This series of posts is intended as a basic introduction to the science of evolution for non-specialists. You can see the introduction to this series here.
In the last post in this series, we tackled a common theological objection to evolutionary creation – the (erroneous) idea that evolution, as a stochastic (i.e. non-deterministic or “random”) process, must therefore be without purpose. As we saw, stochastic processes are often highly predictable, and can be used to achieve a pre-specified outcome even if a precise route is not predetermined.
A second, and also common, objection to evolutionary creation is that an evolutionary origin of humanity somehow calls into question our being created in the image of God. In some cases, the objection hinges on the verb created; in other cases, the nature of the image – the Imago Dei – is the cause for concern. We’ll tackle these issues in turn.
Creation and material origins
One of the challenges for this conversation is the fact that as western, 21st century Christians, we’re used to understanding the words created and creation in a certain way when referring to God’s actions. Like it or not, we are products of the Enlightenment and live in a culture permeated with science. As such, we intuitively expect Genesis to answer the questions our culture asks of a creation story – where did the stuff come from? How was it made? When was it made? and so on. For us, when we discuss the idea of God creating something, we reflexively think about creation from nothing – the Christian doctrine of creatio ex nihilo. For us, creation is sudden, supernatural, and dramatic – it refers to the instantaneous production of previously non-existent matter. Accordingly, we intuitively expect that the original audience of Genesis also thought in these terms.
What’s interesting about this issue is that the range of meaning for the word created (and its cognates), even in English, is much broader than strictly producing matter from nothing. Consider the following sentences:
In the beginning, God created the heavens and the earth.
Van Gogh is an artist widely recognized for his creative genius.
As Christians, we are called to be stewards of God’s creation.
The government created a committee to deal with the budget crisis.
Notice how we understand creative activity as creatio ex nihilo when God is in view, but think of creation in different terms when humans are the subject? For humans, “creating” can mean a wide range of activities, none of which involve producing matter from nothing – and as it turns out, the biblical record shows that the Hebrew concept of “creation” was similarly broad, even when referring to God’s actions. As such, scholars such as John Walton have argued that Genesis 1 is not a narrative of material origins, but rather a narrative with a distinctly ancient, near-eastern focus – one that is concerned with how God ordered his handiwork into a cohesive, functional system for the benefit of humanity. In other words, it’s entirely possible that the western church has been misreading Genesis for a long time – reading it as a western, scientifically-minded audience when in fact it was written for a pre-scientific, non-western audience. And as Walton argues, if Scripture has no account of material origins, then any scientific account of material origins, such as biological evolution, cannot be in conflict with scripture – and thus should be evaluated strictly on its scientific merits. Walton’s case is of course far too detailed to summarize briefly, but is readily available in his book The Lost World of Genesis One: Ancient Cosmology and the Origins Debate (IVP, 2009). At a minimum, though, it serves to show that evolution cannot be ruled out simply by appealing to the understanding of creation commonly held by present-day Christians – and that, unsurprisingly, the original context and setting of Genesis was markedly different from our own.
Evolution and the Imago Dei
One of the challenges for relating evolution and the doctrine that humans are created in the image of God is that Christianity has never had a uniform opinion on what exactly constitutes the imago Dei – is it our ability to reason? Our physical likeness? Some other attribute of humans that separates us from animals? Or, as some have argued, is it to be found in God calling us into relationship with him, filling us with his Spirit, and setting us as his stewards over creation? Even with this diversity, it’s worth noting that all of these possibilities are unproblematic within an evolutionary creation framework, if one is willing to understand creation as a process over time rather than instantaneous creatio ex nihilo. For some objectors, however, the issue is whether or not the image was bestowed gradually, over generations, or instantaneously, to certain individuals. For those who favor distinctive human attributes as the imago Dei, it is readily observable in the archaeological record that what we consider defining human traits (our ability to reason, artistic expression, spoken language, and so on) were obtained slowly, over millennia. For those that favor relationship and commissioning by God as the image, one can also think of these coming into being gradually, or in contrast suddenly through specific revelation. Here the science is not overly helpful – biology can tell us that we have certain traits that set us apart from other animals, and may shed light on how we evolved these traits gradually as a large population. When it comes to defining what exactly constitutes the image, however – let alone when and how humans received it – we’ve arrived at a theological question, not a scientific one. And here we do have a theological answer that Genesis readily attests to: humans are made in the image of God, and we were so made because God intended it. While as moderns we might want to know the answers to our scientific questions of what, when, and how, perhaps the best answer is the one God has already supplied: whose image we are made in. And as we see in the person of Jesus, bearing the image is to be truly human – and being truly human is a reflection of our heavenly Father to his lost and hurting world.
In the final post in this series, we’ll tackle the thorny issue of Christian unity in the context of embracing evolutionary creation.