Neanderthals, Denisovans and Human Speciation
Article by Dennis Venema (2011)
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What is the Science?

The fossil record suggests that the majority of human characteristics emerged between 3.5 to 5.5 million years ago. One of the earliest of the genus homo lived one to one and a half million years ago. Anatomically modern homo sapiens originated less than 200,000 years ago, living simultaneous to Neanderthals and Denisovans. Over time, modern homo sapiens (that’s us) won out, although Europeans have Neanderthal DNA, and Melanesians have Neanderthal and Denisovan DNA present. Africans have neither. In other words, it was a long process between the time the earliest of the hominin taxonomic tribe emerged and the time modern humans solidified the dominant position in the world.

“Modern humans thus have different evolutionary trajectories: Melanesians have both Neanderthals and Denisovans in their lineage, Europeans have Neanderthals, and Africans have neither.” – Dennis Venema

What is the Theology?

As Genesis 1 is often read, God created one man and one woman in God’s image. Thereafter, every human bears this image. This raises difficulties with how we interpret the image of God. If evolutionary theory is taken seriously, then when did humans begin to be made in the image of God? Were Neanderthals and Denisovans created in the image of God? Are their descendants? This also affects our understanding of redemption. According to Paul, just as sin entered the world through one human, so also through one human, Jesus, the free gift of life and grace is extended to us (Romans 5:12-21). If humans evolved over time, our understanding of the historical Adam changes. Must our understanding of atonement and redemption follow? These are important questions that pastors can raise and offer some tentative suggestions.

What to Consider

  • How do you read Genesis 1? Is it historical? Scientific? Allegorical? Mythical? Something else?
  • What does it mean to be made in the image of God? How might evolutionary theory influence your understanding of the image of God?
  • How is your understanding of Jesus and the atonement affected by this reading of the fossil record? How might it affect your eschatology?

How to go Deeper

Relevant Scripture

All references in parenthesis refer to Lectionary readings. For more information on what the Lectionary is, please click here. For additional Lectionary resources click here.

Related Research

“On the Evolution of the Imago Dei: Insights from St. Thomas Aquinas”

“Humans as Imago Dei and the Evolution of Homo Sapiens”

“The Human Fossil Record Blog Series”

“How Could Humans Have Evolved and Still Be Created in The ‘Image of God’?”

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What is the Science? What was once only in the imaginations of science fiction writers is now a reality. In 2012, scientists from Sweden and California discovered a way to edit DNA with [...]

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By | 2019-04-30T23:52:03+00:00 April 27th, 2017|Cosmos, Research|7 Comments

About the Author:

Zach is currently a PhD student at Fuller Theological Seminary researching the role of leaders in congregational change. His calling in life is to train and equip pastors to faithfully lead local congregations. When not studying, he'll most likely be watching Sporting Kansas City score goals or hiking with his wife and two kids.

7 Comments

  1. aidenkang April 30, 2017 at 5:16 pm

    “God has seen it fit to reveal this information to us, and that suggests that He believes the evangelical Christian community is ready for this conversation to happen” – Understanding of progressive revelation.

  2. aidenkang April 30, 2017 at 5:18 pm

    “Any time we draw closer to truth, to God’s truth, we have nothing to fear” – Amen.

  3. Weabz May 5, 2017 at 10:23 pm

    So, with statements like this: “God has seen it fit to reveal this information to us, and that suggests that He believes the evangelical Christian community is ready for this conversation to happen.”

    We have a very large assumption, that “God has seen if fit to reveal” it to us. The problem is: is that even true? First of all this “revealed” thing is still but a theory and debatable and unable to be recreated or proven. The other problem is God declared what truth was revealed by Him (I.e. Scripture) and within that Scripture it also reveals a completion of the truth revealed.

    So when we start putting science up there as God’s further truth revealed to us a “truth” that is continually changing and contingent solely on our (man’s) understanding of what can be observed, we have gone wrong. We have left what God actually revealed and instead placed the wisdom of man on equal ground while falsely and wrongly attributing our foolishness as further revelation “God saw fit to reveal to us”. Revelation that ironically contradicts the actual revelation He breathed out

  4. Weabz May 6, 2017 at 6:40 pm

    Basically, the moment we allow science to influence our theology, we have then started on a destructive path. Science is fallible, changing, and incomplete. We can be sure of some things, sure, but much of the evolution theory and the surrounding topics are still only theory. They are “man’s” best guess, that is now accepted as fact.

    Our theology must come from Scripture and Scrupture alone. I mean as believers we have faith in Christ not because science told us of Christ but because we believed the testimony of Scripture. Plain and simple.

    The same should be the case for Creation. If God “used” evolution, fine, but that is still yet to be seen. What is seen is as ONE man sinned, through ONE man came the free gift of salvation. If Paul interpreted Genesis literally as Adam was the first man and through whom sin came, and we also believe his testimony of Christ then why should we consider reading Gen. 1-3 any different than as literal as the Scripture itself ascribes to that passage? Answer: because we struggle with trusting our own “knowledge” over Scripture so we try and make two opposing things cohesive. (Sure there are times when they are, but I struggle to find that to be true here with evolution, they seem quite opposed)

  5. AustinF May 18, 2017 at 4:13 pm

    Let’s be careful not to impose genre upon the Bible. Moses, the author, had intentions when he wrote Genesis. He intended to show that God created all things, how God created all things (to a degree), and why (to a degree) God created all things. Lots of time, science extrapolates what Genesis says. To be created in the image of God means that humankind is to be God’s ruling representative on earth (until mankind fell and that was distorted). Anything outside of this is unhelpful because it is not in line with the intention of the author of Genesis. Science has to be filtered through Scripture, not the other way around. I do think that any biblically valid scientific discovery is included in God’s general revelation.

  6. matt@ncstudycenter.org June 28, 2017 at 2:05 pm

    Thank you for the book rec. (Cavanaugh and Smith)! I was not familiar with this one, but have been looking for a resource like this one.

  7. Rich Gideons August 9, 2017 at 5:01 pm

    Have to agree with Weabz, as Scripture is clear, much more proven than science which has much accepted error in dating methods which in themselves are theoretical.

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