Imago Dei

The title of these remarks is familiar to anyone who’s had seminary training. It’s one of those fancy terms they have to cover. I say they, because I’ve never been to seminary, and I’m just learning about a debate that’s been raging for centuries. This can be rarified stuff, but I thought it would be fun to try to break it down for the rest of us. Yeah, this is fun for me. My mission as a teacher was to demonstrate the fun of learning things.

Imago dei is Latin for Image of God. It’s the idea that we’re created in the image of God, and it’s an ancient concept in Judaism, Christianity by way of Judaism, and Sufi Islam, by way of both Judaism and Christianity.

The nudge for me to do some work on this topic came from a true story. Paul Peck, a friend in California, is one of the holiest people I’ve known. The air around him actually seems to glow. He wrote of a doctor visit and chatting with someone in the waiting room, who poured out her heart, as constantly happens with Paul. As he left her when the nurse called, he told her, “You are the perfect image of God.” All righty then. I wondered how he could say that to someone he hardly knew, and I wondered for years, What did he mean by that? I’ll try to end up with some sort of an answer.

For the past two or three thousand years, theologians have debated the difference between “image of God” (that our spirit is like the spirit of God) and “likeness of God” (that we actually look like God). I’m thankful that most scholars have decided not to worry much about this. After all, saying “image and likeness” is called a Hebraism, in which the ancient Jews would name one thing or action with two different words, for emphasis. This practice survives in modern law. For example, the defendant may be ordered not simply to stop, but to cease and desist. Congress has an important committee called Ways and Means.

You’ve heard the Genesis selections, probably many times. “Let us make humanity in our own image to resemble us.” Notice “in the divine image” and “to resemble us.” This wording comes from the Common English Bible, which has a reputation for careful translation from the Hebrew. Notice that in English, we have “in the…image” and “resemble.” A hair splitter would say Wait a minute: Doesn’t “in the image” mean a duplicate image, an exact copy? But doesn’t “resembling” mean copying approximately? So which is it? That’s what the debate is about. I’ll give you a tiny sample of the debate.

It doesn’t help us that the original Hebrew uses words for “copy” and “resemble” in the same way. And yes, for centuries, Jewish, Christian, and Sufi scholars have argued about this, debating like the good lawyers they were and hoping never to reach a verdict, because this was too much fun. The original nerds were probably these people.

One, Saint Augustine, said that the human mind is the location of humanity; therefore, the location of the image of God.

Iranaeus was an important theologian who was in on the action very early. He lived only five or six generations after Jesus. That’s only three lifetimes. I knew someone born before the Civil War, so I’m thinking Iranaeus was dealing with ideas that were still pretty fresh. He said, “…[M]an, and not a part of man, was made in the likeness of God.” Our actual bodies are images of God. Our likeness to God is evident via embodied acts. So our likeness to God is something we grow into, by purposely acting with our bodies. You following this? We require Jesus, because he’s the embodiment of God. Being physical bodies, we can’t fully understand how to live and grow into the fullness of the image of God without Jesus’s physical representation. Does this make your brain hurt? Maybe that’s because old Iranaeus sounds as if he wants it both ways.

You heard the stuff in Genesis, but wait, there’s more.

The Second Book of Enoch doesn’t carry much weight with Jews or Christians — it didn’t even make it into the apocrypha — but it’s interesting, and it makes a startling statement about our resemblance to God. It was probably written by a Jewish group, when the year was still just two digits, and records some of the imago dei debate already going on. “The Lord with his own two hands created mankind; and in a facsimile of his own face. Small and great the Lord created. Whoever insults a person’s face insults the face of the Lord; whoever treats a person’s face with disgust treats the face of the Lord with disgust. There is anger and judgement for whoever spits on a person’s face.”1

This writer, saying “facsimile,” seems to be saying that no matter who we are, we are a copy, an exact physical duplicate, of God. Personally, I see God as infinite, so I don’t have a problem with that.

But later in the same book, it says, “And however much time there was went by. Understand how, on account of this, he constituted humans in his own form, in accordance with similarity. And he gave them eyes to see, ears to hear, and heart to think, and reason to argue.”2

So the writer of this passage argues for similarity, not duplication, somewhat like Genesis, “in the divine image of God…male and female.”3

Wisdom of Solomon, or the Book of Wisdom, is in the Roman Catholic Bible, but the Protestants have it only as part of the Apocrypha. We do know it wasn’t actually written by Solomon, but probably by a Jewish scholar who hung out in the great library of Alexandria not long before the birth of Jesus. In one verse, it says, “For God created people to be immortal, and made them to be a perfect representation of his own unique identity.”4 Lots of food for thought there, but it doesn’t settle anything.

In one letter, Paul writes, “Christ is the image of God…,”5 and that “We always carry Jesus’s death around in our bodies so that Jesus’s life can also be seen in our bodies. We who are alive are always being handed over to death for Jesus’s sake so that Jesus’s life can also be seen in our bodies that are dying. So death is at work in us, but life is at work in you6…So we aren’t depressed. But even if our bodies are breaking down on the outside, the person we are on the inside is being renewed every day.”7

The same letter says“But we all with unveiled face, beholding and reflecting like a mirror the glory of the Lord, are being transformed into the same image from glory to glory, even as from the Lord Spirit.”8 To me, this soaring language argues for similarity, and our likeness to God being on the inside. I like this.

In his letter to the Hebrews, Paul elaborates: “God, having in the past spoken to the fathers through the prophets at many times and in various ways, has at the end of these days spoken to us by his Son, whom he appointed heir of all things, through whom also he made the worlds. His son is the radiance of his glory, the very image of his substance.”9 Some ancient theologians said this meant physical resemblance, as in 2nd Enoch10. Others decided imago dei was the internal likeness: spiritual/moral reflection, development, and growth. Christian doctrine holds that as God’s image, we can reason and discover, and even assert total independence, rejecting God, and that Jesus’s mission was to renew our relationship with our Creator and enjoy the gift of reconciliation.

Paul wrote to the Colossians “…and translated us into the Kingdom of the Son of his love; in whom we have our redemption, the forgiveness of our sins, who is the image of the invisible God, the firstborn of all creation.”11 So Jesus came to us to make God visible, because we needed that, but I see the resemblance of us to God in our actions. That’s what Jesus showed us and talked about.

Didn’t it have to be? I mean resemblance rather than duplication. So this is what God can look like: a cop answering a call, a kid comforting a parent, a grownup making a kid feel safe, or like Jesus himself, a regular, dusty little brown guy, trained to be a tradesman, with no money, but with a fortune in fortitude and love. God looks like any one of us. Let’s act like it.


Genesis 1:26-28 “Then God said, ‘Let us make humanity in our image to resemble us…’ God created humanity in God’s own image, in the divine image God created them, male and female, God created them. God blessed them and said to them, ‘Be fertile and multiply,’ etc.

5:1-3 “…On the day God created humanity, he made them to resemble God, and created them male and female. He blessed them and called them humanity on the day they were created. When Adam was 130 years old, he became the father of a son in his image, resembling him, and named him Seth.”

1 2 Enoch 44:1-3

2 2 Enoch 65:2-2

3  Gen 1:27

4 Wis 2:23

5 2 Cor 4:4

6 2 Cor 10-12

7 2 Cor 16

8 2 Cor 3:18

9 Heb 1:3

10 2 Enoch 44:1-3

11  Col 1:13-15