Evolution & Image Bearers, Pt 1

This article is the first of a two-part series and was written by Dr. Pam King and former Thrive Research Assistant, Tyler Greenway.

One of the challenging issues raised for Christians by the science of evolution is understanding what it means for an evolved human to be made in the image of God (imago Dei). Evolutionary theory implies that species are not neatly distinguished from one another in discrete categories. Instead, it posits that the ancestry of life on earth is better understood as a slow, continuous development with ever-changing lines differentiating species from one another. Species, including humans, have changed over time and continue to change. If, according to evolutionary theory, the human species has evolved from non-human ancestors over the course of hundreds of thousands of years, how might we understand humans as uniquely bearing the image of God?


In a previous BioLogos blog post, Dennis Venema suggests that modern homo sapiens have evolved along “different evolutionary trajectories.” While all modern homo sapiens share common ancestors from Africa, some homo sapiens also have Neanderthal and Denisovan ancestors. Who, then, were divine image-bearers–the common ancestors from Africa, Neanderthals, Denisovans, their mixed species children, or all of the above? In other words, if the lines differentiating species from one another are less clear and the development of a species is seen as an extended, continuous process involving the mixing of different related species, how are we to understand modern humans as divine image-bearers in comparison to the direct ancestors of humans who presumably were not?One way of addressing this question is to consider the role divine image-bearers are given and the capacities required for that role. If bearing God’s image requires a particular role with particular capacities, those species that lack those capacities and therefore cannot act in that role are not image bearers of God. Those species that possess those capacities may then be considered potential image bearers, in the sense that these species have the necessary capacities for this role. In this way, a line may be drawn between direct ancestors of humans that most likely did not bear the image of God and those that may have. We believe this approach is compatible with existing interpretations of the imago—whether Christological, relational (i.e., being in relationship with God), functional (i.e. fulfilling God’s role or commission to humankind)—and also compatible with understanding how God could have used natural processes to enable humans to become unique image bearers. (Part 2 will address a different approach to understanding the image of God in the context of evolution as well.) This method is, of course, somewhat complicated by disagreements concerning what it means to be made in the image of God. These disagreements, while certainly interesting, will not be resolved here.


For the sake of this post, one well-established feature of the imago Dei will be focused on: the role of dominion or stewardship over creation. We will then consider which capacities are required for this role to be performed in a meaningful way. Two broad examples are the ability to learn about creation and flexibly care for different species with different needs and the ability to plan for the benefit of these species.The ability to learn about creation is important for dominion because different species require different care. Here we may discuss various psychological capacities that enable this ability. Theory of mind—the ability to consider the intentions, desires, and beliefs of other minds—is greatly useful. In order for a divine image-bearer to exercise dominion, he or she must understand that gazelles prefer to eat grass and lions prefer to eat gazelles. Various aspects of intuitive biology may also be useful as they allow humans to understand the basic needs of species in general (e.g., food, water, shelter, etc.) and to differentiate between species and attribute specific needs to them. These abilities, in turn, allow humans to flexibly care for different species with different needs. The sheep can be led to pasture and the fish left in its pond where they may both respectively thrive, rather than applying one method of care to both. In order to helpfully rule over creation, image bearers also need to plan ahead for the benefit of these species. Sheep taken to the same pasture too often may create an environment that can no longer sustain the life of the sheep or the life of other co-existing species. Here we may also speak of particular psychological capacities, such as a certain amount of self-control and the ability to delay gratification. Without these abilities, humanity may wreak havoc on ecosystems in order to pursue their own gain or obtain immediate rewards. Further, image bearers may need to examine potential futures, set goals, and implement these goals. In this way image bearers may foresee problems and helpfully avoid them.


To a degree, these capacities exist in other species as well, but the extent to which they exist in the human species is unique. Additionally, this method does raise further questions about humans or groups of humans with limited capacities in these areas, and for this reason, it may be better applied to species as a whole, rather than to individuals. For example, we may be able to say that those groups of humans that possessed these capacities, such as theory of mind and self-regulation, were potentially image bearers, but those groups of direct human ancestors that lacked these capacities were likely not image bearers. For example, if Neanderthals lacked a number of necessary capacities for dominion, it may be accurate to say that they were likely not image bearers. But, if Neanderthals, like modern humans, possessed these capacities and were capable of exercising a meaningful amount of dominion over creation, it may be accurate to say they were potential image bearers.


This article was originally published by BioLogos.

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