God said: “Let us make mankind in our image.” (Gen 1:26)
Many of us will know what the image of God does. The image of God gives us dignity as humans. It marks us out as different from animals. The image of God means that humans have a special place in God’s creation.
That’s what the image of God does. But what is the image of God? How would you finish this sentence: the image of God is _______.
A number of Christian thinkers throughout the centuries have answered that question differently. Let’s look at two possible answers and see if they stack up with what the Bible says.
The image of God and our minds
Augustine was a theologian who lived and wrote during the fourth-century AD. He proposed that the image of God is humanity’s capacity for reason and rationality—being able to think. Here’s what he said: “Surely not in the body, but in that same mind, was man made after the image of God.”
There’s something really helpful about what Augustine says. As humans, we have a unique ability to think and use our minds to make sense of the world. We write books, explore space and analyse economies. Enlightenment thinkers of the eighteenth-century emphasised the importance of the mind. René Descartes famously said: “I think, therefore I am.” If you’re someone who values thinking and the mind, you might resonate with what Augustine says about the image of God being humanity’s capacity for reason.
But there are some problems with what Augustine says. Firstly, the Bible teaches that the body matters, not just the mind. Jesus was raised from the dead with a real, physical body (e.g. John 20–21). Our bodies matter, not just our minds. Secondly, what about people who are intellectually handicapped? Do they have less of the image of God? The Bible teaches that all people are made in the image of God, regardless of their intellectual ability (Gen 9:6; 1 Cor 11:7).
The image of God and our work
More recently, some thinkers have suggested that the image of God is humanity’s ability to work, create and have dominion over the rest of creation. They want to say that the image of God is something functional—it’s something we do. They get this from the connection between “image” and “dominion” in Genesis 1:26 where God says, “Let us make man in our image… let them have dominion over all the earth.”
Defining the image of God as humanity’s ability to work and create is helpful in some ways. As humans, we are unique in our ability to build cities, create energy and grow corporations. This is true now more than ever. In the 1970’s, Paul Crutzen suggested that the current geological epoch be called the “Anthropocene” due to our ever-increasing impact upon the Earth.
But there are also some problems with this way of thinking about the image of God as something functional. Do we lose the image of God if we stop working and creating? What if someone isn’t able to work? Do they have less of the image of God? The message of Genesis 1–2 is that the high point of creation is not work, but rest (Gen 2:1–3).
The image of God and …?
What is the image of God? Augustine said that it’s our capacity to think. Others have said it’s our ability to work and create. There’s something to learn from each of these answers, but neither of them seems to properly stack up with what the Bible teaches about the image of God.
This coming Sunday at Grace City Church, we will be thinking into the image of God together and we’ll discover that the image of God is the way in which humanity is like God in a way that nothing else is. Put simply, the image of God is being like God.
We’ll look at three pieces of evidence:
- The connection between “image” and “likeness” in Genesis 1:26.
- The fact that Seth is born after the “image” and “likeness” of his father, Adam (Gen 5:1–3).
- The fact that Jesus Christ is the true and perfect image of God because he is perfectly like God—and not just like God, he is God (e.g. Col 1:15–20).