Put 100 Christians in a room and ask how many of them believe that they are made in the image of God. You’ll get 100 hands. No one would deny the plain truth of Genesis 1:27.
Now ask if any consider themselves to be righteous. If any hands shoot up, they probably didn’t understand the question.
To be fair, no one in the room imagines that they are exactly like God. And no one imagines that they are so wicked that they are looking around the room for a blunt object to turn 99 heads into pudding.
At the same time, everyone would be completely comfortable saying, “I am made in the image of a good and holy God, and I am totally depraved.”
An atheist would probably have a good laugh at this, grab some popcorn, and ask a Christian to explain. He would probably get an answer like this:
“To be in the image of God is not to be the same as God. It’s more like a shadow of God, sharing qualities that set us apart from the rest of creation. Just look around. Humans are more creative than any other creature. We are uniquely spiritual. We are highly intelligent. We are hard-wired for relationships. All of these qualities set us apart from the animals, and they are core qualities of God.
“At the same time, we are a fallen species. We rejected God, suppressing our spirituality, and have used our intelligence and creativity to indulge our self-interests, destroying relationships and marring God’s perfect image.”
I think there is a lot of truth to that. But for the sake of expanding the conversation, I’d like to present our atheist friend with a different answer, though I’m not sure he or the 100 Christians in the room would quickly take an eraser to their long standing beliefs.
But, hey, this is the Belfry. Let’s at least think about it.
What if it’s more than a shadow?
Not to be that guy, but if you look at the Hebrew construction of the conjunctions in Genesis 1:26 (I always wanted to start a sentence like that) the verse should be translated like this:
Then God said, “Let us make man in our image, in our likeness, so that they may rule over the fish in the sea and the birds in the sky . . .”
The NIV actually translates it that way, but most translations say, “…and let them rule…” as if human dominion on the earth is just a simple mandate and not a consequence of image and likeness. In other words, if man is not in God’s image and likeness, he should not be able to rule the animals.
Putting fish into fishbowls is not the same thing as ruling over them. Genesis shows Adam naming the animals, which is a statement of his authority and care. However, according to Romans 1, after the fall, man stopped ruling animals and started worshipping them, flipping the natural order on its head.
Does this, by consequence, mean that mankind lost the image and likeness of God as well?
I think Jesus proves this definitively. In him we have the first human being that exactly matches the humanity described in Genesis 1:26.
- IMAGE: Jesus says, “If you’ve seen me, you’ve seen the Father” [John 14:7-9]. The Hebrew word for image in Genesis is the same as the word for idol, a physical representation of a spiritual being. Jesus is not some vague shadow of his Father, neither is he a clone or a copy. He is, as Paul says in Colossians, “the image of the invisible God.” In John 14, Jesus claims that it is his relationship with the Father that creates such a trustworthy likeness. “Him in me, and I in him.”
- DOMINION: Not only does Jesus control fish in two separate stories (the one with the coin in its mouth, and the one where the disciples cast their nets on the opposite side of the boat), but he also rides an untamed colt into Jerusalem. After the Fall, Adam is told that getting life from the ground will be a struggle. Jesus curses a fig tree, and it withers. One has authority. The other does not.
If we recognize that Jesus did not consider his deity something to be grasped [Phil. 2:6], becoming like his brothers in all things [Heb. 2:17], in order that he might restore mankind to a right relationship with God, that they might do the things that he did [John 14:12], we should stop putting Jesus in his own category. We should start to see him as the first regular human being since Adam.
What about the rest of Scripture?
If we start removing verses from their overarching context, setting them side by side, we can come up with some head-scratching theologies. But I think the concept of humans being made in God’s image, losing that image, and ultimately having that image restored to them is not only Biblical, it is the backbone of redemptive history:
When God created mankind, he made them in the likeness of God. He created them male and female and blessed them. When Adam had lived 130 years, he had a son in his own likeness, in his own image; and he named him Seth. [Gen. 5:1-3]
As was the earthly man, so are those who are of the earth; and as is the heavenly man, so also are those who are of heaven. And just as we have borne the image of the earthly man, so we shall bear the image of the heavenly man. [I Cor. 15:48-49]
But we all, who with unveiled faces contemplate the Lord’s glory, are being transformed into his image with ever-increasing glory, which comes from the Lord, who is the Spirit. [II Cor. 3:18]
So Seth was born in the image of his father, Adam, not in the image of God. That image was apparently passed on to all future humans, which is the curse that Paul mentions in Romans 5. Jesus, the second Adam, lived according to God’s original specifications for mankind, making it possible for others to be restored to God and transformed back to their natural state by the Holy Spirit.
Why does this perspective matter?
- If we believe that we are already in the image of God, it is easy to substitute God’s goals for our own. Rather than looking for transformed humans to inherit the earth through the redemptive work of Christ, being restored to their original specifications, we set our sights on the afterlife. That’s when things will be set right. This mentality can dull our efforts to pray, resist sin and engage with the Holy Spirit in this life, assuming that the ultimate solution is on the other side.
- If we continue to say things like, “to err is human,” or “I’m only human,” we will continue to think of humanity in derogatory, defeatist terms. From God’s perspective, humans are not just dirty caterpillars waiting for their heavenly wings, they are treasures to be unburied, cleaned off, and restored to their original beauty in the here and now.
- If we don’t recognize that Jesus is giving us an example of a normal human being, we will continue to misunderstand him. Rather than seeing a person living in proper submission to God by the Spirit, fulfilling the human mandate of image and dominion, we see a God-man in action, someone that can never truly be an example to the rest of us, not really.
How much of this can you agree with? Can you say that Adam was born in God’s image, but you were not? Or are you not ready to go that far? If not, why not?
What about Jesus? Am I selling him short?