Imago Dei

Genesis 1:26-27


2113 words


Please turn with me in the pew Bibles to the first book and the first chapter of the Bible, Genesis 1:26-27

26  Then God said, "Let us make humankind in our image, according to our likeness; and let them have dominion over the fish of the sea, and over the birds of the air, and over the cattle, and over all the wild animals of the earth, and over every creeping thing that creeps upon the earth."

27  So God created humankind in his image, in the image of God he created them; male and female he created them.

Amen.  The Word of God.  Thanks be to God.


The Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints is also called the "Mormon Church."  It was founded by Joseph Smith Jr. on April 6, 1830.  After Smith was murdered by a mob in Missiouri, Brigham Young became the second Mormon Prophet and led the group west to Utah.  Today the Mormons report a membership of some 12 million.  They are the fourth largest religious group in the USA.

But Mormons have some rather strange beliefs about God.  The Latter-Day Saints teach that God was once a man who achieved godhood.  They call this doctrine "eternal progression."  It frequently mentioned in Mormon literature.  For example, Lorenzo Snow, the fifth Mormon prophet and president wrote the couplet, "As man is, God once was: as God is, man may be" (Millenial Star, vol.54).

In Mormon theology, those who achieve godhood will have spirit children who will worship and pray to them just as we worship and pray to God the Father (Gospel Principles, 1978 edition, p.290).

Joseph Smith said: "I will prove that the world is wrong, by showing what God is...God himself was once as we are now and is an exalted man, and sits enthroned in yonder heavens!" (Teachings of the Prophet Joseph Smith, Deseret Book Company, Salt Lake City, 1938. p.345).

Joseph Smith continues: "God a man like unto one of yourselves...God himself, the Father of us all, dwelt on an earth" (Times and Seasons, vol.5, pp.613-614); "Here then is eternal life---to know the only wise and true God; and you have got to learn how to be Gods yourselves...the same as all Gods have done before you...To inherit the same power, the same glory and the same exaltation, until you arrive at the station of a God" (Teachings of the Prophet Joseph Smith, p.346-347).

Brigham Young taught: "He [God] ...was once a man in mortal flesh as we are, and is now an exalted being" (Journal of Discourses, vol.7, p.333); "The Lord created you and me for the purpose of becoming Gods like himself" (Journal of Discourses, vol.3, p.93).

So reversing that logic the Mormons say that if you want to know what God looks like, look at yourself.  Since human beings are patterned on the Lord, to see the copy is to see the original.  Therefore, God must have a body. God has arms and legs, a head with eyes, ears, nose, and mouth.  God is a physical being who has worked his way to divinity. 

Now I am not a Mormon and I do not believe this doctrine of “eternal progression.”  God is not a man who became God.  God existed long before there were people.  But we are told in Genesis that human beings are made in the image of God.  What does that mean?  It certainly does not mean that God has a human body, but the church has often argued about what it does mean.  For example, John Calvin, the revered founder of all things Presbyterian, spent a lot of time arguing with Andreas Osiander, a Lutheran pastor, (1498-1552) about this very subject.  Calvin wrote “that the likeness of God extends to the whole excellence by which man’s nature towers over all the kinds of living creatures” (Institutes I, XV, 3). 

Calvin’s logic seems to follow Genesis closely.  We read in 1:26, “Then God said, ‘Let us make humankind in our image, according to our likeness; and let them have dominion” over fish and birds, and cattle, and over all the creatures of the earth.  This image of God seems directly related to dominion over other creatures.  The image is the difference between us and them.  And what separates us from other creatures is not our physical body, but our minds.  The image of God is not found in a physical likeness, it is found in our consciousness.  The “excellence” of our nature is our awareness.

Many years ago, my wife and I went to the zoo in Albuquerque New Mexico.  They had a chimpanzee exhibition.  The chimpanzees were in a so-called natural habitant, and we watched them from behind a large plexiglass window.  Now, I have, as you may know, a rather impish nature, and I started making faces at the chimpanzees and pretending to be a monkey.  One of the chimps reached down and picked up a rock, and suddenly did a very fast underhanded throw directly at me.  This chimp could have been a professional softball pitcher.  The rock hit the plexiglass with a loud WHAM.  It didn’t scratch the plexiglass much, but It scared the daylights out of me. 

I suppose that we could reflect here upon who acted the most like a monkey in that incident and who acted the most human.  I offended that chimp, and he did not like it, and he let me know it.

Obviously human beings are closely related to chimpanzees.  Scientists tell us that there is only 1% of difference between the DNA of a human being and the DNA of a chimp.  But the 1% makes all the difference.  For all their closeness to us, Chimpanzees are not human beings.  What is the difference?  The main difference is consciousness.  We not only know, we know that we know.  For example, I did not realize that chimpanzees can throw rocks with power and accuracy, but I did know that after that one chimp threw a rock at me, and I not only knew it, I knew that I knew it.

This is the image of God, or in Latin the Imago Dei.  Thru the processes of time and nature, God has created a conscious creature, a human being, and because we are conscious, we can aid in God’s continuing process of creation.  God does not create out of some random whim.  God created us for a purpose.  Our purpose is to assist God in the ongoing process of creation. 

Genesis speaks of our power over creation.  This power makes us to some extent creators ourselves.  Now we do not want to fall into the Mormon error of supposing that we can be the equal of God.  God was the first creator.  God created ex nihilo, out of nothing.  Thus, the universe is dependent on God for its existence.  We human beings are creatures who emerged from nature by the action of God.  We are certainly not God, nor do we ever become God.  We were created by God to have a place in God’s ongoing work in the universe.  We are God’s instrument and agent, called by God to shape the future toward the aim of God.

The Children’s Catechism says that God is love.  Incidentally I John 4:8 also says that.  But if God is love, It would seem to follow then that any image of God in man is an image of love.  Genesis describes the image of God in terms of power, the power we have to make things and change the world, but this power only really becomes the image of God when applied in love. 

Now, we can spoil, and deface, and destroy the image of God in us.  We do that when we try to use power without love.  This leads us to a definition of sin.  The root of sin is a failure to realize what life is about.  Life is about love.  The whole Bible is about love.  The Bible teaches that from the beginning God loved us.  God loved us so much that he created us in his image.  God loves us so much that we suffer, he suffers with us, when we rejoice, he rejoices with us.  God loves us so much that God gave us great power, the power of his own image.  But great power always involves great tempation.  The temptation is to misuse power.  God has imprinted us with his image for a purpose.  We ought to live out the purposes of God wherever we are, however we can.  The failure to do so is sin.

We also see here what true greatness is.  We achieve true greatness when we apply the image of God the way God applies it, that is in love.  But if we misapply our power, we willfully separate ourselves from God and deface God’s image in us.

In the Bible, whenever God reveals himself, God confronts people with a choice.  God revealed himself to Abraham and Abraham made a choice to go to the land of Canaan.  God revealed himself to Moses and Moses made a choice to return to Egypt and free the people.  It is the image of God in us which enables us to make choices and to be responsible for our choices.  We have been given that great power, and thus, we are responsible for the way we use that power.

It is interesting that in v27, the image of God is given not to individuals but to the whole human community.  We read: “God created humankind in his image, in the image of God he created them; male and female he created them.”  Genesis seems to be saying that we find the image of God where people are living together in community.  The image of God is people working out relationships with one another. 

Sometimes when we think of power we think of the selfish ways we can use power.  We think of how we can take advantage of others, how we can expliot others.  God shows us a different way of power.  God says that real power is found in a community of mutual responsiveness and sharing.

The great anxiety of our postmodern civilization is loneliness.  We are surrounded by crowds.  We walk and talk in our millions and billions, and yet we are so lonely.  There are people everywhere, and yet we seem to be walled off from one another.

In their song “Eleanor Rigby,” the Beatles sang, “All the lonely people, Where do they all come from? All the lonely people, Where do they belong?”

They belong in community.  We belong to them and they belong to us.  God calls us into community.  God calls us to love another and help one another and be there for one another.  This is part of Imago Dei.  We were created for communion with God and communion with each other. 

In our secular society, we have a community of individuals that does not much impact one another.  The community of the people of God is not like that.  It is a real community of people loving each other and caring for each other.

This reminds me of the parable of the marbles and the grapes.  Put a bunch of marbles into a bag.  The marbles impact each other, ricochet off each other, but when you take them out again, each remains intact, distinct, and individual.  When people operate like marbles, they may get together, but when they separate again, everyone’s still the same as when they arrived.

The alternative is Christian community—which is represented by a bag of grapes.  Put grapes into a bag, and apply a little pressure; the grapes break open and all their flavors get mixed together -- they influence the others and are influenced -- they become one – give them a little time and they can produce some fine wine.  Even so, Christians together can produce a fine work of God.

The marble mentality grows from selfishness.  It is all about me and I do not care about you.  That attitude is totally foreign to the image of God in us.  We were formed to live with one another and for one another.  As Christians, we are together the body of Christ and members of one another.

I guess then the question for us today is: Are you a marble or a grape?  Does your life impact other people in God’s love?  Do you influence others in God’s direction?  The image of God is about power, but it is a loving power, that always calls us to act with and for others.  Amen.



If you have questions or comments, email Tony Grant

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Last modified  08/27/07