Who were the first Imagers of God on Earth? As we’ve discussed, it may not have been Adam and Eve (unless they were in the Garden for thousands of years), since there were probably human Imagers outside of the Garden of Eden. So who fits the bill? Can we look into our past and discover the answer?

Disclaimer: If anything about the above assertions give you pause, the first 3 parts of this series covered the following points:

  • Mankind made in God’s Image to serve as co-regents with Him in ruling Earth (the Representational View) [1]
  • Adam and Eve were probably not the first Imagers of God in the Bible [2]
  • Neither aliens nor artificially intelligent humanoids have the ontology necessary for the job of Imaging God on Earth, though they may have the capacity to do the job well [3]

Candidates for the First Imagers of God

To proceed, we must first establish what our options are concerning who the first Imagers were.

I argued in Part 2 of this series that I do not think Adam and Eve were being referred to in Genesis 1, and that Genesis 2 serves as a sequel to Genesis 1.  If Adam and Eve were not the first to be made in the Image of God, there are a few different viable options available to us regarding candidates for the origins of humanity that Image God.  The two options presented here are the best ones that fit the data, in my opinion, though I’m open to exploring other hypotheses as they come to light.

Also, I know many reading this may believe that evolution is incompatible with orthodox Christianity. While I sympathize with this position (especially since I used to espouse it), I no longer believe it is contrary to the teachings of the Bible. Since this is not the point of the paper, I encourage you to check out this TED talk by Michael Jones (InspiringPhilosophy) on the subject:

Option 1 – Homo heidelbergensis

Dr. William Lane Craig, a Christian philosopher and apologist, has done a multi-year study of the Biblical, philosophical, and scientific data regarding this question. Craig has come to the conclusion that we must search for the first Imagers based on their potential capacity for fulfilling God’s dominion occupation for mankind.  While I disagree that capacity ought to be the indicator for Imaging status (see the aliens case study in Part 3), it is a good place to start.

He proposes we should search the fossil record for hominin species that exhibit:

  • A similar anatomy to modern Homo sapiens.
    • For example, anatomically modern humans (AMH… that’s us!) have a significantly larger brain size compared to early archaic human species like early Homo erectus; therefore, early H. erectus would not be considered as bearing the Image of God according to Craig’s criteria.
  • Evidence of modern human behaviors such as:
    • Abstract thinking
    • Planning depth (including strategies in a group context)
    • Capacity for economic and technological innovation
    • Symbolic representation (i.e., representing ideas and objects using symbolic media like art, inscriptions, or even writing)

Following these criteria, this would rule out hominids like Astralopithices and Homo habilis.  The earliest candidates for Image-bearing might be a very late Homo erectus.  The very latest possibility for the first Image bearer would be 50,000 years ago, where incredible, intricate cave art has been discovered that simply could not be done by anything other than someone who was fully human.  This evolutionary time-frame includes Heidelbergensis and Neanderthals comfortably, and Dr. Craig has said in interviews that he believes Adam was a Heidelbergensis man, dating between 700,000 and 300,000 years ago. 

Option 2 – Anatomically Modern Humans (AMH)

In April 2019, Dr. Fazale Rana (“Fuz”), a scientist working for the ministry Reasons to Believe (RTB), did a “Give and Take” episode called “When Did Humans Get the Image of God?”. 

In the video, he lays out his argument that bearing the Image of God should leave evidence in the fossil record showing that AMH ought to be unique from all other hominids. Again, given our AI case study in Part 3, AMH being unique is not a guarantee for Imaging status, but it is a fair argument to make.

Fuz discusses ways in which certain skull features are unique to AMH (like a globular skull, allowing for an expanded parietal lobe which is necessary for many modern behaviors, which appeared around 130,000 years ago in Homo sapiens).  This is around the same time that we start seeing evidence for symbolic thought in art and group behavior.  This also corresponds roughly to the time of Mitochondrial Eve and Y-chromosome Adam.  He is excited to see the genetic, anatomic, and behavioral data are all pointing to one singular time around 130,000 years ago.

Fuz goes on to say that the genealogies found in the Bible to try and date the origin of humanity are not using the genealogies as they were intended (they were more theological constructs than chronological tools).  He believes that though the Bible is silent on the exact date of when Adam and Eve were created, it does seem to indicate that mankind was the last of God’s creative acts.  The fact that AMH are so recent in the fossil record does support the Biblical account.

Evaluating the Options

The difference between Dr. Craig’s hypothesis on the first Imagers of God and the RTB ministry differ simply in criteria.  Dr. Craig opens up the possibility of hominins before AMH bearing the Image of God by looking for the very first inklings and capacity for modern behavior, while the scientists at RTB are looking for the fully developed suite of behaviors and anatomy attributed to AMH.  Craig errs on the side of caution while RTB errs on the side of comprehensiveness. 

If you take a Representational view of the Image of God, you would not base your decision on capacity at all but rather would try to ascertain the brute fact of a group’s Imaging status.

Unfortunately, this is impossible to do conclusively.

God could have chosen Heidelbergensis in an act of special creation during a 7-day coronation ceremony (Walton’s view of Genesis 1) 700,000 years ago, or He could have had that ceremony around 130,000 years ago with AMH.  If Craig is correct, Heidelbergensis evolved over time into Neanderthals and AMH, both of whom Imaged God on Earth.  If RTB is correct, only AMH have ever had the capacity to Image God.  Both views sit squarely in a Representational View, since the command of Genesis 1:28 for mankind isn’t the cause of Imaging God but rather the result of their status. 

This, however, is not very satisfying.  Let’s go deeper and evaluate not the capacity for the dominion mandate for mankind, but rather the success of each species in accomplishing God’s mission.

Which Group Achieved God’s Mission Better?

Let us further look at Genesis 1:28, which reads:

“Be fruitful and multiply and fill the earth and subdue it, and have dominion over the fish of the sea and over the birds of the heavens and over every living thing that moves on the earth.”

Genesis 1:28, ESV
  1. Filling the Earth: Heidelbergensis, Neanderthals, and AMH were all fruitful, they all multiplied, they all subdued the Earth where they lived. However, only AMH came to dominate the whole Earth in a comprehensive way.   
  2. Subdue and Rule: Most of us don’t have a full understanding of what God’s idea of “exercising dominion” over the Earth actually meant.  Peet Van Dyk says,

“[The] immediate context of the Hebrew words ‘kbs’ (subdue/repress) and ‘rdh’ (rule/tread on) cannot be softened in any way.  Even Tucker (1997:7) acknowledged that the term ‘subdue’ is a potentially violent verb, referring to ‘trampling under one’s feet’ in absolute subjugation.  The same word is used in Joel 4:13 for treading a winepress (Koehler & Baumgartner 1958:875).” 

Van Dyk, Challenges in the Search for an Ecotheology, p. 90

A more intense idea of exercising dominion, implied by the Hebrew terms used in Genesis 1:28, indicates AMH rather than the nature-integrated kind of dominion demonstrated by Heidelbergensis and Neanderthals.  (Credit for this research goes to InspiringPhilosophy’s video “Genesis 1b: And It Was Good”) This implies the idea that God created a world with aspects that required subjugation; in other words, mankind had real work to do to get the world under control.

  1. Domestication: AMH was the only species to domesticate all manner of creatures like birds and livestock and every creeping thing all over the earth.  In fact, for example, dogs were not domesticated in the Middle East until the Pre-Pottery People 2 culture (around 10,000 years ago), much later than the extinction of Neanderthals, who died out around 30,000 year ago. 
  2. Heidelbergensis vs. Case Studies: Per our discussion of AI and aliens, Dr. Craig’s criterion could be met by a humanoid Artificial Intelligence or extraterrestrial, thereby opening his view to critique. By contrast, the RTB view seeks to validate genuine AMH as the only species capable of authentically Imaging God, though this discussion clearly has much more nuance to be explored than can be given space for here.  

According to the above comparisons, the RTB hypothesis that AMH were the original Imagers of God seems to be the stronger case.  These levels of success in fulfilling God’s mandate for mankind in Genesis 1:28 can serve as a diagnostic tool for determining which people Imaged God and which did not.  However, on a Representational view, both groups of people could have been Image-bearers of God.  Their success fulfilling that mandate would be another matter entirely. 

After all, we humans today Image God… but I’m sure you’d agree that we’re not doing such a bang-up job of it either!  

Conclusions

  1. The evidence suggests that Anatomically Modern Humans were the earliest Imagers of God based on their success in fulfilling the mission set forth by God for mankind in Genesis 1:28.
  2. Earlier hominins like Neanderthals and Homo heidelbergensis demonstrated the capacity for accomplishing the dominion mandate; however, they did not fully implement the tasks outlined in Genesis 1:28 while they lived so we cannot say for sure that they Imaged God.

Some Things to Consider

As I write this, I am reminded of my daughters.  Their worth to me as daughters has nothing to do with the success they have at the things I have  them do.  I get great joy by being there with them, especially when they fail.  Watching them grow into young women is in itself a great reward for being their Daddy.   

If Craig is right, and older hominins were indeed Imagers of God, perhaps God had a more active side-by-side role with Heidelbergensis and Neanderthals than with AMH.  Perhaps God hunted alongside Neanderthals and showed them how to paint and made necklaces sitting together in a cave in Europe.  God is a God of relationships; I can totally see my Jesus being a friend and partner to such people and obtaining immense satisfaction from being with them. 

It is also important to remind the reader that claiming that there may have been people, like Neanderthals, who may not have been made in the Image of God, nevertheless are so close to what we understand to be human that they ought to be treated with the same human worth and dignity as AMH do. As we discussed in Part 3, just like an AI or alien humanoid, the closer something is to being “human,” the more it approximates the moral duties and responsibilities of humanity.

In other words, if the only difference between AMH and Neanderthals is their ontology, you wouldn’t be able to tell the difference. The reason for the Neanderthal’s existence would only be known to God Himself. Since we’re not God, we would have to err on the side of caution and treat a Neanderthal man or a Heidelberg man with the same dignity and respect that we would any human being.

Next: Tackling Adam and Eve

So… if this these views are correct, Imagers of God worked alongside God for at tens or even hundreds of thousands of years outside the Garden around the world. They brought order to the world as hunter-gatherers, serving as co-regents with God in mobile family units.

But this begs a lot of questions, especially concerning Adam and Eve.

As we will see in Part 5, Adam and Eve were not simple allegorical constructs in a Mesopotamian myth.

I believe they were two de novo created beings that lived in the real past.  They were special not because they bore the Image of God; God had something exciting planned for them… Adam was to serve as a priest-king and sit in God’s Divine Counsel! We’ll explore this soon.