Image of God

"If a person realizes that the image of God in man is man's ineffably profound fitness to image forth Christ's glory through everlasting joy in God, then he will not gut the great gospel of its inner life and power." ( John Piper, God's Passion for His Glory, pg. 39)


Biblical narrative

Although the concept of the image of God is not treated at much length in the pages of Scripture, its chief appearance is in the New Testament, where an apparent problem has been solved. We shall look at some of the Scriptural evidence regarding this theme in order to see what we can say about the initial state, the problem, and its solution.

Image created

Then God said, "Let us make man in our image, after our likeness. And let them have dominion over the fish of the sea and over the birds of the heavens and over the livestock and over all the earth and over every creeping thing that creeps on the earth." 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

The opening chapter of Genesis records for us that God created humanity "in the image of God". For centuries, theologians have debated precisely what it means to be "the image of God"; the majority interpretation has been in terms of spirituality, although other proposals have included dominion (intertestamental Judaism), original righteousness ( Luther) and even sexuality ( Barth)!^[1]^ However we interpret the idea of man's being in the image of God, it brings with it certain other facts, which may help to illumine what this idea means.

We are the image of God, and therefore we are to remain humble. No less of an issue in our modern day than in the author's, man has always desired to attain deity, seeking to declare himself more than he is. The Pharaohs of Egypt declared themselves the sons of the gods, and modern society can sound like the pagans of old, telling us to search for the god inside ourselves. But from the beginning, Genesis reminds us that we are created, and we are created as images. An image is never the same as the reality, and we are only the image because God is the ultimate reality.

We are the image of God, and therefore rule as his appointed representatives. The command to have dominion over creation and to subdue it is an explicitly-stated consequence of our role as the image of God. God, as Creator, is the Sovereign Lord of creation, and we, as his image, are his viceroys. And yet we are to rule as God himself would rule. There is no room here for a tyrannical ruling of creation; if the God who made us his viceroys is the God of all grace and compassion, then our rule over nature should reflect his rule.

We are the image of God, and therefore human beings are worthy of respect. We shall explore the development of this theme a little further later on, but it is the case that the creation story leaves us in no doubt: every human being is created in the image of God, without exception or distinction.

We are the image of God, and therefore murder is unconscionably evil. To destroy plant life would be wanton and careless, to destroy animal life, cruel. But to destroy the life of another human being is to destroy an image-bearer of God, an offence against the one whose image is borne. It is for this reason that the penalty for murder is given as death in Gen. 9:6.

We are the image of God, and therefore to make another image is wrong. The Decalogue's injunction against idolatry is understood by some theologians^[ _citation\ needed_]^ as being based on the fact that there is already an image of God on the earth: humanity. It is sin to attempt to replacethat which God has created and called "very good" with our own efforts.

Image cracked

To the woman he said, "I will surely multiply your pain in childbearing; in pain you shall bring forth children. Your desire shall be for your husband, and he shall rule over you."
And to Adam he said, "Because you have listened to the voice of your wife and have eaten of the tree of which I commanded you, 'You shall not eat of it,' cursed is the ground because of you; in pain you shall eat of it all the days of your life; thorns and thistles it shall bring forth for you; and you shall eat the plants of the field. By the sweat of your face you shall eat bread, till you return to the ground, for out of it you were taken; for you are dust, and to dust you shall return."
Gen. 3:16–19

The image of God did not, however, last long. In Eden, Adam and Eve disobeyed God's command and ate from the tree of the knowledge of good and evil. The consequences of this sin on mankind are spelt out in Genesis 3:16–19. A brief summary is presented here below. These consequences tell us, without using the language explicitly, that the image of God had been broken.

The man and the woman were guilty before God. No longer could they claim to be in right standing before God; instead, their righteousness was exchanged for sinfulness, and their glory, for shame.

The man and the woman experience broken relationships. Already we see this as Adam and Eve engage in recrimination and blame-shifting, but as if to make the point more forcefully, the LORD God tells Eve that "[her] desire will be for [her] husband, and he will rule over [her]." Strife and bitterness replace the peace and harmony of the garden.

The man and the woman will experience pain. Eve's pain was to be in childbirth, while Adam's will be in toil all the days of his life. Eve's pain may be worse in intensity, but Adam's is worse in duration.

The man and the woman are cast out of the presence of God. They are sent away from the garden, the place where God resides, and God places cherubim across the entrance to guard the way back in.

The man and the woman lose their mastery over nature. To Adam, God says that the ground will bring forth thorns and thistles, and only by painful toil will he be able to eat food.

The man and the woman experience death. The curse of which they were warned is left to the end, as Adam is told that he and Eve shall "return to the ground, for out of it [they] were taken". Not only, however, is the death of the body in view here, but rather the death of the whole person. Body and soul, together with relationships and vocation, all of these die. Genesis 3 ends in despair, as the man and the woman are barred from access to the tree of life to experience what Paul describes as "this body of death".

However, all is not lost. We already know that God continues to deal with humanity on the basis of his image (Gen. 9:6), even if that image is now, in the words of Blocher, more like a caricature^ [2]^. Within Genesis 3 itself, we see the first glimmerings of hope, with the promise of the seed who will crush the serpent's head, and the mercy of God in providing a covering to our naked, ashamed first parents. It is to the promise and provision that we now turn.

Image conformed

He is the image of the invisible God, the firstborn of all creation. For by him all things were created, in heaven and on earth, visible and invisible, whether thrones or dominions or rulers or authorities—all things were created through him and for him. And he is before all things, and in him all things hold together. And he is the head of the body, the church. He is the beginning, the firstborn from the dead, that in everything he might be preeminent. For in him all the fullness of God was pleased to dwell, and through him to reconcile to himself all things, whether on earth or in heaven, making peace by the blood of his cross.
Col. 1:15–-20

There is, however, a perfect image of God. Jesus Christ, who himself said, "Whoever has seen me has seen the Father" (John 14:9) is the image of the invisible God, "the radiance of the glory of God and the exact imprint of his nature" (Heb. 1:3). In his life, he shows the Father perfectly, and by his death, holds out God himself to needy sinners. Indeed, it is in his death that we are told "his appearance was so marred, beyond human semblance" (Is. 52:14), and by his death—and resurrection—that we ourselves are raised as restored images and as sons of God. We see, then, that it is by his degradation beyond human likeness that we are elevated to the image of God; in fact, we are elevated beyond simply what Adam lost, as we shall be made like Jesus in his resurrection body, who is more glorious than Adam ever was.

This image is also that to which we are being conformed (Rom. 8:29, 2 Cor. 3:18), being prepared for the day of the Lord's appearing, when the sons of God shall be revealed (Rom. 8:19) and we shall be made like him (1 John 3:2). In that day, the curse of Eden will be totally broken, and humanity's full restoration as the image of God will be complete. In this way, harmony with God, man and creation are the certain hope of the Lord's redeemed, and are such on the basis of the Lord himself, who is the perfect image of God.

The story of the image of God, then, is one of creation, loss and what we may term the greater-than-restoration. That final chapter, the greater-than-restoration, takes place during our lives as we live and grow in the Lord, and will, one glorious day, be completed, when he returns to live on a new earth, under a new heaven, with a new humanity imaging the eternal God.

  • “Talking about a ‘picture of God,’ for example, strikes us as naïve or blasphemous, while the notion of an ‘image of God,’ though it may be controversial, is taken seriously. The key lies in the use or function: a picture reproduces; an image exemplifies. An image is a picture in which nonessential features have been suppressed and essential ones highlighted. A picture, we might say, represents features indiscriminately; an image, by contrast, represents selectively. An image is both more and less than a picture: more insofar as it makes a claim about what is definitive or essential to the object; less insofar as it may be less complete or ‘literal.’ A picture shows us something; an image seeks to show us what that something really is.” (Garrett Green, Imagining God: Theology and the Religious Imagination [Grand Rapids, Mich.: Eerdmans, 1998], 93-94)


  1. Blocher, pp. 80–81.
  2. Blocher, p. 94.

Further reading