Then God said, “Let us make humankind in our image, according to our likeness; and let them have dominion over the fish of the sea, and over the birds of the air, and over the cattle, and over all the wild animals of the earth, and over every creeping thing that creeps upon the earth.”
So God created humankind in his image,
in the image of God he created them;
male and female he created them.
The scientific theory of evolution is a powerful explanation for the diversity of life in the world. It is able to explain how all organisms are united, as evidenced by many features in the basic, cellular building blocks of life that are either similar from organism to organism or can be plausible seen as a development from others. It is also able to explain how the diversity of species arose.
There are many problems with the theory of evolution for many Christians. They largely stem from the creation accounts in Genesis 1-3. Many of these are familiar and regularly hashed out, as many (hyper)literalist readers of Genesis reject the idea that the earth is old enough to allow for evolution to take place. Most of these objections can be readily handled by anyone familiar with the literary and religious backgrounds for Genesis.
However, there is one point of tension between the creation account and the evolutionary narrative: humanity being made in the imago Dei. For Genesis 1, God’s creation of humanity is explicitly done with a purpose: for them to rule over the creation that God had created. This teleological purpose of God’s creation conflicts with the traditional evolutionary narrative that suggests that the diversity of species emerges by random, non-purposive causes through the process of natural selection. Specs emerge in response to the environment, not due to some purpose that God has.
As a consequence, many Christians attempt to bridge the gap between evolution and creation with the idea of intelligent design: that the world was created with purpose. My purpose here is not to weigh the relative merits and demerits of intelligent design, however, but to put forward an idea that can bridge the relationship between the imago Dei and evolution that fits within the idea of natural selection: that God’s activity and presence is a part of the “natural” world that leads to the emergence of the species.
The implicit assumption of science is the Epicurean assumption that NT Wright oft refers to: that the realm of God (or the gods for Epicurus) was distant and remote from this world. Heaven and earth did not bridge together and significantly overlap, but they were separated by a vast ‘expanse’ that insulates what happens in one realm from effecting the other realm. As this basic metaphysical assumption came to undergird scientific analysis, it meant that God was not only not empirically observable within the world, but that He was metaphysically excluded from the world. Knowledge of God was not simply an empirical problem, but He was of such a different order that it was ultimately confused to even try to include God within the earthly world.
Yet, this is not the picture that the Scriptures gives of God. God’s activity and presence is inseparably apart of the life of the world, impacting natural events and social circumstances. While Elijah’s vision points out that God is not to be found in any of the natural manifestations of the world, no matter how awesome and fearsome they may be, God’s activity is manifest in the world. From the Biblical narrative, to exclude God from the “natural” world is like saying a baby’s life is solely the responsibility of his own biological functioning and not the parents who care and nourish for her/his well-being.
Too often, however, the response to evolution by Christians is to challenge the theory of evolution, rather than challenge the metaphysics that excludes God’s activity from being part of the “natural” world that can impact natural selection. What if, however, God’s activity was working in the world through the billions and millions of years such that God formed humans?
Some scientists would protest. Some of this protest may emerge from the deeply ingrained metaphysical assumptions about including God into the realm of science. However, say that they successfully overcome the metaphysical protest: there would still be some protest because of the problem of empirically establishing God’s activity in the world. This would be a fair point, but herein lies a fundamental problem of evolution: we don’t actually have ample enough data to verify that the Epicurean metaphysic interpretation of evolution sufficiently accounts for all of the diversity of species. We have some, but we can not empirically establish the entirety of evolution. To that end, putting God’s activity in the world is not as much of an empirically hurdle to have to climb over as it might seem at first.
Of course, one might appeal to Occam’s Razor to suggest that God’s activity is an unnecessary addition to the theory of natural selection. However, the problem with Occam’s Razor is that its viability is limited by the (in)sufficiency of the sample of information one has to explain. If one has a systematically biased sample of information that does not readily demonstrate the effect of some very real cause in the world, then Occam’s Razor would mislead. Occam’s Razor is applicable insofar as we are confident we have a more or less whole picture of the reality we are trying to explain.
Others might say “But we haven’t verified God’s activity in the world.” Yet many would contend this with saying their experience has verified God’s activity. What is true, however, is that clear recognition of God’s activity in the world does not seem to be a publicly accessible, but that God is selective in who and when He chooses to make Himself recognizable. This might seem like a convenient explanation to get around this problem, but it isn’t that convenient. There are literally millions and millions of activities done in the world that are caused by humans, or even other organisms, of which we have little to no knowledge of because they do not openly disclose their activities to others. That the effects of much human activity in the world is not publicly recognizable or knowable does not deny the importance for making the world as it is. If God is a relational being, then it is not a stretch to suggest that God may not make His activity publicly disclosed for everyone to know and comprehend.
At this point then, we may have a reasonable basis to integrate the imago Dei with evolution: God’s purpose activity in the world is God’s activity within the natural world, effecting the emergence of the species, including of human life to be made in the image of God.
If this is true, then there is one dramatic implication of this: that human life can not be understood simply in terms of evolutionary processes. Certainly, the emergence of human life from previous organisms is relevant to understanding how humans emerged in the world. Yet, giving answers to the the question “how?” doesn’t address the “why?” There is a specific purpose that God has endowed human life with, which means human life should be understood as distinct from its evolutionary ancestors. This doesn’t deny the theory of evolution, but only suggests that the scientific narrative of evolution is not the most important or authoritative anthropological meta-narrative.
One might label this as “theistic evolution,” but the problem with such a label is that it has often been used to suggest that God somehow provided for the process of evolution in advance but then let the process take off on its own. Thus, theistic evolution often excludes God’s activity as part of the processes of natural selection. This account, however, accepts God as one of the many causes that impact natural selection, but it is ultimately God’s activity in the world that was most critically and essentially responsible for the emergence of humanity and our formation in God’s image. Natural process and teleological purpose are able to be joined together with abrogating the processes of science, but only calling for some epistemic caution about what we really empirically know about what factors impact natural selection.