The Image of God and the Purpose of Mankind
What is the point of being human?
Sure, we can jump immediately into the most naturalistic approach and say that there is no point to begin with; it is all a happy accident and beings like God or stuff like a premeditated purpose are nothing but vain attempts to make sense of the complex world that surround us.
Are we being fools when we are looking for meaning? We have always done so. In fact, I dare to say that this search has been the true force behind much of our development; not only in religion, but also in science, as many times science is nothing else but religion afraid of superstition (more of that on the following article: “A Brief History of Religion and Science”). Both science and religion; meaning and purpose; are behind the same question: “Why?”
I find Solomon’s approach to this particularity in human beings very poetic:
“What profit hath he that worketh in that wherein he laboureth? I have seen the travail, which God hath given to the sons of men to be exercised in it. He hath made every thing beautiful in his time: also he hath set the world in their heart, so that no man can find out the work that God maketh from the beginning to the end.” -Ecclesiastes 3:9-11
Interestingly enough, the Hebrew word used for “world” in here: “olam” can also be translated as “eternity”. So, what kind of “world” or “eternity” did God place in our hearts?
The missing piece
Unlike many Christians, I don’t have a big struggle when classifying humans within the animalia kingdom. After all, I really don’t think we belong with the plants (plantae), the bacteria (monera) or any of the other biological kingdoms. Biologically speaking, we do share many similarities with animals. What I do have a problem with, however, is with popular beliefs about our origins. I believe a clear distinction from the other animals arises by our ability to think about the world and ourselves. And I –also believe- that the Bible offers an interesting explanation of why that is.
“And God said, Let us make man in our image, after our likeness: and let them have dominion over the fish of the sea, and over the fowl of the air, and over the cattle, and over all the earth, and over every creeping thing that creepeth upon the earth.” –Genesis 1:26
The first thing to notice about this text, is how personal God is when creating man. Unlike the creation of all other animals, the text makes sure to highlight a very personal involvement of the Trinity in the making of man. Notice the huge difference between “let the waters bring forth” (Gen 1:20); “let the earth bring forth” (Gen 1:24) and “let us make” (Gen 1:26). Also, notice the subtle shift in the level of satisfaction from God after creating man: before creating man, everything was “good” (Gen 1:4,10,12,18,21,25), but after creating man everything was “very good” (Gen 1:31). It is clear that man was the “missing piece” of God’s masterpiece in creation. In fact, it seems that man was created –at least partly- as God’s signature over it.
Some scholars identify the image of God in man as a symbol of God’s property. This idea is often reinforced with the story of Jesus and the tribute to Caesar (C.f. Luke 20:20-26); where Jesus points out that the coin has Cesar’s image on it and therefore it belongs to him (to Caesar). The exact recorded quote goes as follows: “Render therefore unto Caesar the things which be Caesar’s, and unto God the things which be God’s.” (Luke 20:25).
One can deduce that if the coin belongs to Cesar because it bears his image, man belongs to God because it bears his [image].
However, the meaning of the image of God in humanity can have way deeper implications. Our next approach into this matter, will make use of the terminology and immediate context of the verse quoted above (Gen 1:26).
The Hebrew word used for image here is “tselem” and it’s a word often used to refer to idols (2 Kings 11:18; Numbers 33:52; 1 Samuel 6:5; Ezequiel 23:14). This can be insightful if you understand how idols worked in the ancient world. Unlike popular belief, people did not believe an idol was a god or even necessarily looked like one. Instead, it was believed that an idol contained the essence of a particular god and the god it represented worked through that idol.
Having this understanding, one can see why people felt so desperate to have idols back in the day. To exemplify it, think about a cell phone: when you speak with someone through your phone you don’t believe that your phone is the person you are talking with, rather, you know that the phone is the means through which you communicate with the person at the other end of the line. In a similar way, back in the day having an idol close by meant having access to the benefits promised by the particular god your idol represented.
Thinking of man (humanity) in this sense surprisingly makes sense with the context of our verse, just notice the following:
Q: Who created the world?
Q: Who rules over all his creation?
Just like Daddy
It is interesting to see, that God creates humans with the intention to rule over the earth; to rule over all other animals. It then makes perfect sense to see why humans are gifted with reason unlike any other living being. It is not hard to make the case that reasoning is necessary to rule over a kingdom! Also, please notice that very similarly to the concept of image/idol that we studied, God makes his work of rulership through human beings. Not convinced yet? Please follow me with the next story:
Read Exodus 4:12,16 and 7:1,2. In these verses God calls Moses to be his representative before Pharaoh; God literally tells Moses that he (Moses) will be God to Pharaoh, and that his brother Aaron will be like his (Moses) prophet, speaking for Moses like Moses would speak for God.
This makes a lot more sense in the passage than you may think, because actually Egyptians believed that the Pharaoh was the image/representative of the god Ra (as his son or reincarnation). In other words, the 10 plagues of Egypt are nothing else but God fighting against the pantheon of false gods that the Egyptians held so dearly (including the Pharaoh). Beginning with the putrefaction of their holy rivers (and all sources of water) and finishing with the death of the next supposed-to-be representative of Ra: the son of Pharaoh himself. Showing in a very undisputable manner –through Moses- that God is the only true God. Of course, we know the story, and a lot of this pain could have been avoided if Pharaoh would have surrendered early in the game.
Reader: “So… what is the purpose of mankind? What is the point of being human?”
Emerson: “To represent God in this Earth; doing his work and ruling over it as his image”
Reader: “Huh… that’s cool I guess. But why aren’t we enjoying it?”
The short answer to that, of course, is the fall. But the fall and this concept of the image of God is one we’ll continue to study more in depth in other articles, as it is key to understand much of the Holy Scriptures. But for the moment, just think of the following:
When God created man He blew into his nostrils the “breath of life” and he (man) became a living being (Genesis 2:7). It is this very little piece of God’s essence what gives us life; what feels like an eternity within our hearts. It is the reason we think we are going to live forever when we are young and “full of life”; the reason why “the eye is not satisfied with seeing, nor the ear filled with hearing” (Ecclesiastes 1:8). It is also the reason we try to avoid death: something in us knows that it shouldn’t be this way. Yet, we accept it, because there’s currently no other way of being.
Reader: “But why would He (God) place this eternity in us, in a way that we can´t understand (Ecclesiastes 3:9-11)?”
Emerson: “Because in this manner we would always return to Him seeking for answers. Truth is, the more we understand of God and his work, the more we understand of ourselves and the work that we are supposed to do; the purpose for which we were created, because… we are his image.”
“What is man, that thou art mindful of him? And the son of man, that thou visitest him? For thou hast made him a little lower than the angels, and hast crowned him with glory and honor. Thou madest him to have dominion over the works of thy hands; thou hast put all things under his feet” (Psalm 8:4-6).