“So God created man in His own image, in the image of God created He him; male and female created He them” (Genesis 1:27, KJV). This is probably one of the most well-known passages of Scripture in the Old Testament, and much of our understanding of who we are as human beings, and how we relate to God, is based on how we understand this verse.
What is the image of God?
Man alone, both male and female, is created in the image of God, and this is the basis for our special relationship with him which is different than that of animals, who do not have eternal spirits; and angels, who are not offered salvation if they sin (Hebrews 2:16). But what exactly does it mean when the Bible says we’re created in the image and likeness of God?
Theology professor Wayne Grudem writes:
“When God says, ‘Let us make man in our image, after our likeness’ (Gen 1:26), the meaning is that God plans to make a creature similar to himself. Both the Hebrew word for ‘image’ (tselem) and the Hebrew word for ‘likeness’ (demût) refer to something that is similar but not identical to the thing it represents or is an ‘image’ of. The word image can also be used of something that represents something else.”1
Or to say it another way, God created mankind to be like Him in certain ways and to represent Him. In the New Testament believers’ bodies are called temples for the Holy Spirit (1 Cor. 6:19). While some try to find a specific characteristic that primarily reflects the image of God, such as language, intellectual capacity, etc, it seems best not to limit the image of God to a certain few characteristics, since the Bible never does so.
Rather, unfallen man reflected the image of God in that He was endowed with all the communicable attributes of God, such as the capacity for discernment, wisdom, love, holiness etc. Of course, there are attributes of God such as His omnipresence, self-sufficiency, omnipotence, etc, that He could not give to a creature because they are uniquely part of God’s nature. And the attributes He does give to us work differently for us than they do for Him. For instance, we have eternal spirits, and God is eternal. But God is eternal in that He always existed and always will, while we are eternal in that our spirits exist forever after they come into being.
The unfallen image
Mankind before the Fall was as much like God as a limited and material being could be; they were the pinnacle of God’s creation. Adam and Eve were created to be in perfect relationship with God, and they needed to have the appropriate attributes for that. They were created sinless—corrupted flesh could not live face to face with God. They also had authority (dominion) over the earth as God’s stewards (Genesis 1:28). They were endowed with moral choices. They were able to perfectly obey God’s commands if they chose, but they could also choose to disobey, and would be accountable for those choices.
The only other person who has ever displayed the perfect image of God is Jesus Christ, whom Colossians 1:15 calls “the image2 of the invisible God” And “the exact representation3 of His being” (Hebrews 1:3). Jesus is God the Son, but in His human nature He also reflects the perfect image of God the Father. He not only had the capacity to perfectly obey God’s law, but being sinless He did do so, which is important to our understanding of how we can therefore be saved through Him.
There is no biblical evidence that Adam’s sinless pre-Fall abilities were much different to humans’ today. A very popular TV preacher once claimed that Adam could have swum like a fish and flown like a bird—and more. Such powers would have presumably required biological machinery appropriate to the task—and thus the genes coding for it. But what is often overlooked is that we are the physical descendants of Adam. All of that indicates a DNA continuity; in other words, apart from accumulated mutations (copying errors) all our genes were present in Adam and Eve. Conversely, any genes present in Adam and Eve would be present in some people today. This includes those coding for special powers and the organs to mediate these. So if there were any of these things in Adam and Eve, we would expect some people today to still exhibit such seeming special abilities, even if just in a limited capacity.
It is possible that some genes were lost during the bottleneck of the Flood through genetic ‘drift’, for example, those for the pre-Flood type longevity that was ascribed to the patriarchs. We only pass on ½ of our genes in reproduction, so in a small enough population, some genes can be permanently lost. However, if Adam has a magnificent range of powers, one would have expected some of these genes to have survived the bottleneck. The one thing we do know is that Adam was intended to be a living immortal being. There was no mention of having any special or supernatural control over nature. But Scripture does tell us that it was the Fall that introduced the process of death and decay of all living organisms.
Unfallen humanity was intended to work—Adam was commanded to tend (the word can also be translated ‘work’ or ‘cultivate’) the garden, which would have involved a certain amount of physical activity (something which is actually good for us). So we can deduce that Adam would have had both the physical and mental capacity to do his work, perhaps even inventing tools to make his work easier, such as baskets for fruit, trowels for digging, etc. The difference between the work before the Fall and the toil which was part of the Curse was that tending the garden would have been pleasurable for Adam without any of the futility that is at least a part of work post-Fall. The toil of the Curse is a distortion, not an invention, of work.
The basis for Satan’s hatred
We don’t know a lot about Satan’s pre-Fall history, but the Bible data enable us to constrain the timing of his Fall. Some time between God’s declaration that everything He made was “very good” of the end of Creation Week and Eve’s temptation, Satan had already rebelled against God. By the time he came on the scene in Genesis 3 in the form of a serpent, he was already opposed to God, and tempted Eve to disobey Him. Accounts of demon possession and terrorization, both in biblical accounts and throughout history, seem to indicate that humans (the ones whom God loves) are especially the targets of Satan. This makes sense—if he hates God, he wants to spite Him and usurp His role, but he can’t. He can’t do anything that God doesn’t allow (see Job, for example). But he can torment His image bearers, and drag as many to Hell (which was created originally as a place of punishment for angels, not people—Matthew 25:41) with him as possible.
Sin and the broken image
When Adam and Eve sinned, it had disastrous consequences for them, for all their descendants, and for the whole universe (see The Fall: A Cosmic Catastrophe). Because Adam was the corporate head of all of creation, all of creation fell. The perfect image of God which mankind possessed was marred. Now human beings would die (Romans 5:12–19), and their souls would face the terrible fate of eternal conscious separation from Him (Matthew 25:41). They could no longer exercise dominion as effectively, because much of the fallen creation was now hostile to them. They could no longer choose to obey God’s law. We can only speculate about some of the other ways that the Fall marred the image of God in man.
There is some debate about whether the image was simply marred or whether it was lost altogether. Some say that no part of the image of God remained, that it was completely lost in the Fall, because a sinful image of God isn’t an image of God at all. But this only follows if there is a one-to-one correspondence between God and His image, and we know that there isn’t, because His image-bearers are limited in ways that God is not. Human beings in their sinful bodies could not even look upon God as Adam was able to do, and thus, not communicate in the same way. This separation is also one of the reasons we need a mediator between God and man—the Lord Jesus Christ who is both fully God and fully man (I Timothy 2:5).
Furthermore, some important biblical teachings assume that human beings are in the image of God. First, to kill a human being is such a serious offense it carried a death penalty. This is because we are made in the image of God, and murder “betrays an attempt or desire (if one were able) to attack God himself,”4 even if someone is not aware of that desire. Even an animal must be slaughtered if it kills a human (Exodus 21:28–32). Even though animals cannot sin and have no sense of right and wrong, this highlights the seriousness of the action and note there is not the same judgment if a human kills an animal. James appeals to the likeness5 of God in 3:9 where he condemns the hypocritical behavior of blessing God and cursing human beings who have been made in the image of God. This verse is important because it uses the perfect participle, which reflects a past action with ongoing consequences. This indicates that human beings not only were created in God’s image, but still retain an ongoing part of that image.
When the Pharisees asked Jesus whether or not they should pay taxes to Caesar (Matthew 22, Mark 12, Luke 20), Jesus cleverly answered them by asking whose image was on the coin. When they answered Caesar’s, Jesus said, “Give to Caesar what is Caesar’s, and to God what is God’s.” If the coin bearing Caesar’s image means that it belongs to Caesar, then logically in the context what belongs to God must be what bears His image. (See also The Use of Genesis in the New Testament.)
The Bible refers to humans post-Fall having the image of God in many places (see box below). This indicates that the image has only been marred, not entirely lost.
The basis for salvation
When some of the angels sinned and fell, there was no chance for them to repent and receive forgiveness (and conversely, it seems that the holy angels now do not have the option to choose not to serve God). And the fallen creation will be destroyed in fervent heat (2 Peter 3:12); so its restoration seems to involve an element of destruction. Humans alone out of all of creation have the opportunity to repent and come back into right relationship with God, and this is ultimately because we are in God’s image and thus have the capacity for redemption.
Human beings, even only retaining a broken image, remain in the center of God’s plan for creation, and ever since the Fall, the goal of all of history has been the restoration of His people. In short, a major purpose of creation was to bring forward a bride for Christ. We were so important to Him that He sent a rescue mission from Heaven through the incarnation of Jesus Christ. But how could God take on the characteristics of a fallen creature?
Jesus could not have taken on the image of an angel, or a tree, or anything else in all of creation besides that of a human being (Phil 2:7). Human beings are unique candidates for redemption, because the point was to rescue those who were in God’s image anyway. The reason why the “image of the invisible God” could take on human form in the Incarnation is that humans ourselves are made in the image of God.
Salvation: the image partially restored
When we trust in Jesus for salvation, we are justified, or declared legally righteous before God (Romans 5:18–19), and we are indwelt with the Holy Spirit (Romans 8:9,15; Galatians 4:6, Ephesians 1:13). Then God begins the work of restoring His fuller image in us. This involves, among other things, sanctifying us—this is the progressive work of bringing us into line with His standards (Philippians 2:13, Galatians 5:22–23). Our relationship to God is restored to much more like that of unfallen humanity. As we walk with the Lord in this life, we are brought more and more into alignment with His will, although this is never completed in this life.
But we still only bear a marred image of God—we still die, we still sin, we still fall short of what God intended for us (Romans 3:23). We still have the fallen nature due to our flesh; the ultimate solution to the Fall can be nothing less than a complete re-creation—new sinless bodies.
The New Earth and the image fully restored
The fallen state of God’s image-bearers is an affront to God Himself, and explains why there had to be a human mediator. His own glory demands that He restore a people for Himself, because the goal of creation was anthropocentric, in that God desired to have a relationship with His image-bearers characterized by our freely-given love and loyalty. If God did not, that would imply that Satan could thwart God’s purposes, so God restores those who trust in Christ to show His supremacy.
At Jesus’ second coming, the Bible teaches that both the righteous and the unrighteous will be resurrected (John 5:29; Acts 24:15); the former in order to live with Christ for eternity, and the latter to experience eternal judgment and shame. The resurrection is by definition bodily; we’ll have physical, recognizably human bodies, and they’ll have some continuity with our current bodies, though without the defects and weaknesses that the Fall introduced. These bodies will never experience sickness, suffering, or death (Revelation 21:4) because sin was paid for by the blood of the lamb—the mediator Jesus Christ. We won’t be plagued by physical, genetic, or mental diseases anymore, because our bodies and minds will not be weakened or dulled by the Curse any longer (Revelation 22:3).
Morally, we’ll be perfectly sinless too; we won’t have the slightest desire or capability to sin. Our nature will desire to obey God completely as we will no longer war against the flesh. Our condition will be even better than in Eden, because we won’t have the potential to sin and fall again, because sin will have been defeated once and for all, and our natures will be completely conformed to His image.
The image of God: created not evolved
For Christians who believe God used evolution, the image of God issue is a serious problem for their ideas. The doctrine of man in God’s image is linked with the doctrine of creation. Man is special and above the rest of creation because God made him that way. If we’re just advanced apes who are descended from the same single-celled organism as everything else, then there’s no basis for claiming we’re special (either that, or we have to invoke a God of the gaps explanation for how we became more than other animals). Man had to be a direct supernatural creation of God in order for us to bear His image. But any superiority must be a difference of degree, not kind, in the evolutionist worldview. Many evolutionists are happy to claim that ‘a rat is a pig is a dog is a boy’, arguing that animals are equal (in practice, even greater) in value to humans. But this is diametrically opposed to a Christian worldview, in which we’re to value God’s creation and care for it accordingly, but to recognize the unique position of humanity in God’s created order.
Like most doctrines, one has to look at the whole Bible, from Genesis to Revelation, to understand the doctrine of the image of God and how it affects us. A faulty understanding of the Genesis foundation will necessarily affect how we see the image of God in the rest of Scripture.
The use of the ‘image of God’ in the Bible.6
|Genesis 1:26–27||And God said, “Let us make man in our image, according to our likeness, and let them rule over the fish of the sea and over the birds of the sky and over the cattle and over all the earth, and over every creeping thing that creeps over the earth.” So God created man in His own image, in the image of God He created him, male and female He created them.|
|Genesis 5:1b||In the day when God created man, He made him in the likeness of God.|
|Genesis 9:6||Whoever sheds the blood of man, by man his blood will be shed, for in the image of God He created man.|
|Psalm 8:4–5||What is man that You take thought of him, and the son of man that You care for him? Yet You have made him a little lower than God, and You crown him with glory and majesty!|
|Acts 17: 28–29||“For in him we live and move and have our being. As some of your own poets have said, ‘We are his offspring.’ Therefore since we are God’s offspring, we should not think that the divine being is like gold or silver or stone—an image made by human design and skill. “|
|Romans 8:29||For those He foreknew, He also predestined to become conformed to the image of His Son, so that He would be the firstborn of many brethren.|
|1 Corinthians 11:7||For a man ought not to have his head covered, since he is the image and glory of God, but the woman is the glory of man.|
|1 Corinthians 15:49||Just as we have borne the image of the earthly, we will bear the image of the heavenly.|
|2 Corinthians 3:18||But we all, with unveiled face, beholding as in a mirror the glory of God, are transformed into the same image from glory to glory, just as from the Lord, the Spirit.|
|2 Corinthians 4:3–4||And even if our gospel is veiled, it is veiled to those who are perishing, in whose case the god of this world has blinded the minds of the unbelieving so that they might not see the light of the gospel of the glory of Christ, who is the image of God.|
|Ephesians 4:19–24||But you did not learn Christ in this way, if indeed you have heard Him and have been taught in Him, just as truth is in Jesus, that, in reference to your former manner of life, you lay aside the old self, which is being corrupted in accordance with the lusts of deceit, and that you be renewed in the spirit of your mind, and put on the new self, which in the likeness of God has been created in righteousness and holiness of the truth.|
|Colossians 1:15||He [Jesus] is the image of the invisible God, the firstborn of all creation.|
|Colossians 3:9–11||Do not lie to one another, since you laid aside the old self with its evil practices, and have put on the new self who is being renewed to a true knowledge according to the image of the One who created him—a renewal in which there is no distinction between Greek and Jew, circumcised and uncircumcised, barbarian, Scythian, slave and freeman, but Christ is all, and in all.|
|Hebrews 1:3a||He [Jesus] is the radiance of His glory and the exact representation of His nature.|
|James 3:9||With it [the tongue] we bless our Lord and Father, and with it we curse men, who have been made in the likeness of God.|
References and notes
- Wayne Grudem, Systematic Theology), p. 442, Grand Rapids: Zondervan, 1994. Return to text.
- Greek εἰκών (eikōn, from which we derive “icon”. This is also the word used in the Septuagint (LXX) Greek translation of Genesis 1:26 (c. 250 BC), so the Genesis reference is clear. Return to text.
- Greek χαρακτήρ (charakter) is the precise reproduction in every respect of something (such as the Emperor’s face) stamped onto a surface, or a projection of a three-dimensional figure into two dimensions (see also Flatland). In the Incarnation, where Jesus took on fully human nature, all the fullness of God was localized into His human presence (Colossians 1:19). Return to text.
- Grudem, p. 444. Return to text.
- Greek ὁμοίωσις (homoiōsis) likeness, again the same word as the LXX of Genesis 1:26. Return to text.
- No list of this nature can constitute an exhaustive treatment of a doctrine, because the doctrine is taught by implication in a number of verses where the relevant terms are not used; there are many places where the image of God underlies a teaching even though it is not specifically mentioned. Verses taken from New American Standard Version. Return to text.
"When some of the angels sinned and fell, there was no chance for them to repent and receive forgiveness (and conversely, it seems that the holy angels now do not have the option to choose not to serve God)."
Is the situation now for angels and demons similar to how it will be for believers and non-believers after Christ returns? That is, no longer having the option to choose whether we believe in God (because God will have completely revealed Himself, and everyone will have to acknowledge it). Those who had persisted in belief will be with Him forever, and those who had persisted in non-belief will be cut off from Him forever.
Yes; there is no indication that anyone is able to 'switch sides' after death.
Just a thought: to leave the physical body outside the bounds of the definition of the "image of God" may not be exactly where creationists want to land. Such a view may leave room for theistic evolutionists to claim incremental developmental stages for what ultimately became our modern human body. If creationists would go ahead include our modern form to be somehow godlike in appearance, it might help shut down TE arguments (though admittedly, open up new and different challenges for creationists).
I'm not sure where I would give the impression that I leave man's corporeal body outside the image of God. Man is made in the image of God, and the Bible never says that only part of Adam was in the image of God.
After pondering and meditating on this over time I came up with this. "In Our image..." A body, a life and a soul. The body could have lasted forever but because of sin death came. Life too came to an end due to sin. The soul was destined to be eternal. On judgment day the body and life will be restored new with the soul to enter Heaven...or Hell. The similarity is the three in one. Consciousness, mind and thinking all come with the life.
I disagree with one part though:
It is not necessary for supernatural abilities (such as walking on water or flying) to be encoded in the genes. That is why they are supernatural. Jesus did supernatural things as the last Adam, and we simply don't know what the first Adam could have done supernaturally because he was not in his perfect state for very long. I would caution against shutting out all supernatural abilities (which are actually indicated both by Jesus' having them and by the fact that God gave us dominion over creatures would could not otherwise control or even see (the fish of the sea has to include fish that are at the bottom of the ocean - and we can't see them today without submarines!) - just because we don't have physical evidence for them.
Jesus' supernatural abilities were part of His deity, not his humanity. Genesis never gives the slightest indication that Adam had supernatural abilities.
Another great article by Lita Cosner. It does bring up a problem that has perplexed me for some time. It is something that Ms. Cosner brought up in the discussion on salvation and, more specifically, in this section on the restoration: "Morally, we’ll be perfectly sinless too; we won’t have the slightest desire or capability to sin. Our nature will desire to obey God completely as we will no longer war against the flesh. Our condition will be even better than in Eden, because we won’t have the potential to sin and fall again, because sin will have been defeated once and for all, and our natures will be completely conformed to His image."
This is truly a state that I long for. However, why didn't (or couldn't?) God have created us in this state? Is there some moral law of which we are unaware that requires a choice (or an election) must occur before this state can be attained (or bestowed)? It seems that both angels and humans were created without sin (but able to sin), and then will become "locked in" or "sealed" into a state where they will not be able to sin anymore (unfallen angels now and in the future for redeemed humanity). Was this situation necessary or required in some way?
The Bible never answers this question, per se. However, it seems that God is glorified more from a redeemed people because it allows Him to show His grace and mercy in a way that would have been impossible had humans remained sinless.
God is 'invisible' and 'Spirit'. I've got a pretty big red flag with the idea that God has a physical being and the image of God in man includes the physical.
It seems clear to me from Scripture that God is not physical in his being, and the desire by the Jews to have some physical likeness of God (as all the other gods had) was sinful and made clear in the Law of God.
This is why the incarnation is both mystery and amazing - God became flesh. This is amazing condescention and love, God humbled himself to take physical form in order to reconcile man to himself. It was not that God had physical form and somehow adjusted it to a different type of physical form. Amazingly the Scripture indicates that Jesus maintains his physical form of man (albeit glorified body), complete with scars, for all eternity. Amazing love!
Yes, God is Spirit; He has no physical body (of course, God the Son became incarnate as Jesus, and still has His resurrected body in Heaven, having permanently taken on humanity). I did not say that God is physical and made man to look like him. God wanted to make someone in His image to be a steward over creation and to have a relationship with Him. Such a being had to have a spirit and be morally accountable, and they had to be physical beings because they were stewards of the physical creation.
But the Bible never says, "God created man's spirit in His image." It never excludes man's physical body from His image. Even though the physical body is not something God possesses as part of His divinity, God created the physical human body in such a way that it would be appropriate for Him to take on the human body, but it would not have been appropriate for Him to take on the body of an animal.
I hope this clears things up.
Answering one debater:
"Such a view may leave room for theistic evolutionists to claim incremental developmental stages for what ultimately became our modern human body."
Indeed, theistic evolutionists *among* Catholics have pointed to a possibility - in their view* - of Cro-Magnon having been just physically human but not yet the image of God.
I pointed out a few times that precisely this theory is contradicted by the find of a Neanderthal (supposedly 50.000 years ago) who was buried and toothless, i e who had been carefully kept alive despite disabilities and then carefully buried. If they were not the image of God, why would they do that?
Lita, thank you for this one:
"There is some debate about whether the image was simply marred or whether it was lost altogether. Some say that no part of the image of God remained, that it was completely lost in the Fall, because a sinful image of God isn’t an image of God at all."
Precisely one major difference between Catholics and what at least we customarily accuse Calvinists of thinking.
* Not saying they are Catholics.
From you link:
"Even Genesis itself shows that Adam’s punishment could not just have been spiritual death. In Genesis 3:19, God pronounces judgment on Adam:
‘In the sweat of your face you shall eat bread till you return to the ground, for out of it you were taken; you are dust, and to dust you shall return.’
Returning to the dust can mean only physical death, and there would be no point to this punishment unless there was no physical death before. Otherwise, Adam could have said,
‘So what? That was gonna happen to me, anyway!’"
My understanding is that there were 2 trees in Eden. The tree of knowledge of good and evil of which they ate and the tree of life. They were thrown out of the garden partially to prevent their eating of the tree of life. Am I understanding that wrong or was there a lack in Adam and Eve so they would not be immortal without eating of the tree, or...??
Scripture does not say exactly how Adam and Eve's immortality was granted, or how the Tree of Life figured into that. We only know that eating from the Tree of Life would have been a way for Adam and Eve to subvert God's death sentence, hence their banishment from Eden.
Yes, that is the usual reason given (i.e. “God is glorified more from a redeemed people because it allows Him to show His grace and mercy in a way that would have been impossible had humans remained sinless”), but this answer is deeply unsatisfying to many people. I do not believe it is unsatisfying just because we have a sin nature and do not fully appreciate God’s glory, but because it seems to imply no other options. It is true that God gets glory because we know God not only as Creator and Helper but also as Savior and Redeemer. I don’t know if there really is Scriptural support for the idea that God is more glorified in this way (qualitatively or quantitatively) than if Adam and Eve had not sinned. It seems dangerously close to saying that the Fall was set up and that we are in the Best of All Possible Worlds in terms of maximizing God’s glory.
Unfortunately, this problem has caused me to spend time (too much?) wondering how glory could be evaluated or measured. Apparently, more of God’s image bearers are going to be in hell than in heaven (if the narrow and wide ways are indicating quantities). Is the amount or quality of God’s glory independent of the number of people who end up in heaven vs. hell? What other measures could be used? Has this been optimized toward some result? What can we even say qualitatively or quantitatively about God’s glory?
Imagine if God had created beings that were in His image and successfully resisted temptation. God could certainly be glorified for creating such creatures--more than for creatures who can’t resist temptation? Maybe there are titles/roles that could have replaced Redeemer and still have given God the same amount of glory? Would being a holy protector bring less glory to God than being a redeemer?
David, it can get precarious to start imagining alternate worlds, and what if God had done things another way. This current existence is clearly not the 'best of all worlds', but the New Heavens and Earth will be.
It's impossible to get around the fact that God created Adam and Eve and placed the Tree of the Knowledge of Good and Evil within their grasp knowing that they would sin. He wasn't surprised when they disobeyed; He knew they would rebel. God had already planned a solution, and God isn't to blame for their sin, but God foreknew and allowed them to sin.
God's intrinsic glory comes from His own nature, and nothing else can either add or detract from it. But God's glory is manifested in creation, and so it is possible to imagine, i.e., a world where God's mercy and forgiveness was not manifested, there being no sin to forgive. We would be able to praise Him for His goodness, His holiness, His power and love, but we would not know His grace and His forgiveness.