Humanity, the Image-Bearers of God
You’ve most likely heard the phrase that humans are the image-bearers of God. The phrase comes from Genesis 1:26 where it declares that God made male and female in their (see my post on whether this is a hint about the Trinity) own image. The same idea is echoed by James and Paul in the New Testament. Some theologians, particularly in the Reformed camp, argue that the image of God is no longer a part of us, having been lost in “the Fall” so that we are now totally depraved. They would say that when James and Paul use the same language, it is because after and only after we have followed in the way of Christ have we taken on the image again. Therefore it is only this group of predestined believers who are image-bearers of God. I would argue that everyone is an image-bearer at their core but that we are broken to various degrees and that shaping our life like Jesus is fixing the breaks. Practically speaking, there isn’t going to a lot of difference in how we live our lives. Whichever side you’re on, there is still a gaping question: what does it mean to be in the image of God? Most quickly dismiss the intuitive idea that we are physically in the image of God since we can generally all agree that God is spirit and thus not physical, but here are some others which have been prominent throughout history as well as some more obscure ideas.
Reason and Consciousness
In times where reason was highly valued (the scholastic era in the 12th century and the Enlightenment), the image of God that we bear was often said to be our ability to reason. Since reason in these eras was held up as the ultimate virtue, it made sense to say that we received it from God. A similar option is that maybe it is our consciousness or self-awareness, something that other animals have little to none of. There isn’t really any biblical evidence for it – nothing that emphasizes reason the way that many in the modern era did – but it is, pardon the irony, reasonable to draw this conclusion.
The problem with this theory is this: what do we do with those who have mental disabilities and are thus unable to reason or be fully conscious? Are they less than image-bearers of God? Are they less than truly human? I’m sure many in history have thought exactly that and those with mental disabilities have rarely been treated as fully human. Most of us now, though, recoil at this thought and instinctively react that of course they are just as human and just as much the image-bearer of God as anybody else. The reason (there’s that word again) that we recoil is mainly because in the postmodern era we still consider reason to be important but not the ultimate end goal as those in the modern era did. We seem to intuitively know that there is something more to being human than just the ability to think and be self-aware.
Rulers of the Earth
The understanding which is most true to the context of the appearance of these words in Genesis is that we are created in the image of God because we are made to have dominion over the earth. God created the earth and is ultimately in charge of it, but he left us in control.
Unfortunately, historically this has been an abused idea as people took it as permission to do whatever they wanted to the earth because we have, after all, been given dominion over it. To me, though, we need to look at how God uses his dominion in order to see how we are supposed to do the same if we really are his image-bearers. God did not coronate his Kingdom by eliminating all of the opposition or even by threatening to. He coronated it by dying on a cross at the hands of those he rules over. God rules through forgiveness and loving service even to his enemies, not destruction. If we are to reign in the image of God, we should be treating the earth and each other the way that God would.
If we believe that God is innately a relational being, maybe this is what we also are in our image-bearing. I like this answer far more than the reason/consciousness answer because I think that our ability to relate is far more central to the character of God as well as to the character of humanity. If you’ve been a regular reader, you know that this is a theme I try hard to drive home: it all comes back to relationships. It doesn’t come back to thinking correctly, not even thinking correctly about God. It doesn’t come back to carrying out the right rituals, although religious rituals can be advantageous for strengthening relationships with God and others. Relationship is something far more beautiful and something far more complex than any of those things, and humans as God’s image-bearers have both the capacity and the natural inclination to do build strong relationships.
The Idol of God
Here’s a far more intriguing idea that you likely won’t hear preached, though. The word translated most commonly as image is actually the same Hebrew word as “statue” or “idol.” For this to make much sense, I probably need to clear up a common misconception: ancient Near Eastern religions did not worship idols. An idol was a physical representation of the god, but they understood that the physical item was not the same thing as the god being worshipped. It is analogous to how Eastern churches will use icons of Jesus to help them focus their worship. Israel was unique in not allowing physical representations of their god Yahweh, so I have to ask the question: what if we were meant to be the idols of Yahweh, the physical representation of a spiritual reality to help others see God? I don’t have a clue if this is what the author of Genesis meant of course, but it is consistent with the New Testament. In the New Testament, this idea is often represented with other language including being Christ’s ambassadors or the church as the body of Christ.
Regardless of whether it was the idea which the Genesis author was going for, it definitely does capture an important idea. Whichever of these views you think they were talking about, there’s no doubt that this is our goal as Christians: be a physical representation of Jesus in our time and place. This following Jesus and being conformed to his image is essentially what discipleship is, after all.