Karl Giberson writes of his de-conversion from orthodox Christianity, “I began to wonder how an old story about a guy named ‘Man’ in a magical garden who had a mate named ‘Woman’ made from one of his ribs could even be mistaken for actual history. And yet this was exactly what I had believed just one year earlier. Talking snakes, visits from God in the evening, naming the animals—the story takes on such a different character the moment one applies even the most basic literary analysis. The literalist interpretation I had formerly embraced and defended so vigorously began to look ridiculous, as did the person I had been just one year earlier.” Karl W. Giberson, Saving Darwin: How to be a Christian and Believe in Evolution (New York: HarperOne, 2008), 8.
Some more orthodox Christians try to split the difference. D. A. Carson says, “I hold that the Genesis account is a mixed genre that feels like history and really does give us some historical particulars. At the same time, however, it is full of demonstrable symbolism. Sorting out what is symbolic and what is not is very difficult.” Carson introduces his discussion of the Genesis 3 by comparing the historical account of David’s sin with Bathsheba and Nathan’s parabolic parallel, concluding: “So in Genesis 3. This serpent may be the embodiment of Satan, or he may be the symbol for Satan, and the Bible doesn’t really care to explain which.” D. A. Carson, The God Who Is There: Finding Your Place in God’s Story (Grand Rapids: Baker, 2010), 15, 29-30.
Contrary to Giberson’s claim, however “the most basic literary analysis” points toward a real serpent’s presence in the garden. Geerhardus Vos comments on the claim that the serpent is a symbol: “This view is contrary to the plain intent of the narrative; in Gen. 3.1, the serpent is compared with the other beasts God had made; if the others were real, then so was the serpent. In vs. 14 the punishment is expressed in terms requiring a real serpent.” Geerhardus Vos, Biblical Theology: Old and New Testaments (1948; repr., Carlisle, PA: Banner of Truth, 1975), 33.
In fact, it is surely no accident that Satan appears as a subtle beast, a form that enhances his opportunity to tempt, but as a beast, a form that Eve and Adam knew they had dominion over and should have exercised dominion over. In this light, the reality of the serpent is literarily and theologically significant.
The plausibility of an animal being controlled by a demon or being given the ability to speak should hardly be an obstacle for Christians (Mark 5:1-13; Num. 22:28-30). To materialists who deny the supernatural, such accounts do appear “ridiculous.” But giving up the supernatural is to give up Christianity.