I love tough questions.
“Is a newly fertilized embryo human?”
“Were Neanderthals human?”
“If Adam and Eve lived over 100,000 years ago, what does that say about the Bible?”
And, one of my favorites: “What would you do with your faith in Jesus if aliens suddenly showed up?”
All of these particular questions deal with something called the ‘Image of God.’ How we understand and apply this little phrase has a huge impact on how we, as Christians, answer these tough questions. To hold positions on any of these questions, or to make culturally relevant arguments on issues like abortion, euthanasia, or even aliens, it is crucial to understand what being made in the ‘Image of God’ actually means.
The first thing we need to figure out is what ‘image’ means.
The English translation of “image” comes from the Hebrew word צֶלֶם, or tselem (tseh’-lem), which originates from a root meaning to shade. Tselem is a noun that is “a phantom”, an “illusion”, or a “resemblance.” This word is used to denote a representative figure like an idol.
Now in Hebrew, which is a much richer language than English, it is wise to hold all of these ideas in your head and then apply the context to see how it’s best used. To list several examples of how the word is used:
- Mankind is said to be made in the tselem of God (Gen. 1:26,27).
- Adam had a son, Seth, that was in his tselem (Gen. 5:3). This word, interestingly, is not used for Cain or Abel… or any other children Adam might’ve had (a footnote in my Josephus’ Antiquities of the Jews says 33 sons and 23 daughters… that’s, like, a whole basketball league… anyway…)
- The Israelites are commanded to destroy the molten tselem (idols) that they find when they invade the promised land (Num. 33:52).
- The Philistines decided to offer golden tselem (statues) of mice and towers to the God of Israel because He was wreaking havoc on their gods and people after they stole the Ark of the Covenant (1 Sam. 6:5, 11).
- Ba’al, Moloch, and Chiun (all Canaanite deities) had their own tselem (statues) (2 Kings 11:18, 2 Chron. 23:17, Amos 5:26).
- The Psalmist describes people’s lives as but a breath, that they struggle in vain for riches that someone else will claim, and that they walk around as tselem (shadows) (Ps. 39:6).
So, going back to Genesis 1, if we take in all of this data, humans are said to be statues/phantoms/illusions/resemblances/representatives of God. In other words, we are clearly not God (the shadow/illusion idea), but are extremely closely associated with, and direct representatives of, the Creator.
This proclamation of God’s intent to create “imagers” is immediately followed in Gen. 1:26 by a declaration of humanity’s job description: to rule the Earth and all the creatures in it. God freely gives humanity the job which is rightfully His, to be rulers of Earth and its fish, birds, livestock, and scurrying/crawling animals (interestingly, not other imagers) in His stead! As John Walton might say based on my understanding of his work in The Lost World of Genesis One and The Lost World of Adam and Eve, we are to extend God’s wise order throughout the Earth in His name. To “image” God, if we put in verb form, is to act in His stead over the Earth and all the animals in it.
Notice, however, that imaging God comes first and does not equate with the task of ruling. It is not the job that defines us; our occupation is a natural consequence of our ontology (the nature of our existence). Imaging God is a status granted by virtue of our very existence, and this status as humans cannot be taken away. There are no other requirements other than just… to be. This will be important later.
Let “Us” Make Man…
The second thing to consider when we discuss this is…
To whom is God talking, exactly?
This is very interesting.
The classic ‘image of God’ text comes from Genesis 1:26 and 27.
26 Then God said, “Let Us make man in Our image, according to Our likeness. They will rule the fish of the sea, the birds of the sky, the livestock, all the earth, and the creatures that crawl on the earth.”
27 So God created man in His own image; He created him in the image of God; He created them male and female. (HCSV)
You may have noticed right off the bat that the editors of the Holman Christian Standard Version, which is the translation I usually prefer, have chosen to capitalize ‘Us’ and ‘Our’ in v. 26. These editors believed the best translation of the Hebrew here indicates that members of the Trinity were talking amongst Themselves (ie, the Son talking with the Father) as He describes what He is about to do. I understand this view, as this is the one that I held for a long time.
However, much to my shock, it just ain’t so.
In The Unseen Realm on page 39, Dr. Michael Heiser unpacks this position. He states that all other instances in the Bible of “divine plurality involve divine beings who are lesser than Yahweh.” If you put the Trinity in Genesis 1:26, you’d really mess up your Christian theology. For instance, if you read the Trinity into every instance of divine plurality afterward according to the principle of first mention, you end up making members of the Trinity do things that deserve capital punishment (ie, Psalm 82)… yikes!!
Furthermore, while Jews had an inkling of the Two-ness of God at the time the Old Testament was written and compiled, they did not conceptualize a trinitarian view of God. A plain reading of this ‘us’ and ‘our’ stuff would be that God was clearly talking to someone else.
So… who would it be?
For an ancient Israelite, it would have been obvious: God was speaking to His divine council, the heavenly host! (If you aren’t familiar with the divine council idea, please link here to my Reclaiming Supernatural Christianity article, or watch this video by the Bible Project.) Heiser uses the following example to illustrate the point:
“It’s like me going in to a room of friends and saying, ‘Hey, let’s go get some pizza!’ I’m the one speaking. A group is hearing what I say. Similarly, God comes to the divine council with an exciting announcement: ‘Let’s create humankind!’”
This doesn’t mean these other heavenly divine council members did the creating of mankind; Genesis 1:27 is explicit that God was the only one doing the creating. To continue Heiser’s example, after God made His announcement, He ordered the pizza, paid for it, and then picked it up from the store without any help. The council watched, singing and rejoicing (Job 38:7)!
If God was including His divine council using ‘us’ and ‘our’ language, this means that they also image God! We humans, by virtue of our representational status, are to run the affairs of and be good stewards of the Earth. In the same way, God’s divine council (angels, cherubim, seraphim, etc.) are representatives of God in heaven, having responsibilities and input in how Yahweh rules the cosmos (for me, the best example of this is when God asks His council for input while deciding how to take care of Ahab in 1 Kings 22:20-23).
There is no stronger case for the sanctity of life than the Representational Imaging view. This means that humans, just by virtue of existing, are made in the image of God and should be treated as such by their fellow men and women. The status applies whether the human has only a couple cells or is a brain dead person in a coma. Mentally disabled people represent God in full, glorious, undiminished capacity by virtue of their existence. Children, slaves, women, indigenous and aboriginal populations, murderers, volunteers, chefs, gangsters, business executives, monks, men, Muslims, Hindus, Christians, shamans, astronauts, rapists, college students, priests, foragers, embryos… every single human being on Earth images God no matter who they are or what they do.
And herein lies the tragedy of the Fall and sin. Representing God on Earth comes with a massive responsibility to run our world according to His will. Think of a king and His son. The son of the king, heir to the throne and bearer of that king’s name, is charged with running the kingdom while the king goes on a trip. If the regent acts in a way unbefitting of the king, then several things happen:
- The name of the king, as well as the regent, is sullied
- The kingdom suffers the effects of the regent’s actions
- The king will be rightly upset when he returns home.
Now imagine that this King is the morally perfect, entirely just, all loving, infinite Creator God of the Universe, His kingdom is this world throughout history, and the regents that He left in charge are… us! Mankind was set up on Earth to enact the will of the King, but we have inflicted incomprehensible harm not only to the Earth and its creatures but fellow Imagers. Every word, thought and deed contrary to our mandate and status as imagers is a terrible crime against an infinite Father.
This is one of the reasons that Jesus had to come as a human and not a lizard or a chimpanzee. Humans are the ones on Earth responsible for representing God to His creation, not any other creature. The redemption of God’s Imagers had to be done by someone who could image God perfectly… only God Himself could take care of the problem. In other words, Jesus came to show mankind how we ought to represent God to the world and to each other.
God is not a God of ‘Plan B’s… He wants what He wants and He wants us. We have failed as His imagers, but He made a way to impart His own righteousness onto us. Not even the members of the divine council, God’s heavenly imagers, were offered this redemptive gift! (Hebrews 2:16-18)
Let us learn from the sacrificial love of Jesus how to image God properly on Earth, and tell others about His example. He washed the feet of his loved ones and healed strangers, but He also threw out the money changers from God’s own temple because they were doing terrible harm to the reputation of God in the eyes of the world. Our job as regent representatives on this Earth is multi-faceted; let’s take our status seriously and do what is right.
What About Those Questions…
I asked a bunch of questions at the beginning of this article. They concerned aliens, Neanderthals, Adam and Eve… and there’s a lot more! I will answer all of those in Part 2, so stay tuned.
Note: For an in-depth study of the Image of God focusing on the Hebrew grammar, Biblical citations for context, and an extensive Bibliography, please read this 13 page paper entitled “The Image of God” by Dr. Michael Heiser.