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Idolatry and the Imago Dei

A Flat Contradiction

People are created in God’s image.[1] They also easily slip into idolatry. Idolatry is serious business since idolatry is a flat contradiction of what it means to be created in God’s image. We need to get clear on what it means to be in God’s image, how idolatry contradicts that image, and how we can be liberated to be who God made us to be.

What It Means To Be in God’s Image

When the Bible talks about something being an “image,” that means it has a connection with something else in a way that may also involve a reflection of it. Being the image “of God,” in particular, means having a special connection with God as well as being a substantial reflection of God. Having a special connection is significant because mistreating the image means one is mistreating the original. Being a substantial reflection is significant since that means the image displays attributes (capacities, traits, abilities, etc.) of the original to the extent that it can do so.

The idea that being an image signifies having a special connection is evident, for example, in Daniel 3:1-7, which reports the Babylonian King Nebuchadnezzar erecting a large image in the province of Babylonia. Kings in the ancient Near East would periodically erect an image to establish their presence as rulers where they were not physically present.

The other element often present in an image is the way that it provides a reflection of certain attributes of the original. In Old Testament times, images often displayed something about a king or a god. In Daniel 3, the great height and gold surface of the image reflected the king’s grandeur and wealth.

When the New Testament refers to Christ as God’s image, both connection and reflection are in view. In Colossians 1:15, for instance, Paul straightforwardly affirms that Christ is the image of the invisible God. Christ’s special connection with God is so close here as to constitute oneness. Moreover, Jesus is a substantial reflection of God—someone who can be seen, in contrast with the “invisible God.” The text surrounding 2 Corinthians 4:4 similarly communicates that Christ’s image-of-God status involves a connection with, and reflection of, God.

Being vs. Being in God’s Image

Whereas Christ “is” God’s image, the Bible states that people are “in” or “according to” God’s image. The insertion of a preposition indicates people stand in some relationship with God’s image. The image-related passages in Genesis (1:26, 1:27, 5:1, 9:6) consistently insert a preposition between people and the image. Image-related passages in the New Testament directly or indirectly referring to Genesis (e.g., James 3:9; Col. 3:10) also insert a preposition.

It’s not plausible that in each of these passages the author is simply saying that people are God’s image as if there were no prepositions there, and no need to add them. In fact, prepositions such as “in” or “according to” make quite a difference. Saying that someone is in the water is quite different from saying that someone is the water. Saying that a violin is according to a paper blueprint is quite different from saying that the violin is a paper blueprint.

The Bible’s authors use prepositions to distinguish the rest of humanity from Christ. Because Christ isn’t explicitly addressed in the Old Testament, the Old Testament simply affirms that people are not yet God’s image but are created “according to” the standard of who God is (in order to reflect God’s attributes to God’s glory). In the New Testament, it becomes clearer that Christ as God’s image is the standard to which people need to conform—because people are created “according to” that image. James 3:9 is particularly significant on this point since it conveys a New Testament author’s summary of how the Genesis idea should be understood. When the Bible talks about something being an “image,” that means it has a connection with something else in a way that may also involve a reflection of it. Click To Tweet

The Impact of Sin

Failing to take seriously the distinction between Christ being God’s image and humanity being in God’s image has contributed to overlooking a second important distinction—that sin has damaged people, not damaged God’s image. If people were God’s image, then by damaging people, sin would plausibly damage God’s image. However, if people are created in (i.e., according to the standard of) God’s image, no damage is done to the standard just because people are later damaged.

There are ample discussion and documentation in the Bible regarding the destructive impact of sin on people. Yet, at the same time, there is every indication people remain “in God’s image”—that no harm has been done to this status or to the image on which it is based (see Gen. 5:1; 9:6). People retain a special connection with God (though their relationship with God is badly damaged), and God still intends for people to reflect likenesses to God (though in actuality they largely fail to do so). The image of God is the standard of who people are created to be—embodied in the person of Christ—and that standard is not diminished in any way because of sin. Similarly, in sanctification, it is people who are being renewed. God’s unchanging image is the standard for that renewal (see Rom. 8:29; 2 Cor. 3:18: Col. 3:10).

Being created in the image and likeness of God—or in the image of God, for short—is thus about special connection and intended reflection. (There is one concept here, not two; either “image” alone [e.g., in Gen. 1:27 and 9:6] or “likeness” alone [e.g., in Gen. 5:1 and James 3:9] is sufficient to refer to it.) People in God’s image have a special connection with God and God intends them to reflect God’s own attributes to the extent that they can do so. Thus the tremendous significance of human beings is completely secure, rooted in God’s unwavering intentions rather than in variable current human capacities.

How Idolatry Contradicts What It Means to Be in God’s Image

Although God intends people to have various attributes which somehow reflect God’s own, sin has prevented those attributes from developing as they should. It is as if humanity has become connected to more than God in ways that have radically affected what humanity is and does. Indeed, humanity does bear the image—evidences being in the image—of things other than God. Humanity bears the image of fallen Adam as well as the image of other “gods.” The latter image, the result of idolatry, is the focus here.

In its fallen condition, humanity has become connected to “gods” other than God. People become so involved with those “gods” that they replace Christ as the standard for who people aspire to be. In the Bible, these “gods” often appear as idols or “images” of supposed deities. Authors in the Bible sometimes acknowledge that such deities are not really gods (referring to them as “no-gods,” e.g., Jer. 2:11, or mere blocks of wood, e.g., Is. 44:19). At other times, authors note that evil spiritual forces can work through such images (e.g., Deut. 32:16-17; 1 Cor. 10:19-20).

Anything can become an idol in this sense (see Exod. 20:4, “anything that is in heaven above, or that is on the earth beneath, or that is in the water under the earth”). The key characteristic is that it somehow takes God’s place as the aspiration/standard of people’s lives. People “set their hearts” on it (1 Cor. 10:6); they “treasure” it (Isa. 44:9); they “trust in” it (Hab. 2:18); they “yoke themselves to” it (Num. 25:3). As Richard Lints observes in Identity and Idolatry, people have an unrelenting need to find significance in something beyond themselves—it is how they are created to be. Yet in their self-absorption, they often prefer gods of their own making to the one true God. In effect, they want to make God in their image, rather than being in God’s.

In biblical times people often constructed images of deities whom they thought were more powerful than God (e.g., idols of Babylonian deities before whom people “fall down and worship” in Isa. 46:1, 6; or idols of Greek deities that Paul refers to as “objects of worship” in Acts 17:16-23). However, anything that people elevate above God—money, sex, power, animals—can be a counterfeit god. There are always plenty of images in the surrounding culture to attract worshipful followers.

While the wooden idol of the Bible might strike many today as a silly thing to trust in, others just as easily see the folly of saying to our wealth or good looks “Save me! You are my god!” (cf. Isa. 44:7). There is only one God, and a reminder of that often accompanies a command against idolatry (e.g., Isa. 45:16-18; Jer. 10:3-6). There is only one standard to which people are ultimately accountable, and it’s not the self-serving successful self.

However, idolatry often does not present itself as an either-or. Most often an idol doesn’t challenge God directly. Rather, it insinuates that it can thrive in one’s life alongside devotion to God. “Surely you can trust in God and in your educational pedigree,” it suggests. That’s why idolatry is often seen as a “purity” (Hos. 8:5) or “pollution” (Acts 15:20) issue. It generates mixed messages (images), infiltrating the good with the bad, teaching people a compromised standard for who to be and how to live (Hab. 2:18).

Who Gets the Glory

What happens when people turn to false gods (i.e., to their images) is that God does not receive all the glory that belongs to God alone. However, God “is to be revered above all gods, for all the gods of the peoples are idols” (1 Chron. 16:25-26); and God’s people are to “ascribe to the Lord the glory due his name” (v. 29).

Glory has to do with the magnificence and praiseworthiness of God. God intends a related glory for that which is closely connected with God, in God’s image—humanity. That glory is manifested concretely in human attributes (traits, functions, etc.) that point to (glorify) God. Whereas the status of being in God’s image does not change due to sin, people can lose glory (and gain it through sanctification). God is rightly jealous of the glory that worship should ascribe to no humanly-made images, but only to God (Ex. 20:5; Deut. 5:9; 32:16). Idolatry is doubly damaging to God’s glory. Not only are counterfeit gods receiving the praise and worship that belongs to God, but also those intended to be in God’s own image, whom God created for his glory, are the very ones undermining that glory and thereby forfeiting their own.

With all this in mind, Romans 1 becomes a powerful statement on images, including God’s image. People have “exchanged the glory of the immortal God for images resembling a mortal human being or…animals” (v. 23). They have “worshiped and served the creature rather than the Creator” (v. 25). As a result, their thinking has been warped by a “debased mind” (v. 28) and their relationships undermined by doing “things that should not be done” (v. 28). They are “filled with every kind of wickedness” (v. 29). When people worship images of their own making, they lose the glory, including the God-honoring reason, righteousness, relationships, and rulership over creation that God intended them to have because they are in God’s image. When people worship images of their own making, they lose the glory, including the God-honoring reason, righteousness, relationships, and rulership over creation that God intended them to have because they are in God’s image. Click To Tweet

Reflecting What We Revere

Images point to something else, of which they are images. Whether the image is a statue of a “god” or a picture of a “successful” (wealthy, powerful, good-looking, etc.) person, the image in effect encourages people to worship something. When people orient themselves to such objects of devotion, they, too, become like and glorify those objects. A powerful dynamic overpowers the dynamic of being in the image of God. People, since they are inescapably in God’s image, should exclusively be living out God’s intentions for them to reflect godly attributes, to God’s glory. Yet they instead live out the implications of their identification with counterfeit gods. Such is the power and tragedy of sin. As Gregory Beale summarizes in his book title: We Become What We Worship.

This connection becomes explicit at various points in the Bible. In Psalm 135 the psalmist predicts, “Those who make [idols] and all who trust them shall become like them” (v. 18; cf. 115:8). The author of 2 Kings 17, reviewing the history of God’s people, is more specific: “They went after false idols and became false” (v. 15). So is Isaiah 44: A person “makes a god, his idol; he bows down to it and worships….They know nothing, they understand nothing; their eyes are plastered over so they cannot see, and their minds closed so they cannot understand” (vv. 17-18). “They” are the counterfeit god and the worshipper alike.

Revelation 13 portrays an ultimate choice that every person must make. People must decide whether they will embrace and live out their status as being in God’s image or prefer orienting toward another image instead. A lifetime of choices for or against idols has prepared them for this ultimate choice. Revelation’s image of the beast (associated with Satan, 12:9,18) epitomizes everything that stands opposed to God. Whereas being in God’s image is most specifically associated with the protection of human life (Gen. 9:6), the beast’s image exists for the destruction of human life (Rev. 13:15)—just as idolatry has often been associated with the destruction of human life (e.g., Jer. 7:30-31; Hos. 13:2-3; Hab. 2:17-18). The central issue in Revelation 13 is whom people will worship (v. 15). Those who choose to worship the beast become like the beast—a sort of image of the beast. In fact, they literally bear an image of the beast on their right hands or foreheads.

Humanity, then, has not only become connected to but also somewhat reflects—in other words, bears the image of—more than just God. Humanity bears the image of other “gods” as well as the image of fallen Adam. Just as sin, in general, obscures evidence of being in God’s image, idolatry does the same. People lose sight of the close connection between God and people, and the godly human attributes that God intends to flow from that connection fail to appear. However, neither people’s connection with God nor the intentions that God has for how people are to reflect God has changed. People remain in the image of God. That means there is hope.

Liberation from the Contradiction

People continue to have a special connection with God and are still intended to be a reflection of God. Therefore, God has a great personal stake in humanity. God is angry (Deut. 31:29; Hos. 8:5) and jealous (Deut. 5:8-9; Exod. 20:4-5) when people choose to live by a different standard/image than God has provided. Rather than wiping out humanity, however, God is willing to endure the immense sacrifice required to pay the price for such rebellion: the death of Christ on the cross. In that death, the power that idolatry has had over people has been broken. People are now better able to see that “an idol is nothing at all…and there is but one Lord, Jesus Christ” (1 Cor. 8:4-6), the one true standard/image for them to live by.

The importance of having that image as a standard can hardly be overemphasized. The words that conclude the book of 1 John—“keep yourselves from idols”—is of limited help without the constructive alternative that Christ as the image of God provides. Long before 1 John was written, in the Incarnation, the true identity and content of God’s image have been revealed as nothing less than the very person of Christ (2 Cor. 4:4; Col. 1:15). Christ is the image that forever replaces all other images. Christ models what humanity is to be—what a truly fulfilling life looks like.

All idols must now be discarded because they cause a contradiction. They lead people to live a life that somehow contradicts attributes of God that have been manifested in Christ. That is bad enough for anyone to do. But if a person is a Christian—one who claims that Christ is the image of God according to whose model they are living—then continued idolatry is particularly offensive. It contradicts who they are in Christ.

The New Testament indicates that “idolaters” (people committed to idolatry) have no place in heaven (1 Cor. 6:9-10; Eph. 5:5). In this life, they are expected in the secular world, and Christians can interact with them there. However, they must not be identified with the church (1 Cor. 5:9-13). The contradiction between their idolatrous life and their at least implicit claim to be living according to Christ robs God of glory and confuses the message of the gospel.

Since Christ’s coming, people in Christ now have a more specific orientation than toward the generic image of God—their standard and aspiration is now specifically the image of Christ (who is God). They are renewed according to (Col. 3:10)—and thereby conformed to (Rom. 8:29)—and thus transformed into (2 Cor. 3:18)—Christ’s image. They are increasingly able actually to become what they were always supposed to be: like God in Christ (Eph. 4:24; 1 John 3:2), bearing Christ’s image (1 Cor. 15:49). In Christ, liberated from the distractions of idols, people gain the opportunity to realize their uniquely-human destiny. They become truly human.


[1] Thanks to Eerdmans for permission to draw on and expand relevant material for this article from my recent book Dignity and Destiny: Humanity in the Image of God

John F. Kilner

John F. Kilner holds the Forman Chair of Christian Ethics and Theology at Trinity Evangelical Divinity School. After college at Yale University, he earned an MDiv degree at Gordon-Conwell Theological Seminary and MA and PhD degrees at Harvard University. He is the author of the award-winning book Dignity and Destiny: Humanity in the Image of God and has written or edited 20 other books, most recently including Why People Matter: A Christian Engagement with Rival Views of Human Significance.

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