The Imago Dei and Neanderthals

Several weeks ago, Judy, a woman in one of my churches,  sent me a questions via Facebook:  “If humans were created in the image of God, then where do Neanderthals fit in?”

I’m not going to lie–these sorts of questions are terrifying to pastors. No matter how we answer them, there is going to be someone very unhappy with our answer.  Needless to say, my first reaction was to tell her to talk to Zack, a brilliant young man in our congregation studying geology who has just spent a big chunk of this past summer working out West with fossils and recently assisted in erecting a dinosaur display in a neighboring town.  I figured he could explain the  science of it all better than I could ever hope.

But I don’t think Judy is all that interested in the scientific details–the more I thought about it, the more I realized her question is about the theology of the matter.  If “God is the same yesterday, today,  and tomorrow” and if we are created in the “image of God” (according to Genesis), then what does it mean if we are the products of millions of years of evolution?

I told her I would think about it for awhile and that I’d get back to her.  Maybe she has given up on hearing an answer from me (and maybe I could’ve dodged this bullet), but her question is legitimate and it wouldn’t be right of me to just ignore it.  So after several weeks of debating how I should answer this question, I will take a wild stab at it now.

First, I need to make it clear where I am coming from as I approach this question:

1.  I don’t see science and the Bible as being in conflict with one another.  They are not mutually-exclusive.  In order to beleive in one, I do not need to toss out the other.  To quote an old cliched saying:  Science explains how and when while the Bible explains who and why.

2.  As such, I understand the earth to be roughly 4.5 billion years old (give or take a millenia or two.)

3.  I understand evolution to be a scientific theory well-supported by fact.  (No, that doesn’t mean we are descended from apes, but we do share a common ancestor.–much like in the faith world Jews, Christians, and Muslims share the common ancestor of Abraham, but we are three very distinct faiths).

4. I believe God is the driving force behind all of this–the divine influence that has molded creation and set into motion the ever-changing universe in which we exist.

5.  Although I believe Scripture is divinely inspired, I do not assume that every story is literal or should be taken literally.  Some stories, especially the most ancient ones (like the story of Adam and Eve) are stories given to early believers so that they might understand concepts far beyond their comprehension–stories that would help them understand God’s relationship with us, and our relationship with God.

6.  Just because a story isn’t true in a literal sense does not mean it isn’t true in all respects.  The important truths behind stories such as the Adam and Eve story remains equally true whether you believe Adam and Eve were actual people, or if you believe they are representative of all early humanity:  God is the source and giver of life, God is present in our lives, God has given us freewill, God is still active in creation.

7.  I am not a scientist.  I know I learned all the scientific details in college (and maybe even in high school), but it’s leaked out of my head like water in sieve.  I have a vague, broad understanding of the concepts and nothing more.  I’m a theologian.  And a mediocre one at that.   So please bear with me.  🙂

Okay–now, on to Judy’s question.

The concept of being created in the image of God has a specific name in theology:  Imago Dei (which is Latin for “image of God”).  We need to understand that when we read that God created humanity in God’s image, this wasn’t referring to a physical image.

Although we often think of God as an old man with a long, white beard–and although there are multiple stories and visions portrayed in Scripture of God in human-like terms, God is not actually bound by our physical limitations.  This is why the idea of the incarnation, of God becoming flesh in the person of Jesus Christ, is such a big deal.

Think of it this way:  Have you ever looked a child and said, “He’s the spittin’ image of his father” when the kid doesn’t look anything like his father?  Usually, what we mean when call someone a spitting image of someone else has more to do with everything but looks.  They think alike, act alike, have the same personalities, share the same sense of humor, have the same interests, etc…

What seems to separate us from all other life on this planet is our well-developed ability to think and to reason.   This is the image of God–the one that we share.  Our ability to understand moral issues, to decipher right from wrong, our ability to be a part of the creation process through our artistic and scientific disciplines,  and so on.

So, when I think of the Imago Dei and then gaze upon the old fossilized bones of a Neanderthal or other early hominid, I don’t have any trouble in seeing how God’s hand has been involved with it all.

Sure, when I see the reconstructed faces of Neanderthals, I thank heavens we aren’t that ugly anymore… but the physical differences do not remove the image of God in us all.

In fact, to see how far creation has come since God moved over the waters (Genesis begins the creation story with water… and so does science…) is absolutely amazing.  To see how the Imago Dei has developed us over time–to see the amazing things it has produced in our lives, in our ability to establish governments, to seek justice, to produce breathtaking pieces of art, to hear a particulalry moving peice of music and to know that it was brought out of nothingness into being by that spark of the divine within someone’s soul is simply awesome.

And that spark of the divine is evident even in our most ancient ancestors.  We can see it when we see how they ground up rocks and mixed it with water to create paint just so that they could write out their stories on cave walls–to keep the story of who they are and what they had learned alive in the following generations.  When they placed flowers in the graves of dead relatives, we can see that they had some sort of knowledge of the divine and knew that there was something more than just living and dying on this earth.  When they reasoned out that a round stone would move easier than a square one, or when they realized fire wasn’t just a destructive force, but one that could help them better survive, we see the spark of the divine–the Imago Dei–shining forth.

God didn’t create the world and then stop, but has been active in the creation process ever since.  Creation is still happening.  And if we look close enough, I’m sure we’ll see God’s finger prints all over everything–and we might be surprised by just how amazing it all is!

3 thoughts on “The Imago Dei and Neanderthals

Add yours

  1. Not the FACE of God but the MIND of God. What a DEEP TRUTH. And one that children of God need to have explained to them no matter their age. Thanks again for your insight and the sharing of it.

    1. Amen, Ray! I tell people all the time that we need to stop fighting over the details and start focusing on the big picture: God loves us so much God became flesh in Jesus Christ and beat the penalty of death so that we might find relief and forgiveness from our sins. We don’t have to agree on every detail to join forces on sharing that beautiful message with the world! 🙂

  2. Who’s to say that our concept of time of time is also so different. What is one day to God is a million years to you and me. After all, He is the Creator and time, space, etc. mean nothing to a Creator. I’ve often wondered how we can put God into man’s parameters and then complain when He doesn’t fit them or, He doesn’t get them right!

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