When reading or listening to Christian speakers and authors it does not take long to come across the phrase ‘Image of God.’ Image of God language is used to invoke a sense of absolute, innate and ontological equality between every single person who has ever existed. The claim is that the Image of God is both individual and fundamentally what a human most deeply exists as, and therefore no person can have more value than another. But this is not the way the Bible seems to use the concept of Image of God.
It seems to me that many are simply using the language about the Image of God to create a theological basis for human or civil rights. In a time of identity politics, tribalism, and nationalism the value of different kinds of persons are put at risk. Trying to create a theological foundation for a concept of human dignity or rights is a worthy theological goal, especially in our politically tense moment where it seems isolationist and xenophobic movements are on the increase throughout the globe. But I would like to caution that the biblical concept of the Image of God is not basis for such concepts, nor is it a good place to look for such a basis. Let me explain how the Bible seems to use the term and then I will offer my caution.
Genesis lays out an interesting foundation. The word ‘image’ in the Bible is actually the word ‘icon,’ but throughout the Bible it is understood to mean ‘idol’, especially in the Old Testament. God created his own Idol in creation as male and female. These are not ‘idols’ but one ‘idol.’ The unified difference of the human male-female body is set up to rule over creation by procreating with God by expanding humanity throughout creation (Gen 1:26-28, 5:1-3). For Israel, God is personally involved in creating humans through the male-female idol by pouring his Spirit, his own divine life and creative presence, into their oneness (sex, 2:22-25; note Eve’s statement in 4:1) because their unity reflects his own being as the One Creator God (Mal 2:10-16, esp. v.15). This belief drives home the idea that humans are the Idol of God because an idol would be a physical object (like a rock, wood, or metal) that is ritually inspired, or breathed into, by a god so that the idol has the very life of the god in and through it, which is the depiction in the text when God created Adam (Gen 2:7; note ‘Adam’ is also the collective term for humanity in 5:2). Therefore, interacting with the idol means interacting with the god through the idol. This also includes God’s judgment against murders for destroying an Idol of God (9:5-6). So, the use of Idol of God in Genesis, since the rest of the OT does not use this language for humans, indicates a few initial things about the concept of Image/Idol of God:
- The Idol of God is about the created body of humanity, particularly the male-female union that is the Idol.
- The Idol of God is to rule over creation by procreating. This is a participation with God to create and expand God’s Idol-presence throughout creation in and through the human body.
- Being the Idol of God is depicted in the OT as a participatory life with God in creation that embodies God’s life in the created body. For Israel, a rightly lived life that worships God constantly rejects wrongly embodied worship (idolatry) and sex. The concepts of worship and sex are often connected and merged throughout the OT as seen most clearly in the book of Hosea.
- Those who destroy or murder an Idol of God forfeit their own existence of participating in the collective reality of Idol of God, which is life in the created body.
Moving into the New Testament this idea of Idol is given more clarity. The term used is still ‘icon.’ The Greeks and Romans us the word to refer to a ‘form’ or ‘reflection’ that could indicate a more disembodied concept. But the truth is that Greco-Roman philosophy in the first century would still believe that the ‘form’ or ‘ideal’ of a thing could only be perceived in and through the physical manifestation of the form in creation (via Aristotle). Also, the word was still being used by 2nd Temple Jews as a synonym for idols and idol-worship, such as physical depictions of God. Since our NT texts are written by 2nd Temple Jews (and a Gentile heavily inheriting that history and identity) it is best to keep using the term Idol for this theological concept in the NT.
King Jesus uses this word when he asks for a coin with the ‘idol/icon’ of Caesar on it (Mt 22:20; Mk 12:16; Lk 20:24). John uses the term extensively to refer to an animated and living idol of the ruling Beast that the Dragon placed on a throne. An idol worshipped by many (Rev. 13:14, 15, 14:9, 11, 15:2, 16:2, 19:20, 20:4). This helps us know that the Jewish ideas from Genesis about ‘idol’ carry into the NT are still connected to 1) a created object, 2) a representation of an authority expanding or sustaining its ruling power, and 3) worship.
For Paul, humanity always bears an image as bodily idols, but he does not believe fallen humanity participates in the Idol of God. He believes, through wrongful worship and sex (very Jewish!), humans have given up their act of embodying the glory of God, and God has given them over to their desired evils (Rom 1:22-32). Paul believes that humans as Idols participate in either the death of the mortal Adam or they participate in the life of the second Adam (1 Cor 15:49). He believes that King Jesus is the real Idol of God (2 Cor 4:4; Col 1:15) and those who follow and worship King Jesus begin to participate in the Idol of God by being transformed and renewed by the embodied life King Jesus has taught us and empowered us to obey in the Spirit (Rom 8:29; 2 Cor 3:18; Col 3:18).
There is also Paul’s reference to the Idol of God to evaluate the relationship between husbands and wives in 1 Cor 11. The contingent participation in the Idol of God between a male and female bound through sex is a very Jewish concept as well. The husband and wife do not individually participate in the Idol of God, but even in the divine life participated in through the Holy Spirit, their bodily oneness (sex) is Paul’s assumed theological framework to address the head coverings issue in Corinth. While the Idol of God language is not used in Eph 5:22-33, the participatory and erotic nature of the underlying Jewish theology there, rooted in the references to the same Genesis texts, could be helpful in understanding Paul’s thoughts even more.
The only other reference in the NT to Idol is in Heb 10:1. Here, the OT sacrifices are called shadows compared to the true Idol of the practices. The true Idol of the OT sacrificial practices culminates in the body of King Jesus being sacrificed (10:10). Here, the 2nd Temple Jewish writer of Hebrews emphasizes that the Idol must be embodied in the human body of King Jesus for salvation from God to enter into the people of God.
So, the NT adds a few Christological nuances to the Idol of God for those who follow King Jesus:
- The concept of Idol is about a human embodied ruling and the expanding of that rule over all creation, which is fulfilled in the ascension of King Jesus to be King of king and through his people he is manifest in all places.
- King Jesus alone is the Idol of God since he lives with God fully and completely in his human body.
- Through the created, resurrected, and ascended body of King Jesus other humans can begin to participate in the Idol of God by being transformed, renewed, and conformed to the Idol of God, which is King Jesus.
- To approach, give allegiance to, and submit to King Jesus is to meet God, worship God, and obey God in and through the body of King Jesus because he is the Idol of God.
- This life under the rule of King Jesus participates in the life of God through the presence of the Spirit in our very bodies, joining us into the Idol of God through King Jesus.
- The Idol of God as a participatory life in the Spirit through King Jesus means that it is not a general status of every human. Not participating in the Idol of God is indicated by wrongful worship and sex, accompanied by more general forms of sinful relational life.
- The Idol of God is about the life of God performed and embodied within the human body. This includes and encourages the sexed reality of the human body as male-female.
- The judgment for those who do not participate in the Idol of God through the body of King Jesus, joining into the communal life of the Idol of God through the presence of the Spirit, will culminate in the Idol of Dust–the human is lost in its own mortality. The human that does not participate in the Idol of God dies. This judgment is both the choice of the human’s participation in mortal sinful life leading towards the loss of the body and God actively giving them over to the consequences of such idolatrous desires.
These texts give a lot of theological clarity about what the Bible means concerning the concept of the Image of God. We should be critical if someone makes claims beyond these texts. Such as, many say the Image is not about the body, but the texts are clear that it is. Also, many believe and say the Image of God is a status simply enjoyed by being a human, but the texts do not indicate that idea either. Instead, the texts speak of the Image of God as the embodied life of God in the bodies of humans who follow King Jesus.
If the purpose of using Image of God language today is to create absolute equality between every single person or justify claims of human rights, then this is not a concept that will not be able to bear that weight. The Image of God is something participated in through embodying the life of King Jesus, and therefore the Image of God is shared only by those who follow and worship him. Non-believing humans do not participate in the Image of God as indicated in the Bible. Because of this, the Image of God is not the place Christians should begin to create a theological anthropology for general human dignity or human rights.
This is where we have to be cautious. Since Christians do not believe that a non-believer lacks some fundamental quality of being human, we should not use Image of God language since it refers only those who participate in the embodied divine life through the person of King Jesus. Christians should look to find a way to articulate the reason we believe that every embodied person has value, dignity, and deserves to be treated rightly by their governing authority via rights. So, there must be a more common and fundamental reality to being human than the Image of God–one that all humans are, both believers and non-believers, even King Jesus himself.
Check out this great video by the Bible Project that helps visualize a better understanding of the Image of God: