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What Does “Image of God” Mean? Part 1

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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.

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Norm - #23637

July 27th 2010

The Image of God has no bearing at all on humanity at large.  It was a Jewish prophetic fulfillment of covenant man living with the indwelling Spirit of God through Christ and wasn’t fulfilled and completed until His endowment with the Holy Spirit only upon the faithful at Pentecost. It confers immortality upon the previous mortal nature of men seeking the one true God.

Gen 1:26 ..Then God said, “LET US make man in our image,

Col 1:15 He (Christ nv) is THE IMAGE OF THE INVISIBLE GOD, the firstborn of all creation.

Rom 8:29 For those whom he foreknew he also predestined to be CONFORMED TO THE IMAGE OF HIS SON,

1Co 15:49 Just as we have borne the image of the man of dust,

2Co 3:17-18 Now the Lord is the Spirit, … And WE ALL, with unveiled face, beholding the glory of the Lord, ARE BEING TRANSFORMED INTO THE SAME IMAGE

2Co 4:4 …. of the glory of Christ, WHO IS THE IMAGE OF GOD.

Col 3:10 and have put on THE NEW SELF, which is being renewed in knowledge AFTER THE IMAGE OF ITS CREATOR.

gingoro - #23639

July 27th 2010

Norm do you believe that life in humankind in general is immortal or just in Christians as a result of salvation?  If one reads John then it seems that life eternal only comes to those accepted by God.

Norm - #23641

July 27th 2010

Here is a good summation of the Hebrew mindset on that issue.

Ecc 3:18-21 ESV I said in my heart with regard to the children of man that God is testing them that they may see that they themselves are but beasts.  (19)  FOR WHAT HAPPENS TO THE CHILDREN OF MAN AND WHAT HAPPENS TO THE BEASTS IS THE SAME; AS ONE DIES, SO DIES THE OTHER. THEY ALL HAVE THE SAME BREATH, AND MAN HAS NO ADVANTAGE OVER THE BEASTS, for all is vanity.  (20)  All go to one place. All are from the dust, and to dust all return.  (21)  Who knows whether the spirit of man goes upward and the spirit of the beast goes down into the earth?

Paul reinforces that idea in 1 Cor 15 in which he states that the mortal must put on immortality.

1Co 15:53 ESV For this perishable body must put on the imperishable, and THIS MORTAL BODY MUST PUT ON IMMORTALITY.

The Defeat of Death is Christ overcoming the mortal nature of man to bring Him into immortal existence with God. The idea that Gentiles whom the Jews classified as Beast and Dogs could retain God’s Immortal Image outside of covenant would be heretical thinking to a learned Jew.

Charlie - #23644

July 27th 2010

The Bible says that humankind was given the authority to rule over the other creatures.  What about all of the pathogens that kill us?  Did we not get the authority to rule over these small creatures?  The bug I work with, Cryptococcus gattii, has a mortality rate of around 20% in the Pacific NW, I’d hardly see that has having some sort of authority over this pathogen.

Charlie - #23646

July 27th 2010

Pete Enns,

You wrote that you don’t like one of the explanations because it’s complete guesswork.  How is the interpretation that humans are idols less guesswork than God giving humans souls (becoming human)?  Both are interpretations of what the Bible could be trying to say and I agree that yours is, in a sense, less supernatural, but does that alone make it anything else but guesswork as well?

conrad - #23648

July 27th 2010

It should be easier to understand since we have computers.
There is hardware and there is software.
God created humans from preexisting hardware that was in the dust of the earth..

Before dismissing “dust of the earth” as worthless dirt you need to read about the DNA that exists everywhere in the earth’s. dust and sea water.
To google up Craig Ventors and read about him might help.

He is the guy who beat our founder to the results in the human genome project.

BUT THEN GOD GAVE US SOME NEW SOFTWARE ....... downloaded through wireless transmission and with upgrades through Christ].

So we share many [hardware]  genes with chimps but we use different operating systems and connect with different servers in the cloud.


Pete Enns - #23653

July 27th 2010

Charlie, I am only trying to layout what Genesis is presenting, not address the issues that arise when that view is brought into conversation with modern science. That is another issue entirely.

Norm, I partially agree with where you are taking this, but my focus is on Genesis. I will get to the OT as a whole and NT in the next 2 to 3 weeks. As for the specific passages you cite, let me only say that how you use them is highly debatable to say the least and they do not support your point as much as they are examples of how you read. Of course, you are welcome to that, but for me to engage would take a lot of untangling. I think “Stephen’s” questions to you at the end of my previous points were good ones and only scratched the surface of things you might want to address (e.g., such as “the Hebrew mindset” you repeat above). I read your responses to him, and I don’t think you are giving his questions their their full weight.

conrad - #23654

July 27th 2010

BTW comparing our relationship with God to the technical advances of the information age a bit further…...
  I think Pentecost was a time when we got new wireless capability.

You and I can pray and we feel the Holy Spirit and we have this amazing wireless transmission that functions in our lives.

Somehow I think they did not have that before the day of Pentecost.
The radio broadcasts from heaven may have started that day.
At least that is the way i imagine it.

Norm - #23656

July 27th 2010

The dominion that is given to rule over the creatures of the earth finds its ultimate fulfillment through Christ. Daniel 7:27 picks up on this dominion rule theme and says that only at the time of the Messiah and the defeat of the Beast (Nations) there would finally be established this dominion rule.  However we know that this Kingdom is not of this physical world but of the Spiritual realm through the Holy Spirit. There is nothing physical brought to the plate and all attempts to do so are going in the direction of the misguided Jews who refused Christ while looking for a physical Kingdom. Don’t let yourselves continue to be transfixed with this mentality of physical concordism.

Dan 7:27 ESV And the kingdom and the dominion and the greatness of the kingdoms under the whole heaven SHALL BE GIVEN TO THE PEOPLE OF THE SAINTS OF THE MOST HIGH; their kingdom shall be an EVERLASTING KINGDOM, and all dominions shall serve and obey them.’

Therefore any attempt to work DNA and Genes into the story is simply misinformed. The NT through Paul and others helps us interpret properly the OT intention which is all about Messiah and Spirit life.

conrad - #23657

July 27th 2010

And to further assault your premise,.......... there has never been any proof that the mind is a product of the brain.

  ..Any more than there is proof that TV shows are produced within your flat-screen.

The material is created in New york and Hollywood.[ or in our case,... in Heaven,.... that parallel universe in 11-dimensional space.]

Charlie - #23658

July 27th 2010

Pete Enns,

I only ask because you dismiss one interpretation because it is “complete guesswork”.  I just want to know why your proposed interpretation is not guesswork.

Charlie - #23659

July 27th 2010

conrad, what is your definition of mind?  Memory has been determined to be simple chemistry (an artificial memory was even planted into a fly).  Don’t you think our experiences shape who we are?  I think memory plays a large role in formulating who we are (our soul)

conrad - #23660

July 27th 2010

Hey where is Beagle Lady?
By now she should be on here telling me to “shut up!”

Maybe somebody should check on her.

Pete Enns - #23661

July 27th 2010


I am basing my reading of “image” at this point on the words in Genesis 1:26-27 and what we understand about how images work in the ancient world in which the Bible is written. If it makes a difference, what I say in the post is not seriously disputed—if at all. But when people read Gen 1:26-27 and say “I think that’s referring to a soul” or something else, that is guess work—or perhaps better, reading into the text.

conrad - #23663

July 27th 2010

Well Charlie I think we have free will.

I don’t think anything shapes who we are in the last analysis.
It is MYSTERIOUS concept but true.
....... and I think the understanding of it lies in Heisenberg’s uncertainty principle.

There is a dual-slit experiment with a single electron that I don’t understand but it will blow your mind.
The bottom line is that the answer depends on whether you are looking for the answer or not.

When there is no observer the answer comes out one way.
When there IS AN OBSERVER the answer is different.

You have free will. ......somehow.    even though experiences influence you.

Norm - #23664

July 27th 2010


I indeed liked the focus of your article but this is a subject that is tied into NT theology explicitly. Paul interprets Genesis for us and he isn’t the only one to do so. The Image of God permeated the NT Messianic theology and it obviously has implications for Genesis.  In fact the idea I am presenting is found in the earliest church fathers and writings so I feel safe it was the focus of second Temple Judaism messianic view. If we can’t depend upon the NT interpretation and application of Genesis then we really start to limit ourselves.

Regarding my last response on the other blog, it gets back to how one wants to read the NT Pauline mind. I don’t expect to convince you or anyone on some of these points in the limited scope of these postings but I do want to raise issues that may not have been considered so that some fresh thinking may take place. Over time maybe I’ll be able to express myself better so I will continue to chime in here and there on some of these issues. Thanks for the patience and always remember that just because I challenge some concepts doesn’t mean I don’t value your work IMMENSELY.


Norm - #23665

July 27th 2010

Now for a follow up concerning Gen 1:26-28.  The statement “let US make humans (adam’s) in our own image and likeness” I believe is prophetic of the Last Days thus it’s inclusion in Day 6 right before Sabbath Rest. What about the likeness statement?  Well it seems that in Adam’s genealogy in Gen 5:1-3 we have Adam specifically being created in the lesser identification of “likeness” compared to the more robust “Image”.  If we are observant we would understand that the Hebrew word for Likeness carries this lesser identification purposefully implying what Paul points out to us in 1 Cor 15 that Adam was “earthy” and natural yet he was the Covenant Head of Israel. Thus the reason Paul also says that all in covenant up until that time would bear the Image of Adam’s lesser nature. Through the Spirit though those in covenant would also bear the Image of the second Adam from above. 

Norm - #23666

July 27th 2010

Many commentators think there is no difference between Image and Likeness in the Hebrew mind but they are mistaken IMO. The difference is in the fallen nature of Adam as mortal and thus his description originally as only the Likeness.  Gen 1:26-28 is speaking of a plural application and not individual and so is directed toward the broad expanse of covenant people from first Adam’s likeness to fulfillment through 2nd Adam’s bringing the Image.

If we can wrap our minds around this concept along with understanding Gen 1 as a 7 day Temple creation in which Day 6 is messiani and all inclusive I think things will start to make more sense.

WoundedEgo - #23668

July 27th 2010

I’m afraid that your post and the subsequent comments are providing the standard workaround for a text that does not “play nice” with Orthodoxy. If read as written, ELOHIM clearly sculpted mud to look just like himself (Elohim is a manlike deity). Nor does man “have a soul” - he consists of two elements:

* dirt
* breath

The breath animates the dirt, resulting in a “living being” (misleadingly and confusingly translated “soul”).

Eliohim is a manlike deity who lives in the sky.

conrad - #23669

July 27th 2010


Where does it say “sculpted”?

Couldn’t Elo just pick out the genes he needs,....... with some teeny weeny tweezers perhaps.

I don’t see the allusion to “playing in mud” anywhere in scripture.
I think that is a human construct.

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