Catholic Q and A

Q. The Bible says we are made in the image and likeness of God. What does this mean? We don’t all look alike or even behave alike. Does it mean spiritually only?

A. The first step to answering this question is to realize that the “Image of God” does not refer to a physical resemblance, or to appearance of any kind. God the Father does not have a physical body. Neither does God the Holy Spirit. God the Son did not have a body when human beings were created in God’s image.

This is no small point. The belief that the Image of God is a physical resemblance has the potential to lead to all sorts of problems. For example, which race is most completely in God’s Image? Are women less in God’s Image because we refer to God in male terms? Are people with physical disabilities less in the Image of God because they lack the completeness of physical health? The fact is that all of humanity is created in the Image of God. God’s Image is instilled within our very nature.

There are three basic elements of human nature that are specifically in God’s Image. Two of these elements are faculties, potentials for specific abilities that are endowed by virtue of the human soul. No matter how well these faculties are actuated through our physical bodies, they invariably exist within the soul of every human being.

The first such faculty is the intellect. The intellect is the human faculty to think in spiritual ways. The ability to think about abstract ideas, the ability to ponder mysteries of the spiritual world, and ultimately the ability to ponder the true essence of existence are all abilities that arise from the intellect. Before the Fall, when we lost the Likeness of God (but retained His Image), we were able learn easily and readily, without limit, all of God’s Truth. Such powers reflect the omniscience of God.

The second faculty given to us in the Image of God is the will. The will allows us to choose freely. This free choice gives us the power to create who we become. Our choices help to create our character, and ultimately our destinies. Before the Fall, our wills were perfectly free, meaning that we were able to unfailingly choose the best possible good in every situation. This power reflects God’s omnipotence.

Finally, humankind is meant to live in relationships of love with each other, in reflection of the relationship of Divine Love inherent in the Holy Trinity. Just as the Father, Son, and Holy Spirit exist together in a unity of perfect self-giving to each other, human beings are meant to give themselves as gifts to one another. This is evident from the very beginning, in the book of Genesis. The only time God says that something is not good in the stories of creation is “It is not good that man should be alone.” Why is this not good? It’s not good, not only because Adam was lonely, but also because he was not a true Image of God by himself. God created Eve so that Adam could Image God’s Trinitarian love. This reflection of Trinitarian love is most completely seen in the marital relationship. However, Christ reveals definitively that our love is to be universal. We are to love our neighbor, and even our enemy. We are to love them as Christ loved us, being willing to give our very lives for them. Christ reaffirms the special character of marriage (and thus the Church receives marriage as a sacrament), but also calls all of us to share this love with everyone else.

Why is it so important that human beings be created in the Image of God? One answer is to make God’s full glory present to the physical, visible world. However, human beings are more than just art pieces expressing God’s presence. We are created to live in relationship with God. The Imago Dei (Latin for Image of God) is an inherent part of the original covenant. God’s entire creation is His gift to humanity – His love and beneficence given to us in ways that our nature as human beings can readily receive. The intellect and will are created in the Image of God precisely to allow us to receive the greatest gifts that God wants to offer us. God’s omniscience is not simply (as is commonly assumed) that God knows everything. It is much greater than that. What God “knows” actually becomes reality. God’s omniscience creates truth, which He offers to us. The human intellect is our ability to receive God’s truth. In the same way, God’s omnipotence is His power to create goodness. The human will is our ability to receive his goodness, to freely choose it. The Imago Dei is human nature’s ability to be the receivers of God’s love, truth, and goodness within the covenant.

God does not want us to be passive receivers of His love, truth, and goodness either. He wants us to use what He gives us in order to participate in His very life. God wants us to cooperate with Him. When we work, we receive God’s goodness, truth, and love, and cooperate with His power of creation to make part of our world better for others. God calls us to love our neighbor so that we can use the love He gives to us in order to cooperate with Him in showing His love to others.

Yes, sin and ignorance make our ability to reflect, receive, and cooperate with God’s love imperfect. However, the grace won for us by Christ’s death and resurrection makes it possible for us to exercise the Imago Dei. Christ’s grace also helps us to begin the healing process of our souls so that we can regain the likeness of God.

That means that the Imago Dei is not passive. We must live it out every day. Holiness means gaining that healing, striving toward that perfection, and cooperating with God so that the Imago Dei He placed in our souls can shine forth His glory.

Related Links

Catechism of the Catholic Church
Man: The Image of God

Jeffrey Arrowood, MTS

Jeffrey Arrowood teaches moral theology, English, history, and psychology at Columbus Catholic high school in Marshfield, WI.  He holds a Master of Theological Studies degree from the University of Dallas' Institute for Religious and Pastoral Studies. He and his lovely wife Jodi are involved in marriage preparation and are being trained to teach Natural Family Planning. They don't have any kids yet, but are praying for them! Jeffrey is involved with F.A.I.T.H. Matters, a small catechetical apostolate, helping parishes and other Catholic groups become educated about their faith.

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