Evolution and What the Image of God Is Not

Image of God, Part 1

by Frost Smith
Featured in Answers in Depth


If evolution were true and man evolved through successive stages of hominids, a Christian has a problem—among many others—of determining when man became made in the image of God. This brief paper responds to a potential solution put forward recently on the BioLogos website, whose mission is to “invite the church and the world to see the harmony between science and biblical faith as we present an evolutionary understanding of God’s creation.”1 Similarly, the Christian ministry Reasons to Believe (RTB) allows for millions of years and for humanlike creatures that don’t quite make the cut of being God’s image-bearers, but RTB has a different way of reconciling the issue, which has been discussed elsewhere. This paper maintains that such attempts are damaging and intends to show them as unsatisfactory for the Christian—indeed for anyone honestly considering man’s elevated state. As this paper addresses what the image of God is not, so part two will exegetically address what it is according to Scripture.

A recent two-part piece on The BioLogos Forum admits that meshing evolution and the image of God that all humans possess is a “challenging issue.” Clearly the reason for this is the number of transitional and experimental species that supposedly led up to modern humans, the crown jewel of creation that finally does bear the image of God. Confounding the matter further is the evidence of Neanderthal and Denisovan DNA in modern humans. Dr. Hugh Ross of Reasons to Believe (RTB) deals with the matter this way:

RTB’s biblical creation model identifies “hominids,” Neanderthals, Homo erectus and others, as animals created by God. These extra-ordinary creatures walked erect and possessed enough intelligence to assemble crude tools and even adopt some level of “culture.” The RTB model maintains that the hominids were not spiritual beings made in God’s image. RTB’s model reserves this status exclusively for Adam and Eve and their descendants (modern humans).

The model predicts many biological similarities will exist between the hominids and modern humans but also significant differences. The greatest distinctions between modern humans and the hominids can be seen in their cognitive capacity, behavior patterns, technological development, and culture, especially artistic and religious expression.2

Dr. Elizabeth Mitchell has addressed Reasons to Believe’s views in “Does Hugh Ross Believe in Soulless Ancient Humans?” In a two-part series on BioLogos, however, authors Tyler Greenway and Pamela Ebstyne King have taken this idea a different direction by not giving any indication of a belief in a literal Adam and Eve and by delineating divine image-bearing as a matter of fulfilling that very role itself:

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.3

The BioLogos Forum writers note that such a role is multifaceted; therefore they decided to use, for the sake of example, the role of a divine image-bearer in the singular capacity of dominion/stewardship, presumably because of the mandate given in Genesis 1:28. Beings able to fulfill that role are those with “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.” In this view, the image of God is merely a matter of function and ability, not a matter of being. This definition sadly, and surely unintentionally, leaves open the idea that those with severe mental or physical disabilities may not be able to bear the image of God.

The first part of the BioLogos Forum series then begins to delve into “psychological capacities” that enable humans to recognize differing needs of animal types and appropriately care for them, including proper planning, self-control, and even goal-setting. The authors argue that “these capacities exist in other species as well, but the extent to which they exist in the human species is unique.” Given some of the Neanderthal fossils and tools that have been found, it might be hard to argue that they did not possess those abilities. Indeed, the authors admit at the end of the first article of the series, “[I]f 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” [emphasis mine].

Moving on to the second article in the series, the authors raise another question: “How have humans borne the image of God across time and in different cultural contexts?” With a nod to the role of the Holy Spirit,4 the authors concluded that the imago Dei is dynamic, i.e., adaptive to current circumstances and abilities, requiring differing behaviors, while allowing for individual differences and personal growth in image-bearers. They believe this method, unlike others, allows for the image of God to broaden as time passes. They offer the following example:

[D]uring the Enlightenment, the use of reason may have gained importance and helped illuminate an individual’s relationship with God. In more recent times relational qualities, such as having a coherent identity or expressing empathy, may better enable individuals to participate more fully in Christian fellowship and in the life of the triune God.5

This plasticity of humankind’s conscientiousness is indeed a hallmark of history—both good and bad. But, with this understanding of image-bearing being a gradual development of god-like qualities that man came to possess, one is left to wonder if mass-murderers and ruthless dictators then bear the image of God at all, though “modern” humans.

But, back to the point of entertaining evolutionary timelines, when/where/how did hominids become “humans” if there were no Adam and Eve? The authors suggest

when the evidence of multiple human ancestors raises the question of how the imago may have emerged within the natural order, a dynamic perspective suggests that the capacity to be an image bearer could have arisen regardless of context or even ancestors—as long as the sufficient constellation of capacities necessary to relate to God, other, and creation were present . . . . Through the processes of evolution, humans eventually had the capacity to bear the image of God in a way that was distinct from their predecessors.6

While an arguably novel concept, it seems that making the image of God a process rather than an endowment, a clear statement in Genesis 1:26 and 1:27, only muddies the waters more by adding a spectrum of mental capabilities and spirituality to the already-existing spectrum of physical morphologies that supposedly make up human evolution. We are again left with a nebulous and unsatisfying answer as to how, in an evolutionary paradigm, man became an agent of God, bearing His image with a purpose. Why would God use a cruel and senseless process to bring about man to then, supposedly, shepherd the creation already stained with blood, disease, and death? What exactly is man supposed to have dominion over, when mankind had been developing already under the dominion of nature, red in tooth and claw?7 And, most importantly, why would we need a Savior if we were already developing a godliness-of-sorts and if death and disease were longer residents of the world we supposedly evolved to shepherd? This view also, with no stated or clear “Adam” and “Fall,” would elevate man, the “first Adam(s),” into the role of the “last Adam”—to rescue the world, instead of being stewards of a perfectly created world in which we wreaked havoc.8 And where are those potential-but-not-quite image-bearers now—dead and buried with their not-quite soul? In such an indefinite model, perhaps some answers could be posited to these questions, but sticking with God’s clear account of when and how man became a living soul bearing the image of God precludes the questions entirely and makes sense of the entirety of Scripture whereby a “first Adam” dooms creation and a “second Adam” restores it.

The Bible should be our foundational source for understanding the image of God and how and why we are here—and everything else it touches on. As man is “dynamic,” so are his ideas, constantly changing, but none satisfactory for every time and place. Yet ironically, one theme is becoming more and more constant, and that is trying to force millions of years into the roughly 6,000-year, straightforward timeline of the Bible. But our God, as only He could do, has given us timeless truth in His Word. Nothing has falsified a single claim, including a young age for the earth and a global Flood. Answers in Genesis wants people to know that our Creator has provided answers in the Bible (Romans 15:4; 2 Timothy 3:16). We call Christians to diligently search His Word and to abandon concocted ideas that go against what God recorded for us (2 Timothy 2:15–16). Want to know what the Scriptures say about man and the image of God? The next article in this in-depth series will show through the biblical account that sound answers are available, unlike those provided by any evolutionary or old-earth model.

Read Part 2 of this series: “What Is the Image of God?

Find out more about the gospel and how it depends on the first three chapters of Genesis with a literal Adam, sin bringing death, and the promise of the Seed of woman that would crush the serpent in Good News.

Further Reading

Answers in Depth

2015 Volume 10


  1. “About the BioLogos Foundation,” BioLogos, accessed August 5, 2015, http://biologos.org/about.
  2. “Hominids,” Reasons to Believe, accessed August 5, 2015, http://www.reasons.org/rtb-101/hominids.
  3. “Evolution and Image Bearers, Part 1,” BioLogos, April 13, 2015, http://biologos.org/blog/evolution-and-image-bearers-part-1.
  4. Invoking the Holy Spirit as a means by which pre-humans (non-image-bearers) were supposedly influenced is dubious, even for theistic evolutionists. The interactions of the Holy Spirit recorded in the Old Testament are always with God’s people that already have the image of God and usually for a specific purpose.
  5. King and Greenway, “Evolution and Image Bearers, Part 2,” BioLogos, April 14, 2015, http://biologos.org/blog/evolution-and-image-bearers-part-2.
  6. Ibid.
  7. Note that the “dominion mandate” was given before the Fall of man.
  8. That is, in this view without an Adam that brought sin, the world would merely need rescuing from natural violence, which man can mitigate but not eradicate. In the biblical view, Adam’s sinful rebellion against his Creator by disobeying God’s command in the Garden of Eden brought about eternal separation from a holy God, along with death, suffering, and a Curse that affected the whole Creation. Only Jesus Christ, the true “last Adam,” has the power to rescue us from that fate, though we still should honor the caretaking role originally given us within our very limited power.
  9. As the Bereans, who searched God’s Word to verify or falsify man’s words, not the other way around (Acts 17:11).


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