This is an argument I hear a lot from Prosperity preachers. When the Bible says that God made man in his own image, that meant Adam was made equal to God but lost it in the Fall. That thinking gives rise to something I call the “little gods” doctrine. This says humans were first created not just human but little gods. They lost their god-status in the Fall, but Jesus came to restore that to us. When you are born again (give your life to Christ), you are born again out of the human class into the god-class of beings. Like in the movie Groundhog Day, “I am a god. I am not the God.”
You are a god (with a little G). They were not the first to come up with this, but it really sounds strange coming from people who call themselves Christian ministers. Most traditional preachers would say God is God, and we are not. What makes them think they are gods? It all starts with the story of creation in Genesis, and this verse in particular.
Then God said, “Let us make humankind in our image, according to our likeness; and let them have dominion over the fish of the sea, and over the birds of the air, and over the cattle, and over all the wild animals of the earth, and over every creeping thing that creeps upon the earth.”(Gen 1:26 NRSV)
If you were expecting it to say, Let us make man in our image, that is how many translations read. However, the Hebrew word ’adam is better translated humankind. People will say, “Why do you insist on saying humankind or humanity? Everyone knows when you say ‘man’ here, it means mankind.”
Does everyone know that? I have heard several people say, “The Bible says, ‘God made man in his image,’ not woman.” But notice verse 27:
So God created humankind in his image, in the image of God he created them; male and female he created them.(NRSV, emphasis mine)
Women were just as much made in the image of God as men. So I don’t want to hear anymore about how women are somehow a lesser image of God than men. Now that we’ve established that, the next question is what does it mean to be made in the image of God? Prosperity preachers say it means we are equal to God—or at least we were before that first male and female messed it up. But even so, Jesus will give it back to us if we accept him as our Lord and Savior.
One preacher said,
“Dogs get together. What do they make?”
“Horses get together. What do they make?”
“Men and women get together. What do they make?”
“God the Father, Son, and Holy Spirit get together. What do they make?”
Boom! Take that, you religious fuddy-duddies who won’t believe the Word of God!
Doctrine, Tradition, and the Word of God
When I say this does not agree with traditional church doctrine, they would say something like, “We don’t care about the dead traditions and dead doctrines of your dead church. We only believe the living Word of God.”
Here’s why I think church tradition matters. In the nearly 2,000 years we have had the Bible, why didn’t anyone see this before? After nearly 2,000 years since the last parts of the Bible were written, and millions of people all over the world from 50 generations diligently copying it, translating it, and studying it nearly that whole time, how did no one see that we are little gods? I’m not saying it’s impossible that we missed something, but how likely is it really to miss something this big?
And I might be more ready to accept this kind of argument from them if it were only a few verses here and there that they raise questions about. You know, like, “Why does it appear to say this? I never heard anyone from traditional churches teach it.” But the Prosperity preachers on TV and YouTube find something like this every episode they do. And when someone like me questions them about it, they say, “It’s in the Bible.”
Oh, yeah. Silly me. I didn’t know the Bible said we are made in the image and likeness of God. I couldn’t even get through the first chapter. (You know I’m kidding, right?)
And they don’t even bother to ask, “Why hasn’t the church taught this in almost 2,000 years?” Actually, they do ask but not as an invitation to discussion. Rather, they say it as an accusation that the church has been hiding the truth of God’s Word for 2,000 years. Good thing the Prosperity preachers came along, or the truth might have been hidden for another 2,000 years. How did God ever get along without them?
If you ever sit down to read the Bible, you will come across some verses that make you wonder how it can be reconciled with church tradition. It’s okay to ask about it. You might find out there was a very good reason for not teaching something you never heard of, as we will see when we examine this “little gods” doctrine. I call it a doctrine, because that is how they teach it. It is the Word of God. Therefore, it is the truth. We are gods. One even went as far as to say, “Whenever it says in the Bible ‘I am,’ I just smile and say, ‘I am, too.’” If you don’t know, “I am,” as he is using it, refers to the divine name of God, which we think was pronounced Yahweh. Jews consider that name so holy they can’t even say it out loud. Not this guy. He’s equal to God, so he can say “I am too.” So unlike Bill Murray, he went from being a god to the God.
I will probably say this a thousand times if God lets me live long enough. Just because they are quoting scripture does not mean they are speaking the Word of God. The Bible is only the Word of God when it is rightly read, rightly interpreted, and rightly applied. And rightly doing all of that begins with three things: Context, context, and context. Here are three questions to help you get to the context.
- What does this verse really say?
- What does it mean within this story?
- How does it compare to the rest of the Bible?
Let’s take these one by one.
Context: What does this verse really say?
What they are claiming amounts to this: Image of God = God.
Is that true?
Before we go making strange new doctrines out of something the Bible might or might not have said, let’s ask, what does it mean to be made in the image of God?Tweet
Going back to Genesis 1:26 there are two words God uses to describe the creation of humankind as a reflection of God’s self: image and likeness. Those words translate the Hebrew words tselem and damut, respectively. The two words are used as synonyms, so we should consider them equivalent. They are used together again in Genesis 5:3.
When Adam had lived one hundred thirty years, he became the father of a son in his likeness, according to his image, and named him Seth.(Gen 5:3 NRSV)
Again the words for image and likeness are tselem and damut. The son is the image and likeness of the father. That business about God the Father, Son, and Holy Spirit getting together and making gods sounds more likely now, I have to admit. Seth was the son of Adam, and Adam was the son of God. In each case, “image” and “likeness” are used to describe the connection between the son and father. But again, whether that means they were equal to each other or resembled each other is not clear. Image and likeness usually describe statues or drawings of something, not the thing itself.
Since in both these cases, the son is said to be the image and likeness of the father, maybe it would help to examine how the phrase son of God is used in the Bible.
Image, Likeness, and Son of God
There are several possible meanings for “son of God.” There was only one person for whom that meant equality with God, and that was Jesus. That is attested by God at his baptism (Mar 1:11), and by Caiaphas the high priest, the man who sent him to Pilate to be executed. At one point in the trial, Caiaphas says to Jesus, “I put you under oath before the living God, tell us if you are the Messiah, the Son of God” (Mat 26:63 NRS).
When Jesus answers affirmatively, it is obvious from their reaction Son of God in that context meant he was claiming to be equal to God. But “son of God” does not always have that meaning. Sometimes the angels are called “sons of God,” because somehow they share a divine nature with God. A king was called a son of God at his coronation (Psa 2:7). Jesus taught that we can become children of God by reflecting God’s character (Mat 5:9, 44-45). In none of these cases does it mean equality with God. Adam and Eve were God’s children, but were they in the god-class of beings? We still don’t know.
Context: What does it mean within this story?
You can read the whole story in Genesis 1-3. I’m going to pick out one moment that I think is most relevant to this question. You probably know that after God created the male and female Adam, God placed them in the Garden of Eden and charged them to keep the Garden. It was a paradise, with weather so perfect they did not need clothes. All the animals were their friends, and there were all kinds of delicious fruits ready for the picking (literally). And God commanded them to be fruitful and multiply. In other words, start making babies. Life was perfect in every way you can imagine. God only gave them one rule: Don’t eat from the Tree of Knowledge of Good and Evil. If you do, you will die.
Then a serpent tempted them. He told them in effect, “No, you won’t die. You will become … like God” (Gen 3:4-5, I’m paraphrasing).
Isn’t it interesting that preachers of the Prosperity Gospel are using the exact same temptation? “Join us, give us 10% of your income, and we will show you how to reach your full potential as little gods.”
Context: How does it compare with the rest of the Bible?
They ate the fruit, traditionally believed to be an apple. They knew they were naked. Their innocence was gone, they were banished from the Garden, and they eventually died. According to the Prosperity Gospel, this is when they lost their status as gods. But Good News! Jesus won it back for us. So when you receive him as your Lord and Savior, you are born again into the god-class of beings.
There is little if anything to suggest that Adam and Eve were created as little gods but lost that status in the Fall. You can’t lose something you never had. So the next question is, what does the rest of the Bible say about equality with God? First of all, I have never encountered the phrase “god-class of beings” anywhere in the Bible. I can’t think of anyone in the Bible who was ever called equal to God except Jesus. But in thinking about the Bible as a whole, there are several stories in the Bible of people who tried to claim god-like status. Aside from Jesus, how did that work out for them? Not very well.
Pharaoh thought of himself as a god on earth, a little god in Prosperity Gospel terms. He went ten rounds with God and got hit with every plague known to humanity at the time. When he couldn’t win the fight in the ring, he tried to win it in the parking lot and got his whole army drowned in the Red Sea (Exo 1-15).
Herod Agrippa once made a public appearance that prompted some people to shout, “It is the voice of a god, and not of a man” (Act 12:22 KJV). He did not correct them and died a few days later.
I think it is safe to say that the Biblical authors universally take a very dim view of people claiming God-status for themselves.Tweet
When Paul healed a crippled man, the people of the city saw the miracle and thought he and his companion Barnabas were gods. I’ll let you read the story.
In Lystra there was a man sitting who could not use his feet and had never walked, for he had been crippled from birth. He listened to Paul as he was speaking. And Paul, looking at him intently and seeing that he had faith to be healed, said in a loud voice, “Stand upright on your feet.” And the man sprang up and began to walk.
When the crowds saw what Paul had done, they shouted in the Lycaonian language, “The gods have come down to us in human form!” Barnabas they called Zeus, and Paul they called Hermes, because he was the chief speaker. The priest of Zeus, whose temple was just outside the city, brought oxen and garlands to the gates; he and the crowds wanted to offer sacrifice.
When the apostles Barnabas and Paul heard of it, they tore their clothes and rushed out into the crowd, shouting, “Friends, why are you doing this? We are mortals just like you, and we bring you good news, that you should turn from these worthless things to the living God, who made the heaven and the earth and the sea and all that is in them.(Act 14:8-15 NRSV)
The people think they are gods, and their response is not to say, “We are not Zeus and Hermes. They are false gods. But we are gods. Listen to us, and we will teach you how to be gods like us.” No, they tore their clothes. Jews did this as a sign of grief or great emotional duress. They were grieved that people were calling them gods and quickly moved to correct them. We are mortals just like you, they said, and implored them to turn from worthless things to the living God. If they were here today and heard people speaking in Jesus’ name that “you are little gods,” I can only think they would rend their clothes again and tell us the same.
Images of God
I hope I have shown you enough to make it clear when the Bible says we are made in the image and likeness of God, it does not mean we are equal to God or little gods. If you have accepted Christ as your Lord and Savior, you do well. But you are still not a little god. You are not in the god-class of beings. You are every bit as human and mortal as you were before.
Now I want to share one more thought with you. You may have heard the Bible forbids making any images of God. Have you ever wondered why? I have. I’m not saying I have the answer, but I’ll tell you the best answer I have come across. Remember we started with the verse in Genesis that says God created the first human, male and female, in God’s image. Could it be that God does not want us making images of God because God has already made the definitive image of God? That is you and me.
Historically, Christians have been good witnesses when we remember that every person we encounter is made in the image of God. It is easier to love my neighbor and myself if I see the image of God in both of us. We do not do well when we try to be God, whether that means a god or the God. Thinking we are gods makes us arrogant rather than humble, privileged rather than compassionate, domineering rather than cooperative. If I am a god and you are a mere mortal, how can I love you as myself? Since God is inerrant and infallible, it makes me think I am inerrant and infallible. And trust me, if you believe that you are setting yourself up for a huge disappointment when you find out you are not.
If you have read this far, thank you very much. I hope you’ll consider it worth sharing with someone else. The first three chapters of Genesis introduce several themes that keep reappearing throughout the Bible. This theme of seeking equality with God, for example, is key to understanding one famous line from Paul’s letter to the Philippians. That will be in my next post. Until then, remember these words from Matthew 7:12
In everything do to others as you would have them do to you; for this is the law and the prophets. (NRSV)
Grace and peace to you.