What Does “Image of God” Mean?
Pete Enns discusses what it means to be made in God’s image according to Genesis 1:26-27, which shows that humans are made in God’s image in order to rule over all creation as representatives of God.
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” (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.
In the previous section we saw that “image of God” in Genesis 1:26-27 means being God’s representative rulers in his creation. This is similar to two ancient practices: kings placing images of themselves in distant parts of their kingdom and the use of idols in temple worship. Both represent king or god and signal that they are present. Let’s take this idea and see where it goes in the Old Testament.
In ancient Mesopotamia, every nation had pantheons of gods and they all worshipped their gods through images. Israel’s first two Commandments were wholly out of sync with the ancient world. The Israelites were told: “I am the only God you will worship” (Exodus 20:3), and “don’t worship any images whatsoever” (20:4-6). The Second Commandment includes making images of Yahweh, which the Israelites broke in the golden calf incident in Exodus 32.
There are two reasons why Israel was told not to make images of Yahweh. First, unlike the other gods, Yahweh is distinct from what he has made. He cannot be captured by a carved image of animals or any other piece of creation.
Second, God already made an image of himself: humankind, a living image. By carving images to worship Yahweh, Israel would be creating an alternate “connection” with Yahweh.
Israel’s King as God’s Image
There is another important angle to bring into the picture. In the ancient Mesopotamian world, kings were the representative rulers of the gods; they ruled the people on behalf of the gods. Kings were considered god-like, sometimes referred to as “sons” of one god or another, and often worshipped as gods.
Look at Psalm 2. This psalm is about the coronation of Israel’s king. This king is no ordinary man: he is God’s “anointed one” (v. 2). God himself installed this king “on Zion, my holy hill” (v. 6).
The heart of the psalm is v. 7. God says to the king “You are my son; today I have become your father.” God has put Israel’s king—his son—on the throne to rule the people on his behalf. This father/son relationship between Yahweh and the king lines up with ancient Mesopotamian thinking. It also has some implications for understanding Jesus, which we will get to next week.
Unlike the other nations, Israelite kings were never worshipped. Israel even had a skeptical attitude toward kingship (e.g., 1 Samuel 8). In fact, kings were every bit as subject to God’s rule as anyone else (hence, the prophets were free to call kings to account). But they still were anointed to embody the royal image-bearing role. Israel’s history of kingship is so tragic because the kings largely failed in reflecting this image.
Humankind in God’s Image
Unique to Israel, the role of royal image-bearer was conferred not only on a line of kings but also on all people—a striking notion in the ancient world.
Psalm 8:4-6 aptly summarizes what “image of God” means.
4 What is man that you are mindful of him,
the son of man that you care for him?
5 You have made him a little lower than God
and crowned him with glory and honor.
6 You have made him ruler over the works of your hands;
you put everything under his feet.
A common Christian reaction when reading Psalms 8 is to say, “Surely this can’t describe ‘man’ in general. It must be talking about Jesus.” Not so fast. Rather, read this psalm in light of Genesis 1:26-27.
This psalm speaks of the high status of humanity. Just as in English, “man” here means “humanity.” The singular pronouns “him” and “his” simply reflect the fact that “man” is grammatically singular (we do the same in English). Likewise, it is tempting to read “son of man” in verse 4 and jump ahead to the New Testament and think it means Jesus. It doesn’t (not here, not yet). It simply means “human.”
So “man” is made “a little lower than God” (v. 5). This is striking—in fact, the NIV puts a bit of a damper on it by translating “God” as “heavenly beings.” In a footnote, though, the NIV adds “God” as a possible reading. NRSV has “God.” Jewish Publication Society (Tanakh) has “the divine.”
Actually, we shouldn’t get too hung up on that point. The Hebrew (Elohim) can mean either one, and it doesn’t matter much in the end. “Heavenly beings” fits nicely with “let us make” in Genesis 1:26—a reference to a heavenly divine court, a common idea in the ancient world. (“Us” is not a reference to the Trinity, which would have made no sense to Israelites, as John Calvin pointed out hundreds of years ago.) Humans are one step below God and his divine council.
If Elohim means “God,” that also reflects Genesis 1:26-27. Humans as the pinnacle of creation, the only beings made in God’s image. Either way, the point is that being human is a big deal.
The rest of verse 5 and verse 6 fill out what “a little lower than God” means. Humans are “crowned with glory and honor” (v. 5), a phrase typically reserved for God. They also rule over the work of God’s hands (v. 6), a clear allusion to Genesis 1:26-27. The psalmist even goes so far as to say that God has put everything under humanity’s feet.
This psalm is a great summary of what image of God means. There is nothing in all of creation that has a higher status than humanity. There is nothing in all of creation that is more god-like than humanity. The psalm is picked up by the author of Hebrews to speak of Jesus. Next week we will look at Hebrews and other NT passages to see how Jesus—and those who follow him—are the “image of God.”
One of the portraits the New Testament paints of Jesus is that of ultimate image-bearer of God. Jesus fully reflects God’s image; he is the true representative of God in his creation. No one embodies more fully this truly human quality.
We can begin where we left off previously, with Psalm 8. This psalm praises God for how he has exalted humanity: man is a little lower than God, crowned with glory and honor, and everything has been placed under his feet. Humankind, in other words, is one step below God, given authority to rule creation. Psalm 8 is fully consistent with Genesis 1:26-27 where “image of God” is described as ruling over all of creation.
In Hebrews 2:5-9, the anonymous author cites Psalm 8 for a reason that might not be obvious at first glance: Jesus ranks higher than angels, a topic he began in 1:5. (In fact, all of Hebrews is one long “Jesus is better than…” argument, e.g. Moses, the high priest, and the tabernacle.)
Psalm 8 supports his argument. Creation was not subject to angels, but humankind. The author of Hebrews reminds us that “everything” is put under human royal authority—everything is subject to humans (v. 8). But the author of Hebrews laments, “Yet at present we do not see everything subject to him” (v. 8). The “him” refers to humanity. What we do see, however, is Jesus who is now crowned with glory and honor because of his death (v. 9).
It is not to angels that he has subjected the world to come, about which we are speaking. But there is a place where someone has testified: “What is man that you are mindful of him, the son of man that you care for him? You made him a little[a] lower than the angels; you crowned him with glory and honor and put everything under his feet.” In putting everything under him, God left nothing that is not subject to him. Yet at present we do not see everything subject to him. But we see Jesus, who was made a little lower than the angels, now crowned with glory and honor because he suffered death, so that by the grace of God he might taste death for everyone.
Jesus, who is like his brothers and sisters in every way (2:17), is the “ultimate human” because everything really is under his authority. The lofty status of humanity as God’s royal image-bearers, however true, is not fully realized in humanity as a whole. It is fully realized in Jesus as, paradoxically, the crucified and resurrected Son of God.
Jesus is the true image-bearer. You might say that Jesus is the only truly and fully human figure who has ever lived. By looking at the crucified and risen Son, we see what “human” really means, not the corrupted dysfunctional version that stares back us from the mirror, or that we see in others.
Colossians 1:15-20 (see side-bar) makes the same point in a different way. Jesus is the “image of the invisible God” (v. 15): he rules creation because all things were created by him. It is understandable to read this passage and think it is only focusing on Jesus’ divinity, but that would be missing half the point. As the resurrected son, Jesus is “head of the body, the church, the beginning and firstborn from among the dead” (v. 18). By his resurrection, Jesus is the first to embody fully the image-bearing role conferred on all humanity in Genesis.
Jesus does this not for himself, but for those who would come after, the people of God. Jesus is not simply “over all creation.” He is “firstborn over all creation” (v. 15). Christians, in other words, go along for the ride. As firstborn over creation he sees to it that those born after would achieve that same status. Simply put, in his resurrection, Jesus “completes” Genesis 1:26-27, for him and for us.
For this reason he had to be made like his brothers in every way, in order that he might become a merciful and faithful high priest in service to God, and that he might make atonement for the sins of the people.
This theme is already announced at the beginning of Hebrews, 1:1-4. In the past, God had spoken through prophets, but now he is speaking through the Son he himself has appointed. The echo of Psalm 2, where Israel’s king is God’s appointed Son, is confirmed in v. 5 where the author cites Psalm 2:7. As Son, Jesus is the newly appointed Davidic king, the representative ruler. But this Son takes it up a notch: he is the “radiance of God’s glory and the exact representation of his being.” Jesus is God’s representative ruler like no other.
The image of God in Genesis is not about “what makes us human,” such as one’s soul. It is about the lofty role God has given humankind to be his representative rulers. That is what image means: nothing more—but nothing less.
He is the image of the invisible God, the firstborn over all creation. For by him all things were created: things in heaven and on earth, visible and invisible, whether thrones or powers or rulers or authorities; all things were created by him and for him. He is before all things, and in him all things hold together. And he is the head of the body, the church; he is the beginning and the firstborn from among the dead, so that in everything he might have the supremacy. For God was pleased to have all his fullness dwell in him, and through him to reconcile to himself all things, whether things on earth or things in heaven, by making peace through his blood, shed on the cross.
Understood this way, we can and should speak of the image of God as marred, incomplete, subject to sin in all of us. The true image of God is only realized in the crucified and risen Son of God. And this gives us a much fuller understanding of the incarnation. The incarnate Son of God is fully God and fully human.
Jesus is the full image-bearer of God. He is the most human of any human who has ever lived. By faith, we too participate in restored humanity.
Jesus is the complete human and true image-bearer of God. He is the exact representation of God, the ruler over creation. That “completed humanity” is conferred upon those who believe that Jesus is the Christ. The image is marred in humanity in general; it is restored in the man, Jesus. All those who are “in Christ” (as Paul likes to put it) participate in the restored humanity that began at Jesus’ resurrection. The new humanity is open to all, but the entry way is through the risen Messiah.
So, what does it mean for Christians to be image bearers of God? It means we are called to live daily in such a way that embodies more and more what that image looks like. Jesus is both the cause of our renewed image and the model we follow as we try to live that way.
And this brings us to a paradox that is central to how Christians see themselves as re-created in God’s image. Jesus elevated humanity to its true image-bearing role, but his incarnation was an act of emptying himself of his divine right, as Paul says in Philippians 2:6-7. Jesus humbled himself (v. 8). Incarnation is an act of humiliation.
For Christians, too, participating in the renewed image of God means following Christ in both his exaltation and humiliation. Simply put, we bear the renewed image of God daily as our lives conform to Jesus’.
Paul sums up the matter nicely in Philippians 3:10. Knowing Christ—which is never a simple mental activity but a life path—means experiencing both the power of his resurrection and the fellowship of sharing in his suffering. This is not an either/or choice but a both/and proposition. Those who are part of this new humanity in Christ bear the marks of Jesus’ exaltation and humiliation every day.
Being part of the renewed image of God means being “conformed to the image” of Jesus (Romans 8:29). We become more and more like him in every way.
Christians are now full representatives of God in his creation, but not in the ancient Near Eastern sense—or even Old Testament sense—of ruler. I am not dismissing that, but “rule” is not the New Testament’s emphasis. The emphasis has now moved to other things. Christians represent God to all of creation through humility, love, holiness.
One of the many passages that reminds us of this is I Peter 2:9-12. Borrowing language from the Exodus, Peter tells his readers that they are a “chosen people, a royal priesthood, a holy nation, a people belonging to God” (v. 9). This lofty status does not just make them part of the “God club.” They are God’s people who live such good lives among the inhabitants of the world “that they may see [their] good deeds and glorify God on the day he visits us” (v. 12).
You may have heard the expression “Be careful how you act. You may be the only Bible people ever read.” That’s a good point, but the reality is much more severe. We represent to the world what God has done in Christ, so a better phrase might be, “Be careful how you act. You may be the only Jesus people ever see.”
This is beyond what Genesis 1:26-27 was about in its original context. There is nothing there about humility, suffering with Christ, or living godly lives. This is true. But what Jesus does to the image of God in Genesis 1:26-27 is what he does with everything else in the Old Testament: he transforms it and fills it out beyond its limited Old Testament meaning. The shadow gives way to reality.
Still, there is one more dimension of the renewed image of God that looks more like what we see in the Old Testament. It is not a dominant theme, but it is there nonetheless. In 2 Timothy 2:13 we read that enduring present suffering has a not yet realized future dimension: “If we endure, we will also reign with him.”
I don’t know what this means, but it seems that the final step of the Christian journey is some type of eschatological ruling authority. This is not explained anywhere—and I am not going to venture a guess as to what this looks like. Suffice it to say that there is “something more” to what Christ in his resurrection has already done in restoring the image of God. The New Testament is more concerned with how God’s people here and now embody Jesus’ life of servant-leadership.
God made humanity in his image. This image has a very focused meaning in the Old Testament—being God’s representative rulers over his creation. That image was marred and eventually restored and transformed in Jesus, the Son of Man, the exact representation of the image of God. Those who are in Christ take part in this new humanity.
About the author
If you enjoyed this article, we recommend you check out the following resources: