What does it mean to be ‘created in God’s image’? It’s a question theologians, scholars and ordinary Christians have pondered for centuries. Lots of ideas, no consensus. Everyone recognises that human beings are unique amongst the animal kingdom. But unique in what way? Morality? Use of tools? Ability to reason? Language, cooperation, rationality, intelligence, a spiritual dimension? All of these have been proposed, but advancements in zoology have brought the humbling recognition that many creatures share these traits, albeit in a more rudimentary form. Yes, human beings are more sophisticated in their development, but is the image of God merely a sliding scale of evolutionary achievement in which humans have somehow surpassed other species?
Even spiritual awareness is now regarded as a Neanderthal (and perhaps other hominid) characteristic. And who’s to say that dolphins, elephants, or magpies will never have a sense of the spiritual realm? Biologically we’re not unique at all. Homo sapiens are just a species of mammal with specialised abilities like all our fellow creatures, made of the same ‘stuff’ as all living things – chemical and genetic structure, DNA, etc.
The real problem with all these proposals is they have very little biblical basis. When the Bible uses the term ‘in God’s image’, none of these qualities are mentioned. Instead, human beings (or adam in Hebrew) are told to ‘rule over all the other creatures’ God had made (Gen 1:28). This is a unique functional role rather than an inherent characteristic.
John Walton and other proponents of ‘temple theology’ identify the biblical creation narrative as a cosmic temple inauguration where ‘heaven and earth’ is shorthand for God’s temple dwelling. Think of Isa 66:1, ‘Heaven is my throne, and the earth is my footstool.’ In Ancient Near Eastern culture, temple inaugurations were 7-day events, culminating in an image of the god being revealed and beginning to ‘rule’ from the throne. But surprise! The ‘image’ of the Hebrew God was not a stone statue but adam – human beings! From the temple the rule, power, and authority of the god emanated outward. Adam and Eve were given the priestly role to be God’s image-bearers – mediators of God’s rule – to all of creation, subduing it under God’s dominion.
This gives a whole new meaning to Jesus’ words, ‘whose image is on this coin?’ Give to Caesar what has Caesar’s image, and give to God what has God’s image – yourselves!