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Are we made in God’s bodily likeness?


How are we ‘in the image of God’? Today’s correspondent advances the view that perhaps we possess some sort of bodily likeness to God. CMI’s Shaun Doyle examines the Scriptures to see what we can and can’t say about a bodily likeness to God from the Bible.

L.W. from Australia writes:

Just a small insight that may be of help to your organisation. Your website says of man being created in the image of God that it was not a physical likeness (your ‘however’ comments are noted). But our physical likeness is an image of what God is spiritually. We know God is spirit, but His spiritual form is what our physical form is based on. God repeatedly refers to Himself with body parts. Now these are not anthropomorphisms as commonly believed (and which is not Scriptural), but an actual description of His spiritual body which is the spiritual archetype of our physical bodies. Take God revealing himself before Moses. The terms ‘back’, ‘front’, ‘face’ etc are God’s spiritual realities; they are His form! This means we can take the term ‘image’ in its plain and inclusive meaning. We are made in His image in all its facets. God, Jesus and the angels came in the form they did before men, because that is Their spiritual form. Sorry, ran out of room for quotes, references etc. Good work.

CMI’s Shaun Doyle responds:

I presume the article you are referring to is Does God have body parts? (see also Is God ‘simple’? for related information). Regarding anthropomorphism, a need for it does indeed arise out of the phenomena of Scripture. It’s no secret that God is pictured with human body parts throughout Scripture, and He even appears to various people (e.g. Abraham, Jacob, and Moses) in human form in theophanies. However, there is more data to consider than this.

First, God is omnipresent, which means He is fully present everywhere (Psalm 139:7–12), but not in any localized sense such that He can be confined to a particular location (1 Kings 8:27; Jeremiah 23:24; Acts 17:24,28). This doesn’t stop God appearing to us in localized forms, or even assuming human physicality (as in the Incarnation), but it does mean that we cannot maintain that God must have a localized form like we do. However, this renders your notion of ‘spiritual form’ rather ambiguous. If God’s ‘spiritual form’ and our physical form are analogous to each other, does that mean God’s ‘spiritual form’ has a measurable shape and size? After all, if we have arms like God does, and the length of our arms are measurable, shouldn’t God have a measurable arm length too? But if God has a shape and a size, then God has a localized body, which would be a denial of God’s omnipresence.

Second, Jesus makes two interesting statements that, when put together, significantly diminish any morphological likeness between humans and God. First, Luke 24:39, in which Jesus tries to convince the disciples of his physical resurrection, says: “See my hands and my feet, that it is I myself. Touch me, and see. For a spirit does not have flesh and bones as you see that I have.” Second, John 4:19–24:

 “The woman said to him, ‘Sir, I perceive that you are a prophet. Our fathers worshiped on this mountain, but you say that in Jerusalem is the place where people ought to worship. Jesus said to her, ‘Woman, believe me, the hour is coming when neither on this mountain nor in Jerusalem will you worship the Father. You worship what you do not know; we worship what we know, for salvation is from the Jews. But the hour is coming, and is now here, when the true worshipers will worship the Father in spirit and truth, for the Father is seeking such people to worship him. God is spirit, and those who worship him must worship in spirit and truth’.” 

The woman references a theological dispute between Jews and Samaritans about where they should worship God. However, Jesus cuts her off by saying that the time has come when worship will not be concerned with place. Why? The reason Jesus gives is “God is spirit”. Putting Luke 24 and John 4 together, they clearly show that, since God is spirit, He does not have a tangible and visible body like us. Even more important is to realize that in the light of Luke 24 this contrast between spirit and body applies as much to Jesus’ incorruptible resurrection body as to our fallen bodies.

Finally, nobody has seen the Father (John 1:18), and in fact the Father cannot be seen (1 Timothy 6:16). Now, Jesus is the image of the invisible God (Colossians 1:15) (He is also in the form of God—Philippians 2:6), but if ‘image’ means ‘bodily likeness’, we simply can’t know that Jesus is the image of the invisible God.

Therefore, if God has a body natural to his existence, His ‘body’ is invisible, intangible, shapeless, sizeless, and not localized. How is that anything like what we know a body to be? It would seem that if our (and Jesus’) likeness to God consists in bodily likeness, even if only partially, it’s a very bad likeness indeed! And note that in all this I did not overdetermine the metaphysical implications of the biblical language of omnipresence and God’s being spirit; I merely showed that both ideas stand in stark contrast to our physical existence. But this still clearly implies that the image of God does not consist in a bodily likeness.

Published: 1 February 2015

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