Evolution and Image Bearers

One of the challenging issues raised for Christians by the science of evolution is understanding what it means for an evolved human to be made in the image of God (imago Dei). Evolutionary theory implies that species are not neatly distinguished from one another in discrete categories. Instead, it posits that the ancestry of life on earth is better understood as a slow, continuous development with ever-changing lines differentiating species from one another. Species, including humans, have changed over time and continue to change. If, according to evolutionary theory, the human species has evolved from non-human ancestors over the course of hundreds of thousands of years, how might we understand humans as uniquely bearing the image of God?
In a previous BioLogos blog post, Dennis Venema suggests that modern homo sapiens have evolved along “different evolutionary trajectories.” While all modern homo sapiens share common ancestors from Africa, some homo sapiens also have Neanderthal and Denisovan ancestors. Who, then, were divine image-bearers–the common ancestors from Africa, Neanderthals, Denisovans, their mixed species children, or all of the above? In other words, if the lines differentiating species from one another are less clear and the development of a species is seen as an extended, continuous process involving the mixing of different related species, how are we to understand modern humans as divine image-bearers in comparison to the direct ancestors of humans who presumably were not? One way of addressing this question is to consider the role divine image-bearers are given and the capacities required for that role. If bearing God’s image requires a particular role with particular capacities, those species that lack those capacities and therefore cannot act in that role are not image bearers of God. Those species that possess those capacities may then be considered potential image bearers, in the sense that these species have the necessary capacities for this role. In this way, a line may be drawn between direct ancestors of humans that most likely did not bear the image of God and those that may have. We believe this approach is compatible with existing interpretations of the imago—whether Christological, relational (i.e., being in relationship with God), functional (i.e. fulfilling God’s role or commission to humankind)—and also compatible with understanding how God could have used natural processes to enable humans to become unique image bearers. (Part 2 will address a different approach to understanding the image of God in the context of evolution as well.) This method is, of course, somewhat complicated by disagreements concerning what it means to be made in the image of God. These disagreements, while certainly interesting, will not be resolved here. For the sake of this post, one well-established feature of the imago Dei will be focused on: the role of dominion or stewardship over creation. We will then consider which capacities are required for this role to be performed in a meaningful way. Two broad examples are the ability to learn about creation and flexibly care for different species with different needs and the ability to plan for the benefit of these species. The ability to learn about creation is important for dominion because different species require different care. Here we may discuss various psychological capacities that enable this ability. Theory of mind—the ability to consider the intentions, desires, and beliefs of other minds—is greatly useful. In order for a divine image-bearer to exercise dominion, he or she must understand that gazelles prefer to eat grass and lions prefer to eat gazelles. Various aspects of intuitive biology may also be useful as they allow humans to understand the basic needs of species in general (e.g., food, water, shelter, etc.) and to differentiate between species and attribute specific needs to them. These abilities, in turn, allow humans to flexibly care for different species with different needs. The sheep can be led to pasture and the fish left in its pond where they may both respectively thrive, rather than applying one method of care to both. In order to helpfully rule over creation, image bearers also need to plan ahead for the benefit of these species. Sheep taken to the same pasture too often may create an environment that can no longer sustain the life of the sheep or the life of other co-existing species. Here we may also speak of particular psychological capacities, such as a certain amount of self-control and the ability to delay gratification. Without these abilities, humanity may wreak havoc on ecosystems in order to pursue their own gain or obtain immediate rewards. Further, image bearers may need to examine potential futures, set goals, and implement these goals. In this way image bearers may foresee problems and helpfully avoid them.To a degree, these capacities exist in other species as well, but the extent to which they exist in the human species is unique. Additionally, this method does raise further questions about humans or groups of humans with limited capacities in these areas, and for this reason, it may be better applied to species as a whole, rather than to individuals. For example, we may be able to say that those groups of humans that possessed these capacities, such as theory of mind and self-regulation, were potentially image bearers, but those groups of direct human ancestors that lacked these capacities were likely not image bearers. For example, if Neanderthals lacked a number of necessary capacities for dominion, it may be accurate to say that they were likely not image bearers. But, if Neanderthals, like modern humans, possessed these capacities and were capable of exercising a meaningful amount of dominion over creation, it may be accurate to say they were potential image bearers.Further consideration of evolutionary theory and the imago Dei, however, raises another interesting question. If we consider the entirety of human history, dating back to our first human ancestors until today, we may wonder about the image bearing actions, behaviors, or qualities of humans throughout history. We may ask, how have humans borne the image of God across time and in different cultural contexts? For example, the businesswoman in New York City grabbing a cup of coffee before hopping on the subway is presumably an image bearer of God, but so is the hunter-gatherer spending his time fashioning stone tools. An interesting question rises out of this comparison: Do humans today bear God’s image differently than those humans living 1000 years ago, 10,000 years ago, or even further back?These considerations may be helped by a dynamic conception of the image of God as considered by developmental psychology. We recognize both the continuous work and movement of the Holy Spirit in the lives of humans and also the malleability of the human species providing the capacity to readily adjust to a variety of cultural contexts. Building on these notions, we suggest that a dynamic approach, one that recognizes the human propensity to change and grow, to understanding the image of God allows for a theologically and scientifically coherent conceptualization of what it means for humans to bear God’s image. Given the plasticity inherent in human development and the ongoing sustaining and perfecting work of the Spirit, we make two propositions regarding a dynamic perspective of the image of God. The first is that the actions or behaviors by which individual or communal entities relate to God and image him are not fixed throughout time and place; they are dynamic. Secondly, that the imago is less about a static or fixed image and more about an active or dynamic imaging as humans relate to God and God’s creation.The first point suggests that the imago Dei may not be evident in the same way across different historical or cultural contexts. For example, during the Enlightenment, the use of reason may have gained importance and helped illuminate an individual’s relationship with God. In more recent times relational qualities, such as having a coherent identity or expressing empathy, may better enable individuals to participate more fully in Christian fellowship and in the life of the triune God. This is not a relativistic claim about the imago, but rather a supposition about how cultural and historical context shapes different opportunities for imaging God that may then inform the intellectual history of the doctrine of the imago Dei. This notion differs from the historical tendency to attempt to locate the image of God in a particular quality that a human possesses and allows for the image of God in humankind to deepen and expand throughout history.

Second, this perspective emphasizes that bearing the image of God involves the whole person and the imago becomes more apparent through relating to God and others. Human nature has a plastic and undetermined element that enables humans to be shaped and formed into a better likeness of the image of God. Although psychological capacities may be relevant to the imago, this does not mean such capacities are fixed or set throughout one’s life. John Webster powerfully made this point by saying that human nature is not “immobile.” From this perspective, perhaps arguing about what the image is (such as the human will or reason) is less the point than how one bears the image of God by participating in fellowship with God. In Webster’s words, being human involves fellowship with God that “becomes through participation in the drama of creation, salvation and consummation.”

Thus the imago is “dynamic” in that it stems from ongoing human engagement with God’s work of creation, redemption, and perfection. Such an approach affirms the importance of human reason, will, love, and relationship (capacities that are identified by different static understandings of the imago), but emphasizes the process by which these capacities enable an individual to engage in the on-going activity of God. Given that the Spirit is the sustainer and perfecter in the process of sanctification, then we should not be surprised that the there could be change over time (in someone’s life or throughout history) in the expression of the imago. Consequently, when the evidence of multiple human ancestors raises the question of how the imago may have emerged within the natural order, a dynamic perspective suggests that the capacity to be an image bearer could have arisen regardless of context or even ancestors—as long as the sufficient constellation of capacities necessary to relate to God, other, and creation were present (for a discussion of some of these capacities, see previous post).

From this perspective, humans are image bearers, and similar to a photo that changes in quality or resolution as it comes into focus, so the image we bear becomes more apparent the closer our relation to God. Perhaps it is through the process of “becoming” more fully who we were created to be, through relating to God, his people, and his creation, that the image becomes more evident. Said differently, the substance is present in a picture, although we may not see it clearly. If we increase the resolution of the picture, we increase the clarity of the image. Consequently, the imago is not limited to a singular quality that mirrors the image of God, but rather we argue for a malleable understanding of bearing the image of God that becomes more apparent in relating to God.

To summarize, given the ongoing work of the Spirit and the constant change brought about within humans as they interact with God, others, and creation, perhaps speaking of “bearing the image of God” is more helpful than a more static concept of “an image.” Such an approach is consistent with existing interpretations of the imago (e.g., Christological, relational, functional) and also compatible with understanding how God could have used natural processes to enable humans to become unique image bearers. Through the processes of evolution, humans eventually had the capacity to bear the image of God in a way that was distinct from their predecessors. This is not at all to suggest that the imago itself evolves over time; but rather that how humans bear the image of God may have different nuances at different times within individual lives and also as a species throughout history.