What is the Image of God?
Updated: Feb 17
The topic of the image of God is the heart of Christian anthropology. This is an important topic that every Christian should understand clearly because of its massive implications in theology, psychology, human dignity and value, personal and social ethics, justice, relationships, family, ministry, and Christian living. Further, this doctrine is essential because it contours an accurate understanding of a man's relationship to the Creator and the creation. The image of God may be defined as “man is like God and represents God.” In addition, one needs to know God fully as He revealed Himself through Jesus Christ and in the Scripture before attempting to define the image of God.
There are five challenges that every Christian faces while understanding this doctrine and its ramifications. They are: 1) The Bible does not clearly define the meaning of the image of God, even though it asserts several places that God made man in His image, and 2) It is unclear if there is any difference between image and likeness. 3) The task of understanding and evaluating various views proposed by other Godly men and scholars, 4) Failure to recognize the mammoth implications this doctrine has on every area of the Christian life, and 5) Frequent failure to biblically refute false views of man.
God’s word repeatedly affirms that man is in the image of God (Gen.1: 26-27; 5:1-2; 9:6; 1 Cor.11:7; James 3:9). But none of these verses give an explicit definition of the image of God. Notwithstanding, these verses reveal the following truths: 1) All people are created in the image of God, 2) Both male and female equally bear the image and likeness of God, 3) They indicate that humans are like God in some way, 4) They also indicate that humans are not divine, 5) There is no other being in this world holds the image of God, which is the basis for human uniqueness and dignity, 6) The fall corrupted and defiled the image of God, but it still remains intact 7) This truth affirms a strong relationship between God and man, 8) Both believers and unbelievers possess the image of God, which is a common ground between them.
Throughout church history, men proposed several views of the image of God depending on their understanding and interpretation of the Scriptures. Three prominent views are 1) Substantive View, 2) Relational View, and 3) Functional View. The proponents of the substantive view believed that the image of God is some definite characteristic or quality within the construction of the human. Some thought that the characteristic could be bodily makeup because of a literal understanding of “image,” which could mean a statue or a form. At the same time, others speculated that the image of God could be his ability to walk upright or some psychological or spiritual quality in human nature, such as reason. Men like Justin Martyr, Gregory of Nyssa, Saint Augustine, and Thomas Aquinas are a few proponents of this view.
The relational view advocates believe that God's image is as experiencing the relationships. This view has been popular among new-orthodox and existential theologians. For example, Karl Barth argued that humans are created for relationships with God and other humans. They proposed that the image of God is his capacity to have a relationship and his actual relationships with God and others.
The supporters of the functional view believed that the image of God is linked to what humans do or perform. It argued that the image of God is not in a person’s make or characteristics but in a person’s tasks. This view emphasizes man’s ability and role to exercise dominion over the creation as the image bearer of God because God has dominion over all the creation. This view has been prevalent among reformed theologians because they stressed the cultural mandate of humans to rule over and subdue the earth.
Although the relational view stresses the importance of the relation between man and God, and man and man to fulfill the commandments to love God and men (Matt 22:36-40), it lacks to recognize that relationships are consequences of a man who is made in the image of God. This view does not address the critical question, “What about humans that enables them to have relationships?” Likewise, the functional idea seizes man's important function- rule and subdue the world. However, the creation account identifies that the dominion over the creation is a consequence of the image of God, not the image of God itself.
The substantive view argues that the image of God has to do something with the human makeup and constitution. This view maintains that the image of God is part of who the man is, not what he does. It must be something the human has than what he does. It is vital to note that because God is a spirit, He does not have a physical body like a man (John 4:24). Then what is the image of God? The image of God in man has moral, spiritual, mental, relational, and physical aspects. Again, physically does not mean body but abilities like “to see.”
The substantive view offers a clear biblical view. It explains the meaning of reflecting the image of God elaborately. Like God, man has the following abilities: 1) Man is a living, personal, active being with a personality; 2) he also has a rational mind through which he is aware of himself, others, and God, 3) he also can choose between two options, 4) he experiences a wide range of emotions such as joy, jealousy, anger, etc., 5) he can discern between right and wrong, 6) he can engage in relationships with others, 7) he can rule over the creation.
It is significant to know the implications of this doctrine. A thorough understanding of the doctrine of the image of God is crucial for a Christian to devoutly follow God and refute false views of anthropologies of this world. For example, it is not true that humans are highly developed animals. Man has the image of God and while others do not have it. Humans have greater dignity and value. Both men and women have the image of God equally; therefore, treating women inferior to men is unacceptable. Abortion is murder because it kills a person created in God's image. To murder another man who bears God’s image is an attack upon God, and it calls for capital punishment (Gen.9: 6). Also, cursing or mocking a man is an affront to God (James 3:9). Any idea that claims that one ethnic group is superior to other are unbiblical. Besides, we must oppose all manifestations of racism. Even older adults, ill, mentally retarded, and unborn children deserve complete protection and honor because they carry the image of God.
Finally, it is beneficial to note that there is no evidence for a significant difference between “image” and “likeness” and how these words are used in the Scripture together. They are synonymous words to reflect the same truth. It is also an example of Hebrew parallelism. The image of God in a redeemed man goes through the following four stages: 1) Original image that was received at the time of creation and through which he had a proper relationship with God, other humans, and creation, 2) Corrupted image was a result of the fall, 3) Renewed image, which every person receives at the time of redemption and 4) Perfected image which the redeemed receive at restoration.
Jesus is the perfect image of God (Heb. 1:1-4). God's redeemed people look to Christ to be conformed to His ideal image (Rom.8:29).
- Daniel Surya Avula, Pastor, Grace Life Church, Vizag.