Genesis 1:27 proclaims that God created man in His own image. For reasons discussed in other posts on this blog (such as this one), I don’t automatically assume any statement is true just because it appears in Genesis, but in this case I think the text alludes to a great truth.
My purpose with this post, however, is not to dig into the text of Genesis specifically. Rather, I wish to discuss the question of whether God made man in His image, or vice versa, without presupposing the truth of any of the Old or New Testament scriptures. To many people, a stumbling block to faith in the biblical God is that He appears to have so many human characteristics. For some, it would be easier to believe in a God without human characteristics than a God who experiences and displays love, joy, anger, intimacy, distance, frustration, concern, or any other “human” attributes and emotions.
First of all, when we talk about man being made “in God’s image” or vice versa, what is it we are really talking about? To most of us (with the exception of some Mormon theologians), surely it isn’t height, or weight, or hair color, or anything physical. It is the soul, rather than the body, that is said to be created in God’s image. It is the ability to experience things, to feel things, to form judgments, to act creatively, and to manifest one’s will in the physical world.
So, did man make God in this image or did God make man? Voltaire once said “If God did not exist, it would be necessary to invent him.” I agree that it would indeed be necessary. A profound longing for God, for goodness, for heaven, and for the meaning to life, are all part of man’s nature. And if we were to invent God, I suppose it would make sense to make Him in our own image. What other kind of being could we remotely relate to? What kind of God could be imagined that wasn’t conscious like we are, or have a will like we do? I believe God is bigger than what we are, in having other attributes (eternity, perfection, omnipotence) that we don’t have. But anything smaller than what we are, not being at least as alive as we are, wouldn’t really be God, would it?
You may think that seeing how easy it would be for man to make God in his own image is evidence against the claim that God made man in His own image. I think the reverse is true. There are two good reasons we would want to invent a God we can relate to. First, such a God could best explain why we are what we are in the first place. Darwin’s narrative has become the model of choice for explaining the origins of man’s physical nature. But there is nothing in that model that could explain the origins of our consciousness.
As argued here, consciousness is neither something that would be necessary in an evolutionary model, nor is it anything for which a physical explanation – even in principle – has been found. It might be plausible to evolve a race of machines that look and act like humans, but not beings that are alive on the inside the way we are. In areas ranging from chess playing to flight to land speed to medicine, human design has surpassed – or is on track to surpass in the next century or so – all of the best devices nature has evolved by chance across billions of years. Yet we are not even able in principle to see how any configuration of physical matter becomes conscious. If nothing inside the universe can give rise to it, then it must have come from outside of it. And whatever gave consciousness to us must have it already Himself, and to a much greater degree than we do, since we can only wonder at consciousness and expect the same miracle to be given to our children, we can’t create it ourselves. So if the most essential part of our selves comes from Him, it seems pretty clear that we were in some sense “made in His image”. I think this can be reasonably concluded without picking up Genesis or any other book.
I assume that everyone reading this is conscious (my apologies to the latest search engine bots) and can relate to what I am saying above, as imprecise as it must by necessity be (if consciousness is non-physical, it can’t be measured scientifically).
However, the second reason for believing that God made man in His image rather than the other way around is a bit more subtle. Most people relate to it intuitively, but it doesn’t reference anything quite as objective as the suspicious fact that man can engineer all sorts of things but not create consciousness. I am referring to the longing that I mentioned above, the longing for there to be a God that is so intense as to make it necessary to invent Him were He not to exist. Aristotle, and later Aquinas, in somewhat technical philosophical language, claimed long ago that “a natural desire cannot be in vain”. C. S. Lewis, as he often did, put the idea into plain English as follows:
Creatures are not born with desires unless satisfaction for those desires exists. A baby feels hunger: well, there is such a thing as food. A duckling wants to swim: well, there is such a thing as water. Men feel sexual desire: well, there is such a thing as sex. If I find in myself a desire which no experience in this world can satisfy, the most probable explanation is that I was made for another world. If none of my earthly pleasures satisfy it, that does not prove that the universe is a fraud. Probably earthly pleasures were never meant to satisfy it, but only to arouse it, to suggest the real thing. If that is so, I must take care, on the one hand, never to despise, or be unthankful for, these earthly blessings, and on the other, never to mistake them for the something else of which they are only a kind of copy, or echo, or mirage. I must keep alive in myself the desire for my true country, which I shall not find till after death; I must never let it get snowed under or turned aside; I must make it the main object of life to press on to that other country and to help others to do the same.
— from Mere Christianity