What Is the Imago Dei?

imago dei“Then God said, ‘Let us make man in our image, after our likeness. And let them have dominion over the fish of the sea and over the birds of the heavens and over the livestock and over all the earth and over every creeping thing that creeps on the earth.’ So God created man in his own image, in the image of God he created him; male and female he created them.  And God blessed them. And God said to them, ‘Be fruitful and multiply and fill the earth and subdue it, and have dominion over the fish of the sea and over the birds of the heavens and over every living thing that moves on the earth.’” Genesis 1:26-28

The question of imago dei has puzzled theologians and laymen for centuries. What does it mean to be made in the image of God? Answers to this question have included things like reason, relationality, the ability to walk upright, etc. I want to suggest three different ways of thinking about the imago dei:

1. Think about the imago dei in the context of a kingdom.

In the ancient world, kings would mark the boundaries of their kingdom by putting images or statues of themselves at their territorial borders. Images of a king marked out the extent of the reign of a king. When God sets up mankind as His image-bearers and commands them to fill the earth, He is sending them out to be markers of His reign to the four corners of the earth. Being an image-bearer of God means that you demonstrate to creation that the earth is the realm over which He reigns as king.

As bearers of the image of Jesus, in particular, we are to carry the message of Christ’s kingdom to the far ends of the earth. We are called to bring the truth to bear that “the earth is the Lord’s and the fullness thereof” (Ps. 24:1) and this ownership of creation is expressed clearly in Christ’s rule over all things. For “all things have been created through Him and for Him” (Col. 1:16).

2. Think about the imago dei in the context of a temple.

When temples were built in the ancient world, they were built with specificity. They were meticulously constructed with care, creativity, and beauty. The last item to go into a newly-built temple was an idol or image of the god for whom the temple was built. It’s interesting that God creates earth with meticulous care and specificity, not in a manner unlike that of a temple. Furthermore, earth is seen not only as a place for humans to dwell, but a place for God’s presence to be manifest. The earth was created to be a type of temple in which God’s presence would be felt on earth and mankind’s praise would be reflected back to Him. If you fast-forward to the picture of New Creation in Revelation 21-22, it is explicitly stated that the new earth is God’s temple. If we are to picture the creation scene as a kind of temple-building act, than it only makes sense that God’s last creative act is to place mankind in the center of this temple as His image-bearer. God’s dwelling place has at its center an image of Himself through the people He has created, so that, as priests, we represent His image to creation and reflect creation’s praise back to Him.

3. Think about the imago dei in its own literary/textual context.

Though theologians have stretched their the limits of their imagination in trying to articulate a creative description of the imago dei, a more sound approach to understanding what it means to be an image-bearer of God is looking at the text of Genesis 1:26-28 itself. Right after declaring that He was going to make mankind in His image, God states that man will have dominion over the earth. It seems as if the functional aspect of being image-bearers is that we are to reign over creation as vice-regents, of sorts, under the headship of God the King.

This all fits very nicely with the call of Israel to be a kingdom of priests (Exodus 19:6) and later for the church to fulfill its calling as a royal (kingly) priesthood (1 Peter 2:9). If we are to be priests and kings, than bearing the image of God means simply that as kings, we mark out His reign by ruling over creation and as priests, we image Him forth (represent Him) to creation and reflect creation’s praise back to Him.

The Takeaway

More than anything, the imago dei is a very practical doctrine. Specifically, there are three “takeaways” for image-bearers:

1. Rule. The charge to have dominion over the earth fills the word vocatio with meaning. It means that regardless of your profession, there is dignity in your work as a means of exercising dominion over creation. There is a way to write a song, paint a picture, and film a movie for God’s glory. In every achievement and advance of mankind, there is evidence of the image of God in man. We bear His image well when we pursue the arts, politics, business, and law for His glory. This is what caused Martin Luther to say:

All our work in the field, in the garden, in the city, in the home, in struggle, in government-to what does it all amount before God except child's play, by means of which God is pleased to give his gifts in the field, at home, and everywhere? These are the masks of our Lord God, behind which he wants to be hidden and to do all things . . . The works of monks and priests, however holy and arduous they may be, do not differ one whit in the sight of God from the works of the rustic laborer in the field or the woman going about her household tasks.

2. Represent. As “imagers” of God, we represent Him to creation. For believers, we are called “ambassadors for Christ” (2 Corinthians 5:20). As God’s ambassadors, we image Him well when we represent Him in a way that points others to find their sufficiency and satisfaction in Christ alone. This is a calling for every follower of Christ and is part of our created purpose as humans.

3.Respect. As image-bearers of God, humans have inherent worth and dignity. One practical implication of the imago dei is that we must respect and value life, from conception to natural death. This, obviously, is a case for the pro-life argument. Yet beyond this, there is a very real call for us to treat one another with kindness and respect because as humans, we are special. The co-worker you don’t like, the person in your church you have a hard time getting along with, the annoying kid down the street – all bear the image of God and deserve to be treated in a way that is worthy of one who is created in God’s image.

Don’t view the doctrine of the imago dei with theological perplexity. Rather, embrace the task and identity of being an image-bearer. As you do, you will find satisfaction in “ordinary” life and fulfillment in accomplishing the purpose for which you were created.