What Is the Image of God?

In the opening chapter of Genesis, we read that humanity, being both male and female, were created in the image of God. The more popular phrasing to use today is the Latin, imago dei. We read in vs26-28:

26 Then God said, “Let us make mankind in our image, in our likeness, so that they may rule over the fish in the sea and the birds in the sky, over the livestock and all the wild animals, and over all the creatures that move along the ground.”

27 So God created mankind in his own image,
in the image of God he created them;
male and female he created them.

28 God blessed them and said to them, “Be fruitful and increase in number; fill the earth and subdue it. Rule over the fish in the sea and the birds in the sky and over every living creature that moves on the ground.”

There is a lot that could be said about and addressed within these 3 verses alone. But I want to focus in on the image of God pronounced over humanity.

What is this image of God?

When discussed within traditional evangelicalism, I find that many see the image of God as pointing to inherent things about humanity like these:

  • We have a volitional will, meaning we are beings with choice
  • We are rational and communicative beings
  • We are relational beings
  • We have a soul

You might even hear some over-spiritualised statements around the idea that, because God is three persons – Father, Son and Spirit – we, being in his image, bear three parts – body, soul and spirit. I will go ahead and say that I believe this, at least as I understand it, is working a bit too hard on what the image of God is.

But what about the other bullet points above. Is that what the image of God is all about?

First off, I will say that I agree with the bulleted statements as is, excepting that we have a soul. I think the better approach from the whole tenor of Scripture is that that we are a soul. But I’ll come back to that in a moment.

No doubt we have a volitional will where we can choose (though there are arguments over how ‘free’ we are to choose). We are definitely rational, we can communicate, and we are relational at our core.

But I would argue that animals are as well. Think about it. They can communicate, they are rational, they make choices and they are relational. Of course, I would argue they are all of these on a lesser scale than human beings. But they still are able to function within these areas.

And secondly, it is interesting to note that the Bible (yes, the Bible) uses the same word for soul with both humans and animals. That word is nephesh.

When God created Adam, he made the body from the ground, breathed into him (spirited into him) and he became a living being, a living soul, a chay nephesh (Gen 2:7). He did not get a soul. He became a living soul. And this is one major factor why I believe we are souls, living beings, not that we have a part in us called the soul. Still, whether one holds to a bipartite view (believing we are constituted of 2 parts) or tripartite view (believing we are constituted of 3 parts) or whatever, we need to remember that God has made us whole beings. We are not designed to be split apart.

Now, back to how the word nephesh used in the early chapters of Genesis.

It is also used of the animals in Gen 1. We read this in Gen 1:20-21:

20 And God said, “Let the water teem with living creatures, and let birds fly above the earth across the vault of the sky.” 21 So God created the great creatures of the sea and every living thing with which the water teems and that moves about in it, according to their kinds, and every winged bird according to its kind. And God saw that it was good.

That word creature is the Hebrew word nephesh. And, even more, the phrase living creatures is chay nephesh, the same exact phrase used of Adam in Gen 2:7.

I only point this out because many traditional evangelicals like to say that one of the major distinguishers between humans and animals is that humans have souls while animals don’t. And so bearing the image of God might point to something about having a soul. But, we have already seen one problematic perspective in that we do not have souls, per se, but that we are living souls. And now we see that this word is also employed with the animals.

Now, please note I am not saying that humans and animals are exactly the same in all respects. Whether one holds to an interventionist view of creation, in that humans were distinctly created separate from animals, or a more theistic evolutionary view that human beings came out from and continue on as the highest animal life, this is not the point here.

The point is this – humans are very much distinct from animals. Why? Because we are told that only humans carry the image of God.

But if the image of God is not about our will, our relational nature, our rationality, etc, then what is it all about?

Being in the image of God is mainly about being God’s representatives. Look back at the original context of Gen 1:26-28. What is going on there? Nothing is being stated about our constitution of who or what we are, nothing about our make-up. It is within a context of God commissioning humanity. Verse 28 is what I like to call the Great Commission of the Old Testament, believing that Matt 28:18-20 is a kind of restatement of God’s original purpose for humanity. Gen 1:26 states, ‘Let us make mankind in our image, in our likeness, so that they may rule…’ Image bearing is so that we may rule on God’s behalf.

But if you are not convinced that the image of God is about us being his ruling representatives, then think about this – What did it mean for Christ to be in the image of God (see passages like 2 Cor 4:4; Col 1:15; Heb 1:3)?

It did not mean that Christ was rational, had free choice, was relational or emotional, though those things definitely applied to him. It was that Christ was God’s ultimate representative. He was more than just this, being God’s kingly Messiah, Lord over all, eternal and divine. But the idea of Christ being in God’s image was that he represented God unlike any other. He was THE image-bearer. And he came as the kingly representative proclaiming God’s kingdom had come to right all wrongs.

And such is true for humanity. Or was fully true until sin and its consequences marred that. We still bore and now bear his image, but we have failed to fully live up to his original intention as mandated from the beginning. God was the good King and we were to be fruitful, multiply, fill the earth and subdue it with his good rule. And this was to be true of each birthed child, each subsequent generation. But we failed. We grasped at wisdom on our own. We became independent of our good God. And the commissioned image was lost to some extent.

And so we needed the faithful second Adam to come and be faithful to fulfil what the first Adam could not, what we could not. He was and still is the faithful image bearer of God, being fruitful, multiplying, filling the earth and now subduing it under his good and just rule.

And the good news is that, we can be renewed and restored back to God’s original intention as God designed. Through the faithfulness of Jesus Christ and through faith in his faithful life, death and resurrection, we can now in Christ ‘put on the new self, which is being renewed in knowledge in the image of its Creator’ (Col 3:10).

The image of God was given to humanity, both female and male, in the beginning. It was ours and not the animals. And it was the call to rule as God’s representatives, his ambassadors. Yet such was lost with our sinful independence, though not fully. But Christ has now come as the faithful image-bearer, the second and true Adam, calling all to leave behind our own grasping at independence and enter back in to God’s original image-bearing plan from the beginning. Christ is the faithful ruling representative on our behalf. And It’s now time to be renewed in Christ as God’s good image bearers and carry on his great commission from the beginning.

9 thoughts on “What Is the Image of God?

  1. The context of the passage implies that the imago dei is something which can be seen. Irenaeus believed it was related to the physical human form. I am inclined to agree.

  2. Dave –

    In which particular verse do you see it being about ‘physical’? Does Jesus being in the image of God mean he physically resembles God, who is ‘spirit’ or ‘of the spirit’? Jesus said that if we have seen him we have seen the Father. I’m not sure he is talking about ‘physical’.

    Look at vs26. It says, ‘Let us make mankind in our image, in our likeness, so that they may rule…’

    Now, I would not negate that you can see something of the image of God by looking at the physical make up of human beings. We are a wonderful artistic and creative masterpiece pointing to the Artist and Creator. It’s like looking at a Van Gogh painting would point to the artist, Van Gogh. But I would argue this is somewhat secondary to the former category, especially as we look at the full biblical witness and especially what it means for Christ.

  3. Scott,

    I’ll begin by saying that I totally agree with what you said here:

    –‘Being in the image of God is mainly about being God’s representatives.’

    That’s a very perceptive comment and accords perfectly with my understanding of the imago dei. Notice, however, that the concept of representation presupposes that the representative can be seen. There is no image without visual appearance.

    You ask:

    –‘In which particular verse do you see it being about ‘physical’?’

    Genesis 1:26. The Hebrew for ‘image’ is ‘tselem’, which invariably refers to an outward form. The Hebrew for ‘likeness’ is ‘demuth’, which invariably refers to an outward form. Search the OT high and low; you will not find them used in any other way.

    Both words are always used in reference to visual appearance. We cannot pretend they are referring to an internal attribute or an abstract concept. They refer to something visible; something physical. In this case, the bodies of Adam and Eve.

    Irenaeus believed the image of God was achieved through the unity of body, soul and Spirit. As Hall observes, describing Irenaeus’ theology:

    –‘Since the sin of Adam, the Spirit was lost, and the image incomplete, imperfect. It could not be restored, as long as the Word remained invisible.

    ”But when the Word of God was made flesh, he affirmed both [image and likeness]: he revealed the true image, becoming himself what was in his image; and he established firmly the likeness, making man like the invisible Father through the visible Word.” (Adv. Haer. 5.16.2).

    It is thus precisely in his incarnate state that the Word makes plain the image of God, and in the flesh that man is complete.

    The heretics of Irenaeus’ day, and most Christian thinkers from Origen onwards, have rejected the idea that the human body is in the likeness of God (Augustine himself could not accept Christianity till he had rejected it.) Some modern theological books evade it, even while commending Irenaeus’ ideas in general.

    But the cutting edge of Irenaeus’ thought was precisely to defeat the view that mankind is saved spiritually by escape from the body. To him that was false. For the same reason, he was deeply committed to the view that at the second coming of Christ the dead would rise physically from their graves, and the righteous would reign on earth in a rich kingdom centring on a restored earthly Jerusalem.’

    (Hall, Stuart G. (1995), Doctrine and Practice in the Early Church).

    Jesus is described as ‘the image of the invisible God’ (Colossians 1:15). It’s a bizarre statement: how can an invisible God have an image? Paul’s paradox is predicated upon the reasonable assumption that his readers will understand ‘image’ as a reference to visual form.

    Obviously God Himself is incorporeal; He does not have a body. Yet this does not preclude visual representation.


    –‘Although humans are created in the “image” and “likeness” of God (the terms are essentially synonyms; cp. 5:3), it does not follow that God has a body.

    “Image” or “likeness” often refers to a physical representation of something that may be non-material. Man was created to serve as God’s representative to govern the earth. Since man is God’s image-bearer, murder merits the strongest retribution (9:6).

    The OT prohibits making any material image of God (Ex 20:1–4; Dt 4:16) because God is spirit (Jn 4:24). In Lk 24:39 Jesus explains that a spirit “does not have flesh and bones” (see Is 31:3). Because God is spirit, He is invisible (Jn 1:18; Rm 1:20; Col 1:15; 1 Tm 1:17).’

    (Cabal, T., Brand, C. O., Clendenen, E. R., Copan, P., Moreland, J., & Powell, D. 2007. The Apologetics Study Bible: Real Questions, Straight Answers, Stronger Faith).

    I’ll repeat the salient points:

    –‘humans are created in the “image” and “likeness” of God (the terms are essentially synonyms’
    –‘“Image” or “likeness” often refers to a physical representation of something that may be non-material.’

    Here’s one of several examples from Scripture:

    –Daniel 7:9. “While I was watching, thrones were set up, and the Ancient of Days took his seat. His attire was white like snow; the hair of his head was like lamb’s wool. His throne was ablaze with fire and its wheels were all aflame.”

    The visual form God uses to represent Himself is the image Adam and Eve physically bore. It is the same form the angels share, which explains why they look like us and are often mistaken for humans.

    You ask:

    –‘Does Jesus being in the image of God mean he physically resembles God, who is ‘spirit’ or ‘of the spirit’?’

    Not in that particular context, no.

    You say:

    –‘Jesus said that if we have seen him we have seen the Father. I’m not sure he is talking about ‘physical’.’

    I agree. Again, this is a very different context.

  4. Dave –

    I think we are basically in agreement here. The Greek word for image is eikon, where we get the idea of icon. Though many protestant-evangelical Christians are against them, I do not see these as inherently bad, as long as they are not worshipped. They can be helpful pointers, sign-posts to a greater reality.

    Adam and Eve were eikons of God, image bearers of God. And I do not negate that the word can be used as both a noun and verb. Human beings are in the image of God and image God. But I think starting in Gen 1, from that context, and considering ancient contexts where kings were the representatives of the gods, we cannot say that it is mainly or firstly about something physical. Yes, a king would be a physical representation of the god (i.e. David and his throne was a physical representation of God’s rule). But no one thought this meant the man/person actually “looked like” the god or resembled the god physically (two hands, two eyes, two feet, etc). Though gods could be depicted in such a way, it was simply a depiction.

    So I don’t want to deny any physical connection with the image of God. But that seems secondary to the kingly representation-ambassadorship of our God. It is actual real physical human beings that carry this out, or Christ carrying it out greatest. And our physicality is very good. But it seems bearing God’s image is firstly about representing him.

  5. Indeed the imago Dei (divine image), is for the Reformational and Reformed, seriously effaced, if not inconspicuous in fallen man/humanity. Since as St. Paul when writing to Christians could say: “And you were dead in your trespasses and sins, in which you formerly walked according to the course of this world, according to the prince of the power of the air, of the spirit that is now working in the sons of disobedience. Among them we too all formerly lived in the lusts of our flesh, indulging the desires of the flesh and of the mind, and were by nature children of wrath, even as the rest.” (Eph. 2:1-3) This language and revelation is surely something our “mind” (human) recoils from! Even as Christians we must be renewed here! WE always like to talk about our so-called “best” aspects.

    “The Reformed agree that the “imago” is accidental, aand not substantial, so that it was both capable of being passed on and capable of being lost. They do not, however, emphasize as strongly the christological element of the doctrine of the “imago” in man and therefore tend to juxtapose the concept of the “imago substantialis” with the “imago accidentalis”. Instead, the Reformed argue that Christ, as the Son of God and the Second Person of the Trinity, is the “imago Dei invisibilis”, the image of the invisible God, and thus may be called the essential or natural image of God (imago Dei essential sive naturalis) in his equality with the Father, not in the sense of his being an archetype for humanity.” (Richard Muller, Dictionary of Latin and Greek Theological Terms, Drawn Principally from Protestant Scholastic Theology).

    Also, reading Augustine here is well worth the effort! See his, Ratio, Reason and Rationalism. As too his understanding of Will for man. See also Traducianism here, Augustine believed and affirmed that we are all one in Adam by the “rationem seminale”.

  6. Ancient kings would put ‘images’ (statues) of themselves around their kingdom. The images were intended to remind the locals that the ‘presence’ of the king was near, even though he may in reality have been hundreds of miles away in his capital city. The images ‘represented’ the king.
    And that, I believe, is the essential meaning of ‘image’ in respect of the imago dei. Mercifully, human beings are not statues but living beings. And especially when restored by the Spirit of God they serve as living representations of their God.

  7. Scott, your blog (it’s SO much more than a blog!) has been very provoking, and I have enjoyed reading the comments. It helps me to think of myself as a tripartite being, but I understand that may be a pragmatic approach and I agree that we are whole beings, not to be disected. The whole issue of nephesh applying to beasts and humans hilights that we make too much of “soul” in terms of being in the image of God, and that the key distinctive ils one of God’s breath, his life in us, leading us into a mandate of stewardship and responsilbility. The most provocative questions that emerge out of your study i think are: am I actively living out the original commission that He gave me? Are we? How?
    On the train to Rugby right now for leaders day. Looking forward to seeing you some time this year.

  8. Pingback: Elsewhere (03.17.12) « Near Emmaus

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