“What is Christianity? Likeness to God as is possible for human nature. If you are shown to be a Christian, hasten to become like God, put on Christ.” ~ St. Basil, (On the Origin of Humanity 1, Ch. 18)
What do Christians mean when they talk about humans being made in the ‘Image of God’? Like everything in Christianity, the doctrine of the Imago Dei has been discussed and interpreted many times over, but at its core, it’s a powerfully simple idea: human beings have the unique privilege of being able to reflect God’s own beauty and power.
On the face of it, this idea is pretty out of step with reality. The dreary herd of commuters with whom we trek to work every morning certainly don’t seem like a pantheon of brilliant gods and goddesses; they’re an unwieldy and rather annoying bunch, who cough too loud and would sooner let you be beaten to death than acknowledge your existence. And then there are those of us who seem not only un-godlike, but positively demonic: serial murderers, rapists, war criminals. When faced with the horror of an Auschwitz or a Hiroshima, it’s hard not to conclude that if we bear the image of any god, that god must be a foul and violent monster.
But no Christian believes that human violence and brutality is the fruit of beings who bear the perfect image of God. The whole Christian worldview, especially for the early Church, revolved around the idea that humanity had damaged the Image of God and so turned themselves from radiant beauties into bestial monsters. In St. Athanasius’ view, it was precisely when we lost the Image of God through an act of cosmic rebellion that evil entered the world: “Adulteries and thefts were everywhere, murder and rapine filled the earth, law was disregarded in corruption and injustice …” (De Inc. 1.4) In the wake of this spiritual catastrophe, the world is now full of creatures more dangerous than either gods or beasts: fallen gods; gods gone mad.
And that’s why, as St. Basil says above, the whole purpose of Christianity is to make men again like God. We plunged ourselves and our world into chaos by being unlike God; only being like Him can heal us. This transformation is something all humans must go through. Even the best of us do things every day which feed into the hideous cycle of injustice and suffering that afflicts the world; there’s a part of all of us that wants to keep every good thing to ourselves and enforce the tyranny of our will over others. The whole life of the Church, from its sacraments to its prayers, is aimed at slaying these destructive, ungodly impulses, and so restoring the Image of God to our inward persons.
For St. Athanasius, humanity was like a damaged portrait which needed to be repainted:
“You know what happens when a portrait that has been painted on a panel becomes obliterated through external stains. The artist does not throw away the panel, but the subject of the portrait has to come and sit for it again, and then the likeness is re-drawn on the same material. Even so was it with the All-holy Son of God. He, the Image of the Father, came and dwelt in our midst, in order that He might renew mankind made after Himself …” (De Inc. 3.14)
This is the whole of Christianity. By putting on Christ, eating His Flesh and drinking His Blood and so truly becoming a part of His Body, we become again what we are always meant to be: spotless mirrors of divine radiance.
This transformation isn’t just an empty, theoretical abstraction: it describes a real, tangible change in our emotions, behaviours and desires. Instead of destructive selfishness, lust and pride, Christ gives us creative love, self-control and charity. These behaviours aren’t simply prudential or ‘good for society’; Christians believe that they reflect the very same unutterable power that sparked the Big Bang and laid the foundations of the Earth. “If you become brother-loving and compassionate,” says St. Basil, “you are like God.”
At face value, ‘humble, compassionate people’ and ‘god-like beings’ seem to refer to two very different things. The phrase ‘god-like’ inspires images of men controlling the weather, spewing lightning from their eyes and fire from their hands, not unlike superheroes. Humble and compassionate people are certainly nice to be around, but they don’t seem like this. The meek certainly don’t look like they’re in any position to inherit the Earth.
But looks can be deceiving. To all appearances, Jesus of Nazareth was a humble and unassuming man; He wasn’t rich or powerful, or even particularly respectable. But when He briefly revealed His true form on Mt. Tabor, the Gospels say that “His face shone like the sun, and His clothes became as white as the light.” The mere sight of Him caused the disciples to “fall on their faces”, being “greatly afraid.” (Mt 17:2,6) I think it would be misguided to say that Christ ‘dropped’ His love and humility and ‘put on’ radiance and glory; it is more enchanting (and truer to Orthodox thought) to say that the disciples simply came to see Christ’s love and humility for what they really were: the ageless, uncreated power of God. CS Lewis once said that love, in its truest form, ‘could easily be mistaken for ferocity.’
There’s no reason to suppose that the meek and compassionate people that we deal with every day will be any less radiant or terrifying than this when the final revelation comes. No lesser teacher than John the Beloved promised that “when He is revealed, we shall be like Him.” (1 Jn 3:2) The quivering disciples on Mt. Tabor were not simply seeing God, they were seeing God made man; Adam as he was always meant to be, and shall be when history is done: ‘… as we have born the image of the man of dust (Adam), we shall also bear the image of the heavenly Man (Christ).’ (1 Cor 15:49) The Homilies of St. Macarius claim that, “just as as the Lord’s body was glorified when He went up the mountain and was transfigured into the glory of God and into infinite light, so the saints’ bodies also are glorified and shine as lightning.” God is bright and terrible and beautiful, but True Man, as an Image or Icon of God, is bright and terrible too. Anyone who has seen an Orthodox icon knows that the image of average men and women transformed into brilliant, god-like beings is not at all alien to Christianity.
I imagine that one of the greatest joys of Heaven, should we be fortunate enough to reach it, will be seeing our loved ones (and many others we will never have met) transformed into beings whose beauty and power are obvious to all who look upon them. We get an inkling of that joy when we see some quiet and reserved friend perform brilliantly before an audience; revealing their formerly hidden beauty for the whole world to see.