Evolution and the Image of God

by Keith B. Miller, Ph.D.

This page contains the text of a message (written in 2001 on ASA's Discussion List) responding to this claim: "Such a concept [of humans created in the image of God] cannot exist in any evolutionary concept of the origin of man. ... The same is true of the notion of the Fall of Man."  The response was introduced by saying, "I do think that this is at least one way to understand the Image of God in an evolutionary context."

Our physical and genetic continuity with the rest of the creation in no way excludes an historical Adam.  However, since there is a continuity of physical form from modern humans to our common ancestors with the other great apes, there are no physical criteria by which the appearance of the "image of God" could be identified in the fossil record.

With regard to the implications of human evolution for the "image of God" I will quote from an article that I wrote several years ago:

    We are the image of God in creation -- that is why the command against making graven images is so powerful.  We stand in a unique position within creation -- as God's representative, as His viceroy over the Earth.  I believe that the basis for that unique position is our dual nature.  We have at once a kinship with the rest of creation and with the creator.  Genesis describes the origin of humankind in precisely the same manner as that of all other living things (Gen 2:7,9,19).  The origin of our physical nature is not different from that of other creatures -- we are made of the same stuff.  If God used and providentially controlled evolutionary mechanisms in the creation of plants and animals, I see no reason to reject an evolutionary origin for humankind.  In fact, the testimony of both scripture and nature is that we share a oneness with the rest of creation.  Our physical natures are inseparably connected to the rest of life on Earth.
    An inseparable part of being created as images of God in the world is the authority delegated to us by God.  We have been chosen out of creation as God's representatives, His stewards.  God commissioned us to "Be fruitful and increase in number; fill the earth and subdue it.  Rule over the fish of the sea and the birds of the air and over every living creature that moves on the ground" (Genesis 1:28).  Adam was placed in the garden "to work it and take care of it" (Genesis 2:15).  Our ability to exercise this divine commission to rule and care for creation is, I believe, based on our dual nature.  Our physical unity with the natural world is as vital to our appointed role as image bearers as is our spiritual apprehension of the divine.
    { Keith B. Miller, 1993, Theological Implications of an Evolving Creation in Perspectives on Science and Christian Faith, vol. 45, p.150-160. }

The issue of Paul's comparison of Christ (the second Adam) with the first Adam is, I believe quite helpful in sorting through the issues.  Sin and spiritual death "entered the world" through Adam, but life and righteousness through Jesus Christ.  It seems that both Adam and Christ are being presented as representative heads of the human race.  We bear the image of Christ in the same way that we formally bore the image of Adam.  We are dealing here, I believe, not with physical realities but with with spiritual realities.  Adam thus need not be the physical ancestor of all humans, anymore than Jesus is the physical ancestor of all those who believe in Him.

How was God's "image" imparted to humanity?  I think that there are a couple of options here.  One common position is that God selected a particular individual into whom God imparted a spiritually conscious soul.  A more monist (as opposed to dualist) view might be that God revealed himself to Adam thus bringing Adam into personal fellowship in a state of moral innocence.  I am sure there are other approaches to this.

Furthermore, as has been pointed out by George Murphy, the Image of God is revealed not in Adam but in Christ.  We are to be conformed to His image -- the image of one who sacrificially emptied himself and suffered for our sake.

If Adam is not the genealogical ancestor of all humanity, then how can we understand the "image" to have been communicated to all humanity?  Firstly, this is essentially the problem of the "pre-Adamites" which is hardly a consequence of an evolutionary view of human origins.  The Biblical text itself raises these issues because a straightforward reading of the text implies that Adam and his immediate descendents lived in an already populated world (Gen, 4:13-26).  Thus, these questions have to be answered regardless of whether an evolutionary origin is accepted.

There are a number of issues here and I won't do justice to any of them.

One consideration is that the origin of the "Image of God" which is associated with the creation of humankind in Genesis 1, is not the focus of the account of Adam in chapter 2 and following.  The issue with Adam is not the origin of God-likeness but rather the origin of sin.  In other words the two accounts are dealing with different issues.  The representative headship of Adam has to do with sin and its consequence -- spiritual death.

I think that scripture allows us to view the "Image of God" as an act of grace poured out on God's chosen creatures when those creatures had in effect "come of age."  Here the evolutionary origin of humanity provides some helpful metaphors.  Here's one way to think about it:  God providentially directed the evolutionary development of humans to the point at which they possessed the mental and emotional capacity for conscious fellowship with Him.  At that point, God revealed Himself and established a covenant relationship, making them divine representatives to the rest of creation.

I believe that Adam could have been selected out from the rest of humanity for a special covenant relationship.  This would be entirely consistent with the pattern of God's interaction with the human race revealed throughout scripture.  God selects a particular individual through whom to accomplish His redemptive will.  There is first Adam, then Noah, Abram, Joseph, Moses, and Jesus.  God seems to repeatedly focus the entire future of His will for His chosen on the obedience of a single individual.

How is the sin condition (original sin) passed on?  This question is related to the question:  How is Christ's righteousness imputed to us?  —  By grace through faith.

There is some act of the will on my part involved.  I must willingly accept that offer of grace.  What if we make a parallel with the transmission of sin?  When I am born I am innocent (I do not mean righteous).  However, at the first opportunity I choose to be disobedient -- I sin and come under the curse of Adam which is spiritual death.  Thus, Adam's curse is imputed to me by my sharing in his sin, just as Christ's righteousness is imputed to me by faith.  "Therefore, just as sin entered the world through one man, and death through sin, and in this way death came to all men, because all sinned" (Rom 5:12).  My reading is that there are none who are without sin except Christ, thus there are none who are morally righteous yet still condemned by Adam's sin.  We are condemned because we sin.  Therefore I do not understand that sin itself is something that is passed on thru direct descent.

The question then is, why do we all sin?  This is where my views get even more speculative.  It has been suggested by some that our physical desires and drives, which were part of God's good creation enabling us to survive and flourish as a species, became aspects of our humanity that God called us to overcome as His image bearers.  In other words, God desires that His character be developed in us through our encounter with and overcoming of temptation and trial (Gen 2:15-17; Gen 4:6-7).  And He has not left us in that process without providing us with His gracious power -- if we choose to accept it.  This provides, I believe, a useful basis for working out a theodicy of pain and suffering.  I have found the book "Evil and the God of Love" by John Hick to be very helpful to me in thinking through theodicy issues.

Keith B. Miller
Department of Geology
Kansas State University,  Manhattan, KS 66506
kbmill@ksu.edu    http://www-personal.ksu.edu/~kbmill/