Of all the major religions of the world, only the biblical religions of Judaism and Christianity affirm that human beings are made in the image of God. Even the other Middle Eastern monotheistic religions of Islam and Zoroastrianism do not view human beings as divine image bearers.

The Bible states that of all God’s creatures (including angels and animals), only human beings were created in the express image of God. While the Judeo-Christian Scriptures specifically mention the imago Dei (Latin for “divine image”) only a half dozen times (Genesis 1:26–27, 5:1, 9:6; 1 Corinthians 11:7; Colossians 3:10; James 3:9), it seems all of Scripture is written with the imago Dei in mind.

Genesis 1:26–27 is the most important text that describes this vital and unique doctrinal truth:

Then God said, “Let us make mankind in our image, in our likeness, so that they may rule over the fish in the sea and the birds in the sky, over the livestock and all the wild animals, and over all the creatures that move along the ground.” So God created mankind in his own image, in the image of God he created them; male and female he created them.

A careful examination of this passage shows that Hebrew references to “image” (tselem) and “likeness” (demût) convey the idea of an object similar to or representative of something else, but not identical to it.1 Further, the words “image” and “likeness” should not be understood as referring to two different things but rather as interchangeable terms that reflect a Hebrew form of synonymous parallelism.2 The New Testament Greek word for “image” (eikōn) conveys virtually the same meaning as the Hebrew. Both languages indicate that God created humans to be similar, but certainly not identical to, himself. Therefore, from a biblical perspective, human beings are in some sense both like and unlike the God who made them.

Three Views of the Imago Dei

The question that many Christians have is just how the image of God in human beings is to be defined. While there isn’t universal agreement, today biblical scholars generally view the imago Dei in three primary ways:

1. Resemblance View: This position asserts that humankind possesses a formal nature that serves to resemble God. This nature, then, bears certain qualities, characteristics, or endowments (such as spiritual, rational, volitional, relational, immortal, powerful) that make humankind like God. This resemblance perspective has largely been the traditional view within Christian theology.

2. Relational View: This perspective, while allowing for the idea of formal traits, nevertheless insists that humans are most like God when it comes to their unique relational qualities. Thus, it is humankind’s ability to engage in complex interpersonal relationships that best reflects the divine (echoing the community life among the divine persons of the Trinity). This view is especially popular today.

3. Representative View: This viewpoint insists that being made in the image of God is more about what a person does than what a person is. Thus, when human beings perform certain functions (e.g., take dominion over nature or appropriately represent God on Earth), then the divine image is most deeply evidenced. This perspective is also popular today among scholars.

Unifying the Views

I affirm all three views but think the resemblance view is the foundation for the other two. For example, it seems that the resemblance view makes the relational and representative views possible. In other words, because we’re like God, we can both relate to him and represent him.

Because the biblical religions exclusively affirm humans as image bearers, it makes sense that Judaism and Christianity have led the way in promoting the sanctity of human life. Because human beings bear the image of God, they possess inherent dignity and moral worth. For Jews and Christians, a theology of creation stands behind their most important moral perspective.

Reflections: Your Turn

How does the imago Dei impact your view and treatment of human beings?

Resources

For more about the image of God, see my book 7 Truths That Changed the World: Discovering Christianity’s Most Dangerous Ideas (chapters 11 and 12).

Endnotes

  1. Wayne Grudem, Systematic Theology (Grand Rapids: Zondervan, 1994), 442–50.
  2. The International Standard Bible Encyclopedia, ed. Geoffrey W. Bromiley (Grand Rapids: Eerdmans, 1982), s.v. “Image of God,” 2:803.

Subjects: Image of God

Check out more from Dr. Kenneth Samples @Reasons.org

About The Author

Kenneth R. Samples

I believe deeply that "all truth is God’s truth." That historic affirmation means that when we discover and grasp truth in the world and in life we move closer to its divine Author. This approach relies on the Christian idea of God’s two revelatory books - the metaphorical book of nature and the literal book of Scripture. As an RTB scholar I have a great passion to help people understand and see the truth and relevance of Christianity's truth-claims. My writings and lectures at RTB focus on showing how the great doctrinal truths of the faith (the Trinity, the Incarnation, the Atonement, creation ex nihilo, salvation by grace, etc.) are uniquely compatible with reason. This approach reflects the historic Christian apologetics statement - "faith seeking understanding." I work to help myself and others fulfill Peter's words in 2 Peter 3:18: "But grow in the grace and knowledge of our Lord and Savior Jesus Christ. To him be glory both now and forever! Amen." As an RTB scholar I have a great passion to help people understand and see the truth and relevance of Christianity's truth-claims. • Biography • Resources • Upcoming Events • Promotional Items Kenneth Richard Samples began voraciously studying Christian philosophy and theology when his thirst for purpose found relief in the Bible. He earned his undergraduate degree in philosophy and social science from Concordia University and his MA in theological studies from Talbot School of Theology. For seven years, Kenneth worked as Senior Research Consultant and Correspondence Editor at the Christian Research Institute (CRI) and regularly cohosted the popular call-in radio program, The Bible Answer Man, with Dr. Walter Martin. As a youth, Kenneth wrestled with "unsettling feelings of meaninglessness and boredom," driving him to seek answers to life's big questions. An encounter with Christian philosophy in Mere Christianity by C. S. Lewis led Kenneth to examine the New Testament and "finally believe that Jesus Christ is the divine Son of God, the Lord and Savior of the world." From then on, he pursued an intellectually satisfying faith. Today, as senior research scholar at Reasons to Believe (RTB), Kenneth uses what he's learned to help others find the answers to life's questions. He encourages believers to develop a logically defensible faith and challenges skeptics to engage Christianity at a philosophical level. He is the author of Without a Doubt and A World of Difference, and has contributed to numerous other books, including: Lights in the Sky and Little Green Men, The Cult of the Virgin, and Prophets of the Apocalypse. He has written articles for Christianity Today and The Christian Research Journal, and regularly participates in RTB's podcasts, including Straight Thinking, a podcast dedicated to encouraging Christians to utilize sound reasoning in their apologetics. He also writes for the ministry's daily blog, Today’s New Reason to Believe. An avid speaker and debater, Kenneth has appeared on numerous radio programs such as Voice America Radio, Newsmakers, The Frank Pastore Show, Stand to Reason, White Horse Inn, Talk New York, and Issues Etc., as well as participated in debates and dialogues on topics relating to Christian doctrine and apologetics. He currently lectures for the Master of Arts program in Christian Apologetics at Biola University. Kenneth also teaches adult classes at Christ Reformed Church in Southern California. Over the years Kenneth has held memberships in the American Philosophical Association, the Evangelical Philosophical Society, the Evangelical Theological Society, and the Evangelical Press Association. The son of a decorated World War II veteran, Kenneth is an enthusiastic student of American history, particularly the Civil War and WWII. His favorite Christian thinkers include Athanasius, Augustine, Pascal, and C. S. Lewis. He greatly enjoys the music of the Beatles and is a die-hard Los Angeles Lakers fan. Kenneth lives in Southern California with his wife, Joan, and their three children.



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