‘Then God said, “Let us make man in our image, in our likeness…” So God created man in his own image, in the image of God he created him; male and female he created them.’ (Genesis 1:26-27)
Scripture asserts (in Gen 1:26-27; Gen 5:2; Gen 9:6 and elsewhere) that God has made man in his own image.
What does this mean, and what has become of God’s image in man? The doctrine can be unpacked in the following stages.
Gen 1:26 teaches that humans bear God’s image in that they have been made by him and like him (noting that ‘image’ and ‘likeness’ and probably synonymous parallels).
That the idea of ‘image’ carries the idea of being God’s children (‘like Father, like son’) is affirmed by Gen 5:1-3, which links God’s original creation of humans in his likeness with the subsequent human procreation of children in Adam’s image and likeness.
It is probably true to say that the whole of human nature, rather than one particular part of that nature that bears the divine image. Nevertheless, three aspects may be singled out in particular.
This has intellectual and theological implications. We have a God-given capacity to learn about the creation in all its richness, and about the Creator.
Barth argued for this view, noting the relational ‘male and female he created them’ of Gen 1:27. Man is the ‘son’ of the great king; we are to enjoy filial fellowship with the divine, with one another (given that we are all – men and woman – made in God’s image), and also with God’s creation generally.
This has social and humanitarian implications, for all people are created in God’s image. And in particular, Scripture uniquely stresses the dignity of women, seeing both men and women as made in the image of God.
Gen 9:6 indicates that due to the image of God capital punishment is required in cases of murder. To murder a creature who images God is tantamount to an attempt to murder the God who created the image-bearer, and the heinous nature of this offense warrants the forfeiture of the murderer’s life as well. Note that man is still spoken of as the image of God after the Fall.
Man has been given the role of acting as God’s steward, as his vice-regent of creation. Gen 1:28 supports this. This has ecological implications.
Putting these ideas together, we can say that human beings are like God in that we have been given the capability to understand God and his purpose for us to relate to him and to one another and live as stewards of the world that he has given us to manage.
Adam and Eve rebelled against the God in whose image they had been made, and brought disharmony between themselves, between themselves and God, and between themselves and the rest of creation (Gen 3).
If our rationality is part of the image of God in man, then that image is damaged in that human reason no longer leads to a true knowledge of God. If relationship belongs to God’s image, then relations with God, with others, and with creation are ruptured. If being made in God’s image includes ruling over the created order, then that dominion has to a large extent become exploitative and tyrannical.
Yet humankind still bears God’s image, even if it is distorted and defaced (Gen. 5:1–3; 9:6; Ps. 8; cf. 1 Cor. 11:7; James 3:9).
So man, created in God’s image and yet in rebellion against God, is a paradox. In our rationality, dominion and relationships we still bear the divine image; but our attitudes and behaviour contradict this is so many ways.
The teaching of the Old Testament is echoed in New Testament passages such as 1 Cor. 11:7 and Jas. 3:9. Both assert that man occupies a special position within the created order, and that (in spite of his sin), continues to reflect God’s glory.
Jesus implicitly teaches the value and dignity of human beings as made in God’s image, Mt 6:26; 12:12.
But the New Testament draws particular attention to Jesus Christ as pre-eminently the ‘image of God’ (2 Cor. 4:4; Col. 1:15; Heb 1:3). This status arises from his unique relationship with the Father. He is the pre-existent Word made flesh, and thus reflecting the glory of the invisible God (Jn 1:1-18; cf. Heb 1:1-13; Phil 2:6-11). Bearing God’s ‘image’, ‘form’, or ‘stamp’ implies a sharing in the divine life and essence, so that the One who bears the image is the visible expression of the invisible God.
Jesus Christ is, accordingly the ‘ultimate Adam’ (1 Cor. 15:45), standing at the head of a new humanity as the prototype of all who are ‘in Christ’ (Rom. 8:29; 1 Cor. 15:49; 2 Cor. 3:18; 1 Jn. 3:2). Where the first Adam fell, the last Adam stood, Mt 4:1-11.
Those who believe in Jesus are being restored in the image of God, and are expected to live as a renewed people, 2 Cor. 3:18; Eph. 4:22–24; Col. 3:9–10. Their destiny is ultimately to be made like Jesus, to image him perfectly as he perfectly images God (1 Cor. 15:49; Eph. 4:13; Phil. 3:21).
To be ‘in Christ’, then, is to have the image of God renewed in us, and to constitute a new humanity (Eph. 4:24; Col. 3:10f.; cf. Gal. 3:28). This has important practical implications for our relationships with one another, in the fellowship of the church, and for our stewardship of nature (Heb. 2:8, cf. Ps. 8).
This renewing of the community of Christ in the image of God is a work in progress. It takes within the context of God’s promise of a new creation. At the end of the age, our mortal flesh will be transformed into a perfect likeness of our Lord (1 Cor. 15:49; Phil. 3:20–21), and the image of God in man will thus be fully restored.
The teaching of Scripture on the image of God, from creation to consummation, is vital for an understanding of redemptive history. God has created us in his own image, judges us justly for our rebellion, provides redemption from that rebellion, renews his image in us, and finally consummates his redemption by bringing in the new heavens and a new earth.
See relevant sections of:-
- Evangelical Dictionary of Biblical Theology
- New Bible Dictionary
- ISBE (2nd ed)
- New Dictionary of Theology
- Grudem, Systematic Theology
- Berkhof, Systematic Theology