Image of God

Genesis 1:26-27 records the bare statement that Adam and Eve were made in His likeness:

Then God said, “Let us make man in our image, in our likeness, and let them rule over the fish of the sea and the birds of the air, over the livestock, over all the Earth, and over all the creatures that move along the ground.”

So God created man in his own image, in the image of God he created him; male and female he created them.

What does all that mean? The significance of humans existing in the image of God is that they therefore are very valuable and important. In Genesis 9, following the flood, God stresses the image of God as the fundamental difference between humans and animals. Animals were for food—but not people.

Perhaps the significance of the image of God is all that we need to understand. However, Christians have long wondered exactly what God might have meant when he said we were created in “His image”. The traditional answer given by most Christians runs as follows:

Men and women possess attributes of personality:

• Reason
• Creativity
• Love
• Morality
• Freedom
• Responsibility
• The ability to commune with God

The above list is all well and good, but it raises two valid questions. The first, is how does this list significantly differentiate us from the animals? Certainly there is a difference of degree between humans and animals, but the Bible strongly suggests that there is a significant difference of kind, which the above list doesn’t clarify. The second question that needs answering is likewise devastating: where in the Bible is the “image of God” ever defined as it is in the list above?

Could we define “image of God” to mean simply that we look like him? If the reader searches a concordance, he or she will find that every occurrence of the Hebrew words “image” and “likeness” refer to a physical resemblance. In fact, “image” is often used to describe an idol. It is most logical, therefore, to conclude that the image of God in human beings is exactly what a natural understanding of the words imply: human beings were made to look like God. Moses contrasted what was normal in his society with a different reality: where in the ancient Near East it was universally the case that people made images of gods, God now taught that instead, He made people as images of himself.

Many of the early church fathers wrote that the image of God must include the physical and bodily characteristics—not just the immaterial.

But then we will find passages in the Bible which speak of other qualities for God, i.e. “his wings” (Psalm 17:8; 91:4; and Ruth 2:12). In Genesis 15, he appears as a smoking fire pot. As the Israelites wander the wilderness God appears as a pillar of fire at night, and a pillar of cloud by day. In Exodus he appears to Moses as a flaming bush.

One must ask the question, whether appearances are symbolic in the same sense language—words—are symbols of the underlying reality, but are not that reality themselves. The black lines on the page spelling out “water” do not quench my thirst or wash my body; they merely symbolize the sound which symbolizes the substance that I could fill my swimming pool with.
So, when God manifests himself, is his appearance part of the symbolism that allows clear communication in other respects, such as his choice of language and vocabulary, and general adjustment to the cultural background of those he contacted? God, after all, wished to be perfectly clear to those to whom he talked. So, when we see God appearing as a biped in Genesis 18, is that appearance the one that corresponds to ultimate reality, or is it his appearance in Genesis 15 as a smoking fire pot?

Worse, if we argue that physical appearance is what constitutes the image of God, then what of human beings who are deformed, whether by birth or through some tragic accident? Do such people then lack the imago dei?

This same problem faces us if return to the more traditional formulation of “image of God” as a list of cognitive elements, such as reason. If the traditional list is right, then what of the retarded, the autistic, the insane, those with Alzheimer’s, or even the fetus? Is their lack of—or severely damaged—reason, volition, emotions and the like indicative of their no longer having—or perhaps never having—the image of God in them? The eugenic Nazi might be happy to argue that way, but for the rest of us, it demonstrates that neither the physical nor the mental are likely correct, or most certainly less than complete, understandings of the “image of God.”

And the problem only grows. If the thought of excluding some human beings from the image, whether for physical or sentient reasons is distasteful and repugnant, what will we do with non-human sentience, whether extraterrestrial or electronically based that we may come upon or create in the future?

Obviously, this question of the “image of God” is far more complex than it may at first appear.

There is, I think, a way out, however.

In the New Testament, the Church is described as the “body” of Christ. No individual Christian is the body of Christ, but he or she is part of that body (cf. 1 Corinthians 12). Perhaps the “image of God” in man is not in individuals, but is in the species as a whole. That is, humanity is collectively the “image of God” and each individual is a part of that—an important part. Just as each individual Christian is important, serving a function, so each individual human being does the same for humanity as a whole.

That this could be the sense of what was intended becomes likely when we consider that the first nine chapters of Genesis are consistent in using the term “the Man” (Heb. ha-adam), from the creation through the flood, to refer first to the single individual who was the first man, and then as a general term for the species as a whole. This usage continues through to the flood of Noah, when God decided to destroy “the Man.”

Likewise, assuming the image of God is expressed in humanity as a whole explains and clarifies the comment God makes in Genesis 11, when he says that “nothing will be impossible for them”–for humanity. That is, God states that if humanity imagines it, humanity can do it. Humanity’s capability is unlimited, unless God himself intervenes. Human beings can do what God can do, and in fact, that was God’s original intention. The essentially unlimited potential of humanity is the inevitable consequence of God making creatures like himself. It is fundamental to the meaning of the statement “in our image, after our likeness.”

Perhaps the plurality of humanity, then, is a reflection of the plurality of God, seen in God’s use of plural pronouns for himself at the moment of humanity’s creation. Understanding the nature of the image of God in humanity makes the lie of the serpent (Genesis 3) all the more destructive, because he implied to Eve that unless she ate from the fruit, she (and by implication) her species would forever fail to truly be “the image of God.”

The concepts in the New Testament of the church becoming the bride of Christ, of Christians being adopted into God’s family, of becoming the friends of God, and of Jesus being our brother, are simply other ways of stating that we collectively reflect God. A consequence of this is that to criticize something because “we’re playing God” may not be reasonable. It appears that humanity “playing God” was precisely God’s plan from the start. Perhaps just as Eve was a “helper fit for” or “equivalent to” Adam, so humanity is that for God.

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About R.P. Nettelhorst

I'm married with three daughters. I live in southern California and I'm a deacon at Quartz Hill Community Church. I spent a couple of summers while I was in college working on a kibbutz in Israel. In 2004, I was a volunteer with the Ansari X-Prize at the winning launches of SpaceShipOne. Member of Society of Biblical Literature, American Academy of Religion, and The Authors Guild
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