“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.