Then God said, “Let us make man in our image, in our likeness, and let them rule over the fish of the sea and the birds of the air, over the livestock, over all the earth, and over all the creatures that move along the ground.”

So God created man in his own image,
in the image of God he created him;
male and female he created them.

God blessed them and said to them, “Be fruitful and increase in number; fill the earth and subdue it. Rule over the fish of the sea and the birds of the air and over every living creature that moves on the ground.” (Genesis 1:26-28)

God made the man and the woman to be His representatives, ruling the earth as His royal vassals, with and under His authority [1]; and given the respective sizes of humans and of the earth, it seems logical that God’s intent extends to the rest of us [2].

What is the image?
As God is spirit (John 4:24) the image isn’t anything physical. If it were, it would mean God had a physical body, which is what the Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints teaches [3]. Yes, Jesus does have a physical body – He has bound an unfallen human nature inextricably to Himself – but before creation was brought into existence, human nature wasn’t part of Jesus’ being. God created humanity, so Jesus could not have had a human nature (and specifically, a physical body) before that nature was created [4].

If God did have a physical body as the Mormons claim, wouldn’t it be at least possible that those who were more physically alike to God would be more holy – more acceptable to God? If God had an aquiline nose, green eyes, brown hair, short legs and hairy shoulders, shouldn’t those who are physically similar be considered as more pleasing to God? Pride would raise its racist head.

To make us fit for the task, God created us in His image: He gave us all the qualities we would need to relate to Him and to the world. These qualities constitute the imago dei, the image of God. The image is intangible: it comprises God’s communicable attributes, such as the ability to be rational, creative, emotional and volitional; and particularly to relate to others; to be loving, merciful and just.

The result of bearing the image.

The idea of humans being God’s representative has a parallel in the Ancient Near East. The king would set up statues of himself as markers of the fact that he ruled, ok. For example, in Daniel chapter 2, King Nebuchadnezzar had a recurring dream about a statue with a head of gold, chest of silver, nether regions of bronze, legs of iron and feet of mixed iron and clay. Daniel interpreted the king’s dream, telling Nebuchadnezzar that the kingdom of Babylon – or that Nebuchadnezzar himself – was the head of gold; his was the greatest of earthly kingdoms.

In the next chapter we read that Nebuchadnezzar set up a statue made of gold; probably it was hollow or gilded. It’s difficult to avoid the impression that the statue was a result of Daniel’s interpretation of the king’s dream, and it was almost certainly an effigy of Nebuchadnezzar himself. Being told by God that you are the king of the greatest human kingdom ever must have been a bit of an ego boost. So when Hananiah, Mishael and Azariah (more popularly known as Shadrach, Meshach and Abed-Nego) refused to bow down to the statue, essentially refusing to give Nebuchadnezzar the divine honour that he seemed to believe he deserved, no wonder the king got stroppy and ordered a serve of broiled Judahites.

Every human being bears the image of God: Christians, atheists, Bah’ais; male and female; kings, drug dealers; everyone from Mother Teresa to Mao Tse Tung. As you might infer, the consequences of this are both uplifting and disturbing. It means we should treat everyone with respect and courtesy, even those we detest or despise. It means we should seek what is best for them. Perhaps that’s why Jesus made the connection between loving others and loving God:

Jesus replied: “‘Love the Lord your God with all your heart and with all your soul and with all your mind.’ This is the first and greatest commandment. And the second is like it: ‘Love your neighbor as yourself.’ All the Law and the Prophets hang on these two commandments.” (Matthew 22:37-40)

John made a similar point:

If anyone says, “I love God,” yet hates his brother, he is a liar. For anyone who does not love his brother, whom he has seen, cannot love God, whom he has not seen. (1 John 4:20)

Understanding that we bear the image of God affects how we view ourselves and others. This knowledge also reveals the gravity of sin. After the Flood, God told Noah:

And from each man, too, I will demand an accounting for the life of his fellow man.

Whoever sheds the blood of man,
by man shall his blood be shed;
for in the image of God
has God made man. (Genesis 9:6)

Whether God means this is what will happen or what should happen, these verses show that murder is a capital crime; not because of the intrinsic worth of human life, but because murder is an attack on God by proxy. More than this, when we hurt anyone in any way, it’s an act of disrespect for God. Even if we don’t realise or intend it, that’s what it is. I can’t think of a more important basis of human dignity than that! James wrote: “With the tongue with praise our Lord and Father, and with it we curse men, who have been made in God’s likeness. Out of the same mouth come praise and cursing. My brothers, this should not be.” (James 3:9-10)

Being made in the image of God means that we should act towards all people – including ourselves – as Jesus did.

[1] When “man” is used to refer to both male and female, it is the collective noun; therefore it is singular and in the rules of grammar will take the singular, male pronoun. If God had chosen to reveal Himself using feminine words, this would not mean that only female humans were created in God’s image.
Vassal doesn’t necessarily mean puppet: to rule as God’s representatives allowed humanity their own freedom of action as long as they followed God’s word in wilful dependence. Jesus for example, lived in perfect dependence on God the Father, yet there is no way He could be termed a puppet king!

[2] Although Adam and Eve were private individuals, their relationship to God in the text seems mostly vicarious: they represent all people, as our biological parents and as our legal and actual proxies. If God imputes their guilt to us, as one interpretation of Romans 5:12-21 asserts, it’s because we would have done the same thing if we had been in their position. Yes, we would have: think about it.

[3] The Mormons.

[4] While God is infinite, creation had a beginning. Time is relative: it refers to one thing in relation to another. When we speak of 2 pm, we mean the moment of time that indicates the position of the sun two hours after it reaches its zenith. When we tell someone ‘during the ads’ we mean the time when the show has temporarily gone off the air so that we can be invited to buy things that some people think we need. Similarly we can speak of ‘before creation’ and ‘after creation’, because there was when creation was not. But what was, when creation was not? A time? That’s what we’d normally say, and it’s fine for almost all purposes. But that blurs our comprehension of what was before creation. We imagine time stretching farther and farther and farther backwards. Even words like ‘infinity’ and ‘eternity’ make us think of unending space and unending time. It’s difficult to imagine existence without both. But back to the point: creation had a beginning but God did not. And another question: what about angels? Surely they are also created in God’s image? They are sentient beings, more powerful than we are, with an appreciation of God’s attributes. However, the Bible doesn’t say whether they are also in God’s image; we usually infer they aren’t.

copyright 2007 Troy Grisgonelle