My brother is stamped with our father’s image. So much so, that at my brother’s bachelor party, I distinctly remember one friend remarking: ‘No need to ask who’s your dad—he’s obviously the one who looks like your brother!’ My brother is stamped not only with our father’s looks but also his mannerisms—facial expressions, comportment, even his laugh.

In a similar way, humanity is stamped with the Imago Dei (image of God).

Humanity’s creation in the image of God is the first thing Scripture teaches us about ourselves. As the recounting of creation reaches its pinnacle we are told: ‘God said, “Let us make man in our image, after our likeness…” So God created man in his own image, in the image of God he created him; male and female he created them’ (Gen. 1:26–27). A few chapters later, at the beginning of the first genealogy in Scripture, we are reminded, ‘When God created man, he made him in the likeness of God’ (Gen. 5:1).

Similar but Not Identical

What exactly does Imago Dei mean? In Genesis 1:26 there are two different Hebrew words employed, ‘image’ (tselem) and ‘likeness’ (demut). The word for image is elsewhere used for statues or replicas (1 Sam. 6:5, 11), paintings (Ezek. 3:14), and idols (Num. 33:52; 2 Kings 11:18; Ezek. 16:17). The word for likeness is elsewhere used of models/drawings (2 Kings 16:10), figures (2 Chron. 4:3-4), and paintings (Ezek. 23:15). From this we can conclude that there is a distinct similarity, but we are not identical.

We are similar but not identical in at least five ways:

  • We are moral beings. Each and every human has some concept, an inner sense, of what is morally right and wrong.
  • We are spiritual beings. We not only have physical bodies, but also souls. We are spiritual beings, with immortal souls and possess a spiritual self.
  • God’s likeness is observable in our mental capacities. Humans possess the ability to reason, think logically, understand intricate language structures, and have creative minds and a complex range of emotions.
  • We are relational beings. Whether we are extroverts or introverts we all need and appreciate community. We reflect God’s image through family, friendship, and in the most intimate of relationships, marriage.
  • We are physical beings. That is not to say God has a physical body, but just as we see, hear, and sense things, so does God, except in a much greater and truer way.

These similarities all testify to the fact that the image of God is universal within the human race.

The Fall and Redemption

Some, however, argue that the Imago Dei is not universal. The primary argument on this front is that the image of God was lost in the Fall. Although there is not an abundance of evidence, two biblical texts which strongly suggest that even fallen humanity retains the image of God. In Genesis 9, after Noah and his family leave the ark, God blesses Noah and gives him some instructions. One of those instructions is that ‘Whoever sheds the blood of man, by man shall his blood be shed, for God made man in his own image’ (Gen. 9:6). Murder is wrong because it defaces the image of God in humanity. Later, James warns his readers about the use of their tongues. He tells us the poison of the tongue is that ‘With it we bless our Lord and Father, and with it we curse people who are made in the likeness of God’ (Jas. 3:9). It appears Scripture affirms that even fallen humanity maintains the Imago Dei.

Nevertheless, we cannot deny that the image of God has been marred by the Fall. Consequently, redemption in Jesus Christ offers something of a progressive recovery of God’s image. Repeatedly we are told that through salvation in Jesus Christ believers are being made more like him and ultimately will be remade in perfection.

  • For those whom [God] foreknew he also predestined to be conformed to the image of his Son (Rom. 8:29)
  • Just has we have borne the image of the man of dust, we shall also bear the image of the man of heaven (1 Cor. 15:49)
  • And we all, with unveiled face, beholding the glory of the Lord, are being transformed into the same image from one degree of glory to another (2 Cor. 3:18)
  • Beloved, we are God’s children now, and what we will be has not yet appeared; but we know that when he appears we shall be like him (1 Jn. 3:2)

The Foundation of Ethics

The Imago Dei is foundational for Christian ethics. Throughout life, from conception to death, as image bearers every human is a creature of profound dignity and value, equally worthy of protection and respect. Humanity’s value is not affected by age, disability, race, intellectual ability, emotional or mental state, relational powers, or gender.

This means that the Imago Dei has implications for issues such as abortion, euthanasia, racism, self-image, self-esteem, disabilities, and compassion ministries. The dignity inherent in every human being as God’s image-bearer increases their value. The unborn human deserves to live. The severely immobile and senile elderly deserve to see out their days. The person with a different skin color deserves to be treated like we are. Those struggling with body image or self-confidence must find their worth in the one whose image they bear. The person suffering from a disability should not be neglected in everyday interactions. The church has a biblical mandate for compassion ministries.

And yet, it isn’t just the massive moral dilemmas of our day on which the Imago Dei impinges. A correct understanding of the image of God helps develop a profound sense of the dignity and significance of all people which should undergird all our interactions. Work colleagues, government employees, baristas, visitors to the church, and so on are all deserving of our respect and courtesy.

This doctrine is hugely significant, as Millard Erickson (Christian Theology, pg. 517–518) points out: ‘The image of God in humanity is critical to our understanding of what makes us human…[it] is what makes humans human.’ Although distorted and marred in many ways, humanity remains imbued with a divine dignity because we are all created Imago Dei.

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