Left to ourselves, our views on the nature and condition of man lean towards one of two extremes. Either we are more optimistic than experience actually warrants, or else we are more pessimistic than a proper exposure to the whole truth demands.
On the former assessment, man is virtually a god; he ‘determines for himself good and evil’ (Genesis 3:5). He is master of his own destiny.
On the latter view, he is little more than a cog in the universal machine – a cosmic accident, a jumped-up germ. And as such, of course, he is without meaning or worth.
Thankfully – in this as in other matters – God has not left us to the extremes to which our fallen minds naturally incline.
And it is in his infallible Word that we discover the clearest and most noble convictions with respect to man. He is, as the psalmist says, ‘fearfully and wonderfully made’ (Psalm 139:14).
Without doubt, the greater part of that wonder resides in the fact that man is made in God’s image. This is what sets him apart from every other aspect of God’s wonderful creation.
All man’s uniqueness, dignity, meaning and worth stem from the fact that the Triune God has made him ‘in our image, in our likeness’ (Genesis 1:26).
The use of these interchangeable words – image and likeness – provide an amazing insight into man’s unique status. They tell us that we are God’s special representatives on earth and that, in certain respects, we are a unique reflection of God himself.
Most of us have, at some time, tried to make a representation of someone or something. But nothing can possibly prepare us for the startling revelation that, in man, God has provided the world with an image of himself.
This is truly amazing. Scripture informs us that ‘the heavens declare the glory of God’ (Psalm 19:1). But in man – at least as he was originally made – something of the reality of what God is like is made visible. Surely man can know no greater honour?
What he is
However, given that the divine likeness in man is neither exact nor complete, how did man originally represent God upon the earth?
In two ways: firstly, in terms of what he is. Of course there is, and will always remain, a great gulf between what is true of the Creator and what is true of the creature – even a creature made in God’s image.
Nevertheless, it is possible to recognise faint images of God’s own nature in the attributes originally conferred on man.
We see this likeness, perhaps supremely, in man’s intellectual and rational powers. He thinks, he reasons, he contemplates. He asks questions and seeks answers. In the same way, all that Scripture reveals of God shows that he also is a rational being.
We also find evidences of God’s image in man’s moral nature – his ethical sensitivity and conscience. He knows that there is such a thing as ‘right’ and that its opposite is ‘wrong’.
These characteristics answer to the fact that God loves that which is good and hates that which is evil.
Man’s ‘image bearing’ is further revealed in his capacity for fellowship. Even in his pristine condition he was a social being – ‘it is not good for man to be alone’, said his Creator (Genesis 2:18). Likewise, Scripture reveals that God himself exists in the Trinity.
Moreover, despite Cain’s protestations, man seems to know that he is his ‘brother’s keeper’. Likewise, God’s tender care is over all his works (Psalm 145:9; Jeremiah 9:24) and he gives proof of his own moral responsibility in that he answers prayer.
Man also has volitional powers – he makes decisions, he has powers of choice. This attribute, of course, also finds its supreme expression in God himself.
Then, again, there is man’s aesthetic sense – that which can turn him into a writer, a painter, a musician, or even a landscape gardener! In this, too, man is simply following in the footsteps of his artistic Creator.
What he does
But man not only reflects the nature of God in what he is, but in what he does. The wonderful capacities with which he has been endowed were intended to enable him to live in harmony with his Creator.
By virtue of his creation, man is utterly dependent on God – yet this was not meant to be a burden to him. God was to be his happy environment. Man was intended to use his attributes in the loving service of his Creator, bringing honour to God and realising his full humanity.
Although made in the image of God, Adam was not God. Companionship of the same kind was therefore required for him, for he was not intended to be an isolated being.
God graciously supplied this need: ‘I will make a helper for him’ (Genesis 2:18). This variety in gender – and later in race too – was intended to be a means of enrichment. It would help him achieve his full potential as a human being, living in harmony with others of his kind.
Man and earth
Man was also to use his God-given capacities to live in harmony with nature. ‘God blessed them and said to them, “Be fruitful and increase in number; fill the earth and subdue it. Rule over the fish of the sea and the birds of the air and over every living creature that moves on the ground”‘ (Genesis 1:28).
This is the so-called ‘cultural mandate’. It is that which gives man the right to explore, cultivate, mine and develop earth’s resources. He is to ‘subdue’ the earth – that is, he is to bring it into servitude.
This does not, however, give him the right to exploit the creation (seeGenesis 2:15). He is vicegerent – above creation, but below (and answerable to) God.
Original glory; future hope
What a glorious picture of man this is. Not for us the popular image of modernity – a poor and meaningless species, gradually evolving from primeval slime.
But one who, in his original state,imaged God. One who knew what it was to live in happy and harmonious fellowship with his Creator, his fellows and with all that God had made.
The great tragedy, of course, is that man is no longer what he was. Although still made in the image of God (see James 3:9), the image has been seriously tarnished.
Nevertheless, in our determination to give proper weight to all the problems of man’s fallen state, we must never forget his original glory.
For it is there that we discover man’s true worth, and thus the need for, and hope of, future redemption by the grace of God.