Written by Paul Lucas
It is commonly heard in Christian circles that humans were made “in the Image of God”. When pressed, however, it is unlikely that one will hear consistent and universal answers concerning the implications of humanity bearing God’s Image. In Scripture, this concept comes first from the creation account in Genesis 1: “Then God said, “Let Us make man in Our image, according to Our likeness” (v. 26). This idea is reiterated several more times in Genesis, such as Gen. 5:1 and 9:6. In the New Testament, James reaffirms that humans are made in the likeness of God (3:9). Unfortunately, as most things, the Scriptures lack the detail necessary to conclude precisely what it is meant by “the Image of God”. As such, history contains many debates, and the matter is hardly settled to this day.
Because this concept is directly found in Scripture, this question has existed ever since the original readers attempted to construe the texts. The meaning and application of this concept, therefore, has been debated for nearly all of Christian history, but the modern era has provided especially interesting and diverse opinions on the issue. As most philosophical and theological issues, the Enlightenment era brought in a new method of conceptualizing and explaining human nature and identity, and the modern to postmodern eras intensely and foundationally questioned the established norms which came before them. The secularization of culture and liberal theology movements have ushered in a plethora of conflicting ideas that question the very foundations of Christian thought. The concept of the Image of God has been scrutinized and debated in a modern era that is defined by rationalism, pure empiricism, and social constructivism, bringing divisive ideas that lead to more debates and uncertainty than traditional Christian Theology already had on this issue.
One key foundational figure of modern philosophy was the mathematician Rene Descartes. He was a true example of the spirit of the enlightenment and postmodern eras (even though he did not live in the latter) in that he foundationally questioned all of his knowledge and abilities to comprehend reality and truth. He was also a proponent of substance dualism, which is the philosophical position concerning the mind-body problem that humans exist in two separate substances: The invisible mind and the physical body; each existing independently of one another. Although his views have been contradicted an debated since he published Meditations on First Philosophy in 1641, his thought process was emblematic of the methods of reasoning used by theologians and philosophers in proceeding generations.
Philosophers that followed Descartes debated his ideas and accepted/rejected them to various degrees. From this, many responses to the mind-body problem emerged. The most avid opponents of his theory were Monists, who believed that there is no distinction between mind and body. This, of course, can proceed in two different directions: Only the mind (or spirit) exits, or only the body exists. The former is known broadly as idealism, and was held by philosophers such as Hegel, while the latter is known broadly as physicalism, and it is held by many modern scientists and naturalists, such as Richard Dawkins, Bill Nye, and David Hume.
Dualism vs. Monism on the Image of God
John W. Cooper is a proponent of dualism as a necessity: “some sort of dualistic anthropology is entailed by the biblical teaching on the intermediate state”. In this, he posits that there must be an existential distinction between soul and body in order for humans to have the ability to exist in an intermediate state. For Cooper, it is not possible for the soul to exist in such a state, while leaving a physical body on earth, unless there is a metaphysical distinction between them: “Then the person or soul cannot be the same as a living active human body or necessarily tied to such a body. There must be enough of an ontological difference between the person or soul and the body, that they are…separable at death”. Cooper’s beliefs open the door for discussing a possible means of describing the nature of the image of God in humanity. It is conceivable that the part of humanity that bears the image of God is either in the mind or is the mind, because the soul what seems to receive salvation.
However, one should be careful not to create a sinful-holy dichotomy between the body and the soul (that is, claim that the body is sinful whilst the soul is holy or good). There is evidence that sin corruption corrupts the mind/soul (Titus 1:15). Further, the physical body cannot be inherently corrupted, as Jesus had a physical body, and God deemed his creation as “good” (Gen. 1) when His Creations, including Adam and Eve, had physical bodies. Therefore, the Image of God is not necessarily restricted to one particular dualistic aspect.
On the other hand, G.C. Berkouwer would disagree with such a dichotomy altogether. He rejected the premise that the Image of God is attached to any one property of humanity. Instead, he believed in “Scripture’s emphasis on the whole man as the image of God”, citing Gen. 1:26; 2 Cor. 3:18, 4:6; Eph. 4:24; and Col. 3:10 to support this claim. Although he does not outright claim monism, his explanations for the image of God presuppose a variation of Spinoza’s view that the mind and body are somehow connected in all they do. For Berkouwer, humans are made entirely in the image of God, and entirely corrupted by sin, and will be entirely saved. This position, however, fails to account for the death of the physical body. It seems that if humanity’s physical being and immaterial soul both bore the image of God, then death of the physical body does not seem possible. Of course, one could respond by saying that sin corrupts it, but this merely takes the argument a step back.
It does not seem possible that the Image of God could be corrupted by sin, as it is related to God Himself. If God, by His nature, is wholly good, then His Image would have to be wholly good as well. Humans were created in the “likeness” of God, and every passage that references this fact sheds it in a good light. Given this, it seems that Scripture supports a wholly good image of God because God is good, and each reference to His image is positive. If the image of God is wholly good, then it is not evil or corrupted. If it is not evil or corrupted, then it cannot die. However, the human body dies, so the body cannot be wholly good. Therefore, the physical human body cannot be (as in, be the same substance of) the image of God in the way Berkouwer suggests. It seems that some distinction must be made between the corruptible being of humanity and the incorruptible image of God.
A possible answer to this contention is found in the work of Anthony Hoekema. He posits that “the concept of man as the image or likeness of God tells us that man as he was created was to mirror God and to represent God.” His view suggests that humanity’s ultimate purpose is to reflect the glory of God and to represent Him like an “ambassador to a foreign country”. This view solves the problem presented in the previous view by removing humanity’s being from the Image of God. Instead of actually being in the Image of God, humans are bearing the image of God. In this sense, to be made in the “likeness of God” is to bear a resemblance to Him; to represent His attributes in His Creation. Hoekema goes on to say that Jesus Christ is “the perfect image of God”, which is consistent with a high Christology and the image of God being wholly good and sinless. He makes the distinction that Jesus is the Image, while humans reflect the Image. This view seems to correct the problems of Berkouwer’s claims. As Image bearers, humans are not above corruption, and this is blatantly obvious in their inability to perfectly bear the already-perfect image of God.
Liberal Views in a Changing Culture
Because of the success of science in explaining natural (and supernatural) phenomena, adherents of physicalism are becoming more common, especially in the hard sciences. This cultural and philosophical shift has even made its way into theological discussion. Apologist Os Guinness explains this well in his work Impossible People: Christian Courage and the Struggle for the Soul of Civilization, where he goes into detail about the state of American culture and how cultural shifts have influenced the modern church and, in effect, modern theology.
Nancey Murphy proposed the theory of nonreductive physicalism. In short, this view denies the existence of an immaterial substance (a soul) whilst affirming the existence of a higher meaning to life. Her view states that “if there is no soul, then these higher capacities must be explained in a different manner…their full explanation requires attention to human social relations, to cultural factors and, most importantly, to God’s action in our lives”. For Murphy, the Image of God is wholly physical; as she denies the existence of any immaterial substance in humanity. While scientifically sound, her view fails to explain the concept of the Holy Spirit and how He can reside “inside” humans, and the effect He has on them. In short, anything spiritual referenced in the Bible must be understood completely metaphorically to remain consistent with this view.
This view is evidence of naturalism’s effects on theology. Due to recent advancements in neuroscience and the ability for science to “explain” actions that were previously attributed to the Soul, she rejects the existence of a Soul altogether. This position is an extreme example of the effects that culture has on theological thought. Unfortunately, the culture has influenced the Church to the point of complacency and/or ignorance concerning crucial theological issues.
The Bible clearly states that mankind was created in God’s Image and likeness. To that end, there is no debate. However, due to the lack of detail in the biblical account, certainty is difficult to find on this issue. Concerning issues that have no certainty, theologians have historically appealed to philosophy to answer their questions, and the Imago Dei is no exception.
Berkouwer, G.C. Man: The Image of God. Grand Rapids: Eerdmans, 1962.
Cooper, John. Body, Soul and Life Everlasting: Biblical Anthropology and the Monism-Dualism Debate. Grand Rapids: Eerdmans and Leicester: Apollos, 1989, 2000.
Hoekema, Anthony A. Created in God’s Image. Grand Rapids: Eerdmans and Exeter: Paternoster, 1986.
Murphy, Nancey. “Nonreductive Physicalism”. In Search of the Soul: Four Views of the Mind-Body Problem. Edited by Joel B. Green and Stuart L. Palmer. Downers Grove, Ill.: InterVarsity, 2005.