How could humans have evolved and still be created in the “Image of God”?
In a Nutshell
The meaning of the “image of God” has been debated for centuries in the church. A common view is that the image of God refers to the human abilities that separate us from the animals. However, scientists have found that abilities like communication and rationality are also present in animals on a basic level. Plus, theologians do not see the image of God as human abilities. Some theologians see the image of God as our capacity for a relationship with God. Other theologians see it as our commission to represent God’s kingdom on earth. Both of these theological positions are consistent with scientific evidence. Whether God created humanity through a miracle or through evolution, God gave us our spiritual capacities and calls us to bear his image.
The “image of God” is a key concept in Christian theology, foundational to Christian thinking about human identity, human significance, bioethics, and other topics. Many Christians see evolution as incompatible with the image of God. How could God’s image bearers have evolved from simpler life forms? Doesn’t image-bearing require miraculous creation of humans rather than shared ancestry with chimpanzees? And when in the evolutionary process did humans attain this image? These questions are tied to many other issues concerning human origins, including the soul, the Fall, and the historicity of Adam and Eve (see sidebars), but in this article we will focus specifically on the image of God.
The phrase “image of God” does not appear many times in the Bible, but the importance of the concept is emphasized by its repetition in the creation account:
Then God said, “Let us make mankind in our image, in our likeness, so that they may rule over the fish in the sea and the birds in the sky, over the livestock and all the wild animals, and over all the creatures that move along the ground.” So God created mankind in his own image, in the image of God he created them; male and female he created them. -- Genesis 1:26-27
From this text, it is clear that part of bearing God’s image is ruling over the animals. Genesis 9:5-6 reveals another aspect of image bearing: all human lifeblood is sacred because all humans are made in the image of God. The emphasis on Judeo-Christian thought on the sanctity of human life is derived in part from this passage. In the New Testament, the idea is expanded further as Christ is revealed as the true image of the invisible God (2 Corinthians 4:4, Colossians 1:15).
For centuries, theologians have discussed these and other passages, debating the meaning of the image of God (“imago Dei” in Latin). Being made in God’s likeness is not a matter of our physical appearance, because humans don’t all look the same. But to what does the image of God actually refer? Many ideas have been suggested over the centuries, producing a huge body of theological writing. While hard to summarize, we give a brief overview below of three common themes for the image of God. After developing this theological context, we’ll consider how these ideas intersect with evolution.
Image of God as our abilities
A common view is that the image of God refers to human abilities. When people talk of the things “that make us human,” they refer to abilities like reason and rationality, mathematics and language, laughter and emotions, caring and empathy, and cultural products like music and art. Often the motive is to distinguish humans from animals by showing that humans have unique abilities that make us special and superior to animals. Saint Augustine (354-430 A.D.) wrote something like this when he said “Man's excellence consists in the fact that God made him to His own image by giving him an intellectual soul, which raises him above the beasts of the field.”1 Saint Thomas Aquinas (1225-1274 AD) also emphasized intellect and rationality in his discussion of image bearing.2 But Augustine and Aquinas were not speaking of intellect as an aptitude for math or music; Aquinas instead writes of an “aptitude for understanding and loving God.” In fact, the modern emphasis on reason comes more from secular Enlightenment ideas than from Christian theology. During the Enlightenment, the image of God was connected to ideas like the natural dignity and majesty of humankind that separates us from the brute beasts of the animal world.
Scientific evidence is piling up that humans have more in common with animals than was once thought. Genetic evidence shows that humans and chimpanzees share much of their DNA. Studies of animal behavior (particularly of chimps and other apes) show that animals not only laugh and cry and care for each other, but can learn sign language and even have basic reasoning ability. In fact, Christian neuroscientist Malcolm Jeeves writes that “any attempt to set down a clear demarcation between the reasoning abilities of nonhuman primates and humans is found to have become blurred.”3 Obviously, humans have a much larger capacity to reason than animals, but reasoning is not a uniquely human ability. As neuroscientists and animal behaviorists learn more about animals, they see how traits appear in a rudimentary form at a level similar to human children.4 Whether or not one accepts evolution, evidence from living humans and animals does not show a distinct difference in kinds of abilities (only degree).
Another challenge for this picture of the image of God is the place of people with mental disabilities. If a person is impaired in reasoning or language, are they bearing less of God’s image? Are they not showing his true likeness? The Christian answer to these questions is No! The Bible repeatedly teaches that God values all people, particularly those who are rejected by society or unable to care for themselves.5 In fact, Genesis 9:5-6 points to image bearing as the reason that all human life is valuable. This is a major motivator for Christians who seek to protect the unborn, the poor, and the aged. Surely bearing God’s image must mean something other than using our abilities.
- Saint Augustine The literal meaning of Genesis, Book 6, Chapter 12 (Google books, p. 193)
- Thomas Aquinas, Summa Theologica, First Part, Question 93 (html)
- Malcolm Jeeves, “Neuroscience, Evolutionary Psychology, and the Image of God” Perspectives on Science and Christian Faith (2005) 57.3, p. 178 (PDF)
- Similarly, many human traits have been replicated in artificial intelligence, particularly logic and math but also conversational language and computer-generated art.
- For more see, Kathy McReynolds “More Than Skin Deep” BioLogos Forum June 2010