Corinthians 15:45 ("The first man Adam became a living being") support the idea of an individual Adam. Genetic studies and mitochondrial DNA also support the idea of a small group of ancestral individuals, numbering in the thousands [Dennis Venema, "Genesis and the Genome: Genomics Evidence for Human-Ape Common Ancestry and Ancestral Hominid Population Sizes", Perspectives on Science and Christian Faith, Volume 62, Number 3, September 2010]. There were other bipedal primates around at the time of Adam (able to walk on two legs), which gives us a good explanation for who Cain was afraid of in Genesis 4:13-14: "Cain said to the Lord, 'My punishment is more than I can bear. Today you are driving me from the land, and I will be hidden from Your presence; I will be a restless wanderer on the earth, and whoever finds me will kill me!'" At that point in the Genesis narrative there were only three humans left alive on the planet: Adam, Eve, and Cain. Those other threatening primates whom Cain feared either died out, or were eventually assimilated into Adam and Eve's line through intermarriage.
It was not difficult for Eve to become the "Mother of all the Living" humans (Genesis 3:20) even if there were other Homo sapiens around at the time of Adam and Eve. Let us suppose that Eve produced only two adult children, Cain and Seth (deliberately ignoring Genesis 5:4). We further suppose that there were 10,000 interbreeding Homo sapiens at the time of Genesis 4. Question: How long did Adam and Eve's parentage take to spread through the entire population? Answer: If they simply instructed their offspring not to marry anyone who is also a descendent of Adam and Eve, and if each descendant couple had only two children, then Eve's "umbrella of motherhood" could double in size with every successive generation. Since 2^14 = 16,384, Eve could easily achieve universal motherhood in 14 generations. At 30 years per generation (to produce two children), this process would take only 420 years. Although this is a simplified calculation, it illustrates that the Most Recent Common Ancestor of a human population can be surprisingly recent indeed! Genesis 3:20 is not hard to achieve in principle with an interbreeding population.
Consider three interpretations of Genesis 1-3:
1. Historical ancestral.
2. Historical representative. (my preference)
1. The historical ancestral viewpoint asserts that Adam and Eve are historical individuals and the biological ancestors of all modern humans. Although appealing from a traditional point of view, the historical ancestral viewpoint is not without problems. Every viewpoint that seeks to deal realistically with Genesis and natural history has problems. Hank Hanegraaff and the rest of the young-earth creationists may try to ignore the fossils of ape-men, but those fossils won't go away just by clicking on the Home button. I do not believe that the Bible calls me to bear false witness about God's creation. Nor can I believe that Jesus Christ and the Apostles have left us with such a vulnerable and shallow faith that it will collapse just because Louis and Mary Leakey dug up an old skull at Olduvai Gorge.
The problem with the historical ancestral viewpoint is in choosing an approximate date for Adam. We need to choose a time when the human race passed through a narrow point in our population. It is thought that the Australian Aborigines arrived in Australia roughly 50,000 years ago, and have been an isolated population from that time until the Age of European Exploration (1600). If Adam is to be their ancestor, then Adam must be placed before 50,000 BC, perhaps even earlier. It is unacceptable for Aborigines to be considered in any way not human.
Bishop Ussher's biblical chronology puts the date of Creation at 4004 BC. I do not believe that Ussher's methodology is accurate enough to fix the date of Adam to within a few years. Nevertheless, the historical ancestral viewpoint would have us believe that Ussher's system is off by a factor of 10! We can address this problem to some extent by observing that Jesus is known as the "Son of Mary" and also as the "Son of David." Ussher's methodology would produce a difference of 1,000 years between those two terms! Are there similar gaps in the genealogies that the good bishop used? Maybe. But the feel one gets from the first chapters of Genesis is that these events occur across generations, not tens of generations.
2. A second possibility is that Adam and Eve are historical individuals, but are not necessarily the biological ancestors of all mankind. This view gives us the freedom to date them somewhere near the customary timeframe of Ussher's system. Then Adam and Eve are not the biological ancestors of the Aborigines, although they are the ancestors of most Middle Eastern peoples. So how is it that the Aborigines, and perhaps other racial groups, take part in the story related in Genesis 1-3?
The second viewpoint asserts that Adam is the God-appointed federal head of the human race. I call this the historical representative viewpoint. When Adam sinned, the consequences of his sin fell upon all humans throughout the world. There are analogous situations in the Bible, such as the story of David and Goliath in 1 Samuel 17:8-10 "Goliath stood and shouted to the ranks of Israel, 'Why do you come out and line up for battle? Am I not a Philistine, and are you not the servants of [King] Saul? Choose a man and have him come down to me. If he is able to fight and kill me, we will become your subjects; but if I overcome him and kill him, you will become our subjects and serve us.' Then the Philistine said, 'This day I defy the ranks of Israel! Give me a man and let us fight each other.'" Each side was to choose a champion, and the fate of the entire nation depended on the success or failure of the individual champion.
In the historical representative viewpoint, Eve is the spiritual "mother of all the living" (Genesis 3:20) in the same way that Abraham is the spiritual father of all who worship the God of Abraham. Everyone who has the human spirit is a daughter or son of Eve. That's all modern humans. St. Paul declares to the Galatians that they are now children of Sarah in 4:31: "Therefore, brothers, we are not children of the slave woman [Hagar], but of the free woman [Sarah]." Paul knew perfectly well that the Gentile Galatians were not descended biologically through Sarah. Likewise Matthew 1 and Luke 3 draw Jesus' lineage through Joseph, although they are both emphatic that Joseph was not the biological father of Jesus. The Bible uses language of family relationships without confining itself to biological descent.
Everyone worldwide shares in the Fall, but also in the blessing of the Second Adam, who is Jesus Christ, the life-giving spirit (1 Corinthians 15:45-47). Jesus Christ Himself uses the language of biological relationships to describe a spiritual relationship in Mark 3:35 "Whoever does God's will is My brother and sister and mother." Jesus Christ left no biological descendants, but we know that Salvation transcends biology. The mechanisms of inherited guilt and atonement for sin are not biological, but spiritual. We do not need every human to be descended directly from Adam for the Gospel message to be true!
At least one puzzle remains with the historical representative view: When did the Aborigines get their spirits? Did they wake up one morning at the time of Adam feeling different, somehow more spiritual? If this scenario sounds strange, consider this: Every human on earth in 29 AD woke up on that first Easter morning with the potential for Salvation through the risen Jesus Christ. Did they feel some unexplained tingle of joy on that morning, some hint that the world had changed forever? History does not record such a feeling. We don't know.
3. A third possibility is that Adam and Eve in Genesis 2-3 are symbolic of the Fall of Every Man and Woman throughout history - past, present, and future. Adam and Eve are not literal, but are prophetic of the inevitable, certain, and original sin of every human. The symbolic view notes that the Hebrew word Adam used in Genesis 1:26,27 means "man" in the collective sense (see also "persons" in Numbers 31:28,30,35,40).
As noted earlier, I do not favor the symbolic view because St. Paul's discussion in Romans 5:12-21 talks about "one man" and "one sin". A possible response to this objection is that Paul is simply referring to the one Adam in the conventional story, using terminology that his Roman readers would certainly understand. Adam is still a symbol of all mankind, just as the single Good Samaritan in Jesus' story represents every person who does a good deed despite the cost. I can allude to the Good Samaritan without supporting the historicity of a single Good Samaritan on the road to Jericho.
Genesis 3 contains numerous suggestions in the text that the story is symbolic, and all the objections of Biblical literalists won't change that. Here are some examples:
The symbolic view has parallels elsewhere in the Bible. The prophet Nathan tells King David a story in 2 Samuel 12:1-14 to convict him of his sin with Bathsheba and Uriah the Hittite. The Song of Solomon is sometimes taken to represent Christ's love for His church. Certain prophecies are related by means of a story or a simpler illustration. The book of Revelation contains many symbolic prophecies of things to come. God is indeed in the habit of using symbolic stories to convey His Truth! Just because the story of the Good Samaritan "didn't really happen" does not make the message any less true. Jesus' words still cut like a knife to the heart of the man who sought to justify himself (see Luke 10:37).
One may wonder where the symbology of Genesis leaves off and where the literal history begins. That transition point could reasonably be as early as between Genesis 3 and 4, after their departure from the garden. Or it could be after the murder of Abel, and Cain's departure from God's presence. It would be nice if Cain didn't "really" murder his brother Abel! In any case, whether symbolic or literal, the horrible story of Cain and Abel is all too familiar from the evening news.
Note that a historical story can also be symbolic. St. Paul derives a symbolic meaning from the tale of Hagar and Sarah, without denying the historicity of that part of Genesis. In Galatians 4:24-26 he writes "These things may be taken figuratively, for the women represent two covenants. One covenant is from Mount Sinai and bears children who are to be slaves: this is Hagar. Now Hagar stands for Mount Sinai in Arabia and corresponds to the present city of Jerusalem, because she is in slavery with her children. But the Jerusalem that is above is free, and she is our mother [Sarah]. (NIV)" So if you like the view that the story of Adam and Eve is historical and symbolic, you're in good company.
This author believes that it is not crucial to figure out which viewpoint is the "correct one" from a scientific perspective. The fundamental Christian doctrine here is that all mankind is in a Fallen state, in need of God's saving grace. All the viewpoints described here affirm the central truth of that doctrine. It is less important for a Christian to know exactly how and when we got into that state. There is plenty of Scriptural evidence for the fact of our disobedience and our fallen state, even if the book of Genesis were to disappear tomorrow without a trace. Sadly enough, there is plenty of observational evidence for our fallen state as well. All people have sinned (Romans 3:23). All people need Jesus Christ to make them right with God again (Acts 4:12).
The symbolic view actually has some theological advantages over the two historical views. One might reasonably infer from those two that our Fallen state is dependent upon the careless whim of our ancestor thousands of years ago. If only Adam had been a little more responsible, a little more thoughtful, a little more obedient; we would all be sitting pretty right now! The symbolic viewpoint says that you sinned! You have disobeyed God's command. You are causing your own pain and misery. With every sin you are crucifying Jesus Christ. Suddenly the ancient story is aimed straight at our own heart and soul. It's deadly serious.
It is common for Biblical literalists to deride the symbolic view as "treating the story of Adam and Eve as nothing more than a fairy tale!" Yet Nathan's little fairy-tale story told to King David had teeth to it! For those people who are willing to take the Bible seriously and personally, the story of Adam and Eve in Genesis 3 is no fairy tale either. Because that's not just Adam there in Genesis. That's me. That's Carl with the apple in my hand, doing what I know is wrong. That's me trying to blame it on my wife, on the world, on God, or on anyone else other than myself. That's me afterwards grieving over my sin, trying to make amends, and hoping to be forgiven.
That's all of us, hoping and praying that the Messiah will come to make things right again.
I have good news. He has come. And He died on the cross to make things right again.
Good Friday, 2002
Special thanks to Allan Harvey for his review, comments, and suggestions.
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