Made in the image of God: What does it mean and why does it matter?Written by Subby Szterszky
What's inside this article
Imago Dei. It’s Latin theological shorthand for the image of God, the core Christian doctrine that humanity, unique among the entire created order, was fashioned by God distinctly in His own image and after His own likeness. It’s a teaching that echoes throughout Scripture and is anchored in the opening chapter of Genesis:
Then God said, “Let us make man in our image, after our likeness. And let them have dominion over the fish of the sea and over the birds of the heavens and over the livestock and over all the earth and over every creeping thing that creeps on the earth.” So God created man in His own image, in the image of God He created him; male and female He created them (Genesis 1:26-27).
But what precisely does it mean to be made in the image of God? And what are its practical implications for how we view the world and live our lives in our own cultural context?
What it does not mean
It may be best to begin by clarifying what the doctrine does not mean. Skeptics have at times disparaged and twisted it, suggesting that it’s in fact Christians who’ve made God in their own image, not the other way around. They’ll point to depictions of God in medieval and Renaissance art, such as Michelangelo’s Creation of Adam on the ceiling of the Sistine Chapel. These images typically portray God as an older white man with long grey hair and beard, a severe patriarchal figure not unlike Norse mythology’s Odin, only with both eyes intact.
Although this may be a gross caricature of how most Christians think of God, the criticism is not entirely without merit. The truth is that all people, including Christians, have a strong tendency to “make God in our image” – to domesticate and reduce Him to human proportions. The Scriptures refer to this as the sin of idolatry. It makes no difference whether we create physical objects of worship, as in paganism, or whether we distort God in our mind to be someone we can better comprehend, control and feel more comfortable around.
This is Imago Dei turned on its head, because in many of the most fundamental ways, God is nothing like us. He is spirit without a physical body, having always existed, all-knowing, all-powerful, transcending His creation and yet present everywhere and at all times simultaneously. Clearly we’re not made in the image of God in any of these senses.
Nevertheless, God has made us to be like Him in a number of key ways, that we might reflect and represent Him within His created order.
As God’s representatives, humans have been given authority over the physical realm. The Biblical term is dominion, although many moderns are uncomfortable with that word’s connotations, preferring to speak of stewardship instead. However, the two concepts are inextricably linked. We’re not to be environmental despots, raping and ruining the natural world to suit our whim. But neither are we to act as if we’re not distinct from the rest of creation, with no right to change or use it. We’re to care for and develop the physical resources God has entrusted to us in ways that will honour Him and benefit others.
Everything in the cosmos has value because it was made by God. But since human beings bear God’s image, we possess an innate value beyond anything else in the created order. This is why every human life, regardless of its relative potential or accomplishments, is sacred from the moment of conception to the moment of death. It’s also why virtually every culture throughout history has recognized murder as the highest crime one can commit against another. To harm or destroy another person is to assault the image of God in that person.
Although God is neither male nor female in the biological sense, He exists as a Trinity, one God in three Persons – Father, Son and Holy Spirit – each equally God while fulfilling complementary roles within the Godhead. Likewise, He has created humanity in two discrete, complementary genders, both equally bearing the image of God. Consequently, and contrary to secular opinion, genuine Biblical Christianity affords women a higher degree of dignity and respect than any other worldview, past or present.
Unlike the divine conceptions of pantheism and Eastern religions – as well as popular entertainment – God is not an impersonal force or the universe expressing itself through various means. God is a person with mind, will and emotions. He is self-aware and purposeful. In the same way, He has granted humans personhood, uniquely so in all of His creation. Like God, we’re self-aware. We have thoughts about our thoughts. We perceive our location in time and space. We remember our past and anticipate our future. We have feelings independent of basic physical needs. We’re volitional, desiring and making free choices that aren’t pre-programmed by instinct or circumstance.
God is holy, righteous and good. Concepts such as truth, justice, right and wrong only have meaning with relation to God, and only exist because God framed reality that way, in order to reflect His own moral nature. Unlike any other physical creature He made, God has fitted humans with the capacity to perceive that moral aspect of creation. Moreover, He has given us the ability to make moral choices for which we’re accountable to Him. This differentiates us from the animals, which merely follow instinct and are thus not moral agents.
The heavens declare the glory of God, as does all of His creation. God is a God of beauty and creativity, who loves to express Himself through the unity and diversity of all that He has made. And He has imparted something of His remarkable creative facility to His human image bearers. To be sure, we don’t create as God does, out of nothing. But we’ve been granted that ineffable aesthetic ability to perceive, appreciate and create good and beautiful things by organizing and shaping the resources God has provided. This gives value to art and learning and all legitimate forms of cultural expression.
God didn’t make us because He was lonely and needed something to do. He is totally self-sufficient, and within the Trinity, the three Persons of the Godhead have enjoyed a perfect, loving relationship from eternity past and will continue to do so forever. Therefore, being made in God’s image means we were built for relationship. At our core, our most fundamental need is to love and be loved – in a word, to belong. Ultimately, God made us in His image so that we might glorify Him and enjoy eternal, intimate, loving relationship with Him.
Being made in the image of God is not some abstract theological concept. It provides the basis for how we understand and approach every area of life. Our view of human nature, how we treat people and the environment, the value we place on human life and human culture, are all grounded in our understanding of Imago Dei. In a secular world that has largely jettisoned the concept, it’s vital that we develop our ability to articulate and defend it, as well as apply it to the specific challenges being brought to bear within our society.
© 2018 Focus on the Family (Canada) Association. All rights reserved.
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