Before answering the title question, let me emphasize: Adam and Eve were actual, historical individuals, specially created by God in His image at the beginning of the world. I don’t have space to defend it here, but Adam’s actual existence is assumed in my answer.
Adam’s sin, eating fruit from the tree that God commanded him not to eat, is briefly described (Genesis 3:5b), but his one act had implications for every person throughout the rest of human history. In the same way that children of alcoholic parents may suffer from Fetal Alcohol Syndrome, poverty, and emotional scarring, the children of Adam suffer the consequences of his sin.
First, we now live in a sin-bruised world. As I tell my kids: It’s a fallen world; stuff breaks. We see the consequence appearing almost immediately after the sin. The previously pleasant callings of subduing the earth and multiplying (Genesis 1:28) now result in thorns (3:18) and heartache (3:16). We get the flu, our pets run away from home. Stuff breaks.
Second, we are sin-filled people. This consequence rears its head pretty quickly, too, “the wickedness of man was great on the earth. . .every intention of the thoughts of his heart was only evil continually” (Genesis 6:5). And our native sinfulness is emphasized throughout Scripture: “I was brought forth in iniquity” (Psalm 51:5), “the heart is deceitful above all things and desperately sick” (Jeremiah 17:9) and “none is righteous, no, not one” (Romans 3:10). We tell lies, we fight with our spouses. We love to sin.
But that’s not all.
In Romans 5:12-21 and I Corinthians 15:20-49, we find that children of Adam do not merely share in the consequences of his sin, we also participate in the guilt of his sin.
By guilt, I mean that we deserve the punishment for Adam’s sin (death) because we also committed his crime (eating from the tree.)
Scripture clearly teaches our guilt for Adam’s sin: “in Adam all die” (I Corinthians 15:22a) and “one trespass led to condemnation for all men” (Romans 5:18a). If we stand condemned for Adam’s sin, there must be some way in which we committed the crime with him (or “in” him, as 1 Corinthians phrases it.) How?
First, we sinned in Adam because Adam was, at the time, the entire human race. And Adam carried in his body the rest of us. (Hebrews 7:9-10 uses this same logic to explain how Levi could pay tithes to Melchizedek: Levi was “in” Abraham, though yet unborn.) When Seth is born, we read “Adam. . .fathered a son in his own likeness, after his image” (Genesis 5:3). God does not individually create the successive generations. Adam and Eve brought forth all the rest of humanity, generation by generation, in their guilty likeness; “we have born the image of the man of dust” (I Corinthians 15:49a).
Second, we sinned in Adam because Adam was our representative. After reading Romans 5, we must conclude that there was something special about Adam and about his sin. Nowhere in Scripture do we stand condemned for anyone else’s sin* nor for Adam’s other sins (and I’m sure he committed many!). The “one man’s trespass” (5:15) is unique in the parallel way that the “one act of righteousness” (5:18) by the Lord Jesus Christ is unique. We are made blameless in Christ our representative, because we are guilty in Adam our representative.
All in all, the impact of Adam’s sin is bleak, but not hopeless: “For as by a man came death, by a man has come also the resurrection of the dead.” (I Corinthians 15:21) Praise be to God!
Now, please visit Marian Green at Uprooted and Undone to read a different answer to this question. Then we invite you to comment on either blog with your own perspective!
*A side note: for those of you who love this discussion (I know you’re out there!) and because I'm way over my allotted word count (sorry, Marian) I think Eve’s presence is evidence for a representational/federal view of Adam.
- The human race was “in” Eve as much as in Adam according to natural generation (Genesis 3:20 “the man called his wife’s name Eve, because she was the mother of all living”);
- Eve was the first transgressor (I Timothy 2:13-14);
- but Eve’s sin is nowhere accounted to us, only Adam’s sin is (“the transgression of Adam” Romans 5:14b);
- therefore (I really wanted to say ergo, but I won’t) Adam seems to have a special, representative relationship to humankind.