What is the image of God? This is an important theological question. Depending upon what a person believes the image of God to be, and man's relation to that image, the whole rest of that person's theological belief system will be affected and slanted by it. The Bible gives some good guidelines as to what the image of God is, and what man's relation to that image is. Noted theologian Henry Theissen discusses it in his lecture series, as well. This paper discusses the idea of the image of God and man's relation to that image using contemporary theological research.
The Bible tells us that man was created in the image of God. This seems pretty straightforward. On first reading, one might reasonably assume that man was created to look like God. This would mean that God looks like us. This is a very comforting thought for most people, as it means that when we look in the mirror, we are looking at an approximate image of what God Himself looks like. This idea that man looks like God has certainly been used to justify mankind's opinion that they are superior to the animals. After all, the animals do not look like us, and so therefore do not look like God. We afford ourselves a special status on this planet because we believe ourselves to look like God looks. Yet, is the Bible's meaning on this matter really so straightforward and literal? Current research is examining the Bible's exact meaning when it says that we are created in the image of God.
If one looks further into the Bible than Genesis, one will see that the Bible does put a clarification on this statement. In I Corinthians 11:7, the Bible states that only men were created in the image of God. This passage states that men ought not to cover their heads, because they are the "image and glory of God." Apparently, the Bible intends for men to not cover their heads, because being created in the image and glory of God, they should not be ashamed of any part of their bodies, and should display their heads as their crowning glories, as symbolic of God. Women, on the other hand, are instructed to cover their heads, since they were not created in the image and glory of God, but in the image and glory of man. Since women, then, do not have a crowning glory that represents God to display, they should keep their heads covered out of respect for the men around them. This passage seems to indicate that if women were to go with their heads uncovered, that this would somehow be taking away from the glory of the heads of the men, when all the glory really belongs to the men. Since the men were created in the image and glory of God, by not covering their heads women are symbolically drawing attention away from the glory of God.
Another interesting thing about this passage is that it mentions that men are created in the image and glory of God. This addition of the word "glory" is another clue into the relationship of men to the actual image of God. Men are the glory of God as well as the image. This would seem to mean that they are something that God glories in, most likely his ultimate glory, therefore making men God's ultimate creation. By keeping their heads uncovered, men are showing respect for their Creator by allowing all the glory of His ultimate work to be seen. Again, women are not to take away from this glory by displaying their own heads uncovered. However, they are able to show their heads to their man in private, as women, the Bible tells us, are the image and glory of men. From this passage, it would seem pretty definitive that God has a male form. The issue, however, is still far from clear.
The Bible also says that Jesus Christ is the image of God. Christ, of course, in his earthly form, was the ultimate expression of what a man could be. 2 Corinthians goes on to say that the glory of God shines out to the world through the face of Christ, who is the image of God. So, through Christ's face we can see the glory of God. Christ on earth had a man's face, imbued with the spirit of God. This is further evidence that men are actually a physical representation of God, as Christ on earth took the form of a man and yet was still called the image and glory of God.
Romans says that God forordained men to take the image of His Son, who is Jesus Christ. So here then is confirmation that Jesus Christ and men do in fact have the same image as each other. God wanted men to look like His Son, and so men are in the image of Christ. Throughout the Bible, especially the New Testament, the terms Christ and God are frequently used interchangeably. One might think then that men looking like God and men looking like Christ are both really the same thing. However, going back to the 1 Corinthians passage that states men were also created in the glory of God, another interpretation can be arrived at. Christ is referred to in numerous places as being the glory of God. If Christ represents the glory of God and men were created in the glory of God, this points to men being created in Christ's image rather than God's Himself. When the Bible says that men are created in the image and glory of God, the true interpretation could be that men were created in the image of the glory of God. Passages within the New Testament that state that Christ is the image and glory of God would certainly point to an interpretation of men being created in the image of Christ to reflect the glory of God.
Another interpretation of man being created in the image of God is one of spiritual similarity rather than physical similarity. After all, many people have reasoned that there would appear to be little need for an all-powerful God to have the physical characteristics that we as humans have. This makes sense, of course. However, we as humans are filled with an inherent sense of love, justice, hope, faith, and kindness. God is filled with these spiritual characteristics, too. When one considers that we were possibly created in the spiritual rather than physical image of God, the passages in the Bible referring to Christ being the image of God take on a whole new meaning.
If Christ is the image and glory of God, and reflects God's glory to men, and if men are conformed to the image of the Son, what implications could this have for theology? The most obvious meaning is that men were created in the physical form of Christ, and that Christ's physical form is a physical representation of the glory of God, a physical representation of God's love and mercy and power and goodness. Since men have Christ's form, then they too have the physical embodiment of God's spiritual characteristics. They also have these spiritual characteristics within them, in their hearts and souls. Being created in the image of Christ and reflecting the glory of God, while being like God in the sense of having the same spiritual characteristics as He has is an interesting and logical interpretation of these Biblical passages.
God is a spiritual being. Therefore, it would seem unlikely that we would look like Him physically, as how can a spiritual being have a physical form? Spiritual and physical are two entirely separate realms, at least in human understanding. The theologian Henry Theissen described God as being transcendent, which means being beyond the regular universal or material existence. Therefore, the idea that we were made in the image of Christ, who has taken a physical form, and reflecting the good spiritual attributes of God, makes sense. Our likeness to God can be viewed as an invisible, inner likeness. However, to God, the inner and invisible parts of us are just as real and solid as the physical parts of us (Dolphin). It becomes clear then that the writers of the Bible either knew or were inspired with a deep knowledge and understanding of the particular qualities and properties of both the physical and spiritual realms.
Modern researchers, in fact, are beginning to embrace the concept that our likeness to God is more of a spiritual likeness than a physical likeness. One of the key points that researchers and theologians are pointing to as giving credence to this theory is the creative ability of humans. Humans are creative beings. We have the ability to make things out of whatever materials are available, and what we make is only limited by our imaginations. Likewise, God is the ultimate Creator. He created the universe and mankind,…