The Image of God

Evolution is a polarizing topic for Christians today, especially as it pertains to human origins. According to a 2014 survey by the Pew Research Center, a majority of Catholic Christians in the United States—about 66%—believe that human beings evolved from non-human ancestors. In mainline Protestant denominations, 64% believe in human evolution, while only 38% of Evangelicals do. Most other respondents from each denomination believe that God created human beings in our present form, and only a small percentage were undecided.Religious Landscape Study, “Views about human evolution Later in this chapter, I’ll outline a variety of Christian perspectives on the divisive topic of human origins. First, however, let’s examine several interpretations of an important scriptural affirmation that has featured prominently in the controversy.

In the Genesis creation narrative, humanity appears on the scene during the sixth day, after God had commanded the earth to bring forth other forms of life (plants on day 3, sea creatures and birds on day 5, and mammalian animals earlier on day 6). As noted previously, however, God does not command the earth to bring forth humanity, as He had done with plants and animals. Instead, Genesis 1:27 reveals that God created both male and female human beings “in his own image.” This is clearly of utmost significance. The scriptural affirmation that we are made in God’s image—traditionally known as the doctrine of Imago Dei (Latin for “image of God”)—is almost universally recognized as a core tenet of Christian orthodoxy, essential to sound theology and indispensable to our faith. Is this doctrine compatible with the idea that God created our biological species via evolutionary processes? Differing ways of understanding the Imago Dei may yield opposite answers to that question.

So, what exactly does it mean to be made in God’s image? Numerous interpretations have been proposed, some of which fit more easily than others with an evolutionary account of human origins. The following list is not exhaustive,For a slightly different list, see John Walton, The Lost World of Adam and Eve: Genesis 2-3 and the Human Origins Debate (Downers Grove: Intervarsity Press, 2015), 194-196. I have added to Walton’s list, but I have also omitted what he calls the “Identity” view, mainly because I do not fully grasp the proposal. The distinctive feature of the Identity view has to do with the special role of naming practices in ancient Near Eastern cultures. In Walton’s words: “when God designates humankind as his image, that is what humankind becomes. The image becomes interwoven in our destiny and our nature. Like any name in the Old Testament, it takes on reality over time in any number of possible ways. This identity is assigned by our Creator; it is not something we could take on our own for ourselves, and it is not something that can just develop in us. Just as naming is an act of creation in the ancient world, so this giving of identity is a spiritual act of special creation” (p. 195). So far as I understand it, the suggestion is that we become God’s image-bearers simply in virtue of God naming us his image-bearers. God assigns that identity to us independently of any special attributes we might possess or functional roles we might have. nor are these interpretations mutually exclusive: more than one of them could be true. In fact, all six of the following views are logically compatible with each other, though they might not all be consistent with other scriptural insights.

  1. Visual resemblance. As a child, I naïvely assumed that being made in God’s image meant that we resemble Him in our literal appearance. Eventually, of course, I came to understand that God is an incorporeal being and thus doesn’t have a body at all, let alone one that looks like mine. Perhaps we should not be too quick to dismiss the idea for its childlike simplicity, however. For all we know, it may be that the physical shape and appearance of the human body somehow depicts or represents something about God’s attributes. In Hebrews 8:5, we learn that the physical structure and appearance of the Mosaic tabernacle represented spiritual realities in the heavenly realm. The same might be true of our physical bodies.Moreover, throughout the scriptures God frequently portrays himself to us in anthropomorphic terms, even presenting himself in visually human form in some prophetic visions (e.g. Daniel 7:9). The most plausible reason, surely, is that God condescends to reveal himself using words and images we can readily understand; but it is at least conceivable that God had prior, independent reasons for preferring a humanoid form for His own visual manifestation and consequently gave us a similar appearance. On the other hand, there is little scriptural evidence to support this understanding of the Imago Dei, and—presumably for that reason—it has never been popular among theologians.Since the earliest centuries of Christianity, prominent Christian thinkers have explicitly denied that the image of God resides in our physical shape or visual appearance. For example, Augustine writes in his Confessions: “You are certainly not our physical shape. Yet you made humanity in your image, and man from head to foot is contained in space.” Saint Augustine, Confessions, translated by Henry Chadwick (Oxford and New York: Oxford University Press, 2008), 94.
  2. Capacity resemblance. A more plausible interpretation holds that we resemble God in our abilities, faculties, or capacities. For example, we have the faculty of reason, we are able to communicate with complex language, we have the capacity for creativity, we have the capacity to love, to develop moral understanding, to exercise free will, and so on. This interpretation has been endorsed by many influential thinkers in the history of the church. For example, Augustine and Aquinas both held that the Imago Dei involves, at least in part, our intellectual, rational, and volitional abilities.

Both of the above views may be difficult to reconcile with an evolutionary account of human origins. If human beings evolved from non-human ancestors, the biological transition between animals and human beings would have been gradual, blurring the distinction between creatures who had the relevant features and those who didn’t. There would have been no specific moment in history when our ancestors acquired the appropriate visual appearance (on the visual resemblance view) or the requisite capacities (on the capacity view) to reflect God’s image. This seems theologically problematic and scripturally suspect, at best. Scripture presents a sharp, theologically important distinction between animal life and human life. The life of a human being is of greater worth than that of any animal, precisely because we alone are made in God’s image (Genesis 9:3-6).

Nevertheless, the capacity resemblance view might not be strictly incompatible with human evolution, especially if (as some proponents of this view believe) there was a moment in history when God endowed us with an immaterial soul or spirit that accounts for some of our capacities. Perhaps our free will, or our ability to reason, or our capacity for moral understanding depends upon having a soul or some other unique feature—material or immaterial—that did not arise gradually. Maybe God created our species via ordinary natural processes, but then imparted His image to our ancestors at a specific moment in history.

AthanasiusThis portrait of Saint Athanasius is in the St. Mark Cathedral in Cairo, Egypt. Image source: Wikimedia Commons (public domain).
(c. 296–373 AD)

Interestingly, one of the earliest Christian proponents of the capacity view held that human beings are animals upon whom God bestowed his image. The early church father and theologian Athanasius (c. 296–373 AD) was no small figure in church history. Renowned for defending the doctrine of the Trinity, Athanasius was also the first author to recommend canonization of the 27 books that would become the New Testament. In fact, he was first to use the term “canonized” in this context.David Brakke, “Canon Formation and Social Conflict in Fourth-Century Egypt: Athanasius of Alexandria's Thirty-Ninth Festal Letter,” Harvard Theological Review, Volume 87, Issue 4 (October 1994), 395 - 419. In his most important theological treatise, Athanasius wrote:

He made all things out of nothing through His own Word, our Lord Jesus Christ, and of all these His earthly creatures He reserved especial mercy for the race of men. Upon them, therefore, upon men who, as animals, were essentially impermanent, He bestowed a grace which other creatures lacked—namely the impress of His own Image, a share in the reasonable being of the very Word Himself, so that, reflecting Him and themselves becoming reasonable and expressing the Mind of God even as He does, though in limited degree, they might continue forever in the blessed and only true life of the saints in paradise.” (On the Incarnation of the Word, 1.3)

Here, Athanasius seems to suggest that God created mankind by bestowing His image—consisting in the capacity of reason—upon creatures who had been mere animals. Such a view would be entirely consistent with evolutionary theory, provided the “impress” of God’s image did not involve any sudden biological transformation. In particular, the new capacities may have been imparted via an immaterial spirit rather than through a physical change, as Athanasius himself seems to suggest later in the same passage.In the subsequent paragraph, Athanasius reminds us that “we are discussing the origin of men” and says that “God had made man … as an embodied spirit.”

This last suggestion raises another possibility. If God bestowed His image upon us via a spiritual impartation, perhaps the image of God resides in the human spirit itself, rather than in our abilities or capacities:

  1. Spiritual resemblance. On this interpretation, God has endowed each of us with a non-physical spirit resembling his own spiritual essence. The image of God inheres in the “breath of life” that God breathed into Adam (Genesis 2:7). This breath transformed Adam from a mere earthly creature, a creature made of “dust from the ground,” into a new kind of being who was not only biologically but also spiritually alive.

It is difficult to say what it means for one invisible spirit to resemble another, or to identify the precise sense in which the human spirit bears the image of God. The resemblance may have something to do with our spirit’s capacities or abilities, as suggested in the previous interpretation. Alternatively, it could be that the human spirit shares other properties in common with God’s spirit—a certain kind of consciousness, perhaps, or maybe inscrutable properties completely unknown to us. There is mystery in this interpretation, but that doesn’t necessarily count against it. Crucially, for the purpose of our present discussion, there is no obvious reason why the spiritual resemblance view would be incompatible with an evolutionary theory of our biological origins.

Several other views of the Imago Dei also merit serious consideration:

  1. Functional resemblance. According to this view, we resemble God in the functional role that He has assigned to us. God has given our species a role of sovereignty or rulership in the world that resembles his own role as supreme ruler. Arguably, this is the interpretation best supported by the original context. Genesis 1:26 indicates that God created mankind for a specific purpose or function, namely, to rule over the other earthly creatures. In verse 28, He instructs us corporately (i.e., collectively, rather than as individuals) to carry out that functional role. Thus, the image of God belongs to all of humanity, independently of our individual traits or abilities.John Walton puts it this way: “In this view, humanity corporately functions as God’s vice-regents—stewards who are charged with subduing and ruling as articulated in the very context in which the image is granted (Gen 1:26-30). As a corporate designation, it differentiates humanity from all other creatures and species. Those capacities that can be discussed neurologically (self-awareness, God-awareness, etc.) may well be understood as allowing us to carry out this task, but they would not themselves define the image of God. All humans have a role to play in this aspect of our corporate identity, regardless of how well they function mentally or physically.” The Lost World of Adam and Eve: Genesis 2-3 and the Human Origins Debate (Downers Grove: InterVarsity Press, 2015), 194.
  2. Representation. On this interpretation, being made in God’s image doesn’t necessarily mean that we resemble him at all. Rather, we represent Him. God has designated us as His representatives, in the sense that we are to serve as visible reminders of his invisible presence and authority in the world. Old Testament scholar John Walton explains:
    When a king in the ancient world had an image of himself placed by the gate in a city he had conquered or at the border of a land that he claimed, the image proclaimed the king’s presence there. … The images of the gods in the temples did the same … As in the case of images in the ancient world, we, as his image, stand in as God’s substitutes. We represent his presence in sacred space.Walton, The Lost World of Adam and Eve: Genesis 2-3 and the Human Origins Debate (Downers Grove: InterVarsity Press, 2015), 195.

    The pagan religions used idols as visible representations of their gods, but the true God does not want us to represent Him with any image that we create. Instead, He created us to be visible representations of Him. This interpretation might explain why the prohibition against making idols (the second of the Ten Commandments) was so important. God commanded the Israelites not to make any “graven image” (Hebrew: pecel), not even as instruments of worship toward Him (Exodus 20:4; Deuteronomy 5:8), because we ourselves are to serve that role. Our own bodies are the instruments of worship, His image in the visible world.

  3. Heirship. Yet another interpretation suggests that being made in God’s image and likeness means we are His children, heirs of His kingdom. This last interpretation rests on a fascinating parallel between Genesis 1:26-27 and Genesis 5:3. Notice that the same two Hebrew words used in Genesis 1:26, tselem (image) and damuwth (likeness), are also used in Genesis 5:3 to describe the relationship between Adam and his son Seth:
    Then God said, ‘Let Us make man in Our image [tselem], according to Our likeness [damuwth]; and let them rule over the fish of the sea and over the birds of the sky and over the cattle and over all the earth, and over every creeping thing that creeps on the earth.’ God created man in His own image [tselem], in the image [tselem] of God He created him; male and female He created them.” (Genesis 1:26-27)
    When Adam had lived one hundred and thirty years, he became the father of a son in his own likeness [damuwth], according to his image [tselem], and named him Seth. (Genesis 5:3)

    These two words are not found together anywhere else in scripture. They are not used, for example, to describe the relation between Adam and his firstborn son, Cain; nor are they used in reference to Adam’s second son, Abel. Why not? Why does Genesis mention that Seth had the image and likeness of his father, when no such point is made regarding Adam’s first two sons? Did Seth look more like his dad than his older brothers had? It’s hard to imagine why the writer of Genesis would bother to mention such a theologically unimportant detail. A more plausible idea is that these two words were used in ancient Hebraic culture to indicate heirship: the writer is emphasizing that Seth is Adam’s heir. The firstborn son would have been the heir, ordinarily, but Cain had been exiled for killing his brother Abel. The son next in line, Abel, obviously wasn’t available either. So, the heirship fell to Adam’s third-born son, Seth.

    If the words tselem and damuwth are indeed used to indicate heirship in this context, there is no obvious reason not to interpret them similarly in the earlier passage. Moreover, the idea that God intended for human beings to be His heirs—to share in the inheritance of His kingdom—is reinforced throughout scripture and especially in the New Testament. (See, for instance, Romans 4:13, Romans 8:17, Galatians 3:29, Galatians 4:7, Ephesians 3:6, and Titus 3:7.)

Are these last three views compatible with an evolutionary account of human origins? Some contemporary advocates of these views think so.For example, John Walton endorses all three of these interpretations (though he uses slightly different nomenclature for the last two, which he calls “Substitution” and “Divine-human relationship,” respectively) in his book The Lost World of Adam and Eve: Genesis 2-3 and the Human Origins Debate (Downers Grove: Intervarsity Press, 2015). See pages 194 - 196 for his discussion of those interpretations. Walton considers them fully compatible with human evolution. On page 129, he writes: “I have suggested that the Bible does not really offer any information about material human origins. This would mean that the scientific claims of common descent and material continuity would not be automatically ruled out. It is important, nevertheless, to realize that the adoption of common descent and material continuity does not eliminate the idea that human beings are created by God and are uniquely spiritual beings who possess the image of God. The image of God is not neurological and not materially defined in terms of neuroscience or genetics; it has no material component, though the image is embodied.” As with the first two views listed above, however, a gradual evolutionary transition from non-human animals to human beings may raise theological worries on these interpretations.

Recall that the first two views made it difficult for an evolutionary account of human origins to sustain a sharp theological distinction between human life and mere animal life (unless the capacity view is conjoined with something like the spiritual resemblance view). The challenge for the last three interpretations is more subtle. The latter interpretations do permit a sharp distinction between image-bearers and non-image-bearers, even on an evolutionary account. There could have been a specific moment in evolutionary history when God chose to bestow His image upon our species, by giving us a certain functional role (functional resemblance view), or by designating us His representatives (representation view), or by choosing us to be His heirs (heirship view). So, on each of the last three interpretations of the Imago Dei, evolutionary creationism is immune to the specific objection raised in the first two cases. However, a closely-related problem lurks in the vicinity. If God created our species via a gradual evolutionary process over many generations, it’s not obvious why the value of human life should have increased so dramatically above the value of animal life without any corresponding change in our intrinsic nature—biological, spiritual, or otherwise.

To clarify the issue here, suppose for example that the representation view is correct. Is the fact that God designated us as his representatives sufficient—by itself—to explain why human life is vastly more precious in God’s sight than animal life? Perhaps so, but not obviously so. It’s not easy to see any good reason why God should have regarded the first generation of image-bearers as having great worth, without regarding the lives of their (biologically indistinguishable) parents as having the same or nearly the same worth. 

Evolutionary creationists might respond to this objection in a variety of ways. Conjoining any of the last three views with the spiritual resemblance view would, I think, help to avert the problem. Alternatively, it might be argued that the scriptural distinction between the worth of human life and that of animalsSee Genesis 9:3-6. may apply specifically to our present context, not to all of evolutionary history. There are, in any case, some plausible interpretations of Genesis 1:27 that do seem compatible with human evolution.

Of course, observing that evolutionary theory is compatible with several interpretations of one verse is hardly sufficient to prove the theory consistent with the Bible as a whole. Many other passages of scripture also reveal important truths about the creation of human beings. The story of Adam and Eve, in particular, raises difficult questions for any theory of human origins. That will be our focus on the next page.