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Tuesday, 17 July 2007

Made in God’s Image or Evolved from Apes?

Then God said, "Let us make man in our image, in our likeness, and let them rule over the fish of the sea and the birds of the air, over the livestock, over all the earth, and over all the creatures that move along the ground." So God created man in his own image, in the image of God he created him; male and female he created them. Genesis 1: 26, 27

For many Evangelicals, human evolution simply cannot be reconciled with our creation in the image of God. Evolution seems theologically dangerous because it implies a close biological connection between humans and animals. An acceptance of evolution, it is feared, leads inevitably to the acceptance of a shared spiritual nature between humans and animals. Thus it logically follows that we must grant a spiritual nature to animals, or we must conclude that humans do not have a spiritual dimension. Neither of these positions is compatible with orthodox Christianity. However, I do not believe that this dichotomy is warranted by the biblical account of man’s creation in the image of God.

In facing this potential dilemma, it would be helpful if we had a clear understanding of what exactly “The Image” means in Genesis 1:27. Unfortunately, its meaning is somewhat ambiguous. That it is a unique quality given by God to man is clear; what that quality entails is unclear as biblical interpreters do not agree on its meaning. There are three interpretations that are most common. First, it could mean the mental and spiritual faculties that humans share with God, for example, reason, free will, and self-consciousness. Second, it could mean God’s divine representative on earth. This interpretation is supported by the mandate to care for God’s creation recorded in Gen 1:26 & 28. Third, it could mean man’s ability to relate to God. For myself, any of these interpretations (or maybe all of them) could be correct.

If the exact meaning of the word image in Gen 1:27 is unclear, what “the image” describes is not. The image describes what we as humans are; it does not describe how we were created. It says absolutely nothing about the process of God bestowing man with unique qualities and a unique position on earth. The entire process is described in a single word: created. Thus the writer of Genesis is clear on “who” brought the process about, and for what purpose, but is unconcerned with the materials (if any) that were used to create.

The second account of the creation of man (Gen 2:7) does provide some additional details to this creation. Man is shaped from dust. Just as God knits or shapes us in our mother’s wombs (Ps 139), so God shaped the first man. Man is not created out of thin air, in a puff of magic, but is lovingly moulded from common, useless dirt. So since the bible describes our original material as being dust, why should a creation process that includes intermediary animal states be theologically dangerous? Original material is not a problem with God whether for a physical creation or for a spiritual one.

I believe that evangelical opposition to evolution from pre-existing animals has just as much to do with pride as with a desire to defend traditional interpretations of scripture. We focus more on our spiritual characteristics than our creaturely characteristics. In other words, we view ourselves as closer to God (because we share a spiritual dimension) than to animals (with whom we share the characteristic of being creatures of God). This is the same type of pride that Moses warned the Israelites about:
“It was not because you were more numerous than any other people that the LORD set his heart on you and chose you--for you were the fewest of all peoples. It was because the LORD loved you and kept the oath that he swore to your ancestors, that the LORD has brought you out with a mighty hand, and redeemed you from the house of slavery, from the hand of Pharaoh, king of Egypt (Deut. 7:7-8).

The Israelites were “The Chosen” because God chose them, not for any inherent quality they possessed. And this bundle of molecules, genes, cells, and organs we call ourselves is the image of God because he bestowed it upon us, not because it is a particularly noteworthy bunch of molecules, genes, cells, or organs. As Jesus indicated, God could easily have called on other parts of creation to serve and worship him. (Luke 3:8, Luke 19:40).

Although biological evolution does not, in my opinion, challenge traditional interpretations of who we are as humans, our relationship to God, and our mandate within God’s creation, it certainly does challenge traditional notions of how this relationship with God came about, how the relationship was damaged, and possibly, how the spiritual & physical interact.
  • If modern Homo sapiens gradually developed from earlier hominids over hundreds of thousands of years, at what point was God’s Image bestowed on humanity? And does this imply that the “first human” had non-human parents who did not share the image of God?
  • At what point does “sin” enter the world? At what point does violence change from basic animal survival instincts to breaking God’s moral law?
  • With new evidence from the world of neuroscience, should we even speak of the human “soul” or is this concept simply a vestige of ancient Greek philosophy that so clearly influenced western traditions including the early Church fathers? Are there better ways of describing and explaining our unique spiritual nature?
These are still somewhat uncomfortable & perplexing questions for me. Although I now have a greater appreciation for how some Evangelical Christians come to terms with these questions, my own answers are still very much early in the conceptual stage. The answers fit into what I believe is a self-consistent theological framework that is supported by the biblical record. However, there are enough gaps in this framework right now that I’m not able to clearly articulate it even to my own satisfaction.

But these questions on the origins of humanity, sin, and the image of God do not change the fact of who we are right now. Nor do they change how we should relate to God or how we should carry out our mandate. We are, as Graeme Finlay asserts, Homo divinus, the Ape that bears God’s image.

Recommended Reading:


Anonymous said...

Hi Steve,

Sorry for not posting for a while...I’ve been saving some responses for our face to face, no holds barred, full contact discussion in August. I commented previously that I agree it is possible that God used evolution to create humans, and I also stated that I prefer the idea that we were uniquely created by the hand of God. Again, I’m not sure what “uniquely created” really means in terms of the actual mechanics of how we were made. Maybe it was evolution. (Thanks for the Graeme Finlay link - I found his paper very interesting.) Maybe it was a combination of evolution and something special. Or maybe it was something that defies our knowledge and understanding. But the “how” is really not that important to me, so for me the answer is a non-issue. So I choose not to decide (which is still a choice according to the modern philosopher Neal Peart – Rush, Free Will).

The traditional interpretation of the Bible makes some things a bit easier explain – Adam and Eve did not have any parents / earthly (non-human) ancestors (at least not in the traditional sense of procreation), they were created perfect but with free will, and sin entered the world when Adam and Eve chose to defy God. Sometimes an easy answer to a hard question is preferred if it lets us move forward on pursuing our real purpose in life, even if the easy answer might not be technically correct. So I fully support my fellow believers who reject evolution as the method by which humans were created (must be the CRC in me). I think it is very possible that God used a completely different (non-evolutionary) method for creating us – after all, He has the ability to do the impossible and demonstrated this ability in the immaculate conception of Jesus. (All the cutting and pasting, inverting and fusing of chromosomes mentioned by Graeme Finlay could have been done all at once by the hand of God, rather than through an evolutionary process.)

I also support those who accept evolution as the method for human creation, since the Bible contains numerous instances where God makes use of “what is at hand” rather than conjuring things out of thin air. (Even with the birth of Jesus, God chose a human to carry a baby to full term and have the baby grow up into a man instead of just having Jesus appear fully grown.) The evolution method does bring up a lot of difficult questions, both on the physical side and the theological side. On the physical side, there seems to be a lack of evidence supporting intermediate steps. Maybe we just haven’t found them, but if evolution took a “long time” to get from apes to human, wouldn’t there be more than a few relics (living or fossil) that could show the steps a bit clearer? But what really bothers me is whether our “sinful nature” is due in part to our “animal instinct” (a crossing over from the physical to the theological). I’ve listened to a few speakers refer to the “safety brain” (sometimes called the animal brain or primal brain) to describe why we sometimes react with anger and violence when we are threatened or scared. The speakers would go on to say this is a natural reaction and is due to the “fight or flight” mentality of our ancestors (apes). If our sinful nature is due in part to our genetic connection to animals, why did God declare humans to be “good” before the first sin? Did God really expect us to not sin if our very nature was one of “sin”? Did we (do we) really have a choice / free-will? Were we once “good” but through the actions of Adam and Eve, we have reverted back to our animal nature (perhaps re-activated some portion of our genetic code that God had made dormant)? Does evolution explain our sinfulness as something over which we have little or no control? (ie. I am genetically pre-disposed to be selfish, apt to lash out in anger and violence if threatened, compelled to procreate as much as possible, and my highest purpose is to preserve my own life). As long as we don’t become preoccupied by questions such as these (and forget what we are really here for), and shrug off our sinfulness as something we can’t control, I think it is OK to support the evolutionary method.

I’m not sure I would use the term “pride” to describe the basis for the evangelical opposition to this theory. When you start digging deeper into questions like the ones you and I have posed, I think a more appropriate term would be “fear”. (You did use the word “feared” in your first paragraph.) The same fear that causes opposition to stem cell research and anything that deals with genetics. The fear that if we crack the genetic code and start messing with our DNA, we start to become “gods” and risk the wrath of God (see Gen 11:1 to 9). Whether this fear is rational or warranted, it is something we need to keep in mind when we broach this subject with others.

I agree that the evolutionary method can be accommodated in our interpretation of the Bible, but so can the traditional (non-evolutionary) method. And while there are some very compelling theories backed by genetic evidence that supports the evolutionary method, there are enough gaps that I’m not wholly convinced. What would it take to convince me? I’m not sure, but it would be nice to see some of those gaps filled in with discoveries of more of the intermediate steps between apes and humans. Of course, I’m really not that interested in being convinced to begin with, because it’s not an issue with me either way, so it would probably take a lot of physical evidence to convince me. But I remain open minded about it, willing to dialogue with and encourage those who pursue the study of evolution, genetics, cosmology, and theology.

See you in August.


Cliff said...


You are well read, and must surely know what I am about to say ... but just in case:

There are two ways to deal with the so-called gaps in the record.

1) Paleontologists Niles Eldredge and Stephen Jay Gould, and some Progressive Creationists (I think Hugh Ross would take this view) believe that major changes in form took place over relatively short periods. This is called Punctuated Equilibrium, and would result in many "transitional forms" not found in the fossil record, because they were short lived (relatively). Of course, for the Progressive Creationists, these moments of rapid transition would be due to God's creative impusles, perhaps corresponding the the "days" of creation. The secular evolutionists, such as Gould, construct other mechanisms to account for these "bursts" of evolution.

2) Normally, animals die and decompose and leave no record. Typically fossils are the result of catastrophic events. It is well understood that such special and rare conditions account for all the fossils in the record. These geological "events" may be separated by millions of years. The result of this is that the fossil record is less like a movie and more like a disjointed collection of occasional "snapshots" of paleontological history. Understanding this makes the so-called gaps far less remarkable. They would be expected. And while some gaps may be filled in by future discovery, it is not likley that we will ever see all the gaps filled.

~ Cliff

Anonymous said...

Yes Cliff, I am aware of these possible explanations. For me, “punctuated equilibrium” and other mechanisms that account for “bursts” of evolution are just too convenient for me, if one excludes the intervention of the Creator as the driver of the bursts. At what point does a rapid major change over a short period of time no longer be considered natural, un-aided evolution? How major does the change have to be, and how short the time? The gap from apes to humans seems to be incredibly huge to me, even though our DNA may be 90% (or higher) the same. And at the same time, the timetable seems to be way too short to account for all the changes necessary to get to humans.

I agree the lack of evidence could be due to the reasons you suggest, especially if you accept one of the accelerated evolution mechanisms. A shorter time would mean a lower probability that a relic would be preserved. But the physical questions bother me less than the theological ones. If we did evolve from animals, what does this say about the origin of sin and the concept of freewill?


Steve Martin said...

Hi Jac,

Actually, I’m not that concerned that there are Christians who do not understand evolution (I can’t say I understand everything - certainly not the details), feel uncomfortable with evolution (I certainly was for many years), and/or do not believe parts of evolutionary theory (frankly, I can pretty well guarantee that in 100 years evolutionary theory will look much different than it does now anyways – but it won’t be any more comfortable for those who want to interpret Genesis 1-3 literally). What’s more important to me is that Christians a) are open minded to investigating biological evolution (or at least letting those that are interested continue to do so) but more importantly b) acknowledge that other Christians like myself are not “atheistic compromisers” & that maybe, just maybe, their own interpretation of scripture is flawed. We all (myself included) need a good dose of humility when approaching these subjects. And your comments are in that vein – so thanks.

But, that won’t stop me from disagreeing with you (or you with me) so … I’ll just say that Cliff’s comments are on the right track my point of view. Most of the "Gaps in Evolutionary Theory" are not really serious gaps at all. From the brief dialogue we’ve had, I think I might be more comfortable with “naturalism” than Cliff is .. but we’ll have to see. Interesting conversations ahead.

Your last questions are the key ones – ie. The origin of Sin & Free Will. The first is one I’m still struggling with; the second not so much. In fact, I think the concept of “Free Will” is really part of my overall solution to this. Its interesting that it seems that metaphysical naturalists like Richard Dawkins are in the same boat as hyper-Calvinsts on this one – they are uncomfortable with Free Will.

And on my home from work after reading this … what do you know, but Rush’s “Free Will” came on the radio for the first time in I don’t know how long.

D.W. Congdon said...


Good post and an important topic of discussion. For my part, I think you make too many assumptions about the image of God -- viz. that it is some "thing" given by God to humanity. I think the imago dei is quite a bit more theologically complex and profound than that. Since I've already written on this topic, I'll direct you to my post. I'd like to hear what you think.

Steve Martin said...

Hi DW,

Very interesting post over at http://fireandrose.blogspot.com/2006/08/imago-dei-truly-christological.html. I think I’m going to have to chew on it for a while. It has given me some good stuff to think about regarding the relationship between our humanity, the image of God, and the origin of Sin .. and I’m perceiving some flickers of light that may be helpful for me here .. so thanks!

Some brief comments & questions:

1. You state that imago dei is about redemption rather than creation. Is it not both? Redemption can be / has been described as a “new creation” so I’m not sure these are separate aspects of Christ’s work. Particularly since, I believe, the purpose of creation & redemption seem similar.

2. You state that “the image of God” is being-in-relationship with the Creator, being-holy, being-righteous, being-new and that it is not something we possess. I think you are saying that it is not something inherent in our humanity, but only actualized when we are redeemed. In other words, the image is only applicable to the new creation, not necessarily the old creation. Or would you not even want to put it as crudely as that?

3. Would you agree with the following: The image is being in relationship, and sin is the wrecking of, absence of, or not-being in this relationship? If so, do you have any thoughts on how this ties into the evolution of humanity? Do you have any suggestions or references to help with this? Ok. That’s a really loaded & difficult question – some have said “unanswerable”. Anyways, I’d appreciate your thoughts on this, even if just not-fully-formed thoughts or ways you'd approach it.


Martin LaBar said...

Thanks for your post. I have posted statements by Billy Graham on the origin of humans, which you might find interesting. I believe they are relevant to the topic of your post.

Steve Martin said...

Hi Martin,
Hmm. Very interesting. I posted somewhat the same thing on Billy Graham on Sept. 14 - see: http://evanevodialogue.blogspot.com/2007/09/billy-graham-on-evolution.html.

Taylor said...

If you put God in control of the naturally occurring events outside of man's free choice, you can see that God has the ability to affect the evolution of any species simply by the laws of physics that he created.

The spike(or rather the punctuated equilibrium) in evolution that created man was a naturally occurring randomization in the reproductive cells of the male and female(a shuffle, which, if controlled, could be responsible for the entire beginning of the evolution of man.)

So it could be possible that a God-breathed punctuated equilibrium in the evolution of a prehistoric ape of some kind created the beginning of man in the image of God, which can be interpreted however you wish ( I personally have not decided how to interpret it). It could also be that at this time God gave humanity some eternal connection to him, which we can recognize as the soul.

Of course, I am assuming that Adam and Eve were not physically real, but rather figurative characters meant to represent the early stages of men and women.

One of these early women used the gift of God's likeness to perform an action which was displeasing to Him, which is the beginning of sin.

Now i do not know if this solved any of the questions you have asked, whether or not it is of any use you, or whether there is wisdom in it. It could be that i know nothing, and have just taken up space on your blog, but i humbly propose an idea, and look forward to correction.

And i do understand that it has been over a year since anyone wrote on this blog, but still, it matches what I desired to write about.


Steve Martin said...

Hi Taylor,
Welcome. Thanks for your thoughts. This post is indeed from quite a while ago but a lot of the questions are still valid. The current series on this blog is discussing some of the same themes.