IN THE IMAGE OF GOD
T. Pierce Brown
One of the noblest statements of the Old Testament, yea, of all literature, is that found in Genesis 1:27, “So God created man in his own image, in the image of God created he him; male and female created he them.” A denial or disbelief of that fact has been at the root of some of the most heinous crimes ever perpetrated upon the human race. Hitler’s experiments in selective breeding of humans, his assumptions of Aryan superiority, his murder of millions of Jews are but some results of the assumptions of the evolutionary theory. If man was not created in the image of God, but is the product of the survival of the fittest, then only the fittest are worthy of survival, and the elimination of the unfit is the wise and proper course.
Not only abortion, but also killing the infirm (sometimes referred to euphemistically as euthanasia), is the natural consequence of the theory. If man is not in the image of God, then to speak of ethical or moral choices is just so much linguistic garbage. Can you imagine a lion debating the morality of killing a mother deer or allowing the baby deer to starve to death without her? Can you even imagine a human being stupid enough to debate it?
Let us think of the meaning of being created in God’s image and the implications of that fact. Some have thought of it as referring to man’s physical being having some form or shape like God. This cannot be so, for God is spirit and has no physical form or shape. This is not to deny the fact that he can appear in any form he chooses, but it could be in a burning bush as well as a human form. The fact that he is spoken of as one who has eyes, hands, ears, etc. has no bearing on the subject for two reasons. First, if God is trying to let us know that he can observe us, hear us and minister to us, he has to do it in words that mean something to us. These expressions are called anthropomorphisms. Second, a bird or a fish may have eyes without being in the form of a man. So it is not without reason to speak of God’s eyes, ears, or hands though he is Spirit.
There will be no attempt to exhaust the meaning of the expression “in the image of God” but merely some comments on some things included and the implications for us. First, we suggest that God is a triune being. The Godhead consists of the Father, the Son and the Holy Spirit. Man is a triune being, consisting of body, soul and spirit (1 Thessalonians5:23). I am not affirming that this proves that man is in the image of God, for I cannot show any scriptural correlation between the three parts of man and the three parts of the Godhead. I am suggesting that there is a “likeness” in the fact that we are triune.
It is often suggested that we are in the likeness of God because we have intelligence. That fact alone would not prove it, for animals have intelligence. It is not the intelligence, but the kind of intelligence, that puts us in a different category. The same kind of things could be said about life or spirit. Plants and animals have life. Solomon said in Ecclesiastes3:21, “Who knoweth the spirit of man that goeth upward, and the spirit of the beast that goeth downward to the earth?” The fact of having it is not what makes us in the image of God, but the quality of it.
For example, the beaver that builds a dam today builds it the same way it did thousands of years ago. The spider in thepalaceofSolomonbuilt a web as beautiful and efficient as the one that builds it on my back porch today. Man is different. He has what Alfred Korzybski calls a “time-binding” capacity. Each generation of humans can start where the former generation left off. No animal has this creative and progressive capability that can lead to our becoming Christlike and Godlike. Man cannot create anything in the sense in which he can bring things into being out of nothing. But truly, God did not bring things into being out of nothing. Philosophically and theologically, we could say he created them out of himself. We do not want to dwell on that, but simply point out that there was never a point at which there was nothing. God is!
When an artist or an architect, from within himself, brings into focus from an abstract idea a painting or drawing, he has demonstrated the creative, time-binding characteristic that shows him to be in the image of God. No animal can do that. A beaver can build a dam, but it cannot draw a plan of a dam that can be improved tomorrow. One may ask, “What difference does it make?” To paraphrase Paul, “Much in every way!” Since God created us a higher order of beings, we have the responsibility to be Godlike instead of animalistic. Since we have the capability to “create” a better world, using the information God gave us about the events of yesterday and passing that information on to those who will be here tomorrow, we have the responsibility or duty to do that.
Paul is suggesting that when he says in Romans 15:4, “Whatsoever things were written aforetime were written for our learning.” To Timothy, he commands, “And the things that thou hast heard of me among many witnesses, the same commit thou to faithful men, who shall be able to teach others also.” Did you ever consider the meaning of “responsibility”? Your response should be in comparison to your ability. No animal has the responsibility to learn from past generations and become more like God, for it was not made in the image of God. We were, and since we have that ability, we are required to make that response.
The most significant thing that marks man as one who is in the image of God is his sense of morality. God in his grace gave us a conscience, a sense of rightness and wrongness that no animal has. An animal can be taught to do or not do some things, but it is a conditioned reflex and has nothing to do with a sense of right and wrong. We think this can be proved in many ways, but we doubt that those who read this need any proof.
A thoughtful analysis of the story of mankind may cause us to raise a question. “Did God create man with a sense of good and evil, or did he only have the ability to know good and evil after he took of the forbidden fruit?” It must be obvious to any thoughtful person that they knew it was wrong for them to take the fruit that God had forbidden, for otherwise they would not have been ashamed when they did it. But how could they have knowledge of good and evil before they ate the fruit that would give them that knowledge? The point we are making now is that they had the capacity to know good and evil and make moral choices because they were created in the image of God. They did not existentially or experimentally know anything except good until they had done evil. They knew the difference abstractly, intellectually or morally. They did not know the difference concretely, pragmatically or practically until they ate the fruit.
It is very similar to the analysis of the statement about Jesus in Hebrews 5:8, “Though he were a Son, yet learned he obedience by the things which he suffered.” Does that mean he had never obeyed until he suffered? The answer is surely too apparent to need discussion. Yet he had not learned “obedience unto death” (Philippians 2:8) until he learned it from actually doing it.
In addition to the conscience, the consciousness of things that are morally right or wrong, man has the will that can execute those choices that have been made. In this, he is shown to be in the image of God and different from all animals. We should know that being in the image of God does not involve being omnipotent, omniscient, or omnipresent. Our conscience was not given us to tell us what is right or wrong, but to commend us when we have done that which our intellect tells us is right and to condemn us when we have done what our intellect tells us is wrong. Contrary to what we normally hear, the conscience cannot be trained. It only does two things, commend or condemn, and cannot be trained to do anything different. It can be sharpened or dulled, so it will operate better or worse. Paul’s conscience was the same before he was converted as it was after. It had not been trained to do anything different. The input from his intellect was different, but his conscience functioned exactly the same way.
Often we have heard gospel preachers mouth the words of theologians that we were made in the image of God, but we have broken or destroyed that image. This language seems improper to me. The things that make mankind in the image of God are still present in the worst sinner as well as in the best saint. They still have the same ability to make moral choices and the responsibility to do it properly. We may act like animals, but we are not animals who are no longer in God’s image and therefore have no responsibility to act like it.
Part of our intellectual problem about that comes with our lack of clarity about the question, “Can a man change his nature?” My answer is that the Bible clearly shows that a man can change his nature in the sense that Ephesians 2:3 uses it, “–were by nature the children of wrath.” Thayer says the word nature here means “a mode of feeling and acting which by long habit has become nature.” An alcoholic “just naturally” gets drunk when he takes one drink and has the opportunity to take more. But that did not change his basic nature. He still can know right from wrong and to make moral choices. James 3:9 says about the tongue, “Therewith curse we men which are made after the similitude of God.” This suggests that mankind is still made in the image of God. Man did not “break” that image and pass on to his descendants the “fallen nature” that some assume. One can find no sinful tendency or inclination inherent in man after the sin of Adam that was not found before that.
It is certainly true that man may develop a depraved and perverted nature to the degree that when people see us they do not see Christ in us. In that sense, one might say we are no longer in the Divine image. If we assume because of our imprecise use of language that we have thereby so defaced or destroyed the image of God in us that we are no longer responsible for acting as if we are made in the image of God, we do disservice to the teaching of God’s word.