Questions of the Ontological Leap and the Image of God

A discussion of possible ways to reconcile the Image of God in Humans with the common decent of humans from proto-human ancestors.

What is the Ontological Leap?

If we say that humans came from proto-humans and we say that humans are made in the image of God, what does this imply? There are two things that I can think of. One, at one point our ancestors were not sentient, then at a later point they were. Two, at one point our ancestors were not capable of spirituality (or communion with God) and at a later point they were.

Once these changes in humans occurred there was a point of demarcation between the beings before and the beings after. This was a change in consciousness, not in physical form to a large degree. This change would be an ontological difference, a change in the nature of a thing’s being. Such reasoning is not subject to natural scientific inquiry. In his message to the Pontifical Academy of Science Pope John Paul II described the situation like this:

“With man, we find ourselves facing a different ontological order—an ontological leap, we could say. But in posing such a great ontological discontinuity, are we not breaking up the physical continuity which seems to be the main line of research about evolution in the fields of physics and chemistry? An appreciation for the different methods used in different fields of scholarship allows us to bring together two points of view which at first might seem irreconcilable. The sciences of observation describe and measure, with ever greater precision, the many manifestations of life, and write them down along the time-line. The moment of passage into the spiritual realm is not something that can be observed in this way—although we can nevertheless discern, through experimental research, a series of very valuable signs of what is specifically human life. But the experience of metaphysical knowledge, of self-consciousness and self-awareness, of moral conscience, of liberty, or of aesthetic and religious experience—these must be analyzed through philosophical reflection, while theology seeks to clarify the ultimate meaning of the Creator’s designs.” 1

We could characterize the ontological difference and the image of God as comprised of traits like consciousness, rationality, language, free will, love, spiritual discernment and conscience. The problem is how can these traits come about where they didn’t exist before? An interesting possible answer lies along the lines of them not all coming about concurrently. The last two traits listed, the ‘higher’ traits, as I call them, are key to the image of God, but not necessary for a being to be ontologically different than a proto-human. What if those traits were not present until late in human history?

If we had just the first kind of traits, the ‘base’ traits, as I call them, that would allow us relate to each other and the universe in a way that other animals cannot. Pope John Paul II elaborated on this by saying “By this intelligence and his will, he is capable of entering into relationship, of communion, of solidarity, of the gift of himself to others like himself.” 2 But what, then, characterizes the full image of God in humans once all traits are present?

What is the Image of God?

In 2004, the then Cardinal Ratzinger, now Pope Benedict XVI, presided over the International Theological Commission (ITC), which published a study that described the image of God (imago Dei). In that study it states “…the imago Dei consists in man’s fundamental orientation to God, which is the basis of human dignity and of the inalienable rights of the human person.” 3

In the same study it continues “Created in the image of God, as we have seen, human beings are beings who share the world with other bodily beings but who are distinguished by their intellect, love and freedom and are thus ordered by their very nature to interpersonal communion.” 4

A further characterization of the image of God follows. “Without denying the gift of man’s original creation in the image of God, theologians want to acknowledge the truth that, in the light of human history and the evolution of human culture, the imago Dei can in a real sense be said to be still in the process of becoming. What is more, the theology of the imago Dei also links anthropology with moral theology by showing that, in his very being, man possesses a participation in the divine law. This natural law orients human persons to the pursuit of the good in their actions. ” 5

The study conclusion contains this summary: “…just as human persons are called to give witness to their participation in the divine creativity, they are also required to acknowledge their position as creatures to whom God has confided a precious responsibility for the stewardship of the physical universe.” 6

The reason we consider the question of the image of God is, if we accept it, that is central to our identity as humans. This is explored in Genesis and is always tied with the figure of Adam. But who or what was Adam? How we deal with that impacts how we approach this idea of imago Dei.

How Might These Traits Have Appeared in History?

The only clues we have as to how the traits of imago Dei manifested themselves are buried in the rather cryptic history of Adam. In the ITC study quoted above it says “Every individual human being as well as the whole human community are created in the image of God. In its original unity – of which Adam is the symbol – the human race is made in the image of the divine Trinity.”7

Not much can be said of Adam with a high degree of confidence. To be certain, he was, and is, a symbol. But was he a person? It should be noted that this question is not nearly as important at what is clear in the creation accounts (the nature of God’s sovereignty, the nature of humans and the created world). But still, it deserves careful consideration as it will color our picture of the nature of humans and the Image of God.

Adam as a Mythological Symbol

– All Humans Bear the Image of God

It can be argued that Adam is entirely mythic, a story-symbol of our origins. But this idea raises several difficult questions that I have not yet found much discussion on. First, it must be admitted that somewhere in Genesis between Adam and Abraham, the story switches from allegory, if you will, to history. But where could that switch be? The text itself does not provide such a demarcation, in my opinion. Another question is why are there genealogies recorded in Genesis for fictitious forefathers? Also, wouldn’t this mean that humans are born in communion with God and we each suffer an individual ‘fall’? What do we make of Paul likening Jesus to Adam, if Adam is every man? I have been unable to find satisfactory information pertaining to those questions. It’s not that I want pat answers, but I have yet to find even a good discussion of these problems. Because of this, I have not been inclined to adopt this view.

How Could Complex Traits Appear Over Time?

Before we look at the other possibilities of reconciling a historical Adam and the image of God, we must first take a look at how the base traits of the ontological leap may have appeared over time.

Common sense states that there was no point where a couple of ape-like animals had children that suddenly possessed full cognition and language skills. It would have been a continual process where each successive generation became slightly more clever, slightly more cognitive and better suited for language. A good illustration of this is given by Harry Foundalis here. He uses the development of the Greek language as a model to show how great changes occur quickly (from a global time-frame perspective) but are manifested in a continuum.

Mr. Foundalis’ description of the “gradual-yet-abrupt” change in language and human physiology can be carried over to specific cognitive functions. Consciousness, abstract reason and language capabilities can be developed in this “gradual-yet-abrupt” process. We start with proto-human and get to what we regard as “human” without discontinuity, because each generation can relate to the two adjacent generations. But this happens in a “leap”, chronologically speaking, because the process – that is the accumulation of minimal, but continual changes – is very quick when compared to the age of the planet (about 100,000 years versus about 4,600,000,000 years).

With this example of the possible ontological development process let us look at Adam again.

Adam as the Progenitor of All Humans

More specifically, let us start looking at Adam as a person in history. If we look at Adam as the progenitor of H. sapiens, he would have lived around 150,000 years ago, give or take. Even then, paleoanthropology has some evidence that H. sapiens appeared at different places on the planet concurrently.12 Bus supposing this is the case there is a problem with the Genesis text. It is recorded that there were about 2000 years between Adam and Abraham. If Adam was the first ‘man’ we have to assume immeasurably large gaps the in genealogies when there is no textual reason to do so.

There are other ways to approach this matter. If we take the discussion of gradual-yet-abrupt development of the “ontological leap” further then we can delve a little deeper into this matter. Bearing the image of God is not possible without the ‘base’ traits of consciousness, but it may have been possible to make an ontological leap without actually being granted the full image of God.

Let us suppose the ontological leap happened in this sense, that the ‘base’ traits of consciousness were achieved in the gradual-yet-abrupt manner, but the higher traits of the image of God (spiritual discernment and conscience) were only seeded in this new consciousness. The abilities were latent, but not fully awakened. What if God did not reveal himself until he thought humans were ready? In this state the ontological leap would include self-awareness, reason and language. But the higher parts of the image that did not blossom until later were spiritual awareness, an ability to relate to God and discernment of good and evil, i.e. conscience.

Recently I came across an article that deals with the historicity of Adam in a unique way.

Adam as the Spiritual Father

– The First Man in Which the Image of God was Fulfilled

-Adam was Called

John McIntyre’s ASA article “The Historical Adam” sheds some light on this whole situation. He proposes that Adam was the spiritual father of the human species, not the biological father. He asserts that the correlation between Adam’s sin and all humans’ sinful nature, which Paul presented in Romans 5 and I Corinthians 15, is not Original Sin propagated through biological ancestry. Paul says no such thing. What Paul does say is that Adam’s sin is applied to all humanity, not how (e.g. via biological ancestry).

Says McIntyre, this idea of inherited Original Sin was introduced, not by Paul, but my Augustine circa 400 AD.8 This idea has been reinforced at various times prior to knowledge of human biological history, e.g. The Council of Trent, in 1564, stated:

“Adam’s sin, transmitted by propagation, is present in all humans and is removed only by the merit of Christ.” 9

So this idea of biological ancestry has been introduced. McIntyre further clarifies this: “Scripture talks about the transfer of Original Sin in Romans 5, but it does not tell us how the transfer occurs. Only a comparison is made: the transfer of sin to humankind through the disobedience of one man, Adam; and the transfer of righteousness to humankind through the obedience of one man, Christ.”

“The biblical passage does not mention how sin was transferred to humankind by Adam nor how righteousness was transferred to humankind by Christ… [it] does not say that Adam is biologically related to all humans any more than that Christ is biologically related to all humans. It was Augustine who assumed that Adam was the biological ancestor of all humanity. Augustine’s assumption is the unobservable: it is not in Scripture, and so it can be rejected.” 10

Some other points from his article are that God has elected people throughout history, according to the Bible. Mary was chosen to carry Jesus. Abraham was chosen to father the Nation of God. Perhaps Adam was called as well.

It is reasonable to suggest that Adam could have been one of the first humans advanced enough to be given a spiritual awareness and one of the first to make the more-or-less complete ontological leap. Or, more preferably, once all people had already made the ‘basic’ ontological leap (e.g. attaining full consciousness, reason, language, etc.), he could have been the first person deemed ready by God for communion with God. He could have been elected as the recipient of God’s first covenant with humans and, as such, became the “father” of us all. He could have been humanity’s representative to God and, as such, the first human ready to bear the full Image of God. Up until this point the image was latent, not yet fully realized, until God would bring his presence down on the planet.

With his life, Adam brought the full image of God into humanity and the ontological leap and the image of God were, thus, completed. With his ‘fall’ he became enslaved to sin and that sin nature was imparted to all humanity along with the more-or-less fully realized image of God (e.g. conscience, spiritual discernment and awareness).

The difficulty with this is there are no means given regarding how these traits of Adam are applied to all humans. So, just as Jesus’ salvation is imparted to humans without respect to space or time (or biological relation), Adam’s image, conscience, sin and fallen nature were imparted to all humans without respect to space or time (or biological relation). I will address this further in the conclusion.

-Adam was Created

Another possibility is that at some time around 4000 BC, among the plethora of evolved humans, God specially made a new kind of man, rather than calling one of the existing ones. This new human, Adam, was based one the existing humans, but made to be their spiritual leader and representative. Thus he would be the progenitor of the human image of God. This view is proposed by Dick Fisher in his article “In Search of the Historical Adam”.11

This view does have some interesting features. It increases the analogy between Jesus and Adam (being specially created, but still fully human). A special Adam in the vicinity of active human culture makes good sense of Genesis 2:20-24 where there is found no suitable helper for Adam. If there are no other humans, why are God and Adam looking for a mate for Adam among plants and animals? It makes much more sense that there are plenty of indigenous women to investigate, yet none are found suitable for the new man found in Adam.12 Lastly, this view also makes sense regarding the Genesis 6 “sons of God” and “daughters of men” comments, which could refer to Adam’s descendents and the indigenous people, respectively.13

However, this line of reasoning has two problems. One is the same as the problem in the last idea of Adam; there are no means described for how the spiritual traits of Adam are applied to all humans. The other difficulty in this line of reasoning is why do all humans today (assuming some of Adam’s genetic material is still present, which it should be) exhibit the genetic traits in line with the idea of biological common ancestry?

There are two possible answers to the second question. The hand-waving answer is that God stealthily made Adam’s DNA exhibit all the odd features that are present now (and would have been present then) to indicate shared common ancestry with all living things. A more complicated, but more satisfying answer, is that all of Adam’s descendents interbred with the indigenous peoples perpetually. That is, short of Adam and Eve’s immediate children, there were no “pure-bred” descendents ever. Whatever was in their genetic makeup that was conspicuous to what we find today must have been quickly bred out. Some combination of these two answers could also have occurred.

I’m not a geneticist, so I’m not sure how feasible this second solution is. If anyone knows what DNA traits there are in the human genome that could cause serious complications for this (junk DNA, viral alterations, etc), please let me know. But I tend to shy away from anything like “apparent age” arguments from scientific creationism, which the first answer does indeed resemble.

An interesting feature of Adam and Eve having unique DNA, which was eventually bred out, is the long life spans recorded in the early Genesis chapters. 900 year life spans are preposterous for humans as we function today. But if Adam and Eve were specially created they and their descendents could have been genetically different in a way that allowed them to live a long time. If we allow that they only interbred with “outsiders” this trait should generally diminish over time. And that is what is recorded.

But this interesting feature has a caveat as well. If there were these genes that allowed long life. Something had to eventually remove them from the gene pool completely so that we do not see such long-lived people anymore. The genes may have had to work in concert. If the genes were recessive and a local catastrophe, say a flood in the Mesopotamian floodplain, killed most of the carriers that might account for it. So it must be that if Adam was specially created, his genetic material must have been lost or so rare that the genome research has not yet found it.

This last scenario, while very interesting, has too many caveats for my taste. In my opinion it violates the principles of Occam’s Razor. So, while no one can speak with certainty on these matters, I would summarize the possibilities like this:


Adam is mythic or allegorical.


  • The first human could not have existed 6000 years ago, as a historic reading of Genesis would imply. If the Genesis passages are mythic, there is no problem with the timeframe.
  • All people are created in the image of God (property of humanity).


  • All people must fall individually. This would mean our nature is “very good” until we sin for the first time, then our nature changes and we are separated from God. Where we were in potential communion with God before (granted we were probably too young to know) we are now separated. This continual ontological shifting is too much for me, so I am not inclined to think this way.
  • The genealogies is Genesis describe Adam as a historical individual.
  • Paul characterizes him as a human individual.
  • At some point the myth or allegory in the early chapters of Genesis must be regarded as more historical (with Abraham), yet there is no textual evidence that the literary style changes.

Adam was the first human.


  • All humans inherit the image of God.
  • The fall was a historical event (not a symbol of a continually reoccurring event).
  • All humans inherit our corrupt nature from Adam.
  • The Genesis genealogies and Paul’s discussions seem to best fit the idea of a real, historical man.


  • The first human could have lived as long as around 150,000 years ago. Certainly it lived much, much longer than 6000 years ago. We would have to assume immeasurably large gaps the in genealogies when there is no textual reason to do so.

Adam is the first spiritually aware and elected representative of humans. Though many other humans lived before, and during, his time they lived without a complete “image of God”.


  • The Genesis genealogies and Paul’s discussions seem to fit the idea of a real man.
  • Adam and his descendants would share the same genetics as the rest of the humans.
  • He very well could have lived 6000 years ago.
  • The fall was a historical event.


  • If Adam was the first spiritual being, the bearer of the full image of God, how was that image and spiritual nature (though corrupted after he fell) passed on to the rest of an existing humanity that should otherwise not have it?

Adam is the first spiritually aware human because he was specially created. Though many other humans lived before, and during, his time they lived without a complete “image of God”.


  • The Genesis genealogies and Paul’s discussions seem to fit the idea of a real man.
  • The 900 year life spans could be explains by a specially created individual.
  • The sons-of-God/daughters-of-man could be genetic descendents of Adam and “everyone else” respectively.
  • The Image of God is introduced by God specially.
  • He very well could have lived 6000 years ago.
  • The fall was a historical event.


  • How did Adam’s genes get entirely bred out of the population? This seems very unlikely if his descendant Noah was one of the chief progenitors of the Mesopotamian region, one of the earliest advanced civilizations of the world.
  • If they were not bred out, where are the anomalies his genes should have introduced? If they were “fresh” DNA they should have lacked many key features of the human genome. Or did God create his genes to mimic all the odd features we find in the human genome with only a few short-lived differences?
    • As aside here, I really don’t like this line of reasoning. It matches the “apparent age” arguments in scientific creationism. It basically says God is deceptive and fooled us into thinking something true is false and vice versa. In other words, if Adam was specially created, there would be no reason to expect his genome to have the odd traits that were in the already-existing human genome. If God specially made his genes match these odd traits, we are led to conclude that Adam wasn’t specially created. Why would God do this?
  • If Adam was the first spiritual being, the bearer of the full image of God, how was that image and spiritual nature (though corrupted after he fell) passed on to the rest of an existing humanity that should otherwise not have it?

Apparent Difficulties Resolved for all Choices:

  • There is no compelling Biblical evidence that Adam was the progenitor of our species, so the latter proposals are not problematic in that respect.
  • There is no compelling Biblical evidence that there was no death prior to the fall. The passages Paul writes refer only to humans. And death does not necessarily mean physical death (cf. Gen 2:17). Paul (Romans 5:12-20) could be referring to spiritual corruption and condemnation, just a God does in the Genesis reference.


So if we agree with modern science in the age of the earth and the biological common ancestry of living things, we have four ways of looking at Adam and the way in which humans bear the image of God. All have strengths in some ways and difficulties in others. I may be wrong, but I believe this is an exhaustive list (someone please tell me if it’s not). As always this is my opinion, nothing more.

Adam as a mythic figure introduces more textual and philosophical difficulties than solutions to scientific problems. As such it is not a viable belief for me.

Adam as a specially created individual in an indigenous population is also problematic. While I applaud Fischer’s ability to find a solution that provides context for some very obscure and difficult passages, that explanation comes at a cost. Fischer’s solution has the same ontological problem that McIntyre’s does, but it introduces a plethora of difficulties with respect to genetics. We also get into the realm of second-guessing God (the apparent age problem). As such, I follow the principle of Occam’s Razor and I wouldn’t select this belief in favor of McIntyre’s idea, which is similar in principle, but has fewer difficulties.

So the two most likely scenarios seem to be:

  1. Adam as the progenitor of all humans around 150,000 years ago or
  2. Adam was the first human elected to be in communion with God, and the first to have the image reach fruition in him because God revealed himself to humans for the first time, with Adam.

In the first case we have one major difficulty. The genealogy text indicates Adam was not too far removed (about 2000 years) from Abraham. How do we introduce around 148,000 years between them? The genealogies make no indication that a gap this big could occur. It seems we are left to say the authors of Bible made huge mistakes in the genealogies, either by omitting tens of thousands of generations or by forgetting to state that there were huge gaps.

In the second case our major problem is how is the image of God that is realized in Adam, with the advent of the knowledge of good and evil, transferred to an already living human population? We can make conjecture about this.

God could have called Adam like he called Abraham. Adam could have been the first human that God interacted with. As such, Adam became humanity’s representative. He was of a race that could reason, but whose latent spiritual nature and, possibly conscience, had not yet been awakened. They contained the image of God, but it was not fully developed.

Once Adam met God his spiritual nature would have awakened. Then, given the choice to obey God’s command or not (do not eat of this tree) he was faced with something new. He obviously did not have the “knowledge of good and evil” before eating the fruit. It seems he didn’t have a conscience in spite of being able to reason. That would mean his nature was driven by evolutionary instinct and reason, not precepts of “right” and “wrong”.

In this situation he chose against God’s command because his nature compelled him to. At that, he gained knowledge of good and evil, a conscience, and thus the image of God was fully manifested or awaked. However, at the same time, his nature was identified as being at odds with God’s will. McIntyre summarized the situation:

“God’s law was now written on his heart so that he would sin whenever his natural instincts contradicted God’s law because “through the law we become conscious of sin”. (Rom. 3:20). Thus Adam was no longer simply a clever animal. He became a slave to sin because his evolutionary instincts were at enmity with God’s law written on his heart.”14

So with that sin, what was the spiritually/covenantally innocent, and perhaps ignorant, Adam is lost to the conscientious, spiritually awakened – and now guilty – Adam. What happens next is a mystery, but we don’t have to go against scripture to say Adam’s state was then awakened in all humans. God’s presence was revealed in the world, and the knowledge of good and evil (conscience) was granted to all. The image was fully awakened, but awakened into condemnation of their own self-serving, instinctive natures.

“Until Adam had eaten of the tree of the knowledge of good and evil, evolutionary humans were simply clever animals without sin.”15 In Romans 2:14-15 Paul demonstrates that the law is what condemns us or commends us and that it is written on our hearts. Without the knowledge of good and evil, this is impossible. This theme is continued and expanded in Roman 5:13-14. Here we see that before the Torah was given, sin and death were introduced with Adam. And they can only be present when one’s heart can discern good and evil. Again, death here can mean spiritual separation from and condemnation by God (Gen 2:17). (If you’re having trouble with that consider Romans 5:18: physical death was no more introduced to humans by Adam than physical life is granted to humans by God through Jesus. Humans are not corpses before joining in communion with God.) So we are left with:

Adam was the first human elected to be in communion with God, and the first to have the image reach fruition in him because God revealed himself to humans for the first time, with Adam. With his sin and judgment this completed image was transferred to all people.

Of all the choices, this choice only requires us to suppose the how of the transmission of Adam’s new nature to the rest of humanity. There are no scriptural difficulties created, no backpedaling on the text. Just a simple “I don’t know the how“. Just as I don’t know how Jesus’ sacrifice puts humans in a right standing with God, though I know it does; I don’t know how Adam’s awakened conscience and enslavement to sin were transmitted to all humans, though I know they were.

Faith is not something that get completed and put on a shelf as a completed project. We do the best we can and we hold on to things tenuously. The belief above is where I have found myself, but it is not to say my conclusions are definitive or authoritative. But I hope they at least make some sense, and contain the fewest possible errors.


1 – Pope John Paul II, Message to the Pontifical Academy of Science: On Evolution, Oct 22, 1996, Sec. 6

2 – Same as previous, Section 5

3 – Cardinal Ratzinger, President of the International Theological Commission, Communion and Stewardship: Human Persons Created in the Image of God, July 2004, Sec 22.

4 – Same as previous, Section 56

5 – Same as previous, Section 24

6 – Same as previous, Section 95

7 – Same as previous, Section 43

8– St. Augustine, The City of God, Book 13, Chapter 14

9– Council of Trent, Fifth Session, Decree Concerning Original Sin

10– John A McIntyre, The Historical Adam, Perspectives in Christian Faith, Vol 54, Sept. 2002, pp. 151-152

11– Dick Fischer, In Search of the Historical Adam: Part 1, Perspectives in Christian Faith, Vol 45, Dec. 1993

12– Same as previous, Section “Adam’s Bride”

13– Dick Fischer, In Search of the Historical Adam: Part 2, “Giants in the Earth”, Perspectives in Christian Faith, Vol 46, March 1994

14– Same as 6, p. 154

15– Same as 6, p. 156

12- Dennis O’Neil, Evolution of Modern Humans Website, “Regional Continuity Arguments”.


5 Responses to “The Ontological Leap”

  1. Hi, I just chanced upon your page by accident, and noticed that you’ve misspelled my name. It’s not Henry Foudalis, but Harry Foundalis. (You write my first name wrong in one place, and my last name wrong in another place.) And my site that you reference has an obsolete link, the correct one is:

    I’d appreciate it if you could make these changes — thank you.

  2. Anthony V Says:

    Remember, the essential character of the imago Dei is spirit. Rational animals in the image of God have a spirit as an essential part of their being. The human race is elected to partake in beatific vision because God gave Adam and Eve sanctifying grace.

  3. Romero I. Says:

    This “ontological leap” terminology is new to me. I just came across it by reading J. Ratzinger (Pope B. XVI) Jesus of Nazarateh Book 2. However, I found this article very enlightening as I have over my 50+ years wondered about a lot of issues that were discussed here. I’m praying for the gift of an increased faith!

    1. Hoopy Frood Says:

      Well I am a long ways from where I was back when I wrote this, to say the least. But I’m glad it gave you food for though. That’s why I haven’t deleted this blog, I’m hoping it will facilitate growth in faith for others. Not that I’m thinking they should ultimately journey down the path I went down. Peace to you!

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