Evolutionary creationists believe that God created humans in his image, and that God created humans using natural processes that scientists describe as evolution. How can these beliefs work together? The precise meaning of the “image of God,” or “imago Dei” in Latin, has been debated for centuries in the church. It could relate to our unique cognitive abilities, to our spiritual capacity for a relationship with God, to our commission to represent God’s kingdom on earth, or to some combination of these. All of these interpretations may be consistent with the scientific evidence for evolution. Along with all Christians, we affirm that the image of God is foundational to Christian thinking about human identity, sanctity of life, stewardship of creation, bioethics, and other topics.
Many people assume that evolution is incompatible with the belief that humans are created in the image of God. Doesn’t image-bearing require miraculous creation of humans rather than shared biological ancestry with other creatures? 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, but in this article we will focus specifically on the meaning of the image of God.
Image of God in Scripture
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 Genesis 1 account of creation:
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 both males and females bear God’s image, and the stated purpose for why God makes mankind in his image is “so that” they may rule over the animals. Genesis 9:5-6 reveals another aspect of image bearing: all human life is sacred because all humans are made in the image of God. The emphasis in 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 Cor. 4:4, Col. 1:15).
For centuries, theologians have discussed these and other passages, debating the meaning of the image of God. Here we discuss three common interpretations and consider how these ideas intersect with evolution.
Image of God as our cognitive abilities
One view is that the image of God refers to uniquely human cognitive abilities. When people talk of the things that “make us human,” they often refer to abilities like reason and rationality, mathematics and language, laughter and emotions, caring and empathy, and cultural products like music and art.
Theologians have historically connected image-bearing with humankind’s unparalleled capacity for rational thought. Saint Augustine (354-430 A.D.) wrote, “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
Some people today challenge whether there is a substantial difference between the cognitive abilities of humans and other animals. 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 some sign language and even have basic reasoning ability.
But while some think these similarities mean that humans are “just another animal,” a strong case can be made for human distinctiveness from a host of disciplines—and often by scholars who have no obvious religious motivations.3 We might even say that from a scientific point of view, we differ in kind and not just in degree from other species. Kevin Laland, Professor of Behavioral and Evolutionary Biology at the University of St Andrews, writes,
A hundred years of intensive research has established beyond reasonable doubt what most human beings have intuited all along; the gap is real. In a number of key dimensions, particularly the social realm, human cognition vastly outstrips that of even the cleverest nonhuman primates.4
The often-misunderstood part of this claim for human distinctiveness is that the capacities that set us apart from other animals (morality, reason, language, culture, and so on) are dependent upon other components of behavior and even brain structures that have evolutionary stories. This explains why we find hints or precursors of them in other species. Nevertheless, the gap between modern humans and other species is real.
We should be cautious, though, in defining the image of God as our unique human cognitive abilities. It is possible that the gap could have been filled by other species that are now extinct. We now know of many extinct hominin species, some of which even interbred with anatomically modern humans. Would the cognitive abilities of these species reveal only a difference only in degree? Some scientists think that is the case,5 and if so, that would raise a challenge to understanding the image of God as our unique cognitive abilities.
Another challenge for this interpretation of the image of God is the status 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 a resounding no! The Bible repeatedly teaches that God values all people, particularly those who are rejected by society or unable to care for themselves. 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. This challenge may be addressed in part by recognizing that the image of God was bestowed in Genesis 1 on humanity as a whole—it may not be a property of individuals per se but of the whole human family.
These cautions notwithstanding, the idea that God may have bestowed his image on humanity in the fullness of time—at some point during evolutionary history when humans had sufficient cognitive capacities—is consistent with the traditional theological view of the image of God as relating in some way to our cognitive capacities.
Image of God as our spiritual capacities
Another common view is that the image of God refers to our capacity for a relationship with God. Following Thomas Aquinas’s 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.
John Calvin (1509-1564) and other Reformers6 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”7 but, as Paul teaches, that image was tarnished by sin and is being restored in Christ. In his Commentary on Genesis, Calvin writes,
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. (Col. 3:10, Eph. 4:23)8
Neuroscientists have looked 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.9
For many evolutionary creationists, humans’ spiritual capacity to enter into a relationship with God (for which certain cognitive abilities seem to be necessary) is a significant part of what it means to be made in God’s image.
Image of God as our commission
A third understanding of the image of God rests on the question: What did the “image of God” mean to the first audience of Genesis 1? The Old Testament frequently uses the word “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.” In the Ten Commandments, God prohibits his people from making such images (Exod. 20:4-6), because God cannot be contained in, or even represented by, an idol made by human hands (see Is. 44:6-20). Therefore Israel’s temple contained no physical representation of God himself.
With this in mind, we now can see the “image of God” in a new light: it suggests the role we are called to play as God’s representatives in the world. 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.
Or as N.T. Wright puts it,
It seems to me that God has put humans like an angled mirror in His world so that God can reflect His love and care and stewardship of the world through humans and so that the rest of the world can praise the creator through humans.
This analogy helps us to see the connection between the image of God and caring for creation, as discussed previously. The idea that the imago Dei relates to our imaging of God—our representing him and going about Kingdom work—is fully compatible with an evolutionary picture of humanity’s origins.
Connections to evolution
How might these models of the image of God fit with evolution? At BioLogos we believe that God created humans in biological continuity with all life on earth; the distinct cognitive abilities we have were given to us by God through this gradual process. We also believe that God created us 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. Science cannot judge our spiritual capacities or divine calling, so there is no contradiction. These various views are affirmed by individuals in the BioLogos community, and in fact the views are not mutually exclusive.
Living out our calling as image bearers
While the academic debate is important, it should not distract us from our 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 are created in the image of God (Gen. 1:26-27). All of humanity is equally valued in God’s eyes, and should be in ours (Gen. 9:5-6).
- Seek to attain the whole image of God in Christ (Eph. 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 (Gen. 1:26-28) which includes helping creatures fulfill their God-given mandate to be fruitful and multiply (Gen. 1:22) and tending the garden God provided (Gen. 2:15).
- Worship the Creator. Of all the created order, humanity is the leading voice to speak our praise back to the One who made us.
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- Saint Augustine. The literal meaning of Genesis, Book 6, Chapter 12 (Google books, p. 193)
- Thomas Aquinas. Summa Theologica, First Part, Question 93 (html)
- For example, from paleoanthropology, Ian Tattersall, Becoming Human: Evolution and Human Uniqueness (Harcourt, 1998); from neuroscience, Terrence Deacon, The Symbolic Species: the Co-evolution of Language and the Brain (W. W. Norton & Company, 1997); from philosophy, Raymond Tallis, Aping Mankind: Neuromania, Darwinitis and the Misrepresentation of Humanity (Routledge, 2016); from biology, David Sloan Wilson, Evolution for Everyone: How Darwin’s Theory Can Change the Way We Think about our Lives (Bantam Dell, 2008); and from psychology, Michael Tomasello, A Natural History of Human Thinking (Harvard University Press, 2014).
- Kevin Laland, Darwin’s Unfinished Symphony: How Culture Made the Human Mind (Princeton University Press, 2017), 14.
- For example, Thomas Suddendorf, The Gap: The Science of What Separates Us from Other Animals (Basic Books, 2013).
- The Covenant Protestant Reformed Church in Northern Ireland offers a convenient summary of quotes from Reformation leaders (html) and excerpts from Reformed confessions (html) related to the image of God.
- John Calvin, Commentary on Colossians (html) Excerpts of John Calvin’s writings on the image of God are conveniently compiled in a modern translation at Siris, July 7, 2005
- John Calvin, Commentary on Genesis (html)
- For more, see Malcolm Jeeves, “Neuroscience, Evolutionary Psychology, and the Image of God”Perspectives on Science and Christian Faith (2005) 57.3 (PDF)