I love to make images through art. I tried my hand at drawing when I was younger. When I was in high school I had the opportunity to make pottery. And I have recently picked up painting with my mouth since my paralysis.
I’m not very good at any of these art forms. I’d like to blame it on my poor eyesight, being legally blind. That probably plays a part in it. But the truth is I never learned all the techniques involved in these disciplines.
When I write I find myself most effective at making images that can draw people in to the concepts and stories I like to tell. Image is important, a concrete, real thing we can get our heads around. Images help us to grasp the deeper concepts.
One of the first theological ideas of the Bible is the image of God, found in Genesis 1-2. This profound concept has been debated and discussed throughout history. But it’s not only a scholastic subject. It must be practical.
Who’s It For?
“Then God said, ‘Let us make man in our image, in our likeness, and let them rule over the fishes of the sea and the birds of the heavens and over the livestock and over all the earth and over all the creeping things crawling on the earth.’ So God created man in his image, and in the image of God he created him, male and female he created them.”Genesis 1:26-27 (My Translation)
God created everything we see and know, and things beyond us, in six days in the Bible. On the fifth and sixth days of creation God made living things. On day five He made the birds and the fish to fill the skies and the seas. On day six he created land animals and humans. But when He got to humanity we read the verses above.
Scholars and theologians often talk about humans as the “pinnacle of God’s creation” because of these verses. There is clearly something different about humans. God made the animals to reproduce after their own kinds. But when He came to creating humans He declares He will put His image in us.
Unlike any of the animals around us God made us His image bearers. We are special in all of creation. But don’t get a big head. We have ideas of the meaning of His image, but know when exactly understands it.
The creation accounts of Genesis make you a special creature in God’s sight. Of all the amazing things He did you topped the cake. Now we just have to figure out as best we can what it is and how it impacts us.
What Is It?
Now that you know you have it, you may want to know what it is. Well, that’s a lot harder for us to grasp. As you can imagine from millennia of studying the image of God and talking about it there are several approaches to what it is.
Here I will do my best to give you the lay of the land on how people talk about the image of God. You might look at the word “image” and think that God’s image in humans is a physical attribute or our whole bodies. But most scholars discount this. Some arguments can be made but the general consensus is that this is least likely.
Some people look at Genesis 1-2 and try to describe the image of God and humans in contrast with the animals and what they lack. For instance, there are certain human faculties animals do not possess.
You may look at some of these and argue theologians are wrong. Remember I am only presenting the arguments I have heard over my years of study in the Bible. Theologians suggest that animals do not contain intelligence, language, emotions, creativity, reasoning skills, a spirit/soul, an appreciation for beauty, volition (the will to choose), and their lists go on.
I think there are some very intelligent animals, like chimpanzees. I have even seen in our family dog a level of intelligence, and he speaks his mind and we understand to a point. I think animals can show emotion. And I believe they have personality, part of the soul.
I would agree animals don’t have creativity or reasoning skills. They probably don’t appreciate beauty. They have a will to a point. They can make choices or express that they don’t like something. But they may not be able to make the complex choices we do. Many of these things I have seen animals have or do, if not to the complexity humans do.
Complexity may be part of the equation for the image of God. It’s not that animals don’t have any of these faculties. It’s that they don’t have them in the complexity and capacity that humans do. So if you go this route on explaining what the image of God is you may have at least a partial case.
One problem with this idea of complex faculties that make up God’s image and humans may be that some humans do not have full capacity of all of these faculties. For instance, I see myself as creative, but I have been blown out of the water by more creative people. I think I’m intelligent but I also know there are others more intelligent than me (by miles).
There are also people that because of some genetic mutation or mental issue don’t have as full of the capacity in these faculties as we may think. But I have found that someone without great intelligence may have an incredible ability to recognize and respond to emotions. We cannot judge anyone on these faculties. They may not be the best approach to understanding the image of God. Yet they may play a part.
Other people look at the biblical text of Genesis 1-2 and try to understand from the context the image of God. When you go to Genesis 1-2 you start to see certain things that may provide clues to understand His image in us.
When God speaks of making humanity in His image, it is immediately followed with giving us “dominion” over the animals and the earth (Genesis 1:26). God says “man” in the singular and then “them” in the plural (Genesis 1:26) and then a poetic verse follows talking about God creating man as male and female (Genesis 1:27).
All this may suggest that God’s image in this has to do with having dominion over His animals and earth and being male and female together, scholars who suggest this approach talk about the King’s image being displayed throughout the land to show he has dominion over it.
Just as the Godhead has three Persons in harmonious relationship with one another, so God’s image is best shown through the harmonious love between man and a woman in marriage.
God has dominion over all of His creation. He demonstrates it through His rest on the seventh day. Recent scholarship has uncovered the same language for inhabiting a temple as when God rested on the seventh day (Genesis 2:1-4).
This suggests that God reigns in dominion over all of his creation as he inhabits it. So also, humans demonstrate the image of God when they have dominion over the earth and subdue it.
A third possibility may be that God breathed the breath of life in man and made him a spiritual being (Genesis 2:7). This breath of life is not just for biological life and animation but also spiritual life.
Humanity’s ability to have a spiritual nature and connect with God who is Spirit is His image in people. Animals do not have this ability of a spiritual nature although they have a soul. Both the spirit and soul have an eternal quality. But the spirit of a person connects with God.
So which one is it? I imagine the answer is somewhere in between, maybe something we have not completely understood yet.
There may be parts of our more complex faculties that show part of God’s image in them. The fact that we demonstrate dominion over the earth and animals as God has dominion over his entire creation may be the image of God in us. And it may be that our ability to connect with God on a spiritual level is His image in us.
I suggest the answer is in the middle. I don’t think we can point to just one thing. It’s possible to see each of these views in the text of Genesis 1-2.
What Does It Do?
We’ve talked about approaches to define the image of God in people. More important based on our understanding is how the Bible applies God’s image to how we live. In one sense, we can leave the debates about the definition of God’s image up to the scholars and get how we live right.
First, God’s image in us makes us His representatives on this earth. How we behave and what we do impacts others for His Kingdom. We know as Christians we represent Jesus on the earth. We also represent God through the image of God in us.
Second, when God places His image in humans, making them image bearers for Him, it gives all humans an innate sense of value and dignity. We matter to God as his creation. But He took special time to place His image in us. And depending on how you understand the “us” of Genesis 1:26 He may have declared that He was putting His image in humans to the divine council.
This place is great value in every human being. It’s not that we didn’t have any value before. We have even more value because we had image of God in us. It elevates as above animals. Don’t let anyone tell you your ancient ancestor was a monkey. That degrades God’s image in each of us.
More than that, because every person we need bears God’s image we must show respect and give dignity to others. Whether they are Christians are not, they still bear the image of God. We show respect to God when we respect other people He has made. You may argue his image was tainted in the Fall, but we all still bear God’s image.
Third, six of the Ten Commandments concern I relationship with other people. The way we interact with others matters very much to God. They are His creation just as much as we are. We worship God and show we love Him by treating others the way He sees them.
Fourth, if God’s image is relational among us, we honor God by showing others the unconditional love He has shown us. In every relationship we must love other people despite their religious/spiritual views, and how they treat us. No one deserves hate or derision from us.
Even total strangers bear the image of God. We have no right to treat anyone on this planet as anything less than human. Such dignity and rights are given by God, not governments or laws. He has imprinted himself upon every person.
Fifth, we should honor marriage, not trying to break it, help people get divorced, insert ourselves into that relationship, try to abolish it, or try to change it. God instituted marriage between a man and a woman. We must not get between them, try to seduce one of them, or anything of the sort. We should defend marriage at all costs in societies and cultures that want to get rid of them.
Sixth, we have the privilege of a spiritual connection with God. We can know him and see his blessings both physical and spiritual in our lives. There is a part of us God placed in us to connect with Him. And we must share the good news that we can know God with others.
These are only a few of the ways we can apply the image of God to our world and lives. We must remember these applications for ourselves. You are valuable to God. Your relationships matter to God. You have a spiritual connection with God.
We may or may not completely understand the image of God He has placed in each of us. But to the measure we can understand it we need to apply it to others and our lives. You are responsible for your understanding and application you have of the image of God.
We honor and glorify God by the way we treat others. The image of God in each of us was marred at the Fall and is restored through the image of Christ. But let’s not just discuss it. Let’s take what we learn and use it in our relationships and treat one another with respect that honors God. How do you see the image of God and apply it to your life?