In the Image of God

(Genesis 1:26-2:9; Colossians 3:9-11)

Did you hear about the human exhibit at the London Zoo? Seriously, back in the summer of 2005, the London Zoo ran a four-day human exhibit in its Bear Mountain section—eight human volunteers in swimsuits and tacked-on fake fig leaves with a sign at the entrance reading, “Warning: Humans in their natural environment.” The sign was a bit of a stretch, I think—sitting on bare rock in a swimsuit playing board games and fiddling with hula hoops, eating catered meals and drinking Starbucks doesn’t really qualify as “natural”—but what really bothered me about the whole thing was the message the zoo was trying very hard to send: Humans are animals just like any other animal—only worse. The zoo released a statement describing humanity as a “plague species,” and a member of their PR staff explained the exhibit this way: “Seeing people in a different environment, among other animals . . . teaches members of the public that the human is just another primate.” Note that he didn’t say “suggests,” as if that were one point of view people should consider, but “teaches”: as in, “We know this is true, and the public needs to learn this.”

For some who participated, the whole thing was nothing more than a lark, but others clearly volunteered because they agreed with the zoo’s agenda. One person in the exhibit, a 26-year-old chemist named Tom Mahoney, explained his participation this way: “A lot of people think humans are above other animals. When they see humans as animals, here, it kind of reminds us that we’re not that special.” Again, notice that word “reminds”—the assumption is that this is something we ought to know but tend to forget. As I said last week, this is the scientific view of humanity: we are, as the zoologist Desmond Morris wrote some 40 years ago, just one more species of ape, distinguished only by our largely hairless bodies and our overinflated view of ourselves.

Of course, the whole thing was inherently ridiculous. Dr. Al Mohler, president of The Southern Baptist Theological Seminary down in Louisville, put it well: “The humans on display at the London Zoo were not captured and placed there by apes or elephants. The signs identifying the various creatures were not produced by the inhabitants of the reptile house. The apes and other primates resident at the zoo may look upon the humans with curiosity, but they have no control over their own destinies—and unlike their hairless counterparts, they stay in the zoo overnight. . . . The undeniable reality is that the humans are buying the tickets, orchestrating the event, volunteering for the exhibit, and going home to sleep in their own beds.” Perhaps the most telling comment came from Tom Mahoney, who—as well as arguing that humans are nothing special—said, “I wouldn’t do it if I didn’t enjoy it.” I wonder if he ever realized that he and his fellow humans were the only residents of that zoo who could say that—not just about living in the zoo, but about anything.

Mahoney’s remark, it seems to me, underscores the fact that while many people will tell you humans are just animals, nothing more, they don’t really live like they believe it; indeed, I don’t think they could. At some level, unless we have been terribly abused, we all know we’re more than that, and indeed that we’re more than what we seem to be. We may bury that sense, but it’s still there, telling us that we’re more than mere animals, and that we need to behave accordingly—for after all, if we’re only animals, who can blame us if we go out and do whatever we feel like doing? But if we aren’t, if we alone in creation are made in the image of God—if there is this that makes us profoundly different from the animals—then clearly that comes with certain expectations and responsibilities, whether we want them or not.

So what does it mean for us that we are made in the image of God? As I said last week, this is religious language, as Israel’s neighbors would make images of their gods and goddesses—statues, idols—and set them up in their temples to worship them; but they also used this language of their kings. You see, theologically, they understood that their chief god, whichever one that might be, ruled their nation; but as a practical matter, clearly it was the king who ruled. Thus it must be that the king ruled the nation as the representative of the god, and so they spoke of the king being the image of their god—the god’s physical representation who ruled on his behalf.

Now, you can see in this a real elitism—only the most powerful and important person in the nation was worthy of this label; everyone else was less important, second-class. Their gods and goddesses would smugly accept their worship, but disdained to identify themselves with such insignificant creatures. Out of this came the mindset that some human lives were more important than others, which as a practical matter meant that your life was only important to the degree that you were of use to the king. From that sort of perspective, our modern notions of equality and human rights would have seemed like ridiculous drivel; if the king is the image of the god and you aren’t, obviously the king is greater and you are lesser, and you don’t have rights, you’re just allowed to do whatever the king wants you to do.

That was pretty much the way ordinary people were seen by those who ruled the nations around Israel—they existed to serve their rulers in whatever way those rulers might desire; which is why Genesis was such a radical text. Its insistence that all people are made in the image of God blew that elitism away and replaced it with a very, very different view of humanity—rooted in an equally different view of God. This was a God who identified himself not only with the important people, but with all people, declaring that he had created all people in his image; this was a God who had created humanity not to be his slaves, serving his comfort and doing his dirty work (which was why the Babylonians, for instance, believed their high god Marduk had created humanity), but in order that he might love us and we might love him, as we saw last week.

There’s an important lesson in this: no human life is worth less than another. That might seem too obvious to need saying, but in fact it needs frequent repetition; the idea that some lives are worth less than others is one which keeps cropping up all over the place. These days, we see it in, among other places, the euthanasia movement, and in some of the arguments made in favor of abortion. Princeton professor Peter Singer is the clearest example of this, arguing at every opportunity that some people’s lives are not worth living—and that their family members should be free to kill them if it seems preferable. Against this idea, in all its forms, stands Genesis (and indeed the whole of Scripture), which declares unequivocally that God has made all people in his image, and loves all whom he has made. It is not ours to regard anyone as less important, or less human, than anyone else, no matter what excuses we might offer; whenever we look at another human being, regardless of any other considerations, we see the image of God in them, and we must treat them accordingly, without exception.

Given, then, that this applies to all of us equally, what does it say about us as human beings that we are made in the image of God? This is a question which has been answered in many different ways over the centuries, and there’s probably truth in most of those answers—but most of them don’t come from the biblical text. To understand the idea here, we need to go back to the fact that the nations around Israel used this phrase of their idols and pagan kings. If we do that, we can see that this lays the groundwork for what is commonly called the “cultural mandate”: the command to Adam and Eve in Genesis 1:28 to rule the earth and fill it with people.

Now, in saying that, we need to admit that this verse has been misused over the years to justify environmental irresponsibility. There are those who argue that since God gave us dominion over all the other creatures and told us to rule the earth and subdue it, we have the right to do whatever we want with whatever part of the planet we happen to own; and there are too many in the American church who have gone along with this kind of thinking. Now, this isn’t to get into all the legal issues of property rights and environmental law, but we really must remember two things here. First, this command was given to sinless people—it cannot be used to justify sinful actions. Second, when God says, “Rule the earth, subdue it,” and so on, he gets to define what that means and how it’s appropriate to carry out his command. Remember the basic message of these two chapters: God made the world, and as such he’s the Lord of everything that is; that means he gets to make the rules, not us.

As such, Genesis 1:28 doesn’t mean that God created us to rule the world as we see fit, or that we have the right to do whatever we want with it; rather, it means that he created us to govern it under his authority, as his deputies. The world doesn’t belong to us, it belongs to him; it isn’t our property to exploit, it’s our responsibility to care for according to his will. Creation is his temple, and we are its caretakers and stewards. As such, the dominion over the earth which God gave us—and which we still have; he didn’t take it back once our first ancestors fell into sin—isn’t a privilege, it’s a duty. Yes, it entitles us to draw support from the earth and its plants and animals, for those who labor deserve a fair share of the harvest; but the key is that we work for the good of all creation, including our fellow human beings.

And if we don’t? If we use God’s creation selfishly, abusing it for our own personal gain? Then rest assured, we will be held accountable. Thomas Jefferson, musing on the evil institution of American slavery, wrote, “I tremble for my country when I reflect that God is just, that His justice cannot sleep forever”; and he trembled with good reason. As Paul writes in Galatians 6:7, “Do not be deceived; God is not mocked, for you reap whatever you sow.” We will be held accountable by God for what we have done with the world he has given us—for the pollution in our air and water, and for the pollution in our culture. We have abused the earth and we have abused our fellow human beings, and the one is a sin as surely as the other. Our call and our responsibility is to take care of our world—including its people—for the God who made us all, and it is not a task to be taken lightly.

Understanding this is essential to free us from idea that the world exists simply for us to use, which reduces mountains and trees to raw materials and people to assets and resources. God didn’t create us to be resources or assets for someone else’s benefit, and he didn’t create the mountains and trees we see out our windows merely to be raw materials. We may use the trees for lumber, and we may draw on other people’s gifts to do things which need to be done, but we must always remember that that’s not all they’re for. Even as we cut the trees, we need to care for the forest, and the land on which it grows; and even as we take advantage of other people’s gifts to accomplish our purposes, we need to be careful that we aren’t taking advantage of other people. The justice of God demands no less.

This, then, is what it means that we are made in the image of God: it means an important responsibility for us, to care for the natural world and for the people around us, and to recognize the image of God in every person we meet and treat them accordingly. It means that we as human beings were created to be God’s representatives on this earth, the agents of his rule, and that those of us who recognize that fact are responsible to live that out in whatever ways we can. And it means that there should be great joy in doing so, because living in that way brings us into harmony with the purpose for which we were made, and for which this world was made, and so it opens us up to the joy of God’s creation. When we live selfishly, thinking only how we can use the world around us for our own purposes, we close our hearts to that joy; but when we live as God created us to live, we open our hearts, and our eyes and ears, and that joy becomes our own.

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