Image Theology and Idolatry

Stephen W. Hiemstra, Simple FaithBy Stephen W. Hiemstra

Being created in the image of God—

“So God created man in his own image [בְּצַלְמֵ֖נוּ], in the image of God he created him; male and female he created them.” (Gen 1:27 ESV)

—may sound quaint to postmodern ears, but it becomes terribly important in understanding the implications of idolatry, the worship of images other than God. Think of idolatry as a hierarchy of priorities. The First Commandment makes this point: “You shall have no other gods before me.” (Exod 20:3) For example, how time or money each week do you spend in different activities? How does God stack up in this list of priorities?

The Second Commandment reinforces the point of the first one:

“You shall not make for yourself a carved image [פֶ֣֙סֶל], or any likeness [תְּמוּנָ֡֔ה] of anything that is in heaven above, or that is in the earth beneath, or that is in the water under the earth. You shall not bow down to them or serve them, for I the LORD your God am a jealous God, visiting the iniquity of the fathers on the children to the third and the fourth generation of those who hate me, but showing steadfast love to thousands of those who love me and keep my commandments.” (Exod 20:4-6)

The focus on “carved images” suggests pagan temple worship, as the Psalmist makes light of:

“Their idols are silver and gold, the work of human hands.
They have mouths, but do not speak; eyes, but do not see.
They have ears, but do not hear; noses, but do not smell.
They have hands, but do not feel; feet, but do not walk; and they do not make a sound in their throat.
Those who make them become like them; so do all who trust in them.” (Ps 115:4-8)

The key verse here is the last one: “Those who make them become like them”. Image theology implies that we grow to become like the god that we worship, even if we worship idols. Our number one priority, which is a question of identity and attitude, is effectively our god. Idol worship threatens all that we are because over time we become like the god that we worship.

Is this statement hyperbole? Not all all. If we worship idols, they let us down. When our idols crash, we experience an existential crisis because we must completely reorganize our priorities, which is never easy.

Think about the priorities in the United States today. If your number one priority is work and you loose your job, what happens? Even a casual observer knows that anxiety, depression, drug addiction, and suicide are rampant in the United States.

The issue of suicide is indicative because suicide is currently at historically high levels. Two age groups stand out: young people under the age of thirty and older white men, a group not historically prone to suicide. Among young people, the typically reason for attempting suicide is a broken relationship (idolizing a person); among older men, the typical reason is a lost job (workaholism). Both problems suggest idols that have crashed.

For every suicide there are probably another five or ten people suffering miserably. If psychiatric problems, such as anxiety and depression, have a spiritual root (idolatry), then talk therapy and medication can only ease the pain; they cannot solve the problem.

To sum up, if we are created in the image of God and are commanded to love him and only him, God’s jealousy arises for our advantage. God’s jealousy is not vanity; it is part of his care for us. Love for God, as the prayer goes—

“Hear, O Israel: The LORD our God, the LORD is one. You shall love the LORD your God with all your heart and with all your soul and with all your might.” (Deut 6:4-5)

—actually serves to vaccinate us from some serious problems.


Tavernise, Sabrina. 2016. “U.S. Suicide Rate Surges to a 30-Year High” New York Times. April 22. Online:, Accessed: 13 March 2017.

Image Theology and Idolatry

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