Then God said, “Let Us make man in Our image, according to Our likeness…”
From the story of creation, Genesis 1:26
I’m sitting in a small beach house on the Gulf of Mexico and calling it work. Really, I am working…you will have to trust me on that. It is just that right now the work involves waiting on a client.
While I’m waiting I have these few minutes to enjoy God’s creation and to ponder what it means that we are made in God’s image and likeness.
Some biblical commentators have suggested that image and likeness are the same, that the writer of Genesis says the same thing twice and in two different ways to make the strong point of our value as humans.
I recently came across another explanation that I find more theologically satisfying.
“In the beginning…” as the Book says, God and the first humans were united; humankind was by Grace what God is by nature. All was “good” until our first parents fell for a lie. The consequence of their disobedience of God changed humanity; our respective natures, God’s and man’s, were no longer united. Without God’s Spirit within us we became bound to the dust out of which we were created rather than bound to our Creator. To speak like the late Carl Sagan, we became the stuff of the creation rather than the stuff of the Creator.
God’s words from Genesis 3:16–
For dust you are, and to dust you shall return.
Our union with God now broken, there was no way for us to remain in the Garden of Eden, the garden of perfect harmony with our Creator. We had to leave. It remained that way for us for untold years, and, left to our own devices, there was no way to return, no way to reunite human nature with Divine nature. Separation of our nature from God’s, and being nothing but dust, would have been our eternal fate had God chosen not to act on our behalf.
At the moment of our separation from Him he announced that He had a plan for our restoration to Him, a plan to rescue us from being bound to the dust which is the world. Then one day, over two thousand years ago, Jesus was born and God’s rescue operation was made evident in the person of a baby.
One of the central beliefs of Christianity is that Jesus was both God and man, both human and Divine. I think we so often focus on Jesus’ death that we forget the significance of His birth. At the moment of His conception and manifest in His birth, human nature and Divine nature were reunited. Jesus became, as the Bible tells us, the second Adam. This has the most profound implication for us! Because of His birth it became possible for each of us to be reunited with God. With the birth of Jesus, the potential now existed for us to return home.
This potential is how the early Church Fathers came to understand our being made in the “image” of God: it is the potential for our “sanctification,” for our two natures, God’s and ours, to be united (called Theosis). And it is this potential that gives us value as humans over any other living thing: we are created in the image of God. Each of us humans has the potential to have our individual nature united with God’s nature. There are some who would try to confer “personhood” on apes or dolphins or other creatures based on intelligence, language use, etc.; however, no other creature has the potential to be united with God; humans alone are created in the image of God.
With this understanding of “image,” here is a great quote from the late Archbishop Dimitri of Dallas I want to throw in at this point:
The greatest danger in the modern world is the attack on man as the image of God. That God became man in order to unite man to God is the only sure Divine underwriting of human worth. We have value because of the image we bear.
If this potential of united natures is “image of God,” then what is “likeness?” It is simple, really. If “image” is the potential of union with God, then “likeness” is the actualization of that union. To actualize the potential, we must do two things. First, we must give God permission to begin drawing us into His life.
There are a lot of fancy theological words bandied about regarding Christianity. The bottom line is that God wants to invite us into His life, an unimaginable life of unconditional love. The ancients characterized this communal life of God the Father, God the Son (Jesus), and God the Holy Spirit, as a Divine Dance (perichoresis). God draws us into His life and wants desperately to teach us the steps of the dance.
This, then, is the second thing we must do: we must learn to cooperate with Him as He teaches us how to live life with Him, to dance the Divine Dance. And He is a gracious and patient dance instructor.
The most remarkable thing is that God wants this for each of us. After all, it is God’s desire that no one should spend an eternity dancing alone, disunited from Him. However, not everyone wants that sort of union with God.
So, look around you. Every human being you see bears the image of God. From the most kind person to the most hated terrorist, every one of us is an icon, an image of the living God. Every human being has inestimable value to God. Imagine a world in which we treated each other that way. Better yet, imagine a world in which this potential is fully realized. One day we won’t have to imagine this actualized world…it is God’s promised kingdom come. I pray that by God’s Grace within me, I will see you there.