What is it that sets human beings apart from all other creatures on earth? What exactly—aside from opposable thumbs, brilliantly contoured for texting—constitutes the centerpiece of human exceptionalism? Is it our capacity for reason? Our moral awareness and nuanced ethics? Our penchant for crying when we hear Mozart and laughing when cats meet cucumbers?
The term “image of God” is first used to describe the particular quality of human uniqueness in Genesis 1:26-27. To understand what the Bible means by the phrase, we must look to the preceding portrait of God in whose likeness these new human creatures are now being formed.
The first thing obvious about the God of Genesis 1 is that he is powerful. The curtain rises on a landscape of darkness and disorder. In his book The Liberating Image, J. Richard Middleton observes, the Genesis 1 “pattern of divine fiats and execution reports”—(i.e. ‘God said…and it was so’)— “suggests that creation constitutes a covenantal kingdom in which each creation is willingly subject to the word of the creator-king.” In other words, God is portrayed in this introductory scene of the Bible as a monarch surrounded by his court, exercising authority over his domain. The cosmos rises at his word, aligns according to his orders. As the king commands, so things will be.
But there is considerably more to this creator-king than simply the exercise of power. The God of Genesis 1 is also wonderfully playful. A consummate craftsman, he appears to relishes each emergent sound and color—“Check out that triceratops I just invented! A twelve-ton vegetarian. Seriously, how good is that?!” The universe take shape beneath God’s hands, concrete form of an Artist’s dreaming. Galaxies spill from an overflow of joy-filled creativity.
If the God of Genesis 1 is portrayed distinctively as ruler and artist, it seems reasonable to expect that the same central attributes will accrue to the creatures specifically designed to resemble him. And this is exactly what we find. When reference to the image of God is first made in Gen. 1:26, it appears in direct conjunction with a mandate to “take charge.” The cosmic King has made a decision to hand over part of his domain. Man and woman are drawn into the scene as lesser royalty, endued with borrowed authority. The power given into their hands is beautifully, terribly real. Wherever they go from here, for better or worse, the rest of the earth will follow.
The authority imparted to humanity is illustrated by Genesis 2 in the naming of the animals. God has formed the creatures. But as humans call them, so they become. The ‘tasselled wobbegong’ will be such (good idea or not) because humans deemed it so. Here we find an echo of the Genesis 1 power of divine fiat. Human beings have become genuine history-makers. The outcome of the story will not be the same regardless of what they do.
If the divine authority has been in some measure shared with human beings, the divine artistry also passes its spark. In Genesis 2:5 we’re told that the fledgling earth has no plants yet for two reasons—because there is no rain, and because there are no humans to farm it. Creation is incomplete, and will remain so, until human beings touch it.
Unlike other ancient creation stories, in Genesis human beings are not created simply as servants of the gods. They are given a plot of soil and told to make something from it. This is not a mission of mere preservation, dipping the world in formaldehyde to ensure that nothing alters its pristine perfection. Rather, human beings are given a job of stirring things up, turning them over, calling out that which does not yet exist.
The image of God in the Bible involves nothing less than world-shaping power. It is the authority, under God, to create order out of chaos. It’s the capacity to plant beauty, to sow goodness and life, to cultivate the flourishing of every other thing created. Eden, it should be clear by now, is not as we often suppose. It is a world without corruption, but it is not a world complete. The ground is rich and loamy with divine possibility. But what emerges will depend on God and humans both.
And it’s not only creation that is incomplete. So are human beings. In Genesis 5:3, Adam “became the father of a son in his image, resembling him”—language echoing Genesis 1:26. In the context of the relation between father and child, the meaning this image seems obvious. Children often resemble their parents strongly. Even at birth we search for hints of lineage in the shape of the eyes (or the shade of the temper).
But while a newborn infant might have the DNA, the building blocks of his parent’s image, the likeness is incomplete. The resemblance increases over time as the child matures. Through a process of imitation, he learns to walk as his parent walks—even mimicking the idiosyncrasies of their distinctive stride. As many a parent of a toddler has discovered to her dismay, through careful listening children also quickly learn to talk as their parent talks.
Genesis 3:8 depictures God walking in the garden in the cool of the day. This strange detail takes on significance in light of the nascent image. These newly formed humans are meant to learn to walk fully upright by matching strides with God. They are intended to apprentice beneath the Master Gardener, learning from him how to cultivate with generosity and compassion, how to exercise power appropriately, toward the flourishing of all. The resemblance is meant to grow with practice and relationship.
This, however, is the moment the story takes a tragic turn. Human beings no sooner find their feet than they use their first free steps to walk away from God. Yet for better or worse, the world-shaping power of the image isn’t cleaved from humanity at the exit to the garden. They continue to carry it with them when they strike out on their own.
The imparted authority, intended for the world’s blessing, now becomes its curse. Human beings sow violence and pain; we cultivate death instead of life. We make wars that ravage the earth, uniting only to construct mighty empires corrupted by their hubris (see Gen. 11). We use our creative prowess to make the monsters that consume us. The power of the remaining image is just enough for us to pull the rest of creation down with us as we fall.
The word “image” in Hebrew, tselem, can also mean “idol.” This is what human beings were created to be: idols—small, local, living representations of the living God. But instead of being idols, human beings create idols. We worship with our intellect, our passion, our attention, man-made images of lesser things.
The consequences are dire. Because whatever a person worships, they begin to resemble. As the psalmist notes in Psalm 115:8, “Those who make idols will be like them, and so will all who trust in them.” We take on our idols’ blindness, their deafness, their hardness, their insensibility. Instead of continuing to grow up into a mature divine image, humanity instead starts growing down into the image of a distortion.
In Old Testament law God often repeats, “Be holy as I am holy!” This is a call back into true likeness. The law, with its prohibitions against idolatry and its detailed instructions for right worship, are meant to draw humanity back into alignment with the true image. But the distortion is rooted too deeply. The human imagination has been warped and twisted, just like everything else. Not only do people continue to slide farther and farther away from resemblance, no one can even recall what the original image is actually supposed to look like.
This is scene which Jesus enters—the one Colossians describes as “the image of the invisible God,” the one “by whom all things were created” (Col. 1:15-16). He is the revelation of authority properly channeled. He is the face of creative power, directed toward life and healing. Those who meet Jesus don’t just meet the invisible creator—they meet what humanity was always intended to become. They meet the full, mature and grown-up image.
Jesus is the revelation of what humanity was meant to be. But seeing the intention alone is not enough. Every attempt to pull ourselves up simply results in breaking our bootstraps. We have lost the basic capacity to walk upright anymore. The distortion has taken on a monstrous life of its own. So on the cross Jesus goes to war against the distortion itself. He breaks its grip on us so the Spirit can start undoing its effects.
In John 20:22 the resurrected Jesus breathes on his disciples. This is the same thing God did in the Genesis 2, bringing the newly formed humans to life. Here the world is starting over. The system is being rebooted and put back on track to develop as it was always intended. The ground outside the tomb on Easter morning is wet with the dew of a new creation.
Into this new creation, Jesus releases a gift—the Holy Spirit. By the Spirit, God now walks through the world beside us just as God did back in the garden. The Spirit gradually draws us toward greater and greater divine resemblance. 2 Peter 1:3-4 says that we are given what we need in order to “share the divine nature.” We’ve been given what we need, in other words, in order to finally grow up. But this doesn’t happen instantaneously, any more than it did in Genesis. The process of maturing into the true divine image is what theologians call “sanctification.”
The Spirit teaches us how to walk in step with God. We Christians have become apprentices of Jesus, the learning the true art of creation. Following him, we learn how to cultivate love and grace, how to sow life and healing. Under the Master Artist’s tutelage, we learn how to wield the brush with bold and divinely beautiful strokes. The Christian life is a process by which our distortions are undone and we finally grow into our true selves. We learn how to hold our world-shaping power in the right way, how to exercise our authority in ways that truly nourish and bring all things to thriving.
Worship is a critical ingredient of this process, because distortions unwind particularly as we worship and pray. Turning from our idols and gazing on Beauty, remnants of the false images begin to fade away. We are change by what we view. 1 John 3:2 says, “when [Christ} appears we will be like him because we’ll see him as he is.” Even now as we catch glimpses of him, the likeness starts to grow.
Every follower of Jesus living in the new creation is given, just as were Adam and Eve, a patch of soil to tend. In the home, the studio, the office, or the bed of the garbage truck, every reclaimed image-bearer is given a piece of earth to nourish and call into its God-intended fullness. The world is meant to flourish wherever Christians go, bloom where Christians walk. At last the farmer kings and gardener queens can embrace their true vocation—sowing life.
At the end of the Bible, in the book of Revelation, humanity ends up in a kind of Eden, walking with God among leaves and streams. But the story has not returned exactly where it started. The new creation isn’t a duplication of the old world—it’s a completion of it. The garden is now a flowering city. It is a world marked by God’s fingerprints but also the prints of redeemed humanity. Creation has at last become what God always intended, a world of goodness, cultivated and nourished and shaped by God and human beings together, pressing against the rich soil, side by side.0