This is an excerpt from my upcoming book, “King & Country: The Story That Changes Everything,” coming in summer 2017.
“Let us make man in our own image,” God says in Genesis 1:26. All other creatures formed on the fifth and sixth day were made “according to their kinds” (Genesis 1:21, 24, 25). That is, their reference frame is themselves; their meaning is found in their relation to each other; they group together and reproduce according to their similarities, not according to any higher order or purpose. But this new capstone of creation, mankind, is different. This time, the reference frame is not humanity itself, but humanity’s Maker. The scope and purpose of humanity is not defined by our species’ relationship with ourselves, but our species’ relationship to its Creator. That relationship, scope, and purpose is summed up in the phrase “in our own image.” Humanity is defined as image-bearers, marked with the stamp of divinity.
So what does the phrase “image of God” mean? Throughout Scripture, the concept of image-bearing boils down to two concepts: humans were created to be a reflection and representation of God. Most of what I’ve heard taught about “the image of God” centers around the first of those, that humans are a reflection of God. This means that human beings were created, distinct from the rest of creation, to mirror certain attributes of God. We are relational, communicative, creative, moral, spiritual beings, just like God. Our purpose is to be like mirrors, reflecting what God is like.
All of that is completely true, but we can’t stop there if we want to fully understand the phrase “image of God.” “Image of God” means more than just a reflection of God; it also means to be a representative of God. In ancient Middle Eastern culture—the culture in which Genesis was written—kings would often claim the title “image of God” for themselves, claiming as the basis of their rule that they were earthly representations of divinity. On the basis of their status as image-bearers, these kings could wield absolute authority over their subjects and rule with unlimited power. The shocking claim of Genesis 1 is that those kings were both right and wrong; they were right in claiming that they were earthly representations of divinity, but wrong in hoarding that privilege for themselves and in exercising that power outside of submission to the one true God. It is not only kings who are images of God, Genesis says. “God,” notes biblical scholar Bruce Waltke, “has called all humanity to be his vice-regents and high priests on earth.” Every human being is an image-bearer, an earthly representation of divinity and extension of his Trinitarian fullness, made to represent and spread the Creator’s benevolent rule over his creation.
The implications of this were monumental, and continue to be so. The proclamation that every human being is an image of God meant that kings could no longer claim divine prerogatives over their subjects. Indeed, Israel’s later monarchy was built on this novel presupposition: the king was not god, nor was he above God’s law. Authority did rest in his hands, but it did not originate in him, nor could he wield it with unaccountable impunity. This politically disruptive seed of “the image of God” germinated in Israel’s establishment of rule of law and later flowered into the notions of democracy and human rights that took hold in the Christian West. The radical assertion of America’s Declaration of Independence—a humanity “created equal and endowed by their Creator with certain unalienable rights”—flows in a direct line from the worldview of Genesis 1:26. Today, the vigorous efforts of the pro-life movement stand on the biblical foundation of image-bearing, insisting that human life inside the womb is valuable not because of its usefulness, but because in the veins of fetuses flows the royal blood of divine regents. The church’s awakening conscience, primarily among younger evangelicals, to the unjust social structures of our day—racism, poverty, inequality, etc.—is fueled by the insistence that to oppress those made in the image of God is to rebel against the reign of God expressed through their humanity. William Edgar, in his book Created & Creating, notes that “this concept [of image-bearing] is unique in any religion or any philosophy.” What this means is that much of the aspirations of the modern world—democracy, human rights, universal justice—hang on the slender thread of Genesis 1:26.
This regal identity should grip our hearts as we consider the true character of our friends, co-workers, family, and even enemies. If every human being was created as an image-bearer, God’s “vice-regents and high priests on earth,” then no matter how much the Fall has defaced that image, there is an awesome glory in the simple reality of being human. Our value is not found in what we do, but rather what we are—images of the Almighty, immortal representatives of his reign, commissioned to act on his behalf in his universe. C.S. Lewis captures the trembling wonder that should guide all our interactions:
“It is a serious thing to live in a society of possible gods and goddesses, to remember that the dullest and most uninteresting person you talk to may one day be a creature which, if you saw it now, you would be strongly tempted to worship, or else a horror and a corruption such as you now meet, if at all, only in a nightmare… There are no ordinary people. You have never talked to a mere mortal. Nations, cultures, arts, civilization—these are mortal, and their life is to ours as the life of a gnat. But it is immortals whom we joke with, work with, marry, snub, and exploit—immortal horrors or everlasting splendors.”
This is the weight we must carry with us each day, guiding what it means to joke or talk or love or hate those made in the image of God. To be an image-bearer means to be a representative of divinity, appointed to rule for him, endowed with a significance that can be seen most clearly in our immortality. Made in God’s indestructible image, we will outlast this universe. Stars will burn out, galaxies will disintegrate to dust, but you will remain, and your neighbors and co-workers will remain—as C.S. Lewis said, either “immortal horrors or everlasting splendors.” Truly, it is an awesome thing to be human.