There’s a wonderful and profound theme that runs through all of C.S. Lewis’s Chronicles of Narnia. The Chronicles of Narnia, as you probably know, is a children’s fantasy series that C.S. Lewis wrote to explore a delightful idea: if there was a land of talking animals and magic, and Jesus came to that world, what would that be like? And so in the first book, The Lion the Witch and the Wardrobe, Aslan, the Great Lion, the son of the Emperor-beyond-the-sea, gives his life in exchange for a traitor’s and, in doing so, defeats the evil White Witch: a parable of the gospel story.
C.S. Lewis does a brilliant job of working all of the compelling nuances of Jesus’ contradictory character into his portrayal of Aslan, and throughout the series he drops little nuggets of insight into the Christian life. These insights make the Narnia books unlike most other series. You can read over and over again and continue getting more out of every time you read them.
On my most recent return to Narnia, reading with my son, I discovered one of those insights I had never seen before. Sprinkled throughout the series is the very idea that I want to explore and analyze in this book: that the universe was designed to be ruled by humans.
In the book Prince Caspian, when Caspian, the true king, sets out to put things right in Narnia, Trufflehunter the badger is arguing with Trumpkin the dwarf as to whether Caspian should rule over them. Their conversation is humorous and illuminating:
“You dwarfs are as forgetful and changeable as the Humans themselves,” said Trufflehunter. “I’m a beast, I am, and a Badger what’s more. We don’t change. We hold on. I say great good will come of this. This is the true King of Narnia we’ve got here: a true King, coming back to true Narnia. And we beasts remember, even if Dwarfs forget, that Narnia was never right except when a son of Adam was King.”
“Whistles and whirligigs, Trufflehunter!” said Trumpkin. “You don’t mean that you want to give the country to Humans?”
“I said nothing about that,” answered the Badger. “It’s not Men’s country (who should know that better than me?) but it’s a country for a man to be King of.”
“Narnia was never right except when a son of Adam was King… it’s not Men’s country, but it’s a country for a man to be King of.” In those two sentences is a summation of humanity, creation, and God’s design for the world. Narnia was never right except when a son of Adam was King… and the same is true of our world as well. This world, while it doesn’t belong to us, was made to be ruled by us, by humanity sitting on the throne, submitting to the Creator God. And everything that has ever gone wrong in the world can be traced back to this startling truth: we have abdicated our rightful rule.
In the beginning, when the Architect of the cosmos built the universe according to his wise blueprints, he wove a specific design into the fabric of reality—a design that makes everything work if followed, and wreaks havoc if abandoned. That shouldn’t surprise us, since every designer incorporates his preferences into his design. God’s preferences are written all over the world he has made, and are especially articulated in the Word that he has revealed to us. The Bible, our owner’s manual (so to speak), explains exactly how to follow the Creator’s design.
Now, once I begin talking about the Bible being our owner’s manual, you’re probably thinking that you’ve seen this movie already. You know all this, and if you grew up in the church, you’ve known this for a long time. Your Sunday School teacher taught you that obeying God is good, and disobeying God is bad. You’ve been told that God has set up the world to work if he is in charge, and our problem is that we don’t want him in charge.
That’s all true, of course. Life does go better when we are in submission to God. But while it’s true that we were created to live in submission to God, we usually stop the discussion there and don’t realize that there is more to God’s design than that. And in doing so, we end up missing the wonder and glory of what God created us for. Because we were made to do more than merely obey; we were made to reign.
I’ll say that again just in case you were skimming the chapter and missed it the first time: we were made to do more than merely obey; we were made to reign. Now, that’s a dangerous sentence, rife with potential misunderstanding. Because, of course, the lie at the very beginning which derailed the entire human project was the poisonous idea that we could reign independently from God. That is the lie which unleashed every misery. And that’s not at all what I’m talking about.
But every persuasive lie has a kernel of truth. And, as we’ll see in the next chapter, Satan’s lie in Genesis 3 came awfully close to the truth. When he promised Eve that she would “be like God” if she joined his rebellion, he was promising something that God had in fact already given her. God had created Adam and Eve “in his own image,” in his likeness. Eve, therefore, was already like God. Adam and Eve’s birthright was that they were made like God, and had been given delegated rule over all God’s creation. They were the king and queen of the cosmos, with nearly unlimited freedom and authority handed to them directly from the Creator. They didn’t need what the snake was selling, because they already had it. Satan was, in effect, trying to sell Eve a birthright that already belonged to her.
The spectacular reality of that birthright is what I want to recover in these pages. The idea that God is the one who is in charge, and we’re just supposed to shut up and obey is only half true. In fact, that’s the very half-truth the snake was selling. The full truth is so shocking, so surprising, that it sounds almost too good: God’s original blueprint did not call for a universe and rational human creatures who merely obey him. God’s design was for humans to represent him, and rule for him. In fact, faithful representation and rule is what it means to obey him.
N.T. Wright, in his book How God Became King: The Forgotten Story of the Gospels, makes this very case. He writes: “The Jews assumed, on the basis of their strong creational theology, that the creator had made the world in such a way as to be properly ordered and run by human beings. The Jewish vision of theocracy, of God being in charge, was always one of a rule mediated through his image-bearers, that is, through human beings.” God is the one who is in charge, that part is true. He is the High King. But like a dad who buys a new car and hands over the keys to his sixteen-year-old, the reason God made humanity was to hand over the keys of the universe to us.
THE RELATIONSHIP AT THE HEART OF REALITY
This “master plan” extends all the way back to the beginning of the world, and before, into the unfathomable depths of the heart of God himself. To understand God’s goal in creating humanity to reign for him, we must first see the relationship at the heart of reality, out of which all creation flows.
Relationship is at the heart of reality. Jump into a time machine and start traveling backwards, and you’ll never arrive at a time when relationship was not. Even if you twist the time dial so far back that it breaks, and you find yourself drifting in the pre-creation void before the universe existed, you will still find relationship. Go back to the beginning, and then go back farther, and you won’t be able to escape it. Relationship predates reality.
The relationship at the heart of reality is the self-existent, singular and plural, triune God. The Bible presents this one true God as standing forth from all eternity in three distinct Persons, the Father and the Son and the Holy Spirit. Stretching back into time immemorial, the Father and the Son and the Spirit have enjoyed an relationship of love unparalleled in all of history. Before the galaxies were born, before light and dark were ever dreamt of, the Father delighted in the perfect image of his glory in the person of his Son. Listen in to Jesus’ earthly prayers and you’ll overhear whispers of this original Love. “You loved me before the foundation of the world,” he prays in John 17:24. Earlier in that prayer, he speaks of “the glory I had with you before the world existed” (John 17:5). The Son so loves his Father that he rejoices to honor him. “I always do what pleases him,” (John 8:29) Jesus declares confidently. And in between the Father and the Son flows a joy and love so deep, so powerful, so alive, that it stands forth as the third Person of the Trinity, the Holy Spirit. And thus, for all eternity, the Father has rejoiced in his beloved Son, the Son has honored the Father, and the Spirit has united them in a bond of unending delight and adoration. This is the relationship that predates reality.
When learning about how God created the universe, little children will often ask a question along the lines of, “What was God doing before he made the world? Was he lonely? Was he bored?” The answer to that question is an emphatic “No!” God does not lack and he does not need, because he has everything good and beautiful within himself. He doesn’t get lonely or bored or tired or hungry—how could he, in his community of perfection? This is what 1 John 4:8 means when it says that “God is love.” Before there was anything or anyone else to love, the union of delight among the members of the Trinity blazed as a self-sustaining furnace of happiness. God is not static or mechanical, acting out a script or responding in predictable ways. God is an inferno, a hurricane, a blazing supernova of passion and gladness and love. He pulses with infinite beauty and joy, so much so that he cannot be contained. The delight he has within himself is so wonderful, so massive, that is simply had to be shared. And so, as the crescendo of his own magnificence, creation was born.
The creation of the universe was the overflow of God’s delight in himself, the “going public” of his love and beauty, divine community becoming divine communication. The love between the Father and the Son spilled over into a physical universe full of creatures who could reflect and respond to their beauty, and admire and extend their relationship. Everything in the world does this. The “heavens declare the glory of God” (Psalm 19:1) by painting the extravagance of his artistry every day and night. The mountains and oceans are metaphors of his mercy (Isaiah 54:10). The animal kingdom, in all its diversity and abundance, is the surplus of his sufficiency (Psalm 50:10). His immeasurable power and Trinitarian fullness is clearly seen, shining forth in everything he has made (Romans 1:20).
But the capstone of creation, far greater than any galaxy or mountain or animal, was God’s special handiwork: human beings. These creatures, formed from dust and crowned with glory, would be endowed with the spiritual capacity to participate in God’s Trinitarian relationship. In fellowship with the Triune God, they would be able to carry the presence of God with them until the entire world was made a temple for majesty. And as an extension and overflow of God’s glory, they would be tasked with reigning on behalf of God, regents and high priests extending his kingdom across the globe. They would be the means by which the divine life and joy that birthed the universe would be spread throughout that universe. They would represent God by reigning over his world, and would carry God’s presence to the ends of the earth. In doing so, all of creation would be able to fulfill its purpose of celebrating its Creator.
THE IMAGE OF GOD
This was God’s design from the very beginning. The question, as we begin the story, is, “How will this come to pass?” The answer comes on the very first page of the Bible, with delegation of divine authority and extension of divine life woven into the DNA of humanity.
Here’s the whole relevant text:
Then God said, “Let us make man in our image, after our likeness. And let them have dominion over the fish of the sea and over the birds of the heavens and over the livestock and over all the earth and over every creeping thing that creeps on the earth.”
So God created man in his own image, in the image of God he created them; male and female he created them.
And God blessed them. And God said to them, “Be fruitful and multiply and fill the earth and subdue it, and have dominion over the fish of the sea and over the birds of the heavens and over every living thing that moves on the earth.” (Genesis 1:26-28)
The creation of humanity interrupts what has otherwise been an orderly progression of poetic creativity in Genesis 1 up until this point: God speaks, reality responds, it is good, morning and evening, and repeat. But here at the end of the sixth day of creation, the drumbeat of the narrative abruptly stops, and God begins conferring with himself as to the next step of the process. This divine pause is pregnant with meaning. Biblical scholar Umberto Cassuto points out that “only in the case of man, because of his special importance, does Scripture allude to the Divine thought preceding the act of creation.” What is about to unfold is so momentous, so significant, that God stops and muses. Through this inspired account we get to overhear his conversation with himself, the Trinitarian dialogue out of which flows mankind’s regal purpose.
“Let us make man in our own image,” God says. All other creatures formed on the fifth and sixth day were made “according to their kinds” (Genesis 1:21, 24, 25). That is, their reference frame is themselves; their meaning is found in their relation to each other; they group together and reproduce according to their similarities, not according to any higher order or purpose. But this new capstone of creation, mankind, is different. This time, the reference frame is not humanity itself, but humanity’s Maker. The scope and purpose of humanity is not defined by our species’ relationship with ourselves, but our species’ relationship to its Creator. That relationship, scope, and purpose is summed up in the phrase “in our own image.” Humanity is defined as image-bearers, marked with the stamp of divinity.
So what does the phrase “image of God” mean? Throughout Scripture, the concept of image-bearing boils down to two concepts: humans were created to be a reflection and representation of God. Most of what I’ve heard taught about “the image of God” centers around the first of those, that humans are a reflection of God. This means that human beings were created, distinct from the rest of creation, to mirror certain attributes of God. We are relational, communicative, creative, moral, spiritual beings, just like God. Our purpose is to be like mirrors, reflecting what God is like.
All of that is completely true, but we can’t stop there if we want to fully understand the phrase “image of God.” “Image of God” means more than just a reflection of God; it also means to be a representative of God. In ancient Middle Eastern culture—the culture in which Genesis was written—kings would often claim the title “image of God” for themselves, claiming as the basis of their rule that they were earthly representations of divinity. On the basis of their status as image-bearers, these kings could wield absolute authority over their subjects and rule with unlimited power. The shocking claim of Genesis 1 is that those kings were both right and wrong; they were right in claiming that they were earthly representations of divinity, but wrong in hoarding that privilege for themselves and in exercising that power outside of submission to the one true God. It is not only kings who are images of God, Genesis says. “God,” notes biblical scholar Bruce Waltke, “has called all humanity to be his vice-regents and high priests on earth.” Every human being is an image-bearer, an earthly representation of divinity and extension of his Trinitarian fullness, made to represent and spread the Creator’s benevolent rule over his creation.
The implications of this were monumental, and continue to be so. The proclamation that every human being is an image of God meant that kings could no longer claim divine prerogatives over their subjects. Indeed, Israel’s later monarchy was built on this novel presupposition: the king was not god, nor was he above God’s law. Authority did rest in his hands, but it did not originate in him, nor could he wield it with unaccountable impunity. This politically disruptive seed of “the image of God” germinated in Israel’s establishment of rule of law and later flowered into the notions of democracy and human rights that took hold in the Christian West. The radical assertion of America’s Declaration of Independence—a humanity “created equal and endowed by their Creator with certain unalienable rights”—flows in a direct line from the worldview of Genesis 1:26. Today, the vigorous efforts of the pro-life movement stand on the biblical foundation of image-bearing, insisting that human life inside the womb is valuable not because of its usefulness, but because in the veins of fetuses flows the royal blood of divine regents. The church’s awakening conscience, primarily among younger evangelicals, to the unjust social structures of our day—racism, poverty, inequality, etc.—is fueled by the insistence that to oppress those made in the image of God is to rebel against the reign of God expressed through their humanity. William Edgar, in his book Created & Creating, notes that “this concept [of image-bearing] is unique in any religion or any philosophy.” What this means is that much of the aspirations of the modern world—democracy, human rights, universal justice—hang on the slender thread of Genesis 1:26.
This regal identity should grip our hearts as we consider the true character of our friends, co-workers, family, and even enemies. If every human being was created as an image-bearer, God’s “vice-regents and high priests on earth,” then no matter how much the Fall has defaced that image, there is an awesome glory in the simple reality of being human. Our value is not found in what we do, but rather what we are—images of the Almighty, immortal representatives of his reign, commissioned to act on his behalf in his universe. C.S. Lewis captures the trembling wonder that should guide all our interactions:
“It is a serious thing to live in a society of possible gods and goddesses, to remember that the dullest and most uninteresting person you talk to may one day be a creature which, if you saw it now, you would be strongly tempted to worship, or else a horror and a corruption such as you now meet, if at all, only in a nightmare… There are no ordinary people. You have never talked to a mere mortal. Nations, cultures, arts, civilization—these are mortal, and their life is to ours as the life of a gnat. But it is immortals whom we joke with, work with, marry, snub, and exploit—immortal horrors or everlasting splendors.”
This is the weight we must carry with us each day, guiding what it means to joke or talk or love or hate those made in the image of God. To be an image-bearer means to be a representative of divinity, appointed to rule for him, endowed with a significance that can be seen most clearly in our immortality. Made in God’s indestructible image, we will outlast this universe. Stars will burn out, galaxies will disintegrate to dust, but you will remain, and your neighbors and co-workers will remain—as C.S. Lewis said, either “immortal horrors or everlasting splendors.” Truly, it is an awesome thing to be human.
So what, exactly, does it mean to represent God on earth? In the context of Genesis 1, it means dominion. The concepts of image-bearer and authority-wielder are intimately linked: “Let us make man in our image, after our likeness. And let them have dominion over the fish of the sea and over the birds of the heavens and over the livestock and over all the earth and over every creeping thing that creeps on the earth.” In Genesis 1:26, to be made in the image of God means to rule over everything God has made. God, of course, remains the High King and Creator. And yet humans were commissioned to rule on behalf of God, as his regents, if you will. God’s design from the very beginning was not for him to rule the world directly, but for us to rule the world for him. By extending the Trinity’s relationship and reign outward through human beings, God’s purpose of making all of creation into a platform for his praise would be achieved.
What was that regency supposed to look like? God’s blessing on humanity in Genesis 1:28 expands on the concept of dominion. “Be fruitful and multiply and fill the earth and subdue it, and have dominion over the fish of the sea and over the birds of the heavens and over every living thing that moves on the earth.” This divine blessing, often referred to as “the cultural mandate,” comprises the marching orders for humanity. The definition and scope of the human project is to be fruitful, multiply, fill the earth, and subdue it.
The cultural mandate is so named because theologians have long noted that to “be fruitful and multiply and fill the earth and subdue it” is the essence of what human culture is. Human culture, from the stone age to the space age, has always been a function of adapting a varied and beautiful world into even greater beauty and usefulness. “Culture,” writes Joe Rigney in his book The Things of Earth, “is a kind of cultivation, a drawing out of what God has put in… Culture is an adornment of creation, the further beautification of an already beautiful world.” In short, culture is the human effort to take the “very good” world that God made and make it even better.
We usually think of the phrase “be fruitful and multiply” as meaning, “make babies,” and while that’s a part of the command, it’s about more than that. In the six other times that this phrase is used in Genesis, it is intimately associated with the blessing of God. Throughout the Bible, “fruitfulness” isn’t just about having a family; it’s about taking what God has given to you and turning it into multiplying blessing, whether that be children or opportunities or skills or obedience. To be fruitful and multiply is to experience and extend the blessing of God. Thus, later in the book of Genesis, the patriarch Joseph names his son Ephraim, saying, “God has made me fruitful in the land of my affliction.” He was talking about more than just the fact that he had fathered a child; he meant that God had transformed the desert of his suffering into a garden of blessing. The psalms and prophets speak of the righteous man who, rooted deep in God’s Word, “is like a tree planted by streams of water that yields its fruit in its season.” Jesus assured his followers that the path of “bearing much fruit” lay in “abiding in him,” staying connected to his life-giving power. “The fruit of the Spirit,” Galatians tells us, “is love, joy, peace,” and more. All of these passages flow out of the cultural mandate to “be fruitful,” elaborating on what it means to experience and extend God’s blessing.
What God established in Eden is what the rest of the Bible comes to call “the kingdom of God.” The kingdom of God is found wherever God’s presence resides and God’s king reigns. Here in Eden, God’s presence dwelt with his people, a personal and intimate relationship of love. And here in Eden, God’s representatives ruled over creation for him. Their task was to cultivate God’s beautiful world and bring forth even greater beauty, to multiply blessing and goodness first in the garden and then carry God’s presence to all the globe. In that assignment is everything it means to be human, and everything it means to be part of God’s kingdom. Wherever God’s delegated regents are reigning and God’s presence is residing, there the blessing of Eden will abound. God’s regent and God’s presence—his king and country, if you will—is what the whole rest of the biblical story is about.
As the story moves from the cultural mandate at the end of Genesis 1 into Genesis 2, you can see how this theme begins to be developed. Humanity begins inside a lush and protected garden with untended wild space all around. The rest of the world is barren, partly because God had not supplied nourishment for it yet, but mostly because God’s regents had not yet begun to cultivate it:
No bush of the field was yet in the land and no small plant of the field had yet sprung up—for the LORD God had not caused it to rain on the land, and there was no man to work the ground… And the LORD God planted a garden in Eden, in the east, and there he put the man whom he had formed. And out of the ground the LORD God made to spring up every tree that is pleasant to the sight and good for food… The LORD God took the man and put him in the garden of Eden to work it and keep it. (Genesis 2:5, 8-9, 15)
Here is how the original design of creation was supposed to unfold: God formed the man and woman to be his image bearers, representatives of his rule, and placed them in a lush and bountiful garden. “Fill the earth and subdue it” was God’s first and overriding direction to his newly-appointed representatives. Inside the garden was safety and abundance and everlasting life. Outside the garden was barrenness and raw potential. Man’s mission was to take the abundance and life that God had planted inside the garden and cultivate it and extend it outward until it filled the whole world, carrying the presence of God with them across the planet. William Edgar, writing about the cultural mandate, summarized it saying, “Humanity was called to spread the blessing of Eden to all the earth.” In his commentary on Genesis, C. John Collins wrote, “This would mean managing all of earth’s creatures and resources for good purposes: to allow their beauty to flourish, to use them wisely and kindly, and to promote well-being for all.” That’s how the cultural mandate was supposed to work. The fruitfulness and multiplication of humanity was not meant to stay inside the garden, but to “fill the earth and subdue it.” In the context of a barren wilderness outside of Eden, to “fill the earth and subdue it” did not mean the slash-and-burn tactics so often seen today, but rather meant to bend the world’s wildness into blessing, and transform its raw potential into fruitfulness, provision, and life. Humanity was to extend the rule and life and joy and blessing of God’s kingdom from the garden to the ends of the earth, to turn the entire world into a temple where God’s presence resided and God’s rulers reigned.
In the original design, creation was intended to exist in a dependent, symbiotic relationship with its royal masters. Psalm 8 marvels at God’s purposes in creation with the language of dominion and the cultural mandate. “What is man that you are mindful of him… You have given him dominion over the works of your hands; you have put all things under his feet, all sheep and oxen, and also the beasts of the field, the birds of the heavens, and the fish of the sea.” In Psalm 8, humanity’s significance is not found in our size—since we are infinitesimally small compared to God—but rather in the size of our assignment: we were commissioned to be authority-wielders over the entire scope of God’s world. And as God’s authorized representatives, creation would bow at our feet and yield its blessing to us. As Trufflehunter would say, this world isn’t man’s country, but it is a country for man to be king of.
Probably the clearest way to see how the Bible describes this symbiotic mastery of creation is to fast forward to the end of the story, when humanity’s dominion is regained and paradise restored. Throughout Scripture, the prophets’ longings for God’s future blessing and kingdom swim with images of Eden. But read them closely, and you’ll notice something remarkable. Throughout these passages, the source of the hoped-for future blessing is not so much that God is in charge again, but rather that people are. In fact, the prophets increasingly see “God in charge” and “people in charge” as an interchangeable hope. In other words, this is what it will look like when the reign of God is fully restored over his world: God’s human king will sit on the throne, and mankind will be in charge again. A redeemed, renewed humanity taking up its lost mantle of dominion is what the prophets eagerly looked forward to. Survey just a few of the promises of restoration and see the central role that people play in the drama of God’s new creation:
“For you (my people) shall go out in joy and be led forth in peace; the mountains and the hills before you shall break forth into singing, and all the trees of the field shall clap their hands.” (Isaiah 55:12)
“Waters break forth in the wilderness and streams in the desert… and a highway shall be there, and it shall be called the Way of Holiness… and the redeemed shall walk there.” (Isaiah 35:6-9)
“The Spirit of the LORD shall rest upon him [the promised king, the son of David]…With righteousness he shall judge the poor and decide with equity for the meek of the earth…The wolf shall dwell with the lamb, and the leopard shall lie down with the young goat, and the calf and the lion and the fattened calf together; and a little child shall lead them.” (Isaiah 11:2,4,6)
“Night will be no more. They will need no light of map or sun, for the Lord God will be their light, and they will reign forever and ever.” (Revelation 22:4)
“The creation waits with eager longing for the revealing of the sons of God. For… the creation itself will be set free from its bondage to corruption and obtain the freedom of the glory of the children of God.” (Romans 8:19-21)
That last passage from Romans 8 in particular is illuminating. Think on it for a moment, and the implications become immense. The aching desire pulsing through the whole creation is not that God’s glory would be revealed, but rather that yours would be. “The glory of the children of God”—that’s your glory. Even the phrase itself seems so full of potential blasphemy that it can scarcely be uttered. And yet there it is, in Romans 8: the yearning, longing, expectant joy of creation is for the resplendency of your reign to be put on display for all to see. Again, not God’s glory; yours. Or could it be that those two seemingly different hopes—the revealing of God’s glory and the revealing of yours—are in fact the same desire? The prophet Habakkuk also speaks about a future hope of glory: “the earth will be filled with the knowledge of the glory of the LORD as waters cover the sea.” Could it be that creation knowing God’s glory and creation joining the freedom of your glory are in fact the same thing?
Saint Irenaeus, a second century church father, captured the relationship between divine glory and human dominion in one of his most famous quotes. He wrote, “The glory of God is man fully alive.” God’s glory—the display of all his perfections—is expressed through the delegated reign of mankind. God’s design to maximize the display of his infinite worth has always been for humans to represent him and rule for him. To “glorify God,” therefore, is about much, much more than singing worship songs on Sunday. It encompasses the entire scope of the human experience. Everything we do in our office as image-bearers—every act of creativity, every bond of relationship, every moment of discovery and growth, everything and anything that cultivates fruitfulness and bends blessing to each other and the world—is the raw material of worship. Everything we do as humans is potential praise. Our image-bearing humanity and everything that flows from it is a prism through which the glory of God shines. That’s why the apostle Paul, in 1 Corinthians 10, urges, “Whether you eat or drink or whatever you do, do all to the glory of God.” Even dinner, when eaten by a “fully alive” image-bearer, can be a means of extending blessing to others and pointing back to the Creator. The entire universe was designed as an arena in which our incarnated, flesh-and-blood image-bearing makes God look great. Mankind fully alive, submitting to the Creator, and taking up its lost mantle of dominion… this what all creation longs for. Because this is what all creation was made for.
These glimpses of creation restored point us back to Eden and what the blueprints for creation originally called for. According to God’s original design, the earth would blossom with life, yield its abundance, and submit its resources to be shaped and stewarded and multiplied, as long as it was under the wise guidance of humanity. The animal kingdom would bow to its rightful rulers, who would then shepherd each species into the fullness of everything God created them to be (see the all-too-quickly aborted beginnings of this undertaking in Genesis 2:19-20). With no death, no sin, and no limits on human creativity and potential, all creation would eagerly bend to the will of mankind and become the garden of paradise it was formed to be. William Edgar writes with wonder that “the original purpose of the creation of humankind was that we should have progressed to a state of glory and happiness, beyond even the perfections of Eden.”
Try to imagine, for a moment, how wonderful this world could have been. Those longing echoes throughout the Bible borrow images from Eden to describe what it would have looked like when the blessing of God flowed unimpeded through the reign of righteous mankind. Biblical phrases like, “the wolf will lie down with the lamb,” “the wilderness will rejoice and blossom,” “streams will flow in the desert,” and “the mountains and hills burst forth into singing,” hint at the uncontainable joy and life and peace that would have pulsed through creation. Imagine human culture unshackled from death, futility, division, sin, and shame: boundless creativity and artistry and celebration; limitless exploration and innovation and discovery; perfect relationship and community and society; an endless, eternally expanding reign of joy. Imagine no frustration, no unmet longings, no sin, no sadness. Imagine all of this, strain your faculties to try to encompass everything “paradise” means, and you will begin to scratch the surface of what the cultural mandate, “be fruitful and multiply, fill the earth and subdue it” meant.
This is the world that was, that could have been. And this is the world that will be again. The pages of the New Testament whisper of the day when “creation itself will be liberated from its bondage to decay and obtain the freedom of the glory of the children of God.” One day, the sons and daughters of the High King will take their place as kings and queens of the cosmos, and everything broken will be made whole. The world’s rightful rulers will sit down on the throne again. Sorrow and sighing, we are told, will flee away, and only everlasting joy will remain. On that day, the river of divine blessing, dammed at the Fall by human sin, will once again flow outward from the throne, watering the whole world with health and wholeness. Human culture, redeemed and made beautiful again, will rise from the ashes, expand outward from New Jerusalem, and fill the universe with light and joy. The original design will be re-implemented, and we will reign forever and ever. Can you feel all creation longing for that day?
But that’s a spoiler of the end of the story. Rewind back to Genesis 2, and all the elements of the cultural mandate and human flourishing are primed and ready. Man and woman are together in the garden, with a fruitful one-flesh union that will soon begin multiplying. They are surrounded by abundance and have been tasked with preserving, protecting, and expanding that abundance into the emptiness around the garden. Adam has begun exercising his authority over the animal kingdom by naming all of God’s creatures. Every element of the cultural mandate—“be fruitful, multiply, fill the earth, and subdue it”—is in place. The human project is about to take off.
Of course, we all know how the story goes. In the next chapter, the human project derails and detonates, with the shock waves of chaos, futility, death, and sin still reverberating today. In the next chapter, we’ll look more closely at what went wrong and why, but for now, as we’re still meditating on God’s original blueprints, it’s worth asking the question, “What has become of our cultural mandate now? What does dominion and image bearing look like today? Do we still have a role to play?”
The first thing we need to see is that, even though the original design has gone horribly wrong, it is in fact still the design. The Architect has not updated the blueprints. In Genesis 9:1, God relaunches the human project with Noah, saying again, “Be fruitful and multiply and fill the earth” (although note that “subduing it” is now no longer on the agenda; with an enemy occupying force on the throne, we are no longer masters of our world). But the fact that God still reinstitutes most of the cultural mandate means that, while our original purpose has been warped and burdened by sin and the fall, it is still intact and still in force. Humanity’s mission to “be fruitful and multiply and fill the earth” remains the same today as on the day it was instituted. We’re still tasked with recreating and reestablishing the bounty and blessing of Eden in every corner of the globe.
So what does the cultural mandate look like today? Think about how humanity has taken the raw potential of the planet and built it into blessing: We’ve scooped up sand, refined it into silica, and shaped it into iPhones and supercomputers and solar panels. We’ve harnessed the power of explosive oxidation (aka, fire) and built foundries, nuclear plants, and internal combustion engines. We’ve explored inaccessible rainforests and returned with exotic plants that have been distilled into life-saving antibiotics and cancer treatments. We’ve settled every continent, planted flags on the moon, and sent probes into the farthest reaches of the solar system and beyond. When you step back and take in the whole scope of humanity’s achievements, it really does take your breath away. This is what image-bearing looks like.
And what’s more, we don’t just make useful things, we make beautiful things. We take pigments in nature and turn them into paintings. We craft syllables into stories, sounds into symphonies, stone into statues, letters into literature. We decorate our bodies and our homes and our cities. We have filled our world with vibrant and varied culture, color, music, art and architecture. Look around and you’ll see overflowing evidence that something deep within the human spirit longs for beauty and craves opportunities to create it. This is what image-bearing looks like.
And yet, as we should probably expect, a cultural mandate muddied by sin has not turned out to be an unqualified good. With selfishness and shortsightedness now inextricably woven into all our efforts to “be fruitful and multiply and fill the earth,” most of our acts of creativity and industry have far-reaching collateral damage. We have found ways to twist nearly every innovation in history into more efficient engines of war, death, and destruction. We’ve done more than create beauty; in our never-ending, desperate thirst for fulfillment, we have also dug out landfills, cut down rainforests, dumped toxic waste into rivers, pillaged our limited natural resources, polluted our skies, warped our climate, and driven thousands of species into extinction, without a thought for the consequences for ourselves, our children, and our world. In many ways, humanity’s footprint on the planet, which was meant to be a blessing, has turned out to be a blight. It will take a massive work of divine redemption—both in the hearts of rebel humanity and in the tattered fabric of our broken world—to fix everything that has gone wrong.
The beauty and destruction of human dominion extends from the depths of our souls to our farthest reach into deep space. Take a moment to examine your heart and the secret longings of your soul, peel back all the accumulated layers of hurt and self-doubt and pride and brokenness, and what you will find pulsing down in the very fiber of your being is the cultural mandate: “be fruitful, multiply, fill the earth, subdue it.” Think of the things you love—your job, your hobbies, your family. Why do you love them? Because you have an inconsolable ache for greatness, a driving desire to contribute (even when it’s medicated and locked away under self-protective fortresses like “laziness” or “apathy” or “insecurity”). Your heart beats with a burning need to build and expand and be known and loved and celebrated and admired. This is why you climb the corporate ladder, get that promotion, create that family, paint that masterpiece, ace those classes, watch that movie, love that music, start that new business, write that story, play with your kids, hang out with your friends, make love to your spouse, whatever. Because wired into your DNA is the echo of Eden, the knowledge that you were made to do more and be more. This is what drives all human relationship and creativity and industry and culture. And it is also the very thing that drives our most persistent, destructive sins: the cultural mandate gone haywire and warped in on itself, a desperately short-circuiting hunger for significance. As Christians, we try to apply the biblical salve of humility to this ache, with some success (because there is nothing that pride has not twisted and corrupted in our hearts), and yet while we can experience some measure of victory in redirecting and sanctifying the ache, it never fully goes away. It can’t; that hunger is what it means to be human, to be an image-bearer. It is, as the philosopher Blaise Pascal once wrote, the ache of a deposed king longing for the greatness that once was his.
That’s why there’s one more element of image-bearing to consider. In a broken, rebellious world, the fully-realized cultural mandate must begin with redemption, the reunion of human and divine dominion. Humans must first submit to the Creator in order for all of our acts of fruitfulness to truly be an experience and extension of God’s blessing. We must wave the white flag over all our futile attempts at kingdom building, and join forces with God’s King to build his true and lasting kingdom. And so the cultural mandate, at its deepest level, finds its fulfillment in the missionary mandate of Matthew 28 to “go and make disciples of all nations.” Author Harvie Conn draws the connection between Great Commission and Genesis 1:26: “The so-called ‘missionary mandate’ is the cultural mandate’s anticipated fulfillment in redemptive grace.” Jesus, wielding the lost authority of image bearing mankind, commissions his followers to extend the reign of the God-Man King, to reconquer a rebellious world and re-establish the human project. Only the God-Man can unite all of God’s purposes for mankind by being both the presence of God that we crave and the human king we need. Theologian John Frame writes, “If the world is to be filled with worshipers of God, subduing the earth as his vassal kings, they must be first converted to Christ through the preaching of the gospel.” On this side of the incarnation and resurrection, the meaning of life is found in joining Jesus’ kingdom and becoming a whole person once more. The gospel is the way back into being fully human.
Everything good and beautiful in the world today is a distant echo of the greatness that once was ours, the original design, humanity’s heritage. Everything broken and ugly in the world today is a testament to the insurrection that wrecked the universe, our birthright stolen. But the story of the Bible doesn’t leave us with only the regret of paradise lost and the ache of a kingdom fallen. It leaves us with a promise: though the ancient serpent usurped our crown and destroyed our realm, he will not long endure. This world, just like Narnia, was only right when a son of Adam sat on the throne, and the promise of the Bible is this: Adam’s children will get the throne back one day, and everything will be made right. Redemption, not regret, will have the final word.