Atheism views man as simply a material being like all other animals. In many ways, this is the predominant view of popular culture. Man, to be sure, may have “evolutionary advantages” over the animals in his reason, in his communication, and in some physical abilities. But man is not a spiritual or sacred being, with a purpose and destiny higher than that of the animals.
In the end, man lives and dies like the beast. Thus concentration camps, gulags, killing fields, and abortion clinics are all monuments to atheism. Such degraded views of man—particularly in denying that man is made in the image of God—inevitably industrialize human misery.
God’s Word, in contrast, views man as the pinnacle of God’s handiwork. On the sixth day of Creation, as His final work, God created man as a physical and spiritual being. His physical aspect was formed from the ground (Genesis 2:7) and his spiritual aspect came from God (Ecclesiastes 12:7). The animals, created on Day Five, resemble man in that they were also formed from the ground (Genesis 2:19) and have the breath of life (Genesis 1:30, 6:17, 7:15, 7:22; Ecclesiastes 3:19). But although the animals resemble man in certain aspects, man surpasses them because God breathed directly into man and because He made man in His own image. Thus God crowned man with glory and majesty to rule over the works of His hand (Psalm 8:5–6).
But what exactly is the image of God and what are the implications of man being made in His image? The answers and applications of such questions are essential to the Christian because they dictate human happiness or wretchedness—and often life and death. The image of God consists of the spiritual part of man that reflects the character of God and is the only firm basis for advocating the dignity of man, the sanctity of life, and the gracious redemption of sinners.
The Image of God: Its Nature
Genesis references the image of God three times (Genesis 1:26–27, 9:6). In Genesis 1:26–27, God made man in His image—a phrase repeated in verse 27 for emphasis—that man might rule over nature. The word image often describes physical objects that are “cut out,” such as the physical images of false gods (2 Kings 11:18) or the golden images (replicas) of the mice and tumors that God had sent as plagues upon the Philistines (1 Samuel 6:5).1
Man was created in His image. This is no idle emphasis. Some interpreters have questioned whether the preposition should be read “as our image” in order to argue for a physical image of God. Others have tried to minimize the implication that we are like God in many ways. But the preposition in is significant here. It depicts the standard or pattern in which God created: God created man in (the pattern of) His image.2 Similarly, in Exodus 25:40, God commanded Moses to make the furniture of the temple “in [the pattern of] their structure.” In Genesis 9:6, the image of God is mentioned again, as the reason for capital punishment because man is made in the image of God. In all three cases where the phrase appears in Genesis, God’s image sets man apart from the rest of the earthly creation as a reflection of God, equips man to rule over nature, and ennobles human life.