In What Sense is Humanity in the “Image” of God?
“Genesis 1:26 has God saying, ‘Let us make man in our image, after our likeness.’ Would you explain this language?”
This text is one of the most thrilling in the opening moments of sacred Scripture. It provides a preview of the amazing love of God on behalf of human kind, and a breathtaking commentary on the uniqueness of Adam and his offspring. It is the key answer to David’s query, “What is man, that you are mindful of him?” (Psa. 8:4). In summary, we would emphasize the following points.
(1) The term used for the Creator in Genesis 1 is
elohim (32 times); after that (Gen. 2:4ff), other expressions appear as well (e.g.,
yahweh, LORD — KJV; Jehovah — ASV). Many scholars believe that
elohim predominately stresses the power of our Maker. Other titles suggest equally wonderful traits belonging to the Almighty.
(2) God speaks in the plural format by the use of the pronouns “us” and “our.” Several theories have been advanced to explain this grammatical usage, e.g., the idea that the passage embraces angels, along with God, in the creative activity. Such a theory cannot be sustained (see Isa. 40:14). The most reasonable explanation is that the plural expresses the “fullness” of deity, which concept is progressively revealed in subsequent revelation as the Father, the Son, and the Holy Spirit (Kidner, p. 52; cf. Leupold, pp. 86-87).
(3) The Godhead thus said: “Let us make man.” “Man” is used generically, embracing woman as well. Here we also must not fail to recognize that human beings are not merely amazing “accidents,” resulting from the blind processes of nature (as argued by the disciples of Darwin). Rather, mankind was “made” (
'asa) in the image of God (cf. Mt. 19:4; Mk. 10:6).
'Asa is the “most general expression for creation in the OT” (Vollmer, p. 949), often used interchangeably with
bara'- (to create) (cf. Gen. 1:1; Ex. 20:11; Neh. 9:6).
(4) Mankind is described as having been made in the “image” and “likeness” of God. It should be noted first that this cannot refer to the human physical composition, for God is not “flesh and blood” (Hos. 11:9; Jn. 4:24; Lk. 24:39; Mt. 16:17). Further, no dramatic point is to be drawn between “image” and “likeness” (Kidner, p. 50). In the words of Leupold, the terms constitute, practically speaking, a “composite whole” (p. 88). They do suggest the uniqueness of humankind. Nowhere do the Scriptures ever suggest that other forms of biological life (e.g., plants or animals) are constituted in the “image” of God.
The language implies that humans share something of the nature of God (though not in the same qualitative sense that Jesus does; cf. 2 Cor. 4:4; Col. 1:15; Heb. 1:3). When inspiration affirms that Christ reflects the “image” of God, it is a declaration of the Savior’s intrinsic deity – an essence unique to a divine being.
However, having been made in the image of God, we do possess certain personal traits that stand dramatically aloof from the animal kingdom (and this fact argues persuasively against the theory of organic evolution).
For example, we possess “self-awareness.” With the psalmist we too ask the question, ""What is man?"" (Psa. 8:4). There is no evidence that any anthropoid ever wonders: “What is gorilla?” Too, we possess rationality, i.e., we can reason. We compare similarities and contrast differences. We evaluate premises and draw conclusions. A dog may be trained to “fetch” the morning newspaper, but he can never fathom why he is to do so; nor can he be taught to read it, so as to discuss with his master the news events of the day.
We have “conscience,” i.e., an innate awareness that there are attitudes and actions that are “right” and “wrong” – though the nature of what is right and wrong required definition by subsequent, concrete revelation, i.e., the Scriptures. But all sensible people concede there is a moral “oughtness” to which man is amenable. There is no code of ethics for the beasts of the earth. They live by the “tooth and claw” rationale, but we instinctively know that such is not proper for human beings (though many violate their conscience and abuse others anyway).
We humans have been endowed with a sense of “awe” for music, beauty, poetry, etc.; there is an esthetic appreciation within us that is unrivaled elsewhere. Man is capable of love and hate and a variety of in-between emotions.
We have a religious urge that is universally manifest in the need to worship something (even if, in delusion, it is only a dumb beast or an inanimate idol — cf. Rom. 1:20-23).
We have a feeling for the “eternal” (Eccl. 3:11, ASV, ESV); an element that longs for something beyond the stark chill of the grave. No chimp strains to scope the eternal horizon! Dostoevsky, the Russian writer, pointed out that there can be no morality for mankind apart from the “higher idea” that we possess a soul that will live eternally (Berdyaev, p. 105).
Sadly, we must acknowledge that the luster of our creation in the “image” of God has been marred by human rebellion. However, it is refreshing indeed to realize that human beings may be “renewed” by the redemptive mission of Jesus Christ, and thus “put on the new man, that *after God has been created in righteousness and holiness of truth”* (Eph. 4:23-24, emp. supplied; cf. “image” in Col. 3:10 ).
- Berdyaev, Nicholas (1934), Dostoevsky (New York: Sheed & Ward).
Kidner, Derek (1967), Genesis (Downer’s Grove, IL: InterVarsity).
Leupold, H.C. (1978), Exposition of Genesis (Grand Rapids: Baker), Vol. I.
Vollmer, J. (1997), Theological Lexicon of the Old Testament, Ernst Jenni & Claus Westermann, Eds. (Peabody, MA: Hendrickson), Vol. II.
About the Author
Wayne Jackson has written for and edited the Christian Courier since its inception in 1965. He has also written several books on a variety of biblical topics including The Bible and Science, Creation, Evolution, and the Age of the Earth, The Bible on Trial, and a number of commentaries. He lives in Stockton, California with his dear wife, and life-long partner, Betty.