On the Image of God in Man

Genesis 1:26-27; 3:1-13

In an ultimate sense, all being is dependent upon the Triune God. In an endeavor to explore the radical implications of such a statement, John Zizioulas rightly argues that being is inevitably, then, dependent upon communion. If one is to be (or, even exist), then he must find himself participating, in some sense, in communion. Evidence of such a fact can be seen on a basely human level in that every member of the human race – every man, woman, boy, or girl – has (or, at least, at some point in time has had) a belly button. Though usually taken for granted, the simple existence of a belly button points beyond its bearer to the one who bore that person in her womb. Even further, however, we know that for a woman to bear a child, the involvement of a man – another person – is also necessary. So, in human existence – though we may often forget it – we can clearly see that communion, at least on some level, is absolutely necessary to even natural life.

I am convinced that this fact of human existence – the necessity of another – lies at the heart of the Imago Dei. What did God mean when He said, “Let us make man in our image, after our likeness” (1:26a ESV)? Well, it is most certain that there are many implications that such an Image carries with Itself. In fact, Dennis Kinlaw does an exceptional job of pointing to and expressing those implications, when he makes conclusions concerning personhood in the light of personhood as seen in Jesus. In chapter three of Let’s Start with Jesus, he discusses consciousness of identity, relational webs, the reciprocal aspect of relationships, freedom, moral consciousness, openness, and trusting love. Each of these aspects, though, point past themselves to what lies beyond – communion, which lies at the heart of being itself. Therefore, when God freely chooses to make Man in the Divine Image, He chooses to make Man a person – an intensely relational being.

Relationality lies at the heart of Who God is; He is the eternally free and blessed Father, Son, and Spirit. This is alluded to in the simple fact that God even chose to make Man in the first place. Why would He? Because, it is His very nature to give love, share life, and desire others. Even further, though, the relationality of God is hinted at in the phraseology of the text. Dr. Kinlaw would urge us to not take lightly the fact that God appears to be in dialogue as He chooses to make Man in His Image (Let’s 31). In dialogue with whom? With Himself, as the three Divine Persons freely choose to give, share, and desire even beyond Themselves. It should also be noted, though, that in the Hebrew the subject in this dialogue (“Us”) is plural and personal, while the verb (“make”) denotes singular action. Now, while it would be dishonest to place upon the text a false idea of how much Israel might have understood about the triunity of God, it is also unnecessary to plainly dismiss any implications of the text whatsoever simply because early Israel did not share with us in the benefits of the Creeds.

What I would like to do is delve into what the Image of God in Man looks like. To do so, it is my present desire to take a snapshot of that Image as it is seen in Man, but, for a balanced look, I would like to explore two aspects related to that Image in some depth and, then, make some concluding remarks related to a final related aspect. The first these aspects I would like to explore is the Heart of the Image. The second is the Corruption of the Image. Then, to wrap things up, I would like to make some comments regarding the Redemption of the Image.

But, first, the Heart of the Image – Man is, by nature, a relational being. In the movie Castaway, Tom Hanks plays a character who ends up stranded on an uninhabited island. After only a couple of weeks, he becomes so desperate for communion that he goes so far as to turn a volleyball into a “person” named Wilson, though it remains obvious that he knows this ball is, indeed, not a real person. Nevertheless, he decorates Wilson, talks to Wilson, even argues with Wilson. Hanks’s character vividly captures a basic human need. The fact is that Man simply cannot avoid living in relationships – the most necessary of these relationships being that of parent to child. We know that a child cannot even exist without his parents. But, even after birth he still cannot persist without another, for he is initially incapable of self-provision and self-protection.

It would seem plainly assumed by our text that before the Fall (and even after) Man depended upon God. In the Garden, he freely and innocently lived under divine-provision as well as divine-protection. His Creator was the personal Source who met all of his needs. Even after this relationship had been marred by sin, though, we find that God continues to provide and protect – preparing skins for the couple, continuing the ability for work and childbearing, and even shielding them from the disaster that might ensue upon a reentry into the Garden.

The relational aspect of God’s Image in Man clearly lends itself to at least two relationships of self-giving, self-surrendering love – that with God and that with neighbor. In his book Created for Community, Stanley Grenz argues that a relational aspect lies at the heart of the created order. He makes it quite plain that Man was created to be in communion with God, fellow Man, and even nature itself (in an appropriate sense). Please allow me to spend some time looking at a couple of these relationships – what are clearly the two most important and foundational.

Prior to the Fall, it appears to be quite clear that Man enjoyed a relationship of love with God, as he was the apex of creation itself. Man enjoyed the benefits of being one who was made in the very Image of God – an Image of relational, self-giving love. For the couple’s reaction to the coming of God in chapter three to carry its shock-effect, it must be seen that they had experienced a unique friendship with their Maker. We are told that they heard God walking in the Garden in the cool of the day, and nothing is said that would lead one to believe that this was an unusual occurrence.

Man is also seen experiencing a deep and fulfilling relationship with a neighbor – namely, his wife. With joy, Adam declared, “This at last is bone of my bones and flesh of my flesh” (2:23a ESV). God Himself, even saw that it was not good for Man to be alone, but that he should have someone suitable for himself (2:18). There existed, in the relationship between the man and the woman, a unity like no other in the created order, as we are told that husband and wife become one flesh (2:24). Further, there seems to be complete freedom in Man’s relationships, for we are told that the couple was naked and, yet, unashamed (or, free from fear). It is quite interesting to note that in verse 27 of chapter 1, while expressing the creation of Man in the Image of God, the text makes it a point to express that Image in terms of maleness and femaleness – “So God created man in his own image, in the image of God he created him; male and female he created them.” Man without Woman is incomplete. In the midst of all the goodness of creation, God declares that one thing is not good – for the man to be alone – without the woman, another free person who is personally like him, yet physically different and distinct in every way (2:18).

Let’s now look at a second aspect related to the Image of God in Man… the Corruption of the Image – As is man and reflective of the nature of God, sin is, by nature, relational in character. Sin is not some eerie substance floating in space but is, rather, a loss of relationship (class notes, page 62). Such a loss assumes that the one who sins and the one sinned against are relational beings. In the Fall, we find that Man made a free and conscious choice (i.e. Wesley [class notes, 63]) which terribly marred his share in God’s Image. Where sin is present, this is always the case, for the heart of the Image is relationship; therefore, sin being relational itself is destructive to that Image and, ultimately, to relationship as well.

The Temptation itself challenged Man to dare to grasp for himself rather than receive from another. The man and woman traded divine-provision for self-provision, divine-protection for self-protection. They once freely received, and in their Fall they found themselves greedily grabbing and taking for themselves, as their hands reached for the forbidden fruit. This self-assertiveness would inevitably lead to a perversion of all relationships in which they participated.

As relates to his relationship with God, Man found himself freely exchanging his love for God for a perverted and inappropriate fear of God. It is one thing to stand in awe of one’s Maker, but it is totally another thing to hide one’s self in fright as his Provider and Protector reliably comes to meet in fellowship. The problem of his relationship with the One in whose Image he had been made was an issue of separation. Sin had distanced his heart from that of God. And Man’s answer to God’s question concerning where he was is so revealing – he had heard God coming, was gripped by fear, and in shame had hidden himself from the only One who could ultimately redeem his condition (3:10).

And what about his relationship with his wife – the woman? No longer did he find love and joyful fulfillment in her. No, now would find himself using her for self-provision and self-protection. When questioned about whether or not he has eaten of the forbidden fruit, the man immediately passed the blame off to the woman. She had, indeed, offered him the fruit, but he had freely chosen to take and eat it for himself. And now, in order to protect himself, he points to her as the one who’s to blame. As a result of sin and its relational nature, Man has turned inward upon himself. He is radically self-centered, no longer finding fulfillment in another but, now, setting himself up as his own source of fulfillment. And the woman’s response, when asked the all-searching question, “What is this that you have done?” (3:13 ESV) – Oh, she places the blame off on yet anotherj created being – the serpent. So, you see, all of the created order, it appears, finds itself in desperate tension. Fingers are pointed; blame is placed; everything is someone else’s fault. And, why? Because Man now fends for himself, being gripped by the deadly clutches of self-centeredness. The outcome of such self-centeredness is vividly depicted in C. S. Lewis’s The Great Divorce. In the opening chapters, Napoleon is mentioned as an example of the inhabitants of the depressingly gray town – a town in which no one lives anywhere near another in a desire to be left to one’s self. For, you see, others can impose.

Even in these opening chapters of Genesis, it is clearly seen that Man is, by nature, radically relational in character – the central mark of the Image of God. Further, we can see that, subsequent to the Fall and as a result of sin, Man finds that relational Image terribly damaged and deeply perverted. His affections have changed; his fulfillment is skewed; and his relationships are devastated. However, rather than ending with such a grim tone, let’s end on a positive note… the Redemption of the Image.

The good news of Scripture is that God never leaves Man where He finds him. In fact, as is seen in the provision and protection given to Man after his grave sin, God meets Man in his deepest of needs. As John Wesley argued in his sermon “The One Thing Needful,” Man’s greatest need of all is the restoration of the Image of God. His relationality is central to who he is and is also the central front of sin’s attack; therefore, this is where God meets Man – in this the highest of his needs. His relationships, chiefly with God and neighbor, have been destroyed and are in great need to reconciliation. Therefore, it is only obvious that God’s salvation will, at its core, bring a restoration of these relationships, as He redeems His Image in Man.

In a time when Evangelicalism’s message often pictures salvation simply as an acceptance despite utter sinfulness and a passageway into heaven after one breathes his last breath, it is of utmost importance to remember that in redemption, God always meets needs, especially the greatest of needs. Therefore, an understanding of salvation that does not encompass a restoration of the Divine Image in Man is plainly lacking. Heaven and the joys of the afterlife are pictured in Scripture as bonuses, not the issue itself. C. S. Lewis cleverly asked how one could not but continue to live after death, when he has been infused with the life of God – eternal life. This puts things in a fair perspective – eternity is the outflow, for the issue is the Image and its redemption. However such a redemption might look, it is certainly fulfilled as God gives His life to those who bear His Image. And whatever we might say about redemption, we must, of necessity, involve the Image of God in the discussion, for redemption (or salvation) itself implies a restoration of what was intended and what was once experienced. May it be so!

About Adam Godbold

husband, father, pastor, and more View all posts by Adam Godbold

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