The Bible is telling a story and, as in any story, the sequence of events matters for its coherence.
In other words, chronology is theology. For example, Christ’s physical death and resurrection occurs subsequent to, and as the answer to, the problem introduced by Adam’s sin. More subtle theological arguments also rest on chronology. In Galatians 3 and Romans 4, Paul argues theologically for the priority of faith, on the basis of the chronological priority of Abraham over Moses.
Paul’s argument does not require the chronology to be quantified, yet he provides an absolute figure (Galatians 3.17) not given directly in the Old Testament but calculated from the chronological figures it does contain. Paul’s approach fits what we find in the Old Testament. Seemingly incidental chronological information is given (e.g. Arphaxad was born ‘two years after the flood’ – Genesis 11.10) that is in fact vital to allow an absolute chronology of human history to be derived.
Mainstream concern for timing
Various textual uncertainties and other factors do not allow total precision in any biblical chronology, but the attempt to construct an absolute chronology has been a mainstream concern of believers down the ages, including the reformer Martin Luther. Unlike many modern biblical time lines, these older chronologies didn’t peter out around Abraham, but used the chronological data in the early chapters of Genesis to provide approximate dates for the flood and Adam.
What happens when we apply Paul’s chronological theological method to questions of origins? Human beings and physical death are both prominent in the Bible’s story and are brought together at its very centre: the cross and resurrection of Christ. How does what the Bible says about human beings and physical death correlate with evidence of humanity and death outside the Bible?
Adam and the fossils
Hominin fossils (of enormous variety) exist. They are not the invention of an evolutionary conspiracy, and they are, self-evidently, dead. How do these fossils relate to Adam?
Take Neanderthals. In the evolutionary chronology they died out around 25,000 years ago, but left evidence of a developed culture including clothing and burying their dead with artefacts, presumably for use in an afterlife. Even more distant hominins like Homo erectus (2 million years ago in the evolutionary chronology) seem to have a similar anatomy and similar capabilities to modern humans such as the controlled use of fire and sophisticated tool manufacture.
Image of God intrinsic
In the Bible, humanity is not defined in terms of a modern scientific species classification (Homo sapiens) but as those made in the image of God (Genesis 1.26-27). Adam, ‘the first man’ (1 Corinthians 15.45, 47) was made in the image of God, but who else is included in this biblical definition of humanity? If Adam was one of an existing population of hominin creatures, then his image-of-Godness is not something intrinsic to his identity from the beginning of his existence, but added to him at some point as God chooses him and (arbitrarily) decrees him to have this new status. If the image of God is given individually by divine decree how do I know if I, or my neighbour, share that status, given that I am not privy to decrees of God? Similarly, if Adam is the representative head of humanity, who is included in the humanity he represents?
Fortunately, the Bible makes clear that our connection with Adam has an objective physical basis. Genesis 5.1-3 tells us that Adam’s identity is shared with his physical descendants. In other words, biblically speaking, to be human is to be a descendant of Adam.
Where does that leave our Neanderthal ancestors? The answer depends on chronology: were they before or after Adam? If before, they were not human, which makes it hard to account for their apparent spiritual behaviour. In addition, DNA evidence suggests that they interbred with our own modern human species Homo sapiens and most Europeans and Asians today are descendants of this interbreeding. If Neanderthals were not human, many of us reading this article are the fruit of bestiality by our ancestors.
Even worse, since Homo sapiens has been around for about 200,000 years (in the evolutionary chronology) a more recent Adam would mean that most people today could not be his descendants, not bearing the image of God and not part of the human family tree that Jesus the Saviour assumed (Luke 3.23-37). These theological constraints require us to place Adam further back in the relative chronology of hominins. But an Adam 200,000 years ago (Homo sapiens) let alone 2 million years ago (Homo erectus) is impossible to reconcile with the absolute chronology of the Bible.
A similar conclusion is obtained when human physical death is considered. The New Testament is clear that the physical suffering and death of Christ is linked to payment for sin (e.g. Colossians 1.22, 1 Peter 2.24). Similarly, Christ’s physical resurrection is a victory over the enemy of physical death (1 Corinthians 15.26). So, in our biblical chronology, human physical death must come after Adam’s sin. How we classify the (dead) hominin fossils is therefore rather important. If Homo erectus is human and the evolutionary dating is unchallenged, then the biblical chronology needs to stretch back to an untenable scenario of an Adam 2 million years ago.
A more recent, biblically plausible date for a death-free Adam (e.g. up to 10,000 years ago) leads to different difficulties if the evolutionary chronology is maintained. In this scenario death-free Adam lives alongside other Homo sapiens (such as his parents) who are physically, emotionally and intellectually identical to him. Why would suffering from a terminal disease be a terrible evil in Adam (only experienced after he sins), but identical suffering in his parents be morally neutral?
Applying Paul’s theological-chronological method to origins leads to the conclusion that the chronology of evolutionary history (including the dating) is not consistent with the chronology (relative and absolute) of the Bible.
Scientifically that leaves us with some work to do. We need to develop scientific models that explain (not explain away) the evidence of the earth’s past history (including data indicating great age) within a framework consistent with the Bible’s chronology. That is a major task in progress, but worth the effort because of the apologetic benefits of sticking to the Bible’s chronology.
Stephen Fry and cancer
Chief among the objections we face is the problem of natural evil. Understandably (and rightly) people see a connection between creation and the character of the creator. Thus for Steven Fry bone cancer in children is inconsistent with a God who is good. The answer is to use the correct chronology. The world God declared ‘very good’ (Genesis 1.31) – reflecting his own character (Psalm 119.68) – did not include cancer and death. Such suffering entered the world after Adam’s sin. However that chronology conflicts with evolutionary history in which suffering and death have always been present. Which problem would you rather have: God as the author of all suffering, or the challenge of developing an alternative scientific model of earth history?
Our understanding of sin is also affected by the chronology of origins we adopt. In evolutionary history hominins have always been violent, promiscuous and some, no doubt, homosexual. If Adam was someone living alongside such a population in sin-less perfection he might justifiably wonder why he as the image of God should deserve judgement if he engaged in such behaviour, whereas the same actions in his anatomically identical neighbours are of no moral consequence. And why should it be wrong for Adam to image God’s use of violence in creation? With the wrong chronology the gospel becomes an incoherent message of God saving me from how he made me.
Human identity is also at stake. If Adam and other physically identical hominins could exist without being the image of God, how can this be fundamental to our human identity today? Human uniqueness as the image of God becomes a purely spiritual quality not related to how we have been made. And given that parallel language is used of our sexual identity as male or female (Genesis 1.27, 5.1-2) then neither is human sexuality rooted in how we have been made. Such a conclusion rather undermines our ability to challenge contemporary transgender ideology.
Adopting the correct chronology of origins really matters!
Dr Stephen Lloyd works for Biblical Creation Trust and is pastor of Hope Church, Gravesend.
This article is a summary of his paper ‘Chronological Creationism’ originally published in the Affinity theological journal Foundations (Issue 72). Copies of the paper, reformatted, and with a new title, ‘Adam or death: which came first?’ are available for £5 each (including postage and packing) from Biblical Creation Trust, P.O. Box 325, Ely CB7 5YH.