In the Genesis 1 creation story God says:
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 in this story animals apparently are NOT made in God’s image. We are better than the animals—we are like God in some way; we are created in GOD’s image! This is in contrast with the Mesopotamian creation story in which humanity is created as a labor force to relieve the gods of tedious labor. In Genesis WE are made in God’s image!
The idea of being made in God’s image is so compelling that even believers who understand the Genesis creation stories as myth still hold to the idea that we are created in God’s image even as they reject the historicity of the account in which this is stated.
What is the Image of God? (What?)
What do we mean when we say we are made in God’s image? For one thing, we are different from the animals. Beyond that, various people seem to think of us as having some ‘divine’ spark, or having eternal ‘souls’, or having personal responsibility. The truth is that many people refer to our being made in God’s image but never really define what this means; even the Bible does not define what it means.
Is the whole idea of being made in God’s image nothing more than a wishful fable? I don’t think so. As we look around us we see that we ARE quite unique. We see many animal species with whom we have similarities: we all eat, breathe, and procreate—and are able to move about. But something makes us very different from animals.
In fact there are many such things—consciousness, self-awareness, reasoning, agency, morality, complex language and writing, complex tools, contemplating our own existence, and even contemplating God. While animals have varying degrees of intelligence and skill, none come close to what humans have—we are obviously special.
The Genesis creation stories reflect on the human condition, and our superiority to animals is part of that—we are unique; we are not brutes. The Genesis story acknowledges this difference by saying we are made in God’s image, and I think this is an important insight by the author of the story.
Evolution and the Development of an Intelligent Humanity (Whence?)
The question arises, ‘If humanity was not created by God in a special creation, how did it happen that we are so different from animals? Where did this difference originate?’
I think the answer is evolution. After millions of years of change and adaptation, a population of bipeds appeared that eventually became what we now call Homo sapiens. This population began to develop new adaptations until it became highly evolved and spread all over the Earth.
And whether the catalyst—the critical change—was brain size, tool-making, or something else, we are now very different from any other animal. We have consciousness, self-awareness, agency, morality, complex language, and are able to reason, reflect, invent complex tools, write, contemplate our own existence, and even contemplate God. As opposed to all other species of the world, we seem to be made in God’s image—and Genesis 1 acknowledges that.
When Did this Big Difference Occur and Do We Have Further to Go? (When?)
I don’t think we can know when humanity reached the point that we separated from lower animals, but I imagine it was very gradual; through adaptation we gained an advantage that eventually led to some new advantage and then to some further advantage until we were able to create better tools, become agriculturists and animal domesticators, and to form cooperative communities. And we went on from there—and here we are.
We have some basic grasp of what happened to get us here, but I don’t think we have fully arrived. Modern humans appeared perhaps 200,000 years ago—which is quite recent in geological terms—but time has not stopped; we have further development to undergo. What will humanity be 200,000 years from now?
I am sure we will evolve further, but we are at the point that we can have a major impact on our own development. However, if we do not take advantage of our ability to change for the better then we might not be here at all in another 200,000 years, or 20,000, or 2000. We have the capacity to destroy ourselves completely—to bring it all to an end. Is that what we are going to do?
Our problem is that though we are much different from the animals we still have a lot in common with them. We continue to exercise survival traits that are no longer useful: self-centeredness, violence, domination. But we don’t have time for evolution to change us—we must change ourselves.
How do we do that?
God’s Image is the Key to Our Survival
Two thousand years ago, Jesus supplied the answer—that we allow ourselves to genuinely become God’s image. And Jesus tells us what God’s image is: loving people with empathy, compassion, and care. Embracing God’s image means loving others as God loves them.
Jesus established God’s community on Earth (the kingdom of God) as a growing and pervasive force to change human society person-by-person and culture-by-culture until God’s will is done on Earth, and we are charged to participate in that change. Even though Jesus’ message of the kingdom has been compromised and obscured by harmful, misguided beliefs (we will talk about one of these dangerous beliefs next time), God’s community continues to expand.
Let us be active in embracing God’s image and bring healing, peace, and reconciliation on Earth. Or we might not continue much longer.
Articles in this series: Evolution and Fundamentalism
- Evolution and Inerrancy: Confusing Other Genres with History in Genesis (part 1)
- Evolution, Eden, and the Flood: Confusing Other Genres with History in Genesis (part 2)
- Evolution and Original Sin: How Calvin’s TULIP Falls Apart
- Evolution and Imago Dei: What, Whence, and When the Image of God?
- Evolution and Homophobia: How We Are ‘Created’ LGBT and Straight