If evolution is true… how are we made in the image of God?

By Justin Lathlean

Human history is littered with artists and philosophers, from all religious backgrounds, trying to illustrate the physical attributes of God. The ancient Babylonians, Egyptians and Greeks had many gods and many of them took the form of human beings. Within Christianity, Michelangelo’s painting ‘The Creation of Adam’ is perhaps the most renowned depiction of God in modern times representing God as an elderly man dressed in white flowing robes floating in the sky. This artwork, amongst others, draws thousands of tourists each year to the Sistine Chapel and has undoubtedly influenced generations of people and their concept of God’s physical appearance. But where has this idea – that God looks like a human being –come from? And since nobody ‘has ever seen God’ (John 1:18) how can we be so sure what he looks like? To answer these questions we need to go back 3,500 years when the author of Genesis wrote these words:

“Then God said, “Let us make human beings 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 God created human beings in his own image, in the image of God he created them; male and female he created them.”

On first reading, the meaning of this text seems quite direct and unambiguous. That is, human beings were made to reflect the physical appearance of God. It is as if God designed a limited edition caste of Himself and used it to create mankind. This idea that human beings are the result of a special act of divine creation is a major stumbling block for many materialists as it flies in the face of modern evolutionary biology, which suggests we were not created but modified through descent. Their objections at this point are ‘how can we, as human beings, reflect the image of God since we are virtually indistinguishable to our primate cousins, both genetically and anatomically, and who, not so long ago (geologically speaking), belonged to the same species? At what point along this evolutionary timeline did human beings become image bearers of God?’ These are valid questions to which there are no immediate answers. It is therefore not surprising that most people don’t get past the first couple of pages of the bible. Instead, they quickly dismiss the notion that human beings are created in the image of God, and reject the premise on which the entire bible is founded. One such person was the late Christopher Hitchens’ who wrote:

“God did not create man in his own image. Evidently, it was quite the other way about, which is the painless explanation for the profusion of gods and religions, and the fratricide both between and among faiths, that we see all about us and that has so retarded the development of civilization.”

Hitchens’ conclusion, that human beings made God in their own image, appeals to the materialist who wishes to explain away the idea of God to pure natural evolutionary processes. However, as John Lennox remarks ‘just because there in counterfeit money, it does not mean all money is counterfeit.’ That is, just because there are counterfeit God’s, it doesn’t mean all God’s are counterfeit. Furthermore, Hitchens’ conclusion does not do justice to the original reading of Genesis nor does it address particular nuances that might be used to understand how we might still be made in the image of God even if we share a common ancestor with most other primates. This false dichotomy between evolution and creation is perhaps linked to our tendency to read Genesis as a scientific textbook when instead it should be viewed more like a book of poetry. For example, the author of Genesis uses highly symbolic and repetitive language within the opening chapter, something a scientist would never do.

But how do we decide which parts of Genesis should be taken literally and which parts more figuratively?

Both believers and sceptics alike have struggled with this question for centuries, even long before Charles Darwin proposed his theory of evolution by natural selection in 1859. It is not surprising, therefore, that some take the path of least resistance and argue that the concept of ‘imago dei’ is purely a human invention – just a futile attempt to reassure ourselves of our own self-importance. Whilst others, wondering what all the fuss is about, prefer to remain ignorant on the subject and consequently have no interest in reconciling the two divergent views. Speaking as both a scientist and Christian, it has been encouraging to discover numerous other people, both past and present, who have wrestled with this exact dilemma and have come out the other side with convincing answers that have withstood the test of time. So before we dismiss the idea that we were purposely made to reflect the image of God as wishful thinking let us take a closer look the various reinterpretations of Genesis 1: 26-30 to see if any of them could potentially harmonise with the theory of evolution.

Resemblance, relational and representative views

The first of these interpretations is the resemblance view, which asserts it is something about our outward appearance, intelligence, spirituality and or moral character that makes us image bearers of God. This view sets humans apart because of their unique physical qualities but also because of their capacity to think, create and make rational arguments, just like God. This view was once the predominant opinion amongst Christians and Jews but with the rise of modern evolutionary biology another slightly altered interpretation has become more popular, that is, the substantive view, which is essentially the same as the resemblance view except it removes any reference to humans reflecting God’s image through their physical appearance. This is the view being expressed by Pope John Paul II when he said:

“If the origin of the human body comes through living matter which existed previously, the spiritual soul is created directly by God.”

The substantive view downplays or dismisses the idea that our physical attributes reflect the physical characteristics of God. This view is popular amongst theistic evolutionists who find it difficult to make distinctions or draw boundaries between human beings and other closely related primates and other extinct hominids. However, this does not seem to do justice to the plain reading of the text that we were made in his image, after his likeness (v.26), or other parts of the bible which make reference to God’s physical attributes (Exodus 33: 19-23). However, taken together with other references like Psalm 136:12, which makes reference to God’s ‘mighty hand and outstretched arm’, we can see that such descriptions should be taken figuratively, a literary technique used to help the reader relate to the characteristic of God that is being portrayed. This makes sense in the light of John 4:24, which states that ‘God is spirit, and his worshipers must worship in the Spirit and in truth’ and 1 John 4:12 ‘No one has ever seen God; but if we love one another, God lives in us and his love is made complete in us.’ This is the relational view, that it is through our relationships with one another that we reflect the triune nature of God. This is what Victor Hugo meant when he said “To love another person is to see the face of God.” Love, therefore, is the defining characteristic of human beings and this is derived from God the creator.

Finally, there is a third interpretation called the representative or functional view, which states that human beings are made in the likeness of God through their appointment to govern and rule over creation. Just as God rules over the heavens and the universe, human beings should likewise rule over the land and the sea (Genesis 1: 26-30). Some people see this view as a form of environmental dictatorship permitting humans to manipulate and take advantage of earth’s natural resources. However, this is not the overarching view of the bible which describes human beings as stewards of creation, designed to care and look after the earth so that it could in turn support mankind.

At this point you might be thinking what view best describes what it means to be made in the image of God? Do we have to choose between these three different interpretations? Or can we produce a more holistic view that combines all three interpretations into one? The theologian C. John Collins certainly thinks so:

“Scholars commonly speak as if these categories are mutually exclusive. My view is that the linguistic and exegetical details favour the idea that “in our image, after our likeness” implies that humans were made with some kind of resemblance to God, which was to enable them to represent God as benevolent rulers, and to find their fulfilment in their relationships with each other and with God. That is, I have combined all three views.”

As in many disciplines, our desire to categorise, simplify and break things down into their primary components gets in the way of seeing the bigger picture. In our attempt to understand what it means to be made in the image of God we have reduced God’s character to a list of mutually exclusive attributes. We forget that he is first and foremost a ‘person’ or ‘being’ who is infinitely complex. As John Lennox states:

“Our claim is that human beings are made in God’s image, which implies that you can learn something about God from looking at humans. In particular, we are persons, and so is God. Now think of one person you respect. He is one person, yet his personality is not monolithic and undifferentiated. It has distinct characteristics: he can be gracious but firm, for example”

Speaking of the multifaceted nature of human beings, C. John Collins puts it this way:

“Other animals may have features that are analogous to these special features of human beings, but the total assembly of characteristics that we find in humans is distinct. Human beings, whether they are discussing mathematics or morals, claim to have access to something that transcends their immediate bodily needs. This is not a merely natural development of the capacities in other animals.”

Both Lennox and Collins are hinting that the essence of humanity lies outside that which can be objectively quantified. That human nature is more than just the sum of its parts. Instead, it is something far greater which emerges only when all these characteristics – love, language, morality, spirituality, intelligence, stewardship, anatomy – coexist within the same being. God is the only other entity that I can think of that shares all these unique characteristics. So unless evolutionary processes alone – that is, without any external input from a transcendent being – can adequately explain how we were lucky enough to be endowed with such a unique suite of biological features, then I think evolution in no way diminishes the central claim of the bible that human beings are made in the image of God.