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?
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.
- Genesis 1 – 15 (Word Commentary), by Gordon Wenham: An excellent commentary on the initial chapters of Genesis from an well respected Evangelical scholar including a particularly useful overview of the interpretation of “The Image” in Genesis 1