Theology in 3D

Are Angels in the Image of God?

Layton Talbert | February 12, 2018
New Testament, Old Testament, Theology

A pastor in Canada recently emailed me to ask: “Why are human beings described as being made in God’s image yet angels are not?  What is it that makes humans Image-bearers as opposed to angels?” Good question.

Are angels, too, in the image of God? And if they’re not, how do we as humans differ from them specifically with respect to the image of God (imago Dei)? What qualities or capacities do we have that they don’t?

It’s surprising that such an obvious question receives no attention in many of the theological dictionaries and systematic theologies. Among theologians that do discuss it, some assume that angels are created in God’s image just as humanity is; defining imago Dei as intellect, emotion, will, and spirituality would naturally lead to that assumption. Others, however, assert that the idea of angelic imago Dei has no basis in biblical revelation.

Calvin concluded from Matt 22:30 that angels were created in God’s image. Calvinist theologian Louis Berkhof (ST, 206-07) disputes that view. He argues that the imago Dei includes not only moral and intellectual capacities, but also our assignment of dominion and our possession of a body. Berkhof understands, of course, that God inherently possesses no physicality (though Christ assumed it via the incarnation). But he sees an inextricable connection between body and soul, and even between our body and our exercise of dominion. So he includes in his conception of the imago Dei the human body “not as a material substance, but as the fit organ of the soul, sharing its immortality, and as the instrument through which man can exercise dominion over the lower creation.” (That introduces a surprising and intriguing perspective on the whole concept of anthropomorphism that I may explore in a future post.) When it comes to the role of dominion itself, theologians disagree over whether Gen 1:26-27 imply that dominion is properly a dimension of the imago Dei or simply a natural and necessary result of it.

In my view, angels do not bear the imago Dei. God’s own record of his creation of humanity makes a point of noting that he intentionally created them “in the image of God” (Gen 1:26-27). Scripture repeats that specific link between humanity and God on several occasions (Gen 5:1Gen 9:61 Cor 11:7Jam 3:9), but never once makes any such connection between God and angels. Beyond that, Scripture implies in multiple ways that man is uniquely special to God in ways that angels are not. (One of the most remarkable statements of that is Heb 2:16.)

But putting one’s finger on the precise difference(s) between humans and angels with respect to the imago Dei is tricky for two reasons: (1) the Bible really never fully explains exactly what imago Dei means; and (2) we’re not told a lot about angels either, at least in respect to their creation and nature. We are, however, told of several different classes and kinds of angelic creatures: cherubim (Gen 3:24), seraphim (Isa 6:2), and different kinds of “living creatures” (Ezek 1:5Rev 4:6). That also suggests a distinction from humanity, which shares a single basic form and appearance and which is always depicted as a single class with a single, shared nature.

If we accept that Scripture at least implies that humans are uniquely in the imago Dei in a way that angels are not, we’re admittedly left with some degree of speculation when it comes to explaining the difference(s) between us and them. It’s clear that angels, like us, possess faculties of intellectemotionvolitionmorality, and spirituality; these are certainly aspects of the divine image, since they differentiate us (like God) from animals and the rest of creation. Beyond that, however, some additional features that we have no biblical reason to assume angels share include dominioncreativityand relationalityRather than locating the imago Dei in any one or few of these, I suspect it is rather located in the combined complex of all of these qualities, though there may well also be others that could be included in that complex of attributes that make us uniquely like God. (Again, whether our body can be included in some sense as part of the imago Dei, as Berkhof argues, lays some groundwork for a future post. Teaser: Does the common notion of anthropomorphism argue too much?)

It is humanity’s common sharing in the image of God that is the ground of our obligation to recognize, uphold, and defend the life and sacred dignity of all people, within the dictates of the Creator. It is the implied logical ground for the golden rule (Matt 7:11-12links our behavior to our Father’s behavior). It is why it is evil both to murder and to fail to execute the murderer (Gen 9:6). And it is why it is evil even to demean or abuse a fellow human (Jam 3:9). Exercising dominion in the imago Dei is a unique privilege that carries unique responsibility. It actually entails acting like God.


5 responses to “Are Angels in the Image of God?”

  1. Joshua Jensen says:

    Thank you, Dr. Talbert. One question: where do we find that angels have emotions? Perhaps it’s implied in their capacity to suffer punishment? Or is there something more obvious that I’ve forgotten (something not at all unlikely!). Thanks!

    • Good question. Passages I have in mind include Job 38:7 and Luke 15:10. (On the opposite end of the angelic spectrum, cf. Rev. 12:12.) Some, of course, suggest that Luke 15:10 is actually describing God’s joy; maybe, and I’m certainly not denying divine emotion, but it’s a rather roundabout way to say that, and Job 38 certainly seems to corroborate the angelic capacity for joy. Other passages don’t directly mention angelic emotion, per se, but it’s hard to imagine emotionless angelic participation in passages like Rev. 5:11-14.

  2. Alwin Hill says:

    Angels can’t repent, human can. Angels can’t have children, humans can. Humans are called soul, Angels are called spirit. Human call God Father, Angels dont. Jesus Christ is our brother, Angels are not his brother.

  3. As to the statement, “Beyond that, however, some additional features that we have no biblical reason to assume angels share include dominion, creativity, and relationality.”

    It seems to me that the domains angels govern as presented in Daniel 10 is biblical data that angels do have dominion (Prince of Persia, etc.). The spirit (presumably an angel) who suggests a plan for how to destroy Ahab in 1 Kings 22 is biblical data that angels have creativity. Also, angels are called the “sons of God” (Job 1, 2, and 38)–biblical data that suggests that they are relational. That there are angels and archangels (Jude 1:9) also seems to indicate that there is a relationship of rank among the angels.

    I would lean towards the interpretation of Meredith Kline, Bruce Waltke, and John Frame that the “let us” of Genesis 1:26 (later mirrored in Genesis 3:22) is a reference to God’s divine council, His angelic entourage. This would seem to indicate that angels are in the image of God and man is in the image of angels (because they are in the image of God). I think this comports with a functional view of the image of God. Genesis 1:26b explains the image of God in Genesis 1:26a (Genesis 1:26–27 even form a nice little chiasm for bonus points!). Unlike the subservient animals, man is in God’s image because he has dominion over the creation. I think there is more to the image than this (our physical shape also is part of the image, Gen 9:6), but this functional aspect explains in what sense the angels also participate in the image (as rulers over the world).

    I do appreciate your view, and I think the biblical data for any view is pretty meager. Assuming angels are not in God’s image is a good default in the absence of explicit evidence, but there are a few lines of evidence (namely, an idiosyncratic reading of Genesis 1:26) that lead me to the conclusion that angels are in the image of God.

  4. Hey Judson, thanks much for engaging on this! Your insights are, as always, thoughtful. As you say, any view on this issue has rather meager exegetical evidence to draw from; in the absence of clear revelation, it’s another one of those which-view-poses-the-fewest-problems situations. Only glorified sight will be 20/20, but it seems to me that the divine council view creates more difficulties than it resolves. (1) If human bodily form is, in some sense, a part of the imago Dei (as I agree with you that it is), the divine council view seems problematic when you factor in the ample biblical evidence of the considerable and extravagant variety of form among the angels. (2) Angelic descriptors like “principalities” and “powers” seem to suggest dominion of some sort, though imo what Dan. 10 describes is much more akin to spiritual warfare (displaying God’s special protection of Israel via their “prince” Michael against demonic influence over nation-kingdoms that threaten her); so while angels may influence the affairs of nations without actually exercising dominion over them just as they may influence individuals without having been granted “dominion” over man, man alone exercises God-granted dominion over earth and man alone inherits it (Ps. 8; Dan. 7; Heb. 2). (3) The divine council idea strikes me as counterintuitive to the concept of divine sovereignty on multiple levels, beginning with the depiction of God as taking something akin to committee decisions. (4) On the divine council view, the words “let us make man” would necessarily seem to imply angelic involvement in the actual creation of man and woman; and as Kidner remarks, “any implication that others had a hand in our creation is quite foreign to the chapter as a whole and to the challenge in Isa. 40:14: ‘With whom took he counsel?’” (5) Even if angels do share in the divine image via special creation, it nevertheless seems out of character that God would then turn to the angels and say, “Okay, now let’s make another creature just like us”; if Christ painstakingly differentiates between the sense in which God was his Father and our Father, it seems out of character with divine uniqueness for God to describe this creative image as one he shares with the angels. (6) Other “us” passages would, similarly, imply angelic involvement where none is apparent and where such involvement would seem counterintuitive to divine initiative and sovereignty (Gen. 11:7; Isa. 6:8). (7) If Job 1 is appealed to for the divine council view, the implication seems to be that fallen angels are part of this council, which again seems counterintuitive not only to sovereignty but also to God’s always-only-good proposals. (8) Finally, if we know from subsequent revelation that God is, in fact, three persons then the trinitarian explanation renders the divine council hypothesis utterly unnecessary (cf. Steinmann, Hamilton, Sailhamer, Kidner, Feinberg; I’m not just trying to trump your view with more names, since you could add Delitzsch, von Rad et al. to your view). So, given our limited revelation, as intriguing as the divine council view is, it seems to me to create more (and rather serious) problems with the revelation that we do have.

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