Reflections on the “imago Dei”

By: Taylor Bell

8 minute read.

Gen 1:26-28a

Then God said, “Let us make humankind in our image, according to our likeness; and let them have dominion over the fish of the sea, and over the birds of the air, and over the cattle, and over all the wild animals of earth, and over every creeping thing that creeps upon the earth.” So God created humankind in his image, in the image of God he created them; male and female he created them. God blessed them … 

Ever since I was a young child, I’ve been enraptured by the question of meaning and existence. Where did us humans come from? And yet, even more important, why do we humans exist? I would lay awake at night, staring at the ceiling fan’s rotations, pondering the depths of the universe for the meaning of human existence. Indeed, I joined the million of other humans who have asked the same question for thousands of years.

Recently, the question of existence has plagued my soul if for no other reason than my own life journey has painfully made clear the human soul’s necessity for a coherent reason to live. To continue living, each of us needs an answer to the question “why do I exist?” That is, what is my reason for living? It is therefore inherently human to seek an answer to this existential question. Because if there is no why to my existence, then there is no reason or purpose to go on living. At this point, I can reasonably conclude by in nihilistically exclaiming, “What is the point in living?” (Is nihilism the loss of existential purpose?) At a fundamental level, we humans need to know why we exist, because this reason imbues our lives with meaning and purpose.

Which is why for the past several years I have been fascinated with the imago Dei. This theological phrase is Latin, and refers to Genesis 1:26-27 when God created humankind in God’s image. The imago Dei is, quintessentially, the Christian response to the existential question “why?” When humans ask “why do I exist?”, we Christians turn to the creation account of Genesis 1, honing in on verses 26-28. We were created in God’s image, to live in community and have families, and to be stewards of God’s creation. From the Christian perspective, this theology is the fundamental answer for why we exist. It is the essence of what it means to be human. 

And yet, at its root, the imago Dei is an interpretative mystery. Scholars are ultimately unsure what exactly the author of Genesis 1 meant when they wrote “Let us make humankind in our image, according to our likeness.” Despite the divine plurality implied in God saying, “Let us make humankind in our image,” which is intriguing for a monotheistic religion, it is currently impossible to know with precise accuracy what the imago Dei is. The reasons are (1), the imago Dei is not mentioned anywhere else in the Bible, and (2) there is nothing prior to Genesis 1 that can give us any interpretative clues. These two reasons make exegeting the imago Dei impossible without assumptions and/or leaps of faith. We therefore understand that the imago Dei is our reason for being created and thus existence, but are unsure what this reason objectively and precisely is. It is a mystery.

As a pastor and theologian, I understand the imago Dei as a divine mystery. The imago Dei, our reason for existence, is a mystery rooted in God. Because when we allow ourselves to be completely honest before Scripture, we cannot avoid the truth that our human reasoning and devices are unable to make sense of it. Divine mysteries cannot be solved as riddles through rationality and intellect. Rather, they can only be understood through relationship with God. In our search for answers, divine mysteries nudge us closer to God by inviting us into practices and spaces of prayer, conversation, exploration, and vulnerability. They reveal answers, not as a book that presents the right answer, but through a relationship that instills breathes within us love and understanding. And perhaps this is the first way in which the imago Dei responds to our existential “why?” It draws us closer to our Creator, to the genesis of our existence, and in so doing roots us in the most fundamental relationship of our lives. 

Yet, in my personal experience, even in drawing closer to God, the existential “why” still remains unanswered. It is still a mystery. At least not answered in the way I want it to be. There is no angelic declaration proclaiming in a deep and kingly voice, “Taylor, this is why you were created, to fulfill this specific purpose.” There has been no gps voice saying, “In 1000 feet, turn right and your existential purpose will be on your left.” (Though comical to imagine). Rather, in faithfully journeying with the imago Dei’s holy mysteriousness, it deepens our experience of God’s love. That God created me, and you, and all of existence out of love. And I recognize that love is not mentioned as a motivator for God’s creativity in Genesis 1. But have you ever watched a master artisan create? Have you seen their intense focus, attention to detail, and hours upon hours of commitment. When a master artisan is creating, their creation can only be described as a labor of love. Or recall being in the presence of a newborn baby. There is an aura of wonder and love that always seem present — as though they are evidence of some transcendent and loving creativity. Perhaps then this is the second way the imago Dei responds to our existential “why?” In drawing us closer to God, it grounds our lives in God’s love for us, revealing our deepest reason for existing is to love and to be loved. Being made in God’s image means that we humans are created to share in God’s love.

Still, the question of particularity remains. What does the imago Dei mean for my life in particular? It is still a mystery. Talk of divine love sounds all good, but it is still largely abstract — especially when being written out in a blog post. We can universalize about God and divine love all we want, but the existential question of meaning is ultimately concerned with the concrete uniqueness of one’s life. Because how you share in God’s love will be different than me because you are a completely different person than me. Have you ever taken a moment to recognize that there has never been someone exactly like you in the past, nor will there ever be someone exactly like you in the future. Each of us are purposefully unique, endowed with entirely different histories, affinities, and gifts. Perhaps then this is the third way the imago Dei responds to our existential “why?” In drawing us closer to God, it reveals to us how each of us are uniquely created, and thus uniquely created to love and be loved. How you receive and share love is different than me because you are a different person. This is a clue into why you were created in God’s image. To love and be loved by the world in your own purposefully unique way. Perhaps the Christian language of calling and vocation comes down to this: you are called, your reason for existence, is to authentically love and be loved by the world.

If you doubt this truth, contemplate for a moment what your life is like when you are surrounded by love. Love from your significant other, from your family and friends, love from your workplace, and even love from your community? What is the quality of your life? Do you find yourself existentially pondering your purpose for living, or do you find yourself purposefully living? I believe the existential question of existence is most deeply asked when we are fundamentally unsure if we are loved. What a precarious and significant place to be. Because it is only through honestly asking the question that we are able to discover the depths of God’s love for us — and the depths to which we can love others. Because when we are completely honest in our questions before God and/or the universe, we are completely vulnerable to receiving the fullness of God’s mysterious response. A response known by its love.

The imago Dei means you are a beloved child of God, uniquely created by God to love and be loved. What this holy truth means for your life in particular is a divine mystery only you can discover. But its truthfulness means you are all that you have ever needed to be, because you were purposefully and uniquely created by God. This is grace: that you bear God’s fingerprints and love just because you exist. And if this divine love is what you seek, then all you need to do is stop, breathe, and rest in it. Because there is nothing you can do to earn or create it. For you were created within it. All you can do is open up, receive it, and share it in the most authentic way you know how. Go today in peace, knowing that your you exist because you are loved.

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