In the image of God — it may be one of the most often invoked, and yet least understood, catchphrases among Christians today. Whether defending the unborn, or protesting injustice, or advocating for the elderly and disabled, Christian voices often appeal for common ground, across other differences, by declaring that all humans are “in the image of God.” And so they are; we’re right to remember it.
But what does it mean to be made “in God’s image”? Rarely is that explained, and when it is, the answers can be quite speculative — that we are thinking or deliberative creatures. Or feeling creatures. Or that our will is “free” and not enslaved to instinct. Are such essentially invisible abilities really what it means to image God? Doesn’t the Bible have more to say and clarify the issue for us?
Pixels, Paintings, and People
In one sense, the image of God is (surprisingly) not a major theme in the Bible, at least in terms of explicit repetition. It is, however, the climactic declaration in the opening chapter of the Bible — and in the voice of God himself, no less. God’s poem, in just three lines, pours a foundation for theological anthropology (the Christian doctrine of humanity):
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. (Genesis 1:26–27)
An all-important initial question, right here at the outset, is, What is an image? Images flood our screens, fill our magazines, and catch our eyes on billboards. We are no stranger to images, though we are so awash in them we might be numb to their significance.
In the ancient world, images were not pixels and paint but more typically like what we think of as statues or monuments. Pagan religions employed such carved images as physical, visual representations of otherwise invisible gods. Into such a context, then, the voice of the one true God rings out, at the climax of Scripture’s first chapter, “Let us make man in our image, after our likeness.”
While fallen men make images of their gods, the true God made man in his own image — to image himself in the world. We humans are living, breathing, speaking, singing, moving images representing the invisible God to his world, so that others would remember and reverence him.
God made us to image him, to show him, point to him, display him. He means for humans, through the words and actions of other humans, to get a greater sense of what he is like, and to appreciate and adore him for who he is — that is, to glorify him. Images glorify. They bring to mind someone great, and reveal admirable, praiseworthy traits, so that we honor the imaged one. This is why the theme of man in God’s image is so profound in Scripture, even if it’s not often explicit.
Value of Human Life
As for that explicitness, only two more verses in all the Old Testament refer to man in God’s image, and both are in the immediate chapters that follow. Genesis 5:3 tells us, “When Adam had lived 130 years, he fathered a son in his own likeness, after his image, and named him Seth.” The image-and-likeness language recalls Genesis 1:26 and signals, significantly, that while tainted by sin, humanity’s calling to image God endures beyond Adam. Because of human sin, however, our words and actions display God as much (if not more) by way of contrast, rather than by way of example.
The third and final mention of man being made in God’s image, then, is Genesis 9:6, after the parking of the ark and recommissioning of Noah. Again, it’s divine speech and poetry:
Whoever sheds the blood of man,
by man shall his blood be shed,
for God made man in his own image.
Man’s uniqueness and dignity among all the creatures in imaging God makes the taking of human life the gravest of offenses, against both God and fellow man — so grave, in fact, that the shedding of human blood warrants the death of the killer. Such is the value of human life, made in the image of God, in God’s created world.
Then, after only three mentions, the Old Testament goes silent about God’s image. Almost.
While the explicit notion of man in God’s image disappears, related concepts resurface. For instance, Psalm 8, while not mentioning “God’s image,” celebrates humanity’s exalted position in the world. Also “image” as “carved image” and “metal image” appears dozens of times (more than fifty) in the Old Testament, and as we’ve already implied, there is a connection to be made.
Beginning with the second commandment, God’s people knew, “You shall not make for yourself a carved image, or any likeness of anything. . . . You shall not bow down to them or serve them” (Exodus 20:4–5). Which, of course, became the very sin the nation collectively embraced. As Psalm 106 narrates the events of Exodus 32,
They made a calf in Horeb and worshiped a metal image. They exchanged the glory of God for the image of an ox that eats grass. They forgot God, their Savior, who had done great things in Egypt. (Psalm 106:19–21)
This was enough to certify their destruction “had not Moses, his chosen one, stood in the breach before [God], to turn away his wrath from destroying them” (Psalm 106:23).
So, the nation’s temptation to image-making regularly returned throughout the ups and downs of their history. Made in God’s image, “they forgot God” in their sin and turned to making images of gods with their own hands — a tragic picture of the reversal and irrational, self-destructive nature of sin. As the apostle Paul later would decry, “Claiming to be wise, they became fools, and exchanged the glory of the immortal God for images resembling mortal man and birds and animals and creeping things” (Romans 1:22–23).
Behold the Image
Then, at last, after centuries of (near) silence, this same Paul would reveal for the world the depth — and keystone — of what it has meant all along to be made in God’s image. In all, Paul mentions the divine image nine times in his letters, and does so in service of two clear and distinct revelations.
1. Jesus is the image.
First, Jesus, the Son of God incarnate, as man, is the image of God. Twice Paul makes this game-changing claim:
He is the image of the invisible God. (Colossians 1:15)
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)
The man Christ Jesus — not merely as God the Son, but as God the Son become man — is the great answer to Scripture’s previously unsolved riddle of what it means, at bottom, to be “in God’s image.” Humans are in God’s image; Jesus is God’s image. He is the full and complete embodiment of what it means for God himself to enter into his created world as a creature. Which means that God created the first man and woman in Genesis 1 and 2 in view of what he himself would be as a creature (“in his image”), when he would enter in as man in the person of his Son.
To be human is to be the creature, in body and soul, that God built for himself to be in Christ. When God designed and constructed the human body, he was devising the very vessel in which his Son would perfectly glorify him as a creature in his world. And thus he did, as he prayed the night before he died, “I glorified you on earth” (John 17:4; see also 17:6, 26).
And Jesus, as the image of God, did not just live perfectly to his Father’s glory, but also uniquely gave his own untainted life, to glorify his Father (John 12:27–28), so that we tainted and marred imagers might be snatched from the justice we deserve and restored to our original calling and what it anticipated.
2. Humans realize our destiny in him.
The second revelation, then, is that human destiny, through faith, is our being conformed to the image of Christ: “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).
Christians are, literally, “little Christs.” He is the image, the singular lamp from which the glory of God streams into his new world (Revelation 21:23), and we are remade in God’s image, after Christ’s likeness, to glorify God as we are increasingly conformed to Christ. That it will happen, in Christ, is certain: “Just as we have borne the image of the man of dust [Adam], we shall also bear the image of the man of heaven [Christ]” (1 Corinthians 15:49). And how it will happen is through “beholding the glory of the Lord” — that is, by looking in faith to Jesus, the image of God par excellence, we “are being transformed into the same image from one degree of glory to another” (2 Corinthians 3:18).
In Christ, as we “put off the old self with its practices and . . . put on the new self,” we are “being renewed in knowledge after the image of its creator” (Colossians 3:9–10).
Our Minds, Hearts, and Wills?
But now that we’ve located the essential meaning of the image of God in the Son of God become man (and the restoration of our capacity to physically image him in his world), we have an important question to address: What of the invisible qualities that set humanity apart — qualities like thinking and feeling and willing that theologians and laymen alike have so often pointed to when asked what it means to be “in God’s image”? Does it matter for imaging God that we think and feel and will as humans?
Begin with Jesus. How did he perfectly image God? Doubtless, his mind, heart, and will were not irrelevant. Imaging is indeed visible, but mind and heart and will matter related to imaging when they give rise to visible actions and audible words. While our (invisible, internal) thinking and feeling and willing are not themselves what it means to be in God’s image, these capacities are not irrelevant to our irreducibly visible and external calling. In fact, that humans think and feel and choose gives meaning to our words and actions in the world.
Because of what we know about our own inner life as humans, we invest human words and acts with significance. Because humans think and meditate and ponder and consider and deliberate, we hear meaning in their sounds (words) and see meaning in their movements. Yet, in doing so, we do not reduce imaging God to anything less than how we, in Christ, live to God in the world for others to see and hear.
Let There Be Light
Jesus anticipates our task as restored divine-imagers, when he says, “Let your light shine before others, so that they may see your good works and give glory to your Father who is in heaven” (Matthew 5:16). This is what images do. They shine. They display. Others see, and give glory to the imaged one.
Which means our task as divine-imagers in Christ, in this life and forever, never gets old or boring. Because God is never boring. There is always more of him to see and enjoy and show. The most exciting, never-ending, ever-creative, ever-enthralling calling in the universe is to visibly (and audibly) image (and echo) the invisible God in his created world. This is amazing dignity, and the greatest possible ground for human dignity: designed by God as his special representatives in this world — and not just in creation, but as recreated ones in Christ. Even greater than our original design and commission is our being brought back from the dominion of sin, through the death of the sinless image of God, and then conformed to his image.
‘Image’ Is Not Enough
So, as we advocate for human life and dignity and justice — from the unborn, to the poor, to the mistreated, to the disabled, to the elderly, to the sojourner — we are not content to leave our plea at “in the image of God.” Not as Christians. We have more to say, gloriously more to say. Bad news first: sin has tainted all our imaging. Then the best news in all the world: God himself in Christ came as the image, and is now the dividing line of human destiny. In him we offer a dignity that surpasses even that of the pinnacle of creation.
We never say less than “image of God” for fellow humans, but as Christians, we say more. We dream of more. We pray for more. To speak of “the image of God” as a Christian is to hope for more than a return to creation. It is to do more than “go back” to Genesis 1. To speak as Christians, we speak of sin and salvation. We speak of a destiny fulfilled only in Christ. And we remind ourselves of our calling to real, tangible, sacrificial acts of love and good works that bring glory to our Father.