Shuck and Jive

Thursday, October 04, 2007

The Image of God

(Conversations with Bob! Sprightly yet tantalizingly smooth. Here's Bob!)

One of the basic affirmations of the Bible, (although it isn’t mentioned all that frequently) is that humans are created in the image of God. In fact when referring to humans in general and not to Jesus Christ the term is only used once, in Genesis 1. It says:

26Then God said, “Let us make humankind in our image, according to our likeness; and let them have dominion over the fish of the sea, and over the birds of the air, and over the cattle, and over all the wild animals of the earth, and over every creeping thing that creeps upon the earth.”

27 So God created humankind in his image,

in the image of God he created them;

male and female he created them.

Let’s start with the science. If we believe that humans descended from a series of proto humans, and before that from other life forms back to one celled organisms, as the evidence suggests, one has to ask just when did humans become the image of God. The short answer is, who knows? Nevertheless, I think the belief that humans are created in the image of God is a necessary belief. Let me explain.

I’m going to argue backwards, from ethics to theology to anthropology, not the best way to prove a point but I’m not trying to prove that humans are created in the image of God. I am asserting it as a matter of faith.

I think the assertion that humans are created in the image of God is a necessary, indeed vital faith statement. For too long, in fact throughout most of human history, humans have treated the other, the human that is different, as sub human. We certainly see this in the Nazi’s treatment of Jews, as well as Christian persecution of Jews throughout most of the past two millennia. We see this in the slavery of people from Africa over the past 500 years. We see this in our current war in Iraq and in the Vietnam War. Even in World War II American propaganda portrayed the Japanese as sub human. This allowed us to fire bomb Tokyo and kill over 100,000 people in one night. And yes, what happened in Johnson City, Tennessee over the past couple of days is also an example. We can publish the names of people accused of a crime on the front page of the newspaper because, after all, they were allegedly committing homosexual acts.

I affirm that humans, all humans, are created in the image of God. That means that whenever we look at anyone, no matter how we feel about that particular person, no matter what that person may or may not have done, that person deserves respect. We should see that person as one who bears the image of God. That means we have to look past what we see and past our prejudices and see the image of God in that person. That means we have to love and honor that person. There can be no stereotyping. People individually and collectively must be treated with love and care. This means that the following are the very least that we must do:

  1. We shall not kill the image of God. I include in this both abortion and capital punishment.
  2. We must listen to the other, particularly if we disagree with the other.
  3. We cannot treat people as groups but must take people as individuals.
  4. We must be very, very careful when we think about going to war. Frankly I would rather be a pacifist, but see the need for national defense in a fallen world. But we rush too quickly to war, not thinking through the very real and agonizing questions that must be asked when we make the decision to go to war. The questions asked about just war by Augustine should be send us into a careful process, not a quick checklist. Here’s a question for you: was the American Revolution a just war? My opinion is, not by Augustine’s standards.
  5. When we do think of people as groups we must see the image of God in every person in the group.
  6. Prisoners are all created in the image of God. The American prison system ignores the image of God in prisons and dehumanizes them. Even when someone does something that is terribly wrong that person still images God, not by what they have done wrong but simply because they are human.
  7. Intelligence or the lack thereof does not have anything to do with being created in the image of God. People with Down’s Syndrome are created in the image of God.

Just what does it mean to be created in the image of God? I think there are two aspects that we find in the Genesis passage. To be created in the image of God is to be created for community. While we can see this in human behavior, (we need to get together), the Genesis passage points to our need for community by saying that God created us male and female. God made us the same but different from each other, thus saying that we need each other.

The other aspect is that of dominion or stewardship. God created us to care for creation. John you keep insisting on the need to take care of planet Earth before it is too late. I suggest that such care is part of the very essence of what it means to be created in the image of God. Just as God is creator, so we are those who are created to care for the parts of God creation that come under our influence. No, we don’t have responsibility for the sun, (at least not yet) but we do have responsibility for the ocean. We are over fishing and thereby bringing some species close to extinction. The plastic holders for six packs kill turtles and dolphins. The list goes on and on. We are not caring for God’s creation and we soon will pay the price.

Now the big question: when did humans receive the image of God? Was Australopihecus afarensis created in the image of God? My answer is, how should I know? I am certain that Homo sapiens are created in the image of God. Before that I don’t have a clue. The scientific record isn’t going to tell us and the Bible isn’t going to tell us for two reasons: the writers/editors of the Bible had no idea about pre Homo sapiens and the writers/editors of the Bible were writing for the people of their time, not to provide an anthropological study of human or any other species.

In other words I don’t think science can prove to us that humans are created in the image of God and I don’t think the Bible can tell us when humans were endowed with the image of God. And while the past interests me it is our present treatment of each other that I find most important. We can’t fix the past. We can change the way we treat each other now.

I affirm that God created humans in the image of God.

Grace and Peace



  1. It is impossible, at this time, for me to accept that God created man in "His image" for the following reasons:

    1)If we're to stick to the text as it's read in common English, God said "our" image. Not "my" image. He said let "us" create.
    Who are the others that God calls his equals? (if you say angels that's it for your credibility) Lost in translation? Fabricated by the Hebrews for lack of a better explanation? Kinda like Adam and Eve. I can hear it now.....

    "Hey, Moses! Where did we come from?"

    " (you see, Moses didn't know anything about chromosomes, cells, DNA, etc)
    Well...there was this man and this woman and they had relations and gave birth to the entire human mongoloid race". "They were the first two people on earth". (even thought the Bible clearly states otherwise)

    Got a year or two to discuss it? :)

    Semantics aside,

    2) If God is great and perfect, man is obviously not created in his image because man is evil to the core. I doubt that God would stop with the physical resemblance and forsake the perfection of the spirit.
    It would be more logical to say Satan created man and God saved him by installing the holy spirit.

    Also, who overheard this conversation between God and His stated equals? If no one was there but God and company I think it would be difficult for man to recount the instance.

    I caution against accepting the early chapters of Genesis as literal. They are clearly flawed to begin with.

    Jesus said "God is Spirit". I'll stick with that for now. After all, which is more important? The flesh or the spirit housed within?

  2. Interesting response. Let's see . . . I don't buy that Moses wrote, transcribed or whatevered the Pentateuch. The subtitles were added long after the text was put in it's final edited form. Personally I think the JEP theory is a good place to start.

    Second, while the editor(s) of Genesis put two creation accounts in they are rather different types of literature or maybe I should say different ways of talking about creation, one a poem and the other a legend. In any case the original authors had different intentions in the writing of the two accounts. So I don't think one should talk about Adam and Eve in relation to Genesis 1. Please notice I tried to leave enough gap between the scientific evidence and the Biblical accounts.

    Now as to your concern about the use of the plural in account of the creation of humans in Genesis 1: interesting, isn't it? Before this God simply speaks and whatever God names comes into being. In the section about the creation of humans God speaks not only as an act of creation but also uses the plural, as you have pointed out. There are several proposed possibilities. I list them in order of least probable to more probable:

    1. We have an early indication of the Trinity. Highly unlikely, right? This suggests that God dictated the Bible and whoever recorded this passage didn't have a clue as to what God meant. One of my basic principles of interpretation is that it had to make sense to the people who heard the story/poem/whatever. Let's toss this one out.

    2. God is using the "royal we." Royalty, at least in English, sometimes refer to themselves in the plural, like the legendary, and unlikely line attributed to Victoria: "We are not amused." My problem with this possibility is that I don't have any clue as to whether ancient middle eastern monarchs used the plural to talk about themselves. Anyone out there know?

    3. God was talking to God's royal court. Yep, these would probably be angels. This doesn't suggest that those in the court were equals. Rather that God was announcing what God was going to do to the other members of the court.

    It is a curious change from the earlier speeches of God in the poem, isn't it?

    As to human evil, I haven't gotten around to talking about sin yet. That actually is my next intended post unless John says something that I want to respond to. So let's take the writer of the poem at his/her word at this point and believe that what God has created, including humans, is very good.

    Finally, the division of humans into body, soul and spirit is not a Hebrew idea. Hebrews saw humans as unitive. The Greeks wanted to divide humans into body and spirit, partly because they saw the body as less than ideal.

    God is a spirit. Humans are creatures who have bodies but who are also made in the image of God.

    I don't have my Bruggeman commentary with me right now so I might add more later.

  3. Nice post Bob and very nice follow up. The note about the Hebrew concept of unified body rather than a greek body/soul dualism is very important.

  4. "We cannot treat people as groups but must take people as individuals" (Bob)

    Now this is worth more depth of looking into. I am guessing the idea of a communal society (like the one I am from) would make little sense t this thinking - and actually - the Jewish people were treated a 'community' by the prophets. It's strange to understand unless you come from a community that places interest in the 'whole' as a higher value than the 'individual' (in some senses).

  5. societyvs

    You are correct, I should have written more carefully. My concern is that we often label and discriminate against people because they are part of a particular group. Yes, a vital part of being human is being part of the community.

  6. Thanks Bob!

    You wrote:

    "I affirm that humans, all humans, are created in the image of God. That means that whenever we look at anyone, no matter how we feel about that particular person, no matter what that person may or may not have done, that person deserves respect. We should see that person as one who bears the image of God."

    Beautifully stated. Thanks again.

  7. tn420

    Finally got around to looking at commentaries. Curiously Bruggeman had nothing to say about the use of the plural by God. Gordon Wenham did point out an interesting detail. While God uses the word "we" the verb for creation is in the singular. Thus God is making an announcement to the heavenly court, (the angels) about God is going to do.

    This surprised me! I checked the Hebrew and Wenham is correct. The verb for create is singular while "in our image" has a plural suffix. Go figure!