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We may be following the markets second by second this week, but let's take a moment to take a longer view. Let's go all the way back to the beginning, or to what several religions mark as the beginning: Adam and Eve. For many evangelicals, a historical Adam and Eve is a critical part of their theology, but now some conservative religious scholars are saying, publicly, that they can no longer believe it. As NPR's Barbara Bradley Hagerty reports, this is causing a rupture among evangelicals over reconciling science with the Bible.

BARBARA BRADLEY HAGERTY: According to the book of Genesis, this is how humanity began.

Unidentified Man: The Lord God formed man of the dust of the ground, and breathed into his nostrils the breath of life; and man became a living soul.

HAGERTY: God called the man Adam, and later created Eve from his rib. Four out of 10 Americans believe this account, and it's a central tenet for much of evangelical Christianity. So I asked Dennis Venema, a biologist at the evangelical Trinity Western University, how likely is it that we all descended from Adam and Eve?

Mr. DENNIS VENEMA (Biologist, Trinity Western University): That would be against all the genomics evidence that we've assembled over the last 20 years, so not likely at all.

HAGERTY: Venema says there's no way we can be traced back to a single couple. He says with the mapping of the human genome, it's clear that modern humans emerged from other primates as a large population - long before the Genesis time frame of a few thousand years ago. And given the genetic variation of people today, he says scientists can't get that population size below 10,000 people at any time in our evolutionary history. To get down to just two ancestors, Venema says...

Mr. VENEMA: You would have to postulate that there has been this absolutely astronomical mutation rate that has produced all these new variants in an incredibly short period of time. Those types of mutation rates are just not possible. It would mutate us out of existence.

HAGERTY: Venema is part of a growing cadre of Christian scholars who say they want their faith to come into the 21st century. So is John Schneider. Schneider, who taught theology at Calvin College in Michigan until recently, says it's time to face facts: There was no Adam and Eve, no serpent, no apple, no fall that toppled man from a state of innocence.

Mr. JOHN SCHNEIDER (Theology Teacher): Evolution makes it pretty clear that in nature, and in the moral experience of human beings, there never was any such paradise to be lost. So Christians, I think, have a challenge, have a job on their hands to reformulate some of their tradition about human beginnings.

HAGERTY: This is heresy to many evangelicals.

Dr. FAZALE RANA (Biochemist): From my viewpoint, a historical Adam and Eve is absolutely central to the truth claims of the Christian faith.

HAGERTY: Fazale Rana is a biochemist with a Ph.D. from Ohio University and vice president of Reasons To Believe, an evangelical think tank that questions evolution. Sure, he says, some small details of scripture could be wrong.

Dr. RANA: But if the parts of Scripture that you're claiming to be false, in effect, are responsible for creating the fundamental doctrines of the Christian faith, then you've got a problem.

HAGERTY: OK. Let's look at why Rana and others believe in a literal, historical Adam and Eve. One reason is that the Genesis account makes man unique, created in the image of God - not a descendant of lower primates. Second, it tells a story of how evil came into the world.

Unidentified Man: She took of the fruit thereof and did eat, and gave also unto her husband with her and he did eat. And the eyes of them both were opened and they knew that they were naked.

Mr. ALBERT MOHLER (President, Southern Baptist Theological Seminary): When Adam sinned, he sinned for us. And it's that very sinfulness that sets up our understanding of our need for a savior.

HAGERTY: Albert Mohler is president of Southern Baptist Theological Seminary in Louisville. He says the Adam and Eve story is not just about a fall from paradise, it goes to the heart of Christianity. He notes that the Apostle Paul argued that the whole point of Jesus' crucifixion and resurrection was to undo Adam's original sin.

Mr. MOHLER: Without Adam, the work of Christ makes no sense whatsoever in Paul's description of the Gospel, which is the classic description of the Gospel we have in the New Testament.

HAGERTY: That's only true if you read the Bible literally, says Dennis Venema at Trinity Western University. But if you read the Bible as poetry and allegory, as well as history, you can see God's hand in nature - and in evolution.

Mr. VENEMA: There's nothing to be scared of here. There's nothing to be alarmed about. It's actually an opportunity to have an increasingly accurate understanding of the world - and from a Christian perspective, that's an increasingly accurate understanding of how God brought us into existence.

HAGERTY: This debate over a historical Adam and Eve is not just another heady squabble. It's ripping apart the evangelical intelligentsia.

DANIEL HARLOW (Professor of Religion, Calvin College): Evangelicalism has a tendency to devour its young.

HAGERTY: Daniel Harlow is a religion professor at Calvin College, a Christian Reformed school that subscribes to the fall of Adam and Eve as a central part of its faith.

HARLOW: You get evangelicals who push the envelope, maybe; they get the courage up to work in sensitive, difficult areas. And they get slapped down. They get fired or dismissed or pressured out.

HAGERTY: Harlow should know: Calvin investigated him after he wrote an article questioning the historical Adam. His colleague and fellow theologian, John Schneider, wrote a similar article and was pressured to resign after 25 years there.

Several other well-known theologians at Christian universities have also been forced out. Of course, science has clashed with church doctrine before.

Unidentified Man #2: Galileo Galilei having held and believed a doctrine which is false and contrary to Scripture that the sun is the center of the world, that the earth is not the center of the world, we condemn you to formal imprisonment in this holy office.

Mr. KARL GIBERSON (Author): The evolution controversy today is, I think, a Galileo moment.

HAGERTY: Karl Giberson is author of "Saving Darwin: How To Be A Christian and Believe In Evolution."

Mr. GIBERSON: When you ignore science, you end up with egg on your face. And the Catholic Church has had an awful lot of egg on its face for centuries because of Galileo. And Protestants would do very well to look at that and to learn from it.

HAGERTY: Fuzale Rana isn't so sure this is a Galileo moment: That implies the scientists are correct. But he does believe the stakes are even higher in today's battle. It's not just about the movement of the earth, but the nature of God and man, of sin and redemption.

Dr. RANA: I think this is going to be a pivotal point in Church history, because what rests at the very heart of this debate is whether or not key ideas within Christianity are ultimately true or not.

HAGERTY: But Dan Harlow at Calvin College says Christians can no longer afford to ignore evidence from the human genome and fossils, just to maintain a literal view of Genesis.

HARLOW: This stuff is unavoidable. Evangelicals have to either face up to it or they have to stick their head in the sand. And if they do that, they will lose whatever intellectual currency or respectability they have.

Mr. MOHLER: If so, that's simply the price we'll have to pay.

HAGERTY: Again Southern Baptist Seminary's Albert Mohler.

Mr. MOHLER: The moment you say we have to abandon this theology in order to have the respect of the world, you end up with neither biblical orthodoxy nor the respect of the world.

HAGERTY: Mohler says if other Protestants want to accommodate science, fine. But don't be surprised if their faith unravels.

Barbara Bradley Hagerty, NPR News.

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