It would be difficult to overstate the centrality of the image of God as a crucial theme in biblical theology. From the beginning of the end in Genesis (protology) to the end of the beginning in Revelation (eschatology), the image of God is crucial for understanding the flow of redemptive history. God creates humans in his image, justly punishes them for rebellion, yet graciously provides redemption from that rebellion, and then finally consummates 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 of these two words are to be pressed. Rather, the pair of words conveys one idea through a literary device known as hendiadys. Later, in Genesis 5:1-3, after God's image-bearers had sinned against him, the language of Genesis 1:26-27 is repeated as a prelude to a list of Adam's posterity. Significantly, this passage links God's original creation of humans in his likeness with the subsequent human procreation of children in Adam's image and likeness. 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 who created the image-bearer, and the heinous nature of this offense warrants the forfeiture of the murderer's life as well.
But what is meant by the terms "image" and "likeness"? Three approaches 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 intellectual structure. Others have stressed that God mandates that humans function as rulers and managers of the creation as they image him ( Gen 1:26-28 ; Psalm 8:5-8 ). Yet another approach stresses the created relationships of humans; they image God as they relate to him, to each other, and to nature. Just as the Creator is a being in relationship, so are his creatures. Putting these views together, humans are like God in that they are uniquely gifted intellectually (and in many other ways) so that they may relate to God and to each other as they live as stewards of the world God has given them to manage. While an image is a physical representation of a person or thing ( Exod 20:4 ; Matt 22:20 ), the human body does not mechanically image God, as if God had a body. Rather, the whole human being, 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 by the rebellion of Adam and Eve, and the record in Genesis 3 as well as the history of human cultures show how alienation between humans and God, humans and other humans, and human sand nature quickly became the normal state of affairs. Yet even in this sorry state of alienation and disharmony, humans can still image God, although in an inconsistent and perverted fashion ( Gen5:1-3 ; 9:6 ;Ps. 8 cf. 1 Cor 11:7 ; James 3:9 ). God calls his redeemed covenant people to the highest ethical standard. They are to be like him; their ethical obedience images God.
In the New Testament the teaching of Jesus indicates the value of human beings implicit in their being God's image-bearers ( Matt 6:26 ; 12:12 ). More important, Jesus himself perfectly images God in his life and ministry as he relates sinlessly to God, people, and nature. As the first Adam failed the satanic test, the second 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 that he 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. Paul sees Jesus as the one who preexisted in God's form (morphe Php 2:6 ) and whose incarnation 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 God and 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 perfectly images God ( 1 Cor15:49 ; Eph 4:13 ; Php 3:21 ). In this respect Christians are like children who look up to their big brother and want to be like 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, and glorification, 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 new creation is not merely individual but corporate and cosmic as well. The salvation of individual believers places them into community with other believers whose destiny augurs that 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 ). The community of believers in Jesus has already experienced image renewal and with perseverance they hope for the consummation of that renewal. In the meantime their ethical obedience is not merely to be like God but to be like Christ, who has provided not only an incarnate model for godliness but also a dynamic for attaining godliness through the Spirit ( 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 the glorious future that awaits those who have been renewed in the image of God. This is the prospect of new heavens and new earth where righteousness dwells. God's plan of redemption in Christ would be severely truncated if it involved only the "spiritual" salvation of individuals who believe in Jesus. The original created order encompassed not only a "spiritual" relationship to God but also a social relationship to other humans and a material relationship to the world. Thus biblical eschatology envisions the restoration of all three of these relationships in a world where God's people may experience unhindered fellowship with him ( Rev 21:3-5 )because the Edenic curse has been removed ( Rev 22:3 ). Ever since Abraham, the prototypical person of God, God's people have longed for this time when life in all its facets may be lived fully to God's glory. This glorious biblical vision of a time when creatures will fully reflect the Creator's splendor ought to provide strong encouragement to Christians who presently reflect God's likeness in an imperfect yet improving manner.
David L. Turner
Bibliography. W. J. Dumbrell, The End of the Beginning; D. J. Hall, Imaging God: 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, Images of the Spirit; A. M. Wolters, Creation Regained: Biblical Basics for a Reformational 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".