One of the great questions of Jewish and Christian theology is how humanity is made in God’s image. We know humanity is, it says so in Genesis 1:26-27—“ Then God said, "Let Us make man in Our image, according to Our likeness; and let them rule over the fish of the sea and over the birds of the sky and over the cattle and over all the earth, and over every creeping thing that creeps on the earth. God created man in His own image, in the image of God He created him; male and female He created them.”
But in reading this passage, many have become confused. HOW are we created in God’s image? What exactly is the “image” of God?
Of course, the first thought anyone would have by looking at the word “image” is physical appearance. After all, when we see our image in a mirror, all we are saying is that the image looks like us, not that it has any other characteristic, even so our image in a statue or a photo. However, this idea causes a number of difficulties. First of all, it is both the male and the female that was created in God’s image—so which one would God look like? Is it a general appearance? And the passage is saying that God created all humanity to be in His image—how can we all look like God when we all look so differently? What color, size, shape is God? These questions seem nonsensical, but I think that the problem comes in assuming that the image of God must, in some way, be physical.
Many Trinitarian theologians declare that humanity, in one’s nature, is Trinitarian, just as God. This also poses a difficulty in determining what that Trinitarian nature is. Many theologians say the three parts of humanity are: body, soul, spirit. But Aquinas said that it was the memory, the understanding and the will. What we need to recognize is that humanity is exceedingly complex and that counting only three parts lessens the creation of humanity. It assumes that the divine nature in humanity is based on a number, rather than a nature. This seems to be poor theology.
Some would say that humanity is like God in the manner in which humanity is superior to animals. In other words, the divine nature of humanity is found in that which animals lack. Thus, some have put forward intellect, long term memory, self awareness, or other features. The problem with just stating this is that as animals are studied, it is clear that animals have many of the characteristics that humans have, just in a more minor capacity. Some animals can be trained in language, are very creative and can learn as much as humans. Certainly humans are unique in the animal kingdom, but it might be difficult to determine in exactly what way.
Often, when we have a puzzle in Scripture, it is best to go back to the text, to see if there are clues we have missed. And in the midst of the text about God’s image there is a description of humanity’s function: to rule over the animals of the earth. It seems a curious placement unless the description of the rule pertains to the idea of being made in God’s image. And if we think about it, the main characteristic of God, as given in the Hebrew Bible is that He is in charge. There is no being—god, angel, human, animal, cosmic force—that is above God. And it seems that Genesis 1 is actually all about God’s superiority over the powers that the ancient world found significant and frightening and awe-inspiring. God is above the ocean, because He divided it. God is above the sun, moon and stars and established their authority. God is above all powers, and even though there may have been others who participated in His creation, it was His command that made it happen.
Given this understanding of God, then it would make sense that if humanity is to be in God’s image, it is in the area of sovereignty. Humanity is like God in the area of having a huge realm to rule. Humanity has great authority, to determine the shape and purpose of the earth, as well as all the animals. Humanity is granted god-like powers of sovereignty.
And, in fact, Psalm 8 is a hymn to exactly that nature. “What is man that You take thought of him?... You have made him a little lower than God.” And a description of humanity’s rule over the earth is given. Even little children have power to rule, the psalmist says.
And every single human does rule. It seems, at first, that some humans rule and some do not. But that is simply over other humans. Although, most humans do rule over other humans—every parent rules over their children, every pet owner rules over their pet (although cats think it is the other way around). Yes, governments are the big rulers, but every human has an aspect of rule, a sovereignty to rule over. And, in fact, humans are different from animals in that they rule over themselves. They are responsible for their actions, and recognize themselves as responsible. And this completely natural, powerful tendency is our godlike nature. We are like God in that we are in charge of ourselves, our environment, those below us. And humanity, as a whole, is in charge of the earth as a whole.
Many would like to deny human sovereignty, especially over the earth. “Humans don’t deserve rule over the earth. All they do is exploit it and ruin it.” This cannot be denied. There have been five periods of time in which mass numbers of species disappeared from the earth, and we are living in one of those times. However, that idea only proves that humanity IS ultimately in charge of the earth. If humans can cause such mass extinction, it means that humans are the determining factor. The fact that humans are sovereign has nothing to do with the fact that they are moral in being sovereign. And the environmental movement and animal rights groups are just more proof of human rule over animals. No one considers themselves the equal of animals, otherwise we would not use moral reasoning with each other to change our actions. We all recognize not only that we rule, but that there are principles by which we should rule.
So, if we rule, then we should consider HOW we should rule. What is the ideal state that humanity should establish? There are three basic moral ways of ruling, according to Scripture. We can rule in a manner of judgment and law. One breaks the law, one dies. For instance, should a tiger or wolf kill a human, the animal dies—that’s the principle found in Genesis 9. This is the moral rule of judgment—it is fair, but it is harsh. This is the moral rule of vigilantism, which is softened and controlled by government forces, but is still the basic moral rule of government.
There is also the moral rule of self interest. This is the idea that resources are to be exploited for the self-interest of the ruling. Children are there to support their parents, the earth is there to be used for wealth and power of those who can grab it. This is the principle of business, where profit is the bottom line. This is also called “pride” by the Bible—taking that which truly doesn’t belong to you. Jesus specifically spoke against this kind of rule in Luke 22, and Paul in Ephesians 5.
Finally, there is the kind of rule Jesus supported. This is the sovereignty that holds authority for the sake of those under them. It is a rule to provide benefit, not for the ruler, but for the ones ruled. This ruler would sacrifice his or her own good for the good of the one ruled. It is a mother’s rule for her infant. And it is the kind of rule environmentalists have as an ideal for the earth, and the main characteristic of all “good” rulers.
Thus, there are two ways of being in God’s image. Surely, ruling in any way is god-like. And humanity, both individually and collectively is certainly god-like in changing the surface of the earth and ruling over all creatures—whether they know that is what they are doing or not. But the other aspect is a moral aspect. And to be like God IN our rule is to be merciful, to be forgiving, to act in the benefit of those rules, to use our power for the benefit of all, even our enemies. In this way, we show how truly divine we can be.