t f p g+ YouTube icon

What Does “Image of God” Mean? Part 1

Bookmark and Share

July 27, 2010 Tags: Image of God
What Does “Image of God” Mean? Part 1

Today's entry was written by Pete Enns. You can read more about what we believe here.

Not the Soul

Genesis 1:26-27 says that God made humankind in his “image” and “likeness.” Both terms mean the same thing, and so this is usually referred to as “image of God” (Latin imago dei).

Some understand image of God to mean those qualities that make us human, for example: possessing a soul, higher-order reasoning, self-consciousness, consciousness of God and the ability to have a relationship with him. This seems like a good definition, since only humans are in God’s image and these are qualities that make us human.

Understanding image of God as the soul also helps some people reconcile evolution and Christianity. Somewhere along the evolutionary line God gave two hominids immortal souls, thus becoming the first true human beings. In other words, despite the lengthy evolutionary process, humans were “created” only at this point. These two “souled” hominids are Adam and Eve. Some say this could have happened about 10,000 years ago, which would line things up nicely with the rough chronology presented in Genesis.

I understand the motivation for this explanation: to maintain somehow the biblical description of human origins in the face of evolution. But I am fairly skeptical about it. For one thing, it is complete guesswork. It is also difficult to see what is gained here. Preserving the biblical description of human origins this way means it has to be adjusted well beyond what it says.

More importantly, equating image of God with the soul or other qualities that make us human puts a burden on Genesis 1:26-27 than it cannot bear—which brings us to the next point.

God’s Representative Rulers

Image of God is important theologically, and the topic is open for discussion—but it is not a free-for-all. Genesis, other Old Testament passages, and Israel’s surrounding culture give us a good idea of what image of God means.

Many scholars draw a parallel between the image of God in Genesis and images of kings in the ancient world. Rulers could not be everywhere at once, and travel was slow. So, they would erect monuments or statues of themselves throughout their kingdoms. These “images” let everyone know that the king’s rule extended wherever his image was found.

Another kind of image in the ancient world is an idol, a physical object that represented the god in the temple. Idols were not considered gods themselves. They were statues that let you know the god was in some mysterious sense “present.”

Statues of kings and of gods help us understand what it means for humans to be made in God’s image: humans are placed in God’s kingdom as his representatives.

J. Richard Middleton (Roberts Wesleyan College) puts it well in The Liberating Image. He offers that the image of God describes “the royal office or calling of human beings as God’s representatives and agents in the world.” Image of God means that humans have been given “power to share in God’s rule or administration of the earth’s resources and creatures.”1

When one reads Genesis 1:26-27 with this in mind, the point becomes fairly obvious: “Let us make humankind in our image, according to our likeness, and let them have dominion over the fish…birds…cattle…wild animals…creeping things” (NRSV).

Humankind, created on the sixth day, has been given the authority to rule over the other creatures God had made on the fourth and fifth days. They have that authority because humankind is made in God’s image.

There is nothing here about a soul, the ability to reason, being conscious of God or any other psychological or spiritual trait. As John Walton points out, as important as these qualities are for making us human, they do not define what image of God means in Genesis. Rather, those qualities are tools that serve humans in their image-bearing role.2

The phrase “image of God” is not about what makes us human. It is about humanity’s unique role in being God’s kingly representatives in creation. Once we understand what image of God means in Genesis, we will be in a better position to see how this idea is worked out elsewhere in the Bible, which we will begin next week.


1. J. Richard Middleton, The Liberating Image: The Imago Dei in Genesis 1 (Grand Rapids: Brazos, 2005), 27.

2. John Walton, Genesis (NIVAC; Grand Rapids: Zondervan, 2001), 131.

Pete Enns is a former Senior Fellow of Biblical Studies for The BioLogos Foundation and author of several books and commentaries, including the popular Inspiration and Incarnation: Evangelicals and the Problem of the Old Testament, which looks at three questions raised by biblical scholars that seem to threaten traditional views of Scripture.

Next post in series >

Learn More

View the archived discussion of this post

This article is now closed for new comments. The archived comments are shown below.

Page 2 of 2   « 1 2
WoundedEgo - #23670

July 27th 2010

Net Bible
Gen 2:7 The Lord God formed 20 the man from the soil of the ground 21 and breathed into his nostrils the breath of life, 22 and the man became a living being. 23


Likewise the woman was fashioned from the man’s rib bone.

And by the way, DNA does not do much to dust. In the scriptures, it is the breath that animates.

conrad - #23674

July 27th 2010

The DNA in the dust is doing a lot.
We just don’t know all that it is doing.
Most of the organisms in soil cannot be cultured.


So WHY,..... should we keep on looking for the differences in the hardware.

Who cares if our hardware .[genes] is also used in monkeys?

BTW Eve sounds like a clone made from bone marrow stem cells.

So God got the genes for Adam’s DNA from the earth and cloned Eve from stem cells taken from bone marrow of Adam’s rib biopsy.

WoundedEgo - #23695

July 27th 2010

So WHY,..... should we keep on looking for the differences in the hardware….

Did Cain and Abel (and Cain’s wife of mysterious origin) also receive a wireless download of software? Or was what made him different from monkeys entirely in the the genes?

conrad - #23706

July 27th 2010

We-Eg I think we have free will.

Cain chose to do what he did.
It was not a software glitch.

eddy - #23731

July 28th 2010

I tend to agree with Dr. Enns takes on this especially when he writes: “The phrase “image of God” is not about what makes us human. It is about humanity’s unique role in being God’s kingly representatives in creation.”

Colossians1:15 - He [Christ] is the image of the invisible God, the firstborn over all creation.

Well, it is just in the NT but may give an insight of what probably it means to be created in the image of God in Genesis.

Apparently that Colossians verse can also be rephrased to read “Christ is the physical representative of the spiritual God, the rightful heir over all things created.”

The difference, I am now compelled to believe,  between Adam and Christ as image bearers is that while both “possessed souls, higher-order reasoning, self-consciousness, consciousness of God and the ability to have a relationship with him”  Adam, for who he was, could not use these tools properly and was striped off of a role as an image bearer of God, the historical Fall - we all believe or should, -  while Christ , and quite tellingly for He is, is called here a rightful

image bearer for he used those tools to properly carry that God image bearing role.

I am with you there Dr. Enns!

eddy - #23733

July 28th 2010

And to Charlie,

“What about all of the pathogens that kill us?  Did we not get the authority to rule over these small creatures?”

I will say we no longer are the image bearers of God in the real sense of what it meant in Genesis.

Yet, you can get the glimpse that we have tremendous authority of these other creatures, small and big, and it will be rather dishonest of you if you insist on willful denial of that.

Deb in BC - #23756

July 28th 2010

Eddy: “...[Adam] could not use these tools properly and was striped off of a role as an image bearer of God, the historical Fall…”

Are you saying that due to the Fall, man was no longer an image bearer of God?

Deb in BC - #23757

July 28th 2010

Thank you. I had neither made nor heard of this connection before.
Now…to think through all the implications if what you say is accurate…yikes!
Hopefully you will flesh this out over the weeks ahead (but waiting is so hard!)
Thanks again.

nedbrek - #23760

July 28th 2010

How does this interact with sin?

For example, I believe sin is “defamation” against the image of God (both when we sin against a human being; and because, being in the image of God, we proclaim “God is a sinner!”).

It seems - in your theology - this is lost.  Sin is simply violation of rules.

Also, the penalty for sin (eternal Hell) is a reflection on the value of the one sinned against.  If sin is simple violation of rules, then the punishment is fiat.  This could be perceived as unfair punishment…

Robert Fischer - #23771

July 28th 2010

I’m very much looking forward to the next couple of articles, because this is an issue I’m considering carefully right now.  The big issue is that efforts to tie “Image of God” to any particular psychological or spiritual quality requires that those qualities not be found in non-humans.  Yet increasing scientific research is showing just how complicated animals truly are.

To say that the “Image of God” is rationality is to say animals aren’t rational or empathic or have a sense of right and wrong is all false to fact: dogs, for instance, can happily puzzle out all kinds of issues and can read and do respond empathetically to human facial features—see the work at the Duke and Harvard canine cognition labs.  For the sense of justice in animals, see Marc Bekoff’s “Wild Justice”.

So, the way I see it, we have two options—we can cling to our demonstrably antiquated theological interpretation of scripture in spite of a countervailing reality, or we can seek God’s truth.  Having chosen the second path, I’ve been struggling with the issue of “Image of God” for a while, and so this article is very timely.  Thanks!

O. Bower - #23803

July 28th 2010

I rather enjoy that someone finally decided to address this topic in a Biologos post.  The subject has provided and continues to stimulate endless speculation within the Christian faith. 

When you listed the traits people typically surmise that make us “image of God” I don’t think they’re thinking as critically as they should.  The ability to have a relationship with God represents such an example.  Humanity might have a more intimate communion with the Creator, however, the Scriptures clearly depict the remainder of the cosmos sharing some relational aspects with God too.  God mysteriously feeds the ravens, Jesus says the rocks could cry out to God, and Revelation portrays the entire created order offering praise to the Lamb and God.  This biblical information therefore contradicts a simple “we are the image of God because we can have a relationship with Him” definition.

eddy - #23826

July 29th 2010

Deb in BC,

It’s odd but yes, ever since the Fall, potentially a man is no longer an image bearer of God.

To be a human in and of itself does not qualify a creature to become an image bearer of God.

You must be informed to use your humanity to its proper intended role and that’s the essence of Dr. Enns post.

An equally odd thing is that a human is potentially capable of returning to his/her proper role as image bearer of God.

Colossians 1:21 “Once you were alienated from God and were enemies in your minds because of your evil behavior (insert: rebellion). But now he has reconciled you by Christ’s physical body through death to present you holy in his sight, without blemish and free from accusation.”

Jon Garvey - #23837

July 29th 2010

@eddy - #23826

Image marred by the fall, but not lost surely? Otherwise Paul would seem to be telling porkies in 1 Corinthians 11.7. If you argue that Paul is writing to Christians and therefore restored in the image of God, it’s strange that he refers back to Genesis and not to Christ.

What we see in the world, surely, is not evidence that man no longer has dominion over the earth, but that he exercises dominion in an often perverted and usually bungling way.

eddy - #23840

July 29th 2010


You pre-empted me here, but still I will argue that Paul is writing here to what he believes are people, who by the virtue of being Christians, are restored to the original image and ought to bring God the original glory.

And I never implied anywhere that a man has totally lost the dominion over nature, and even somewhere above I criticized Charlie’s misplaced pessimism that humans are inferior to pathogens.

But there is difference between being an image bearer of God and being able to dominate other creatures. They may correlate, but by no means are equal.

What is true however, scriptural and observational, a man, outside Christ, has totally lost his/her God representative role on earth. And at that point, God says:

Genesis 6:3 “My Spirit shall not abide in man forever, for he is flesh: his days shall be short.”

Jon Garvey - #23998

July 30th 2010

@eddy - #23840

I would contend that the core of “image” is the authority given to mankind to rule/subdue the earth - that seems to be the sense of what Genesis means by our standing in the place of God on earth.

A parallel would be the NT teaching on respect for rulers because appointed by God - though in actuality most, if not all, rulers, abuse that authority and, eventually, get deposed by God in one way or another (except for the one king whose kingdom endures forever!).

In the end it’s a bit academic - whether the image is damaged or lost, I need to be restored in the image of God or perish eternally. But I would suggest the basis for God’s mercy towards sinners despite his wrath makes most sense if he’s determined not to give up on the race on which he put his image. Genesis 9.6 relates - clearly refers to all Noah’s (sinful) descendants.

eddy - #24058

July 30th 2010


I think it is better to say that basically a man is created in the “image of God”, in the sense that we are the only creatures with the potential to live as if we are “representing God on earth”.

But “representing God on earth” is a fully packaged term, with many roles inside,  including, yes, having authority to rule over nature.

The other role which is irreducibly important, and in my opinion, is the core of being in the “image of God” and override others -  is to serve the interests of God over nature in such a way as to bring God the glory.

Anything a man does that does not bring glory to God is to step away from his representative role.

And why do you think Jesus is called the ultimate image of invisible God? Because he ruled like a king over the beasts, and birds, and fishes, and reptiles, and people?  Quite paradoxically, because he “made himself nothing,.....and humbled himself” (Philipians 2: 7).

Jim - #24188

July 31st 2010


Why can’t “image of God” just mean that people looked like gods? In the Mesopotamian art I have seen, the gods look a lot like people (e.g., Shamash at the top of the Hammurabi stele). We would say that the Mesopotamian gods are made in the image of people. Maybe the author of Genesis 1 is trying to say, “No, God looked like that first. And by the way—even though it has nothing to do with what people look like, God also made them masters of their world.”

Bob Jones - #31275

September 21st 2010

Isn’t it an a-priori assumption to say that God was redundant in saying “image and likeness”?

In Genesis 1 God says he will MAKE man in his image AND likeness but then proceeds to only CREATE him in his image.  The completion of making man in his likeness is in Gen 5.

In the text between the two is a hidden picture of Christ becoming fruitful and multiplying through his death and resurrection.  The fulfillment of this shadow is that Christ (the man) is the ‘express image of God’, and his bride (the church) is ‘made like him’.  Together they are the image AND likeness.

Cain and Abel together represent Jesus. Cain offered an ordinary sacrifice as did Jesus. Jesus’s ordinary sacrifice was his perfect obedience to the Father. It is ordinary because it is what was expected of us all. That sacrifice was insufficient, so at Gethsemane Jesus was told “If you do right, won’t you be lifted up?”  And so Cain killed Abel as a shadow of Christ offering himself. 

Abel was ‘resurrected’ in Seth who replaced him and was fruitful as his children began to worship God as Abel had done.  The genealogy following is the evidence of his fruitfulness. 

There are many more details, but I hope this blesses you.

Aslak - #64388

August 31st 2011

Help me understand Gen 5:3, in light of this interpretation! Why is Seth the image of Adam?

Page 2 of 2   « 1 2