If there were people outside the Garden of Eden, would they be made in the Image of God?

Humans have had questions about their origins for thousands of years and, for thousands of years, have engaged in intense debates over these questions.  Christians, in particular, have sparred with the culture over new scientific discoveries and theories that explicate human descent from non-human creatures.  While I don’t believe that my wading into this debate with my humble opinions and research will change the world, I do think the conclusions I’ve reached concerning the archaeological, genealogical, and theological data will give many people much needed food for thought. 

As outlined in my article The Image of God and Human Origins, Part 1: The Representational View, we humans represent God here on Earth by virtue of our existence, just like the heavenly host images God in heaven.  God chose humanity as His “shadow/reflection/representative” here on Earth, representing an immaterial Creator to a material world. 

Because of this, He has given us the vocation of taking care of this world in His stead as He would (i.e., according to His will).  For a brief description of this understanding of the Image of God, I recommend this short video by The Bible Project. 

Great description of people as “Imagers” of God

If this understanding of the image of God is correct, what are the implications for Christians in the Human Origins debate?

Progressive Creationism as a Scientific Framework

Before continuing, I must pause and discuss Adam and Eve, Genesis 1, and the inevitable Young Earth Creationist rebuttals that are sure to follow. 

After I started taking the Bible seriously, I took the Young Earth Creationist view of our origins. For several years I held this position until I started considering the work of Old Earth Creationists; a real turning point for me was watching this almost 4 hour debate on the John Ankerberg Show that featured Ken Ham and Hugh Ross (…well, okay, I listened to it while doing housework :-).  The back-and-forth dialogue really helped frame several questions I had at the time and it really opened up my worldview.

I have landed on a view called Progressive Creationism.  This view has been defended by Dr. William Lane Craig in his Defenders 3 teaching series podcast (Section 9 – Excursus on Creation of Life and Biological Diversity).  While his final conclusions on arriving at progressive creationism are addressed in Part 34, the previous 33 lectures build up to it, addressing almost every other alternative I’ve ever considered or heard of… it’s nothing if not thorough!

Progressive Creationism states that God was directly responsible for creating all new kinds of life forms throughout history, leaving room for the process of natural selection and random (or even directed) mutation as a gift of God to diversify existing populations as a survival mechanism.  This affirms the convincing case for microevolution while rejecting the increasingly improbable modern theories of macroevolution. [1] [2] [3] If one accepts the position of progressive creationism, this raises a whole lot of questions about humanity in the Biblical accounts.

Reading Genesis 2 as a Sequel

For Christians, interpreting scientific data on human origins also requires us to know what the Bible says regarding the subject.  We believe the Bible is the inspired Word of God and presents us with the truth; therefore, Biblical truth should be a Christian’s starting point. This does not always mean that we accept Biblical interpretation from other humans; we must study the Bible for ourselves and make sound decisions based on what we’ve learned and what the Holy Spirit shows us. 

Ever since I read Genesis as a kid, Genesis 2 has always struck me as a separate story in the Bible.  The language feels different, the scene is more intimate, God’s title/name is different (“God”, or Elohim in Gen. 1, “LORD God” or Yahweh Elohim in Gen. 2) … it just seems like a new story, distinct from Genesis 1.  I had to be told that Genesis 2 was a more detailed recapitulation of Genesis 1’s Sixth Day of Creation, which I believed for a long time.  I have since returned to my initial impression, and I am in good company. 

Dr. John Walton, a Biblical scholar who has written many books and contributed to and been editor for several commentaries and study volumes, has made it his life’s work to put Bible readers into the heads of the Biblical authors and audience.  He works to frame the Old Testament the way an ancient Israelite would have read it: living in Mesopotamia hundreds of years before Christ. Though I do disagree with a couple of his conclusions in his books, in The Lost World of Adam and Eve, pp 63-69, I do agree with his arguments for Genesis 2 being a Sequel to Genesis 1:

  • The text itself does not claim to be a recapitulation.
  • Chronological difficulties (different order of creational events presented, Adam naming all the animals in 24 hours, etc.)
  • If people were created in Genesis 1 in the image of God before Adam and Eve were created, this would mean that Cain wouldn’t have had to marry a close relative.
  • Cain’s fears of being killed are much more understandable if there were people outside the Garden after his being cast away from his family.
  • Cain builds a city (עוּר, or ‘iyr; translated “city” 1,074 times and town only seven times, so it does imply a large walled town center); the author, by using the word ‘iyr here, wouldn’t really have found it necessary if it were just an encampment or post for Cain’s immediate family. 
  • Genesis 2:4 uses phraseology indicative of the beginning of a new account (“This is the account of ____”), which is used ten other times in Genesis and is a sequel to what came before 7/10 of those.  The other three follow lengthy genealogies and are used to bring the reader back to the focus of the narrative. 
  • Genesis 2:5-6 uses language that sets up an underdeveloped, rudimentary situation that is then addressed by further action, just like Genesis 1:2.  This is a way other ancient Near Eastern texts begin new stories of terrestrial situations (for several cited examples, see Walton, p 67). 

These arguments make sense to me, and fit nicely into a natural reading of Genesis. 

But if Genesis 2 is a sequel to Genesis 1, that means that there were probably people, made in the image of God, outside the Garden of Eden!

Cole Thomas, “Expulsion from the Garden of Eden” (1828)

Image-Bearing Humans Existing Before Adam and Eve? … Yikes

Now, before all the objections from my Young Earth Creation friends flood my inbox (yhwhjanitor@gmail.com, by the way.  Keep ‘em comin’!), I do want to say that this all has not come easily. I’ve wrestled with these issues for a long time and don’t publish this lightly.  My heart goes out to people who believe that the Earth and the universe are 6000 years old. I was where you are, and while it may be the most intuitive ‘literal’ way to read the Bible, I no longer think that it is correct.

I encourage you, however, to consider the information I offer here and in future posts.  Far from destroying the Christian faith, I have seen this viewpoint resonate with every single discipline of science and history that I’ve investigated.    

For instance, there have been fascinating supports for the Christian worldview emerging out of archaeology (Dr. Collins discovering the real Sodom), ethology (I’ll write more on this later, but for now here is a GREAT documentary on monotheism being the oldest religion on Earth) and genetics (Joshua Swamidass’ book The Genealogical Adam and Eve has been surprising and an eye opener, especially if you’re a YEC!).  If these amazing tools that scientists use are reliable enough to confirm various accounts in Genesis and uphold various points of Christian orthodoxy, oughtn’t I consider the possibility that they might shed light on Genesis 1 and 2???

If the Bible leaves open the possibility that the image of God is not tied directly into being biologically descended from Adam and Eve, then perhaps there’s more to the story…

  • What role do Adam and Eve play in all of this?
  • What about sin and death entering the world?
  • Who were these Image-bearing humans?
  • Could these Image-bearers be saved through the blood of Jesus?

I am also not convinced of the “easy” way out.  I do not believe that Adam and Eve are simply allegorical or basic archetypes.  There are too many historical ties, world-wide genealogies (I know, man… you just wait!), and archaeologically confirmed events in Genesis to describe something that didn’t actually happen! There’s another way forward.

Stay tuned.  There’s so much to unpack, and we’re only just getting started!