The Importance of the “Image of God” for Today
Any reference to the “image of God” in people may seem a little mundane those who have even the most basic biblical knowledge. Deeper reflection however on what the image of God means for us today may increase exponentially the power of our witness for Christ.
So, what is the image of God? The term appears in the first chapter of the Bible (Genesis 1:26-28). At its simplest level, the image of God means that human beings not only relate to the animal kingdom but also they become distinctive in that they communicate effectively and have the ability to perform an activity called “self-transcendence.” Self-transcendence means that we can think beyond ourselves, or outside the confines of our bodies and ecosystems. For example, the Mars Rover is taking and sending back to us spectacular pictures due to people who have, for many years, been able to think clearly about landing a spacecraft on Mars. Your dog or cat simply cannot do this!
The image of God also refers to the responsibilities of human beings. We are to represent God, to be God’s ambassadors among the creation and other creatures. This specific point about the image of God gets us to some particularly applicable and important concepts that impact our everyday witness. To be responsible, for the Christian, means to fulfill one’s obligation to love God and to love neighbor. Recognizing the image of God in others goes a long way in alleviating some of our significant social ills today. We are to relate to our neighbors not as “things,” or “it” but as living, breathing people worth our time and service. There is, however, one big hitch called sin. Sin has corrupted our files. While sin has marred the image of God in us, it has not destroyed the image. We do however need help!
But there’s the rub. Some persons today have been so affected by sin that they simply neither recognize the image of God in others nor perceive of any use to be freed from their slavery to sin. We have some of the ancient Greek philosophers to thank for much of this. Without getting too technical, teachers such as Plato, Aristotle, and the Stoics basically taught that mind and body were separate. The rational, self-transcendent mind therefore was considered “better” than the body, with its evil impulses. In this scenario, the mind is at war with the body, and there is no solution except to equate one’s mind with God (or a god) and to try and think oneself to a better life. The Greeks also had no frame of reference for an afterlife and were vexed by both the brevity of life, the ills of the body, and the impossibility of escaping death.
It doesn’t take a rocket scientist to see the impacts of classical thought about humankind on people around us. Why is being right or getting the most education and most money seen as the highest good today? Why is the so much violence in the streets? It really all has to do with sin. When people view their thinking as the most rational, or the most transcendent, then they equate themselves with the divine and thus act in condescending ways towards others who have not arrived at their supposed level of rationalism.
The Christian way is much different. The image of God has been deeply marred in us by our own sin. We see no dichotomy between the body, soul, mind, and strength. All of us have all sinned and fallen short of God’s glory. To understand ourselves, we must start to relate to God as we are: sinners. This means that we come to God without pretending to be God. Only faith—totally dependence and obedience in Christ—restores what has been lost due to sin.