Image of God - Five Things to Know

You are made in the image of God.

We’ve all heard it. You've probably said it. But what does the image of God really mean? And do we grasp its significance? While Scripture doesn’t fully explain it, I want to offer 5 things we can know about the imago Dei.

1. We know from Genesis 1:26-28 that the Triune God purposed to make men and women in his image.

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. And God blessed them. And God said to them, “Be fruitful and multiply and fill the earth and subdue it, and have dominion over the fish of the sea and over the birds of the heavens and over every living thing that moves on the earth.”

This is the foundation of our value as persons and serves as the basis of ethics (Jam 3:9). Being made in God’s image brings both dignity and responsibility to all people.

Nancy Pearcy is extremely helpful here in her book, Love Thy Body. She says, “a Christian concept of personhood depends not on what I can do but on who I am - that I am created in the image of God, and that God has called me into existence and continues to know and love me. Human beings do not need to earn the right to be treated as creatures of great value. Our dignity is intrinsic, rooted in the fact that God made us, knows us, and loves us.”

2. Humans are distinctly created to reflect God.

God made living creatures like birds, fish, and livestock, according to their kinds (Gen 1:21-25). But when God created the first humans, he made them after his kind, his likeness and image. As part of their role as imagers, God commanded Adam and Eve to be fruitful, multiply, fill the earth, subdue it, and exercise dominion over it (Gen 1:26-28). Inherent in our imaging is the call to respect the rest of God’s creation. Through procreation, they were to reproduce God’s embodied image-bearers over the earth to lovingly steward the rest of his creation.

3. Men and women bear God’s image in a variety of ways.

Adam and Eve were God’s first embodied imagers, and all their descendants bear the same significance. Humans are intentionally created as fundamentally different, and this difference lies in the imago Dei. Throughout church history, there have been many attempts to explain the image of God, even to the point of proposing separate meanings for image and likeness. Some have also held to specific views on imaging in efforts to explain what man is or does.

Here are 6 views on what the image of God entails.

  1. The spiritual view of image means humans are spiritual beings, capable of a relationship with God.

  2. The substantive view prizes image as the human ability to think and reason.

  3. The ethical view locates imaging in human capacity for moral understanding.

  4. The relational view reckons that humans image God as relational beings in community with each other.

  5. The functional view holds image as the human ability to exert dominion over the rest of creation.

  6. The holistic view regards each of these abilities as important aspects of God’s image.

I prefer the holistic view that encompasses the others instead of locating image in only one aspect. It doesn’t split the image of God as what people do or what people are. Rather, like our Creator, we are spiritual, rational creatures with moral understanding who relate to others and possess authority over the rest of creation.

4. Embodiment, body and soul equally united and valued, necessarily comprises the image of God.

It is important to note that embodiment and the imago Dei are connected. Embodied life is a prerequisite to express God’s image and carry out his creation commands. Even more, the Christian faith is the spiritual experience of the soul carried out through the physical existence of the body. We are integrated body-soul persons who bear the image of God in our daily lives.

“The bible proclaims the profound value and dignity of the material realm - including the human body - as the handiwork of a loving God. That’s why biblical morality places great emphasis on the fact of human embodiment. Respect for the person is inseparable from respect for the body.” - Nancy Pearcey, Love Thy Body

The problem is when the body gets separated from the person who is the image of God, any God-denying act against the body is justifiable including abortion, sexual immorality, homosexuality, or euthanasia. We must not neglect the importance of bearing God’s image and its extension into the world.

5. Salvation restores God’s image partially in this life but fully in the life to come.

Though the image of God was marred by the fall (Gen 3), it was not destroyed (Gen 9:6). In Christ, it can be renewed, for he is the perfect image of the invisible God (Col 1:15). Christ came to the earth to live, die, and resurrect so that sinful men and women could be restored to the image of God through salvation. (Read more about Christ’s embodied life here.) As believers, we strive by the Spirit to progress in holiness and put on the new self, which is being made into the image of our Creator (Col 3:9-10). Beck and Demarest give a helpful summary of this in their book, The Human Person in Theology and Practice.

“The Christian’s challenge to mature in Christ and to conform to his image is intertwined with the Christian’s status as an image-bearer, a holistic self, and a gendered creature.”

So then, we are to understand ourselves as embodied image-bearers who reflect and express our Creator while purposing to revere others as equals, worthy and honorable because they also are God’s embodied image-bearers.