Chapter 32

Image of God

Atheistic humanism rejects the image of God, but the Bible ascribes unique dignity, dominion, and restoration in Christ to those who bear God's image.

by Dr. Corey Abney on April 10, 2021
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You are special. Perhaps you’ve heard this from a parent, teacher, or member of your family. You received numerous compliments as the result of a special talent or accomplishment. Someone encouraged you because of your education and expertise. You were honored for a significant contribution. Or you grew up in a family where your grandmother reminded you of your “special” status every time you spent the night at her home (I can relate to this one)! Based on your background, personality, and life experience, you have a concept of what it means to be significant, and if you’re like many people, you base how special you are on talent, education, or accomplishment. In other words, you look to yourself and to others. You play the comparison game. You try to measure up.

Unfortunately, many people aren’t measuring up. The self-help industry is a multi-billion dollar industry with thousands of books published each year. Suicide is one of the leading causes of death among teenagers and young adults. Euthanasia is legal in the Netherlands, Belgium, and Luxembourg, with assisted suicide now legalized in Switzerland and in the U.S. states of Washington, Oregon, Vermont, and Montana. Humanism is weaving its way into the fabric of culture and institutions of higher learning. Many scholars believe and teach that human beings are no different than animals or plants. On this basis, human life is viewed in some circles as disposable, insignificant, or meaningless. Consider the teaching of Julian Huxley, a famous humanist, who writes,

I use the word “humanist” to mean someone who believes that man is just as much a natural phenomenon as an animal or a plant; that his body, mind, and soul were not supernaturally created, but are products of evolution, and that he is not under the control or guidance of any supernatural being or beings, but has to rely on himself and his own power.1

Joseph Krutch, an American author, critic, and naturalist, says, “There is no reason to suppose that man’s own life has any more meaning than the life of the humblest insect that crawls from one annihilation to another.”2

Even the former Chief Justice of the United States Supreme Court, Oliver Wendell Holmes, states, “I see no reason for attributing to man a significance different in kind from that which belongs to a baboon or a grain of sand.”3

Former Chief Justice Oliver Wendell Holmes: “I see no reason for attributing to man a significance different in kind from that which belongs to a baboon or a grain of sand.”

No wonder so many people struggle with identity and significance. If humans are no different than animals, plants, or grains of sand, one could argue that we aren’t so special after all.

The Image of God Established

Thankfully, the Bible presents a very different picture of humanity. You are special, but not primarily as the result of your talents, accomplishments, education, or upbringing. Your significance is not tied to how you measure yourself, how you compare with others, or how others view you; rather, your significance is tied to how your Creator views you. And here’s the good news: your Creator views you as special . . . significant . . . unique. Human beings are special in the eyes of God because we are unique in the order of creation. You see, when God created the heavens and the earth, He also created every creature after its own kind (Genesis 1:20–25). He created sea creatures, crawling creatures, birds, livestock, and wildlife, pronouncing that such animals were “good” (Genesis 1:25). But when God created mankind, He said,

“Let Us make man in Our image, according to Our likeness; let them have dominion over the fish of the sea, over the birds of the air, and over the cattle, 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).

God created human beings in His image and likeness. These words are used interchangeably in the Book of Genesis, but only when referring to mankind (Genesis 1:26, 5:1, 9:26). No animal or plant is made in God’s image or likeness. For this reason, human beings should be viewed as the crowning jewel of God’s creative activity. After God made man, He looked over His creation and declared everything “very good” (Genesis 1:31).

A Unique Dignity

According to Genesis 1:26–30, mankind has a unique dignity. Moreover, Genesis 5:1 states, “In the day that God created man, He made him in the likeness of God.” Human beings have a special dignity because men and women are God’s image-bearers. This does not mean we reflect the physical appearance of God, because God is spirit and not represented in a human form (John 4:24).

Rather, bearing God’s likeness points to the spiritual, not the physical. To be created in the divine image includes having an interpersonal relationship with God. Anthony Hoekema says,

In this way human beings reflect God, who exists not as a solitary being but as a being in fellowship — a fellowship that is described at a later stage of divine revelation as that between the Father, the Son, and the Holy Spirit.4

People can know God, love God, and worship God. We can also think, reason, and choose between right and wrong. We have the capacity to look at the world and deduce that everything has a Creator (Romans 1:19–20). The image of God is the defining mark of humanity that sets us apart from animals, plants, and grains of sand. You can teach an animal tricks, but only man can learn truth. You can make an animal work, but it is man who can worship. Animals can see the sun, but man can glorify God for the beauty of a sunset. Mankind has a unique dignity that is seen primarily in the spiritual ability to fellowship with God and others. Both animals and man were created material and immaterial,5 but only man was created with a spiritual component as well.6 Human beings are special because we have a unique dignity that enables us to have a relationship with God.

A Unique Dominion

Not only does mankind have a special dignity; we also have a unique dominion. God created human beings to rule over the fish, birds, cattle, and everything that creeps on the earth (Genesis 1:26). Moreover, God commanded the first man and woman to exercise dominion over every living creature on the planet:

Then God blessed them, and God said to them, “Be fruitful and multiply; fill the earth and subdue it; have dominion over the fish of the sea, over the birds of the air, and over every living thing that moves on the earth.” And God said, “See, I have given you every herb that yields seed which is on the face of all the earth, and every tree whose fruit yields seed; to you it shall be for food. Also, to every beast of the earth, to every bird of the air, and to everything that creeps on the earth, in which there is life, I have given every green herb for food”; and it was so (Genesis 1:28–30).

Mankind is the lord of creation who represents the ultimate Lord in a formal sense. He is God’s caretaker on the earth and is expected to maintain order and unity. God provides fruit and vegetation for both man and animals to eat, but man alone is charged with the responsibility to “subdue” and “have dominion over” the created order.7 Human beings are commanded to rule the earth for God and to develop a culture that glorifies the Creator. Many years after our first parents were created and commanded to exercise this unique dominion, King David reflected upon mankind’s role in the world. He wrote,

When I consider Your heavens, the work of Your fingers, the moon and the stars, which You have ordained, what is man that You are mindful of him, and the son of man that You visit him? For You have made him a little lower than the angels, and You have crowned him with glory and honor. You have made him to have dominion over the works of Your hands; You have put all things under his feet, all sheep and oxen — even the beasts of the field, the birds of the air, and the fish of the sea that pass through the paths of the seas (Psalm 8:3–8).

David is overwhelmed by God’s grace and kindness toward humanity. As he surveys the mysteries of the heavens, the moon and the stars, and the existence of angels, he is amazed that God created man with glory and charged him with the responsibility of caring for the created order. David understood that human beings possess a unique dignity and dominion that set us apart from all other created beings.

The Image of God Tarnished

The image of God in mankind enables us to fellowship with our Creator and to exercise dominion over the earth. Sounds like a solid game plan, doesn’t it? When you read the second chapter of Genesis, everything is certainly going according to plan. Initially, our first parents experienced unbroken communion with God and a peaceful relationship with each other (Genesis 2:21–25). Death was not a part of the world. The first man and woman did not experience distrust or disappointment. The question is, what happened?

The image of God in mankind enables us to fellowship with our Creator and to exercise dominion over the earth. Sounds like a solid game plan, doesn’t it?...The question is, what happened?

Sin happened. The first man and woman (Adam and Eve) disobeyed God and rebelled against His will for their lives. God told them to eat from any tree on the earth with the exception of the tree of the knowledge of good and evil. Genesis 2:16–17 says, “And the Lord God commanded the man, saying, ‘Of every tree of the garden you may freely eat; but of the tree of the knowledge of good and evil you shall not eat, for in the day that you eat of it you shall surely die.’ ”

Satan, a fallen angel who rejected God and His sovereign reign over the universe (Isaiah 14:12–14; Ezekiel 28:12–18; Luke 10:18), tempted the woman through the use of a serpent.8 Adam and Eve yielded to the temptation and sinned by eating, and forever changed the course of human history:

Then the serpent said to the woman, “You will not surely die. For God knows that in the day you eat of it your eyes will be opened, and you will be like God, knowing good and evil.” So when the woman saw that the tree was good for food, that it was pleasant to the eyes, and a tree desirable to make one wise, she took of its fruit and ate. She also gave to her husband with her, and he ate (Genesis 3:4–6).

The rebellion of Adam and Eve plunged humanity into a sinful state where death, pain, and suffering entered the world. Moreover, the image of God in man was tarnished and broken from that point forward. Human beings now search for significance in themselves and their accomplishments instead of finding significance in the Creator whose image we bear. We remain rational, spiritual beings, but our rationality and spirituality no longer impart a true knowledge of God.

We are still relational people who possess the capacity to fellowship with God and others, but the outworking of our relationships no longer reflects the relationship between Father, Son, and Holy Spirit. In other words, mankind continues to reflect a unique dignity as God’s image-bearers that no other creature enjoys, but the dignity is damaged significantly by the consequences of sin. Similarly, human beings continue to exercise dominion over the earth, but in many ways are selfish dictators who rule over nature for selfish gain, working against the will of God in the world.

The Image of God Restored

The image of God in man was tarnished, but not beyond repair. God the Father, in His infinite mercy and grace, reached out to Adam and Eve in the midst of their rejection and rebellion. Adam and Eve experienced consequences for their sin, but God also issued a promise of hope and restoration:

So the Lord God said to the serpent: “Because you have done this, you are cursed more than all cattle, and more than every beast of the field; on your belly you shall go, and you shall eat dust all the days of your life. And I will put enmity between you and the woman, and between your seed and her Seed; He shall bruise your head, and you shall bruise His heel” (Genesis 3:14–15).

God promised to send a man who will conquer Satan and put an end to the reign of sin and death. According to this first of many prophetic statements in Genesis 3, God will send a deliverer who will save His people from their sins; He will send a healer who is able to restore the image of God in mankind.

Christ the Image of God

The New Testament makes it clear that Jesus Christ is the Son of God and the promised seed of the woman who dealt a fatal blow to death through His crucifixion and Resurrection. Satan bruised Jesus on the Cross, but Jesus crushed Satan’s head when He rose from the dead (Genesis 3:15; Colossians 2:13–15). As a result, salvation from sin and death is found in Christ alone through faith alone (Ephesians 2:8–9). Moreover, the image of God is redefined in terms of Christ Himself as the true image. For example, Christ is called the image of God in three New Testament passages:

But even if our gospel is veiled, it is veiled to those who are perishing, whose minds the god of this age has blinded, who do not believe, lest the light of the gospel of the glory of Christ, who is the image of God, should shine on them (2 Corinthians 4:3–4, emphasis added).

He is the image of the invisible God, the firstborn over all creation. For by Him all things were created that are in heaven and that are on earth, visible and invisible, whether thrones or dominions or principalities or powers. All things were created through Him and for Him (Colossians 1:15–16, emphasis added).

God, who at various times and in various ways spoke in time past to the fathers by the prophets, has in these last days spoken to us by His Son, whom He has appointed heir of all things, through whom also He made the worlds; who being the brightness of His glory and the express image of His person, and upholding all things by the word of His power, when He had by Himself purged our sins, sat down at the right hand of the Majesty on high (Hebrews 1:1–3, emphasis added).

Jesus is the true image of God. He is equally God and not a mere copy of the original. He is the original image. The Apostle Paul says, “For it pleased the Father that in Him all the fullness should dwell” (Colossians 1:19). Jesus shows us the glory of God (John 1:14), and when He comes again in His glorified humanity, He will be manifested directly as the true image of God. The Apostle John states, “Beloved, now we are children of God; and it has not yet been revealed what we shall be, but we know that when He is revealed, we shall be like Him, for we shall see Him as He is” (1 John 3:2).

The Image of Christ Restored in Us

The image of God in man needs restoration and renewal. In order for the image of God to be restored, however, we must look to Christ for salvation and sanctification. The Apostle Paul says, “Do not lie to one another, since you have put off the old man with his deeds, and have put on the new man who is renewed in knowledge according to the image of Him who created him” (Colossians 3:9-10). He also writes, “For whom He foreknew, He also predestined to be conformed to the image of His Son, that He might be the firstborn among many brethren” (Romans 8:29). We must pursue Christ and His image, knowing that we will be like Him in the new creation:

And as we have borne the image of the man of dust, we shall also bear the image of the heavenly Man (1 Corinthians 15:49).

But we all, with unveiled face, beholding as in a mirror the glory of the Lord, are being transformed into the same image from glory to glory, just as by the Spirit of the Lord (2 Corinthians 3:18).

Jesus Christ is our only hope for restoration. Without saving faith in the life, death, Resurrection, and return of Jesus, the image of God in us will remain tarnished by our sin and rebellion. We will continue to search for significance in ourselves, but we will never find it there, because our significance is ultimately tied to the image of God within us.

Conclusion

So, you really are special — not because of what you do, but because of who God created you to be. You are more than a plant, an animal, or a grain of sand. God created you in His image! Furthermore, despite your sin and rebellion that leads to the tarnishing of His image, God sent His Son to die for your sin, in your place, as a righteous substitute who satisfied the demands of the holy Judge. Three days later, God raised His Son from the dead, ensuring salvation and eternal life for all who believe in Him. Jesus Christ is the true image of God; therefore, when you submit your life to Jesus, God works through the power of His Holy Spirit to restore His broken image in you. And I can’t think of anything more special than that.

The New Answers Book 4

Building on the previous New Answers Books, learn more about the Gospel and a young earth, death of plants and leaves, dragons, religious wars, cavemen, science, living fossils, and more.

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Footnotes

  1. Julian Huxley, The Humanist Frame (New York: Harper & Brothers, 1961).
  2. Joseph Wood Krutch, The Modern Temper (New York: Harcourt Brace, 1929).
  3. Richard Posner, The Essential Holmes: Selections from the Letters, Speeches, Judicial Opinions, and other Writings of Oliver Wendell Holmes (Chicago, IL: Chicago University Press, 1992).
  4. Anthony Hoekema, Created in God’s Image (Grand Rapids, MI: Eerdmans, 1994).
  5. Many animals were created with nephesh in Hebrew. This is often translated as living creature or living soul. Man is also described as nephesh, but unlike animals, our spiritual component is made in God’s image.
  6. Editorial note: There are three views of the nature of the human being but this paper is not the place to discuss this theological topic. For the astute reader, the three positions are (1) dichotomous [body and soul/spirit; where soul and spirit are merely interchangeable words of the same substance], (2) trichotomous [body, soul, and spirit; where each are truly separate and unique (1 Thessalonians 5:23)], or (3) modified [the spirit would be a modified aspect of the soul, like a flip side of the same coin. There is one coin, but two unique sides to it. In other words, our soul is specially fashioned with a spiritual aspect, like duality. So soul and spirit could almost be used interchangeably (being two parts to the same “coin”), which we find in Scripture (Luke 1:36–47). Yet soul and spirit could be seen as unique (two sides of the “coin”), which we also find in Scripture (1 Thessalonians 5:23; Hebrews 4:12)].
  7. Plants are not seen as living creatures in the Bible, unlike animals and humans, so they could not die in a biblical sense.
  8. Bodie Hodge, The Fall of Satan (Green Forest, AR: Master Books, 2011), p. 43–45.

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