It would be difficult to overstate the centrality of the image of God as a crucial themein biblical theology. From the beginning of the end in Genesis (protology) to the end ofthe beginning in Revelation (eschatology), the image of God is crucial for understandingthe flow of redemptive history. God creates humans in his image, justly punishes them forrebellion, yet graciously provides redemption from that rebellion, and then finallyconsummates redemptive history by transforming the whole creation into new heavens and anew earth.
Genesis 1:26-27 indicates that God created humankind as male and female in his image (tselem[,l,x])and likeness (demut [tWm.D]). It is doubtful that distinctions between the meanings ofthese two words are to be pressed. Rather, the pair of words conveys one idea through aliterary device known as hendiadys. Later, in Genesis 5:1-3, after God's image-bearers hadsinned against him, the language of Genesis 1:26-27 is repeated as a prelude to a list ofAdam's posterity. Significantly, this passage links God's original creation of humans inhis likeness with the subsequent human procreation of children in Adam's image andlikeness. Following the Genesis narrative further, after the flood of Noah, Genesis 9:6indicates that due to the image of God capital punishment is required in cases of murder.To murder a creature who images God is tantamount to an attempt to murder the God whocreated the image-bearer, and the heinous nature of this offense warrants the forfeitureof the murderer's life as well.
But what is meant by the terms "image" and "likeness"? Threeapproaches to this question are commonly found, and no doubt all three have some merit.Many have concluded that humans are image-bearers due to their superior intellectualstructure. Others have stressed that God mandates that humans function as rulers andmanagers of the creation as they image him ( Gen 1:26-28 ; Psalm 8:5-8 ). Yetanother approach stresses the created relationships of humans; they image God as theyrelate to him, to each other, and to nature. Just as the Creator is a being inrelationship, so are his creatures. Putting these views together, humans are like God inthat they are uniquely gifted intellectually (and in many other ways) so that they mayrelate to God and to each other as they live as stewards of the world God has given themto manage. While an image is a physical representation of a person or thing ( Exod 20:4 ; Matt 22:20 ), thehuman body does not mechanically image God, as if God had a body. Rather, the whole humanbeing, including the body, images God's attributes by ethical living in concrete settings.
Sadly, the pristine beauty and harmony of this original created order were shattered bythe rebellion of Adam and Eve, and the record in Genesis 3 as well as the history of humancultures show how alienation between humans and God, humans and other humans, and humansand nature quickly became the normal state of affairs. Yet even in this sorry state ofalienation and disharmony, humans can still image God, although in an inconsistent andperverted fashion ( Gen5:1-3 ; 9:6 ;Ps. 8 cf. 1 Cor 11:7 ; James 3:9 ). Godcalls his redeemed covenant people to the highest ethical standard. They are to be likehim; their ethical obedience images God.
In the New Testament the teaching of Jesus indicates the value of human beings implicitin their being God's image-bearers ( Matt 6:26 ; 12:12 ). Moreimportant, Jesus himself perfectly images God in his life and ministry as he relatessinlessly to God, people, and nature. As the first Adam failed the satanic test, thesecond Adam passed with flying colors ( Matt 4:1-11 ).Jesus did not forsake God as did Adam, but as the sin-bearer Jesus was forsaken by God ( Matt 27:46 ) so thathe might restore his people to harmonious relationships to God, neighbor, and nature.
It is primarily Paul who develops the New Testament teaching on the image of God. Paulsees Jesus as the one who preexisted in God's form (morphe Php 2:6 ) and whoseincarnation supremely imaged God ( 2 Cor 4:4 ; Col 1:15 ; cf. John 1:1 John 1:14 John 1:18 ; 14:9 ; Heb 1:3 ). Jesus'work of redemption is both compared and contrasted to Adam's work of rebellion ( Rom 5:12-21 ; 1 Cor 15:22 ).Those who believe in Jesus are renewed in the image (eikon [eijkwvn]) of Godand are expected to live as renewed people ( 2 Cor 3:18 ; Eph 4:22-24 ; Col 3:9-10 ).Their destiny is ultimately to be made like Jesus, to image him perfectly as he perfectlyimages God ( 1 Cor15:49 ; Eph 4:13 ; Php 3:21 ). Inthis respect Christians are like children who look up to their big brother and want to belike him ( Rom 8:29 ).For the Christian, then, godliness in a world is Christ-likeness.
For Paul salvation from start to finish, encompassing regeneration, sanctification, andglorification, is nothing less than new creation ( Rom 8:18-30 ; 2 Cor 4:6 ; 5:17 ; Gal 2:20 ; 6:15 ; Eph 2:10 ; cf. John 3:5 ; 5:24 ). This newcreation is not merely individual but corporate and cosmic as well. The salvation ofindividual believers places them into community with other believers whose destiny augursthat of the physical uNIVerse itself ( Rom 8:19-21 ; 1 Cor 15:24-28 ; Col 1:16 ; cf. Matt 19:28 ; Heb 2:5-8 ). Thecommunity of believers in Jesus has already experienced image renewal and withperseverance they hope for the consummation of that renewal. In the meantime their ethicalobedience is not merely to be like God but to be like Christ, who has provided not only anincarnate model for godliness but also a dynamic for attaining godliness through theSpirit ( John 13:14 ; 1 Cor 11:1 ; Eph 4:32-5:2 ; Php 2:5 ; Col 3:13 ; 1 Thess 1:6 ; 1 John 3:3 ).
Any discussion of the image of God would be incomplete without some elucidation of theglorious future that awaits those who have been renewed in the image of God. This is theprospect of new heavens and new earth where righteousness dwells. God's plan of redemptionin Christ would be severely truncated if it involved only the "spiritual"salvation of individuals who believe in Jesus. The original created order encompassed notonly a "spiritual" relationship to God but also a social relationship to otherhumans and a material relationship to the world. Thus biblical eschatology envisions therestoration of all three of these relationships in a world where God's people mayexperience unhindered fellowship with him ( Rev 21:3-5 )because the Edenic curse has been removed ( Rev 22:3 ). Eversince Abraham, the prototypical person of God, God's people have longed for this time whenlife in all its facets may be lived fully to God's glory. This glorious biblical vision ofa time when creatures will fully reflect the Creator's splendor ought to provide strongencouragement to Christians who presently reflect God's likeness in an imperfect yetimproving manner.
David L. Turner
Bibliography. W. J. Dumbrell, The End of the Beginning; D. J. Hall, ImagingGod: Dominion as Stewardship; A. A. Hoekema, Created in God's Image; P. E.Hughes, The True Image: The Origin and Destiny of Man in Christ; M. G. Kline, Imagesof the Spirit; A. M. Wolters, Creation Regained: Biblical Basics for aReformational Worldview.
Copyright © 1996 by Walter A. Elwell. Published by Baker Books, a division of
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Bibliography InformationElwell, Walter A. "Entry for 'Image of God'". "Evangelical Dictionary of Theology".