Two Stories: Humanity’s Foolish Detour (SBD 5)

[Note: I am attempting to keep these SBD installments under 2000 words each, but that is–of course–quite inadequate for the topics covered. Consequently, these contributions are more programmatic than they are explanatory or defenses of the positions stated. You may access the whole series at my Serial page.]

God partners with humanity as divine representatives within the shalom-filled creation, but humanity–and creation with it–degenerates through a series of crises.

Created and crowned with glory and honor as royal creatures within the creation, humanity chose a different route to the divine nature than God intended. While God invited humanity to share divine communion and gave them the status of divine imagers within the creation, humanity wanted more. We wanted to be God and consequently we created our own story within the creation.

Rejecting God’s offer to share the “divine nature” with the Creator (2 Peter 1:4), we pursued our own agenda to embrace the divine and created our own gods (ranging from idols of stone and wood to the contemporary gods of money, power and sex).

The Divine Image

Fundamentally, the “image of God” (Genesis 1:26-31) is “godlikeness.” This is unique to humanity among God’s creatures (Genesis 5:1-2; 9:6) which affirms the dignity and worth all humans. But it also limits humanity because the image is not the thing in itself. It is, in some respects, unlike the original. We are not God, but we are the image of God.

But what is this “image”? There are, generally, three primary ways of understanding it.

1. Substantive — The image is identified as some definite characteristic or quality within the makeup of the human (e.g., rationality, personality, morality, spirituality, etc.). The locus of the image is within human nature; it is a quality, substance or capacity resident in our nature or even inherent in our ontology.

2. Relational — The image is identified with the quality of experiencing relationships (e.g., relationship with God, male/female relationships, social relationships, etc.). The image is displayed as humanity lives in particular relationships. That relationship is the image. It mirrors God’s communion and God’s own relational ontology.

3. Functional (Dynamic) — The image consists in something that humanity does; the function it performs (e.g., stewardship, partnership with God, “dominion” over the earth, etc.). The image is not something present in the makeup of human nature nor is it the experience of relationship. Humanity is God’s representative on earth as a vice-regent and shares the divine mission regarding the creation. This is humanity’s honor and glory (Psalm 8).

I understand the “image of God” broadly, inclusive of all of the above. Humanity is substantively invested with gifts that enable us to live in relationship with others and to serve the function God has invested in it. The image of God is not one thing but the reality that we are divine icons who resemble and represent God within the creation. Understood in this way, the idea is pervasively present within the story of Scripture from “be holy for I am holy” to “be perfect as your heavenly Father is perfect” to “imitate me as I imitate Christ.” We mirror God in substance, relationality and function.

Humanity is forbidden to make “images” (idols) of God. Those images have no “breath” in them (Habakkuk 2:19; Jeremiah 10:14; 51:17). God has no humanly made image, because God has already made the image he desired, that is, humanity as male and female. God does not need an image because we are the image of God.

The image of God, however, is fully revealed in Jesus who “is the image of the invisible God” (Colossians 1:15; 2 Corinthians 4:4; Hebrews 1:3). He becomes the fountainhead of a new humanity. Whereas the old humanity in Adam bears his likeness with an earthy natural body characterized by dust, the new humanity in Christ bears his likeness with a heavenly spiritual body energized by the Spirit (Genesis 5:2; Philippians 3:21; 1 Corinthians 15:42-49). Our original human identity is restored and renewed in Christ.

Ontologically, humans have always retained their identity as images of God (divine representatives) and thus were entitled to dignity and respect (James 3:9). But the human detour through sin and death transformed that image from full color to a dark negative which needed renewal in the image of God (Ephesians 4:24; Colossians 3:10). The process of re-colorification begins with our spiritual renewal and ends with our eschatological glorification in the resurrection of the body (Romans 8:29-30).

Human Vocation

Humans were not only designed to represent God within the creation, they were designed to commune with God, to enjoy God. They were intended to share the divine nature through the divine image which stamped their nature, role and function. This is the human vocation, our human identity, that is, to live in communion with and partner with God in the management, development and care of the creation. Communion with God entails a divine vocation.

The mission of God (missio Dei) is to dynamically mature and develop the creation into the fullness of the divine intent. The human vocation is to share the divine task within creation. Humans are co-rulers and co-creators. They partner with God for the sake of the divine mission. God has invested in humanity a glory and a responsibility as divine representatives in the world.

The good creation was not complete at creation but only beginning. The creation would, according to the divine intent, emerge and grow into a maturity fitted for the eschatological dwelling place of the Triune God. Humans, too, would mature as diverse cultures emerged and technologies developed. God glories in both natural and human diversity. Humans who live near the Arctic Circle live differently and develop a different culture than those who live near the equator. Since God determined that the whole earth be inhabited (Isaiah 45:18-19), God intended this diversity, values it, and rejoices in it.

This involves every aspect of human life. The arts (music, literature, art) are expressions of human creativity as we image God and enjoy what is created. Technology manages resources, medicine serves wholeness, and social structures shape community. These are part of the human vocation, our partnership with God, as co-rulers and co-creatures within the creation.

A Rival Story Emerges

The human story took a detour. What were intended as expressions of the divine task given to humanity became modes of reversing the divine intent. Technology polluted the earth, social structures oppressed the weak, and the arts fostered human self-centeredness.

This detour is described in Genesis 3-11. God invested humanity with the freedom to choose between the “tree of life” and the “tree of knowledge of good and evil.” It was a choice between life and death, between partnering with God and autonomy. The episode in the garden of God’s temple (creation) symbolizes the plotline within God’s story of the fundamental choice human beings have between humility and pride (Psalm 138:6; Proverbs 18:12; James 4:6; 1 Peter 5:5), between covenant with God or independence (cf. Deuteronomy 30:19; Joshua 24:15; John 7:17; Matthew 23:37).

The detour is not simply about the “fall” in the Garden but about the emergence of a rival story throughout Genesis 3-11. Evil grows in the story and fills the earth to such a point God destroys it through the Noahic flood. But even that cleansing did not deter humans from their own agenda. The story climaxes in the building of the Tower of Babel where the agenda of God’s creation is turned on its head. While God’s self-deliberation resulted in the creation of humanity (“let us create…”) in Genesis 1, the human self-deliberation resulted in the erection of a tribute to human arrogance and the desire to reach the heavens, that is, to become like God (“let us build….”). Humanity wanted to build their own city as a testimony to their autonomy. From Genesis 3 to Genesis 11 humanity degenerated into a broken, fallen and depraved image of God.

This degenerative process structurally uprooted God’s creative intent. The relationship between God and humanity was severed (e.g., expelled from the Garden), the relationship between male and female was distorted (e.g., husbands would now “rule” their wives), social relationships were deformed into relationships of power, abuse and violence (e.g., Cain and its aftermath), and the relationship between humanity and the cosmos became hostile (e.g., death). This degeneration was the “vandalism of Shalom” (Plantinga). It perverted the goodness of creation and stripped humanity of any power to defeat the enemy they had embraced.

The creation, however, was not without grace. Adam and Eve lived to bear children. Seth introduced a new line of humanity distinct from Cain. Enoch walked with God in the midst of a broken universe. Noah found grace in God’s eyes. And God would call Abraham in Genesis 12. God continued to pursue humanity and he did not forsake his purpose.


Though the word is rarely used in Genesis 3-11, sin emerges as a power within humanity as if it were an alien force. The dynamic of that power is larger than humanity itself and looking from the end of the God’s drama we see that power was demonic and Satanic. It became part of the “elements of the cosmos” itself. This does not mean that the creation became evil but that the creation was subjugated to the reign of evil powers.

Human choice, permitted by God’s will, gave that power to the chaotic and demonic elements within the cosmos. Humanity listened to the wrong voice. They chose sin and sin became a power within the human psyche; it became “second nature” to humanity. It is our “sinful nature” or sarx. The human condition degenerated into depravity and God gave humanity over to its desire (Romans 1:18-32). Sin reigned as a power within humanity and humanity was powerless to dethrone it (Romans 7).

Theologians have debated for centuries what the essence of sin is. The suggestions are wide-ranging, including disobedience, rebellion, pride, anxiety, law-breaking, idolatry and unbelief. Many of these metaphors are legal in character, others are introspective. But I tend to think that sin’s fundamental problem is relational.

The essence of sin, as Grenz argues, is the failure to image God. We were created as the glory of God, that is, to image God, and we have fallen short of that glory (Romans 3:23). We have missed the mark. We have failed to represent God in the world. Instead, through rebellious pride, we have asserted our own agenda. Sin is anything that fails to mirror God’s vocation, character and intent in the world. This includes individual but also social actions and structures which depress or subvert the divine agenda. Sin is not only personal but social; sin is not merely an individual act but a structural reality and dominating power in the world.

So What?

Every human person has intrinsic value and dignity. Our status as divine imagers is both our identity and vocation, and this gives worth to every human life. This is the root of a healthy self-esteem as well as the ground of a human rights ethic.

God intended change; he intended his creation to emerge, evolve and develop. Nature evolved, human society developed, and cultures emerged. The richness and diversity of the creation in all its biological forms is a testimony to God’s manifold wisdom. Just as God, humanity enjoys this diversity and learns about itself through the diverse expressions of human culture.

The human adventure is a fundamental conflict between two stories. One story humbly participates in the divine agenda but the other story arrogantly creates its own agenda. It is a contrast between humility and pride. Human conceit empowered evil in the world and rooted it in the fabric of the cosmos. The kingdom of God became the kingdom of Satan but intends to reverse that sad fact.

The human predicament is mixed. The divine image is present but blackened. The human vocation is intact but distorted. Humans are powerless to renew, restore or redeem the broken creation without divine grace. But God is present in the creation to redeem—present in Seth, Enoch, Noah…and ultimately Abraham. God has not forsaken his purposes and his intent will not be frustrated.

14 Responses to “Two Stories: Humanity’s Foolish Detour (SBD 5)”

  1.   K. Rex Butts Says:

    The creation of humanity in the image of God, on a day of creation in which God finally looked upon his creation as “very good” rather than just “good”, must have shocked the core of who Israel was at the time. After 430 years of oppressive enslavement at the hands of the Egyptians, to hear you bear the image of God must have been very difficult to grasp. But God was using that creative foundation as a means to reshape their identity and sense of belonging. He was telling them that you are worth more than that of someone’s slave because you belong to me and came from me. Being created in the image of God tells them something of who they are and who they were created to be – a people of “worth” (Nahum Zarna). This is where I understand the catagories of substantative, relational, and functional coming into place.

    With knowledge of the historical background and theological intent of the creation narrative, it is not surprising why Paul employed creation language to speak of God’s redemptive work in Christ. Thus Athanasius’ theosis statement “God became man so that man might become God” is not so provocative as it once was when I first heard it :-).

    I am enjoying your posts, as always. Thanks!

    Grace and peace,


    •   John Mark Hicks Says:

      Rex, thanks for the additional insight into the notion of “people of worth.” I think that is quite helpful.

      •   K. Rex Butts Says:

        One of the things about sin/evil in the world, is that humanity is both part of the cause as well as a victim. From the victim standpoint, sin and evil destroys our sense of self worth and beauty. It tells us we are unlovable and subsequently less than human. To hear that we were created in the image of God and are being redeemed back into that image restores our dignity and value as humans. From the causal standpoint of sin, hearing of the image we were created to be and are being redeemed to be ought to quiken a desire to not be what we have become in the sarx. Thus, the “image of God” is the foundation for God’s creative and redemptive work — at least in one sense it seems.

        Grace and peace,


  2.   randall Says:

    Regarding sin you said “The essence of sin, as Grenz argues, is the failure to image God.” Would you consider providing a little more definition and scope to this. For example, in Romans 7 Paul says things like he is not the one doing what he would not do but sin which indwells him is doing it. What’s you take on that?

    I once heard someone define sin as the corruption of the human heart that led man to behave in such depraved manner. The person went on to say that man sins b/c he is sinful rather than the other way around, though man is also sinful b/c he sins.

    I appreciate your posts and know they require a lot of effort. If it doesn’t take too much or your time I would be appreciative if you could help me understand the concept of sin a little better.

    Thanks for all you do. I look forward to your posts daily.

    •   John Mark Hicks Says:

      The reciprocal relationship between acts of sin and the power of sin indwelling within the human person is kind of the chicken and the egg question. At this point in human history, I’m not sure that it makes much difference–it works both ways. It is a both/and rather than an either/or.

      It seems to me that the original couple did not sin (as pictured in Genesis) because they were sinful but rather they became sinful through their sin. But the introduction of sin into the human situation created a degenerative spiral of human acts and ruling power.

      Sin is not merely individual acts but is a ruling power in the hearts of people as Romans 7 indicates. That ruling power moves us to sin and we ourselves act in the sin (we ratify the power) such that we are caught in an addictive cycle from which we cannot release ourselves. This is the wretchedness of our condition without the grace of Jesus and the power of the Spirit.

      In terms of definition, what makes sin what it is? When we are less than God intended as his images, that is sin–it is missing the mark of imaging God.

      I hope that clarifies my understanding a bit. And thanks for your encouraging voice as a dialogue partner, my brother.

      John Mark

      •   randall Says:

        Thanks for your reply. I did find it to be helpful.

        Sorry I didn’t explain that I was referring to sin after the fall. I was trying to be brief but I’ve gotten over that. 😉 Since the fall man has been predisposed toward sin. But Adam before the fall, now that is really difficult for me b/c he was created good. If there was ever a mere mortal with free will it was Adam. Yet he chose to sin w/o being predisposed toward it. And I believe God must have known Adam would fall (though he (Adam) wasn’t under compulsion to do it) and that he (God) would redeem us.

        So why did Adam choose to sin? Why did God permit it, especially in light of the awful cost to his completely unique son? I presume my questions are almost unanswerable. Surely God has a plan (the reformed concept of the decrees of God, I think) and he is doing it. He knows the end from the beginning. Certainly we have already been blessed by his redemption and will be further blessed as his love continues to be revealed in the ongoing development of his plan.

        My brain is so puny!

        Thanks for taking the time and making the effort.

      •   John Mark Hicks Says:

        The Reformed system affirms God decreed the fall of Adam (though there are some hanglings over language here). So, Adam sinned because God decided he would.

        But I’m inclined to think our questions are unanswerable. The function of the story in Genesis is not to explain the why of sin but the why of the present human predicament (and thus Gen 4-11 is just as important Gen 3). And the human predicament involves a power struggle with sin which we humans cannot win on our own. That, to me, is the central point, and the fundamental meaning of our depravity.

        Thanks for your interest, Randall.

      •   Jr Says:

        This is certainly one of those paradoxical elements. We will not fully understand the secret things of God (Deut 29:29). But I think it is obvious God “decreed” that sin happen in the world (including Adam) because it happens; and all things are under His authority – but most importantly before the foundation of the world Christ was crucified; the redemptive plan was done; and that act was the biggest sin of all.

        God is sovereign over sin; yet He has no sin in Him.

        But this is the point, I think. We are all born dead in Adam and are only born again in Christ, the Redeemer. There are two kinds of people in the world today: Dead and Alive. We are all born dead and only by the Spirit’s power are we made alive in Christ.

        And JMH is right. We can’t do anything on our own. Dead people can’t bring themselves back to life. Dead people can’t fight. Even belief is impossible.

  3.   rich constant Says:

    john mark
    i get in his “image”
    . although
    sense we are not god we were told what gods good work for us was by him, tending the garden. 🙂
    i still like deviate from gods good for us .
    which is for sure after the knowledge gained through believing the lie.

    why not
    missing the mark of imaging gods intent…
    also i was wondering
    about cane and his faith in god
    i mean there was no law and god punished him .
    seems to me that his faith will be accounted as righteous.
    wondering what you would say
    then there is Paul. no…
    and god being no respecter of persons and miss one little of law and you get cursed ….tree????

    also john mark
    the fall back point of goods elect nation for moses is it not ROM 3.1-2 that kept them from being wiped off the face of the earth.
    and did not god tell them that he would work a work that they would not believe
    they judged Jesus a blasphemer and lied to get pilot to send him to the cross for them…
    god did honor his cov even though they used the law unjustly he honored his cov of law.
    and just a few hours after being forgiven…(hopeing thats right) passover.there first act of judgement????
    we’ll send him to the cross the catch 22 of the law…
    and john mark i think that was their intent.

  4.   rich constant Says:

    p.s. that also speaks of the life of jesus…no sin in him.not dead….like adam

  5.   rich constant Says:

    also would you cut and paste rom 4.16 “faith of abraham”from greek
    paste that right under the same words in rom.3.26and then tell me which contexial meaning i should go with

    i find that oh well what do you think about this present time now past but ever present 🙂

  6.   rich constant Says:

    john mark
    if god is really really really smart
    if god is ” ” ” wise
    and if compare to SAY an angelic creature….

    and Jesus tells his deciples to be as wise as a serpent and as innocent as a dove….
    i would conclude that
    is a godly characteristic
    and was employed in creation…
    knowing what could POSSIBLY come about and plan for that leaving free will intact and time being a factor…look at the last few elections…
    with free will seems to dumb ol me there would be a glitch some where….crap john mark no one sees truth right 🙂
    he just came up with the prefect system.
    justification by faith through grace.

    now if you would please take ROM. 4.16 faith of Abraham
    put that at the end of 3:25
    he passed over the sins previously committed…. to those of the faith of Abraham


  7.   rich constant Says:



  8.   rich constant Says:

    i vacillate all over on this one for years although i think i have come to roost on the word of GOD not CHRIST…

    Romans 10:17

    essentially because that what Jesus said he delivered,his mission

Leave a Reply