What Is the ‘Image of God’?
Christians rightly assert that being made in God’s image is the foundation of human dignity and the basis of our equal value before Him, yet do we really understand what this provocative term means?
In the first description of man given in the Bible, we read, “Then God said, ‘Let us make man in our image, after our likeness. 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 and over every creeping thing that creeps on 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 1:26-27).
Men and women were made in the image and likeness of the Triune God: this is the defining characteristic of each person God has made and will make. It’s worth noting that in Hebrew, the words for “image” and “likeness” mean essentially the same thing. As one scholar has written, they are a “duplication of synonyms” for the purpose of emphasis; the words are used interchangeably other places in Scripture. So, then, what does being made in God’s image actually mean?
First, it means we have the capacity for intimate relationship with God. Second, to us has been delegated regency over God’s creation, imitating our Creator’s sustaining and stewarding activity. Third, we have been designed to reflect God’s character as His children.
With respect to relationship, unlike any other being in the universe, humans have an “inner man,” as Paul calls it (Romans 7:22, II Corinthians 4:16, Ephesians 3:16). The soul/spirit/mind within us can commune with and have a close personal relationship with the Triune God. Our fellowship with Him and one another reflects the fellowship of the Members of the Trinity. As Jesus prayed to the Father, “I in them and You in Me, that they may become perfectly one, so that the world may know that You sent Me and loved them even as You loved Me” (John 17:23).
God wants this relationship to be permanent. He sent His only begotten Son into the world so that whoever trusts in Him will have everlasting life (John 3:16). The “inner man” is an eternal one.
This capacity for deep knowledge can also be seen in our relationships with one another. As theologian Sam Allberry wrote in his book “Connected: Living in the Light of the Trinity,” “We are persons. And a person is set apart and defined by his relationship to another person. … To look for fulfillment outside of having true relationships is ultimately dehumanizing.”
We have also been called to be God’s regents on earth, exercising “dominion over the fish of the sea and over the birds of the heavens and over every living thing that moves on the earth.” And we are to be “fruitful and multiply and fill the earth and subdue it” (Genesis 1:26-28). God wants us to populate the earth —– He loves us and wants His image-bearers to know Him — and to make use of the remarkable intelligence He has given us to optimize the astounding treasure house that is our earth. Often called “the creation mandate,” this set of commands mean wise stewardship, creativity, care for the resources entrusted to us, and generosity as we share God’s good gifts with others.
All around us, from the laptops on which we read to the Hubble Space Telescope to breakthroughs in our increasing knowledge of microscopic life, we see the wonders of earth’s bounty employed for human good. Sin has led to the gross misuse of these resources, of course, but we can still enjoy so much goodness and beauty through their diligent and prudent use.
Finally, we have the capacity to reflect God’s character. We see this most clearly in the person of Jesus, Who is “the image of the invisible God” and “the exact imprint of His nature” (Colossians 1:15, Hebrews 1:3). He is the morally perfect reflection of God’s pure and loving character. He is “holy, innocent, unstained, separated from sinners, and exalted above the heavens” (Hebrews 7:26). This is why redeemed image-bearers of God, those who have come to know Him through new birth in Christ, have been called “to be conformed to His image” (Romans 8:29).
In sum, human dignity — value, worth, significance — is grounded in bearing God’s image. In his fine book, “Dignity and Destiny: Humanity in the Image of God,” Derek Kilner writes, “Were God’s image to be a matter of specific attributes that people actually have … then that image would be a matter of degree. People with better attributes would in some sense be more in the image of God, and people themselves would vary over time in terms of how much they are in God’s image.”
So, whether a person is a brilliant scientist, a homemaker, a professional athlete, or an individual with severe mental or physical handicaps, every human being has eternal and equal value to the One Who chose to make him or her. The majesty of God is displayed most fully in those who love Him, those He has created in His “image and likeness” and saved by grace alone, through faith alone, in Christ alone.
Rob Schwarzwalder is Senior Lecturer in Regent University's Honors College.