Why It Matters – Imago Dei (Image of God)
Imago Dei: What It Is
Want to impress your friends? Throw a little Latin into your next conversation. You can start with this phrase: Imago Dei. Imago means “image” and Dei means “God.” It’s the Latin phrase for the Biblical teaching that humankind is created in the image of God.
Here’s where it comes from: Genesis 1:27 “So God created human beings in his own image. In the image of God he created them; male and female he created them.”
It’s a powerful and mysterious verse that has been a foundational theological belief for thousands of years of Christianity. But what does it mean?
In the ancient world, at the time of Genesis’ writing, the Egyptian and Mesopotamian cultures used carved and painted images to represent their gods and rulers. These icons were symbols to represent the essence of the god or king. They hung in temples, palaces, and were sometimes posted along borders to mark their kingdom. The intention was clear: if you came across any of these images, you should recognize and think about the king or god it represented.
This is the essence of Imago Dei. Humankind – you, me, and everyone you know – has been made to reflect God, his attributes, and point others to the relationship with him that is possible through Jesus Christ.
Imago Dei is reflected in how we were built, how we live in relationship with God and others, and who we will become when all is made whole in the return of Christ. This is what the Imago Dei is. The question we turn to now is an important one: why does it matter?
Imago Dei: Why it Matters
It is not difficult to think of reasons why this fundamental Christian belief matters. It matters because we can understand, in part, our unfathomable God. It matters because by it we learn the great responsibility we have been given to care for everything God has created. Seeing humankind as the image of God also matters because through this belief we are led to marvel and worship a God who is infinitely complex, unique and diverse.
But for me, the most important reason why it matters is the intrinsic value this belief brings to each and every person – man, woman, boy, and girl.
All human beings are special. All human beings should be loved. All human beings are valuable. Because all human beings are made in the image of God.
The opposite of this belief was brutally portrayed by the atheistic government regimes of the 20th century: Stalin’s Russia, Mao’s China, Pol Pot’s Cambodia, and others committed the greatest genocides the world has ever seen. Without the belief that God has created us, humans carry no innate value by simply being human, and without him there is no reason to respect intrinsic human value.
With the understanding that each of us has been lovingly created in God’s image, there is a life-changing respect and appreciation for all human life. Anyone and everyone is someone, to be noticed, respected, encouraged, cherished, protected and loved because each is valuable. Why? Because God made them.
In this paradigm there is no difference between the custodian and the CEO, film student and movie star, farmer and executive chef. There may be different roles in life, but there are not differences in value. Additionally, there is no intrinsic difference in value between man and woman, child and adult, black and white, Asian and Hispanic, single and married, Christian or Jew, Muslim or Buddhist because each person – before having a race, religion, or creed – is first and foremost, human. “In the image of God he created them; male and female he created them.” (Gen. 1:27)
Many of you have heard of William Wilberforce. Wilberforce was a follower of Christ, philanthropist and English politician. During his time in the British Parliament from 1780 to 1826, his sole mission was to abolish the British slave trade. From the floor of the House of Commons in 1791, Wilberforce said to his fellow politicians: “Let us not despair; [the abolition of slavery] is a blessed cause, and success, ere long, will crown our exertions. Already we have gained one victory; we have obtained, for these poor creatures, the recognition of their human nature, which, for a while was most shamefully denied.”
During the 50-year battle that was his life’s passion, Wilberforce had to convince his fellow lawmakers of one thing: the men, women, and children that were being bought and sold like animals, were being “shamefully denied” their “human nature.” In other words, as a committed Christian, Wilberforce was fighting for each person to be valued as a creature created in the very image of God.
I must confess that, sometimes in my life, I am like Wilberforce’s opponents. I sometimes think less of my fellow human beings solely because I do not agree with them, understand them or relate to them.
But do we not still overlook the image of God in others as we critique, judge, and look down on them? Who are we to think and believe that they are less valuable than we are?
May we instead, every time we interact with any person, offer the respect that we all deserve as an image-bearer of the Almighty God.
Imago Dei: Scripture Verses
Here are some key scripture passages about the image of God in mankind.
Imago Dei: Read About It
Want to learn more? Here are some recommended book titles about the image of God in mankind.
- Theology for the Community of God – Stanley Grenz
- Creation – Hans Schwarz
- The Doctrine of God – V.M. Kärkkäinen
- Old Testament Theology: Israel’s Gospel – John Goldingay
Check out an earlier post in this series here.
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