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.
Image of God as our spiritual capacities and relationship with God
Another common view is that the image of God refers to our capacity for a relationship with God. Following Aquinas’ view of “aptitude for understanding and loving God,” the Catholic catechism says,
Of all visible creatures only man is able to know and love his creator. … he alone is called to share, by knowledge and love, in God's own life. It was for this end that he was created, and this is the fundamental reason for his dignity. Being in the image of God, the human individual possesses the dignity of a person, who is not just something, but someone. He is capable of self-knowledge, of self-possession and of freely giving himself and entering into communion with other persons. And he is called by grace to a covenant with his Creator, to offer him a response of faith and love that no other creature can give in his stead.6
John Calvin (1509-1564) and other reformers 7 wrote of the image of God as the original righteousness of humans before the Fall. When first created, we reflected God’s “wisdom, righteousness, and goodness”8 but, as Paul teaches, that image was tarnished by sin and is being restored in Christ:
Since the image of God had been destroyed in us by the fall, we may judge from its restoration what it originally had been. Paul says that we are transformed into the image of God by the gospel. And, according to him, spiritual regeneration is nothing else than the restoration of the same image. (Colossians 3:10, and Ephesians 4:23.) -- John Calvin, Commentary on Genesis 9
Neuroscientists have also attempted to investigate this model, looking for evidence of such things as selfless behavior or the ability to perceive the transcendent. But science is simply not capable of fully testing such spiritual realities; the evidence that scientists do find is open to many interpretations.10
Image of God as our commission
What did the “image of God” mean to the first audience of Genesis 1? We get insights from the rest of the Old Testament, which frequently uses “image” in the context of idol worship. In the ancient cultures of Egypt and Canaan, people made images of their gods from metal and wood and set them up in local temples to worship. Hebrew scholar Joseph Lam writes that the idol “was believed to be the true manifestation of the god in the midst of the people.”11 In the Ten Commandments, God prohibits his people from making such images (Exodus 20:4-6), because God cannot be contained in, or even represented by, an idol made by human hands (see Isaiah 44:6-20). Israel’s temple contained no representation of God himself.
Turning back to Genesis 1, we now see “image of God” in a new light. The image is not a built-in ability or capacity of human beings, but a role we are called to live. God has named us as his living images. We represent God here on earth, better than any idol made by human hands. Lam writes:
In fact, it is possible to argue grammatically for the validity of the translation ‘as the image of God’ as opposed to ‘in the image of God’. … The Hebrew phraseology here denotes not so much the manner of the creation of the human being (i.e. the “mold” out of which humans are created), but rather the intended function of the human being in the world. Humans aren’t just made in God’s image, they are called to be his image in the world.12
Joshua Moritz develops this idea further, pointing out the parallels of our appointment to the role of image-bearer with other instances of divine election.13
Connections to evolution
How might these models of the image of God fit with evolution? First recall these key points from the BioLogos faith statement14:
- We believe that the diversity and interrelation of all life on earth are best explained by the God-ordained process of evolution and common descent. Thus, evolution is not in opposition to God, but a means by which God providentially achieves his purposes.
We believe that God created humans in biological continuity with all life on earth, but also as spiritual beings. God established a unique relationship with humanity by endowing us with his image and calling us to an elevated position within the created order. Thus, BioLogos believes that God created humanity using the process of evolution and endowed us with his image. Both views of the image of God (“spiritual capacity” and “commission”) are compatible with the scientific evidence for evolution, and both views are affirmed by individuals in the BioLogos community. In fact, the two views are not mutually exclusive.
If the image of God refers to our spiritual capacities, God could still have used the natural process of evolution to create our bodies and human abilities. God could have used a miraculous process to create our spiritual capacities, or used some combination of natural processes and divine revelation to develop these capacities. Either way, God is the creator of our whole selves, including both our physical and spiritual aspects.
If the image of God refers to our commission, then it has little impact on one’s view of how God created humans. Whether God made the first humans using natural processes or a single miracle or a mixture of the two, God named humanity as his image bearers.
BioLogos welcomes more evangelical scholarship on this question.
Living out our calling as image bearers
While the academic debate is important, it should not distract us from the essential calling to live as people created in God’s image. Let us remember to
- Value every person as a fellow image bearer. All people, both men and women, are created in the image of God (Genesis 1:26-27), not just some priestly class. All of humanity is equally valued in God’s eyes, and should be in ours (Genesis 9:5-6).
- Seek to attain the whole image of God in Christ (Ephesians 4:23). As the Holy Spirit works in us to bring about the new self, we are being molded more and more into the true image of the Creator.
- Care for the creation. As representatives of the Creator, we are charged to rule over the Earth and subdue it (Genesis 1:26-28) which includes helping creatures fulfill their God-given mandate to be fruitful and multiply (Genesis 1:22) and tending the garden God provided (Genesis 2:15).15
- Worship the Creator. Of all the created order, humanity is the leading voice to speak our praise back to the One who made us.