Evolution and Imago Dei: What, Whence, and When the Image of God?

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?)

Michelangelo - Creation

Michelangelo – Creation

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

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32 Responses to Evolution and Imago Dei: What, Whence, and When the Image of God?

  1. Where do you stand with regard to new age philosophies and their theology on evolution as a higher state of consciousness?

    Liked by 1 person

    • jesuswithoutbaggage says:

      End, I don’t have any particular opinion on New Age philosophies. About 40 years ago I did a lot of research into New Age sources, history, and beliefs. Since then I have not spent much time keeping up with developments. But New Age proponents tend to be very eclectic, and there is little coordination of their various beliefs. Did you have a specific perspective in mind?

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      • Well the apparent evolutionary theory is that we’re will evolve to a higher state of consciousness at the beginning of the coming age. I like you studied there philosophy some years ago. I just wondered if some of your current thinking came from them as a source?

        Liked by 1 person

        • jesuswithoutbaggage says:

          End, I would say that any influence on my thinking from New Age sources is minimal. Thinking of ‘New Age’ in broad terms I would say there are two exceptions. I do suspect there is something to some aspects of the paranormal, but it is of little consequence to me. Secondly, I have been influenced positively by the teachings of the Buddha–especially on the middle path, ahimsa, and attachment.

          None of this impacts my thoughts on evolution. What are your thoughts?

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  3. ANTHONY PAUL says:

    “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. ”

    I’m not sure if I fully understand your position on this, Tim; so… are you saying that God did not create “man” but only created the basic elements which would eventually evolve into man from the primordial slime at the dawn of time? If this is, in fact, the case then I believe that this only opens the door to many other questions about how we could have been created in the divine image… Have we been created to partner with God in the unfolding of creation?… Are we in fact just a higher form of animal(?), etc. As someone pointed out in a post two weeks ago in reference to E.M. Schumacher’s, A Guide For The Perplexed, it is only the most materialistic and reductionist of scientific minds that have come to believe that man evolved accidentally from a single cell out of the slime of pre-historic time. I quote Schumacher: “‘Evolution, we are told, is accepted by all biologists and natural selection is recognized as its cause.’ Since the origin of life is described as ‘a major step in evolution,’ we are asked to believe that inanimate matter is a masterful practitioner of natural selection. For The Doctrine of Evolutionism any possibility, no matter how remote, appears to be acceptable as if it were scientific proof that the thing actually happened.” (page 112)

    I believe that if we then go on to say that God is the Divine Will behind evolution, we have not really resolved anything at all… we have merely managed to push back against the word given to us in The Bible and created our own myth out of an interpretation about the nature of creation which requires as great a leap of faith as the Adam and Eve Story. Personally, I find the Biblical account much more appealing for its mythical qualities of symbolism, vibrancy, and color.

    Liked by 1 person

    • fiddlrts says:

      I think part of the problem here is a too narrow view of “creation.” For the many of us who accept Evolution as the explanation that best fits the evidence we have and also believe in a creator God, the two are not mutually exclusive. And the poetry and symbolism of the Genesis accounts (both of them) remain beautiful and theologically enlightening. But we don’t take either of them to be a literal historical account.
      One way I like to imagine this is that creation was a bit like those little foam animals my kids used to play with in the bathtub. A little pill unfolds into something more. Except that creation was ever so much more so. God set up the laws of the universe, and packed all that would become the vast and wonderful creation into that singularity, lit the fuse, and watched it go. To me, that is awesome. And it doesn’t really matter to me whether each step of the process was supervised or not. God chose the means and method of his creation, and there shouldn’t be a need to fight against the evidence of how that creation occurred, nor is there a need to make a God in the Gaps argument, because God is present throughout.

      Liked by 1 person

      • ANTHONY PAUL says:

        Your position is certainly very sound as far as it goes and of course no one would deny the fact that evolution does in fact occur. However, the problem I have is with the idea that God created man as an amoeba or some such single-celled entity, with no distinction between us and the primordial ooze from which the rest of life emerged… The Bible does not tell me that; in fact, it says that man has been placed above all other parts of creation and I need to believe that to be more than myth… that we were in fact set apart from the creation of rocks, plants, and animals. This isn’t dogma… just a belief system that satisfies me in light of who and what The Bible says we are.

        Liked by 1 person

      • jesuswithoutbaggage says:

        Fiddlrts, there is a lot here and I think you expressed it VERY well!

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    • jesuswithoutbaggage says:

      In reading both of your comments it seems that you do accept the evolution of mankind over a special creation–guiding the process along the way. There are many believers who hold this view (theistic evolution), and I have no problem with this view.

      My thought is that we evolved until we had the intelligence and capacity for morality and the contemplation of God, and then God met us where we were.

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      • ANTHONY PAUL says:

        I must respectfully disagree with your observation, Tim… please allow me to clarify: I may not believe in “special creation” as defined within the myth of The Garden of Eden, but I certainly do not subscribe to the theory of evolution as an answer to the arrival of man on the scene of history. On the contrary, I find the latter theory the less acceptable of the two; if we believe that man is far and away a higher form of life from the animal kingdom at large because we possess a higher form of consciousness because we are the only part of creation to have self awareness, I fail to see how the theory of evolution tells us anything real about the nature of human life with all of its concomitant divergences from the rest of creation. Evolutionism is based on the idea that all of life started out as a single cell which we would assume lacked any sense of consciousness. From here and over eons of time this cell split and continued to grow, joining itself to other unconscious cells. Then, according to evolutionism, we are supposed to believe that some miracle happened by which this concatenation of cells became a fully sentient and conscious being… what we call “man”.

        In short, evolutionism works OK if we don’t account for the fact that we share something with God that no other creature shares… a conscious mind. Evolution may account for the material development of a physical being like a monkey or an elephant, but it cannot account for that one elusive spark which makes us unique in all creation — our mind. To simply let them off the hook by accepting the fact that at some point in the distant past “a miracle happened” may be only marginally better than believing that God created two naked people in a garden where they could eat anything but the fruit… but it still tells us nothing real about the creation of man.

        Liked by 1 person

        • jesuswithoutbaggage says:

          Anthony, as I have said many times: no two believers are going to agree on everything. And I respect your opinion on the limitations of evolution to produce humanity with its rich uniqueness. Do you have thoughts on how we acquired our uniqueness if we were not directly created?

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          • ANTHONY PAUL says:

            I just want to say that this is not an attempt to change anyone’s mind about how they or you may feel about this subject. My purpose is to offer some thoughts which move in a different direction on this question of evolution. After all, there are many out there in the scientific community who retain a more philosophically idealist view of creation even standing against the almost cultic belief in evolution… E.M. Schumacher being one such philosopher.

            I do believe we were directly created by God… remember that The Bible tells us that man was indeed specially created and I do believe that. Just how and when I am not sure nor do I think anyone else knows. It is easier for me to say what I do not accept… and that is that we evolved through what scientists tell us was a patternless and random natural selection from primordial matter lacking personal consciousness to the fully sentient and self-aware creatures we are today. I do believe that evolution does happen… but I am more skeptical about how it is used to describe the origins of man.

            Liked by 1 person

          • jesuswithoutbaggage says:

            Anthony, you may be aware that some theistic evolutionists believe that somewhere along the line of evolution God selected a pair and made them into the first humans. This couple then became the first ancestors of all humans since then, including those of us today.

            Is this along the lines of what you are suggesting?

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          • ANTHONY PAUL says:

            “Is this along the lines of what you are suggesting?”

            Tim, I am not suggesting this idea at all. In fact I am not asserting anything that might suggest how and when God created man except to say that man was a very special and unique part of the creation. The thrust of my argument is against the scientific view of the evolution (OF MAN, NOT OF THE ANIMAL KINGDOM IN GENERAL) as a random development of ever increasingly complex beings as a result of natural selection for the purpose of insuring the survival of the most fit in nature.

            I’m sorry if I have given you the impression that I can offer a substitute theory of human creation to replace the story of the Garden of Eden… but the simple unblemished truth is , I cannot. As I understand it, your belief encompasses the workings of evolution into the process of human creation, and that is just fine. I cannot accept this view on at least two points of contention: 1. Like many in the field of the philosophy of science will point out, evolution tells us nothing about how basically dead matter from the beginnings of time evolved into the works of William Shakespeare; I realize that this is a simplistic statement but if we were writing a book we could get into the particulars of the Laws of Thermodynamics and entropy etc. 2. To say that God may have waved a magic wand at some point in history in order to take an evolved animal and turn him into the first Adam does not square with what The Bible says about the nature of God or man. There is a great deal The Bible does not tell us about a great many things… as far as the story of man is concerned, I choose to see The Garden of Eden as a myth full of allegory and symbols; what it does not tell me is that man is a higher form of a lower specie.

            Finally, in stating my position I do not wish to appear polemical or disrespectful of the position which you posit as a possible scenario for the beginnings of mankind. In fact I have tried to limit my place in this discussion based on what I know about both The Bible and what contemporary philosophers have to say about the theory of evolution. I cannot be dogmatic about how and when man was created because, frankly I just do not know. I don’t know that I can make my position any clearer than this.

            As I have come to know you through your posts over the last several months I know that you have very sound reasons for believing as you do. I have nothing but the highest regard for you personally and for the manner in which you arrive at some of your own insights. In fact, as I have said many times before, your thoughts and ideas have helped me a great deal in the evolution of my own thinking when it comes to understanding what God is saying to us through The Bible. And so, brother, I hope you take my views and observations in the spirit in which they are given… they are nothing more than my opinions based on my own personal experiences… nothing more.

            Liked by 1 person

          • jesuswithoutbaggage says:

            Anthony, I don’t think you are being polemical or disrespectful. I hope I don’t appear that way to you. If I do, it is totally unintentional; I respect your views–you are a thinker.

            I don’t have a clear answer either on how or when humanity appeared as separate from animals. I do think, though, that our genetic relationship to animals is scientifically demonstrated by comparison of our genomes.

            I appreciate your clarification of your own views in this statement: “To say that God may have waved a magic wand at some point in history in order to take an evolved animal and turn him into the first Adam does not square with what The Bible says about the nature of God or man.”

            So, if I understand correctly, you think man was specially created at some unknown point completely outside of the evolutionary process that was occurring in the animal kingdom and that this is based on what the Bible says about the nature of God and man.

            I can’t prove you wrong; nor do I want to. I personally don’t think a ‘special’ creation of humanity is necessary apart from evolution. I think mankind is now very different than animals and that God meets us where we are. But I would be interested, if you wish, in understanding better what it is the Bible says about the nature of God and man that seems to require a special creation of humanity that cannot be part of evolutionary development.

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          • ANTHONY PAUL says:

            Tim, I think you are one of the most kind and respectful people I have ever known on a blog such as this, even when there is a disagreement with your own views. Thank you for that and for allowing us all the privilege of maintaining an open discussion on the issue at hand.

            “But I would be interested, if you wish, in understanding better what it is the Bible says about the nature of God and man that seems to require a special creation of humanity that cannot be part of evolutionary development.”

            As regards the point you make (quoted above), all I can honestly say at this time is that I feel a personal antipathy toward the scientific view of evolution as it pertains to mankind in particular; I am not comfortable with it on an intuitive level at the very least… the bottom line here is that I will need more time to think about this and perhaps tomorrow or in a year or two I may have a more definitive answer. Thanks!!

            Liked by 1 person

          • jesuswithoutbaggage says:

            Anthony, I understand. Intuitive reactions can have a lot of validity. If sometime down the road you want to share the results of your upcoming ponderings on this topic, I would be glad to hear them.

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      • fiddlrts says:

        I am not necessarily wedded to the idea that evolution was “guided.” Personally, I find that to be a question beside the point. I believe that God created the universe, and that the best evidence we have is that evolution was the means whereby life developed. It doesn’t matter to me if God stuck his finger in to alter stuff, or just wound things up at the beginning. The former isn’t necessary, but it would not be a big deal to me if that is how it happened. So I am not sure I am really a Theistic Evolutionist. I believe God created the universe, so I am a creationist in that sense, but I also believe in evolution, full stop, so I am an evolutionist in that sense. I think I probably do differ from Anthony in that I do not believe that man was a separate act of creation. There seems to be ample evidence of a gradual transition from non-sentient to sentient in both the fossil record and in DNA evidence. But nailing the exact moment when we became “human” in the sense of moral responsibility is kind of academic anyway. You and I clearly are morally responsible beings, and thus must choose good over evil, regardless of exactly when in our ancestry that took place. I think too that the gap between humans and animals tends to be exaggerated (often for the same reason that enslaved peoples were deemed sub-human – it’s easier to behave badly toward those you believe are inferior) – there is evidence of certain elements of consciousness and sentience in many animals, and this increases as they get closer to humans genetically. That’s why I believe the dividing line really is when one can understand good and evil – and that that is the point of the narrative of the Fall anyway.

        Liked by 1 person

  4. Very well said! You and I certainly seem to have undergone a kind of parallel theological evolution. Have you read “The Language of God” by Francis Collins?

    Liked by 1 person

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  8. newtonfinn says:

    The idea that humans are essentially different from all other creatures created by God (however one understands the process of evolution as being divinely designed and/or guided) is a two-edged sword. On the one hand, it acknowledges that human beings are capable of things that other creatures are not (both good and evil things). But on the other hand, it has led to the horrid concept that all other forms of life are merely machines (Descartes, etc.) to be used, exploited, discarded, and destroyed without the remotest ethical concern or empathy. This is the edge of the sword, exponentially increased in sharpness by science and technology, that is now cutting deeply into the entire ecosphere and threatening not only the survival of other species but, as Tim points out, our own survival as well.

    Over the years, I have come to see things with a greater simplicity, which may be the wisdom of age or merely the slow onset of senility. I believe that life–that mysterious, miraculous thing that science can’t begin to explain–is itself eternal, this thing that experiences the world and wills to act, on some level, within it. One might think of this as a return to a more ancient understanding of life, soul, and spirit being one: the breath of God (Ruach). Since all creatures have life, from the “lowest” life form to the “highest,” they all have eternal life, which means that the vision of the lion lying down with the lamb is not merely a metaphor. Rather than this ancient way of thinking leading me to think less of humankind, as just another form of animal, it instead makes me think more highly of all the wondrous creatures around me that live and breathe and work together in ways beyond our full understanding to weave and sustain the intricate, awe-inspiring web of life.

    Thus, I look forward to being reunited in heaven not only with the human beings I have known and loved and lost for a time, but also with the cats and dogs and rabbits and birds and fish that have been part of my family, and, indeed, with all living things from the beginning of time that were animated by the Ruach of the Creator. It used to be thought that only certain kinds of Christians would experience eternal life; then many expanded that concept to include all Christians; then it was expanded again by some to include all decent people; and now there are those who have expanded the concept of eternal life to include all people. I take this progression a further step to its ultimate conclusion, and believe that life, all life, is sacred and indestructible because it partakes of the breath of the Living God, in whom all creation lives and moves and has its being. Naive and childish? Perhaps, but then again Jesus had something to say about becoming like little children in our hearts and minds.

    Liked by 1 person

    • ANTHONY PAUL says:

      This was really beautiful!!! Thank you.

      Liked by 2 people

    • jesuswithoutbaggage says:

      Newton, I must agree with Anthony–this is really beautiful! I really like your statement: “Rather than this ancient way of thinking leading me to think less of humankind, as just another form of animal, it instead makes me think more highly of all the wondrous creatures around me that live and breathe and work together in ways beyond our full understanding to weave and sustain the intricate, awe-inspiring web of life.”

      While I have no definite idea about the eternity of animals, I have speculated deeply on the issue.

      Liked by 1 person

  9. Tim, great article – nice and concise and hits all the major points. Reminds me of a class I took in Helsinki on theological anthropology. It was so very interesting and in some cases way over my head. But the things I remember the most were the discussions on definitions. What does Imago Dei really mean? How do you define a person? How free is free will? and more. We often think these terms are easy to define, but when you really dig into them, they become really difficult to define.

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