Yes, contrary to what you might have heard, the Church still teaches that there was a real Adam and Eve.
If you want to understand how this can be reconciled with modern evolutionary science, check out this video from Father Nicanor Austriaco, a scientist and Dominican priest here.
This article aims to address the question of why defending a historical Adam is necessary in the first place. Isn’t this better left to biblical scholars, biologists, and Dominican priests? In other words, does the answer matter to us? Does it affect our faith?
What the Church Teaches
The Church certainly talks about the historicity of the Adam-and-Eve story as if it’s of crucial importance. Here is what Pope Pius XII says in the encyclical Humani Generis,
When, however, there is question of another conjectural opinion, namely polygenism, the children of the Church by no means enjoy such liberty. For the faithful cannot embrace that opinion which maintains that either after Adam there existed on this earth true men who did not take their origin through natural generation from him as from the first parent of all, or that Adam represents a certain number of first parents (37).
The Catechism of the Catholic Church is just as unequivocal about the matter:
The account of the fall in Genesis 3 uses figurative language, but affirms a primeval event, a deed that took place at the beginning of the history of man (390).
The Origin of Evil
Both Pius XII and the catechism ground the importance of the historical Adam in the doctrine of original sin, which holds that we all are born in a state of sin and separation from God because of the first sin committed by our primeval parents, Adam and Eve.
Of course, this might seem unfair. But there’s a flipside. The doctrine of original sin means that the evil within us is the result of an individual choice. Evil is not some impersonal force. Thanks to Genesis, we can put a face and a name to the source of our sin. Scripture and the Church teach that, as a result of the Fall, there was a fundamental rupture in the order of creation. Man suffered a three-part separation: from God, from his mate, and from himself. This catastrophic event had a ripple effect throughout the entirety of creation, ushering in our fallen world.
Like some cosmic chain reaction or the spreading of virus, we can trace human sin to its origins.
Adam was patient zero in the disease of sin.
Knowing where a disease comes from helps us in curing it. Two other elements of the Eden story reinforce this hope. First, one implication of the account is that mankind was originally good. We weren’t doomed from the outset; instead, we were destined for greatness. Humanity is essentially good. We may be rotten, but we’re not rotten to the core.
Second, the fact that Adam and Eve freely chose to disobey God demonstrates the reality and power of human choice. If Adam and Even chose one way, then presumably we can choose differently.
The basis for how we can do that is discussed below. But, before moving on, the obvious needs to be stated. Without a historical Adam and Eve all this goes away—our understanding of the origins of evil, the belief that good and evil are not impersonal forces, the conviction that we were originally good, and the cosmic significance of human freedom. If we don’t know where we came from, we can’t truly understand ourselves.
No Adam, No Christ
A personal source of sin implies the need for a personal savior. The existence of a historical Adam thus prepares the way for Christ. The epistles of Paul explicitly identify Christ with Adam.
Through one person sin entered the world, and through sin, death, and thus death came to all, inasmuch as all sinned. … For if by that one person’s transgression the many died, how much more did the grace of God and the gracious gift of the one person Jesus Christ overflow for the many (Romans 5:12, 15).
For since death came through a human being, the resurrection of the dead came also through a human being. For just as in Adam all die, so too in Christ shall all be brought to life (1 Corinthians 15:21-22).
Think how different the story of our redemption would be different without a historical Adam and Eve and the doctrine of original sin. Say, for example, that only the demons were evil. They torment us but they never successfully tempt us. Then the battle to save us would transpire entirely in heaven and hell—between St. Michael and Satan, perhaps. Or, imagine that our sin was the result of some physical contamination or some other impersonal force. In that case, salvation would occur simply through eradicating the contamination or eliminating that impersonal force.
Without Adam there would be no need for a Redeemer who bled for us, who cried out for us, and who gazed lovingly on the cross. Our belief in a real Incarnation—a God who assumed flesh and blood for our sake—is inextricably linked to the existence of a real historical flesh-and-blood Adam. No Adam, no Christ. This is why that wonderful Easter hymn calls the first sin of Adam and Eve a ‘happy fault.’
By the way, the same goes for Mary: without Eve we could not understand Mary—her role as the New Adam’s partner, her status as spiritual mother of all men, and her preservation from original sin.
The Quest for Paradise
St. Paul suggests that we are all earthly pilgrims (1 Corinthians 2:5). In one of his letters, J.R.R. Tolkien connects this lack of belonging, this sense of homelessness with Eden: “We all long for Eden, and we are constantly glimpsing it: our whole nature at its best and least corrupted, its gentlest and most human, is still soaked with the sense of exile.”
This sense of loss points us backward and forward. We are driven to recover the paradise that we once had. And we yearn for the paradise that is promised to us in the future.
But, of course, if we were never paradise-dwellers in the first place—if we were never in an original state of happiness and beauty, then our quest for paradise is a bit odd. We are longing for a home that is not truly ours. The story of Adam and Eve, as told in Scripture, thus becomes ours. Without them, we lose a vital piece of ourselves. Humanity becomes unmoored from history, adrift in the storm—a race of amnesiacs searching for a paradise they never knew.
That is why the debate over a historical Adam and Eve matters.