Evolution and the Image of God

Is the theory of evolution hopelessly at odds with the biblical teaching that humankind bears God's image (Genesis 1:27)? Many creationists think so. "How," they ask, "could the Image of God have been acquired by humanity through evolution, which involves the survival of the fittest---a process that seems so at odds with the nature of God revealed in Jesus Christ?"

This is a fair question, because the image of God placed by God upon the human family seems directly related to God's nature as an eternal, triune communion of love, cooperation and mutual indwelling. How is that nature imaged in humanity if humanity evolved through ruthless "dog-eat-dog" competition? Again, a good question.

But there is a problem with these questions, namely that they reflect a common misunderstanding of the nature of evolution as it has come to be understood by evolutionary science. In God and Evolution? the Implications of Darwin's theory for fundamentalism, the Bible and the meaning of life Daniel Samson shows that the outcome (telos) of evolution is not, ultimately, competition, but cooperation. Samson, a proponent of theistic evolution (what others refer to as evolutionary creation/creationism) notes that a bent toward cooperation is found in nature's genetic wiring.

In making this point, Samson references The Origins of Virtue, human instincts and the evolution of cooperation where Mat Ridley shows that deep within the human psyche (based in part on human genetics) is a fundamental drive toward ethical/cooperative behavior. Ridley notes that experiments using computer modeling of natural selection demonstrate that cooperation, rather than competition, is, over time, the best strategy for survival of species. Yes, it is true that animals and people often are driven by self-interest, but it's also true that they often cooperate. Old explanations that evolution occurs exclusively through the strong competing with and winning out over the weak are inadequate at best. There is a growing body of evidence that as species evolve, cooperation becomes more and more prevalent. Samson comments on the implications for human ethics:
The concept that "niceness" is an essential component in the human software program called "life" can only be encouraging to ethicists everywhere. We tend to focus on crime, war and other aberrations in the news media. However facts indicate crime is actually going down, deaths through war over the centuries have diminished exponentially (when averaged out on a yearly basis), and humanity is continuing to evolve and recognize the importance of ethical behavior (God and Evolution, Kindle, loc. 10171).
Psychologists studying ethics point to ascending levels of moral development within the human family from "tit-for-tat" cooperation ("I scratch your back, you scratch mine") to cooperation that reflects true altruism. Samson notes that this progression was anticipated by Darwin in his theory of the evolutionary development of species:
I have so lately endeavored to show that the social instincts--the prime principle of man's moral constitution--with the aid of active intellectual powers and the effects of habit, naturally lead to the golden rule, "As ye would that men should do to you, do ye to them likewise;" and this lies at the foundation of morality" (Darwin quoted in God and Evolution, Kindle, loc. 10226).
Samson comments:
What Darwin is, in fact, saying is that the genetically based concept of "reciprocity" (the Golden Rule) lies at the foundation of morality. But the growth does not stop there; a synergistic effect takes place. The...levels...of ethical development delineated by psychologists appear to transcend the merely biological. It appears that at some point [in the evolution of human society] we have crossed the line from the materialistic genetic base into abstract ethical principle, yet we recognize foundational roots still derive from the evolutionary process (loc. 10226).
Shades of Eden here? Samson notes the evidence that as humankind evolved, the capacity of the human brain increased and with that came the emergence of what we refer to as "free will." The result was that free will became an increasingly significant factor in determining/shaping human behavior. Looking at the long sweep of evolutionary development, Samson notes that "free will is built into the process of evolution from the moment of the big bang" (loc. 10602). Referring to the writings of Stephen Jay Gould, he also notes that once humankind...
...attained the capacity for true freedom of choice, we...left genetics and instinct behind and moved into the higher realm of ethics and morality. We are then capable of choosing from Eden's proverbial "tree of the knowledge of good and evil" (loc. 10226).
Samson adds that though there are intrinsic ethical factors at work in evolution, human ethics seems to transcend mere biological drives toward cooperative behavior. He believes, therefore, that we must rid ourselves of "either/or," dualistic thinking about human evolution.

Incarnational, Trinitarian theology would seem to affirm what Samson asserts. The triune God revealed to us in the person and work of Jesus is no deistic, aloof God. Instead, God is actively involved in his creation, yet in ways that grants to the creation an amazing freedom to develop (evolve). However, that freedom is not unlimited, nor it is separate from God's sovereign, guiding, creating hand. Theologians refer to this as "contingent freedom"---freedom with a purpose (telos); freedom shaped by the mind and plan of God. The crowning achievement of that plan is the development (including organic evolution) in the human species of God's own "image"---an altruistic, cooperative moral capacity reflecting God's own cooperative, altruistic, tri-personal nature.

Understanding this truth both biologically and theologically defies rigid, dualistic categories that, sadly, are embraced by both religious fundamentalists and scientific fundamentalists---those unable (unwilling?) to understand the reality and interaction of the natural and the supernatural worlds. These fundamentalists, in Samson's view, can not (will not?) accept the idea that there is a God who though sovereign over creation, allows it real (though contingent) freedom to develop/evolve.

This Creator God, having brought the cosmos into being via the big bang, did not go away. The God revealed in Jesus Christ is not a deistic, uninvolved deity. But his continuing, active involvement in the cosmos (including our personal lives) is not that of a puppeteer manipulating his marionette. Rather, the triune God, who through the incarnation entered into the created order, is deeply involved, yet in a way that gives creation real freedom, including freedom to evolve over time. This development is an ongoing journey---a process with direction and purpose (a telos). This concept, which is seen in the scientific evidence (the book of nature) is sketched out for us in the words of Scripture, rightly understood. Perhaps it's time to take a fresh look at both evolutionary science and the Bible. We need not fear either one.

For related ideas on this topic, check out these articles on the GCI website:
For a related article from BioLogos about why people hold the views they do about creationism and evolution, see http://biologos.org/blog/the-recipe-for-creationism.