Other Christians believe that the image of God is entirely permanent; anything that can be lost is not part of that image. However, although God’s image in us can never be lost, every part of that image has become corrupted. In many verses in the Bible, “image” and “likeness” seem to be used interchangeably (compare Genesis 5:1 with 9:6; Colossians 3:9 with James 3:9). Therefore, these Christians believe that the biblical words image and likeness refer to the very same thing. They agree with the first view that God’s permanent image includes logical reason and moral conscience, which are parts or functions of our immortal spirit/soul. But according to these Christians, neither holiness nor immortality was ever a part of the image of God. They emphasize that all of human nature was distorted by the fall into sin, including the image of God in us. In fact, our logical reason and moral conscience have become so thoroughly corrupted that they cannot bring us even part of the way toward God by themselves. We have become slaves to sin2 (John 8:34; Romans 7:14). God must first reach down to us with His GRACE before we can respond to Him (John 6:44; 1 John 4:19). Our spirits are dead in transgressions (Ephesians 2:1,5), but God can bring them back to life again (Romans 8:6–10). Our minds are depraved (Romans 1:28), but God can renew them (Romans 12:2; Hebrews 9:14).
Some Christian scholars have recently proposed that the image of God is not some permanent part of us or structure within us. Instead, they say, “Our relationships reflect God’s image.” They point out that our minds are created to be in relationship with God, with one another, and with the world around us. These relationships reflect the relationships of the Father, Son and HoLY SPIRIT within the Trinity itself, as well as God’s relationship to His creation. Some of those who hold this third view emphasize love as the most important thing in all our relationships. God is love, and since we are made in God’s image, all our relationships should reflect His love (1 John 4:8,16–17). According to this view, God’s statement, “Let us make man in our image” (Genesis 1:26) meant that God created men and women with the ability to have righteous, loving relationships. But when Adam and Eve sinned, their relationship with God was lost, and their relationships with each other and with the world around them were distorted (Genesis 3:8–19). When we repent and come back to God, He restores our relationships, so that we can again show love to others (Romans 8:19–21; 2 Corinthians 5:18–20).
Other scholars suggest a fourth view. Like the third view, they do not believe that God’s image is some permanent part of human nature; instead it is something that we can become—in and through Christ Jesus. They point to God’s purpose for us in this world, to our “destiny in Christ as God’s representatives.” Yes, we can have a special relationship with God, but that relationship is linked to our destiny to rule over the earth in God’s name (Genesis 1:26; Psalm 8:6). As God’s representatives to the rest of creation, we are expected to take care of all God created (Genesis 1:28–29; 2:15,19–20). Adam and Eve rejected God’s plan, but that did not change God’s destiny for each one of us. All men and women share in God’s purpose for humanity, however much they fail to fulfill that purpose. The New Testament finds the ultimate fulfillment of the divine image in Jesus Christ (2 Corinthians 4:4; Colossians 1:15; Hebrews 1:3). All who are born again in Christ share in His perfect reflection of God’s image and His perfect fulfillment of human destiny (Romans 8:29; 1 Corinthians 15:48–49). According to this view, God’s plan to create man in His own image meant that from the very beginning God planned to create us in the image of His Son Jesus. Only in Christ can we truly become God’s representatives in the world, and only in Christ can we become the image of God that we were destined to be (2 Corinthians 2:14; 5:17–20). At present, we are still being transformed into his likeness (2 Corinthians 3:18), but this destiny will be perfected in us when we meet Jesus face to face (1 Corinthians 13:12; 1 John 3:2).
Do We Have Two Parts or Three?
Related to these different views about the image of God is another question. What is a human being, anyway? Some scholars have suggested that the ancient HEBREWS viewed human beings as a whole, an inseparable unity of life in a body. When the body died, the mind or soul died also. They suggest that by New Testament times, Greek philosophy had heavily influenced Jewish philosophy, so that many JEWS began to teach a clear difference between the eternal soul and the mortal body. Most scholars disagree with this view. They point out that even the early Hebrews thought that humans were created with both a physical part and a non-physical part. The story in Genesis Chapter 2 tells us that God created Adam from the dust of the ground and then breathed into him the breath of life (Genesis 2:7; Ezekiel 37:10). The Teacher wrote that when we die, the dust returns to the ground it came from, and the spirit returns to God who gave it (Ecclesiastes 12:7). Furthermore, the ISRAELITES believed that the dead continued on in some kind of existence in a shadowy world, called Sheol (see General Article: What Happens After Death?). All this suggests that even the early Hebrews believed that humans are made up of at least two parts.
Much later, Isaiah prophesied that the dead would be resurrected, that their bodies will rise (Isaiah 26:19; compare Daniel 12:2). And in the New Testament, Jesus spoke of those who kill the body but cannot kill the soul (Matthew 10:28). Paul wrote similarly about being away from the body and at home with the Lord (2 Corinthians 5:1–9). Verses like these supporting the resurrection of the body certainly strengthen the idea that human beings are made up of at least two parts—a physical body, and an inner non-physical mind—which can be separated at death and reunited at the future resurrection.
Therefore, many Christians believe that human beings are composed of only two parts. The physical part is the body, originally created holy and righteous (Genesis 2:25). The non-physical part was also created holy, and has been called “breath” or “spirit” or “soul” or “heart.” According to these Christians, all these words mean exactly the same thing—the inner mental life of each man or woman. The Psalmist seems to equate the soul with the entire inner mind: Praise the LORD, Omy soul; all my inmost being, praise his holy name (Psalm 103:1). And “spirit” is also used in this way (Psalm 143:4). In the New Testament also, either “soul” alone or “spirit” alone can represent the entire non-physical part of human beings (compare Matthew 26:38 and 41). Both the Old and New Testaments use spirit and soul interchangeably at times, even in the same verse (Job 7:11; Luke 1:46–47).
However, many other Christians believe that human beings are made up of three parts: a physical body, a spirit, and a separate soul. They agree that the word “spirit” and the word “soul” are often used interchangeably, but point out that they are still two different words and not always interchangeable. The Hebrew word for soul meant “personal life” (not life in general) and was never used for “breath,” but the Hebrew word for spirit was never used for “personal life” and sometimes meant nothing more than “breath.” So although both words could represent the whole inner being, the two were distinct enough that some meanings did not overlap. This was also true for the two Greek words used in the New Testament. Some Bible verses make a distinction between the spirit and the soul. The writer to the Hebrews said that the word of God is living and active. Sharper than any double-edged sword, it penetrates even to dividing soul and spirit (Hebrews 4:12). In this verse soul and spirit must be very close in meaning, but the verse makes no sense unless soul and spirit are also different in some way. The difference may be hard for us to describe, but God is able to separate them from each other. Elsewhere, Paul said he was praying for his readers whole spirit, soul and body (1 Thessalonians 5:23). For further support of this three-part view, many point to the way the New Testament speaks about human death (see panel: What does death mean for our spirit, soul and body?).
Although many Christians teach that human beings are made up of three parts (spirit, soul, and body), they do not agree on exactly how the spirit and the soul are different from each other. One explanation, often heard today, is simply that the spirit is the part of our mind that focuses on God and heavenly, “spiritual” things (1 Corinthians 2:11–15), while the soul is the part of our mind that focuses on human, earthly things (see James 3:15, where unspiritual is “soulish” in Greek). But this explanation does not fit well with some Bible verses, such as those that speak of both our soul and spirit worshiping God (Psalm 103:1; Isaiah 26:9; Luke 1:46–47). Other Christians prefer an older explanation. They agree that the spirit and soul are different parts of the human mind, but they deny that either was created just to focus on spiritual things. According to this second explanation, logical reason and our moral conscience, as well as the will (our ability to choose), are all functions of the human spirit. Emotions, memories and preferences for food or music are functions of the human soul. It is our spirit that is especially created in the image of God. My own reason and conscience were created in God’s image and are therefore similar to every other person’s reason and conscience. Two plus two should equal four for every person (reason), and murder and theft are wrong for everyone (moral conscience). Therefore, the spirit part of my mind is not very different from every other person’s spirit. But my emotions, memory, and preferences for food or music are very different, and it is these functions of the soul that make me different from every other person. Of course, both spirit and soul became thoroughly corrupted and “unspiritual” in a moral sense after the Fall (see General Article: The Fall into Sin).
The Bible does not give us exact details about the image of God. First of all, there may or may not be a difference between the words “image” and “likeness.” Second, the image of God may be a permanent structural part of us, such as our reason, conscience, or spirit/soul. Or it may refer to our relationships, or even to our destiny in Christ as God’s representatives in this world. Finally, some Christians think human beings are made up of two parts, while other Christians believe there are three parts. For many of the topics discussed in the General Articles, two different views cannot both be accepted as true. But it is easy to combine two or three views regarding the image of God, and some scholars have done so.
These questions should not divide us from our fellow believers. Having different answers does not change our glorious position in God’s creation—as men and women equally created in His image. All of us have sinned, and God’s image/likeness in us has been lost or corrupted. But through His death on the cross, Jesus redeemed all parts of God’s image in us. As unbelievers our spirits were dead, our souls were evil, and our mortal bodies were going to die. But for those of us who trust in Jesus our spirits have been made alive again (Romans 8:10; Ephesians 2:5), our individual minds are daily being renewed in God’s image (Romans 12:2; Colossians 3:9–10), and our physical bodies will be resurrected at the second coming of Christ (Romans 8:11; 1 Corinthians 15:42–44). Therefore, if anyone is in Christ, he is a new creation; the old has gone, the new has come (2 Corinthians 5:17).
1 Some Christians point out that our special ability to create stories, art, and music is an image in us of God’s work in creation (Psalm 144:9).
2 For further discussion of the corruption of human nature and our inability to come to God on our own, see General Articles: The Fall into Sin (this volume), and Salvation-God’s Choice or Man’s Choice? in The Applied New Testament Commentary.