Answering Theological Questions on Neanderthal-Human Interbreeding
Why do we never get an answer
When we’re knocking at the door
With a thousand million questions
About hate and death and war?
When I was a teenager in the 1970s, songs by the Moody Blues were a staple on the playlists of most FM rock stations. This group helped pioneer the progressive and art rock genres in the 1960s. Truth be told, they don’t make my list of all-time favorite rock bands, but some of their single releases are among my favorite rock tunes. One of my favorite songs is “Question.” This track appeared on their 1970 album A Question of Balance. The song expresses the frustration that young people felt in the 1960s and 1970s about the conflict in Vietnam, asking profound and difficult questions, but never getting answers.
As a Christian apologist, I receive difficult and profound questions all the time. My job is to answer them and hope that my responses—though many times incomplete—may bring some resolution. Lately, one topic that generates quite a few questions has to do with interbreeding between modern humans and Neanderthals. And the questions that people raise are difficult and profound.
- Is it true that modern humans and Neanderthals interbred?
- If interbreeding took place, what does that mean for the credibility of the biblical account of human origins?
- Did the children resulting from these interbreeding events have a soul? Did they bear the image of God?
In a previous article, I tackled a few of the most commonly asked questions about interbreeding and explored the scientific implications for the RTB human origins model. In this piece, I will respond to some of the most commonly asked theological questions connected to interbreeding between modern humans and hominins.
Is There Biblical Warrant for Interbreeding between Modern Humans and Neanderthals?
An initial reading of the human origin creation accounts leaves one with the impression that interbreeding between modern humans and Neanderthals lacks biblical support. Yet, a more careful consideration of the biblical text leaves room for this possibility. Toward this end, it is interesting that Genesis 6:1–2 describes the Nephilim as the hybrid offspring of interbreeding between the sons of God and the daughters of men. While this is an extremely difficult passage to interpret, it is clear that modern humans—the descendants of Adam and Eve—interbred outside their line and it displeased God.
In effect, the act that led to the Nephilim—and by extension the interbreeding between modern humans and Neanderthals—shouldn’t be surprising. As a result of the fall, modern humans have a depraved nature. The consequence of this depravity came to a head just prior to the flood. Genesis 6:5 relates, “The LORD saw how great the wickedness of the human race had become on the earth, and that every inclination of the thoughts of the human heart was only evil all the time.” One could easily envision that out of this wickedness, humans could have pursued Neanderthals for evil ends, even though these hominins weren’t like us.
Leviticus 18:23 also makes room for the possibility that modern humans interbred with Neanderthals (and other hominins). This passage condemns and forbids bestiality. Given humanity’s propensity to have intercourse with animals, it is not shocking that humans would interbreed with creatures like Neanderthals (who much more closely resemble humans).
Did Modern Human-Neanderthal Hybrids Have a Soul?
Tricky theological issues abound if indeed modern humans interbred with Neanderthals—the chief one being whether the hybrids had a soul. Did they possess the image of God?
To properly engage this concern, we need to consider the two most prominent theological models for ensoulment from the perspective of the historic Christian faith. It is clear from the genealogies in Genesis 5 that the image of God (along with the consequences of Adam’s sin) have been transmitted to Adam and Eve’s descendants. How does this transmission occur functionally ?
One view, called traducianism, maintains that each individual inherits the immaterial aspect of their being—their spirit or soul, if you will—from both parents, with the souls of their parents blending together to produce a new soul. This spiritual inheritance bears an analogy to biological inheritance in which each individual uniquely derives their physical features from both parents through a “blending” of their genetic material. In traducianism, it is only Adam and Eve who possess souls that were directly created by God.
Another view, creationism, explains the origin of each person’s soul or spirit as the product of God’s direct creative activity. Just as God created the souls of Adam and Eve, so he creates the immaterial aspect of each person individually, presumably at the time of their conception or shortly thereafter.
By employing either model, it is possible to conceive of scenarios by which a human-hominin hybrid receives a soul. For example, within the creationist framework, one could envision God creating a soul in the human-Neanderthal hybrid at the time of conception, honoring the fact that one of the parents is an image-bearer and knowing that the hybrid would likely interbreed with other humans.
In the case of traducianism, as long as one of the parents is an image bearer, then the offspring should, too, possess God’s image. In effect, the image of God is indivisible. Either a being has the image of God or doesn’t. It makes no sense to think of a creature having only half of the image of God.
So, even if modern humans and Neanderthals did interbreed, it doesn’t invalidate the biblical account of human origins for biblical or theological reasons. While the discovery of interbreeding between modern humans and Neanderthals does stand as a failed prediction of the RTB human origins model, it doesn’t falsify it. Rather, it forces us to revise the model. The good news is that this revision, though it leads to difficult questions, does not violate the teachings of Scripture.
- Who Was Adam? by Fazale Rana with Hugh Ross (book)
- “Neanderthal Population Data Raises Doubt about Human Neanderthal Interbreeding” by Fazale Rana (article)
- “Does New Date for Neanderthal Extinction Mean an End of Human-Neanderthal Interbreeding?” by Fazale Rana (article)
- “Did Humans and Neanderthals Interbreed?” by Fazale Rana (article)
- “Answering Scientific Questions on Human-Neanderthal Interbreeding, Part 1” by Fazale Rana (article)
Biological Differences between Humans and Neanderthals
- “Neanderthal Brains Make Them Unlikely Social Networkers” by Fazale Rana (article)
- “Blood Flow to Brain Contributes to Human Exceptionalism” by Fazale Rana (article)
- “Differences in Human and Neanderthal Brains Explain Human Exceptionalism” by Fazale Rana (article)
- “Did Neanderthals Have the Brains to Make Art?” by Fazale Rana (article)
- “When Did Modern Human Brains—and the Image of God—Appear?” by Fazale Rana (article)
- “Ancient DNA Indicates Modern Humans are One-of-a-Kind” by Fazale Rana (article)
- “Archetype or Ancestor? Sir Richard Owen and the Case for Design” by Fazale Rana (article)