Image of God, Free Will, an eternal Soul and the GAE

I’ve always understood biblically there was three key things that makes humans unique from animals. Being made in the image of God, having free will (for the purpose of this discussion, I’ll define free will as the ability to make moral choices) and an eternal soul.

As I attempt to read the bible without past biases and interpretive lenses, to understand if & how it fits with the GAE, I keep coming back to these three as being core concepts to be understood; specifically how these concepts would apply to those humans not descended from Adam.

While clearly the Bible does not spell out much in the way of answers in regards to these “other” humans many questions bounce around my noggin as I attempt to think through the various implications. I’m less concerned about the implicates for those “other” humans, than on the implications on what it means for us in the context of being made in the image of God, with a free will & an eternal soul.

Questions like:

  • Can you be made in the image of God, and not have free will and / or an eternal soul?
  • If they had a free will, how did they not sin? And if they did, was there salvation available to them?

I could go on, and on. I throw this out simply to get other’s thoughts(@swamidass, @jongarvey, @dga471, @naclhv, @AllenWitmerMiller, @Michael_Callen, @Jordan, @Philosurfer, @PdotdQ) however half formed, that might help me (and others) understand impacts of the GAE on our existing understanding of the Bible.


I am going to be tied up for much of the rest of today but perhaps what I previously posted on another thread would give some small contribution in terms of prologue:

I realize that it doesn’t address your main questions but it’s all I can provide for now. I will hope to jump in later. For now I will just say that over the years I’ve tried to nail down exactly what the Bible means by the Image of God and I still cannot say that I am at all close to resolving the disagreements on this even among evangelical scholars.

I will say that I’m inclined to think that the Image of God always entails having free will and an eternal soul.

As to “If they had a free will, how did they not sin?”, I think that a Divine-aware creature having free will typically has the choice to sin or not sin in a specific situation. Beyond, I will state that my Molinism probably motivates most of my answers to your follow-up questions which will probably arise from these topics.

@cdods, I see that you joined the PS forum many months ago—but I don’t recall our interacting much in the past. So if I haven’t already done so, I extend my welcome to you. I’m delighted to see you introduce this interesting thread. (And being an “unconflicted Christian” sounds like a good thing to me!)


This is a very interesting topic, @cdods. I’ve not discussed GAE much, because I’m still trying to sort out what I believe and why. Regarding three key things, what if they are one in the same? What if breathing life into “man” was the becoming of the spiritual human? The more literal one is about the significance of Genesis, the harder it is to accept this position. However, the more one looks at the purpose of Genesis 1 - 11 as articulating a spiritual truth rather than a granular history, the easier it becomes to see.

If the purpose is to show that man, even if placed in daily communion with God in paradise would still sin, then needing to understand how human-ness articulated throughout humanity becomes less important. If Adam is “man”, then once man became human, he possessed a spiritual self. I’m not sure where I’ll end up on this, but it has been interesting to think about over the past year.


@Michael_Callen, I agree, this is a very interesting topic. I’m also in a similar position where, having seen the distinction between genetic and genealogical ancestry, I’m trying to figure out what it all means with respect to Genesis. I’m in a position where I’m sort of OK regardless of where the “data” takes me. I don’t feel like a historical Adam is strictly necessary, but if there is a reasonable way to be faithful to both a plain reading of Scripture and to science, then great.

With respect to @cdods questions, I was taught basically the same thing: image of God, free will, eternal soul. These days I’m not so sure about the “eternal” part of “eternal soul”, theologians can’t see to figure out what “image of God” really means, and the philosophers and quantum physicists keep debating if free will is a “thing” or not.

I tend to think free’ish will is a thing and perhaps the image of God isn’t any sort of biological characteristic, but rather something to do with vocation or relationship.


about free will: if the entire universe was made by a random process. isnt it means that ever thing we do is the result of a random process too?

Does it depend what we mean by the image of God? What do you mean by it?

I think we know that they did things we would consider wrong on some level. “Sin” however is a complex theological concept. If they had never been given a command from God, they could never have transgressed that command. In that particular sense, they could not have committed a transgression.

Is salvation available to them? Scripture doesn’t say, for good reason, but we can wonder.

I observe that theologians from different traditions think about this in different ways. It is open ended here from my point of view.

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First, consider that “What we have always understood” is not always what the Bible actually teaches. let’s start with the very concept of “human” v “animal”. The Bible, with the possible exception of Genesis 1 under GAE, is always using the category of adam, ie the decendants of Adam - and so will not be giving positive teaching on the nature of anyone outside the garden, whether “non-Adamic Homo sapiens” under GAE or, come to that, Neanderthals or Homo erectus under any other scheme trying to define “human” biblically.

So, regarding your three criteria, I would question whether the Bible actually teaches such a threefold definition.

Certainly, the creation of man is “in the image and likeness of God,” but as Josh has stated already, that concept is worthy of much discussion (which he does extensively in his book, and I from a slightly different angle in mine). In Gen 2 Adam was created outside the garden (presumably, but not overtly stated) in God’s image. But his unique status arose only from his being introduced into the garden of God. He acquired thereby a special relationship with God, and only in that context does the idea of a fall, or of salvation, have any real meaning.

Genesis also relates eternal life not to Adam’s creation, but to his presence in the garden with the tree of life. As Jordan suggests, there are significant problems with the concept of “eternal soul,” as understood by philosophically-trained people like Gregory or Thomas Aquinas, but even more so now, when we are so influenced by Descartes’ concept of the soul as a “ghost in the machine” rather than “our animating principle.” The OT concept of “soul” (nephesh) is, usually, simply the concept of “living,” and not a technical term at all.

Then freedom of the will. Is free will possible without sin? Well, our faith stems from Jesus, who had the freest of wills, but always obeyed his Father. And the hope of the Kingdom, if I’m not mistaken, is that we shall be like him, freely righteous and in that sense incapable of sin. If the modern idea that freedom inevitably leads to sin is true, then the hope of eternal righteousness is either false or predicated on eternal slavery, which is definitely not the Bible’s teaching!

But I want to confirm Joshua’s point that “if they had never been given a command from God, they could never have transgressed that command.” He did not pluck this out of the air, but from Romans 5:13, which in context is teaching that what constitutes sin, especially the fall of Adam, is not primarily anything about moral consciousness, but about disobeying the covenant command of God. Without some inherent ability to choose, Adam could obviously not have transgressed, but equally without a personal relationship of command/compliance, sin in the biblical sense cannot be imputed.

I would add that, being sinners in a fallen race, we often fail to appreciate how that first sin led (as described in Genesis itself) to an escalation of perverted morality. This wilful distancing from God (cf Rom 1:28-32) would not apply to any people outside the garden. My own conclusion (from various evidences) is that such people would have followed their created nature in a “natural” religious sense, but lacking the intimate relationshipo with God that was the purpose of Adam’s call; amongst other things, he failed mankind by not making that relationship generally available, instead progressively implicating them in his sin and necessitating the grand plan of salvation that begins in Gen 12 and culminates in Christ.

So could they be “saved”? Saved from what, and for what? They were not under God’s judgement… but neither had they been given any hankering after a life over and above their created nature.

One final note in response to Allen on Gregory’s anthropology: I would assume that his invocation of the vegetative, animal and human soul does not imply three souls, any more than it does in Aquinas. They are more like progressive stages of “animation,” in that plants have vegetative functions, animals retain those but also have mobility, volition etc, and human beings have all that, but rationality too. The word that’s been coined in modern times for that basically Aristotelian concept is “hylemorphism”, basically meaning the “form” (morphe) that matter (hyles) takes on to do what it does.

Aristotle reasoned to an eternal sould from the idea that “reason” is immaterial and therefore imperishable - which is not entirely watertight as an argument. He was also having to deal with the biblical concept that, even prior to the final physical resurrection, the righteouss dead are kept safe in Christ (and the wicked for final judgement). But as far as I can see, the Bible leaves the “manners and means” of that pretty vague: it is not teaching the intriniscally eternal nature of the soul.


From an atheistic (non-biblical) p.o.v. #1 and #3 are clearly false.

As for #2, how do you know dolphins don’t have free will? I don’t know of anything biblical or non-biblical to suggest they can’t make choices.

Some thoughts on eternal soul prompted by this discussion here.

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I’m not sure how it’s useful to answer @cdods question about matters “from a biblical point of view” by replying from a point of view that rejects the Bible. From a biblical point of view your quoted statement is clearly false… from an Islamic point of view, perhaps both yours and his are. We already know there are different opinions in the world.

Dolphins and free will - @cdods specified moral choice, and presupposed that it leads to sin. So from his point of view, we would know dolphins have free will if they show evidence of shame or guilt.

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Quite so. Do they?

If they do, I’ve never read about it in the literature!

Lots of things to ponder already. Given my day job, most of the pondering will have to occur later, but I will ponder and respond. @jongarvey, I am partway through your book, and I’ve found the chapter on “other problematic passages” (I don’t thing that’s actually the title of the chapter) very helpful as I attempt to understand where some of my existing biases and YEC lense exist in regards to some of these passages.


If the book’s helpful to you I’m happy. If I sold a copy it’s good, too!


Clouds can be said to be formed by random processes. But rainwater still runs downhill.

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The above pretty much summarized my thoughts as well. My challenge is that it seems to me that Genesis 1:26/27 would suggest that the the humans before Adam would also be made in the image of God, which I find hard to make sense of given I think these 3 things are tied together. My current inability to reconciling these two ideas is one of the main reasons I posted this question.

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I would agree.

But that leads to the question. If the humans outside the garden had God’s image, how did they manage no to sin?

I’m very interested in your thoughts on how Molinism applies. I’ve come across Molinism relatively recently, and while I’m not convinced it’s the whole answer, it seems to provide at least a useful model for understanding how God’s omniscience interacts with our free will.

I don’t think we’ve interacted much, but I appreciate your humour (well most of it:), and your input on the meaning of words and concepts in the Old Testament.

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I don’t know how much amazon gives you for a sale, but hopefully my purchase provided a bit of support for one of your hobbies or vices.

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Interesting. I’m not very wedded to the traditional concept of the “soul”, but eternal life seems to be to be pretty clear.

Some interesting thoughts there I hadn’t come across before. More to think about. Thanks

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My question is that if the Tree of Life is “a thing”, then it seems that souls/people are not intrinsically eternal. That’s also why I find annihilationism a strong possibility.