Humans Bear the Image of God

By James M. Rochford

The Bible teaches that humans are valuable because they bear the image of God. In the first chapter of Scripture, we read, “Then God said, “Let Us make man in Our image, according to Our likeness; and let them rule over the fish of the sea and over the birds of the sky and over the cattle and over all the earth, and over every creeping thing that creeps on the earth. 27 God created man in His own image, in the image of God He created him; male and female He created them” (Gen. 1:26-27).

What does it mean to be created in the “image of God?” Theologian Wayne Grudem writes,

The word image (tselem) means an object similar to something else and often representative of it. The word is used to speak of statues or replicas of tumors and of mice (1 Sam. 6:5, 11), of paintings of soldiers on the wall (Ezek. 23:14), and of pagan idols or statues representing deities (Num. 33:42; 2 Kings 11:18; Ezek. 7:27; 16:17; et al.). The word likeness (demût) also means an object similar to something else, but it tends to be used more frequently in contexts where the idea of similarity is emphasized more than the idea of being a representative or substitute (of a god, for example). King Ahaz’s model or drawing of the altar he saw in Damascus is called a “likeness” (2 Kings 16:10), as are the figures of bulls beneath the bronze altar (2 Chron. 4:3–4), and the wall paintings of Babylonian chariot officers (Ezek. 23:15). In Ps. 58:4 (Heb. v. 5) the venom of the wicked is a “likeness” of the venom of a snake: here the idea is that they are very similar in their characteristics, but there is no thought of actual representation or substitution. All of this evidence indicates that the English words image and likeness are very accurate.[1]

In Genesis 5:3, we see the same exact language to describe Adam producing his son (“he became the father of a son in his own likeness, according to his image”). This doesn’t necessarily mean that they looked the same. Rather, it means that they shared the same characteristics. The Bible also states that as we follow Christ, we have our image restored to become more like Christ (Col. 3:10; 2 Cor. 3:18; Rom. 8:29).

Even after the Fall, humans are still considered to be made in God’s image (Gen. 9:6; Jas. 3:9). Thus the image of God was distorted by the Fall, but not lost.

1. Humans are put in charge

God is naturally a ruler and has authority. He rules and governs the universe and everything in it. Therefore, part of the image of God is to be a ruler and an authority of something.

(Gen. 1:26b, 28) 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.” …God blessed them; and God said to them, “Be fruitful and multiply, and fill the earth, and subdue it; and rule over the fish of the sea and over the birds of the sky and over every living thing that moves on the earth.”

As fallen rulers, we become mini-divine dictators. The results are sickening and twisted. But the concept of leadership was inherently good—just as God’s leadership is good. Genesis states,

Critics argue that teaching on the dominion of man is the source of Western culture’s environmental abuses and imperialistic tendencies. But teaching on humanity’s dominion shouldn’t lead to imperialistic abuse any more than teaching on the biblical view of sex should lead to rape or molestation. Surely people have abused God’s design for dominion, but that doesn’t call for less teaching; it calls for more teaching on it (cf. Gen. 1:28).

Our thirst for leadership will never end. It is something that is part of being an image-bearer. In heaven, we will be given charge and authority as our reward (Lk. 19:12-19). This is integral to the human condition. We feel most satisfied, when we have responsibility.

2. Humans are given significance in their work

God is a worker. Jesus said, “My Father is working until now, and I Myself am working” (Jn. 5:17). He works for the betterment of others—especially humans. His works are eternal and significant. Thus, part of the image of God is to have eternal and significant work to do for the betterment of others. Genesis states,

(Gen. 2:15) Then the LORD God took the man and put him into the garden of Eden to cultivate it and keep it.

Why would God put humans to work when they were in Paradise? Apparently, it wouldn’t be paradise unless we were working. There is something especially satisfying about finishing projects or goals or other objectives. This is part of our makeup as humans.

As fallen workers, we take our significance from the work itself (e.g. secular career, personal achievement, etc.). Or we deny this aspect of being an image-bearer, and we become lazy and unfruitful in our work. This inevitably leads to a sense of boredom, angst, and depression. Sitting in front of a video game system or television screen goes against our fundamental makeup as humans.

3. Humans are free moral agents

God is moral in his very nature. He doesn’t determine morality by looking outside of himself, but rather, he determines it from his very nature, which is good. So, part of being made in the image of God is to have moral agency.

(Gen. 2:16-17) The LORD God commanded the man, saying, “From any tree of the garden you may eat freely; 17 but from the tree of the knowledge of good and evil you shall not eat, for in the day that you eat from it you will surely die.”

As fallen moral agents, we seek to determine morality from ourselves (our own nature) rather than from God. We determine our own morality. This system is faulty, because it either “accuses or even excuses them” (Rom. 2:15). Genesis writes,

This is an important doctrine because it helps to explain the problem of evil. Moreover, it is important for spiritual birth (i.e. coming to Christ) and spiritual growth (i.e. growing with Christ). Both are not determined. God will supply the power, but we are called on to exercise faith.

When we get to heaven, we will still have freewill. But by virtue of the Cross, we will freely never choose to rebel against God ever again. This is something that the original humans didn’t have in the Garden, but now that we have experienced the love of the Cross, we will never choose to rebel against God in heaven. This is similar to holding a newborn baby in your arms. Of course, you could throw your baby across the room like a ragdoll, killing it in the process. But you never would do that. You have the freedom, but you’d never act on that freedom. Similarly, the love of Christ will be so overwhelming that we could sin, but never would sin.

4. Humans are intellectual and creative

God is a thinker. His plans for humanity are so brilliantly woven together that Paul broke out in spontaneous prayer at the awesome wisdom and knowledge of it all (Rom. 11:33-36). Therefore, part of the image of God is to exercise our God given intellect.

(Gen. 2:19) Out of the ground the LORD God formed every beast of the field and every bird of the sky, and brought them to the man to see what he would call them; and whatever the man called a living creature, that was its name.

This is primitive zoology. He’s creating names from thin air. He’s using his mind to separate and name the animals. By contrast, intellectual apathy is a sub-human state. Christianity is a community of truth, and there is a lot to learn.

As fallen image-bearers, we become proud and confident in our own knowledge and planning. We are finite and limited in our understanding, and yet we raise this limited intellect over the Divine Mind.

5. Humans are made to be relational

God is naturally a relational being. Before creation, he existed relationally in the Trinity (Jn. 17:21, 24; Eph. 1:4). Thus, part of being in the image of God is to be a relational being. Genesis states,

(Gen. 2:20) The man gave names to all the cattle, and to the birds of the sky, and to every beast of the field, but for Adam there was not found a helper suitable for him.

Even in a perfect relationship with God, Adam wasn’t complete. Human beings are relational creatures who need relationships—both with God and other people. The concept of being a “helper” is not condescending (cf. Gen. 2:18). The term is used of a counterpart in the Hebrew language. At the very least, it shows that men need help!

As fallen relational beings, we take our identity from our friends and romantic relationships, rather than from God. The result leads to codependency. But rejecting this teaching, leads to autonomous living and subrelational friendships (e.g. pig-tail pulling, narcissism, etc.).

6. Humans are sexual

God is not a sexual being. In fact, this trait is unique to the Bible. Liberal theologian G. Earnest Wright demonstrates that all of the other Ancient Near Eastern deities were sexual, but Yahweh wasn’t.[2] However, part of being made in the image of God is to have a gendered identity. Genesis states,

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

In the same way that the man and wife become “one” (Gen. 2:24), God is also one (Deut. 6:4; Jas. 2:19). This is unity amidst diversity.

In our fallen sexual state, we deny the unity of sex. We try to take from others without the seal of trust and commitment that is found in marriage. The results are painful and tragic. Sexuality was not the original sin, or a result of the Fall, as some early church fathers taught. Moreover, sex is not casual, inconsequential recreation as is argued in our culture.

7. Humans are shameless

God is not ashamed of himself. He is morally perfect (Jas. 1:17), and he is without need of shame. Likewise, as human beings, we long to break down the barriers between us and others. We want to drop the appearances and long for intimacy with others. Genesis states,

(Gen. 2:25) And the man and his wife were both naked and were not ashamed.

As fallen image-bearers, we retreat from others, because of our shame. Our secret sin takes us out of fellowship with others.

[1] Grudem, Wayne. Systematic Theology. Grand Rapids, MI. Zondervan Publishing House. 1994. 453.

[2] G. Earnest Wright writes, “Other aspects of Israel’s God are even more astonishing than those just described. For some reason, perhaps in part because of the historical nature of God’s revelation, the Israelite did not combine the complementary forces of nature by means of a duality expressed in terms of sex… The duality of male and female is to be found only in the created world; it is not a part of the Godhead, which is essentially sexless. Biblical Hebrew has no word for goddess.” Wright, G. Ernest. The Old Testament against Its Environment. Chicago: H. Regnery, 1950. 23.