24 And God said, “Let the earth bring forth living creatures according to their kinds—livestock and creeping things and beasts of the earth according to their kinds.” And it was so. 25 And God made the beasts of the earth according to their kinds and the livestock according to their kinds, and everything that creeps on the ground according to its kind. And God saw that it was good. 26 Then God said, “Let us make man in our image, after our likeness. And let them have dominion over the fish of the sea and over the birds of the heavens and over the livestock and over all the earth and over every creeping thing that creeps on the earth.” 27 So God created man in his own image, in the image of God he created him; male and female he created them.28 And God blessed them. And God said to them, “Be fruitful and multiply and fill the earth and subdue it, and have dominion over the fish of the sea and over the birds of the heavens and over every living thing that moves on the earth.” 29 And God said, “Behold, I have given you every plant yielding seed that is on the face of all the earth, and every tree with seed in its fruit. You shall have them for food. 30 And to every beast of the earth and to every bird of the heavens and to everything that creeps on the earth, everything that has the breath of life, I have given every green plant for food.” And it was so. 31 And God saw everything that he had made, and behold, it was very good. And there was evening and there was morning, the sixth day.
For some years in South Georgia I taught a high school Bible class. I developed a habit in that class of asking the students to answer a question anonymously on paper. The question was this: “If you were in a boat and in the deep water beside you were your favorite pet as well as a man you did not know…and you could only pull one of them into the boat and the other would drown…and nobody would ever know about the one that drowned…which of the two would you save?” Time and again I was stunned by how many students answered, “I would save my pet.” I wonder what kind of responses we would get here in this sanctuary if I asked the same question on an anonymous form?
The problem, of course, is that these answers represent either a lack of awareness of the supreme value and dignity of human life, of its qualitative distinctiveness against the rest of creation, or a knowing disregard for it. For this reason, it is extremely important to know what scripture says about the nature of human life and its relationship to the rest of creation.
How you live your life will be determined in large part by what you think a human being is.
We begin with a philosophical point: how you live your life will be determined in large part by what you think a human being is. Your view of the human inevitably includes your view of yourself and will therefore mark not only how you act towards others but how you live life yourself. For this reason it is important to understand some of the major proposals concerning the nature of human life that have shaped our culture today.
Take, for instance, Darwinism. In its purest and most logical form it sees human beings as animals, as simply one part of creation and not a special part in the least. This inevitably leads to what is called “social Darwinism” which can manifest itself either in the ugliness of, say, Hitler’s desire for a master race or in the truly terrifying calls emanating from some sections of the radical environmentalist movement for human beings to be largely eradicated for the sake of the planet.
On this last point, the late Richard John Neuhaus, editor of First Things, provided a number of examples. Below are some selections from Neuhaus’ columns that demonstrate these calls for the eradication or mass culling of human life:
- Earthbound: New Introductory Readings in Environmental Ethics(Random House, 1984). “Massive human diebacks would be good. It is our duty to cause them. It is our species’ duty, relative to the whole, to eliminate 90 percent of our numbers.”
- Baird Callicott’s In Defense of the Land Ethic(State University of New York Press, 1989): “If it is not only morally permissible, but, from the point of view of the land ethic, morally required, that members of certain species be abandoned to predation . . . or even culled, how can we consistently exempt ourselves from a similar draconian regime? We too are only ‘plain members of citizens’ of the biotic community.”
- Jodie Cooper, who apparently is something of a figure in those circles, offers her environmentalist credo: “I honestly think humankind is one of the worst forms of anything on this planet and I look at us as a form of AIDS…The philosophy where people think that God put us on Earth to use and abuse everything like animals, and they’re here for us to slaughter and eat and kill, I don’t go along with whatsoever. To me, Mother Nature is it. That’s my God!”
- Pentti Linkola is a writer who supports himself by fishing in a rustic region, and lives in order to save the planet by means of annihilating most of the human race. He proposes ending third world aid and asylum for refugees, plus mandatory abortions for women who already have two children. Another world war would be “a happy occasion for the planet,” he suggests. Humanity is like a sinking ship with 100 passengers and a lifeboat that can hold only ten. “Those who hate life try to pull more people on board and drown everybody. Those who love and respect life use axes to chop off the extra hands hanging on the gunwale.”
- Garrett Hardin, who in 1974 wrote…”Living on a Lifeboat.” Dr. Hardin has never been accused of squeamishness when it comes to reducing the number of those whom he views as the parasitical poor, although in his article he stopped short of chopping hands from the gunwale. Hardin, retired from the University of California, writes today for Chronicles, a magazine published in Rockford, Illinois, which champions what it calls “Old Right” conservatism. In an article in the June issue, Hardin attacks the notion that we can continue to think that having babies is “a purely private matter” to be left up to parents. Decisions about what children should be born and how or whether “abnormal babies” should be cared for “are best made on the basis of opportunity costs to the community.” All this is in the context of discussing national health care and the need to ration scarce medical resources. “A national health care system will be well justified,” writes Hardin, “if it reinstates discrimination as a proper function of the social order.” He wants it understood that he does not mean racial discrimination. The discrimination he has in mind is that between the fit and the unfit. He is not terribly hopeful that what needs to be done can be done. He writes, “The final solution (if there is one) is unknowable.”
These sentiments are simply the logical outcome of seeing man as merely an animal, as merely one part of creation among other parts of equal value.
Another example might be Marx’s view of man as essentially a political animal who is defined by class or economic struggle. In such a view, politics inevitably becomes the religious fixation of man and class struggle his primary mark of self-identity.
Still other examples of competing ways of viewing what a human being is might be:
Psychological Man: Skinner
Man as a Sexual Being: Freud
Philosophical Man [Man as a Pawn of the Universe]: Sartre
Man as a Free Being
Man as a Social Being
Yes, what you think a human being is will inevitably shape how you live life and how you view and interact with others. For this reason it is vitally important that you view life rightly and biblically.
Scripture speaks of the primary distinctive feature of human beings as “the image of God.”
What, then, is scripture’s answer to the question, “What is a human being?” The anwswer is found in Genesis 1:
26a Then God said, “Let us make man in our image, after our likeness.”
A human being is therefore somebody who is created in and who bears the image of God. Genesis 1:26 uses two words:
We will proceed with unpacking these words under the assumption that they are essentially synonyms, that they are two words getting at the same idea. They herald the uniqueness of human beings in distinction to other aspects of creation. John Hammett writes, “Many elements of our created nature are shared with animals, but only humanity was created with special deliberation (‘Let us make’ rather than ‘Let there be’) and with a special design.”This is so. But how are we to define the image of God, the imago Dei? There have been many proposals offered throughout Christian history. We will consider two.
Theologian Millard Erickson notes that “the substantive view has been dominant during most of the history of Christian theology.”In this view, the image of God is largely defined by certain qualities that human beings have. James Leo Garrett Jr. has surveyed some of the many attributes theologians have proposed as evidence or components of the imago Dei.
the power to love
immortality of the soul
spiritual affinity to God
The argument is not that we do not find traces of some of these attributes in animals. It is rather that they exist in human beings in just such a way, and with just such a harmony, and with just such proportion as to make human beings unique and distinct. They are evidence that God created human beings special, that we are different from other animals, that there is a qualitative distinction between a man and a beast.
Intuitively we know that this is so, even when we marvel at the appearance of some of these marks in animal life. We marvel, for instance, at the intelligence of dolphins, but we know that there is a great chasm between a dolphin and a human being. We are amazed at the intelligence of, say, chimpanzees even as we are aware that we should not study moral philosophy from chimpanzees. Indeed, there are lessons we can learn from animals, and these are marvelous examples of the brilliance of God’s handiwork, but even then we see the limitations of an animal’s ability to inspire. Yes, we know that there is something distinct about human beings even as we love the wonderful complexity and beauty of the animal world.
Another way to think of the imago Deiis to think of it in functional terms. Interestingly, our text immediately moves into this functional area of human existence:
26bAnd let them have dominion over the fish of the sea and over the birds of the heavens and over the livestock and over all the earth and over every creeping thing that creeps on the earth.”
28 And God blessed them. And God said to them, “Be fruitful and multiply and fill the earth and subdue it, and have dominion over the fish of the sea and over the birds of the heavens and over every living thing that moves on the earth.” 29 And God said, “Behold, I have given you every plant yielding seed that is on the face of all the earth, and every tree with seed in its fruit. You shall have them for food. 30 And to every beast of the earth and to every bird of the heavens and to everything that creeps on the earth, everything that has the breath of life, I have given every green plant for food.” And it was so. 31 And God saw everything that he had made, and behold, it was very good. And there was evening and there was morning, the sixth day.
Simply put, the image of God is present in human dominion over the earth. I hasten to add that “dominion” does not mean “abuse” or “disregard,” as it has sometimes tragically been interpreted and understood. Erickson helpfully notes of the idea:
In Genesis 1:26, 28, the Hebrew terms…kavash…and…radah…carry the meaning that the human was to exercise a rule over the whole of creation similar to the rule that in later times the Hebrew kings were expected to exercise over their people. The kings were not to rule for their own sakes, but for the welfare of their subjects. When Israel desired a king (1 Sam. 8:10-18), God warned them that a king would exploit them. For one person to dominate others is contrary to God’s will because it represents exploitation of the rest of creation.
So we are to rule over the earth but we are to rule as benevolent and loving rulers. It is a tragedy that so many conservative Christians, in the name of distancing themselves from the undoubtedly strange and even dangerous elements of the radial environmentalist movement, have at times advocated what seems to be almost a disregard for nature, or an indifference. The answer to the modern pagan who worships the trees is not to burn the forest down! No, it is to put in its place an appropriate and biblically-informed sense of creation care, or environmentalism if you will, that sees humanity as exercising loving and appropriate dominion over the good earth.
It is right to cut down enough trees to build your house. It is wrong to burn a forest to the ground just for fun.
It is right to use animals in a humane way to work the fields. It is wrong to torture or abuse animals simply because you can.
It is right to hunt to feed your family. It is wrong to kill a majestic animal simply to be able to say you did so on Facebook.
On and on we could go. We must seek the Spirit’s guidance to know if we are properly practicing dominion or if we are showing callous disregard for the earth. Even so, one of the evidences of the image of God in human beings is our calling to tend to the earth and practice this dominion.
The radical implications of the imago Dei.
The powerful doctrine carries with it certain profound and life-changing implications.
The dignity and sacredness of life.
The image of God establishes the sacredness and dignity of life. In both the Old and New Testaments we see the image of God appealed to in prohibitions against the mistreatment of others. In Genesis 9 it forms the basis of the prohibition against murder.
6 “Whoever sheds the blood of man, by man shall his blood be shed, for God made man in his own image.”
We are not to kill one another! Why? Because we are image bearers. To kill that which bears the image of God and carries the unique dignity that this image brings is to show a brazen disregard for God Himself. It is to claim to be God! Similarly, in James 3, the image of God forms the basis of the prohibition against cursing one another.
8 but no human being can tame the tongue. It is a restless evil, full of deadly poison. 9 With it we bless our Lord and Father, and with it we curse people who are made in the likeness of God.
Do not curse your fellow image-bearers! They are uniquely and wonderfully made!
Yes, the imago Deimeans that human beings bear a dignity and sacredness. Interestingly, other cultures have used the idea of “image” while still maintaining low and demeaning views of human life. For instance, in Egyptian and Assyrian sources we find kings referred to as bearing “god’s image” and “one Egyptian text speaks of humans as the god’s ‘images’ in the same context as it speaks of them as his well-tended ‘cattle.’”How very different the biblical concept is to this!
The equality of all people.
Along with establishing the dignity of all people, this doctrine also establishes the equality of all people. Note that Genesis 1:27 speaks of men and women as image-bearers.
27 So God created man in his own image, in the image of God he created him; male and female he created them.
John Hammett argues that “Genesis 1:27 specifically says ‘male and female,’” that “the words used in the other texts in Genesis and in James 3:9 (adamand anthropos) are both universal words for all humans,” and that the two texts mentioned above concerning murder and cursing others (Genesis 9:6 and James 3:9) “seem to require a generic understanding of humans—all ages, all races, all sexes, and all statuses in life.”
Specifically, this should rule out all sexism and racism. Women are not to be viewed as inferior to men, as has happened too often in history. No, they are image-bearers and unique creations. The church should oppose the denigration and exploitation of women!
So, too, racism. It is hard to read this text and then think of the number of Christians in our own country who dared to preach the gospel while simultaneously refusing to let those of other colors enter the life of the church. “Red and yellow, black and white,” our children sing. The church should have listened. The white man, the black man, the oriental man, the Hispanic man, etc. etc. etc.: they all bear the image of God equally. So too the white woman, the black woman, the oriental woman, the Hispanic woman, etc. etc. etc.
What makes us human is that we bear God’s image! What a tragedy that we would allow gender or race to obscure this wonderful truth!
The need for the restoration of the image of God.
There is a final implication of the imago Dei, and it is a necessary deduction when one considers (a) the beautiful depiction of humanity we find in Genesis 1 and (b) the terrible depiction of humanity we find after the fall of humankind extending on into this very present moment. The deduction is this: we need the image of God in humanity to be restored. We know this because of the disparity between (a) and (b). We know that something is wrong.
It is telling, therefore, to find the New Testament speaking of the image of God in us being gradually restored in Christ Jesus. For instance, in Romans 8 we read:
29 For those whom he foreknew he also predestined to be conformed to the image of his Son, in order that he might be the firstborn among many brothers.
This is powerful! We are “predestined to be conformed to the image of his Son.” The idea is not that the image of God is lost in us but rather that it is obscured in us, covered up, buried beneath our sinfulness. We still see glimpses of it in the occasional beauty and power of humanities artistic creations and accomplishments as well as in humanity’s humanitarian efforts. Yes, we catch glimpses, but we know it is not what it ought to be!
But in Jesus, we are being conformed into His image. We are “predestined” to be so. And this to such an extent that Christ “might be the firstborn among many brothers.” In other words, so complete is the restoration of God’s image within us to be that it could be said that Jesus carries countless others in His wake, countless others who look and sound more and more like Him. The image of Jesus is to become clearer in us day by day as we are conformed to Christlikeness.
So too we find these words in Colossians 3:
9 Do not lie to one another, seeing that you have put off the old self with its practices 10 and have put on the new self, which is being renewed in knowledge after the image of its creator.
In Romans Paul speaks of our being “conformed to the image of his Son.” In Colossians he speaks of our being “renewed in knowledge after the image of its creator.”
This changes things! This means that we are to cast off sin not because of some simplistic moral need to be good boys and girls. No, it means that we are to cast off sin and cling to Jesus and be changed so that the image of God can shine brighter and brighter. This is what it means to let your light shine before men (Matthew 5:16)!
People should be able to look at us and see the glory of God’s presence and handiwork in our lives. Instead, we cover it up with our own petty rebellions, with our sinfulness, indeed, with the death that sin brings. But in Christ we are raised to new life, resurrected, and the image of Godis restored within us! Bit by bit, step by step, day by day, it is able to shine more and more in and out of our lives!
Church, follow your King! Let Him restore that which has covered up! Let the image of Godshine forth in your life!
RJN, “While We’re At It,” First Things. May 1993; RJN, “While We’re At It,” First Things. March 1993.
James Leo Garrett, Jr. Systematic Theology. 4thedition. Vol. 1 (Eugene, OR: Wipf & Stock, 2017), 465.
John Hammett, “Human Nature.” A Theology for the Church. Ed., Daniel L. Akin. (Nashville, TN: B&H Academic, 2007), 351
Millard Erickson, Christian Theology. 2ndedition. (Grand Rapids, MI: Baker Books, 2003), 520.
John W. Hilber, “Psalms.” Zondervan Illustrated Bible Backgrounds Commentary.Gen. Ed., John H. Walton. Vol. 5 (Grand Rapids, MI: Zondervan, 2009), 327.