What Is the Image of God?

Image of God, Part 2

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Abstract

If you are looking for an explicit definition of what exactly constitutes the image of God in Scripture, you won’t find one. Like many other doctrines, we understand the meaning and application of truth from careful contextual study of the relevant biblical usages in the Old and New Testaments. Unfortunately, doctrinal positions are sometimes obtained based on presupposed commitments to extra-biblical, human ideas. This article seeks to expose biblical reasons to reject outside influences of evolutionary thinking regarding the nature of man. In contrast, the biblical data demands that mankind is uniquely created in the image of God, distinct from all other creatures, and reflects the very character of God in our spiritual being.

The Great Distinction

Read Part 1 of this series: “Evolution and What the Image of God Is Not.”

“The image of God in humanity is critical to our understanding of what makes us human.”1 Genesis 1:26–28 is the key passage of Scripture whereby foundational teaching on the image of God begins. The Hebrew language of verse 27 makes it clear that God’s image in mankind depicts humanity as distinct from animals.2

So God created man in His own image, in the image of God He created him; male and female He created them. (Genesis 1:27, emphasis added)

The Hebrew word for “man” in this text is adam (אדם). Depending on context, the word can mean “man,” “mankind,” or the name “Adam.”3 The sub-categories of humanity are used with different words and the distinction is visible in both Hebrew and English. These sub-categories of mankind are “male” (zakar זכר) and “female” (neqebah נקבה). The language usage is profound and makes a significant point that the image of God distinction is made between mankind and all other creatures, not between the sub-categories of male and female.

It is only regarding the creation of mankind that God says, “Let us make man in our own image,” and God only directly breathed into man’s nostrils the breath of life (Genesis 1:26, 2:7). Everything in the text of Genesis 1 and 2 denotes the intimate actions of God in creating mankind (both the first man and the first woman) compared to the general nature of creating everything else.

The Image of God Is Not Our Bodies

The human body is something that makes the human creaturely, and not necessarily something that constitutes a distinction. Animals and humans have bodies that show aspects of common design. While unique in their own way, both humans and animals can have such features as eyes, noses, legs, and arms that point to our common Creator. It is the unique creation of mankind in the image of God that distinguishes us from all other creatures.

At an appointed time in history, the Son of God stepped into His creation taking on the form of a man (Philippians 2:7). He added humanity without losing deity. Scripture also reveals that God is Spirit (John 4:24). It would appear that taking on a human body is part of what has given Jesus the ability to relate with human beings rather than it being an attribute of God as a display of His image. John tells us that Jesus became flesh to show us God’s glory (John 1:14). This is the glory that mankind was meant to reflect when we were created in God’s image.

Other Scriptures would suggest that a human body is not essential to image bearing. It would be difficult to suggest that the disembodied souls under the throne in Revelation 6:9–11 have ceased to be image bearers on the basis that they are awaiting their resurrection bodies. Perhaps the same may be considered for Moses and Elijah who were talking with Jesus at the transfiguration (Matthew 17:1–3).

This is not to say that the human body should not be highly valued. God created Adam and Eve with bodies, and their bodies were part of His “very good” creation. In Christ, our bodies are the temple of the Holy Spirit (1 Corinthians 6:19) and we are to use them as instruments of righteousness (Romans 6:12–13).

Adam and Eve were creaturely (creatures of God but not animals), as evidenced in their human body. They were image-bearers, as evidenced in their very being. The image of God is primarily a distinctive privilege of inexpressible value that mere animals do not share.

The Image of God Is Not Our Experience

Neo-orthodox theologians Karl Barth and Emil Brunner both developed theories about the image of God based on human experience. Neither Barth nor Brunner believed Genesis to be a true account of creation history. The experiential understanding of image-bearing proposes that mankind reflects God’s image in the union of relationship. As mankind becomes aware of relational identity between male and female, an awareness of the concept of relationship with God becomes reality.4 The image of God then is essentially a relational identity (our ability to relate to God and one another) rather than an ontological essence of being. As previously stated, Genesis 1:26 shows that male and female are gender distinctions within a sub-category of mankind created in God’s image and likeness. Relational union between men and women is not a definition of what it means to be made in the image of God but is a result of bearing the image of God. To show this, Old Testament theologians Dr. Russell Fuller and David Casas have explained the importance of the preposition “in” by stating, “But the preposition ‘in’ is significant here. It depicts the standard or pattern in which God created: God created man in (the pattern of) His image.”5 Everything that follows this statement in Genesis 1:26, including the distinctive male/female relationship, is a secondary element to the fact that man and woman each already bear the image of God and reflect the nature of God. When God said “Let us make,” the declaration of mankind in God’s image was made before they were alive to experience relationships as image bearers.

The Image of God Is Not Our Function

Genesis 1:26–28 seems to read as a series of sequential statements starting with the statement about God creating mankind (both male and female) in His image and then describing the things that mankind is to do. God first declared mankind in His image and then in sequence gave them instructions for living. Adam and Eve were already in God’s image and likeness before they were given instructions for dominion, filling and multiplying.6 These instructions then seem to be a result of being an image-bearer and not a statement of actual being (ontological component).

While Psalm 8:6–8 also refers to dominion, this does not necessitate an argument for dominion as a component of the image of God. Moreover, this text would also imply not who man is, but what responsibility and privilege he has been given as an image-bearer who is made lower than heavenly beings. This is something exemplified in Christ as echoed in Hebrews 2:5–9. While it would seem that function is closely related to image-bearing, it is not necessarily a part of its definition.

The recent articles about the image of God on the BioLogos website7 predominantly describe image bearing as a relational and/or functional component that is compatible with naturalistic processes (evolution).8 They propose that as human beings develop psychological capacity, they gain the appropriate faculties to cope with the functions of having dominion. On this basis, the blogs posted on the BioLogos site also propose that as man and culture change, the nature of image bearing also changes in how it functions in new environments. Put simply, mankind evolves image-bearing functionality in changing environments. Evolutionary presuppositions have influenced the BioLogos authors’ definition of the image of God.

A functional view of the image of God based on evolutionary presuppositions will ultimately have an impact on how one understands sin and salvation. It is therefore no surprise to view further BioLogos articles from authors dismissing the atoning sacrifice of Christ and suggesting that Jesus’ purpose in becoming human was not His sacrificial death but to be the ultimate example of human life (function).9 While as the very image of God Jesus certainly does show us how to live, the Bible explicitly teaches that He came to die in order that we might be transformed in our very beings as He substituted His righteousness for our sinfulness (Isaiah 53:10–11; Mark 10:45; Romans 5:8; Philippians 2:5–10; Titus 2:14).

The Image of God as God’s Righteous Attributes

Paul’s discussions of the new man and old man give us great insight into what it means to be created in the image and likeness of God (Ephesians 4:24; Colossians 3:10). It is an image that bears the righteousness and holiness of God. When Scripture describes all of God’s attributes, it is in the context of God being the perfection of such attributes. For example, God is love, and God’s love is perfect. Humanity shares many of God’s attributes, and we were originally created to reflect God’s perfect character in righteousness and holiness. While God has character traits that He does not share with humanity (e.g., God is self-existent, omniscient, omnipotent), we can still see His shared attributes in humanity today, even though they are distorted by sin. Attributes such as love, self-awareness, justice, grace, and mercy are distinct from attributes associated with animals. They are part of the very being of humanity.

It is true that as we look at humanity today, we see a great difference between the holiness of God’s character and human character. We have distorted the very nature of God’s character in humanity because of our rejection of God’s holiness and rule in our lives.

Throughout church history there has been much debate about the effect of sin on the image of God in man. Even so, there are three unifying truths. First, the Bible teaches that even after sin, mankind is still created in God’s image (Genesis 9:6; James 3:8–9). Second, sin has devastatingly affected the image of God in man (Romans 3:23; Isaiah 59:1–4). And third, it is only through Jesus Christ’s substitutionary atonement and Resurrection that mankind can be forgiven, transformed, and conformed to the image of Christ (Romans 8:28–30; Ephesians 4:24; Colossians 3:5–10; 2 Corinthians 3:18).

Conclusion

Evolutionary presuppositions have tragic effects on Christian anthropology (the study of humanity). If mankind has evolved the characteristic capacities for dominion and relationship that make us function as God’s image-bearers, then our greatest need is to continue evolving such capacity that is ultimately seen in the example of Jesus Christ. Sadly, the doctrines of sin and salvation are destroyed. If, however, mankind is uniquely made in the image of God as part of His original “very good” created order, then our sin problem is a reality that is only solved by the substitutionary atonement of Jesus Christ who is the very image of God. Through Christ alone we can be made right before God and conform to the image of His Son that we were originally created to be.

Further Reading

Answers in Depth

2015 Volume 10

Footnotes

  1. Millard J. Erickson, Christian Theology, 2nd ed. (Grand Rapids, MI: Baker Book House, 1998), 517.
  2. Anthony A. Hoekema, Created in God’s Image (Carlisle, U.K.; Grand Rapids, Mich.: Wm. B. Eerdmans Publishing Company, 1994), 12.
  3. Genesis 6:5 gives an example of “adam” in the context of the whole of mankind.
  4. Gregg R. Allison, Historical Theology: An Introduction to Christian Doctrine (Grand Rapids, MI: Zondervan, 2011), 337.
  5. David Casas and Russell Fuller, “The Difference Maker: What Makes Us Special?,” Answers 9, no. 4 (October–December, 2014): 80.
  6. The grammar described refers to the Hebrew waw construction with the imperfect verb (rdh) “let them have dominion.” This would indicate a waw-consecutive. Further explained in Russell T. Fuller and Kyoungwon Choi, An Introduction to Biblical Hebrew (Grand Rapids, MI: Kregel, 2006) 121, sec. 20.3.
  7. For information on the ideas published in The BioLogos Forum on the image of God, see the first article of this series: “Evolution and What the Image of God Is Not.”
  8. For instance, see Tyler Greenway and Pamela Ebstyne King, “Evolution and Image Bearers, Part 1,” BioLogos, April 13, 2015, http://biologos.org/blog/evolution-and-image-bearers-part-1.
  9. Joseph Bankard, “Substitutionary Atonement and Evolution, Part 2," BioLogos, June 10, 2015, http://biologos.org/blog/substitutionary-atonement-and-evolution-part-2.

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