“Then God said, ‘Let us make mankind in our image, in our likeness, so that they may rule over the fish in the sea and the birds in the sky, over the livestock and all the wild animals, and over all the creatures that move along the ground.’ So God created mankind in his own image, in the image of God he created them; male and female he created them” (Genesis 1:26 NIV).
The creation of man in the image of God is central to Judaism and Christianity. This view of humanity permeates all of scripture from Old Testament to New, and is the foundation for the ethical and moral teachings of the Bible. James bemoans those who praise God with the mouth and then “curse men, who have been made in God’s likeness” (James 3:9 NIV) with the same mouth.
But what did the author mean when he says, “God created mankind in his own image”? I’m most familiar with three different views. I see each of them as deficient and would like to explain why before giving a very different view of “man as divine image.” (1) Some see this as a result of the anthropomorphic view of God—man looks like he does because God looks like this. (2) Some Christians claim it refers to the spiritual dimension of man, because just as God is spirit, man has a spirit. (3) Some take this further, even using a tri-partite division of humans (spirit, soul and body) as a representation of the Trinity (Father, Son and Holy Spirit).
First, let’s discuss the anthropomorphic view. It was quite common among the ancients to view their gods as being like humans—with eyes, arms, legs, fingers, toes, and gender. Many believe this is what the author of Genesis 1 meant. Is the author claiming Adam looked like YHWH? I would say this is unlikely, because while the cultures around did see their gods as being humanoid in appearance, they were not always cast in a humanoid image. Many of the ancient gods were displayed in mixed images, with human bodies and animal heads, or simply as animals. We actually see an attempt in the Old Testament to represent YHWH—the God who delivered Israel from Egypt—as a golden calf. In Exodus 32, during the absence of Moses, the people demanded Aaron to give them a god (Exodus 32:1). Aaron collected their jewelry and used it to cast a golden calf. He even tells them that this idol represents the god who delivered them out of Egypt (Exodus 32:4). He goes on to tell them, “Tomorrow there will be a festival to the LORD” (Exodus 325 NIV). It is often believed that Aaron gave them another god, as an act of idolatry. However, keep in mind that Aaron was not punished as the people were, but still served as High Priest. This tells us there was something different from Aaron’s act in this and the people’s act. The people demanded a god or gods. Aaron gave them an idol but tells them the idol is the god who delivered them from Egypt and dedicates a feast to the LORD. Note that Lord is all caps. This is because the Hebrew word is YHWH. The people cared little for whom they would worship. They just wanted a god to worship and protect them. Aaron sought to give them what they wanted, while staying faithful to YHWH. He tried to represent YHWH as a calf. In other words, Aaron erroneously set up an image of YHWH for the people. This will be important when we look back at the image of God—man.
Another explanation is that the image of God is meant to refer to the spiritual nature of man. Just as God is a spirit, man became a living spirit. People will often quote the King James Version of Genesis 2:7, “and man became a living soul.” Actually this really only says that this was how man came to life, and nothing about his spiritual condition. Most modern translations of this passage simply say that in this way man became a living creature or a living being. Those who try to defend this position will claim this shows man as different from animals because humans have spirits and animals do not. However, I don’t think there is enough evidence in scripture to definitely support this contention. I’m not saying it is possible animals have spirits or that humans are nothing but higher animals. What I am saying is that there is insufficient evidence that the ancients, to whom God gave Genesis, believed animals had no spirits. Ecclesiastes 3:18-21 shows that both man and animal have the same breath and both die. Solomon even ends that passage with doubts about whether the spirits of man and animal have different fates. Keep in mind, that Ecclesiastes was written to express doubts, and is not an exposition of salvation or even of the spiritual realm. It does however show us that there had not been full revelation of salvation and the afterlife. Much of this was not given until the inspiration of the New Testament. However, it does show that some of the ancients believed animals and humans both had spirits. I am not saying they do, but only recording what it appears some of them believed. There is no reason to believe that being made in the image of God refers to the spirit of man, or is meant as setting apart man as a spiritual being.
The final view to consider is the contention that this is based on the tri-partite division of man (body, soul and spirit) as an image of the triunity of God (Father, Son and Holy Spirit). However, there is no reason to believe this is what is meant by man being the image of God. While the Triune nature of the godhead is easy to defend from the whole of scripture, there is no reason to believe this concept would have meant anything to the believers prior to the revelation of the New Testament. To use this as a reference to the Trinity is to re-interpret it in a way that renders it meaningless to the original readers.
There is, in my opinion, a far better view of the creation of man as the image of God. This view is based upon the culture of the time and what the original readers would have thought when considering the term “image of God.” When the ancients spoke of an image of a god they were speaking about the physical representation of the god. This was usually in the form of a man-made idol, but in some religions other things might represent the god. Of course, you have to understand when the ancients worshipped before an idol they were not actually worshipping the clay, stone, metal or wood object. They were worshipping the god represented by the image through interaction with the image. To offer food to the god, they placed it before the idol. To offer valuable garments to the god, they dressed the idol. To anoint the god, they anointed the idol.
Genesis 1:26 implies this view of man as his image when God says, “Let us make man in our image that he may rule over [the rest of creation].” He didn’t say, “Let’s make man that he may rule.” Our ruling upon the earth is part of our place as the image of God. This does not mean God was creating us as little gods. Neither does it mean that man is worthy of worship, or that the animals would worship God through veneration of mankind. What it does mean is that man was created, in his pre-fall condition, as the representation of God upon the earth. God would rule the universe through the creature he placed over creation—his image, humanity.
The implications of this are far more ethical than metaphysical. Attempts to make “made in the image of God” as a metaphysical statement in emulation of the spiritual nature of God or of the Trinity are stretching at best. We actually gain two realities from a representative view of man as the image of God. The first is the reality that man was created to rule the universe as God’s representative—as caretakers of God’s creation. In this way, we were meant to be God’s agents in the universe. The second is the ethical reality. The way we treat our fellow man is the way we treat God. We interact with God through interaction with our fellow man. When we love our fellow man, we are loving God. When we hatefully abuse our fellow man we are hatefully abusing God.
When God revealed to Moses that we were created to be his image upon the earth, he was removing any possibility of setting up idols to represent him. Just like it was believed the ancient gods inspired workmen to create an idol and in this way the god had chosen his or her own representation, the God of Moses has shown that he ordained his representation upon the earth. No other representative of him would suffice. God gave us a location in the world where we could interact with him. This location for interaction with the divine, in our pre-fallen state, was our fellow man. Had we not fallen (the implications built into this statement are mindboggling at best), this human agency would not have replaced our personal interaction with God, but likely would have been an outgrowth of it. It is the fall that ripped this blessed agency from us. It is the fall that made us no longer a fitting representation of God. The fall made us a shadow of what we were meant to be. Because of the fall, God had to ordain another representative of himself and other ways for us to interact with Him—such as the tabernacle, the covenantal ark, the temple and finally the perfect son of God.
While we no longer represent God perfectly as his image upon the earth (though with the indwelling Holy Spirit given by Christ we are growing back into that image), one part of our status as the image of God has always remained. The way I behave toward my fellow human is actually how I behave toward God. When I love another, I love God. When I hate another, I hate God. What I do to my fellow man, I do to God. Sins against the person beside me are sins against the God of heaven.
To recognize the image of God in our fellowman is to recognize that behavior towards him or her is behavior towards God. It is to see our sins against another person as not only equal, but identical, to sins against God Most High. You want to love God, love your fellow man.