As a biologist I see reasons why humans are special every day. In the density of our synapses, the myriad ways we regulate gene expression, and our incredible social constructs humans reveal over and over that we are obviously and demonstrably special. We know of no other being in the created universe that is remotely like us.
But for most of Christian history, the justification of humans as special has not been based on what can be observed about brain structure or gene networks. Instead, the Christian tradition has attributed the sacredness of humanity to the knowledge that humans are created the image of God.
Biblical scholars embrace a range of meanings for the image of God. Whether the image is understood as substantive (a unique human capacity that is God-like), relational (a mirror of the Trinity relationship), or functional (a role we hold in creation) Christian history attests that the image is universally important for understanding human uniqueness. This belief in our human uniqueness however, can create a difficult impasse for many Christians when considering scientific origins, as it is often assumed that human evolution conflicts with a belief that human beings are made in the image of God. Yet, by no means is the doctrine of the image of God irreconcilable with scientific evolution.
Many modern theologians and biblical scholars are working to find how the image of God can be mapped onto an evolutionary understanding of human origins. In Finding Ourselves After Darwin: Conversations on the Image of God, Original Sin, and the Problem of Evil J. Wentzel van Huyssteen suggests one option, “from a paleoanthropological point of view, human distinctiveness has emerged as a highly contextualized, embodied notion that is directly tied to the embodied, symbolizing minds of our prehistoric ancestors” (p. 43). According to van Huyssteen, the image of God comes about slowly, bodily, and socially as a gradual outworking of our intellectual abilities in a communal context. In the same book, Ted Peters writes, “the flourishing of the divine image in the human race is the end [purpose] of evolution” (p. 92). Here evolution finds its telological goal in the image of God.
No matter our exact understanding of the nature of the image of God, its existence is still important for our theology of human specialness. But recognizing that humans have evolved from other species forces us to ask, how did the image of God come to be? If we could rewind the tape and watch human history unfold, how would anatomically modern humans become people in the image of God?
There are a few logical options. First, perhaps the image is granted to one couple and then somehow spreads to others over time. This would resonate with traditional interpretations of Genesis, even if the actual process of by which the image is spread would be mysterious. Second, the image could be supernaturally granted to all humans simultaneously across the planet so that the whole species somehow has a spiritual awakening. This version maintains the granting of the image as a distinct temporal event, but the idea of God communicating supernaturally to humans across the continents fits uncomfortably with what is written in Genesis. Third, the image could evolve gradually (or within a reasonably small number of generations) until we have the traits that satisfy a substantive understanding of the image. This idea would involve large populations and long periods of time which will already make some believers uncomfortable, but it maps more directly onto what we know from natural history.
I suspect that none of these explanations fully satisfy those who base human value on the image of God. It is just too important of a doctrine to build on such vague explanations. I know that I, for one, want something more that can confirm that humans are unique and are truly in God’s image. But perhaps that “something more” will not be found in science alone.
I suggest we have that confirmation in the incarnation of Jesus Christ. The Christian faith claims that God chose, by grace, to create something other than God, and then (astonishingly) chose to enter into that creation. Of all the creatures God had made, from comets to clown fish, from nebula to neutrinos, from elephants to enzymes, God became a human baby. The creator God is maker and sustainer of all, but somehow that same God has lived life as a human being. When God saved the whole cosmos, God did so as a human.
We might ask, with the writer of Psalm 8,
4What are human beings that you are mindful of them,
mortals that you care for them?
5 Yet you have made them a little lower than God,
and crowned them with glory and honor.
6 You have given them dominion over the works of your hands;
you have put all things under their feet
Why did God chose to save the world as a human being? God did so because humans are in the image of God. No matter how we first acquired God’s image, the incarnation of Jesus Christ affirms it within us all. As Mark Cortez writes when summarizing Karl Barth in Christological Anthropology in Historical Perspective, “In Jesus Christ, then, God summons and claims all humans” (p. 146).
Humanity as a species has been given an incomprehensible honor. Our sacredness has been sealed through Jesus Christ. God himself has become one of us. In so doing God affirms our gifts of reason and wisdom that we have been given, confirms our responsibility as co-rulers of creation, and redeems the special relationship we have with our Maker.