What it Really Means to be Made in the Image of God

Genesis 1-11, ESV

In school this semester, my classmates and I are reading the Bible in its near-entirety. The content of these posts summarize several comments of my teachers and classmates, and include what I found to be the most salient themes in our discussions. These posts do not reflect firm conclusions, instead they reveal a transparent process and an attempt to spark discussion and further exploration into what we might learn from this Great Book. 

“So God created man in his own image, in the image of God he created him; male and female he created them.”

Genesis 1:25 ESV

The Thoughts: 

The Fall made us more like God, not less.

According to Gen 1:26-27, Adam and Eve were made in God’s “image and likeness.” Before the Fall, Adam and Eve appeared to have free will, insofar as they named animals and “subdued the earth” (2:20). At this time, they used their human volition in obedience to God. They were “naked and not ashamed” (2:25). By eating the fruit of the Tree of Life, the serpent promised them that their “eyes will be opened, and you will be like God, knowing good and evil” (3:5). Adam and Eve, seduced by the serpent’s not-altogether-untrue promises, employed their free will, for the first time, in disobedience to God by eating the fruit. Later curses and consequences aside, this precedent-setting application of human will is the most significant shift in human nature caused by the fall (or cause of the fall).

What are the results of this newfound antagonizing will? Enter fear. Just as the serpent said, “The eyes of both were opened, and they knew that they were naked,” says Genesis 3:7, “And they sewed fig leaves together and made themselves loincloths.” Adam and Eve, both freshly aware of their capacity to employ their free will against Someone, then understood that this same ability was also present in the other.  They were now vulnerable to whims of that “other” free will, capable of the same disobedience and betrayal that their own had just accomplished. The story suggests that the presence of two autonomous creatures, instead of one, opens a range of possibilities– a rapidly-growing potential for chaos against which one must protect himself. Their awareness of their own nakedness wasn’t so much of a “looking down and noticing a private part” as I have always imagined it, as much as it was a novel awakening to the threat of the “other,” followed by a desperate attempt to conceal their own weakness in defense. The discovery of a threat precedes the realization of vulnerability. “I was afraid, because I was naked, and I hid myself,” said Adam to God (3:10).

Also, notice how the first result of the fall is the “opening” of Adam and Eve’s eyes. The phrasing of the verse implies that this startling reality of the world had always existed, Adam and Eve simply could not see it. Their “eyes were opened” only once they had participated in the activity that makes the world a fearsome place: the act of enmity and betrayal. God’s question for Adam, “Who told you that you were naked?” further suggests the prior existence of this alarming fact. Before the fall, the crafty serpent deceives and reveals his existing “knowledge of good and evil” possessed by the tree. Evil was not introduced at the fall. “The fall” merely signifies the introduction of human participation in evil’s dark cacophony, and our ceaseless urge to shamefully hide as a result.

The significance of the tree, of a thing in the garden that was not permitted, further implies the possibility of moral choice (and the potential for evil) before the fall. God simply instructed Adam and Eve not to eat it, knowing that their autonomous moral choice was the only barrier preventing them from doing so. God’s instruction implicitly recognizes a free will in Adam: Why would He need to issue a warning if not to request or recognize a level of voluntary cooperation from Adam? Still, Adam and Eve could have obeyed his instruction and would have likewise exercised moral choice. But this would nonetheless have required true obedience, which implies the very real possibility of disobedience. They were tempted by the snake– but the tree, the object of temptation, was in the garden from the beginning. Could Adam and Eve have eternally resisted the tree? Or was it a ticking time-bomb from the start? The latter seems more likely to me. 

After they ate the fruit, God said of them, “the man has become like one of us, in knowing good and evil” (3:22). Part of the nature of autonomy is that no one can give it to you– evidently not even God. You must make your own choice. This idea of permission and thus the opportunity for “autonomous” moral choice seems exclusive to humanity, separating us from animals. This verse in response to the humans’ newfound autonomy reveals progress toward the end of man in God’s image: “the man has become like us,” God says. 

What if the “fall of man” was not an anger event, but a fulfillment of the promise of being made in His image? Something about the exercise of autonomous moral choice signified in the tree, as the serpent claimed, indeed made humans more, not less, like God. So, is the understanding and possibility of evil actually part of what it means to be made in the image of God? Are the possibilities of risk, failure, heartbreak, and hardship that accompany the “knowledge of good and evil” part of being made in the image of God? It seems so.

The Bottom Line:

Adam and Eve did not eat a poisoned apple, Snow-White style. That dark magic was manifested much less in an enchanted apple and much more in Adam’s first willful disobedience.

Evil begins when someone employs their free will against God instead of for Him. Fear and shame ensue against the perpetrator. 

The knowledge of Good and Evil is actually a part of being made in God’s image. If this is true, heartbreak and hardship are maybe less a feature exclusive to a “fallen world” and more of an experience inherent to our divine nature. That’s comforting. Perhap’s Leibniz was right- we do live in the “best of all possible worlds.”

The Lingering Questions: 

Was God naked as he walked through the Garden with man? Is God vulnerable? God later clothed Adam. Does being clothed ourselves make us more like God? Is God himself clothed?

Why did God try to prevent this human ascension to likeness in his image? In his original prohibition of the tree to Adam, he never included the serpent’s later contribution that the fruit would make the humans “more like God.” Some other verses make him sound threatened: “Now, lest he reach out his hand and take also of the tree of life to eat, and live forever–therefore the Lord God sent him out of the garden of Eden…” (3:23). Also at the Tower of Babel, God said, “Behold, they are one people, and they all have one language, and this is only the beginning of what they will do. And nothing they propose will be impossible for them” (11:6). Perhaps there can only be one true God, and humans could rob God of his “god-ness” if they resemble him too closely. I don’t know.

Is Creation simply the possibility of unhindered potential? It seems that God’s pre-fall world contained all of the enormous potential that our post-fall world now contains. Perhaps God’s instructions are his attempts to mitigate/ help humans properly navigate the inevitable chaos.

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