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The Meaning of the Image of God

Photo credit: Irina Murza via Unsplash.

Editor’s note: Nancy Pearcey is one of several Discovery Institute Fellows featured in the Museum of the Bible’s yearlong exhibit on Scripture and Science: Our Universe, Ourselves, Our Place” in Washington, DC. Pearcey was asked to address the topic of the image of God and how it answers the questions, “What makes me human?” and “What we can accomplish?” You can watch an edited version of her comments on the Museum of the Bible’s Vimeo channel. Since the exhibit could feature only short segments of Pearcey’s recorded comments, Evolution News invited her to offer her full comments in a series here for our readers. This is the first article in the series. Pearcey is a professor and scholar in residence at Houston Christian University. Her comments are adapted from her books The Soul of ScienceLove Thy Body, and The Toxic War on Masculinity.

The concept of the image of God comes from the first book of the Bible. In Genesis, God is depicted creating the first human couple: “God created mankind in his own image,… male and female he created them” (Genesis 1:27). 

What does this phrase mean? 

In the ancient world, it was rulers and emperors who were sometimes said to be “the image of God” — which meant they were claiming to be the representative of God on earth. What Genesis is saying, therefore, is that we are all royalty. The early readers of Genesis knew the text was making the astonishing claim that allhumans, not just rulers, have the dignity of being representatives of God on the earth.

This makes the Bible profoundly different from any other ancient text. As historian Tom Holland writes, “Gods in antiquity were not in the habit of endowing humanity with an inherent dignity. Quite the opposite.” For example, the ancient Babylonian creation story says the gods created humans to be their slaves. 

Two Commands

What is entailed in the idea of the image of God? In the next verse, Genesis explains that humans are given responsibility for stewardship over the rest of creation. For that, they are assigned two tasks: to “be fruitful” and “subdue the earth” (Genesis 1:28). Because Genesis is written in highly streamlined, symbolic language, we can unpack rich layers of meaning from these phrases. 

The first command is to “be fruitful and fill the earth.” Filling the earth starts with the family, but as extended families grow, they become clans, tribes, villages, cities, and nations. Groups also form to address specific needs: The village needs a school, a church, a government, a marketplace. And so on. Implied in the command to “be fruitful” is the responsibility to develop the entire social world, all the social institutions. Also implied are the rules and principles that structure those institutions — laws and policies, treaties and constitutions. Just as God created life, those who are made in his image are to create life and help it to thrive and flourish.

The second command, “subdue the earth,” means to cultivate the earth’s natural resources — to harness the forces of nature. Humans are called to investigate the natural world that God created and learn how to use its properties in creative ways. This starts with agriculture but also includes mining metals, constructing bridges and buildings, inventing new technologies, and composing music — in short, all the arts and sciences. Because God is the Creator, humans are called to be sub-creators.

The Cultural Mandate

This passage of Genesis is often labeled the cultural mandate because it tells us that the ideal human existence is not to enjoy an endless vacation but to expend creative effort in work. To fulfill our gifts in meaningful vocations. To build civilizations. To make history. 

The context of the verse is important. Like a theater director, God has set the stage: He has created the heavens and the earth, the plants and the trees, the birds and the animals. Then the narrative pauses. This is the only time in the creative process that God announces what he’s about to do — Let us make a creature in our image, who will represent us and carry on our work on earth (see Genesis 1:26). God then creates the first human couple. 

And what is the first thing he says to them? He gives them the cultural mandate — telling them why he created them, what their purpose is, what he intends them to do. We might call the cultural mandate the original job description for the human race. God engaged in creative work, and so should we. The image of God means human beings were given the task of being stewards and cultivators of God’s creation, to discover and delight in his handiwork.

Tomorrow, “Human Rights and the Image of God.”