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Definition

The image of a God is a biblical doctrine regarding the nature and purpose of mankind. Genesis 1:27 states that God made man “in his own image,” meaning that the human race was granted a particular likeness to God.

Summary

Just as Seth bore the “likeness and image” of his father Adam (Gen. 5:3), God made Adam and Eve to bear his image and likeness. Historical theology has often grounded the image of God in mankind’s superiority over lesser creatures, given man’s higher rationality and spirituality, and especially in human’s capacity to know and worship God. Further reflection notes that as “male and female,” mankind bears God’s image in a community of love. The emphasis in Genesis 1:26 on man’s dominion above the other creatures argues for mankind’s viceregency in accountability to God. New Testament reflection on the divine image highlights that man was made for covenant communion with God in righteousness and holiness. While the Fall has marred the image of God – shattering the righteousness and holiness in which we were first made – God sent his Son, Jesus Christ, to redeem mankind and restore the image of God “in true righteousness and holiness” (Eph. 4:24).

Central to the Bible’s teaching about mankind is the statement of Genesis 1:27: “God created man in his own image, in the image of God he created him.” Genesis 1:26 recorded God’s will for the human race: “Let us make man in our image, after our likeness.” Both “image” and “likeness” speak of resemblance. The word for “image” (Hebrew, tselem) has the meaning of something that is carved or cut out. “After our likeness” makes much the same point, defining man as like God, though not divine. John Calvin explains that “man resembles him and that in him God’s glory is contemplated, as in a mirror.”1 The same language is used in Genesis 5:3 when Adam has a son: “he fathered a son in his own likeness, after his image.” Just as Seth bore resemblance to his father, so Adam did to God.

The Image of God in Man’s Nature and Relationships

When we ask how man bears God’s image, one historic approach is to cite man’s evident superiority to lesser beings. Some have identified the image in that man walks upright among the beasts. The problem is that God does not possess a body, since “God is spirit” (John 4:24). With our inner faculties in view, another common way to define the image of God is through aspects of the human nature that place us clearly above the animal world. Over the years, writers have identified different facets of the mind and soul that show divine likeness. Augustine proposed that the image of God resides in man’s memory, understanding, and will, seeking in this way mirror God’s Trinitarian personhood.2 Others speak to man’s self-awareness and personality, which are of a higher order than animals. Man further possesses a sense of conscience and performs moral decision-making. Moreover, man alone among the creatures worships God with spiritual awareness, as Solomon observed: God “has put eternity into man’s heart” (Eccl. 3:11). With the ability of a nature that reflects the divine image comes the responsibility to fulfill our chief end as God’s creatures: “to glorify God and enjoy him forever.”3
After saying that God made man in his own image, Genesis 1:27 makes a significant addition: “male and female he created them.” This statement grounds the fundamental equality between men and women, who equally bear the image of God. While the Bible notes differences between men and women, and grants covenant headship in the home and church to males, we should never think that this complementarian arrangement results from inferiority on the part of women before God. Most significant, we note that while God made the other creatures male and female, Genesis 1 makes this point only of mankind, indicating that the image of God should be seen not merely individualistically but communally. Just as God himself exists within loving community – Father, Son, and Spirit experiencing eternal and perfect love – mankind bears God’s image in relationships of community and love.

Man as God’s Vicegerent

A direct result of man bearing God’s image is the kingly rule into which mankind is called: “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” (Gen. 1:26). Man’s dominion takes the form of a viceregency, meaning that man exercises the authority of another, namely, God the Creator.

As God’s royal servants, man is to rule on the earth in keeping with God’s standards and purposes. Vinoth Ramachandra writes: “All human beings are called to represent God’s kingship through the whole range of human life on earth. And God’s rule is not the rule of a despot, but the loving nurture of a caring parent.”4 God’s purposes for the earth involve a care that extends his blessing and peace – constituting a call both to nature conservationism and social justice – by upholding the just principles of his law. Man should take God’s goodness and bounty as his example. Bearing God’s image and ruling on God’s behalf, mankind is to do good on the earth.

The Image as Communion with God

Most significant of all, the image of God in man involves our creation for an identity in communion with our Maker. We see this emphasis when the New Testament reflects on Genesis 1:26-27. Colossians 3:10 speaks of the great restoration that has taken place in a Christian’s salvation as the new self “is being renewed in knowledge after the image of its creator.” Paul thus indicates that knowing God is intrinsic to man’s creation in God’s image. The animals are unaware of God. They do not seek or worship their Maker. But mankind, Paul says, knows God because God has designed creation to reveal himself to his image-bearers (Rom. 1:19). This key aspect of our humanity explains Jesus’ exclamation that “this is eternal life, that they know you, the only true God” (Jn. 17:3).

The biblical idea of knowledge involves more than possessing information, but also communion and fellowship. We see this in the contrasting way that God began dealing with mankind versus his dealing with the animals. In Genesis 1:22, God pronounced his blessing on the fish and birds: “God blessed them, saying, ‘Be fruitful and multiply.’” The same blessing is granted to mankind but with a crucial difference. Genesis 1:28 says: “And God blessed them. And God said to them, ‘Be fruitful and multiply.’” The difference is seen in the added words, “And God said to them.” God put his blessing on the fish and birds, but God blessed man by means of personal communication designed to foster a response of faith and love.

A second New Testament passage adds to the image of God the ideas of righteousness and holiness. Paul says in Ephesians 4:24 that believers have been “created after the likeness of God in true righteousness and holiness.” So in addition to knowledge of God, the image of God involves a right standing with God and holiness before him. The point of this righteousness and holiness, like our knowledge of God, is for the sake of an eternal communion in love with our Maker. With this in mind, the Westminster Confession of Faith gives its definition of the imago dei: “God … created man, male and female, with reasonable and immortal souls, endued with knowledge, righteousness, and true holiness, after His own image.”5

Genesis 2:7 tells us how God made Adam: “The Lord God formed the man of dust from the ground and breathed into his nostrils the breath of life.” God made man face-to-face for a covenantal relationship of fellowship, communion, and love. This is seen at the end of the Bible just as in the beginning. As heirs together with Jesus Christ, Christians enter into an inheritance that consists of God’s gift of himself. Revelation 21:3 says: “He will dwell with them, and they will be his people, and God himself will be with them as their God.” Revelation 22:4-5 goes further, using imagery taken straight out of Genesis 1: “They will see his face, and his name will be on their foreheads … for the Lord God will be their light.”

This fuller definition of man in God’s image has important implications for a Christian worldview. One of the chief questions that anyone can ask is: “Who am I?” The Bible answers that we are living creatures made by God to bear his own image. The stamp of God is seen in our moral and spiritual nature, in our shared love within community, in our dominion on God’s behalf, and especially in our calling to communion with God in knowledge and righteousness. There is nothing that could grant a greater dignity, along with humility before God – together with a higher sense of calling and privilege – than to realize that we are creatures designed to know and be known by God and to love and be loved by our Maker.

The Image Fallen and Restored

The problem of mankind, however, is that the image of God has been shattered by sin. After Adam and Eve broke God’s covenant, the Lord “drove out the man, and at the east of the garden of Eden he placed the cherubim and a flaming sword … to guard the way to the tree of life” (Gen. 3:24). Man, made as royalty amidst the creatures, became a servant to the earth: “the Lord God sent him out from the garden of Eden to work the ground from which he was taken” (Gen. 3:23).

The fall of man raises the question whether the image of God has been lost. The answer is both No and Yes. First, the Bible indicates that fallen man retains the image of God with respect to our value and dignity, which is God’s explanation for forbidding the wrongful taking of human life: “Whoever sheds the blood of man, by man shall his blood be shed, for God made man in his own image” (Gen. 9:6). This statement was made after the fall, grounding the sanctity of even sinful human lives. On the other hand, man has lost the vital core of the image of God in the form of righteousness and holiness in relating to him. The result of sin, therefore, has been not the complete loss of the divine image but rather its thorough corruption. Henri Blocher writes:

We must state both that after his revolt mankind remains mankind, and also that mankind has radically changed, that he is but a grisly shadow of himself. Mankind remains the image of God, inviolable and responsible, but has become a contradictory image, one might say a caricature, a witness against himself.6

A good illustration of the image of God in fallen man is that of an automobile windshield that has shattered. The glass remains there but it is so damaged that it will no longer function properly. Likewise, when mankind fell into sin, we became guilty, alienated from the God we still know, and corrupted in our thoughts and desires. This being the case, the marvelous faculties God has given us now are employed in the service of sin. No longer will we reflect the perfect love of the Trinity in our relationships, but they will be damaged and destroyed by a love of self in the place of love for one another. And though we still know God, we raise the fist of rebellion against him (Rom. 8:7). In short, the image of God has been distorted by total depravity so that our communion with him is lost. We remain creatures designed to know God and respond to him in faith and praise. But now fallen man, bearing God’s image, responds to divine knowledge by cursing his name and rebelling against his grace.

This dire situation after the Fall raises a final question: can the image of God be restored? And if the original, glorious image of God in man can be restored, who will be the one to do it?

The answer to this greatest of all questions is the main subject of the entire Bible, the good news of Jesus Christ, God’s Son. There is hope for us in our sin because of the grace of God which fulfills his original plan for creation. Jesus came not only to restore our original righteousness which was lost through sin but to grant us his own. He fulfilled the law of God on our behalf and then offered his own life as a sacrifice to God’s justice for the forgiveness of our sins. Romans 3:23-25 explains: “for all have sinned and fall short of the glory of God, and are justified by his grace as a gift, through the redemption that is in Christ Jesus, whom God put forward as a propitiation by his blood, to be received by faith.”

Christ came not only to remedy our standing with God but also to restore God’s image within us through sanctification. Thus, the language of Genesis 1:27 is echoed in the New Testament teaching that by faith in Jesus we are being “renewed in the spirit of [our] minds … to put on the new self, created after the likeness of God in true righteousness and holiness” (Eph. 4:23-24). By the grace of Christ and the power of the Holy Spirit whom he sends, we are born again to a God-honoring life, restored in the image of righteousness and holiness. Paul says that by God’s grace “we all, with unveiled face, beholding the glory of the Lord, are being transformed into the same image from one degree of glory to another” (2Cor. 3:18). Henri Blocher thus exults: “In Jesus Christ, who is both the Son of God and the Image of God, we are restored to our humanity, as true images of our Creator, and more than images; we become God’s sons in his Son, by the bond of a new covenant.”7

Footnotes

1John Calvin, Sermons on Genesis Chapters 1-11, trans. Rob Boy McGregor (Edinburgh: Banner of Truth, 2009), 93.
2Cited from Philip Edgcumbe Hughes, The True Image: The Origin and Destiny of Man in Christ (Grand Rapids: Eerdmans, 1989), 17.
3Westminster Shorter Catechism, A1.
4Vinoth Ramachandra, The Message of Missions (Downers Grove, IL: InterVarsity, 2003), 37.
5Westminster Confession of Faith, 4.2.
6Henri Blocher, In the Beginning: The Opening Chapters of Genesis (Leicester, UK: InterVarsity, 1984), 94.
7Ibid.

Further Reading

  • Henri Blocher, In the Beginning: The Opening Chapters of Genesis (Leicester, UK: InterVarsity, 1984). A fine study of the theology of the first chapters of Genesis.
  • David Closson, “What does it mean to be made in God’s image?” https://erlc.com/resource-library/articles/what-does-it-mean-to-be-made-in-gods-image. A thorough discussion from a systematic and historical perspective.
  • Philip Edgcumbe Hughes, The True Image: The Origin and Destiny of Man in Christ (Grand Rapids: Eerdmans, 1989). This book provides a most comprehensive treatment of the image of God and its implications for our doctrine of man.
  • Richard D. Phillips, The God of Creation: Truth and Gospel in Genesis 1 (Darlington, UK: Evangelical Press, 2018). A conservative exposition of Genesis 1 with a focus on its contribution to the theology of creation and redemption.
  • John Piper, “The Image of God: An Approach from Biblical and Systematic Theology,” Studia Biblica et Theologica, Mar. 1971. A detailed exposition of the topic from a primarily biblical-theological approach.

This essay is part of the Concise Theology series. All views expressed in this essay are those of the author. This essay is freely available under Creative Commons License with Attribution-ShareAlike (CC BY-SA 3.0 US), allowing users to share it in other mediums/formats and adapt/translate the content as long as an attribution link, indication of changes, and the same Creative Commons License applies to that material. If you are interested in translating our content or are interested in joining our community of translators, please reach out to us.