Man: The Image of God

Originally published in Creation 4, no 1 (March 1981): 21-29.

According to the Bible, the first man was perfect, made in the image of God.

According to the Bible, the first man was perfect, made in the image of God (Genesis 1:26). Luke goes so far as to call Adam the Son of God (Luke 3:38). In his allegorical novel, Voyage to Venus, C.S. Lewis1 paints a word picture of the dawn of history. He makes Adam resemble Jesus Christ. This is not far-fetched, for just as Christ, on earth in human form, was sinless, so Adam for a time, was sinless too. Lewis writes,

It was a face which no man can say he does not know. You might ask how it was possible to look upon it without idolatry, not to mistake it for that of which it was a likeness. For the resemblance was, in its own fashion, infinite, so that almost you could wonder at finding no sorrows on his brow and no wounds in his hands and feet. Yet there was no danger of mistaking, not one moment of confusion, no least sally of the will towards forbidden reverence. Where likeness was greatest, mistake was least possible. Perhaps this is always so. A clever waxwork can be made so like a man that for a moment it deceives us; the great portrait which is far more deeply like him does not. Plaster images of the Holy One may before now have drawn to themselves the adoration they were meant to arouse for the reality. But here, where his living image, like him within and without, made by his own bare hands out of the depth of divine artistry, his masterpiece of self portraiture coming forth from his workshop to delight all worlds, walked and spoke, it could never be taken for more than an image. Nay, the very beauty of it lay in the certainty that it was a copy, like and not the same, a rhyme, an exquisite reverberation of untreated music prolonged in a created medium.

Man in the image of God; what does this mean in practical terms? It cannot refer to bodily, biological form since God is a Spirit and man is earthly. But while it may be true that the body does not belong to the image, since God does not have a body, yet somehow we would like to see man’s body (which is a very real part of man) included in the image. Language and creativity,—two important parts of the image, are impossible without a body. And God the Almighty agreed to share with man dominion and authority over the animal kingdom (Genesis 1:28), an activity in which the whole man, body as well as mind, is involved. Furthermore the Son of God honored the human body by becoming flesh and dwelling among men (John 1:14) (Hebrews 2:14). Lewis suggests that before the Fall, the first man, Adam mirrored Christ the man of Galilee even more nearly than Christ would have resembled his own half-brothers. If this is so, it seems almost blasphemy to consider Adam sired by a shambling ape.

Man an animal

We can think of man as placed halfway between God and the animals, possessing characteristics of each. Physiologically and anatomically man is an animal. He even shares the genetic code with them. Evolutionists call him a human primate. Much of his behavior is controlled by Pavlovian conditioned reflexes.

The Genesis account recognizes important similarities between man and the animals. Of man we read “God formed man of the dust of the ground . . . .” (Genesis 2:7) And of the animals, “Now the Lord God had formed out of the ground all the beasts of the field.” (Genesis 2:19) Animals are described as “living creatures” (Genesis 1:20), and man a “living being” (Genesis 2:7), the Hebrew word “naphesh” (breath) being used for both. Concerning the effects of the flood we are told, “Everything on dry land that had the breath of life in its nostrils died. Every living thing . . . men and animals, and the creatures that move along the ground and the birds of the air were wiped out.” (Genesis 7:22–23)

Later, it is explained that the “life” (naphesh) is in the blood (Genesis 9:4). Thus breathed-in life (naphesh) is not the essential factor which distinguishes man from animals. Something further is required.

God regards man differently from the animals. The Bible account is primarily concerned with the relationship between God and man. Man was created by God, in his image, for God’s joy and glory, and exists only in the context of God. It is because God is (Hebrews 11:8) that man has being (Acts 17:28). True, the earth and animals too have a place in God’s economy, but essentially, the world was created as a place for man to live (e.g. Romans 8:19–22).

God’s attributes shared with man

The main impact of the image is that God endues man with some of his divine attributes, thereby separating and making him different from the beasts. What are these special Godlike qualities which man is permitted to share? I shall mention six: language, creativity, love, holiness, immortality and freedom. You will probably be able to add to this list. All can be summed up by saying that man, like God, has an intelligence, a mind.

According to Arthur Koestler,

The emergence of symbolic language, first spoken, then written represents the sharpest break between animal and man.2

As I write this I can hear birds singing. I hope they do so because they are happy, but to be honest I admit that probably their song is to demarcate their territory, a very selfish reason. Many birds communicate by sexual display before their mates. Dolphins are said to “talk” and use a type of radar. A sophisticated example of animal communication is the “waggle-dance” of bees. A bee finding a succulent honey flower tells its fellows in the hive the whereabouts of the flower by performing a “waggle-dance.” This imparts two items of information: first the direction. Here the sun is used as a fixed direction point, and the dance made in relationship to it. Secondly the distance from the hive to the flower is shown by the number of waggles in the dance.

Another form of language has been ascribed to Sarah, a chimpanzee at the Massachusetts Institute of Technology. She uses plastic symbols to convey such messages as, “I want an apple.” But this is as far as she can go. Despite large sums of research money, no animal has raised communication above the concrete, here-and-now situation to penetrate the realm of the abstract. Even primates given all possible opportunities for developing speech, including a loving and idealistic human linguistic environment, fail to develop true oral speech. Only man communicates by speech and writing, and this he has done from the dawn of history.

“The acquisition of language is the most brilliant achievement of the human brain,” according to Dennis Fry in his book, Homo Loquens, Man the Talking Animal.”3 To utter a word, the infant has to coordinate breathing with delicate movements of palate, tips and tongue. Displacement by a fraction of a millimeter gives a different sound. In order to communicate he has to amass information concerning vocabulary, syntax, the phonetic system, grammar, rhythm patterns and intonation.

Take the last of these as an example: How many meanings can you get merely by altering the intonation of the word “No”? Fry says,

It is not easy to visualize how vast a store of information is represented by all this language knowledge . . . .One estimate of the total storage capacity of the human brain puts it at 1000,000,000,000,000 items of information.” The authors of an infants’ language test comment on the complexity of the task demanded of a young infant who “takes encoded word symbols that are transmitted through the air as sound patterns and learns to produce meaningful interpersonal communication through the articulation of words encoded in the same symbols . . . .” yet “. . . this phenomenon is considered universal for the human infant.4

At one time behaviorists believed that children learn to speak by mimicking words they hear, which were then reinforced by the mother. By chance, so the theory went, a child would make a sound like “momma,” the mother kisses and hugs him so that he feels good and says the word again. By this method, incessantly repeated, language was supposed to develop. What a naive oversimplification! Speech is acquired too rapidly, and the utterances, even of infants, are too unique for this to be true.

In operant conditioning a subject received an immediate reward for a correct response to a command, and punishment for a wrong one. This is known as positive and negative reinforcement. The essence of the technique lies in the immediacy of the reward or punishment. The method is used successfully in Communist brainwashing, and can be used to teach mentally retarded or autistic children to speak. But the child rarely achieves more than repetitive single words or phrases, for unless the urge to speak is present, little can be accomplished.

The Origin of speech

Speech happens because the infant is human; it is part of his heritage.

In Genesis 2, 3, and 4, we have a record of the words spoken by the first humans mentioned in Scripture: Adam, Eve and their eldest son Cain. These utterances are not illiterate or “baby talk.” How did they learn to speak? The only possible answer is that they were taught by God. How does a newborn baby learn to speak? It is now accepted by linguists that speech is innate, or inborn. That is, speech happens because the infant is human; it is part of his heritage. Try to stop a child from learning a task. Unless he is mentally retarded, profoundly deaf or severely emotionally deprived, it cannot be done. Even deaf children learn to “talk” in their own nonverbal language. If a child does not use the language he hears around him, he will construct one of his own—so-called “idiogtossia.” Young children easily learn two languages at once, and keep them separate. They may have difficulty with three.

Fry3 tells the story of a well-known psychologist who attended a four-day conference on the acquisition of speech by infants. At the end he was heard to say, “I prefer the miracle theory.”

A striking fact about the Judeo-Christian God, the Lord of the Bible, is that he is a communicator. Although the Christian, like the Jew, worships one God only—“Hear O Israel, the Lord, our God, is one Lord” (Deuteronomy 6:4) (Mark 12:29)—and has no place for polytheism, he also believes that God is three: three persons in one substance, true unity in diversity. In Genesis 1 we read that God said, “Let us make man in our image.” Note the plural.

Another reason we know about the three (the Trinity), is because there is communication between the persons. “The Lord said . . .” we read in Genesis 1:3; to whom did he speak? It could only have been to another member of the Trinity. As soon as man was created God spoke to him. Constantly throughout Scripture we read the phrase, “The word of the Lord . . .” For this reason the Bible is known as the word of God.

As though to underline the importance of communication, God sent his son Jesus Christ into the world with the name Logos or the “Word.” John writes, “In the beginning was the Word and the Word was with God, and the Word was God. All things were made by him, and without him was not anything made that was made . . .” (John 1:1). So there is the written word (the Bible), and the living Word (Jesus Christ).

With such a prime communicator for his Maker, is it surprising that innate speech was part of the image given to man? The atheist can give no satisfactory reason for the origin of speech. But the Christian can: when baby talks he is showing one of the gifts God has given him.


God is creator, the great planner of the universe. He brought his plan to a triumphant conclusion when he saw everything that he had made and pronounced it good. God made man and woman a “them;” “male and female he created them. God blessed them and said to them, Be fruitful and increase in number” (Genesis 1:27–28). So God has given to men and women the ability to procreate new beings in his image, little humans with bodies and minds.

We have an insatiable desire to be creative, an urge increasingly emphasized (perhaps overemphasized) in schools, and recognized even by business management. An industrialist writes, “There is more stability among garage mechanics, to whom every repair job is different, who meets the customer, who sees the job through, who has the satisfaction of putting the car on the road again, than there is in the motor production line where the whole job has been deskilled and where the machine, in the form of the line, dominates the man who does nothing but turn a nut with a spanner every hour of every day of every week of every year.”5

Animals are not creative. They endlessly reproduce a stereotyped design. A particular spider constructs a web of constant pattern. The song of a bird is species specific, or mimicry of another bird or human. No originality is demonstrated.

Man alone can reason and act upon his original thoughts. John Steinbeck puts it this way: “The last clear function of man—muscles aching to work, minds aching to create beyond the single need—that is man. To build a wall, to build a house, a dam, and in the wall and house and dam to put something of Manself, and to Manself take back something of the wall, the house, the dam: to take hard muscles from the lifting, to take the clear lines and form from the conceiving. For man, unlike anything organic or inorganic in the universe, grows beyond his work, walks up the stairs of his concepts, emerges ahead of his accomplishments . . . . And this you can know—fear the time when Manself will not suffer and die for a concept, for this one quality is the foundation of Manself, and this one quality is man, distinctive in the universe.”6 Scientists would agree. They consider the ability to use tools and tame fire the hallmark of Homo sapiens.


Can animals love? That adoring look on the face of your dog as he awaits his daily walk; is that love or a conditioned reflex? Is love a purely human characteristic? There is room for difference of opinion here.

Love is the quintessence of God’s character. God is love (1 John 4:16). His love for man far outstrips human comprehension. It is the major theme of Scripture. Even when man sins again and again to the extent that God must destroy him, still he loves him. Jeremiah cried out, “Like a bear lying in wait, like a lion in hiding, he dragged me from the path and mangled me and left me without help . . . Yet I call this to mind and therefore I have hope: Because of the Lord’s great love we are not consumed, for his compassions never fail. They are new every morning. Great is your faithfulness” (Lamentations 3:10–12; 21–23). Man, because of the given image, has the capacity to love—a virtue of a completely different order from the reflex mothering or sex responses of an animal.


Unsinning holy Adam and Eve walked in the garden and communed with God—until the Fall. Only the faintest afterglow of that holiness is left in natural man. As a fine carving on a Gothic cathedral which after years of buffeting by storms and abuse of man is now defaced, yet still shows something of its past grandeur—so man still retains the remnants of his original nobility. Man is still man, even in ruins. More than that: because man is made in the image of God whether he acknowledges it or not, he still seeks after beauty and holiness; but beauty of body rather than of character, and personal esteem than the glory of God. A man re-created in the likeness of God puts on true righteousness and holiness (Ephesians 4:24).


Struggle for survival is the basis of evolution. Animals flee death. They crawl to food and water to stay alive. Animals in Africa will travel miles to a “salt-lick” to obtain essential sodium chloride. Furthermore the instinct to breed and nurture offspring shows that it is not only the individual but the race which has an urge to live.

The ability to exist and replicate is the essence of life even at cellular level. The magnitude of cell growth is staggering. If the fertilized human ovum were the size of an orange, the full-grown baby would be as large as the world. And this is accomplished in 9 months!

Wound healing is usually rapid and complete. If you bite your tongue or lip it will heal in only a few days. Why this universal pulse, not just to maintain a tenacious hold on life, but to reproduce more of the same kind of cell or animal or species? What is the dynamic which drives life on and on in plants, animals and man? I know of no biologically valid answer. Such an impulse can only come from God, the author of life.

Yet man, who has been given this life—urge in full measure, desires something more: he yearns for immortality.

When man is estranged from God, the desire for immortality often takes strange forms. The salutation to the Persian monarchs was, “O King, live forever.” Mediaeval alchemists brewed concoctions of toad’s liver, mouse’s dung and the hair of a dog as a potion to hold back the spectra of death. Failing the hope of personal immortality, kings needed a male heir to ensure the continuity of the dynasty. Henry VIII took six wives before he achieved his desire. King Farouk of Egypt divorced several queens because they would only give him daughters. Graveyards often boast massive monuments erected in honor of nonentities, or, if he can afford it, an obelisk is built on a prominent hill top even in the lifetime of the owner (2 Samuel 18:18).

God was before the beginning. He has no end. He is. With him it is always the present. He is outside of time. God is immortal. Man too is immortal. This is another part of the image. Jesus said, “A time is coming when all who are in the graves will hear the voice (of the Son of Man) and come out—those who have done good will rise to live, and those who have done evil will rise to be condemned” (John 5:28–29). God’s chosen ones will live with him forever in his newly created earth. Those who have rejected Christ still linger on, punished with “everlasting destruction shut out from the presence of the Lord and the majesty of his power” (2 Thessalonians 1:9).


Adam was created only a little lower than God (Psalm 8:5), as a free spiritual being. A responsible moral agent with a thinking mind and powers of choice and action, able to commune with God and respond to him, he could love and worship God—or if not, as he chose. Man could rebel against God. And the tragedy for the human race is that Adam and his wife, tempted by the serpent, did just that. Man, with such a golden start, used his freedom to turn against his Creator.

Man now misinterprets freedom as independence. Satan’s lie was to trick man into believing that to be independent of God was to be “free.” But there is no such thing as freedom. We are all slaves, either to Christ or to Satan.

Since the Fall, man remains a free agent in the sense that his decisions and conduct proceed from his inner character and not from external constraint. But because his very nature is now sinful, his decisions and acts are sinful too. When we do a wrong it is because we have been tempted by our evil desire, “and desire, when it is conceived gives is birth to sin” (James 1:14–15). Our best good is defective in the sight of God. Even our righteous deeds are as filthy rags (Isaiah 64:6), for a corrupt tree cannot bring forth good fruit (Matthew 7:18). No wonder that Paul cried out, “I know that nothing good lives in me, that is in my sinful nature. For I have a desire to do what is good, but I cannot carry it out . . . .What a wretched man I am. Who will rescue me from this body of death?” (Romans 7:18–19; 24)

Man desperately desires freedom. But often he seeks it in the wrong place. The proliferation of new nations in Africa followed the desire to be free from the yoke of colonialism. But one tyranny has often been exchanged for another. University students in the seventies thought freedom came from chanting four-letter words through a megaphone. In the eighties they seek transient freedom through alcohol and drugs. Civil liberty campaigners demand freedom from censorship, easier divorce, woman’s rights, gay liberation and the like.

Only Christ can set men and women free: “It is for freedom that Christ has set us free” (Galatians 5:1, John 8:16). In this verse the combination of the noun and verb stresses the completeness of what has been done—free once and for all time. Vine comments, “The phraseology is that of a manumission (freeing) from slavery, which among the Greeks was effected by a legal fiction, according to which the manumitted slave was purchased by a god. As the slave could not provide the money, the master paid it into the temple Treasury in the presence of the slave, a document being drawn up containing the words “for freedom.” No one could enslave him again. He was the property of the god.”7 So Paul was able to call him “the Lord’s freeman” (1 Corinthians 7:22; 9:1). Recently I saw a poignant car sticker, “Why does freedom cost so much?” The cost was nothing less than the death of the Son of God. No wonder Peter says, “You, my brothers were called to be free, but do not use your freedom to indulge your sinful nature” (1 Peter 2:16).

Modern man has got it all wrong. Freedom is liberty, not libertinism. We are called “into the glorious liberty of the children of God” (Romans 8:2). Adam was created free but became enslaved to sin. All men and women since have been in bondage. Christ came to set men free, “Whose service is perfect freedom.8 The yearning for freedom is part of the image. It remains unsatisfied unless the slave is redeemed by Christ.

Force me to render up my sword And I shall conqueror be.

The Image

Language, creativity, love, holiness, immortality and freedom—all these attributes, and many more man possesses or may possess because he is human, made in the image of God.

These separate him from the animal kingdom. They can be summed up in the phrase: Man, like his Maker, has a mind.

The Mind of man

The agnostic scientist has a problem: “What is mind? No matter! What is matter? Never Mind!” C.U.M. Smith discusses this in his book, The Brain: Toward an Understanding.9 He devotes 300 pages to a detailed explanation of the neurophysiological and anatomical intricacies of the brain, that most complex of all computers. He describes such matters as the nerve pathways by which we perceive, the physiological differences between sleep and consciousness; he unravels the modern theories of memory. In the test chapter, “The Brain and the Mind,” he says, “The advance of modern neurophysiology has both sharpened the Cartesian dilemma and at the same time tended to obscure it. For few of us realize this scandal in the depth of our culture: this schizophrenia. For, on the one hand we feel bound to assert that minds do in fact act upon bodies, and on the other that they do not so act.

On the one hand it is intolerable to assert that the words appearing on this sheet of paper are anything other than the outcome of my conscious intention. I would feel for example, that it was a total misrepresentation of the fact if one were to allege that they were merely automatic writing. . . . Yet, on the other hand, it is intolerable to assert that minds do act on bodies. For we have seen in the previous chapters of this book that neurobiologists are well on the way toward a satisfactory physical theory on the living brain. There is just as little room for a strange, immaterial cause like “mind” within the machinery of this liquid state computer as there is within the machinery of the solid state computers used to solve business problems by industrialists.” (Italics by author)

Can you sense the tension in this passage? 300 pages devoted to a “satisfactory physical theory of the living brain,” and it crumbles to dust because the author is honest. How can the Christian resolve such a “schizophrenia”?

The brain is a superb, intricate, physicochemical computer constructed by a master Designer. That it is prone to disease and damage is no fault of the original design, but has come about because of sin. But that is not all. Man is a special creation. He is different. Because he is made in God’s image he has an original, thinking mind. He is a free agent, and therefore responsible for his actions to his neighbors and to God. Furthermore, the Christian has the mind of Christ (1 Corinthians 3:16, Psalm 139:1–4, Hebrews 4:13).

The Mentally retarded and the image of God

Because I am a pediatrician and constantly see mentally retarded children and their parents, I must contribute an addendum. From time to time I visit a home for such children. Indoors I see little motionless bodies lying in cots or on beanbags. Outside, in the garden, those with slightly higher intelligence wander around in the sunshine stirring the earth or flicking leaves. Most cannot talk. They have no creativity or desire for immortality. They lack the very essential: minds.

Do such children possess the image of God? Of course the answer is “Yes.” Christians may not deride any human being by calling him a vegetable (Proverbs 14:31). Such children have been conceived by human parents but are a sad commentary on our fallen world.

I believe these children, along with those who die in infancy, occupy a special place in the economy of God. You remember that because of unbelief, the children of Israel on the brink of entering the promised land were turned back and compelled to wander forty years in the desert. All except Joshua, and “your little ones who you said would become a prey, and your sons, who this day have no knowledge of good or evil, (they) shall enter there, and I will give it (the promised land) to them, and they shall possess it” (Deuteronomy 1:39, Isaiah 7:15).

You will also remember that King Herod, thwarted in his effort to find the Baby Jesus ordered that all male babies under the age of 2 years living in the vicinity of Bethlehem should be killed. But Joseph and Mary, warned by the Holy Spirit, fled with Jesus to Egypt. The ecclesiastical calendar each year commemorates the event as Innocents day. The Scripture passages prescribed to be read on that day are Matthew 2:13–18, which records the story, and Revelation 14:1–5. I suggest you read the latter verses in full. Here are some excerpts:—“And I looked, and lo, a Lamb stood on Mount Zion, and with him an hundred and forty-four thousand, having his Father’s name written in their foreheads. . . . These are they which are not defiled with women; for they are virgins. These are they which follow the Lamb whithersoever he goeth. These were redeemed from among men, the first fruits unto God and to the Lamb. And in their mouth was found no guile; for they are without fault before the throne of God.

Reformation theology evidently considered that this passage referred to those who had died young. Since then many sects have taken it as referring to their own peculiar group. But none fit the description except those who are mentally or physically infants. All such children are members of the human race, they have human bodies such as Christ honored; true, they may be deformed. Also they are sinners, as are all humans. But they have no knowledge of good or evil and therefore have not committed actual sin, and will not do so (Romans 7:9). They are God’s specials without guile. They follow the Lamb whithersoever he goes. He can, and often does, use them to bring others close to himself.


  1. Lewis, C.S., Voyage to Venus. London Pan Books, 1955, p.190.
  2. Koestler, A., The Ghost in the Machine. London. Hutchinson, 1967, p.19.
  3. Fry, D., Homo Loquens, Man the Talking Animal. Cambridge Univ. Press, 1977.
  4. Bzoch, K.R. and League R., Assessing Language Skills in Infancy. Florida. Tree of Life Press, 1972.
  5. Catherwood, Sir F., A Better Way—The Case for a Christian Social Order. London. Intervarsity Press, 1975, p. 38.
  6. Steinbeck, J., The Grapes of Wrath. London. Pan Books, 1936, p.160.
  7. Vine, W.E., An Expository Dictionary of New Testament Words. Oliphants, 1957, 2. p.131.
  8. Book of Common Prayer: Church of England.
  9. Smith, C.U.M., The Brain: Toward an Understanding. London. Faber and Faber, 1970, p. 350.


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