“All humans are made in the image of God.” We hear this phrase often, usually indicating that human life is valuable. But what does the phrase “image of God” actually mean?
What Is the Image?
We find the phrase “image of God” in the first chapter of the Bible. When God first created humans, He made them in His “image” (צֶלֶם) and after His “likeness” (דְּמוּת). These words describe how humans in some way reflect the form and function of God. In order to understand the specific meaning, it will help to look at their context in Genesis 1:26-28:
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.”
Leaving aside the question of God speaking in the plural (it probably refers to the divine counsel), the main question here is what the text means by God’s “image,” or the Imago Dei (from the Latin). It is often suggested that the “image” is tied with humans being personal, moral, spiritual, intellectual, and relational beings like God. Others suggest that the “image” is tied with humans being creative like God.
While we are like God in these ways, they do not get to the central point of the “image” in Genesis 1. That central point is not hard to figure out. We just have to look at the immediate context. And what is mentioned in the context along with the “image” of God? Dominion. Sandwiched in between the two uses of “image” in Genesis 1:26-27 is the sentence: “And let them have dominion over . . . ” (1:26). This very concept is seen again in 1:28, in what is known as the Cultural Mandate. In the midst of God’s blessing, He commanded humans to do two things: (1) reproduce (“be fruitful and multiply”); and (2) rule (“fill the earth and subdue it, and have dominion”). The word “dominion” is mentioned here in 1:28 for the second time, but now it is paired with having children and subduing the land.
In other words, “the image of God” means that humans are like God and represent Him as rulers over creation. The context of Genesis 1:26-28 stresses man’s authority over the created world. As those made in the “image of God,” Adam and Eve were God’s vice-regents. They were to fill the earth with godly offspring and glorify Him through their rule on the earth. Thus the image of God provides humans with an identity as rulers, and this carries with it the function of ruling over creation.
A few chapters later, this same language of “image” and “likeness” is used for Adam and his children—“When God created man, he made him in the likeness of God . . . When Adam had lived 130 years, he fathered a son in his own likeness, after his image, and named him Seth” (Genesis 5:1-3).
This is an astounding thing. Just as Seth was made in the image of Adam and was like his father (Genesis 5:3), so we as humans are made in God’s image and are like Him. Now we are not like God in every way. Humans are not omnipotent or omniscient. But we are made to rule. God made humans—both male and female—to have dominion over this world. Psalm 8 reflects on this glorious truth:
What is man that you are mindful of him,
and the son of man that you care for him?
Yet you have made him a little lower than the heavenly beings
and crowned him with glory and honor.
You have given him dominion over the works of your hands;
you have put all things under his feet,
all sheep and oxen,
and also the beasts of the field,
the birds of the heavens, and the fish of the sea,
whatever passes along the paths of the seas (Psalm 8:4-8).
Do Humans Still Have the Image?
So humans were initially made in the “image of God. ” But that was before Adam fell into sin in Genesis 3. That raises the question—are humans still made in God’s image? The answer is a qualified yes. Yes, humans are still made in God’s image, but sin has distorted this image. Humans have turned from worshipping the One in whose likeness we are made and instead have turned towards idols. As Paul says, sinful man “exchanged the glory of the immortal God for images resembling mortal man and birds and animals and creeping things” (Romans 1:23). Though man is made in God’s image, he has turned from God to false images, even images of man himself. This is a sad attempt to worship a sullied image. Instead of worshipping God and reflecting His rule over creation, fallen man now worships creation. He no longer properly reflects God's image.
In spite of man’s sinfulness, Scripture affirms that God’s image remains intact. There are a few passages post-fall that still reference God’s image in man:
Whoever sheds the blood of man,
by man shall his blood be shed,
for God made man in his own image (Genesis 9:6).
For a man ought not to cover his head, since he is the image and glory of God, but woman is the glory of man (1 Corinthians 11:7).
With it [our tongue] we bless our Lord and Father, and with it we curse people who are made in the likeness of God (James 3:9).
We will only provide a short comment on these verses. Genesis 9:6 affirms the image of God in man as the reason for the death penalty for murderers. He who takes an innocent life deserves to have his life taken, and man is authorized to carry out capital punishment. 1 Corinthians 11 contains a challenging passage on head coverings, but Paul cites that men are made in God’s image as reason for them not to cover their heads. He does mean that women are not made in God’s image, as this is stated in Genesis 1:27 (“male and female”). Rather, he shows that a woman glorifies her husband similar to how a man glorifies God. And James reaffirms that humans are still made in God’s “likeness” (ὁμοίωσιν), the same word used in the LXX’s translation of Genesis 1:26.
All three of these passages affirm that humans are still made in God’s image. The image is marred by sin, and humans do not now completely fulfill God’s original design. Man's rule over creation experiences frustration. But we still maintain this image, and we are still made to rule over creation.
Jesus is the Very Image of God
The good news is that God in His grace is restoring His image through the work of Christ. God does this because Jesus is the very image of God. Paul makes this claim twice in his writings:
He [Jesus] is the image of the invisible God, the firstborn of all creation (Colossians 1:15).
In their case the god of this world has blinded the minds of the unbelievers, to keep them from seeing the light of the gospel of the glory of Christ, who is the image of God (2 Corinthians 4:4).
We see things here come full circle. God made man in His image, and Jesus is the perfect man—thus the perfect image of God. But Jesus is not just the image of God. He is “the image of the invisible God.” Or as Hebrews 1:3 says, Jesus is “the radiance of the glory of God and the exact imprint of his nature.” Jesus is God incarnate. The second person of the Trinity became flesh, taking on human nature.
This is why Paul understands Psalm 8 (which is a reflection on Genesis 1:26-28) to ultimately refer to Jesus—“the son of man” (Psalm 8:4). He thus applies Psalm 8:6 (“you have put all things under his feet”) to Jesus in 1 Corinthians 15:27. As the ultimate fulfillment of the “image of God,” Jesus is given dominion over all of creation. Jesus has been given “all authority in heaven and on earth” (Matthew 28:18). And it is because of this dominion (“therefore”) that He instructed His disciples to “disciple the nations” through baptism and teaching (Matthew 28:19-20). Paul also connects the image of God with Jesus's dominion in Colossians 1:15-20.
So Jesus reigns as King over heaven and earth, which includes His church. However, Scripture also teaches that we as Christians will reign with Him, alongside Him (2 Timothy 2:12; cf. Revelation 20:6).
The Image Is Being Restored in Christ
Moreover, God is restoring His image in us by conforming us to the image of Christ. It is through union with Christ that we are made like Him:
For those whom he foreknew he also predestined to be conformed to the image of his Son, in order that he might be the firstborn among many brothers (Romans 8:29).
Just as we have borne the image of the man of dust, we shall also bear the image of the man of heaven (1 Corinthians 15:49).
And we all, with unveiled face, beholding the glory of the Lord, are being transformed into the same image from one degree of glory to another. For this comes from the Lord who is the Spirit (2 Corinthians 3:18).
You have put off the old self [literally “man”] with its practices and have put on the new self, which is being renewed in knowledge after the image of its creator (Colossians 3:9-10).
Only the last passage explicitly refers to the image of God, referring to Him as the “creator.” The other passages instead refer to the image of Christ—“the image of his Son,” “the image of the man of heaven,” and the “image” of the “Lord.” The image of God is not just being restored in us, but we are also being made into the image of Jesus. We are being “conformed” to Jesus' image, “transformed . . . from one degree of glory to another.” And this is the work of the Spirit (2 Corinthians 3:18).
We thus see all three persons of the Trinity involved in this process. We were created in the image of God, presumably the Father. The Son took on human flesh and is thus the very image of God. Through union with Him, we as Christians are being conformed to His image, thus fulfilling the original design of God’s creation. And all this comes from the work of the Holy Spirit.
This conforming to Christ's image takes place in this life. We rule over creation through work and cultural advancement (Genesis 1:26-28), and we herald Christ's reign through discipleship and gospel proclamation (Matthew 28:18-20). However, complete restoration of God's image must await Christ’s return:
Beloved, we are God’s children now, and what we will be has not yet appeared; but we know that when he appears we shall be like him, because we shall see him as he is (1 John 3:2).
Then God will give us our resurrection bodies that “bear the image of the man of heaven” (1 Corinthians 15:49). Oh how we await that glorious day!