Are Angels in the Image of God?
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 5:1; Gen 9:6; 1 Cor 11:7; Jam 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 1:5; Rev 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 intellect, emotion, volition, morality, 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 dominion, creativity, and relationality. Rather 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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
I would first like to say thank you to all the contributors of this post and have thoroughly enjoyed every input.
I would have to agree with what you’ve stated in your response Layton. The ‘Let Us’ in scripture for me leans more into God speaking to the 3 entities that make up his deity (The Father, The Son, and Holy Ghost). This further makes it more apparent to me that our ‘likeness’ has 3 key layers that individually correlate with the trinity. I believe these correlation deserves their own blog/article so I’ll pause it there.
Peace and blessings,
Thank you for your discussion of angels and the Image of God. I came across it as I continue to work on a Lenten devotional series exploring this amazing gift of our awesome God. No offense to Calvin, but the context was the issue of marriage and specifically marriage in heaven, an eternal marriage afterlife. To those on earth who married well, they will be disappointed to discover we’re much like children of our Father–brothers and sisters–rather than reproductive members of heaven which is a telltale sign that Mormonism is a cult. To those who married on earth, but one lifetime is enough, they will happily acknowledge there is a God in heaven who answers prayers. Angels don’t need to reproduce God’s Image on the earth or in heaven. That’s mankind’s earthly job, and the “one flesh” of marriage is a pattern of the kind of inter-personal relationship of unity within the Godhead….that is part of the mysterious Imago Dei.
Athanasius says that angels were not made in the image of God in Chapter XIII of “On the Incarnation of the Word of God”. I had always assumed they were in God’s image, until I just read his comment and found this article as well. My own thoughts lend to man a distinct revelation of the Trinity that is not present in the angelic realm as some of the comments above allude to. The fact that an angel is free and does relate as a person to God and man seems to indicate a likeness to God so the distinction could be located between image/likeness rather than God’s image in angels/image in man. Perhaps we could say angels share a likeness with God that is greater than man’s in its perfection but that man was the intention of their creation. In man is an image as the purpose of the whole divine creative process of which angels are a vital part.
Just like an artist has an idea of a piece before he creates it…the idea is always more perfect than the piece except in the “endness” and tangibility of the piece: the satisfaction of the “other-in whom I am well pleased”. There is a “this at last-ness” present in creation that is not present in the angels. It is almost like God the Father brought the angels to Christ to see what he would name them, but not finding a suitable helpmate he cast a sleep upon the Son and fashioned man. The Son rises to say “this at last is bone of my bone”.
There is an obedience in matter, a humility; it says “all that I have comes from the Father” that images the Son in a way that angelic cannot. We share one nature with each other unlike angels so we can reflect the unity of the Trinity in a plurality of relations. Angels seem to spring as gleams off of the perfection of the Trinity. They seem to spring as a bridge between the divine action and humanity as is described in jacob’s ladder or Christ before Nathaniel…”and you shall see the angels ascending and descending on the Son of Man”.
Lucifer could certainly entertain a jealousy towards man even though he was the angel of light. As he ultimately would have to serve the true light bearer, the humble maiden who bore the Light of the world–the Woman whose seed would crush. In fact the Temptation and fall of Man could have been Satans effort to convince man to be jealous of the angelic knowledge, infused directly by God as if it came with the bite of an apple. Man was not created to know this way. He was truly made to feel like God as “master of all he surveyed” and his knowledge of God would unfold slowly in the providence of the Garden until the full glory of his call would be revealed in the incarnation. Problems arise when we view the incarnation as an action related to man’s sin and not for what it was–The Bridegroom proposing to his bride.
Angels live before the face of God, there is no way that they could be convinced that they were God. Even the devil himself could not with his infused knowledge be mistaken about the transcendence of God. The fell because they were invited deeper into God’s mysterious life and it would be in their service to man that they would find their true likeness to God. I wonder if the angels could even discern the mystery of the Trinity before Man was created. We may have been that revelation to them through the “impossibility” of the union of persons. Children must really amaze the angels in reference to the Trinity. Nothing other than God would be more mysterious to them than a child. Christ mentions how solicitous the good angels are for the “little ones”. Abortion and contraception should clue us into what the Evil one thinks of children…where the two become one flesh. I imagine that when God first revealed to the angels his intention to create a vessel for his own image in matter it felt suicidal to them. kind of like the announcing of the passion sent Peter reeling. “Wait you just made me your steward and now your going to be killed…where does that leave me…it shall not be…” perhaps Jesus had a flashback to the assembly of angels as he announced his incarnation when he rebuked peter with “Get behind me Satan”…
I’m rambling sorry…The article was thought provoking.