The Scriptures open up with the words, “In the beginning God created the heavens and the earth” (Gen. 1:1, ESV). Simply put, Scripture claims, with great profoundness, that God created everything ex nihilo “out of nothing.” Rightly understood, from nothing came everything beginning with light (Gen. 1:3) and then crowning in God’s creation of man in the form of male and female (Gen. 1:27). In regard to His creation, especially that of man, God most certainly had an idea in view as to what He originally desired human beings to be like (Gen. 1:26-28). However, Scripture also reveals that man did not live up to God’s desire for them, which caused all of humanity to fall away (Gen. 3). One theologian has claimed that we have become less than fully human. In short, because of sin, human beings are unable to fully grasp what it means to be made in God’s image, after His likeness (Gen. 1:26). Conversely, the God-man Jesus Christ has restored God’s image in man. Therefore, this essay will argue that the imago Dei of Genesis 1:26-27 is foundational in understanding what it means to be a human being and that Jesus Christ is the only One who provides the truest meaning of what it means to be created in His image.
The above will be accomplished first by reaching a unified understanding of the imago Dei through its historical background along with a study of the terms involved in Genesis 1:26. After which, the imago Dei will be viewed from three states of humanity. The first will be categorized as “humanity’s very good state” – the second, “humanity’s fallen state” and the third will be categorized as “humanity’s renewed state,” which will focus on Jesus Christ as the fulfillment of the imago Dei. The essay will conclude with a brief statement on the significance of the imago Dei in regard to contemporary Christianity.
The Imago Dei (Genesis 1:26-27)
God’s creation of man begins with a joyous announcement, “Then God said, “Let us make man in our image, after our likeness” (Gen. 1:26). This small portion of Scripture is known as the imago Dei (image of God) and it is, as Larry Hart claims, “one of the major contributions of Christianity to human culture, and it is at the core of the biblical doctrine of humanity.” Furthermore, the imago Dei is fundamental to belief in human dignity and purpose because every human is created in the divine image of God. This claim will be explored further but first it is necessary to exegete this passage in order to better understand the claim of human dignity and purpose.
The expression image of God was not first introduced in the Hebrew Scripture and it must be remembered that the Israelites, who were the original audience of these words, existed within the context of other cultures. Two that immediately come to mind are the Egyptian and Mesopotamian cultures that neighbored the Israelites. Interestingly, some scholars have determined that both the Egyptians and the Mesopotamians made use of the expression image of God. This means that there may have been some social-cultural influence on how the expression was received and interpreted within Israelite culture.
One of the first concepts to grasp in how the Ancient Near Eastern people understood the expression image of God is to first look at the term regent. The Merriam Webster dictionary defines a regent as a person who governs a kingdom in the minority, absence, or disability of the sovereign. Simply put, it is a person who acts in behalf of the sovereign ruler’s place, which is exactly how the great kings of the Ancient Near East understood themselves. More precisely, the kings understood themselves to be regents in place of the gods empowered to bring order to the peoples of the earth. In other words, when a king acted they believed that they were doing so in behalf of the deity they were claiming to represent. Essentially, they understood themselves as gods on earth.
It is not a far leap to go from the term regent to the expression image of god. In both Egypt and in Mesopotamia, the great king or Pharaoh was the image of god on earth and “most Old Testament scholars agree that the imago Dei in Genesis 1:26-28 is rooted in this royal ideology of the ancient Near East.” This concept is probably best described as a representative view because the king or pharaoh was just that – they were seen as representatives (regents).
When the representative view is applied to the Hebrew Scriptures, the image Dei maintains its ideology but it shifts from being a singularity to a plurality. Recall, that in the surrounding cultures the expression was in relation to royal ideology, such as the king or the pharaoh. This means that in those cultures, the image of god was exclusive to specific individuals. However, the Hebrew Scriptures state a plurality, God said, “Let us make man in our image.” The term man is explicitly plural. This shift is significant for two reasons. First, God Himself is making the claim and not some representative or regent. Second, God is claiming that all men and women are made in His image.
After the expression image of God, the term – our – must be discussed. Clearly, God Himself is part of the our; however, this leaves room for interpretation, at least up to this point in the Scripture. Several propositions have been presented but the following two have gained the most attention: The first is that God is referring to the heavenly court of angels and the second is that God is referring to Himself or the plurality of His majesty, as Jewish tradition holds. In the first view, God is pictured talking to the angels, which would be the only mention to other supernatural beings in the chapter. One commentator states that “this remark implies that man is like both God and the angels.” However, the consensus between both Jewish and Christian belief agrees with the latter proposal that “man is made in the image of God, and did not relate to the image of angels.” Hart clarifies this where he writes that, “we are neither angels nor animals. . . In the totality of our beings we reflect God’s image.” It goes without saying that Hebrew interpretation will differ from the Christian belief in the Triune God at this point but for Christians, the Holy Trinity should be in view here.
The final term that must be defined is likeness. This term is best understood within its literary context, “Let us make man in our image, after our likeness” (Gen. 1:26). The phrase “after our likeness” may, at first, appear to be Hebrew parallelism, which some have concluded; however, others have seen it differently. Where the expression “in our image” (image of God) addresses that human beings would fulfill a representative purpose on earth, the phrase “after our likeness” implies the attributes necessary to achieve that representative purpose. Admittedly, this does seem to be breaking Hebrew parallelism up into a mosaic and then piecing it back together, but it does manage to paint more of a detailed picture; even if it does end up saying the same thing. Moshe provides a proper definition where he writes that the overall divine image relates to some spiritual qualities of man in regard to his, “self-consciousness and self-determination, his reason and understanding, his capability for thought and his desire for immortality.” All of these attributes are unique to human beings and the imago Dei reveals that they are not just God given attributes but that they are a portion of who God Himself is. In other words, human beings, unlike any other thing or creature created by God, are Godlike. Accordingly, being made in the image of God, after His likeness is precisely where human beings discover their dignity and purpose. The latter will be addressed first.
After God created humankind (Gen. 1:27), He stated their purpose in the following verse by first blessing humankind and then by giving humanity dominion over the creatures of the sea, sky and land. The Christian consensus, which is derived from Hebraic religion, is that where God states, “You shall have dominion” (Gen, 1:26, 28) implies that human beings are to take care of God’s creation. The deeper implication can be stated as follows: through our God-given attributes of rational capacities, strengths, imagination, and courage, human beings are to shape the world in a fitting response to being created in His image, after His likeness. In light of this, then, human beings are, in part, commissioned to be caretakers of God’s creation.
The State of Very Good
After all of this, God paused once again to proclaim that everything He had made was very good (Gen. 1:31). It is important to recognize that within God’s creation process the pattern of goodness progresses from good (1:4), to more complex good (1:21), to “very good” (1:31). Furthermore, it is only after creating man (God’s crowning achievement) that God pronounces that everything He had created was very good (1:31). This is significant because it reveals that human beings in their original created state brought pure joy to God – so much that He declared everything to be very good. God’s pronouncement also carries the fact that human beings, in their original form, were without sin.
So far, much has been presented in regard to the imago Dei. Up to this point, it has been revealed that God created human beings to be His representatives on earth; human beings contain certain divine attributes that are unique to them, which allow them to be God’s representatives on earth; God blessed humankind and part of their purpose is to care for His creation. However, being made in the image of God, after His likeness, has far more reaching inferences than what has already been mentioned, which brings this study to address the human desire for relationship.
In Genesis chapter 2, after God saw that everything He had made was very good, He focuses His attention onto something that is not good. God said, “It is not good that man should be alone” (Gen. 2:18). Human beings were not created to be isolated persons, and being made in the image of the Triune God means that human beings can attain deep interpersonal unity between each other, which is meant to mirror, in some way, the interpersonal relations within the Trinity. God made two distinct persons as male and female in such a way that “they would share love and communication and mutual giving of honor to one another in their interpersonal relationship.” The original expression of shared love and communication began with Adam and Eve; however, this reflection of the Trinity also occurs in various ways within human society as well. It is from this relational aspect between the Triune God and human beings and the interpersonal relationships that human beings have between each other that human dignity is obtained. To be clear, dignity is the state or quality of being worthy of honor or respect. Undeniably, in a state where everything is pronounced very good by God, where respect of self and each other is the norm – dignity comes naturally. Unfortunately, the state of “very good” was very real but it was very temporal.
The State of Fallen Humanity
Genesis chapter 3 covers the account of the Fall, when sin entered through humanity and caused God’s good creation to be subjected to a curse. Although the focus of this essay is on humanity, it is vital to understand that all of creation was affected by the sin of Adam and Eve in the Garden of Eden (Gen. 3:17-18; Rom. 9:20-21). Furthermore, it was not just Adam and Eve who were affected by sin but every human being that came after them. Within Christianity, this belief is known as “original sin” and “inherited depravity” (Rom. 5:12). Of course, the question that must be addressed is: how exactly does sin affect human beings in regard to the imago Dei?
One of the first things that sin distorted, among other things, was the human basis for knowledge, which the Scriptures are very clear on by pointing out that they were suddenly aware (Gen. 3:7). Theologically, this is referred to as the noetic consequences of the fall or the “noetic effects” and it addresses the intellectual consequences of sin. Mainly, human reason is now opposed to God and the will now warps human intellect. Albert Mohler Jr., while addressing the noetic effects, stated it best, “the will is fallen and, therefore, produces a fallen reason.”
Along with reason are other noetic effects, some of which are ignorance; distractedness; faulty perspective; inconsistencies; failure to draw the right conclusions; intellectual apathy and so on. It must be stressed that not one of these noetic effects or any other were originally part of God’s image of man and it goes without saying that because of sin human beings are unable to achieve, let alone fully understand or even experience what it truly means to be made in the imago Dei. To rephrase, the fallen state of humanity forces human beings to interpret the imago Dei through a faulty lens, thus, keeping us partially blind to its full realities. In truth, then, sin robs us of our humanity and diminishes our Godlikeness. Fortunately, humanity has been offered an opportunity to solve this dilemma.
Jesus Christ – True Imago Dei
It is true that humanity has been in a fallen state ever since the tragedy in Eden. However, amidst the event, God revealed part of His plan to restore human beings back to their original, unfallen state. In Genesis 3:15 God states to Eve, “between your offspring and her offspring; he shall bruise your head, and you shall bruise his heel.” The second person (you) in this verse is the serpent (Satan) and the third person (He) is the redeemer. This has become known as the protoevangelium – the first pronouncement of the gospel (εὐαγγέλιον).
Looking forward to the New Testament, Christians should understand that Jesus Christ is the fulfillment to the protoevangelium. In other words, He is the One who provides redemption from humanity’s fallen state, that is, for those who put faith in His name (Jn. 1:12; Acts 4:12). However, there is a paradox that exists within this restorative state because those Christians who are still physically living must exist within the good and fallen world while cohabiting a good and fallen body with the Holy Spirit. Twentieth-century theologian, Paul Tillich, in regard to this paradox, coined the phrase “essentially good but existentially estranged.” In other words, Christians are saved but are not fully restored yet. What, then, does this mean in regard to the imago Dei? A brief look at Paul’s Christology within the Christ-hymn in Colossians should provide the answer.
The Christ-hymn opens up by stating that “He is the image of the invisible God, the firstborn of all creation” (Col. 1:15). Scholars have proposed that where Adam was the original image of the invisible God because he was the first man, Jesus Christ replaced him as the true image of God within His incarnation. In short, Jesus Christ is not just a mere representation of the imago Dei, such as a regent (Adam), rather Jesus Christ is the imago Dei. He is the true image of God because He is God in the flesh.
Tillich’s phrase that humans are “essentially good but existentially estranged” points to the fact that the imago Dei, as originally intended by God, has not yet been fully realized by any living Christian. However, because of Jesus Christ, Christians have been given a clearer focus of what a human being should look like. The New Testament paints a portrait of Jesus Christ that allows us to see precisely what true humanity should look like. This is because looking at Jesus Christ is literally looking at the original meaning of the imago Dei of Genesis 1:26-27. What, then, does Jesus Christ look like? For this, Hart provides the most accurate summary.
We look into the mirror of Scripture and glimpse his glory. We see a person who lived totally for God and for other persons. We see a man who esteemed women and children far beyond the custom of his day. We notice how observant and appreciative he was of nature. We are poignantly aware of his preoccupation with the kingdom of God. He was totally committed to doing the will of the Father. He based his life on the principles of the Scriptures. He lived a life of prayer. He was a people person. He showed great compassion for people in need. He lived in total dependence on the father in the power of the Spirit. He did signs and wonders, He confronted and conquered satanic forces.
Ultimately, all those who believe in Christ will one day bear the full divine image that God originally intended (1 Cor. 15:49). However, human beings, as it has been made clear, are in yet another intermittent state. This time not fallen but saved and awaiting for His glorious return (Matt. 24:23-31; Mk. 14:62; Acts 1:10-11; Rev. 1:7). In the meantime, Christians are called to be conformed to the image of Jesus Christ, who is accurately depicted in the four gospels of the New Testament Scriptures. It is through God’s Holy Spirit that human beings obtain a closer fit to the imago Dei. Needless to say, being conformed to His image is a process of transformation that requires complete surrender over to the Triune God (Rom. 12:1-2). Fortunately, and to quote Kenneth Boa, “God has equipped us with the spiritual resources he knows we will need throughout the journey.” This, of course, is another topic altogether.
This essay has shown the imago Dei of Genesis 1:26-27 from the perspective of three states of humanity. The first state was very good and for a brief period of time human beings were faithful to God’s will for them. The second state of humanity was the intermittent state that occurred from the moment of the Fall up until the time of the Cross of Christ. During this state, because of sin, humans were left to interpret the imago Dei through an unclear lens. Finally, the third perspective focused in on the God-man – Jesus Christ who “is the image of the invisible God” (Col. 1:15). However, a paradox currently exists that causes Christians to be saved but not yet fully restored. Fortunately, because Jesus Christ is the perfect depiction of the invisible God, Christians can look to the image of Christ in order to better represent the imago Dei. Therefore, what this essay has revealed is that Jesus Christ is the only One who provides the truest meaning of what it means to be created in the image of God.
The Imago Dei – Modern Significance
Understanding what it means to be made in the image of God, after his likeness is significant for all Christians in all ages. It should be no surprise that the secular world has been hard at work in promoting its own views of what it means to be human. From Darwin’s theory on natural selection, Karl Marx’s sociological perspective, Sigmund Freud’s sensualism all the way to the likes of Nietzsche’s and Heidegger’s existential philosophies – all compete with the Scriptural proclamation that human beings were made in the image of God, after His likeness. Without a proper foundation built upon the Scriptural proclamation of the imago Dei, Christians are susceptible to be taken captive by the incomplete philosophies according to human tradition and not according to Christ (Col. 2:8).
It is vital that Christians understand that the image of God has been disfigured by sin and even more so, Christians need to know that God’s image in man has not been lost. In other words, humanity is no longer caught up in a downward spiral into eternal depravity, which the pessimistic worldview of fatalism would have people believe. It is only through Christ that God’s divine image in man is restored and perfected. This is good news indeed! This is τό εὐαγγέλιον!
Christ’s Church cannot stress enough the gospel message that through Him we have been restored. John R. W. Stott provides a wonderful explanation on this, “God is making human beings more human by making them more like Christ. . . since Christ is both perfect man and perfect image.” Stott’s declaration is all about transformation through the indwelling of the Holy Spirit. In closing, then, let us all be conformed to the image of His Son, Jesus Christ, in order that He might be the firstborn among many brothers (Rom. 8:29). It is in Christ that the imago Dei is fully realized and it is through Christ that human beings are restored to the imago Dei. – ἀμὴν.
. Larry D. Hart, Truth Aflame: Theology for the Church in Renewal, rev. ed. (Grand Rapids, MI: Zondervan, ©2005), 232.
. Hart, 231.
. Andreas Schuele, “Uniquely Human: The Ethics of the Imago Dei in Genesis 1-11” Toronto Journal of Theology 27, no. 1 (2011): 8, ATLA Religion Database with ATLASerials, EBSCOhost, accessed November 2, 2017, http://eres.regent.edu:2048/login?url=http://search.ebscohost.com/login.aspx?direct=true&db=rfh&AN=ATLAn3850941&site=ehost-live
. Schuele, 7.
. Moshe, Reiss, “Adam: Created in the Image and Likeness of God,” Jewish Bible Quarterly 39, no. 3 (July 2011): 182. ATLA Religion Database with ATLASerials, EBSCOhost, accessed November 14, 2017, http://eres.regent.edu:2048/login?url=http://search.ebscohost.com/login.aspx?direct=true&db=rfh&AN=ATLA0001844837&site=ehost-live
. G.J. Wenham, Genesis, ed. D.A. Carson et al., New Bible Commentary: 21st Century Edition. Accordance electronic ed. (Downers Grove: Intervarsity Press, ©1994), 60. https://accordance.bible/link/read/IVP-NB_Commentary#825
. Moshe, 183.
. Hart, 232.
. Roger E. Olson, The Mosaic of Christian Belief: Twenty Centuries of Unity and Diversity (Downers Grove, IL: InterVarsity Press, ©2002), 206.
. Moshe, 184.
. Hart, 231.
. Thomas C. Oden, Classic Christianity: A Systematic Theology (New York, NY: HarperCollins Publishers, ©1992), 138.
. Oden, 138.
. Ibid., 131.
. Wayne Grudem, Systematic Theology: An Introduction to Biblical Doctrine (Grand Rapids, MI: Zondervan, ©1994), 454–455.
. Ibid., 455.
. Olson, 220-221.
. Olson, 201.
. John Piper and David Mathis, Thinking. Loving. Doing: A Call to Glorify God with Heart and Mind (Wheaton, IL: Crossway, ©2011), 54.
. Ibid., 55.
. Ibid., 56-58.
. Hart, 232.
. Oden, 286.
. Olson, 207.
. Gordon Fee, Pauline Christology: An Exegetical-Theological Study (Grand Rapids, MI: Baker Book House, ©2013), 299.
. Hart, 237.
. Kenneth Boa, Conformed to His Image: Biblical and Practical Approaches to Spiritual Formation (Grand Rapids, MI: Zondervan, ©2001), 20.
. Hart, 236.
Boa, Kenneth. Conformed to His Image: Biblical and Practical Approaches to Spiritual Formation. Grand Rapids, MI: Zondervan, ©2001.
Fee, Gordon. Pauline Christology: An Exegetical-Theological Study. Grand Rapids, MI: Baker Book House, ©2013.
Grudem, Wayne. Systematic Theology: An Introduction to Biblical Doctrine. Grand Rapids, MI: Zondervan, ©1994.
Hart, Larry D. Truth Aflame: Theology for the Church in Renewal. Rev. ed. Grand Rapids, MI: Zondervan, ©2005.
Oden, Thomas C. Classic Christianity: A Systematic Theology. New York, NY: HarperCollins Publishers, ©1992.
Olson, Roger E. The Mosaic of Christian Belief: Twenty Centuries of Unity and Diversity. Downers Grove, IL: Intervarsity Press, ©2002.
Piper, John, and David Mathis, eds. Thinking. Loving. Doing: A Call to Glorify God with Heart and Mind. Wheaton, ILL: Crossway, ©2011.
Reiss, Moshe. “Adam: Created in the Image and Likeness of God.” Jewish Bible Quarterly 39, no. 3 (July 2011): 181-146. ATLA Religion Database with ATLASerials, EBSCOhost. Accessed November 2, 2017. http://eres.regent.edu:2048/login?url=http://search.ebscohost.com/login.aspx?direct=true&db=rfh&AN=ATLA0001844837&site=ehost-live
Schuele, Andreas. “Uniquely Human: The Ethics of the Imago Dei in Genesis 1-11.” Toronto Journal of Theology 27, no. 1 (2011): 5-16. ATLA Religion Database with ATLASerials, EBSCOhost, accessed November 2, 2017. http://eres.regent.edu:2048/login?url=http://search.ebscohost.com/login.aspx?direct=true&db=rfh&AN=ATLAn3850941&site=ehost-live
Wenham, G.J. Genesis, ed. D.A. Carson et al., New Bible Commentary: 21st Century Edition. Accordance electronic ed. Downers Grove: Intervarsity Press, ©1994. https://accordance.bible/link/read/IVP-NB_Commentary#825